Soviet Three Stooges

I made a references in passing to the Soviet counterpart to The Three Stooges, and a reader wondered jokingly if I meant a politician.

While that is funny, I was actually talking about three comedians who did a number of films in the Soviet Union together, including one released in America as ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’ or ‘Kidnapping, Caucasian Style’.

The three in this case are the “Coward” (Georgy Vitsin), the “Fool” (Yuri Nikulin), and the “Pro” (Yevgeny Morgunov). Aside from being three in number, and engaging in slapstick, I myself do not see any particular parallel to the Moe Howard & company. I have read, for example that Morgunov, big and bald, “represented a traditional character of Soviet satire – Byvaly, or Experienced, a slightly dull, strong-built drunk whose attempts to commit petty crimes always failed.” (That does not describe Shep or Joe or any Stooge of the Howard type.)

The premise of ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’ (no relation to the poem by Pushkin) is that Shurik, a lovable boob and ethnologist, is sent into the Caucasus to learn their old folk customs, legends, including their old toasts — but no one will tell him the toasts without actually drinking it. Meanwhile the head of the local agricultural collective and the richest man in town  wants to kidnap a girl (Nina, described as a beauty, a member of the Komsomol, and an athlete)  to be his bride the old-fashioned (for hill-men) way, and tricks Shurik into helping him, telling him it is an old custom, and that her resistance is pretense.

Naturally, like anyone in a comedy, the villain hires three clownish rogues to do the business rather than competent crooks. The girl, being a new soviet style youngster, manages to escape mostly on her own, albeit Shurik does show up for the car chase at the end, and a kiss.

Nina was played by Natalya Varley, who was a tightrope walker, and so could do the stunts, but her voice was dubbed in by another actress.

One funny bit of business is Yevgeny Morgunov teaching people how to do the American dance ‘the twist’ by showing them how to stamp out a cigarette.

Here is one of the two catchy songs in the film. My tastes run toward 1950’s girls, so, to me, Natalya Varley looks particularly fetching doing the twist on a rock. She is singing about polar bears who, by rubbing up against the axis of the earth, slow down its turning long enough for young lovers to meet.

And here is the other. In this scene, the three clowns singing and dancing in order to get the prospective bride, locked inthe villain’s manse, to eat.

(The movie scene is in color, but in the movie, they talk over one of the lyrics and cut another, so I am pointing to this one.) I don’t speak Russian, but the lyrics strike me as being witty, even in translation, with just a touch of that Russian melancholy:

If I were a sultan

If I were a sultan, I would have three wives
And I would be surrounded by the triple beauty.
But on the other hand, when things go awry
So much troubles and woe, oh, save me, Allah!
It’s not so bad to have three wives,

But it’s much worse on the other hand!

Sophia irons my robe on the ironing board,
Gladys sews and Fatima darns the socks
Three wives are wonderful, whatever you can say,
But on the other hand – I’ve got three mothers-in-law!
That’s not so bad to have three wives,
But it’s much worse on the other hand!
Every wife can let me drink one hundred grams
That makes together three hundreds – that’s a good thing!
But if I come home potted
I will have a quarrel with every wife!
That’s not so bad to have three wives,
But it’s much worse on the other hand!
How should we, the sultans, live, we need it clear:
– How many wives is the right number – three or one?
This is a simple answer to this question:

If I were a sultan – I would be single!

That’s very good to be unmarried,
Much better all around!

In case you are wondering, the lyric about drinking three hundred grams is the one missing from the film.

I read in Wikipedia:

During production, the screenplay was also altered by Soviet censors. For instance, a phrase yelled by the Coward was originally written as: “Long live the Soviet justice system, the most humanitarian justice system in the world!” was changed to “Long live our justice system, the most humanitarian justice system in the world!” as the original was viewed as too obviously mocking the Soviet justice system. Besides, a scene was removed in which the Coward scratches a Russian letter “X” into a fence, the Pro scratches a “У” (the first two letters of a Russian three-letter swear word, once a popular proto-graffiti) and, after a militia officer appears at the scene, the Fool quickly adds “[ху…]дожественный фильм”, which makes for “a feature film”.

So the joke police had jobs in Russia, before they came to Canada to harass Mark Steyn.

The same three showed up in other films, such as ‘Moonshiners’, but I have not seen those.

How popular the clowns and songs were I am not in a position to guess, but I notice that one can find any number of covers for the songs and nostalgic variations on the films on YouTube. Here is someone who redid the opening lyric to the Polar Bear song just with clips from other films, for instance:

And here is a jazzed up version. You can catch of glimpse of ‘the Pro’ teaching the twist:


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