Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"I Don't Know What Russia Is Like": Mission to Moscow (1943)


Expansively, [Warner] acknowledged that leftist writers kept trying to slip bits of radical propgaganda into their scripts, but since they knew that he, Jack Warner, would cut out all such propaganda, they persisted in their effort in what Warner called 'a humorous vein.'

'Not only humorous,' said J. Parnell Thomas, sounding a bit shocked.

'Well, strike the word humorous,' said Warner. 'I stand corrected.'

'You might say in an insidious vein," said Thomas.

'Yes, insidious,' Warner agreed.
--Jack Warner testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee about Mission to Moscow, as described by Otto Friedrich in City of Nets


The Siren has finally achieved a personal movie-viewing goal and watched Mission to Moscow, Warner Brothers' legendary mash note to Uncle Joe Stalin. Many thanks to Lou Lumenick, who wrote a great post on the film, with great links too, and pointed out that TCM had stuck this rarity on the schedule at an odd late-morning hour.

So. Mission to Moscow.



I don't know even know where to begin.

There are good movies and bad movies and interesting movies and boring movies and funny movies and campy movies and then, there is Mission to Moscow. It's the sui-est generis-est damn thing you will ever see. Three days after viewing it, the Siren still feels as though somebody rewired her brain. It's based on the book by Joseph E. Davies, detailing his stint as the second U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, and his, uh, impressions of the country.

The Siren can't recommend Mission to Moscow as a piece of filmmaking. Michael Curtiz was the prime example of a stellar studio craftsman, but this, his follow-up to Casablanca no less, doesn't find him at his best. The Siren had heard that the movie worked fairly well as a drama. It does not. You could make a case, though, that in the hands of a lesser talent Mission to Moscow might be unwatchable. It displays Curtiz's facility with talky expository scenes and his singular gift for pacing, but even that cannot save a script that is just one conversation after another.

Honestly, you can't understand just far this thing deviates from the historical record until you see it. The movie is a vigorous condemnation of both isolationism and appeasement of fascism, which Hollywood Goes to War points out would have been as notable to a 1943 audience as the movie's benign view of Russia. The critique of prewar isolation is part of why the Office of War Information, the Roosevelt-created body that oversaw Hollywood's role in the war effort, thought it was swell. But the other, equally important idea was to sell a skeptical American public on Russia as our allies. So Stalin's Russia is portrayed as a plucky place working toward the day when they will be a democracy, a day that is just around the corner...the corner of Lubyanka Prison, where only saboteurs are sent anyway.

There is a long introduction by the real-life Davies tacked on to the beginning, and its stupefying dullness gives you an idea of how Davies thought a story should be structured: Tell, don't show. Then you get shot after shot of Davies (as played by Walter Huston) looking grave from the other side of someone's desk, starting with that of Roosevelt, who wants this Dodsworth-like businessman to see if the Russians can be counted on in the fight against world fascism. (The president is given the same voice he has in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the voice of the famous speeches, so that the viewer gets the impression Roosevelt said "please pass the butter" exactly as he said "a date that will live in infamy.") So off goes Davies to visit Russia and sit in front of more desks. It's a realistic view of diplomacy, I suppose--get off the train, talk to the Germans, get off another train, talk to the French, go back to Moscow, talk to the Japanese at a fancy ball, go to the ballet, talk to a Russian official.

But lord, it is boring, or would be if you weren't busy reminding yourself to close your slack jaw, as you watch something like the scene where Davies explains that the Soviets invaded Finland to protect it. Curtiz and cinematographer Bert Glennon come up with some striking compositions, especially during the series of arrests leading up to the Moscow show trials. But the best-looking sequences are the montages using actual historical footage from the Soviet film companies--which had been instructed to cooperate with Warner Brothers--as well as newsreels and other sources including, if the Siren isn't mistaken, Triumph of the Will.

The movie is a collection of scenes and vignettes, as episodic in its way as Words and Music. The beautiful, vivid Eleanor Parker (now there's an underrated actress) plays Davies' daughter and gets a number of irrelevant scenes doing stuff like sleigh rides and ice-skating with a bunch of Russians who spontaneously break into a Cossack dance. Well, actually, the good spirits didn't seem outlandish to the Siren, based on her lifelong love for Russian culture and a too-brief visit to Moscow.* (Nobody did a Cossack dance for me, though. Damn it.) Also included is the film debut of an uncredited "Sid" Charisse, dancing as Galina Ulanova in a ballet attended by the American diplomats. She looks nothing like the muscular, rather plain-faced Ulanova nor does she dance like her, but Charisse still stops the movie cold. When Davies and his family gush over the ballerina, for possibly the only time in the movie you believe every word.

Ann Harding plays Davies' wife, legendary high-living socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, here portrayed as a warm and dutiful housewife having tea-drinking chats with "Madame Molotova" in the latter's perfume shop. In the movie, this is a glittering bijoux of a boutique to rival Leslie Caron's perfume palace in An American in Paris. In reality, Molotova's perfume works were confiscated from the original owners by the Bolsheviks. After nationalization they produced basically just one scent, Red Moscow, an overwhelming carnation soliflore that was no great shakes but still a precious item for an average Russian woman. (My dear pal Victoria of Bois de Jasmin, whose childhood coincided with the last gasps of the Soviet regime, told me she had such strong memories of Red Moscow that for years she avoided carnation scents like the plague, and she echos that in her post on Russian perfume: "The moment I smell it, I am 10 years old again, being lectured on the young pioneer’s creed by some female Communist Party functionary.")

Perfume is an old Siren obsession so this relatively minor obsfucation stuck out to her. What really boxes the viewer's ears are things like the Moscow trials sequence, which beggars description. According to the movie, this purge wasn't aimed at consolidating Stalin's power, but at rooting out Nazi and Japanese "fifth columnists." The character actors in the dock are lit to look even creepier than their natural resemblances to the real-life officials would make look them anyway. Walter Huston leans forward to solemnly tell whatever dialogue-receptacle is accompanying him that based on years of trial experience, he believes the accused are "Guilty, guilty, guilty!" No, not really, I'm quoting Doonesbury. Huston just says "I believe they're guilty." It's still disturbing as all hell.


