Lefty (Левша, 1964) by Vladimir Danilevich and Ivan Ivanov-Vano

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The Left-Hander
Levsha (ru)
Levša (cs)
Le gaucher (fr)

Year 1964
Director(s) Danilevich Vladimir
Ivanov-Vano Ivan
Studio(s) Soyuzmultfilm
Language(s) Russian
Genre(s) Comedy
Folklore & myth (Rus./East Slavic)
Literature (Rus./East Slavic)
Animation Type(s)  Cutout
Length 00:44:16
Wordiness 12.55
Animator.ru profile Ru, En
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A screen version of N. Leskov's story about the amazing master Lefty, who shod an "English" flea.

One of the classics by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, and his most daring animated film stylistically to date, at the time.

The video source on Youtube, unfortunately, is a bad transfer (especially the second video, with its malicious camera stabilization filter). Better versions can be found elsewhere online, including in the original frame rate of 24fps (44:16 long).

The 1881 book by Nikolai Leskov, The Tale of the Crosseyed Lefthander from Tula and the Steel Flea (translated to English in 1890 and in 1958) was written with the humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1856) still fresh in Russian memories, and was fundamentally a sort of critique of Russian government and society. The story takes place from shortly after the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to either ~1825 or ~1835, and stars two Russian Emperors (the first of which is rather severely satirized) and the Cossack commander General Platov. Its main hero, though, is a brilliant and patriotic Russian master craftsman, nicknamed Lefty, who discovers an important military secret from the British but finds it difficult to actually deliver this crucial message (vital for Russia in the future Crimean War).

Ivanov-Vano (who had wanted to adapt the story for about 30 years) decided to use the actual artistic styles of the time period. And so, the aristocratic, royal and foreign scenes used the style of 19th century Russian and British woodcuts, while the Russian village and town scenes used the style of Russian popular prints (luboks). On the suggestion of animator Yuriy Norshteyn (who animated the flea's dance, and met his future wife and art director during production), the film was done mostly with cutout animation, a technique which Ivanov-Vano had not used since he had worked at Mezhrabpomfilm in the early 1930s, before cel animation had appeared in the USSR. Ivanov-Vano claimed that he moved to the studio's new puppet division specifically because he wanted to use the cutout technique for "Lefty" (he also made one shorter film using cutout-like puppets in 1962). Although another version goes that he was pushed there as a result of internal studio politics.

At this point in the 1960s, the English and the Russians were again on bad terms, so it was a good time to film this story. The film prominently features some pernicious Englishmen.

The songs in the film are either well-known Russian folk songs with no changes (~19:44 Во кузнице / In the Smithy), or with their words partly changed to match the film (~29:29 Вдоль да по речке / Along the River). There's one less-well-known folk song with changed words from a 1949 ethnographic collection of Don Cossack songs by Listopadov, p.367 (~15:18 Ай, вот наш Платов генерал / Oh, here's our general Platov; in the original song, the general visits France, rather than the Russian town of Tula). There's also what sounds like an authentic early 19th century Russian army song (~11:55, accompanied by drum and piccolo as was the norm before brass instruments had been invented).

The film keeps fairly close to the book, with some notable exceptions. One fun addition at the 24-minute mark is how Platov's horse-sleigh gets stopped by a test-run of the Cherepanov locomotive (mentioned at the very beginning of the film, as an example of Russian inventions that were not allowed to properly develop). The Cherepanov locomotive was forgotten and the first rail-cars on Russian railroads were of foreign manufacture. In a more significant change, in the book, the addition of horseshoes to the flea makes the original mechanism stop working properly. In the film, it seems that this was the original plan (there's a scene in which the flea stops dancing after a bit), but it seems that the director changed his mind, because this is followed by the flea on its feet again and doing an even more impressive dance than it had the first time. Also, the film makes it seem like the skipper's mate was on a specific mission to ruin Lefty, while in the book he even tries to seek him out afterwards to make sure he's fine. And finally, the final sequence of the film shows the story's resolution in a rather abstract way, with Lefty climbing up some sorts of stairs (metaphorically? In his dream?) to speak to officials, finally begging before a portrait of the Emperor. In the original book, he merely passes his message on to the doctor at the hospital, who then tries and fails to pass it to the military.

The dates in the film don't quite line up. Alexander I visited London in 1815, with General Platov, who died in 1818. So far, so good. But Nicholas I put down the Decembrists' Revolt in 1825/1826, and Platov is still alive in the story at this point. No more than a few months then goes by in the story, but they witness the first test of the Cherepanov locomotive, which was actually in 1834.



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