#552) A Study in Reds (1932)
OR “The Marx Sisters”
Directed by Miriam Bennett
Class of 2009
The Plot: While attending a lecture about “reddest Russia”, several ladies fall asleep and dream what their lives would be like under Communist rule. In this extended nightmare, life is under the constant watch of Russia’s secret police, mothers are sent to jail for being “too affectionate” to their children, and any attempt to take more than your share is punishable by death. It’s a brief political satire courtesy of an amateur filmmaker in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief overview of the film, while an essay by amateur film expert Patricia R. Zimmermann makes a somewhat far-reaching case for NFR inclusion.
But Does It Really?: I’ll be honest, I couldn’t get into this one. Part of that is having just covered an amateur film with a more resonant subject matter for me, and part of that is the lack of a solid argument for NFR inclusion, apart from “it’s an amateur film!” That being said, I always appreciate the NFR for including these bits of amateur filmmaking, and I applaud this movie’s director for filming something other than a showcase of her home and family. A teeny-tiny slimmest of slim passes for “A Study in Reds”, for those of you who care about rankings.
Everybody Gets One: Like many an amateur filmmaker, most of my information regarding Miriam Bennett comes from an essay on the Center for Home Movies website. Born in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin (now known as Wisconsin Dells), Miriam Bennett was the daughter of photographer H.H. Bennett, and it is speculated that Bennett’s polished filmmaking style stems from her observing her father. Miriam was also a member of the Tuesday Club, a ladies club that covered current affairs over tea (recreated for “Reds”). In addition, Bennett was a member of the Amateur Cinema League, which held an annual amateur film competition, which possibly prompted Bennett to make this film.
Wow, That’s Dated: With the Great Depression in full swing in the early 1930s, more Americans became disillusioned with capitalism (can’t imagine why) and started supporting the American Communist Party, with membership increasing significantly throughout the decade. While not necessarily a “red scare” of the same level as the one in the late ’40s/early ’50s, Communism was still strongly identified with Russia, as this film exemplifies.
- It’s plain to see that despite her amateur status, Miriam Bennett possessed some natural skills as a filmmaker. For starters. she was already experimenting with time lapse photography and animation. In “Reds”, footage of real clock hands rapidly moving around the face help convey the passage of time. Simple, sure, but by 1932 amateur standards she might as well be Stanley Kubrick.
- With the exception of a few boys, this movie sports an all-female cast. Even the authority figures in this imagined Russia are women. They may be Communists, but at least they’re equal opportunity Communists.
- One reference I had to look up: a shoutout to the GPU, Russia’s secret police, which had dissolved a full decade before “A Study in Reds” was made. Among their successors was the KGB and other ominous letters.
- What does it say about Wisconsin when their snowy woods effectively double as the barren nature of Russia?
- Are the pigs on the farm supposed to be a metaphor?
- I’m also enjoying that one of the older performers (playing a Soviet official) is quietly corpsing during one of her big scenes. I guess there was no time for retakes.
- Oh god, an egg pun. The farmer who is caught stealing an egg is sentenced to “eggsecution”, the kind of wordplay that “Batman” would perfect 35 years later.
- The version I watched (found on the Library of Congress’ YouTube page, embedded above) includes a series of outtakes. Not a gag reel, just a collection of shots that Bennett apparently trimmed from the final version.
- “A Study in Reds” was completed in 1932, but did not crack the ACL’s annual top ten list of amateur films. Miriam Bennett would continue to screen “Reds” for ACL club members over the years before her death in 1971. It is unknown if Miriam Bennett made any other films.
- While the Amateur Cinema League disbanded in 1954, the Tuesday Club is still going strong in Wisconsin Dells.
- And Communism was never a problem in America ever again. Moving on…