The wispiest of plots―Ogurtsov, the bumptious temporary head of a Soviet ‘culture palace’, attempts to change the planned New Year’s Eve show into something more serious and educational―forms the basis for what is essentially a series of revue sketches in this gently satirical comedy. At the time of the film’s release a few years after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s leadership had inaugurated the famous ‘thaw’ in Soviet society, represented in Carnival Night by the ultimately victorious struggle of the modern, free-spirited younger generation against outdated, stuffily authoritarian redoubts such as Ogurtsov. But this is hardly a penetrating political critique. Carefree fun is the order of the day, an ideal embodied in the heroine, Lena: a confident, capable young career woman in a position of some authority at her workplace*. She has a teasing will-they-won’t-they relationship (spoiler: they will) with her shy colleague Grisha; together with their co-workers, they rush to thwart Ogurtsov, whose idea of an opening act is for a scientific lecturer to give a short speech of no more than 40 minutes.
Ogurtsov is certainly not to be taken as an accurate portrait of overbearing Communist officialdom. In a nice irony, the staunch defender of dignity and earnestness is a caricature so grotesque that there never seems to be any serious possibility of his winning, while the other characters (either young and modish, or else older but accommodating of young people’s values) seem so utterly normal precisely because they know how to let their hair down. The cartoonish array of harrumphs, gurns, pratfalls and ridiculous poses employed by famed comic actor Igor Ilyinsky are in stark contrast to the performances of the rest of the cast, who (with the sole exception of Sergey Filippov as the dry academic who gets smashed and ends up giving a drunken dance instead of a lecture about life on Mars) act like ordinary human beings. It’s a measure of Ilyinsky’s skill that he can go so completely over-the-top without being unbearable; his pantomimic extremes are in any case necessary to offset the possibility of the audience feeling any sympathy towards his character, because the film is quite relentless in using Ogurtsov as its punch-bag. Director Ryazanov and writers Boris Laskin and Vladimir Polyakov, no doubt mindful of the short running-time, don’t want to risk the light-hearted tone being complicated by subtle shadings they haven’t the space to develop, and so there’s no hint here of the ambivalence of Malvolio’s humiliation in Twelfth Night; Ogurtsov is basically inhuman, therefore the indignities he suffers cannot elicit sympathy.
Some examples of Ogurtsov’s stupidity and outlandishness. He thinks of himself as an upholder of high culture, yet mistakes Grisha’s clichéd declaration of love, accidentally broadcast to the whole building, as a speech from Shakespeare. The self-professed admirer of Gogol and Shchedrin is so clueless regarding the nature of satire that not only does he fail to recognize himself as the target of a fable recited during the show, he also requests that in the future the name and workplace of the target be given to remove any ambiguity. After hearing a singing quartet rehearse a comic song, he calls for the number of singers be increased, brushing off the objection that it would no longer be a quartet with the observation that quartet with a few extra members is a mass quartet. In one of the funniest scenes, a mildly risqué skit by a pair of clowns is steadily stripped on Ogurtsov’s orders of all suggestiveness and humour, until the duo enter in suits and without makeup to deliver a moralistic homily.
The effect of Ogurtsov’s preposterousness on the film’s politics is to ensure that the Soviet system is ultimately endorsed. Any criticism of bureaucratic heavy-handedness, censoriousness and repression cannot help but seem mild when such evils are embodied in one ridiculous, middle-ranking figure whom it is impossible to take seriously, and who is easily defeated. Tellingly, Ogurtsov’s superior is clearly on the side of the young, giving the impression that Russia’s Ogurtsovs are thin on the ground and out of step with official government thinking. What’s more, appearing alongside professional performers, the employees of the Culture Palace, whether economists or librarians or waitresses, are so full of talent that you might think that the U.S.S.R. under Khrushchev was bursting with gifted singers, dancers and musicians calmly going about their day-to-day jobs. I must confess that many of the songs seemed rather tuneless and exhausting to me, but they might not seem so to someone more familiar than me with Russian popular music, and there’s no doubting that they are performed with tremendous brio. It’s clear why Carnival Night was such a success on its release, and why it has retained its popularity in Russia: sunny, populist entertainments combining songs, gentle satire and physical comedy are not easy to bring off, so an example that gets the balance as right as this is bound to be received fondly. Its brevity is definitely in its favour: a few more minutes and it would have felt over-extended. My favourite bit: when Ogurtsov, after some difficulties, finally makes his way onto the state to deliver his speech only to find himself applauded (for reasons I won’t reveal) as an unwitting comic genius.
*I don’t know how common it was for such women to feature in Soviet films of the period, but Hollywood in the 1950s was hardly falling over backwards to provide alternative models of womanhood to the dutiful wife and mother archetype, so it’s refreshing to see one here. The role briefly made a star of Lyudmila Gurchenko, but her career struggled for a while in the face of official disapproval before she made a comeback some two decades later. See her obituary here.