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We study photographs from the funds of the “Multimedia Art Museum” and the Glavarkhiv, recall the songs of the French chansonnier and look at Moscow through his eyes.

In 1956, a star couple arrived in Moscow – actor and singer Yves Montand and actress Simone Signoret. They became the first world famous cultural figures from a capitalist country to visit the USSR since 1939. Later, in 1963, the couple visited Moscow again, along with many other foreigners who arrived at the Moscow International Film Festival. Read about both visits and their prerequisites in the article.

Distant friend

One of the most popular Soviet songs of the second half of the 1950s was the song “When a Distant Friend Sings” performed by Mark Bernes. Written at the request of the singer by the poet Yakov Helemsky and the composer Boris Mokrousov, it was often sounded in the apartments of Soviet people: it was broadcast on the radio, in addition, the composition was released as a separate disc.

Montana’s pensive voice

Sounds on a short wave

And branches of chestnuts, Parisian chestnuts

They looked at me through the window.

By the time when Montand appeared in Moscow in the flesh, and not only as a voice on the radio, he really was, if not a friend, then a good acquaintance. The singer gave many small and large performances, equally kind and attentive to factory workers, students, and visitors to large concert halls. All concerts and movements of the artist around the capital were captured on film. Later, Sergei Yutkevich and Mikhail Slutsky created a documentary-publicistic film “Yves Montand sings” from these frames.

The film begins with a concert at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. The program was clearly verified: songs about a poor worker who is happy already because he can wander the boulevards on his day off, about love for a simple girl, about funny arrogant jazz fans (the offscreen voice explained: “Hipsters, our way”). In his free time between performances, he and Madame Signoret visited the Bolshoi Theater, walked around the Kremlin, looked at the treasures of the Faceted Chamber and sincerely exclaimed “Formidable!”

Among the places visited by the spouses was the Moscow State University named after M.V. Lomonosov. Montand gave one of the concerts in the main building of Moscow State University. The first song was La Marie Vison. “About a frivolous girl named Marie, who exchanged real happiness for a mink coat,” explains the voice-over and asks viewers not to make such mistakes. The question of financial well-being really stood before the young audience of Montana. This is evidenced by the parody of the song of Helemsky and Mokrousov, which instantly appeared among Moscow students. They happily sang to a well-known tune:

Montana’s pensive voice

Sounds on a short wave

But I’m not happy, the scholarship is not enough,

And it becomes sad to me.

When sings

In Moscow, Montan, student’s pocket is emptied,

And the cost of food is reduced,

When sings

In Moscow, Montan.

The original of the song also sounds in the film – however, it was performed not by Mark Bernes, but by the male choir of students of one of the Moscow vocational schools. The guys sang a song in Russian and French. The meeting, to which young singers were invited by Yves Montana long before his arrival in the USSR, was held at the Central House of Culture of Labor Reserves on Derbenevskaya Street (today the All-Russian Center for Artistic Creativity and Humanitarian Technologies is located in the former building of the Central House of Culture). The guest did not remain in debt: although he did not plan to sing that evening, he nevertheless performed one of his signature songs Un gamin de Paris (“The Parisian boy”).

Singer of Paris

Yves Montana was known in the USSR even before the news that he would arrive spread throughout the country. In 1955, the thriller by Henri-Georges Clouzot “Pay for Fear” (1953), in which he played the main role – the desperate guy Mario, who lives in a provincial town in Guatemala, was released on Soviet screens. He’s taking out the nitroglycerin cans in a truck after the oil well disaster – a lot of money is at stake. Soviet viewers watched with excitement as the bumpy road leads the hero Montana to the inevitable tragic ending: he is not completely lost, he just got lost in the capitalist wilds.

Another film with Montana, an earlier one, “Idol” by Alexander Esve (1947), was released in the USSR in 1956, shortly before his arrival. The film did not leave a significant mark in the history of world cinema, but thanks to it, viewers were able to appreciate the actor’s comedic talent and his athletic form. In “Idol” he played a boxer, for this job he specially learned to box and even, as legend has it, got one real knockout.

It all started, however, not with a movie, but with songs. As a singer and a wonderful person, Montana was the first in the country to be discovered by Sergei Obraztsov, the head of the State Puppet Theater. In 1953, he visited Paris with a group of Soviet artists, where he met French colleagues and attended a performance by Yves Montand. Soon after returning to Moscow, Obraztsov’s author’s program “The Singer of Paris” went on the air, consisting of a story about the journey undertaken, smoothly turning into a story about Montana. The program included the artist’s songs, each of which Obraztsov accompanied with a translation and brief explanations, and a biography of the singer with an emphasis on his proletarian origin.

Yves Montand was the third child in a simple Italian family of Giuseppe and Josephine Livy (he later took the pseudonym Montand). His father was a staunch communist. In his youth, he helped his sister in the hairdresser, worked at the dock and sang all the time – at work, before a show in cinemas, in music halls. Once Montana noticed the diva of the French chanson Edith Piaf and helped him to advance on the stage. They performed together until 1946. Then he began to act in films little by little. In 1949, Montand met his main love, the actress Simone Signoret. They quickly married and hardly parted until her death in 1985. Signoret accompanied her husband on almost all trips.

Festival guests

In 1963, Montand and Signoret came to Moscow again. They became guests at the Moscow International Film Festival. This time, as Yves Montand joked in one of the TV programs, his wife came to work, and he only accompanies her and hopes to find time for a walk in summer Moscow. Simone Signoret presented to the public the film “Day and Hour” by René Clement, in which she performed the main role. The anti-fascist drama, set in occupied France, was not included in the main competition and was shown as part of a special program.

Another film, in which the couple starred together, was also shown out of competition. Beautiful May, a documentary by Chris Marker dedicated to the first month of peace after the end of the war of independence of Algeria (1955-1962). The director collected interviews with 55 Parisians in the film, who shared their thoughts on politics, living standards and happiness. Marker interviewed included Montand and Signoret.

This film became another thread that connected Montana with the Soviet Union. “Beautiful May” begins and ends with a song performed by him. The song Joli mai (“Lovely May”, or “Handsome May”) sounds in French, but it can be assumed that all the spectators who came to see the picture sank their hearts. Foreign words simply and easily fell on the familiar tune of “Lonely Accordion”, one of the most beloved songs of the post-war period. Soon after May 9, 1945, this melody was written by the composer Boris Mokrousov, the author of the same song “Distant Friend”, dedicated to Montana.

The French version of The Lonely Accordion, which, however, has almost nothing to do with its text, was written by the poet Francis Lemarque. He also made a literary translation of “Distant Friend” for Montana – he often performed the song Ami lointain in France.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a translation. Apologies should the grammar and or sentence structure not be perfect.

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