The Only One Left: A Conversation with James Lloydovich Patterson About Grigori Aleksandrov’s “Circus”




JAMES LLOYDOVICH PATTERSON is a Black Soviet icon, best known for his role in Circus [Tsirk] (1936), a beloved musical comedy directed by Grigori Aleksandrov. He was born in Moscow in 1933 to Lloyd Patterson, an African American immigrant to the Soviet Union, and Vera Aralova, a Soviet theater artist and fashion designer. 

Lloyd Patterson arrived in the Soviet Union in 1932 as part of a group of 21 Black artists, actors, and intellectuals, including Langston Hughes, who were to participate in the production of Black and White, a film commissioned by the Communist International. The film was supposed to depict a conflict at a steel mill in Birmingham, Alabama, but production plans were hindered by the Soviet government’s efforts to stabilize relations with the United States. After the project’s cancellation, Patterson decided to settle permanently in the USSR, pursuing a successful career as a designer, lecturer, and radio announcer. In 1936, three-year-old James starred in Circus as the interracial child of American performer Marion Dixon (played by Lyubov Orlova, the director’s wife and Stalin’s favorite actress). The same year, Lloyd, his father, appeared in another film — the Soviet screen adaptation of Tom Sawyer (1936) — in which he played George, the runaway slave. Lloyd Patterson suffered a concussion during the German bombing of Moscow and died from subsequent medical complications in 1942. 

James Patterson graduated from Riga Nakhimov Naval Academy in 1951 and served in the Black Sea Fleet throughout the 1950s. In the next decade, he attended the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute and became a member the Soviet Writers’ Union. He often performed his poetry at Lyubov Orlova’s concerts, accompanying her on tours throughout the USSR. His prose works include Chronicles of the Left Hand (1964) and Larch Breath (1985), and his poetry collections include Russia. Africa (1963), Birth of Rain (1973), Interaction (1978), Winter Swallow (1980), The Red Lily (1984), The Bay of Good Beginnings (1984), and Nocturnal Dragonflies (1993).

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, James Patterson and his mother immigrated to the United States, settling in Washington, DC, in 1995. Aralova died in 2001 at the age of 90, and Patterson now lives alone in a subsidized apartment in DC. Despite his deteriorating health, he continues to write. Patterson gave the following phone interview on February 14, 2020, touching on the history of Soviet cinema, his memories of Grigori Aleksandrov and Lyubov Orlova, Aleksandrov’s plans to make a sequel to Circus, as well as Patterson’s own past adventures and creative projects. The interview was translated from Russian and edited for clarity.

James Lloydovich Patterson with his father Lloyd Patterson (1930s)

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SASHA RAZOR: Later this month, we will be screening Circus in West Hollywood. What would you like your viewers to know about you?

JAMES LLOYDOVICH PATTERSON: I was close with Grigori Aleksandrov, the director of the film, and Lyubov Orlova, his wife. Aleksandrov was a student and а collaborator of the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. In 1930, they traveled to Hollywood, together with the cameraman Eduard Tisse. Aleksandrov was lucky, and I am saying this because I, in turn, was fortunate that he became the director of Circus. This couple, Aleksandrov and Orlova, enjoyed a close friendship with Charlie Chaplin. I remember a story that Aleksandrov shared with me about their first meeting with Chaplin. When they arrived at Chaplin’s villa, there was a large crowd waiting for them, with the silver-haired Chaplin in the middle. Chaplin went out to greet the couple and asked, so that everyone could hear: “What brings you here?” Aleksandrov began to answer, saying that they had come to witness and experience cinematic invention and so on — but Chaplin interrupted him: “You’re in the wrong place. Go back to the country that produced Battleship Potemkin.” Did you know that Chaplin was planning to come to the Soviet Union in his later years? Everything had been arranged for his visit, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. 

After your appearance in Circus, you became a symbol of Soviet internationalism and its struggle against racism. Have you ever experienced racism in your life? 

I have never encountered racism. Although, in general, racism does exist, and one could even feel it in the film, I haven’t experienced it — neither in Russia nor in America, when I first came here in 1994. Then, at the end of the last century, everything changed. I don’t know how we came to this.

You’ve also been to Africa. Can you tell us a little about your trip?

It turns out that I wasn’t so stupid. I didn’t earn much money, but I spent all my earnings on travel and visited many countries in Europe and Africa. Looking back, I can’t understand what made me do this, but I am glad that I did. I’ve seen and experienced so much that now inspires me in my writing. I was on the island of Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia, Congo … You see, I’ve been to so many countries that I can’t even list them all.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working mostly on my memoirs of travel. These books have developed throughout my life, and I finally got around to writing them. For example, there is a story about how my mother and I met up in Italy. I was there with a group of writers, and she came from another place. We even saw the Pope together. These Italian impressions comprise the collection titled The Bridge of Sighs, named after the famous Venetian bridge. Now I am summing up my experiences.

