Propaganda and Peasants: Aaron Copland’s Score to THE NORTH STAR

Published in Film Score Monthly Online, April 2006

On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded Russia, violating the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 and foisting the Soviet Union as an ally on an unprepared world at war. The Bolshevik revolution, the Moscow purge trials and executions of the late 1930s, and the non-aggression pact strained Soviet-U.S. relations to the breaking point. However, once the United States entered the war following Pearl Harbor, it was evident that America was going to have to find a way to make nice with its new former enemy.

To change America’s perception of its new ally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced his own domestic war. In June 1942, FDR consolidated several poorly coordinated information agencies to form the Office of War Information (OWI), the official propaganda agency. The OWI would have a direct effect on Hollywood moviemaking for the duration of the war. In its “Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry,” the OWI recommended incorporating pro-Allied and pro-Soviet themes into feature films, reasoning that movies possessed “great potential to acquaint viewers with the distant and, to many, mysterious Soviet Union.” It insisted “we must understand and know more about our Allies” by counteracting “unity-destroying lies about England and Russia.” With 80 million Americans (out of a population of 131 million) attending the movies, the government realized the power of cinema and asked the studio chiefs to make films to bolster the anti-Nazi cause.

Never favorable to government interference, each studio would nonetheless produce at least one pro-Soviet film during the war. Often made with encouragement and instruction from the highest levels of government, long-forgotten and seldom-seen titles such as Three Russian Girls, Days of Glory, Counter-Attack, and especially Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow were made for the express purposes of drumming up sympathy for the Soviet plight.

For film music fans, one title stands out—The North Star. With a script by Lillian Hellman, songs and score by Aaron Copland and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, The North Star was the most expensive film of producer Samuel Goldwyn’s career ($3 million). The film was labeled everything from “savage” and “heroic” to “Bolshevist propaganda.” Ronald and Allis Radosh, in their book Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance With the Left, called it “a film equivalent of the text and photos in Soviet Russia Today,” a Soviet propaganda publication aimed at America. The film later came under scrutiny from the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) because of Hellman’s leftist leanings.

Goldwyn made The North Star at the request of FDR (whose son James was an executive at Goldwyn’s studio). Harry Hopkins, FDR’s unofficial emissary to Churchill and Stalin, approached Hellman in early 1942 about doing a documentary with on-the-scene photography. She began initial talks with director William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland, but when Wyler enlisted in the Air Force, Russian-born Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) took over the project.

Hellman’s script tells the story of a Ukrainian farming collective fighting for its life from the Nazi invasion. Walter Huston stars as a famous doctor who has come back to his village to help “the people.” Erich von Stroheim is the evil German doctor who drains the blood from the village children to provide plasma for the German wounded soldiers (the scene was based on real-life events and was suggested to Hellman by Soviet officials). Walter Brennan plays a pig farmer. Farley Granger and Anne Baxter are the young lovers, and Dean Jagger and Dana Andrews round out the impressive cast.

Themes and Variations
As she did in Watch on the Rhine, Hellman returned to the theme of fighting for the next generation as a way to show Americans that the Soviets are not so different. Whereas films like Mission to Moscow reeked with politics, The North Star “packaged its message in ostensibly human terms,” wrote Radosh. And the propaganda mill churned at full speed even before the film was released. A report from the OWI arrogantly stated, “We see [the Russians] as people—like ourselves.” The New York Herald Tribune printed advance reports that the film was “a picture about average Russians for average Americans.” And during filming, Life magazine devoted a six-page, on-location article (with photos by Margaret Bourke-White) stating that the Russians were “one hell of a people,” who “look like Americans, dress like Americans, and think like Americans.” To achieve that aim, Hellman falsely portrayed the setting of the picture as an Arcadian paradise, when in reality Stalin had deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians.

Originally Goldwyn wanted Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to compose the score. But who better to musically portray a people who “look like Americans, dress like Americans, and think like Americans” than the quintessential American composer—Aaron Copland. If Copland was aware he wasn’t Goldwyn’s first choice, that didn’t dampen his excitement of working on the film: “It is like having a new toy to play with.” Another factor for his enthusiasm may have been the money. Copland earned $10,000 for five month’s work, far more money than he customarily made in an entire year.

The North Star required more music than Copland’s previous movies. The film’s first half necessitated a practically continuous flow of songs, dances and incidental music, much to Hellman’s consternation. Realizing that the film was not going to be the “simple, carefully researched semi-documentary movie” they had agreed on, and without any support from Goldwyn, Hellman bought herself out of her contract for $30,000. To make matters worse, Edward Chodorov was called in to add dancing scenes to Hellman’s screenplay. Taking matters into her own hands, Hellman published her script to prove that her screenplay was not a libretto.