"Is it your opinion...that Mission to Moscow was a factually correct picture, and you made it as such?" [HUAC Chief Investigator Robert E.] Stripling asked.

"I can't remember," [Jack] Warner said.

"Would you consider it a propaganda picture?" Stripling persisted.

"A propaganda picture--" Warner echoed.

"Yes."

"In what sense?"

"In the sense that it portrayed Russia and Communism in an entirely different light from what it actually was?"

"I have never been in Russia," Warner protested. "I don't know what Russia is like...so how can I tell you if it was right or wrong?"

Well, couldn't Warner have hired some expert to tell him whether the planned film would be accurate? "There are inaccuracies in everything," Warner said.
--City of Nets


Mission to Moscow differs from such propaganda pictures as Ivan the Terrible Part I and I Am Cuba in its far-lesser script and lack of visual flair--both of the other pictures have absorbing stories and stunningly original directorial visions. But the most apt comparison probably isn't even with Song of Russia, the MGM singing-and-dancing ode to our Russian Allies that is next up on the Siren's must-see Red List. The movie that Mission to Moscow brought to the Siren's mind, in its dogged insistence on rewriting a bloody history to a more pleasing narrative, is They Died With Their Boots On. That's the Raoul Walsh Western that turned the Little Big Horn into a noble attempt to buy time to save the West's entire supply of white settlers (because we were about to run out of those). Controversial episodes such as the "battle" of Washita are given the old spit-and-polish. Unlike Mission to Moscow, the Walsh film is brilliant moviemaking, but both create a Warner Brothers narrative, an adventure story, out of what would play as tragedy if it were told fully and truthfully. James Agee went to the heart of the matter when he said Mission to Moscow "indulges the all but universal custom of using only so much of the truth as may be convenient."



And the real irony of Mission to Moscow is that the impulses behind the Curtiz and the Walsh films were both patriotic in part--one designed to glorify the past, the other made to please an administration. Ambassador Davies later said he approached Harry Warner to make the movie; Jack Warner said FDR himself broached the idea, an assertion Warner backed off from in HUAC testimony. But there is no question that Warner Brothers was aiming to please the administration and promote the war effort. Asked to make a picture that would placate the public about our alliance with the Russians, Warner Brothers went all out, in the truest studio fashion.

For his big-budget attempt to improve America's view of its ally, Jack Warner later found himself zigging and zagging in front of HUAC, although like the other studio heads he got off easy--screenwriter Howard Koch, who had written the script at Warner's insistence, was blacklisted (or graylisted, according to this article). An exasperated Jack Warner later summarized the feelings of many Hollywood executives before him, and many to come: "There are some controversial subjects that are so explosive...that it doesn't pay for anyone to be a hero or a martyr. You're a dead pigeon either way."

So, given all these drawbacks (to understate the matter), what value does the movie have? Plenty, for what it tells us about the extent to which movie studios were on board with the war effort, how little some people knew about the real-life Soviet Union (although many, from Manny Farber** to the usually clueless Bosley Crowther, knew enough to give the film a major thumbs-down) and for the Warner Brothers aesthetic, its approach to politics and history and its working methods in general. TCM shows this, according to Lumenick, every other year, usually during their 30 Days of Oscar festivities (it was nominated for Best Art Direction). The Siren has dissed the Oscar month heavily but it does have some oddball selections from time to time. What the channel needs to do is get this on during hours when there can be an introduction, because if any movie needs context, caveats and discussion, it's Mission to Moscow.


*Ayn Rand would have disagreed. During her HUAC testimony, Pennsylvania Republican John McDowell asked her, "Doesn't anybody smile in Russia anymore?" and received the reply, "Well, if you ask me literally, pretty much no."

**Farber, quoted in Hollywood Goes to War: "This mishmash is directly and firmly in the tradition of Hollywood politics. A while ago it was Red-baiting, now it is Red-praising in the same sense--ignorantly. To a democratic intelligence it is repulsive and insulting."

(Material on the history and subsequent HUAC troubles of Mission to Moscow comes from City of Nets and Hollywood Goes to War. As Lou says, there is a good set of notes at TCM and an interesting monograph on the movie available here.)

86 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

I love this post. This is a fascinating introduction to a movie I was completely unaware of. Thank you.

Karen said...

Wow.

Wow.

I'm thinking I saw this movie decades ago, deep in the past when my political awakening was still in the larval stage. (Block THAT metaphor.)

My own favorite Soviet-philic film is The Demi-Paradise, which is nearly as much about the English patting themselves on the back for pluckiness and charm as it is about their new Russian allies. (Oh, that nightingale!)

But this sounds like something worth tracking down. I'll wait for its next iteration--with nearly as much impatience as I wait for TCM's Oscar month to end. I realize that new old-movie buffs have to start somewhere, but I do resent their devoting 1/12 of the year to it, annually.

But back to Mission to Moscow; I flew to the AFI Catalog to look up the notes on this one. Shall I give them all to you? I think one of the money quotes is this:

In his HUAC testimony on 20 Oct 1947, Jack L. Warner stated: "The picture was made when our country was fighting for its existence, with Russia as one of our allies. It was made to fulfill the same wartime purpose for which we made such other pictures as Air Force, This Is the Army...and a great many more. If making Mission to Moscow in 1942 was subversive activity, then the American Liberty ships which carried food and guns to Russian allies and the American naval vessels which convoyed them were likewise engaged in subversive activities. This picture was made only to help a desperate war effort and not for posterity...."

You can feel the frustration burning off the monitor, can't you?

X. Trapnel said...

Fantastic post, Siren! Bolshoye spasibo! Russian literature and culture generally is my first and last love (delighted to learn that you share it!) and I've despaired of Hollywood ever getting Russia right in any way (Farber's comment was right on the dyengi). One honorable exception is, of course, Ninotchka. The Soviet scenes are right out of Bulgakov and Zoshchenko.
I am a Raoul Walsh diehard, love They Died with Their Boots On (best cavalry charges on film--and the Flynn-de Havilland farewell scene), but cringe at the historical whitewash. Chto dyelat? (what to do?)
Thanks for the comment on Eleanor Parker, a particular favorite of my father's
I must reread this post at leisure.

