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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

It's that time of year again when I look back fifty years at what was going on in Hollywood, starting with the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. I've already looked at two of them: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I watched after the death of Edward Albee, and Alfie, which I took a look at many years ago to compare it to the remake.

In 1966, it was the last gasp of big studios, which were still enamored with road show epics, and the critical darlings came from England. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was a comic epic, the likes of which aren't seen anymore. Made at the height of the cold war, it was a film that humanized Russians and showed the folly of paranoia, and it was a farce.

Directed by Norman Jewison, the film was written by William Rose, who also wrote It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, to which some of this film owes (along with its long title). The film follows several different characters, has some very memorable dialogue, and a lot of slapstick. What it has that It's a Mad doesn't is a heart, which may be its least appealing part.

Set on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, a Russian sub has grounded itself because of the captain's stubborness--he wanted to see America. "Why?" someone asks. "He had never seen it before," is the answer. A team of nine Russian sailors, led by Alan Arkin (in his film debut) go ashore to try to find a boat to tow the sub out before World War III breaks out. He starts at the rental home of a New York playwright (Carl Reiner) and his wife, Eva Marie Saint. Arkin's subterfuge is seen through by Reiner's young son, so he ties them up and steals their car, leaving them in the hands of Kolchin (John Philip Law). But Reiner somehow manages to get the gun away and bicycles to safely (a man on a girl's bicycle was also used to great comic effect in It's a Mad).

Meanwhile, the sailors can't help but being noticed, especially after they tie up the postmistress. In a great comic bit, she's tied to a chair that is hung from the wall, but her hard-of-hearing husband doesn't notice her and proceeds to eat his breakfast, oblivious to her screams behind him. Once she's freed, the island slowly awakes to their being Russians invading, and soon the rumors fly rampant. The police chief, the pragmatic Brian Keith, tries to keep things calm, but a veteran blowhard (Paul Ford) fans the flames. When asked who should lead the citizen's brigade, somewhat suggests Ford, who carries a ceremonial sword.

Panic breaks out everywhere. Keith's second in command, Jonathan Winters, keeps exhorting, "Let's get organized." Reiner, realizing Arkin and his men are just the victims of an accident, tries to help them, though Reiner does end up shooting a machine gun at Arkin. Not wounded, Arkin tells him, "Don't do that again."

Things come to a head when the sub pulls into port, demanding the release of the nine sailors (who are actually on a boat). Keith wants to arrest the captain (a droll Theodore Bikel) who is amused and tells him if the sailors aren't produced, he will blow up the town. Ford sneaks away to radio the military.

The ending is one of those "we're all brothers under the skin" things that is inevitable but still a bit too sentimental. But it was one of the first films to portray Russians in a positive light. Arkin was nominated for an Oscar, but it's interesting that he would go on to play roles like Reiner's in years to come (like The In-Laws, for example).

This film is one of my father's favorites, and we share many lines together. When Reiner introduces himself to Arkin he starts with his last name, "Whitaker, Walt" and Arkin thereafter calls him that. When Lou Whitaker played for the Tigers we used to call him Whitaker Walt. Another great line is when the Russians who don't speak English disguise themselves as townspeople and tell everyone they meet, "Emergency. Everybody to get from street."

The physical humor is great, too. Ben Blue, as the town drunk, spends the whole film trying to catch his horse to warn people (he gets the last shot of the film, crying out the title, Paul Revere style). And when Reiner is tied up with telephone operator Tessie O'Shea (a British music hall star who was on the Ed Sullivan Show that same night as The Beatles) there is much hilarity.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a classic comedy. Interestingly, the three leads are all still alive, though Bikel, Keith, and Winters are gone. Also in the film as a young boy is Johnny Whitaker, who would play Jody in Keith's sit-com A Family Affair.

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