The main title begins with a shot of peasants toiling in the fields to the sound of idyllic solo woodwinds and trumpet alternating three-note arpeggios, a typical Copland sound that would be at home on an American plain and, apparently, any Russian steppe. The happiness of the village is encapsulated in the bouncy music for the children going to school. The Radoshes labeled the music “a slick version of Appalachian Spring with Russian flourishes.”

Copland said that writing the score was “excellent preparation for operatic writing,” and he consulted at least four collections of Russian folk and revolutionary songs to provide regional color. Considering the Ukrainian locale of the film, using Russian folk melodies was not technically correct to the region, but few Americans were likely to know the difference. (“Soviets, on the other hand,” wrote biographer Howard Pollack, “spotted this discrepancy immediately.”) Copland based all four original songs on tunes found in these collections, although he rewrote them to varying degrees, all with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

The Plot Thickens
The first song, sung at a school assembly by fresh-scrubbed youths, was Isaak Dunayevsky’s “Song of the Fatherland.” The lyrics, adapted by Gershwin, sing that “There is peace where once there was disorder—/There is dawn where once was blackest night./Not a voice but sings in exultation,/Not a heart but beats for liberty—/Side by side, the peoples of our nation/Build a world where man is ever free.”

Instead of the quiet and gentle beginning she had envisioned, Hellman was confronted with what she called an “extended opera bouffe peopled not by peasants, real and alive, but by musical comedy characters without a thought or care in the world.” Gershwin’s carefree lyrics for “Loading Time at Last Is Over” exemplify this: “Chari, vari, rastabari,/Loading time at last is over,/Let the workers mingle!/Let the locomotive labor/While we dance and join our neighbor/In a jingle./Milka, mulka, makabulka…” The extended folk dance sequence (directed by David Lichine of the Ballet Russe) reminded The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther of a scene out of the newly opened hit musical Oklahoma! (though the comparison may appear unfavorable to today’s filmgoers, considering the overall positive comments Crowther gave to the film and score, it seems to have been meant as a compliment).

Following on the heels of the dance number, the young people set off on their hiking journey to Kiev. As they merrily stroll down the dirt road to the simple accompaniment of balaleika and harmonica (which they just happen to have taken with them), they sing “Parents dear, use your tact./If you don’t like how we act,/Do not fret, do not mourn—/Is it our fault we were born?/Please forgive all we do/For someday we’ll suffer, too,/When in turn we shall groan/At some children of our own./Tiddle-ee-um, tiddle-ee-um,/Tiddle-ee-um, tum, tum, tum, tum./We’re the younger generation/And the future of the nation.” Hitching a ride with Karp (Brennan) and some other farmers on the way to market, everyone sings of the simple pleasures of their life (“Sing me not of other towns,/Of towns that twinkle and shine;/Excuse me, but there’s no village like mine”).

The bombs of the German Luftwaffe shatter the song and their idyllic world, and Copland’s music immediately takes on a more proper, sober tone. A plaintive clarinet melody sings over gently rocking chords in the strings as the young people, confronted by a dying boy in their midst, reflect on how life can change in a moment.

A male chorus sings the final song, but unlike the others, “Song of the Guerrillas” is used as dramatic underscoring to accompany the men of the village galloping off to hide in the mountains and prepare to fight back. With lyrics such as “From field and tower,/In snow or shower,/Through day, through night,/Guerrillas fight/The butcher’s bloody power./His guns keep drilling;/Our graves he’s filling;/But men grow brave/Who fight to save/The land that they were tilling,” the point of the song is obvious. But it’s an effective tune that will play a significant role in the final battle.

To protect their villages from the Nazis, the Russians adopted a “scorched earth” policy in which they burned their homes prior to the invaders’ arrival. Copland’s cue begins quietly as the scene focuses on two mothers silently lamenting over the memories they are about to set aflame. Screeching strings, woodwinds and trumpet call out to the other villagers over steadily pulsing eighth notes as the soldiers attack and chaos ensues.

Copland serves up a desperate fugue as Damian flees the Germans before a mocking trumpet cues us that he is blind and will need help to escape the danger in the woods. Meanwhile, in a stunningly filmed sequence, the guerrillas return to battle the Nazis. Copland’s exciting cue combines the melody from “Song of the Guerrillas” and the opening three-note village motif to remind us that the villagers are fighting for their very lives. Copland uses open intervals and harmonies in the brass to signal the return of the children and a hope for the future as the Nazis fight a losing battle under the persistent guerrilla attack.

Following the Nazi defeat, the villagers must leave their destroyed homes to make a new life. Over Copland’s more insistent (and now hopeful) three-note motif, Marina (Baxter) sums up Hellman’s views in her final monologue: “Wars don’t leave people as they were. All people will learn this and come to see that wars do not have to be. We’ll make this the last war. We’ll make a free world for all men. The earth belongs to us, the people, if we fight for it. And we will fight for it.”

When The North Star was released in November 1943, it played at the New Victoria and Palace Theatres on Broadway, an honor accorded to only a few previous films. It became a surprise hit at the box office and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Hellman’s compromised screenplay and Copland’s score.

