Polosatyy Reys (1961)

Or, in English, Striped Trip. Also known in English as A Lively Voyage.

I happened to watch this film in a roundabout way. I’d started off watching a completely different film (although—like A Lively Voyage—also Russian): Andrei Rublev, an ‘essential film’, a classic about the 15th century iconist. After half an hour of watching that, I decided it was too much. Perhaps I was just not in the right mood; perhaps the combination of disconnected episodes, a bad print, and the fact that I have been under a lot of stress lately—perhaps all of that contributed. I junked Andrei Rublev and looked around for other films among my bookmarks. I found this one, recommended by a blog reader, who had also very kindly sent me a link to a subtitled version.

A Lively Voyage begins tamely enough. Shuleykin (Evgeniy Leonov) finds himself in a tropical port at the other end of the world, and desperate to get back home to Odessa. He’s so desperate that he will take on any work on any ship heading for Russia—as long as he can come home. Fortunately, he has found an agent (Nikolay Volkov) who assures Shuleykin that he can get Shuleykin a job on a ship.

At the docks, walking towards the ship, the man tells Shuleykin what happened: this is a cargo vessel, and the cargo handler who was originally supposed to be in charge of the cargo has fallen sick. Malaria. Shuleykin will therefore be taking his place. Shuleykin asks what the cargo is, but doesn’t get an answer.

On board the ship, the captain (Aleksey Gribov) and the first mate (Ivan Dmitriev) too don’t get to know what the cargo is. They’re not especially concerned: after all, Shuleykin—whom they’re introduced to—is there to handle the cargo; their job is only to take the ship back home.

Nobody else on board is particularly concerned, either. The buffet-lady, Marianna (Margarita Nazarova, who was, in real life, an animal trainer and ballet dancer) is busy chatting with the sailors and having spats with the first mate. She and the first mate can’t seem to stand the sight of each other, but it’s obvious (to anyone who’s familiar with escapist cinema of this type) that that’s a façade: in reality, they are very attracted to each other.

All of that unconcern is going out of the window the very next minute… because everybody on the ship discovers what the cargo is.

Ten tigers and two lions. As a gift, says the cheery agent, he’s leaving something for the captain too. He puts down a sack on the deck, and while the captain and first mate are busy bidding farewell to the agent and hoping Shuleykin (who, they assume, is an animal trainer) will be able to control these big cats… the sack moves off.

Except for Shuleykin, everybody on deck believes he’s the trainer, and he decides, bravely, to live up to expectations. He gets his charges’ meals ready, adding the requisite supplements. He chucks the meat in, dodging paws as he does so…

And, at the captain’s request, he addresses the ship’s crew, giving them a quick lesson on tigers. There are three parts to a tiger, he explains: the front, the back, and the tail. The crew, who are none of them zoologically inclined, seem to take him seriously enough, down to asking questions and wanting to know more (which, Shuleykin being no animal trainer, has to dodge as best as he can).

Meanwhile, odd things have been happening on board ship. Someone (the cook and his staff deny all knowledge) has been putting nuts, bolts and other hardware into the borscht:

The first mate has found ink spilled all over the ship’s log, and now the mysterious culprit finally reveals itself, by turning a fire extinguisher on the party gathered to hear Shuleykin’s lecture on tigers. The chimp (not a macaque, as everybody on the ship refers to it) is the gift the agent had left.

Once the crew has got things in control (in the process, they manage to capture the captain in a sack), the captain blows his top. Get rid of the monkey. Throw it overboard, do something. They have enough to worry about, as it is, with all those tigers and lions.

Unfortunately for the captain (and, as it emerges later, for everybody on board ship), the first mate develops a soft spot for the chimp. Going into his cabin, he finds the creature making itself at home on his desk, and he decides he’s not going to pitch this ape into the sea. So, while he does go and assure the captain that the chimp has been thrown overboard, in reality, what’s happened is that the first mate has acquired a room-mate.

Since he has to keep the chimp’s presence under wraps, the first mate decides that the best thing to do is to teach the creature to keep the cabin door locked. And to open it only when it hears the first mate’s triple knock. A few tries, and the chimp’s perfected the technique of opening the fairly simple lock on the door.

All seems to be well. Except for Marianna, who’s been going nuts trying to attract rather more loving attention from her blue-eyed boy, the first mate. She’s been fretting so much over him that the captain (who is Marianna’s uncle) has had to give her a pep talk to clean up her act. Eventually, when Marianna goes on causing problems, she is confined to solitary imprisonment, being locked up in her room and allowed out only when she needs to report to the cookhouse to work.

And then, one day, what do they discover on the decks but some very ominous footprints:

Everybody’s terror-stricken. Shuleykin, as animal trainer, is collared and asked how come his charges (or one, which is in itself bad enough) have gotten free and have been roaming the decks. Shuleykin [in an oddly lazy bit of scripting that I couldn’t make sense of] admits that he’s been letting them out at night, so that they can get some exercise. Tigers and lions need exercise to stay fit, you know. Anyway, since Shuleykin suffers from insomnia, it’s not a problem for him.

The captain blows his top.This is ludicrous! Give Shuleykin a big supply of sleeping pills and make sure he gets lots of sleep every night! And, to Shuleykin: sleep, damn you, sleep. Don’t let your tigers and lions walk about the deck.

Everybody heaves a sigh of relief…

But they haven’t reckoned with a chimp that’s learnt the art of opening simple locks on doors. Locks that, disastrously, are exactly the same as the locks on the cages of those tigers and lions.

What I liked about this film:

This is one joy ride. It’s ridiculous, it’s often pure and simple slapstick, silly at times: but that’s the joy of it. A Lively Voyage doesn’t take itself seriously, and that’s what is so much fun about it. Just the sort of film you need when you’re stressed and worn out and can’t focus. And some sequences—the sailors scattering across the ship, the beach crowd at Odessa, the lion being transported, and so on—are hilarious.

I must admit to a deep admiration for the actors who worked in this, often in very close contact with the tigers and lions. It’s all very well for Margarita Nazarova, who was an animal trainer anyway, but there are instances where other actors come very close to the big cats, too, and I couldn’t help but think: I’d never have been able to do that.

What I didn’t like:

Not much, though some of the bits (I thought) were unnecessary. Marianna’s fear of mice in the pantry (and elsewhere, as it turned out), I thought, did little for the main story of the film. There were a couple of other such sequences that tended to be slapstick and didn’t contribute much, otherwise.

But, on the whole, a film worth watching if you want something light and funny. Not intelligently funny and satirical, like The Firemen’s Ball, but still.

Little bit of trivia:

Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, was the one who initiated the making of A Lively Voyage, after he met Margarita Nazarova.

An English subtitled version of this film (and the subtitles are good!) is to be found here.

4 thoughts on “Polosatyy Reys (1961)

  1. There seemed to be a lot of “kha’s” in Russian. Every word sounded the same, but still sweet. And a funny movie altogether. Thanks for the recommend.

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