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.
"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.)