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On, workers! But beware the capitalist sharks

The four-DVD set `Animated Soviet Propaganda' opens the vaults on decades of Cold War humor.

February 04, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

IN 1995, Malibu producer Joan Borsten and her husband, the Russian-born actor Oleg Vidov, were poring over a library of animated films produced at Moscow's Soyuzmultfilm Studio when they discovered buried among the children's classics other films that caught their attention.

These were no Disney-like fairy tales or Russian folk stories. Instead, these animated short films intended for the Soviet masses painted a sinister portrait of life in capitalist America.

"Black and White," produced in 1933, depicted a highway with an endless row of blacks lynched on telephone poles. "The Millionaire," made in 1963, told the story of a rich American woman who leaves $1 million to her pet bulldog, who becomes so wealthy and powerful that he eventually is elected to Congress. And in the 1979 animated short "Shooting Range," a jobless American youth finds work in a carnival shooting gallery only to discover the evil, greedy owner is now charging double -- for people to use the youth as target practice.

These films, rarely seen in the West, are among several dozen included in a four-disc DVD anthology titled "Animated Soviet Propaganda" that is being distributed by Kino International and Films by Jove. The collection retails for $89.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Soviet-era animation: An article in Sunday Calendar about a DVD anthology titled "Animated Soviet Propaganda" stated that famed Russian animator Boris Yefimov, who was interviewed by the anthology's producers, had died. Yefimov, who turned 106 in September, is alive.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Soviet-era animation: An article in the Feb. 4 Calendar about a DVD anthology, "Animated Soviet Propaganda," said that famous Russian animator Boris Yefimov, who was interviewed by the anthology's producers, had died. Yefimov, who turned 106 in September, is alive.

The anthology is divided into categories titled "American Imperialists," "Fascist Barbarians," "Capitalist Sharks" and "Onward to the Shining Future: Communism." The DVDs include interviews with Russian film school professors, directors and animators, including famed animator Boris Yefimov, who was 101 and died two years after being interviewed.

The earliest film in the collection is "Soviet Toys," made in 1924; the last is "History of the Toy," an anti-fascist film made six decades later.

Borsten is president of Films by Jove, which acquired worldwide distribution rights to many of the Moscow studio's animation library.

"After the Bolshevik Revolution, about 200,000 [Communist] party members inherited a land mass of mostly illiterate people," said Borsten. "Lenin said film was the best media for propaganda. Within the film genre, animation was by far the easiest way to say what was bad and what was good."

Joseph Stalin, who succeeded Lenin, ordered the building of the state-run animation studio after becoming enamored with a Walt Disney film festival held in Moscow. But while many of the films produced at the studio beginning in 1936 were based on European and Russian folk tales, some were blatant political propaganda designed to show America and the West in the worst possible light.

New Russian Word, a Russian-language daily published in New York, said in a recent article that one can't help but chuckle at the 1949 animated short "Someone Else's Voice," in which "Russian traditionalist nightingales hiss and boo" an "obnoxious magpie who returns from the West having learnt to sing jazz while on vacation."

"In 1936, most animation were films for children," Borsten said. "But while the studio was making beautiful films for children, it was also making propaganda for adults and children."

Over the decades, the depiction of capitalists in Soviet animation rarely changed.

They were shown as greedy, racist, cigar-chomping fat cats bent on exploiting the noble worker. That characterization didn't change even with liberalization of communist rule.

"After perestroika," Borsten noted, "Americans who came to Russia to invest were still being called 'capitalist sharks.' "

Some of the early works in the collection were produced by Bolshevik collectives; later works were produced at the Soviet animation studio. But all of them serve to point out what the Russian people were subjected to during the years of Communist totalitarianism.

Vidov believes the animated propaganda films that he grew up with kept Soviet citizens wary about life outside their borders. People inside the Soviet Union came to believe that America was a scary place, where there was high unemployment, blacks were routinely beaten, and capitalists had bags of money and were free to abuse those who had less.

"It was a war between socialism and capitalism," Vidov said. "Now, there are rich and poor in Russia. So, now, I don't think anybody is talking about it."

robert.welkos@latimes.com

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