Monday, February 23, 2009
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.
"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.)
Monday, February 09, 2009
Comments I Made at Sites You Don't Read, With Added Borzage Link Bonus
The Siren is giving up on commenting at Big Hollywood. She likes to pounce occasionally on threads about movies she likes, but as noted by one critic who also quit commenting (because he kept getting deleted, bless him), "aw, nobody wants to play with Campaspe." Not a creature was stirring--nothing, no action. Dullsville.
So anyway, Mildred Pierce. Great movie that prompted a commenter to recall an alleged feminist interpretation wherein Mildred is "punished" for daring to step outside her assigned gender role and pursuing a career. The idea that Mildred is punished doesn't jibe with the Siren's viewing; instead, the "happy" ending where Mildred goes off with the drip she was married to at the beginning of the movie just indicates that in Hollywood at the time, if you wanted a happy ending you had to have the heroine go off with someone. Anyway, the marriage roles are a sidelight in the movie, as the Siren pointed out in the following comment. Maybe one of her patient readers would like to respond.
I don’t think Mildred Pierce has much to do with marriage and wifehood at all. James Agee was one of the critics who pointed out that the movie is much more focused on class, social climbing and attitudes toward money. Mildred’s moral unraveling becomes worse even as she gets richer. The really subversive part isn’t Mildred going to work, which she does out of necessity and abandons when she’s able, after finding a rich partner and a higher station. It’s the movie’s fisheyed look at maternal sacrifice. Instead of being beatific and ennobling, as in Stella Dallas, mother love is perceived as unhealthy, obsessive and narcissistic in the fullest sense of that word. Veda is a sociopath, but it’s Veda whom Mildred really loves, more so than any man in the movie and more even than the angelic Kay. “Don’t tell anyone what Mildred Pierce did!” could mean covering up a murder, but in the end it’s the unanswerable question of whether Mildred’s love “did” something to Veda and created this monster, or whether Veda (with the very name and spelling connoting “venal”) was what she was from birth. Mildred’s independence at the end, such as it is, results from her having taken Eve Arden’s joking advice and “eaten her young”–finally (and reluctantly) leaving Veda to her fate. Although, so tied to her dreadful offspring is Mildred that I’ve always wondered if Veda was able to work more machinations on her mother even from behind prison bars. Veda would fit in well in Caged.
And...Jack Carson is pure joy in this movie, as is Arden, who is the movie’s example of a woman happy and secure in herself–and single.
(The above photo is from Legendary Joan Crawford, a beautifully maintained site which has the most awesome collection of Joan Crawford photographs on the Web, bar none. You could spend hours there--I have.)
P.S. Please run over to The Auteurs, where Glenn Kenny has a weekly column about Foreign-Region DVDs. This week's item was requested by the Siren, and he delivers: a write-up of the Frank Borzage-directed, Ernst Lubitsch-produced Desire, which has been released in the U.K. Go, read and see if the screen-caps alone don't explain why the Siren mentions this every time the subject of "not out on Region 1" comes up.
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Three Brief, Utterly Unrelated Asides
When you read as many Hollywood books as the Siren has, you find the same anecdotes getting recycled and re-attached to different names. So the Siren has repeatedly heard the one about the star (variously said to be Doris Day, Jeannette Macdonald, Greer Garson or many others) who finds herself on the set with the cinematographer who shot a movie with her a decade earlier. The star upbraids the DP for not making her look as lovely as she did then. The DP diplomatically replies, "Well, ma'am, you have to realize, I am ten years older now."
What made the Siren think of this chestnut? Christian Bale, that's what. Now mind you, the Siren doesn't make movies, she writes about them. For all she knows, walking across a star's sightlines during a "difficult" scene automatically means the star is well within his rights to turn the air blue and threaten to tear down your lights and/or punch your lights out. The Guardian suggests that the incident shows Bale was really in charge on the Terminator set, and it sure sounds that way.
But the Siren's question is this: even if you are the big guy on the film, is it really a smart move to yell on and on like that at the cinematographer? This is the man who can use shadows to make your undereye bags the size of steamer trunks, light your every pore to look like Vesuvius or make it seem that your ear hair resembles Sequoia National Park.
If the DP or one of his confreres can't do it now while you are on top, just wait until (ahem) he's ten years older.
People may have mocked Merle Oberon for being more decorative than deep, but Merle knew how to treat a cinematographer: She married him.
So, here we are discussing various composer biopics, and this very night on Turner Classic Movies, what should appear but Night and Day, wherein Cary Grant appears as Cole Porter, and Rhapsody in Blue, Warner's inadequate study of George Gershwin. Reportedly Cole Porter never had a bad word to say about Night and Day, despite its cavalier treatment of the facts, because after all, he was being played by Cary Grant. (Of the two films, Lou Lumenick prefers Rhapsody in Blue and he has a nice explanation as to why over here at his place.)
Finally, Flickhead celebrates the great Claude Chabrol's 79th birthday with a ten-day wonder of a blogathon, June 21 through June 30. The Siren plans to be there, and so should you.
