Vassilisa The Beautiful (Vassilisa prekrasnaya)
Russia (1939) Dir. Aleksandr Rou
An old man (Georgi Millyar) has three sons Anton (Nikita Kondratyev), Agafon (Lev Potyomkin) and Ivanushka (Sergei Stolyarov) and decides they are old enough to be married so he gives them each an arrow and tells them to fire it at the courtyards of the land’s single women to decide who their bride will be. Agafon and Anton land themselves a couple of lazy, unpleasant desperate singletons, Malanya (Irina Zarubina) and Belendryasa (Lidiya Sukharevskaya) while Ivanushka’s errant shot lands in a nearby lake where it hits a giant flower.
The flower magically surfaces and out jumps a frog which turns into a beautiful young woman Vassilisa (V. Sorogozhskaya). Unfortunately, Vassilisa was turned into a frog because she refused to marry the Gorynych the Serpent, who returns to kidnap Vassilisa. This forces Ivanushka to go on dangerous quest to find a magical sword to slay Gorynych and saving Vassilisa.
Aleksandr Rou’s loose adaptation of a Russian folk tale was the first big budget film in Russian cinema history, since it required the construction of a magical forest, an underground liar, a giant spider and a giant, three headed dragon as well as a multitude of special effects. Obviously by today’s standards the budget for the effects in this film probably wouldn’t even cover the cost of the printer ink for the multiple copies of the scripts but within the context of this quirky seventy plus year old film, there are quite ambitiously charming and fun.
The original folk tale is vastly different from Rou’s version with Vassilisa being more of a Cinderella type who was forced to undergo the challenges, although the fantasy elements and central theme of marriage remain. The first part of the film feels more like a screwball comedy with Anton and Agafon behaving more like the Laurel and Hardy of folk tales and the father is the grouchy old Jimmy Finlayson. Ivanushka is the typically bland good looking, reliable and talented hero while his brothers are lazy buffoons. Their future brides are frankly a couple of heifers while Vassilisa is the perfect wife material.
After she is kidnapped by Gorynych via a cloud of smoke Vassilisa is kept under the watch of the legendary folk villain Baba Yaga (played by a male – Georgi Millyar doing double duty – as is the tradition), who ensures Vassilisa stays put until Gorynych returns while fending off Ivanushka’s attempts at rescuing Vassilisa. To defeat the dragon, Ivanushka must find the fabled Slaying Sword which is hidden behind a magical wall which in turn is under lock and key. Where’s the key? Inside an egg which is inside a duck which is locked in a cage atop a mystical tree.
Ivanushka’s quest also sees him befriend a family of bruin bears after the younger ones beg for him to spare the life of the larger one (a man in a suit, the other two were real) who become very useful partners in furthering his chances of saving Vassilisa. To be fair, the bear suit isn’t as blatantly obvious or as tacky is could have been. Even the giant model spider with its flashing lights for eyes or the 36 by 16 foot three headed dragon which not only breathes fire but also sprays water too (work that one out!) actually look somewhat impressive for the time as wobbly headed but sedentary as they are, possessing a certain charm which is absent from CGI monsters.
At just 70 minutes Vassilisa The Beautiful doesn’t outstay its welcome – in fact it feels a little short considering the rescue mission facet of the tale, which should have been the main focus over the comedy of the first half of the film. However the good vs evil message rings loud and clear and the execution is ambitious and free from any pretensions or delusions of grandeur, and might be enough to enchant even the younger viewers of today. For film buffs though, this is a charming slice of often overlooked cinema history.
Part of the Russian In Classic Film Blogathon