Nationality: Russian. Born: Zvenigorod, Russia, 29 January 1902. Education: Studied music at the Moscow Conservatory. Family: Married to Grigoriy Aleksandrov (film director). Career: Stage actress, 1926–1934; worked in cinema and on stage as a member of the Nemirovich-Danchenko musical theater in Moscow. Died: Moscow, Russia, 26 January 1975.
Peterburgskaya noch ( A Petersburg Night ) (Grigori Roshal and Vera Stroyeva); Vesyolye rebyata ( Jolly Fellows ) (Grigoriy Aleksandrov) (as Anyuta)
Tsirk ( Circus ) (Aleksandrov) (as Marion Dixon)
Volga-Volga (Aleksandrov) (as "Strelka" Petrova)
Svetlyi put ( The Shining Path ) (Aleksandrov) (as Tanya Morozova)
Vesna ( Spring ) (Aleksandrov and Luciano Emmer) (as Irina Nikitina and Vera Shatrova)
Vstrecha na Elbe ( Meeting on the Elbe ) (Aleksandrov)
Mussorgsky (Grigori Roshal) (as Tatiana Platonova)
Kompozitor Glinka ( Man of Music ) (Aleksandrov) (as Ludmilla Glinka)
Zvezda and Lyra ( Star and Lyra ) (Aleksandrov) (as Lira)
Zel'dovich, G., Liubov' Orlova , Moscow, 1939.
Zorkaya, Neya, The Illustrated History of Soviet Cinema , New York, 1989.
Turovskaya, Maya, "The Strange Case of the Making of Volga, Volga," in Inside Soviet Film Satire: Laughter with a Lash , edited by Andrew Horton, Cambridge, 1993.
Ratchford, Moira, "Circus of 1936: Ideology and Entertainment under the Big Top," in Inside Soviet Film Satire: Laughter with a Lash , edited by Andrew Horton, Cambridge, 1993.
Alexsandrov, Grigoriy, director, Orlova , 1983.
* * *
Lyubov Orlova was probably the most glamorous and popular actress of Soviet cinema. In possession of bright eyes and shining teeth, high cheekbones and fine skin, Orlova was a fit and attractive woman radiating exuberant health; when she sang and danced, her smile was irresistible and her charisma unsurpassed. She is believed to be the epitome of the ideal Soviet woman of the 1930s, usually representing a girl of humble origins who attains high position in society due to restless assertiveness, hard work, and optimistic faith in the bright future.
Descending from an old Russian aristocratic family, Orlova even boasted of a childhood photograph alongside old count Leo Tolstoy at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana. After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in the mid-1920s, she was involved in active stage acting between 1926 and 1934. Until the end of her life she acted in musicals on the stage of Moscow's Nemirovich-Danchenko musical theater.
Orlova played almost exclusively in films directed by her husband, Grigoriy Aleksandrov. In the early 1930s Aleksandrov had traveled to America in his capacity of an assistant to Sergei Eisenstein, and had worked on the unfinished feature Que Viva Mexico! He was believed to have been particularly impressed with the entertainment quality of the Hollywood studio output, and particularly with the elaborate and lavishly choreographed productions of Busby Berkeley. Back home Aleksandrov set out to develop the specific genre of the Soviet musical, a combination of entertainment and ideology. His wife, the vivacious blonde Lyubov Orlova, became the leading star of these musical comedies, breaking all popularity records in the 1930s. Other more or less permanent members of the team were composer Isaak Dunayevsky, who authored some of the most prominent popular melodies of the time, as well as lyricist Vassilii Lebedev-Kumach.
Orlova first starred in Vesyolye rebyata ( Jolly Fellows , 1934) where she was relegated a secondary, albeit important role. The lead here was played by vaudeville actor Leonid Utyosov, who appeared as a Crimean shepherd mistakenly taken for a famous musician. The comedy of errors begins at a spa where high-class Muscovites are enchanted by the careless attitudes prevailing in the rustic ambiance. The protagonist in a sheepskin hat plays his pan pipe, and sings and dances joyously amidst animals and cheerful peasants. A series of mix-ups leads Utyosov to the capital where, again by mistake, he ends up on stage of the musical theater and delivers a brilliant performance, with Orlova as a lead star, triumphant in the new stage show.