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
Words and Music (1948)
In an excellent piece in Bright Lights Film Journal, Alan Vanneman asks if Words and Music is "An Unsung Masterpiece?" The short answer is no. What it may be, however, is the ultimate drug for musical purists, those souls who genuinely do not care about plot, dialogue or any other kind of connective tissue in a musical, but instead jump from number to number. When the numbers are from Rodgers and Hart, this has its definite advantages. Along with the Gershwins, this is the team whose songs always stop the Siren in her tracks. There were others equally as fine--Porter, Berlin, Kern, oh yes--but none to surpass.
The usual knock on Words and Music involves the phrase "sanitized biopic." Why yes, the movie does neglect to mention that Lorenz Hart, tormented genius, was tormented in part because he was gay. But it isn't as though gay themes were cropping up in a number of other movies that year, and Hart alone got his subplot scrubbed. Here's the Hart biographical stuff that does make it into the movie: his alcoholism, his unreliability, his self-hatred, his feelings of ugliness, his shortness (he's played by Mickey Rooney) and his doomed attempt to get a Broadway chanteuse to marry him. All true. Even an episode toward the end, where a drunken Rooney reels around the rainy streets of Manhattan after one final opening night and catches his death, amazingly happened in a very similar way. (Although the Siren hopes that Hart did not finally collapse in front of a store selling elevator shoes, as poor Rooney is made to do here.)
Compare this total score for accuracy to Song of Scheherazade, where the filmmakers got two things right: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was Russian, and he composed "Scheherazade."
As for the airbrushed gay theme--the Siren thinks there are signals for the hep, as much as could be under Joe Breen's watchful eye. Check out Hart's overly dependent relationship with his mother (ah, shades of Christmas Holiday) and the singer's delicate references to gosh, just something about Hart that keeps her from marrying him.
Complaining that any MGM movie is sanitized is like yelling at Lassie for shedding. Of course it's sanitized, that's what MGM did. They took life and made it shinier. This is the studio that built a Hall of Mirrors set twice as big as the Versailles original. The real problem with the frame story is that Hart, even played by Puck, is a huge downer, only fleetingly portrayed as the witty life of the party that Hart's real-life friends remembered. The quiet, rather stuffy Richard Rodgers ("Boy Next Door" Tom Drake), robbed by the script of his legendary taste for chorus girls, can't sustain a role as a foil. Perhaps most composers and lyricists just aren't great subjects for biopics, unless they eventually went deaf or crazy.
But anyway, who in their right mind would watch this for the biographical drama? What you should want, and what you get, is Technicolor, great singing, and Robert Alton's choreography, supplemented with Gene Kelly's magnificent "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" , the best dancing the luscious Vera-Ellen ever got to put on film.
What's that? You prefer Cyd Charisse? She's in there too, looking lovely in "On Your Toes" and spinning like a top to "Blue Room."
The Siren loves "Where or When," sung by Lena Horne. There is a melancholy feel to most Rodgers and Hart songs that is easy to overemphasize. Many singers opt for a happy surface with a tear-stained underpinning. Here, Lena flips that, the yearning right out on top, but a certain brightness underneath.
Then notice how Judy Garland takes the complicated and rather strange lyrics to "Johnny One-Note" and renders them clear as rainwater. How much does the Siren miss enunciation...
He may not be a convincing Hart, but Mickey Rooney has some great moments, too. He was one of those triple-threat entertainers who, as Pauline Kael once said about Liza Minnelli, are electrifying when all they need to be is charming. Instead of drawing a performance out of Rooney, a good director (which Norman Taurog pretty much wasn't) had to put a visor on the camera and tone him down a bit. Rooney's Words and Music scenes go back and forth between delightful and way-too-much, but his joyful, no-frills rendition of "I'll Take Manhattan" is perfect, a summary of everything that was best about him as a musical performer. And his duet with Garland (the last they ever did together), "I Wish I Were in Love Again," is almost as good.
Then you see Rooney during Mel Torme's superb rendition of "Blue Moon," doing a depressed drunk act and still managing to mug, and you realize that even if he had magically grown several inches, he was never going to fit in with the socially conscious 1950s, not even in the artier Freed-unit musicals that lay ahead.
There are many other numbers in Words and Music, including this one
which, the Siren is happy to report, is the perfect length for going down to the kitchen and whipping up a sandwich. (It isn't just June Allyson, the Siren can't stand "Thou Swell," finding it strained and cutesy in a way that Hart usually avoided.)
Ann Sothern gets a production number ("Where's That Rainbow?") that Vanneman didn't much care for, but the Siren adores it, mostly for the dancing boys behind Ann. Robert Alton was famous for individualizing the chorus--instead of a kaleidescope of identically clad, synchronized movement, his dancers stand out one by one even while they are backing the main singer. (This biographical entry reads that characteristic as "queer," an interpretation that the Siren found fascinating, although not completely convincing.)
Which brings the Siren to her favorite number, "Mountain Greenery," with a jaw-droppingly young Perry Como and a lovely dancer named Allyn McLerie. (Twenty years later, a very different kind of dancing would cause McLerie to bug out in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) The lyrics are almost goofy, but the dancers and Como put it across with such utter, fetching sincerity that the Siren is charmed every time. To me, the dancers and singers twirling around to "down with noise and clutter, up with milk and butter " are, like the rest of Words and Music, just so utterly MGM, another step on the road to the perfection of The Band Wagon and Singin' in the Rain.