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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Cold War Comedy Classic Revisited

Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top, an underappreciated account of Nikita Khrushchev’s cross-country U.S. tour in 1959, merits status as a fellow traveler with the likes of Dr. Strangelove, Cat’s Cradle, and Catch-22.

It’s a mad-cap, meticulously researched road movie of a book that chronicles the Soviet premier’s 12-day hegira through America, including whistle stops in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, and (again) Washington/Camp David.

The uncontested star of the show/media circus was, of course, Khrushchev himself. “The hated enemy,” mused Carlson, “was a man, not a monster—a man who could be funny, charming, nasty, and frightening—sometimes simultaneously.”

He could also, noted Carlson, be crude. After witnessing Shirley Maclaine and company on the set of the movie Can-Can, the Russian played critic the next day by bending down, flipping his suit jacket up and shaking his derriere.

With Shirley and Frank

And Khrushchev could go nuclear, morphing on a dime from humor and affability to Red-hot anger. Hecklers at the Waldorf Astoria, slights from the mayor of Los Angeles, a query about his role during Stalin’s purges, and the U.S. government’s proscription against his family visiting Disneyland—all launched him into tirades.


So to the comedy, already--
      Khrushchev, chats with J. Edgar Hoover at a gathering:
K: “I feel like I know you.
JEH: “I feel like I know you too.”

·         Khrushchev breaks the ice with CIA director Allen Dulles:
AD: You, Mr. Chairman, may have seen some of my intelligence reports from time to time.                                                                                               K:“I believe we get the same reports. And probably from the same people                                                           AD: “Maybe we should pool our efforts.”
·         Khrushchev, after crawling out of an elevator stuck between floors in the posh Waldorf Astoria:
“It was a capitalistic malfunction.”

·         Khrushchev on peaceful coexistence between the superpowers:
“I think the most apt saying is the Russian proverb ‘Each duck praises its own swamp.’ Thus, you praise your capitalistic swamp. . .”
At the Garst Farm

If slapstick is your pleasure, there is a riotous interlude during K’s visit to a San Francisco supermarket, where canned goods topple and roll, bags of potato chips crunch, and a photographer wades through Spam and cheese. And down on the Garst farm outside Des Moines, the owner—accompanied by K’s laughter— kicks NY Times reporter Harrison Salisbury in the shin and tosses handfuls of wet silage at approaching photographers.

By and large, the fun continues until the book’s coda, when, back in the USSR, K turns sour after his “betrayal” via the Gary Powers U-2 affair. Four months later, the Soviet premier returned to the U.S. for nonstop invective at the U.N., including his shoe-pounding performance.

A born populist

The Cold War Giveth

The Cold War was a wondrous engine for comedy—a spectacular vehicle for tension’s comic release. That was no garden-variety tension, of course, with the era's unholy marriage of mutual assured destruction and superpowers at contradictory cross-purposes.

Even the Beatles got into the act. Wordplay was never their strong suit, but it ruled in Back in the USSR, which confessed:

Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the West behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia's always on my mind

When the song opened the Beatles' White Album in 1968, "celebrating the joy of returning to the Soviet Union was pretty risky," notes Philippe Margotin in his valuable All the Songs. Some, in fact, branded the Beatles as anti-American. As usual, John Lennon's retort said it all:

"That is very accurate," he said. "Except we are not Americans.  .  ."