Months before the film ever came out, Life honored it as “Movie of the Year,” a first-ever distinction from the influential magazine. Crowther’s New York Times review praised the film as “lyric and savage…a heroic picture, the force of which is weakened only by the fact that in it Mr. Goldwyn and Mr. Milestone have too freely mixed theatrical forms….The North Star has so much in it that is moving and triumphant that its sometime departures from reality may be generally overlooked.” On the flip side, the New York Journal American called it “one of the most insidious pieces of Bolshevist propaganda ever to have come to the American screen.” Not surprisingly, Hellman’s views were also negative. “[It] could have been a good picture,” she said, “instead of the big-time, sentimental, badly directed, badly acted mess it turned out to be.”

As for Copland’s score, some critics complained that “the musical numbers were alternately silly and wooden” (Radosh) and sounded like rejects from a “second-rate operetta” (Bernard Dick). (And that doesn’t count the Gershwin lyrics that never made it into the film, with such questionable titles as “Nature Blooms and Lovers Sigh” and “Love Is a Potato.”) However, the overall critical response was positive, even if the success of the music’s “Russianness” was debatable.

Variety praised the score as “further indication of the advancing maturity of film music….The music based on Russian themes is so authentic as to be capable of deceiving even the experts into thinking them genuine.” Elliott Carter wrote: “At every point, the intelligence and the personal elevation of Copland’s music is recognizable.” The New York World-Telegram called it “some of the finest movie music of the season. Aaron Copland has caught a folk song (though not particularly Russian) quality in his music.”

PM magazine stated the score was “the latest sample of Mr. Copland’s creative contribution to Hollywood…. The songs are so well done that experts can be deceived into thinking them genuine Russian folk songs…. They are simple, singable, whistleable and, in a peculiar way, original…. But more remarkable and less prominent is the background music…. It differs from the standard background music product in its economy, sensitivity and good taste. Each passage not only manages to do its necessary job of making the action more poignant but also is a real musical composition with shape and sense.”

In the New York Herald Tribune, composer and critic Paul Bowles wrote a lengthy, balanced discussion of Copland’s score. “Aaron Copland has written a convincing score…convincing, that is, in that it sounds very much like the score for a Soviet film. This is not to say that the musical content is not superior to that of practically any Russian movie one can call to mind; however, it is dramatically no more effective than the better importations…. The regrets are for the fact that so distinguished a composer as Copland has been forced to compromise to such an extent with elements obviously distasteful to him…. [He] has in fact made all the concessions to Hollywood save that of writing bad music…one of [the score’s] chief virtues is that it manages to use the symphonic idiom really effectively, a thing which is not often accomplished in films.”

Mission Accomplished
When Hellman went to Russia in 1944, the Soviets thought The North Star “a great joke.” Though she found that “outside Moscow there were some simple peasant folk glad to find themselves so noble on the screen.” Soviet officialdom may have scoffed, but it nonetheless capitalized on the propaganda potential of the film, widely releasing it throughout the war-ravaged country. At one point it played to 50,000 people in a single theater in Siberia in 20 days.

Following the beginning of the Cold War and HUAC’s inquiry into Hellman’s Party practices, The North Star dimmed and fell out of favor, as did most of the pro-Soviet pictures made during the war. In 1957, Goldwyn sold the rights to National Telefilm Associates, which re-edited the film and re-released it as Armored Attack, complete with an incongruous voice-over condemning Soviet aggression and the addition of newsreel footage of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. In addition, the early scenes of happy peasants were axed and every use of the word “comrade” was carefully deleted. “The only thing we couldn’t take out—much to our regret—was Dana Andrews running around in his Soviet uniform,” commented an NTA exec at the time.

The North Star is seldom remembered today and as a result of having fallen into public domain, VHS and DVD copies show signs of deterioration, particularly in the sound quality. PM magazine claimed that Copland’s score “will be more talked of than his scores for Of Mice and Men and Our Town,” but it too has been forgotten over the years. Because he did not arrange an orchestral suite of the music, as he did for portions of the two earlier films, the music has been absent from the concert hall. “Song of the Guerrillas,” “Younger Generation” and “No Village Like Mine” were published as vocal works, but they have not become part of the standard repertoire. It wasn’t until 2001 that conductor Jonathan Sheffer unearthed the score in the Library of Congress and conducted a 17-minute suite with the Eos Orchestra on the compilation CD, Celluloid Copland. Though some important orchestral cues (as well as most of the songs) are missing, the suite is a succinct representation of this little-known work.

Copland’s music lingered in the mind of at least one composer, however. Laurence Rosenthal remembered The North Star when he composed his Emmy-winning scores for the miniseries Peter the Great (1986) and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1987). “Copland’s way of treating Russian music appealed to me so much,” Rosenthal said. “I never forgot it.”
—FSM

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