Campaspe said...

Tony, thank you so much. It was fun to write. The film's so important historically that it is unfortunate that this is a movie most people know only from reading about it, as I did until this past Sunday. Lou says we needn't hope to see it on DVD anytime soon but since it's part of TCM's library it does show up from time to time.

Karen-- Yeah, and I can smell his goose cooking too, or so it would have if they hadn't come up with the blacklist. Friedrich has a splendidly funny continuation of Warner's testimony, where the mogul starts trying to distract even further by pointing out that un-Americanism was everywhere and hey, just take a look at the theatre and All My Sons. In other words, hey fellas, look over there, on the other side of the country! Commies on Broadway!

X. Trapnel said...

Forgot to mention, Manart Kippen, who plays the avuncular Stalin was the doctor in Mildred Pierce.

Campaspe said...

HOLY CATS, XT, LOL! you are right, he was!! I was trying to figure out where I saw Uncle Joe before. It's amazing how the Warners stock company resembled all the Trotskyites, actually. The guys who played Radek and Bukharin, for example -- absolute dead ringers. And Gene Lockhart does look like Molotov.

Campaspe said...

Adding -- They Died With Their Boots On is just freaking superb, one of the best Walsh ever made. But as history it's, shall we say, problematic. Then again, so are all Hollywood history movies. Alex at Motion Picture, It's Called has a good piece on Rossellini's history movies that briefly addresses that very problem. Of course Mission to Moscow really isn't trying.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Nobody smiles in Alice Rosenbaum's grim little universe either. They're too busy building giant phallic symbols and stealing money.

Jack Warner's HUAC testimony makes him sound completely insane.

But then so is this country. First we loved Uncle Joe, then he was living under every bed in Levittown.

Campaspe said...

David, whenever people tell me about how great Rand is, I think of that quote and how unbelievably humorless and blinkered she was in real life, and how that's perfectly reflected in her big unreadable books.

You crack me up. Yep, you could get whiplash following the Hip Trends in Attitudes About Russia, and too many people did. What I would like to research is whether there were later repercussions for some of the others involved, like Curtiz, Huston and Parker.

X. Trapnel said...

I just had a look at the (gigantic) cast list of MtoM (God bless the good people at IMDB). Let's make a distinction between the victims of the show trials and those of the Terror/Gulag. The former were no bargain; there's a tendency to romanticize them as "intellectuals." Bukharin, the closest to human of the bunch was played by Konstantine Shayne, the bookstore expert on old San Francisco in Vertigo. I once saw a photo of Vladimir Sokolov (Kalinin here, usually a Spanish or Mexican peasant elsewhere) taken around 1910 or so with the great poet (and Stalin victim) Marina Tsvetaeva, both practically teenagers. History has many cunning passages.

Yojimboen said...

As a foreign student of the Feydeau farce which is the American political world, I'm still slack-jawed, nay, terminally bemused by the HUAC coinage: "prematurely anti-fascist".
There are no words.

X. Trapnel said...

Feydeau? If only American politics were that sensible. Gogol is closer to the mark.

Anagramsci said...

excellent stuff!

I've got Mission to Moscow in an avi-file queue, but have yet to watch it...

any reference to Jack Warner at HUAC immediately freaks me out--those clips of him hemming and hawing under the senatorial barrage are really, really hard to watch, even for a person like me, who instinctively hates tycoons... what's so shocking about it is the way in which it conveys just how quickly the political ground shifted under even the most centrist figures during the late 1940s...

great call introducing The Demi-Paradise into the discussion Karen! The British film certainly has its excrescences, but it takes a much smarter tack in focusing upon the commonalities between the rank-and-file citizens of the anti-Nazi powers, rather than upon their respective leaders...

plus I just like Penelope Dudley Ward--AND Laurence Olivier doing a Slavic accent!

Dave

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I'll add my assent to the cheers here. A fine post, indeed.

As far as Alice Rosenbaum-a.k.a.-Ayn Rand is concerned ... if the general advice one hears is to hate the sin and love the sinner, I'll reverse that by proclaiming that I adore the "Fountainhead" *movie* and have no affection whatsoever for its putative scenarist. Oh, Patricia Neal ...

I also have a *lot* of affection for Eleanor Parker. It's what makes me watch the first 15 minutes of "An American Dream," up through the point where Parker makes her big dive, whenever that epic surfaces. Whenever "Sound of Music" shows up on television, I look for Parker -- which makes me feel like Charles Addams at Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra" for the sake of the asp.

(A typo had me initially writing "hate the sin and love the dinner" -- which sounds like a line out of "The Greeks Had A Word For It.")

Peter Nellhaus said...

I still haven't seen this one. I did see Action in the North Atlantic, written by future Hollywood
Ten member John Howard Lawson, which also spoke of our pals, the Russians. The point of Bogart's sea voyage was to provide military aid for the Soviets. To paraphrase W., we were for them before we were against them.

Campaspe said...

Peter, Action in the North Atlantic is a really good war movie in my view, and that last scene is awesome, with one of the best clincher lines ever.

XT, I didn't mean to imply that the guys in the show trials were saints, just that the whole thing was a transparent frame-up. (Although there is enduring poignance in Bukharin's note to Stalin: "Koba, why do you need me to die?") The trials just happen to be as close as the movie gets to any aspect of Stalin's terror--I don't think anyone even utters the word "Siberia," much less "Kolyma."

Dave -- okay, that's two votes for The Demi-Paradise. I will add it to my fantasy "Red Hollywood" film festival that also includes The North Star and later anti-communist films too.

Yojimboen, there is a definite farcical aspect to the HUAC hearings; reading transcripts or watching them is a peculiar experience indeed.

