The earliest full-scale Georgian cinematic musical Keto and Kote (1948), based on the comic opera by Viktor Dolidze, was screened at the Georgian Embassy in April 2011, with the first showing of a newly restored print. Directed by Vakhtang Tabliashvili and Shalva Gedevanishvili, starring leading actors of different generations, such as Medea Japaridze, Veriko Andjaparidze, Vaso Godziashvili and Akaki Kvantaliani, the film features splendid music, choreography and humour.
In a wonderfully entertaining and fascinating introduction Gela Charkviani, the distinguished diplomat, TV personality and former Ambassador to the UK and Ireland, described how the Chattanooga Choo Choo did more for American diplomacy than the CIA ever could.
Keto da Kote
(Introduction by Gela Charkviani)
Hardly are there many people still around who clearly remember the time when Keto da Kote, the first Georgian cinematic musical hit the screens. Luckily, I happen to be one of those few. It should be added, however, that my links to the film do not end there. Owing to some special circumstances of my childhood I was privy to some of the intrigues and undercurrents that accompanied, or more precisely, plagued the process of its creation. I will talk about them later. As for now, let me simply state that in terms of music, casting, acting and scenery Keto da Kote is a masterpiece. It recreates and celebrates the life of the nineteenth century Tbilisi, which happily blended Georgian, European and Middle Eastern elements. These three are clearly heard and seen in the music, in the architecture, in the manners of the characters, and the clothes they wear.
The film is based on the eponymous comic opera by Victor Dolidze. Born into a peasant family in Western Georgia in 1890, Dolidze first became known to the musical community of Tbilisi, when as a young man he won the first prize at a Mandolin contest. His special attachment to plucked string instruments never faded and he is even rumoured to have written all his orchestral scores playing the guitar and mandolin, never resorting to the help of the piano keyboard. Victor Dolidze died at the age of forty three, which was not unusual in those times, with tuberculosis acting as the Grim Reaper. Although he did write several other pieces, Dolidze will be remembered for his classic comic opera Keto da Kote, first staged in Tbilisi in 1919. It became an instant success and has ever since been part of the repertoire of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Dolidze, who wrote the libretto himself, had borrowed the plot from Khanouma, a popular comedy by the nineteenth century Georgian playwright Avksenty Tsagareli.
Set in Tbilisi, the play reflects the realities of the period. It is the time when the debt-ridden, impoverished aristocrats, despite their seeming panache and occasional show of confidence, are desperately looking for rich brides, who, quite naturally, are to be found among the emerging bourgeoisie, who, in their turn, are looking for status and acceptance. Most marriages are arranged. The romantic ones are rare and not particularly encouraged by the predominantly pragmatic parents. Given the peculiarities of the matrimonial scene, it is little surprise that marriage brokers are an important class of people. Also they are numerous and they fiercely compete with one another.
Having undergone several minor transformations, as it travelled from the theatre to the opera and further to the cinema, the plot of the play finally took the following shape: The elderly prince Levan has at long last decided to marry and an experienced matchmaker Barbale (Kabato in the film version) is arranging for him to wed the daughter of a wealthy merchant Makar. Keto, that’s the would-be bride’s name, has a very different agenda. She is in love with a charming young man Kote (short for Constantine), whom she had met as a student in St. Petersburg and is now determined to marry. Coincidentally, Kote happens to be Prince Levan’s nephew, as noble, yet a lot poorer than even his bankrupt uncle. At this juncture a rival matchmaker Khanouma, who bears a grudge against both – Makar and Barbale, enters the scene. She promises Keto and Kote to thwart Levan’s marriage. When the Prince and his entourage come to the merchant’s sumptuous, if somewhat garishly furnished house to inspect the bride, Levan finds Keto as cheap and disgusting as a nouveau riche bride can be. While his aristocratic entourage are amused and sort of heartened by the sense of their class superiority, the Prince feels duped and insulted. He is furious. His hand is nervously groping for the hilt of his dagger. … All ends well. Real love triumphs.
I regret to say that the real life plotting surrounding the filming of the cinematic version of Keto da Kote was by far more sinister. Little wonder, for the years 1947-48 in the USSR were incomparably more menacing than the end of the 19-th century in the Imperial Russia. The bloodiest war in history had just ended and only a decade had passed since the so called Stalinist purges had claimed the lives of millions of Soviet citizens. The atmosphere was utterly tense. Any deviation from ideological purity – a concept which had never been clearly defined, could entail severe punishment. The eerie unpredictability of politics was compounded by the ubiquitous human frailties – envy and jealousy.
It was then that Vakhtang Tabliashvili – a promising young director, mostly known for his theatrical productions, was offered to do a cinematic version of the opera. Naturally, there were others who must have eyed this well-tried material which, if properly handled, was practically failsafe – Tsagareli’s play Khanouma, even though its author was ridiculed by his contemporaries, had already stood the test of time. As a matter of fact, later, after Giorgi Tovstonogov, an outstanding Russian stage director put on the production of Khanouma in Leningrad to the music by Gia Kanccheli, a sort of Khanouma pandemic began and the play was staged in over ninety theatres. But now, that Tabliashvili was already assigned the contract the only way to reverse the process was to find faults with the script he had presented to the so called Art Council of the Georgian Film Studio and to warn the authorities of an inevitable embarrassment, if the director was allowed to proceed with his work the way he had conceived it. The allegations most often heard were the following: “Instead of caricaturing aristocracy, the class enemy is treated with sympathy bordering on affection. Neither the poverty of the masses, nor any other hardships endemic to the old times are featured in the script. Showing a beautiful church wedding could set an example and, therefore, be ideologically damaging. There is a number of obvious casting mistakes. As for the scene, wherein a group of Kharachokheli – the Tbilisi craftsmen, known for their traditions of sweet singing, reciting poetry and feasting, are serenading Keto at Kote’s request, is cheap and tasteless.” The rumours finally reached the very top of the party hierarchy and the work was halted.