Orlova came into the spotlight only in Aleksandrov's next film, Tsirk ( Circus , 1936). Here she plays the dazzling Marion Dixon, a blonde American performer. In the opening scenes she is shown barely escaping a crowd of angry white Americans who want to lynch her for having mothered a black baby boy. Next Marion Dixon is seen arriving in Moscow a few years later as a member of a touring circus, working under a German manager, Kneischitz. While in Moscow, she falls in love with a Soviet man, but is blackmailed by Kneischitz who threatens to reveal her secret—the existence of the black child. After a confrontation between the German and the Russian all is resolved happily. In the final scene all people in the circus audience raise and sing in support of Marion Dixon, embracing the black child, who has resurfaced and has found a new home, safe and secure. Besides the memorable music (featuring some of the most popular Soviet songs of all times) and the impressive choreography of some dance numbers, the film disseminates important ideological messages: it proclaims the superiority of communism over capitalism, indicates that the Soviet Union has overcome racism, stresses the antagonism between socialism and fascism, and represents the USSR as a dream shelter for victims of social injustice worldwide.
Volga-Volga (1938) was made at the height of Stalinist repressions; some of the people who worked on the film were exiled, their contribution never credited. Nonetheless, Volga-Volga is said to have been Joseph Stalin's favorite film and to have been partially made under his personal guidance. Like Jolly Fellows , it is once again a rags-to-riches story, with Orlova (who played here with Soviet cinema star Igor Ilinskiy, a veteran from Meyerhold's theater) cast as "Strelka" Petrova, a letter carrier from the small town of Melkoretchensk who travels up the river to reach the capital and successfully challenge and confront the bureaucrats who have taken charge of amateur theater. A good example of Soviet propaganda, the film has been under critical scrutiny for its exaggerated and idealized representation of small-town life.
The next Alexandrov/Orlova film, the musical Svetlyi put ( Shining Path , 1939) is believed to be the epitome of Stalinist glorification. It is yet another socialist Cinderella-type plot: Tanya Morozova is a simple weaver in a textile factory located near Moscow; she becomes a shock worker and ends up in Kremlin where she is awarded the highest Soviet medal, the Order of Lenin; she is then sent by the comrades to train as an engineer; at the top of her ascent she is elected a member of the Supreme Soviet.
World War Two caused a significant interruption in Orlova's work by imposing an eight year involuntary career-break at a time when she was at her most active. After the war, now over forty, she starred in Vesna ( Spring , 1947), alongside the titan of Soviet cinema, Nikolai Cherkassov. In Vesna Orlova played a double role: on the one hand she was the scientist Irina Nikitina, and on the other the actress Vera Shatrova, who is supposed to play a character modeled after Nikitina. Meant to entertain, the film evolves around endless quid-pro-quo's and is set in luxurious interiors far removed from the drab post-war Soviet reality.
In the 1952 biopic of Russian composer Glinka, a film in which pianist Svyatoslav Richter had a cameo as Franz Liszt, a mature Orlova appeared as the musician's wife. This was her next to last role for the cinema, for she appeared the previous year in a supporting role in yet another musical biopic, this time of composer Mussorgsky, and in 1949 in the war drama Vstrecha na Elbe ( Meeting on the Elbe , 1949).
Several years after Orlova retired from cinema, an attempt was made to replicate and continue her charismatic presence, albeit with a lesser success. Eldar Ryazanov's early musical comedy, Karnavalnaya noch ( Carnival Night , 1956), starred Lyudmilla Gurchenko, who was supposed to succeed Orlova. But while Gurchenko became a leading Soviet star in her own right, she never reached the popularity of Orlova.
Orlova worked in theater until her death in 1975. She was survived by Aleksandrov, who directed a biopic dedicated to her memory shortly before his own death. Her grave at the Moscow Novodevichye cemetery is still frequented by admirers.