MrsHWV, Parker, along with Plummer at the height of his sexiness, indeed is the only reason to watch Sound of Music. She had a song they cut, darn it. With Caged she had the other great performance in the 1950 Best Actress race, generally agreed to be the most dazzling in the history of those awards. And the one great flaw of Scaramouche is that she doesn't get the guy, although she gets a marvelous fade-out.

Lou Lumenick said...

Well put, Campaspe. The comparison with "They Died With the Boots On'' as a model of Warner Bros. historical accuracy is dead on. Love the perfume angle, and I had no idea that "Sid,'' too, was playing a real-life personage.

The more I read about this movie, it seems the real auteur was not Curtiz or Koch but the insufferable Ambassador Davies, who Koch says in his memoirs had final cut and "consulted'' on the screenplay.

It was Davies, a trial lawyer, who reportedly insisted on spelling out everything repeatedly in the dialogue, as if he were trying to persuade the dimmest memory of the jury.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

Sorry if I sounded like Comrade Vishinsky (played by Victor Francen! Why not Paul Henried while we're at it?). I have a certain respect for Bukharin who tried to save Mandelstam and defended Pasternak when he could. the astonishing thing about these men is perfectly summarized but the letter you quoted. How could they submit so passively when they knew the express train of history had gone off the rails.

Yojimboen said...

Chalk up another vote for The Demi-Paradise – it is hilarious; an absolute jewel! I just dug out a never-watched DVD and screened it. Several things jump out – first, in the recent Actress Meme, we ALL missed her, probably the best character actress of all time: Margaret Rutherford (pause a moment while we all hang our heads); second, Olivier’s Russian accent is as near as dammit flawless (I have several Russian friends – he nails it); third, it’s more than interesting to watch 45-yr-old Felix Aylmer try on the 70 to 80 yr-old patriarch he would play for the rest of his career; and lastly, one wonders how Carol Reed proposed to Penelope Dudley-Ward (he directed her next film after this), probably something like “Let me take you away from all this!” or somesuch Noel Coward nonsense – but whatever it was he did us no favors. One title later Penelope Reed, nee Dudley-Ward, (whose mother Wikipedia tells us was the long-time mistress of the Prince of Wales) retired from acting forever, goddamnit!
Imagine Celia Johnson with sparkle and sex appeal. Got that? Now run, don’t walk to your nearest DVD outlet. It’s a jewel!
(Thank you Karen. Thank you!)

Anagramsci said...

a nice tribute to Ms. Dudley-Ward, Yojimboen--she really is quite somethin'!

also--while people are on the subject of Warner weirdness, let's not forget the madness of Santa Fe Trail, which, among other things, offers the most obtuse analysis of the abolitionist crusade this side of Birth of a Nation...

Dave

Campaspe said...

Santa Fe Trail indeed makes almost as good a comparison, especially since it's also Curtiz. Also a good movie though.

Y & Karen, all right all right all right already I will find it and watch it. **grumbles, looks at stack of unwatched DVDs**

Lou, Davies as auteur -- I think you've nailed it there. Certainly the sensibility is only fitfully cinematic.

Anagramsci said...

much as it pains me to admit it(I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Abolitionism), Santa Fe Trail IS a beautifully made movie!

Campaspe said...

Dave, I am laughing -- but then I am a feminist who adores The Best of Everything so I have little-to-no room to talk. You must have read Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body, yes? Uneven, but such brilliant passages. I still think there is a movie in there somewhere.

X. Trapnel said...

I've never seen Santa Fe Trail, but I'm guessing that its distortions of abolitionism were done with a cynical eye turned toward southern ticket sales, i.e., it wasn't meant as a message picutre like Mission to Moscow. Did it actually present a positive image of slavery? (Gone With the Wind comes mighty close). In the same spirit, They Died With Their Boots On at least makes an effort not to be anti-Indian. All the trouble, you see, was whipped up by those scoundrels Stanley Ridges and Arthur Kennedy. It's not just beautifully made, but downright beautiful (Can't wait to say "Walking through life with you, Madam, has been a very gracious thing" to some future Mrs. Trapnel)and, I think Flynn's best acting.

Anagramsci said...

oh I quite agree!

I've actually read more Benet than is good for me! Did you know he wrote another story about Daniel Webster? (aside from the one about the devil that served Dieterle, Heerman et al so well?)

it's called "Daniel Webster and the Sea Monster"....

The real Daniel Webster, by the way, was an arch-conservative (he finally destroyed his rep in New England when he stood up on behalf of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850). He would definitely have been on the devil's side in that story--so we can't blame Warners for every monstrous distortion of the facts!

Anagramsci said...

ah Santa Fe Trail--well, it does allow Ronald Reagan (as Custer) to speak up on behalf of the antislavery cause, but everyone else in the movie just acts like its a run of the mill political question that can easily be shelved for a century or two... and the only actual abolitionist that we meet is John Brown himself, who was definitely a fanatic, but the jury (outside of this movie!) is still out on whether he was overreacting or not, considering that he hoped to free 3 million people from inhuman servitude!

Vanwall said...

In my misty past, my high school Russian teacher made great efforts to get some interesting films made in or about Russia into class - for some reason, "Mission to Moscow" was on the AV list, and she chose it by name only. Not a good idea. Never finished watching it, after it was stopped early, (she was very apologetic) prolly 'cause it was so effing bad, and I never wanted to see it again. I'm so glad you've subjected yourself in a sacrificial manner and watched the damn thing - you've reinforced my initial impressions, thank you. Even back then, I thought it was a terrible waste of time, effort actors, and money, and I see that's the general conclusion here from the Siren-ese. I really can't add anything other than incredulity here, sorry.

I'm always skeptical of "documentary" footage from totalitarian sources, and I seem to remember some of the borrowed stuff was surely of that peculiarly Soviet mass-re-enactment genre. No Civil War dress-up in a cornfield could hold a candle to the Soyuz Sovietskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik film works. They had that Potemkin Village quality about them - "I don't care if is Siberian permafrost, plant the trees for the General to see. What?! You already did and they are all dead and brown?!...Then paint them green, idiot!"

She made up for it by making sure I saw "The Cranes Are Flying".