You were also in the Soviet Navy. Do you have any memoirs about the sea?

Yes, I have a naval book, which I titled The C-Section. Why? I once witnessed the rescue operation of a sunken ship. The ship sank and rolled over, so they had to cut the armor at its the bottom to get the people out. It was challenging to cut through the bottom with a laser, but there was no other way to rescue them. It was a complicated operation. I saw how they brought one person out — a young naval officer. His hair turned gray, but only on one half of his head. I have never seen such a thing: one side is black, the other silver. You can imagine the stress that he went through, but he survived.

Do you remember anything about the great Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was also in the film, holding you in the final scene and singing a Yiddish lullaby? 

I remember Solomon Mikhoels. He appeared at the Mosfilm studio, and took me for a walk in Mosfilm Park. I do not remember the conversation, of course — I was only three years old. But I recall that he was kind and attentive. He was trying to interest me somehow, to bring us closer together. I was three years old, and I remember that. Both of us had small roles to play, and I was a small child. I grew up during the production. I don’t remember whether I spoke or not, but I was already starting to walk. So we met at that moment. I remember that he talked to me as if I were an adult. Mikhoels was an astonishing actor. A real actor. He made sure that I got used to him. I was just a toddler, and he spoke to me as if I were a man. This I will remember forever.

Still from “Circus” (1936). Solomon Mikhoels sings lullaby in Yiddish while holding little Jimmy.

What do you think of Circus now and about your participation in it?

Circus is a masterfully made film. It features a star-studded cast, including the finest actors of the Soviet cinema, the crème de la crème: Sergei Stolyarov, Vladimir Volodin, Pavel Massalky, Fedor Kurikhin, and Evgenia Melnikova. This film united us all. This I can tell you as a witness. I saw all these actors later, throughout my lifetime, and they always took an interest in me, talked to me. I think that I reminded them of the beginning of their careers, of their youth. They are all gone now, and I am the only one left.

How did you like being a child actor?

According to the original screenplay, Lyubov Orlova comes from America and remains forever in the Soviet Union. Well, what kind of role was there for me? A swaddled bundle — that’s all. But then Grigori Aleksandrov rewrote the script. There is a story about the screenplay. The original screenwriters — the famous Soviet comic novelists Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, who wrote together, as well as Petrov’s brother, Valentin Kataev — were offended by Aleksandrov’s intervention. They removed their names from the credits. Then Aleksandrov asked another brilliant writer, Isaac Babel, to rewrite the dialogue, and the film turned out fantastic. All the writers later regretted that they had removed their names. Aleksandrov actually improved the script. He was young and brilliant and had just returned from America, where he’d been working with Eisenstein. So this is the story, and this is how I became an actor. I didn’t have any dialogue in the film, but I acquired a proper role. And people appreciated this — I can feel it myself, how my character has become very special to viewers, all thanks to Grigori Aleksandrov.

What about your relationship with Lyubov Orlova? She didn’t have any children of her own, and you became her film-son, in a way.

Lyubov Orlova was an actress of incredible talent — an utterly magical woman. Do you know that Leo Tolstoy met her when she was three and sensed her ability? He saw her perform at a children’s show in somebody’s house and gave her a present, a signed illustration from his book The Prisoner of the Caucasus. She always had this print on her wall. Can you imagine? Stalin adored her as well. She was his favorite actress. He knew that she didn’t have any children, so he wanted me to be her child. If Stalin hadn’t died back in 1953, I would probably have become a high-ranking Naval officer. But Stalin died, and I became a poet, unfortunately. [Laughs.]

Still from “Circus” (1936). Marion Dixon (Lyubov Orlova) and Jimmy.

Do you know anything about Grigori Aleksandrov’s plans to make a sequel?

Grigori Aleksandrov and Valentin Kataev, one of the original screenwriters, worked on a sequel. They approached me about it, and we met at the House of Writers. My role was no longer that of the child. I was supposed to play a sailor. They were working on some marine-themed screenplay. Then Lyubov Orlova died in 1975. Aleksandrov and Kataev were gone in the next decade, and, as they say, that chapter was closed.

Why do you think people still gather to watch Circus? What makes this film so appealing?

Yes, so much time has passed, and many films are already forgotten, but there is still some interest in Circus, which was released nearly 85 years ago. As to the secret of its success, I hope that there are still some viewers around whom the film reminds of their youth.

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Sasha Razor holds a PhD in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures from UCLA. Her dissertation focused on the screenplays of Russian prose authors in the 1920s and 1930s.

 

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