From a Lillian Hellman story & script, The North Star (1943) attempts to be big, almost epic, & serious drama about the wartime heroism of a Ukranian communist farm collective. Leftist director Lewis Milestone nee Lev Milstein was a Russian Jew whose heart was on his sleeve, but whose creative intellect seems to have been disengaged, for at his best he was a much finer filmmaker than this, as he was for Of Mice & Men (1939).
With so many of the cast having those western & prairie accents, it's a little difficult to make the adjustment to the idea that we've been plopped down in a Russian or Ukranian village. But once that artificiality is accepted, the tale is soon sufficiently elaborate to be of moderate interest, even though never extremely good nor very convincing.
Once the phony folk tunes begin, it almost seems like the Oklahoma of the steppes. The villagers dance & sing, & when the kids set off on their five day walk to visit Kiev, with a balalaika & a dog for companions, it's all just so jolly tra la la.
But then the peasant idyll is spoilt by German bombs. Someone involved in this twee project decided it wouldn't be suitable to sing any more jolly songs, so the film's structure as a musical comes to an abrupt halt in favor of a serious war film.
Unfortunately the singing & dancing had been a lot more entertaining & the awkward transition into mawkish war heroics is not very successful. But if the singing & dancing had continued beyond the arrival of the Germans, we might have had a precursor to "Springtime for Hitler" in The Producers.
We learn of the stoicism & bravery & suffering of Russian workers/peasants against the Nazis. Dana Andrews' suicide flight ends in fiery glory, in the film's best special FX sequence. The film is patently & far too transparently manipulative to drum up tearful admiration for Russia, but so utterly fails dramatically that the only thing that comes across is the cute miniature work for the fiery crash.
The most interesting performance is from Eric von Stroheim as the German Dr. von Hardin. Whenever a film ends up with a nazi as the best character, you know there's something wrong with the script. There's a big cast headed up by a young Anne Baxter as Marina, Walter Huston as the grampa & village doctor, Ann Harding as the mom, Jane "Josephine the Plummer" Withers as Marina's sister, Walter Brennan as Captain Karp, & other well remembered stars. But the wartime propogandistic intent entirely destroys any sense of authenticity or effectiveness, though the sentimentality might have had its impact when war was still in progress.
The historical position of the film is its most novel attribute. Though communism is not mentioned, these people do call each other "commrade" & the assumption throughout is that peasant communists are heroic folks. It's hard to imagine this attitude finding its way into a Hollywood film even one year later. But President Roosevelt had explicitly asked Hollywood to do what it could to support the Russian resistance to Germany, & The North Star was their A-film response.
The naive message stated within the film, "We'll make this the final war. The Earth belongs to the People," must have made closet-case Joseph McCarthy shit a brick, so no surprise Hellman had to flee the country when Crazy Joe with the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities set his sights on her. And in 1946, director Lewis Milestone was among the first to be brought up before Crazy Joe's witchhunters. Milestone later likened those days a product of "fear psychosis" in Hollywood.
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