I had too many H'wood westerns pass in front of my little eyes back in AZ as a kid - I can't say enough bad things about most of them as historical truths, and the bigger the budget the worse the scholarship. As entertainment they were generally repetitious and way too clean and tidy. It took me about 20 years to actually finish watching They Died With Their Boots On...

And oh yeah, Eleanor Parker watching is elucidating as hell - she might be more cinematical in Scaramouche than the climactic sword fight. Damn, she looked good in Technicolor!

Tonio Kruger said...

I'm not a big fan of Ayn Rand's novels either but given her status as a Russian refugee, it seems a bit much to expect her to be all that sympathetic to her former homeland. After all, no one honestly expected Spanish Civil War refugees to be sympathetic to Franco.

And didn't anti-Red sentiment in the US predate the HUAC? It wasn't until the mid-1930s--almost two decades after the Bolshevik Revolution--that we officially recognized the Soviet Union--and if it weren't for FDR, it might have taken even longer.

I must confess to having a bit of a love-hate relationship with Russian culture myself. On one hand, I find it difficult to ignore their many contributions to the arts. (Says the guy who regularly listens to the work of at least three Russian composers and came this close to adopting the name of a Chekhov character as an user name.)On the other hand, well, I grew up watching my Polish-American mother light candles on behalf of Solidarity so perhaps I'm not the most objective person to comment on MtM.

Anagramsci said...

oh right--Ayn Rand!

she's monstrous--and yet, I love Vidor Fountainhead (which does blare her "ideas") and Dieterle's Love Letters (which she wrote the screenplay for, but betrays no hint of "Objectivism")

Dave

X. Trapnel said...

Vanwall,

It works both ways. There was a still of street fighting from either October or The End of St. Petersburg (I forget which; boredom has fused them together in memory)that would turn up as an illustration in history books and there are plenty of people who think there really was a massacre on the Odessa steps.

X. Trapnel said...

Tonio K,

Russian culture and Soviet culture are ANTITHETICAL (sorry for screaming in caps). The specific strain of tyranny in Russian history that led to Lenin et al. was recognized and condemned in their varying ways by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, and nearly all the major artists of the postrevolutionary period found themselves almost inevitably at odds with the regime, often fatally so. No need for ambivalence then, though
Russian oppression of Poland long predates the Soviet period.

Campaspe said...

Tonio, I am always so happy to see you comment here. I don't expect Rand to be sympathetic, I just expect her not to be, well, a freaking idiot. Nobody smiles in Russia, good grief. Even the HUAC investigator was taken aback, he asked her twice to give her a chance to qualify and of course she didn't because she was Always Right.

Anyway. As someone with a sprinkling of Finnnish in-laws (not to mention my Jewish friends), however, I can appreciate ambivalence about Russia and its culture, most definitely. I just love the place, find it fascinating and always have, would love to go back, would love to learn the language beyond the few words that enable me to get XTrapnel's jokes. :D My own roots are Irish, and Anthony Burgess had a charming essay one time where he meditated on a certain affinity between Russians and the Irish. And when I tell this to either Russians or Irish they always say, "Yes!"

Campaspe said...

Yeesh, you guys are fast tonight. XT, I do agree about the Soviet/Russia cultural difference.

Vanwall, yes, it was definitely a lot of May Day footage, but it was pretty spectacular all the same. There was also just a sprinkling of ordinary street scenes and of course that's the most interesting at all, although I did not check to see if anyone was smiling. :D And absolutely, Technicolor needed more Eleanor Powell. She looked awesome in the color Naked Jungle as well although that was basically a terrible movie.

Dave, I can't believe you brought up Dieterle because he came up in an offline exchange with someone else earlier this evening. I told this person that Dieterle has my bet for Next Auteur to Get Rediscovered. Devil and Daniel Webster, for one, is just too good.

Anagramsci said...

it definitely is--and I never miss a chance to bring up Dieterle! He is my favourite director, after David Lynch! I will blog about his films often!

Vanwall said...

M. X - I was careful to distinguish the Tsarists/Soviets from Mother Russia in general - that teacher had connections with the White diaspora, and its own history of oppression, and said the hardest thing to do was figure out what a Russian really was. That was well before the Fall, and even that didn't help my wife's Eastern European family members - first the Nazis, then the Soviets, and there was nothing left nothing between the two when they were gone. Teach' also said unless you knew the photographer personally in the CCCP, nothing was as it seemed, pretty much like "Mission to Moscow".

X. Trapnel said...

Eleanor Parker looked pretty terrific in b&w too. Her performance as Ida Lup, uh, Mildred in Of Human Bondage is way, way better than B. Davis, the only good thing in the film along with the Korngold music. She (and Korngold) also help to keep the misbegotten Between Two Worlds afloat. (I must confess, I love this fascinating failure).

mndean said...

Since my parents came from the only European country in the Soviet sphere to defy Russia and survive, I was always a bit interested in Russia. Unfortunately, this film I could not sit through. I almost recorded it, decided not to and watched instead. Hoo boy, I didn't make it the first hour, and almost didn't make a half-hour. I don't think I have much to add, but I didn't find it fascinating. I kinda wished it went all the way to lunacy, but it was too pedantic and dull.

X. Trapnel said...

mnd, that would probably make MtoM the only Warner's picture that is positively unwatchable.

The Siren's mention of Finnish in laws just reminded me of the most chucklesome moment in MtoM:

Heckler: "What about little Finland!!??"
Davies: "I'm glad you asked that [there follows some gibberish]...Hitler's man Mannerheim refused; the Red Army moved in."
Heckler (chastened): "Why weren't we TOLD about this!?"

mndean said...

Well, it's the only one I found unwatchable. There are others that are junky (poor direction or script), have lunatic casting, or are otherwise incredible, but I could always see them through to the end. I can even sit through Sh! The Octopus and The Merry Frinks (which has Allen Jenkins both as a comic Communist AND as the son of Aline MacMahon. Chew on that one.) better than MtM.