Here, it is important to note that Soviet leaders took cinema very seriously. Lenin had called it “the most powerful vehicle of propaganda.” Stalin loved movies and watched a wide variety of them practically every night. But when it came to passing judgement on the Soviet-made films intended for the masses, the criteria he applied were strictly ideological. He was the ultimate arbiter and no film could ever be either conceived or released without his approval. He personally signed executive orders regarding the films to be made each year by the studios across the country. The lists were pretty short. On the average the Soviet studios produced around nine or ten films a year. Incidentally, Keto da Kote is number eight on the list of nine for the year 1947 signed by Stalin. This system of guardianship, whereby one man, or an exclusive group of party ideologues, decides what is good and what is bad for the rest of the citizens, did not change much after Stalin’s death and continued until the collapse of the Communist regime in the USSR, even if the criteria had been considerably relaxed.
Soon Vakhtang Tabliashvili realized that by demanding that he should re-write the script the officials, as well as some of his colleagues, are actually intending to ruin the film. He felt desperate but decided to fight back. In his book of memoirs published in 1996 the director describes in detail the train journey he had made to the Black Sea resort of Gagra where he hoped to meet with the then First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia Candide Charkviani, who stayed there because Stalin, as usual, spent his holidays at the coast. To Tabliashvili’s surprise it took him only one day to arrange the meeting with Georgia’s top party boss. After reading the script Charkviani told him that he liked the overall concept of the future film and that he didn’t see any reason why Tabliashvili should not continue working according to his original plan. This also meant that now no one would dare harass him any more.
“That’s how the happy days of my life began.” – writes Tabliashvili and continues, “No one and nothing stood in my way. The scenery was built to the highest standards. We could borrow beautiful objects from state-owned palaces and museums, as well as from private homes. We used the elegant interiors of the Central Public Library to shoot several episodes… I was totally engaged in sculpting the beauty of life.”
And indeed, he put into the film whatever or whoever he regarded as beautiful in
Tbilisi. Not only the cameo parts, but even the crowd scenes in the film feature celebrities. Tabliashvili was not alone in his efforts. He was helped by an experienced filmmaker Shalva Gedevanishvili, who as a young man had worked in Paris with Rene Clair, a renowned avant-garde cinematographer. It is my belief, however, that of particular importance was his collaboration with the composer Archil Kereselidze, widely regarded as one of the best melodists of his time. Kereselidze added some enchanting new pieces to the score by Victor Dolidze. As they alternate, the original and the added passages segue into one another unnoticeably, as if they had been written by one man at a stroke. The Dorian mode of the true Georgian tunes, the Middle-Eastern harmonic minor and a variety of European scales happily mix to create, what I would describe as a sonic tapestry of the Old Tbilisi.
Keto da Kote caused a sensation in Georgia as it was released in 1948. But the story of the film does not end there. It took another six long years and the death of a tyrant for this innocuous musical comedy to be allowed to cross Georgia’s borders.
The DVD I am holding in my hand is of a semi-documentary inspired by the peripeteias accompanying the filming of Keto da Kote. It was made quite recently by a well-known Georgian director Merab Kokochashvili. The story, written by the highly regarded contemporary writer Aka Morchiladze, is narrated by Ramaz Chkhikvadze, the actor who had caused a sensation in London as Richard the Third back in 1980. The film is very well done and I enjoyed watching it a lot. It paints a true picture of Tbilisi, its enduring distinct character, its easygoing, laid back ambience. The contents of the narrative regarding Keto da Kote do not differ much from what I have told you. But I was somewhat puzzled to hear the ending of the story. ”Stalin may not have been shown the film at all.”- surmises the narrator and says something to the effect that it may have been done for fear that if Stalin saw it and disliked it, all the copies of the film would have to be destroyed. So, some wise good people may have sacrificed the idea of exposing it to the wider audiences throughout the USSR and the rest of the world for the sake of rescuing Keto da Kote from possible annihilation.
This is simply untrue. Stalin saw the film and I know it for certain, from the primary source, or from the horse’s mouth, if you will. Candide Charkviani told me how hilarious Stalin was, how he laughed and cheered, as he watched Keto da Kote at his dacha in Kuntsevo. The private screening was attended by a few others. From time to time some of those present would whisper something into Stalin’s ear. “I knew it didn’t bode well.” – said Charkviani, who happened to be my father, and continued, – “when the film ended, Stalin called me and said curtly – Show it in Georgia, but not in the rest of the Soviet Union.” He didn’t explain why. He never did.
Art may be useless as Oscar Wilde has put it, but it is powerful and it does have a potential to cause change.
I have long maintained that Chattanooga Choo Choo did more to erode the Soviet Communism, than did the CIA.
Keto da Kote can hardly topple a government, but it is definitely worth seeing.