It is always a treat to watch a skilled artisan having fun with his craft - even if you're not quite sure what he's doing.
"Thank You Comrade," an hour-long. "Great Performances" production airing tonight at 9 over Channel 26, is a farce about a pair of rascals who flummox the Russian Revolution out of a million dollars' worth of desperately needed film equipment by swindling money from a New York bank account the Reds have expropriated from the czarists.
True, it helps to know something about the role of cinema in that revolution, about the trains that brought movies to the remotest illiterate peasant about the Soviet newsreels, Dziga Vertov and so on.
It also does no harm to be acquainted with the early days of the revolution and its cliche scenes: chaotic committee meetings in czarist palaces, competition to be more-Soviet-than-thou, the image of the bloated capitalist-that made life hell or anybody with a belly and a pince-nez.
Although the story is based on such historical facts, you can ignore them. Afid enjoy. For this nimble film has some of the liveliest directing (by Jack Gold) and expecially editing (by Clare Douglas) ever seen on the tube.
Once we get past the complicated opening business with Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mayakovsky and others, and can concentrate on the New York-based villains, the wily Cibrario (Ben Kingsley) and his too-smart secretary Annie (Connie Booth), the film takes off.
It needs to, because Gold has made the mistake of intercutting his fictional Lenin with actual newsreels of the revolution and World War I. That flickery old black-and-white footage is electrifying, and for awhile the farce looks merely stupid in commparison.
One may be allergic to parody of early movies, with their titles and whites-of-eyes, but this is so deft and spare that it works hilariously. We forget how much explaining is being done when it is achieved with animation, quick cutting in the style of Eisenstein, and a wonderful tango: faces, backs of heads, faces, backs of heads. . . .
The acting is delicious, the music elegant. We even get some early Charlie Chaplin and bits from D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance." And at the end we discover that we have learned something about the history of Soviet film. An amazing creation.