X. Trapnel said...

Re Sh! The Octopus. No film who's cast boasts Elspeth Dudgeon, Edward Biby, and Henry Otho could be called unwatchable

The Derelict said...

Seriously, Siren, get out of my head! You said everything about this movie I was just thinking. I watched it this past Sunday too and couldn't believe how talkie the whole thing was. Of course, it was still fascinating and hilarious to see Walter Huston tell Stalin that history would remember him as a great man. That lovable Uncle Joe!

Before I went to Russia, I didn't give two figs about it. But after I actually went there (Moscow and St. Petersburg), I fell in love with the country and have since been quite fascinated by it.

I wonder, did anyone catch the wonderful Eleanor Parker earlier this month on TCM in the Marjorie Lawrence biography "Interrupted Melody," with Glenn Ford? I believe Ms. Parker was nominated for best actress for playing the famous opera star who was stricken with polio. Another Eleanor in Technicolor picture.

Campaspe said...

MNDean, yeah, I wish it had been more genuinely crazy too. What kept me going was searching out the next blatant lie. Which makes me wonder if Song of Russia has more value in that regard--Friedrich describes it as "Andy Hardy in Russia, with music by Tchaikovsky." You have to admit that has a certain terrible fascination.

V., I still need to see The Cranes are Flying, I admit it. It's somewhere on the Netflix and I'll bump it up.

All the Sh! the Octopus talk is having the unfortunate effect of making me want to see it, which is a mistake, yes?

Re: Eleanor Powell, I saw Between Two Worlds a while back on a double bill with One Way Passage and for once I liked the more recent flick much better. Having John Garfield and Sidney Greenstreet helped. Parker had such lusciously sexy looks but she could play against them and do dewy innocence so well. Most bombshell women can't do that. Derelict, I did see Interrupted Melody, forgot all about it. Very, very standard biopic suds and Parker isn't at her best but she sure does look great, and she has the lip-synching down pat.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

A terrific essay. It's a movie I unfortunately keep missing, but one day I'll grab it. I agree that Eleanor Parker is underrated.

Our WWII era lovefest with Stalin's Soviet Union and the about-face which occurred afterward, especially as it hit Hollywood, is something I can't help thinking would have been great fodder for the Marx Brothers. The pedantic pendulum swinging in those years deserved somebody to stand up and make a joke.

Poor foolish Jack Warner, trapped in a corner.

Lou Lumenick said...

Allen Jenkins as a Communist? Now this Aline MacMahon completist really wants to see "The Merry Frinks.'' M, I think you're being a bit big rough on "Sh! The Octopus!" which is not bad under the circumstances. It's one of those crazy Warner Bros. B-picture mashups where Bryan Foy handed screenwriters the scripts for two old Warners or First National pictures and ordered them to turn out something cheap that would run an hour. One of the sources was the old play "The Gorilla,'' a film version of which Foy himself had directed in '30. It's lost, but some intriguing outtakes of a man in a gorilla suit have recently surfaced.

Campaspe said...

Jacqueline, the only thing I have read that comes close to the Marxes doing HUAC would be Zero Mostel's testimony, which is hilarious although it did nothing to get him off the blacklist. There is definitely a comedy to be made out of all those pre- and post- and mid-war switcheroos but you need a genius to do it, no make that a Wile E. Coyote suuuuuupergenius. I might have know you'd appreciate Parker too. (Why did I call her Powell in my comment above? I can't stand Eleanor Powell.) Ms PARKER is still with us. Turns 87 on June 26. A toast to Miss Parker!

Lou, I am not sure how Sh! the Octopus acquired its totemic status around here but it keeps popping up in comments as an example of the WB/First Natl Turkey, Extremely Well-Done. I really do have to see it.

mndean said...

I should clarify - Sh! The Octopus I picked because in some circles it's the canonical "bad movie". I didn't find it so bad, just a comedy b-movie that's not too inspired.

The Merry Frinks is much more lunatic. Besides the casting, it has Aline as the matriarch/drudge of one of the worst families put on film. Every one of her children is self-centered and rotten, her husband's relatives are crazy (example: her mother-in-law is Helen Lowell, and you can guess what that means), and her husband is a lush and total loss as a provider. It's funny to a degree (I liked where Aline's teenage daughter traipses in with her new boyfriend, Harold Huber), but is more interesting because it looks like it's going to be one kind of movie (the magic relative who fixes everything) but turns into another. I can't call it a good comedy (with Allen Jenkins so ridiculously miscast?), but it's strange enough to be watchable.

mndean said...

I definitely would like seeing Song of Russia. Some films get detached so far from reality that they're watchable in seeing just how far from it they get.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Eleanor Powell in a scene cut form Caged.

Anagramsci said...

I love both Eleanors!

Campaspe said...

David, HA! Miss POWELL's only tolerable to me when she's dancing. The best I have seen from her so far is the number she does with the dog in Lady Be Good. It isn't her most spectacular dancing by a long shot but she is so unaffected and charming. And her performance in general isn't bad in that one. She had a better personality for a sidekick-wisecracker I think.

I have several of these Permanent Mental Stutters when it comes to names -- I have called Gail Patrick "Gail Russell" and Kevin Brownlow "Kenneth" more than once.

M., you're not the only one who has mentioned Sh! The Octopus, nor the Merry Frinks for that matter. I guess I have to track that one down too. I do have a great apprecation for Macmahon.

Anagramsci said...

I love the "Pas De Dog" from Lady Be Good!

now that one could even have warmed Hope Emerson's heart in Caged!

X. Trapnel said...

Speaking of mental stutters, I always get Pffft mixed up with Zotz.

Dan Oliver said...

Siren,

I've seen Sh! The Octopus, and really, you don't have to. With all those stacks of unwatched DVDs you written about (and believe me, I have them, too), don't waste an hour of your precious time on this thing. It IS as bad as they say it is. Trust me.

X. Trapnel said...

There's Ed Wood bad (entertaining) and Richard Attenborough bad (soporific). Who would not prefer Sh! the Octopus to TCM's solemn offerings during Oscar month.

Vanwall said...

