Balalaika (film)

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Not to be confused with Balalayka (film).
Balalaika poster.jpg
Film poster
Directed by Reinhold Schunzel
Produced by Lawrence Weingarten
Written by Leo Gordon
Charles Bennett
Jacques Deval
Starring Nelson Eddy
Ilona Massey
Music by George Posford
Bernard Grun
Herbert Stothart
Cinematography Ernst Matray
Joseph Ruttenberg
Karl Freund
Edited by George Boemler
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • December 29, 1939 (1939-12-29) (United States)
Running time
102 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Balalaika is a 1939 American musical romance film based on the 1936 London stage musical of the same name.[1] Produced by Lawrence Weingarten and directed by Reinhold Schunzel, it starred Nelson Eddy and Ilona Massey.

The film follows the romance of Prince Peter Karagin, captain of the Tsar's Cossack Guards, and Lydia Pavlovna Marakova, cabaret-cum-opera singer and secret revolutionary, who fall in love on the eve of World War I, are separated by war and ideology, and meet again in 1920s Paris.


In 1914 Czarist Russia Prince Peter Karagin (Nelson Eddy) is a captain of the Cossack Guards, riding home from maneuvers to an evening of wine, women and song at St. Petersburg's Cafe' Balalaika. The Balalaika's new headliner Lydia Pavlovna Marakova (Ilona Massey), blackmailed into attending the officers' party and expected to choose a “favored one,” intrigues Karagin when she makes good her escape instead.

Masquerading as a poor music student, Karagin insinuating himself into Lydia's family and circle of musician friends, unaware that they are revolutionaries - or that his own orderly Nikki Poppov (Charles Ruggles) is courting the Marakov's maid Masha (Joyce Compton) (comic relief). Karagin secretly jump-starts Lydia's career at the St. Petersburg Opera as a prelude to seducing her, but falls in love instead. She recognizes his dishonorable intentions, but admits she loves him too.

Their happiness ends when Lydia's brother Dimitri (Dalies Frantz) is killed by Cossacks led by Peter, whom Lydia recognizes; she agrees to use her opera debut as an opportunity to assassinate Peter and his father the general (C. Aubrey Smith). But when Peter confides he is giving up his army career to marry her, Lydia makes him promise not to come or let his father come to the performance.

Lydia's debut coincides with the outbreak of World War I: General Karagin, who came anyway, announces that Germany has declared war on Russia. In a dispute between the assassins General Karagin is shot and wounded. Peter finally learns of Lydia's political affiliations when police arrest her as her father's accomplice. Later, Peter has Lydia released from prison.

Separated by WWI and the Russian and Bolshevik Revolutions, Peter winds up in 1920s Paris employed by his former orderly as a cabaret entertainer at the “Balalaika”. Desperately poor White Russians, wearing court dress and paste jewels, gather to celebrate the Russian Orthodox New Year as the Poppov's guests. Here Lydia finds Peter, and emerges behind him as he stands before a mirror, candle in hand, to make the traditional New Year's wish to see his "true love."


Among the uncredited cast were:

Musical score[edit]

Only the musical's title song “At the Balalaika,” with altered lyrics, was used in the film. Instead, MGM had music director Herbert Stothart adapt materials it already owned or were otherwise available, or write original material as needed.[2]

List of musical numbers in order of appearance:

Title Source(s) Performers
Overture At the Balalaika (verse), Tanya, At the Balalaika (chorus) orchestra
Russian religious chant copyrighted as “After Service;” arranged by Herbert Stothart chorus
Life for the Czar fragment, Mikhail Glinka, A Life for the Czar, Act III male chorus
Ride, Cossacks, Ride music Herbert Stothart; lyrics Bob Wright, Chet Forrest male chorus, Eddy, Walter Woolf King, male soloists, whistling by Sergei Protzenko
Life for the Czar reprise Eddy and male chorus
Tanya music Herbert Stothart, lyrics Bob Wright and Chet Forrest Massey, male chorus
"Gorko" Russian drinking song adapted by Herbert Stothart male chorus, Massey
At the Balalaika from the original London production: music George Posford, lyrics Eric Maschwitz; new lyrics Wright and Forrest Massey, male chorus
Polonaise in A Flat, Opus 53 Frédéric Chopin Dalies Frantz, piano
"El Ukhnem"

(Song of the Volga Boatmen)

traditional, arranged Feodor Chaliapin and Feodor Feodorovich Koenemann Eddy, male chorus
"Chanson Boheme" Opera Carmen: Act II. music Georges Bizet, libretto Henri Meilhac, Ludovic Halevy Massey
"Chanson du Toreador"

(“The Toreador Song”)

see above Eddy
"Si Tu M’Aime" Carmen: Act IV. see above Eddy and Massey
Tanya see above orchestral reprise
Music from Scheherazade

Shadows on the Sand

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, arranged as an opera by Bob Wright and Chet Forrest.

