Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image

Article excerpt

Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image Harlow Robinson. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007.

Lost in the morass of largely negative Cold War-era myths about Russia and Russians that continue to circulate in the American cultural imaginary are the Russian émigré actors, directors, and composers who have made their way to Hollywood over the course of the last century, thus contributing in significant ways to the development of American film. Russian cultural historian Harlow Robinson aims to chronicle these myriad contributions, ranging from early film scores by Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky to later film appearances by dancers (and Soviet defectors) Nureyev and Baryshnikov. And, by choosing films that he contends are "representative of major trends or eras" (10), Robinson also attempts an account of roughly a century's worth of filmic depictions of Russia and Russians. Together, these concomitant projects constitute what he terms "a cultural and group biography" (9) of Russia and Russians in Hollywood.

The book has an introduction and eight chapters, each of which corresponds chronologically to a decade between 1920 and 1990. The first chapter describes the arrival and early contributions to the nascent US film industry of Russian émigrés immediately after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Chapter three explores through filmic depictions the temporary US-Soviet alliance during World War Two, while chapters four and five make note of the precipitous decline in the production of films featuring Russian/Soviet characters and plots between the mid-1940s and 1960. As Robinson rightly points out, these fifteen years at mid-century marked the height of the Cold War, and the sparse but negative filmic depictions of the Soviet Union during that time were integral to the development of that country as the United States' "primary military, economic, and ideological adversary" (149). Subsequent chapters discuss James Bond, Dr. Zhivago, and the ways in which Hollywood depicted Russia and Russians during the 1980s and 1990s, decades marked by rapid changes to, and then the complete dissolution of, the Soviet Union's political and economic systems.

Although a genuinely fascinating dual history of Russians working in the US film industry and that industry's visual and narrative portrayal of Russians, Robinson's book is disappointing in that it employs almost no critical analyses to make sense of either. …