A Hope Emerson sighting! Not too hard, really, to see her - imagine Ann Blyth standing next to her...brrr. There's a scene in "Cry of the City" where Ms. Emerson is walking toward the camera from a room in back, turning on the lights in succesive rooms on the way forward, and just her walk emanates menace, to say nothing of her stony face. She was awesome!

X. Trapnel said...

In some alternate universe there must be a movie with Hope Emerson being tormented and abused by Joan Fontaine.

The Derelict said...

Yeah, "Interrupted Melody" was pretty average biopic stuff, but I have to give it props for making me interested in finding out more about Marjorie Lawrence. Apparently, she was one of the only sopranos of her era to actually ride her horse into the pyre on stage for Wagner's Gotterdammerung (as Wagner had intended, of course).

I don't know why, but I love Between Two Worlds (actually, I do know why, it's all about the Greenstreet). Eleanor Parker really was stunning. I always thought she looked fetching in Delmer Daves "The Very Thought of You" opposite Dennis Morgan.

I've never heard of Sh! The Octopus!!! After comments like these, now I HAVE to see it!

X. Trapnel said...

The main problem with Between Two Worlds is clunky/stagy direction. Almost nothing is done in the way of shipboard or supernatural atmospherics (when I think of the ambience and look Curtiz could have achieved.... Think Sea Wolf.) Still, Garfield is great, Parker gorgeous, and finally, Korngold's great score (it was his favorite) supplies a good deal of what the direction and photography do not.
Oh, and the idea of Sydney Greenstreet weighing up your prospects for eternity is truly inspired. Those were the days.

mndean said...

If you're up for a rubber octopus and Hugh Herbert & Allen Jenkins as cops, go for it. It's far from the worst movie I've ever seen, but it's not remotely good.

I recorded The Merry Frinks last year on TCM, so if anyone is dying to see it, I can supply a copy.

Lou Lumenick said...

If you really want to plumb the depths of Brian Foy's artistry, go to the TCM website and check out the trailer for the wrestling musical "Swing Your Lady.''

The Weaver Bros. and Elviry, who found themselves more at home at Republic, get more play than the film's ostensible stars, including Nat Pendleton, Penny Singleton, Mr. Jenkins and, oh yeah, Humphrey Bogart.

To be fair to Mr. Foy, who churned out 40 B's a year at his most productive, he also produced that quartet of wonderful Nancy Drew mysteries with Bonita Granville.

I am also quite partial to "The Adventures of Jane Arden" with the lovely and undeservedly forgotten Warner starlet Rosella Towle, which was apparently intended to start another girl reporter series to replace Briney's long-running Torchy Blaine.

Lou Lumenick said...

Sorry, that's Bryan Foy, with a y. Of the famous Seven Little Foys (Charley appeared in many of Bryan's Bs and Eddie Jr. was in the four Brass Brancroft epics, which TCM is showing next month as part of a Reagan festival).

Bryan Lincoln Foy, who was portrayed by Billy Gray (Father Knows Best, The Day the Earth Stood Still) in the Bob Hope biopic of his pop, abandoned Warners for Fox (where he produced ex-Warner hand Lewis Seiler's masterpiece, "Guadalcanal Diary'') in 1941 but returned to Burbank a decade later to supervise such exploitationers as "I Was A Communist for the FBI,'' "House of Wax'' and "PT-109.''

The later Foy I'm dying to see is the elusive "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison,'' a tantalizing clip of which turns up in "Walk the Line.'' The prison itself narrates the movie. Anybody seen this one?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's that dance wit the dog that you mentioned.

Karen said...

I can't abide Eleanor Powell. I don't like her plastered-on smile (lips only, no eyes) and I don't even care for her dancing. It's technically perfect, yes, but so...clinical. There's no sex, there's no sensuality, there's no emotion. There's just a lot of skill, and that's just not dance to me.

Plus, they almost always put her in the most unflattering outfits imaginable. Shorts, or spangly leotards with a cut that made her legs look stumpy. I was shocked when I saw her float out in a dirndl to dance "Begin the Beguine" with Astaire (I do have that right, don't I? Broadway Melody of 19..38? 1940?)--it was the most feminine I'd ever seen her.

MovieMan0283 said...

I set this to record on my DVR, but it's getting awfully crowded on there and I'm not sure how highly I prioritized this one. But perhaps I can get what I'd get out of seeing it, by reading your post.

No, given my fascinating with Hollywood's flirtations with Communism and the blacklist backlash, I'll have to see it at some point. But isn't ironic that the film which most demonstrated to HUAC Hollywood's commie instincts was made at the behest of the president of the United States and a Republican studio head?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Broadway Melody of 1940

It was Adolph Hitler's favorite movie, BTW.

X. Trapnel said...

So much for the hope that art builds character. Did he know that die familie Austerlitz had Jewish ancestors?

Marilyn said...

What is it about Walter Huston and agitprop?! He was the distator president in Gabriel over the White House, spouting W.R. Hearst's blather!

X. Trapnel said...

In moviemakers' eyes he looked so damn American (Uncle Sam, Lincoln)and thus trustworthy, paternal, and comforting. He would have been ideal as Windrip the folksy dictator in Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here.

X. Trapnel said...

Or as the liberal, small-town newspaperman who stands up to him

The Maiden said...

Thank you for introducing this movie to me ---> loved this post. is going on the list of movies to watch!

Karen said...

Oh, David, you have the BEST tidbits!!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Speaking of Soviet smiles. . .

Ben Alpers said...

I was lucky enough to see MISSION TO MOSCOW at a terrific, wide ranging series on cold-war related films that the Brooklyn Museum put on almost twenty years ago. You capture it perfectly, Campaspe! Great post!

Ambassador Davies apparently insisted on appearing personally so that he reap the maximum political benefit from the film. He was convinced that it would boost his career, but feared that people wouldn't give him credit if they only saw Huston playing him.

Howard Koch was also a far more interesting writer than the leaden MISSION script would suggest, especially in the medium of radio (he was largely responsible for the script for Orson Welles' famous WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast).