MGM copyrighted Miss Massey’s solo as Shadows on the Sand.

Massey, Sigurd Nilssen, Irra Petina, Douglas Beattie, David Laughlin
"'Bozhe, Tsarya khrani"

(God Save the Tsar)

Imperial Russian Anthem. Music Alexei Fedorovich Lvov, lyrics Vasili Andreevitch Zhukovsky chorus, Eddy, C. Aubrey Smith, and Massey
At the Balalaika reprise King
"Stille Nacht"

(Silent Night)

music Franz Gruber, lyrics Joseph Mohr Eddy and male chorus
"Otchi Chornia"

(Dark Eyes)

lyrics Yevhen Hrebinka, set to Florian Hermann's “Valse Hommage” arrangement by S. Gerdel') Massey
At the Balalaika reprise Eddy
Land of Dreams not given Frank Morgan, male trio
Flow, Flow, White Wine

[lyric: “Bubbles in the Wine”]

King, Frank Morgan, arranged Stothart, lyrics Kahn Eddy
Wishing Episode

[lyric: “Mirror, Mirror”]

arranged Stothart, lyrics Wright and Forrest Alma Kruger, Mildred Shay, Eddy
Magic of Your Love music Franz Lehár; new lyrics Gus Kahn, Clifford Grey.

Originally “The Melody of Love” from Lehar’s Gypsy Love. (Sung with new lyrics as “The White Dove” in The Rogue Song with Lawrence Tibbett, MGM, 1930.

chorus, Eddy and Massey
Finale: Song of the Volga Boatman see above orchestral reprise

A number of additional songs were copyrighted for the film but apparently not used.[3]

Production notes[edit]

Various sources agree that MGM was planning to make this film two years before production actually began. Filming started in June 1939, although Eddy and Massey spent the four weeks prior to shooting pre-recording their musical numbers.[4]

Miliza Korjus was offered the role of Lydia but “thought it was a joke.” She turned it down on the assumption Eddy would again be teamed with Jeanette MacDonald,[5] apparently unaware that both Eddy and MacDonald were demanding solo star roles from the studio, or that the studio had agreed.[6] She was devastated to learned that Ilona Massey had accepted the role, losing the opportunity to work with “that gorgeous hunk of baritone”.[5]

The film was nominated for the 1939 Academy Award for Best Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer).[7]


Like all films of the era, Balalaika was subject to censorship by the Production Code Administration. Beginning with a December 1937 letter to Louis B. Mayer, Joseph Breen opened with a suggestion that the film not offend "...the citizens or government of any country..." before detailing what could not appear in the film: a prostitute, sale or discussion of pornography, all risque dialog, and reference to a male secretary as a "pansy". In addition "... mob violence... must avoid... details of brutality and gruesomeness."[8] Notwithstanding, the audience had plenty of clues to fill in the blanks.

Critical reception[edit]

Previewed on December 15, 1938, most critics agreed: the stars and production were excellent even if the script and plot were not.[3] Many went on to prophesy a glowing career for Massey – here in her first starring role – which never took off.[2] Frank S. Nugent's review in The New York Times praised Massey's blond good looks and Eddy's competence: "She looks like Dietrich, talks like Garbo... while leaving the bulk of (the score) safely to Mr. Eddy..."

Despite enjoying the romantic escapism and musical artistry, Nugent foresaw international repercussions. "In these propaganda-searching days, we know the comrades are going to howl bloody Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The notion of peasant girls tossing their locks and eyes at the Imperial Guard and the film's gusty sighing over the dear dead days... are bound to be tantamount to waving a papal bull before the Red flag of The Daily Worker."

Nor did he overlook the film's shortcomings, "...the picture is long on formula and short on originality... nine out of ten sequences have been blue-printed before," but nonetheless gave director Reinhold Schunzel credit for a job well done.[9]


  1. ^ "Balalaika". Turner Classic Movies. 
  2. ^ a b "Turner Classic Movies". 
  3. ^ a b "Jeanette and Nelson". 
  4. ^ "Balalaika (1939): Notes". Turner Classic Movies, UK. Retrieved December 11, 2009. 
  5. ^ a b "Baritone Corner". Arabella and Co. Retrieved December 11, 2009. 
  6. ^ Hollywood Songsters: Allyson to Funicello by James Robert Parish, Michael R. Pitts - page 282. Google Books. 
  7. ^ "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-11. 
  8. ^ Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: biography of an image by Harlow Robinson. Google Books. 
  9. ^ Nugent, Frank S. (December 15, 1939). "THE SCREEN IN REVIEW By FRANK S. NUGENT, December 15, 1939". New York Times. [dead link]

External links[edit]