X. Trapnel said...

All glory to Howard Koch, screen writer for Letter to an Unknown Woman and some of Casablanca. As to the latter though, I'm sure nobody has taken credit for "If I were a woman, and I weren't around, I should be in love with Rick; but what a fool I am, talking to a beautiful woman about another man! You'll excuse me..." We'll excuse you Louis/Claude, but not Koch, the Epsteins, C. Robinson or whomsoever

Yojimboen said...

My money’s on Philip Epstein, the sensitive twin.

Years ago I learned – from one of their offspring who shall be nameless – of the Epstein brothers singular hobby. One of them would pick up a girl (usually a would-be starlet, but occasionally the neglected wife of some hated Studio exec), take her to a favorite motel (sometimes a bungalow at the Garden of Allah), have his way with the lady, then retire to the bathroom; wherein he would quietly open the bathroom window to admit his waiting twin who would then “return from the bathroom” to give a repeat performance. Not surprisingly as a result of this practice the Epstein brothers enjoyed serious reputations as sexual athletes, which only made the hobby easier to indulge.
I love this town.

X. Trapnel said...

"Who is Julius? Well, madmoiselle, if I were a woman etc."

Bob Westal said...

Marilyn beat me to my comment about Walter Huston -- the price of coming late to the party.

Great post, btw. This one sounds even tougher to watch than "I Married a Communist."

But, Mr. Ehrenstein, I thought "King Kong" was Hitler's favorite movie. I mean, on top of everything else, couldn't he make up his mind?

On the other hand, those of us lucky enough to have seen the wonderful "East Side Story" (a documentary about vintage Soviet bloc musicals) know that at or near the top of his list was "Volga! Volga!"...which always puts me in mind of the SCTV episode where Soviet TV took them over, with featured shows including "Ivan's Tractor" -- a variation of "My Mother, the Car" where peasant John Candy's tractor is inhabited by the spirit of Nikita Kruschev, and also my personal all-time favorite SCTV skit, "What Fits Into Russia?" which had fun with maps.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I saw M to M years ago and couldn't believe what I was seeing. Since it was on TCM this month I assume it got an Oscar nomination -- was there once a Best Propaganda category? Your post made me experience, probably for the first and last time, sympathy for Jack Warner. First the USSR was evil incarnate, then it was our good comrade, then back to evil -- who could keep up except George Orwell?

Fred Astaire on Eleanor Powell: "She picks 'em up and puts 'em down just like a man." Fred was too much the gentleman to call her a machine, but I notice he didn't dance with her much.

There's something odd about your blog -- when I clicked on the bookmark all I got was that lovely picture of Ginger and the list of links and posts. I had to click the most recent to get here. Google strikes again.

Jonathan Lapper said...

There's something odd about your blog -- when I clicked on the bookmark all I got was that lovely picture of Ginger and the list of links and posts. I had to click the most recent to get here. Google strikes again.

It's a sitemeter problem that afflicts Blogspot blogs from time to time. The only permanent cure is to remove sitemeter. It messed with mine last week and I tweaked the copyright date in the sitemeter to make it work again.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Nope. According to no less and authority than Hans-Juergen Syberberg, Hitler loved frothy comedies and musicals most of all.
This si why Hans Albers was never sent to the camps, despite his Jewish wife. In fact wehn making Munchhausen and a scene requiring numerous candles -- then in short supply -- were required, Hitler ordered the Gestapo to go into every dwelling in Berlin and take the candles they found there.

The Epstein twins sound like fun. Not as much fun as the Malet twins, however. Don't know what they're up to lately but Laurent was this close to major stardom (his credits include
Querelle
) while brother Pierre made quite an inpression in
The Basileus Quartet


I saw Pierre onsatge back in 83 in Patrice Chereau;s great production of Genet's The Screens starring Maria Casares, David Bennent, Hermione Karagheuz and Hamoun Graaia. Pierre played the plub role of the Lieutenant. But the play is so long (nearly four hours) and the text so thick that there wer no understudies. One night Pierre crashed his motorcycle and broke his leg. What to do? Laurent had the solution. He would come on with Pierre (whose leg was in a cast) and hold him up. Genet attended that performance and practically fainted with joy.

The performance I saw was just befor eht accident. Pierre was splendid. He and Laurent look exactly alike but the minute you begin talking to them you can easily tell them apart.

Or as Mickey Cottrell so memorably put it, "Leave it to Chereau to fall for the rough trade twin!"

Gerard Jones said...

Wouldn't you just know? I take my eyes off the TCM schedule for only a few days, and of course they run a movie I've wanted to see for DECADES. So thank you, Siren, for such a wonderful and detailed evocation. This is the best piece I've ever read about "Mission." And I'm more determined than ever to catch it next time it cycles through.

surly hack said...

Buttermilk Sky-

Your blogonym reminds me of Canyon Passage, one of the few Jacques Tourneur films I haven't seen, which will finally be be playing here in Chicago this spring.

In it, as you no doubt already know, Hoagy Carmichael performs his song "Ole Buttermilk Sky."

Gerard Jones said...

I've never seen that one either, although I certainly love the Tourneur I've seen. Out of the Past would probably make my top five if I could ever bring myself to settle on lists like that. And Nightfall is strangely fascinating, even when it shouldn't be. Let us know how it is!

Gerard Jones said...

Funny that I mentioned Ole Buttermilk Sky in commenting on Siren's next (Oscar) post...before I came back and read these comments, complete with Buttermilk Sky's entrance and Surly's response. Must be something in the air...I mean, in the sky...

Tonio Kruger said...

Point taken, X. Soviet culture and Russian culture are not synonymous.

That might explain why the one post-Bolshevik piece of Russian music that I will admit to liking was that waltz on the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack.

Groggy Dundee said...

Excellent review/article. I just watched this thing on TCM last night and I didn't even know what to make of it. Even more than the show trials scene, what got me was the portrayal of Stalin as a kind, gentle, concerned grandpa figure, which made me start yelling obscenities at the screen.

Oddly enough it was on the same day as we watched the Warner Bros. short Red Nightmare in my history class.