Mission: Improbable

Hollywood's controversial contribution to the wartime effort
by Lou Lumenick  posted January 6, 2010
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One of seven major war-themed films that Warner Bros. workhorse Michael Curtiz directed in a little over two years, the jaw-dropping Mission to Moscow for various reasons is vastly lesser known than its fabled predecessor Casablanca, not to mention Yankee Doodle Dandy, Dive Bomber, Captains of the Clouds, This Is the Army, or Curtiz’s bizarre Casablanca follow-up with Humphrey Bogart, Passage to Marseille.

The latter may raise eyebrows with its convoluted narrative—not many films employ flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks—and a still-shocking scene where Bogie machine-guns a U-boat crew trying to surrender to his Free French colleagues. Marseille is conventional, though, compared with Mission to Moscow (1943), a mad, semi-documentary love letter to the Soviet Union and mass murderer Joseph Stalin and the most controversial movie to come out of Hollywood during the studio (or perhaps any) era. Though the highly episodic narrative often halts for lengthy speeches, this lavish superproduction on a scale rivaling Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and Dodge City deserves to be far better known as the supreme example of haute Hollywood craftsmanship deployed for the sort of propaganda commonly associated with films from the Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes.

Filled with Curtiz’s bravura directorial touches and benefiting greatly from his gift for keeping dialogue-heavy films moving, Mission to Moscow apparently had some unusually well-connected collaborators. Howard Koch, who worked with Curtiz on Casablanca and is the sole credited screenwriter here (a rarity at Warner Bros. in this era), claims in his autobiography that the film was extensively rewritten by Joseph E. Davies, the former American ambassador to the USSR on whose memoirs the movie was loosely based. Davies, a corporate attorney and confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was reportedly on the set almost every day and briefed the president no fewer than four times on the progress of the production.

Koch gives an elaborate account of FDR himself pitching Jack Warner on the value of filming Davies’s book, which details his experiences as the folksy second ambassador to the USSR from 1936 to 1938, as the war loomed. Jack Warner offered varying accounts about the film’s genesis in an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and later in his generally self-serving memoirs, claiming at various points that FDR, a political ally of the Warners, approached his older brother Harry, the head of the company, or that Harry made an overture to Davies, whose book was an international bestseller.

White House records establish that FDR took an unusual interest in Mission to Moscow—even more than in The North Star and Song of Russia, two other pro-Soviet projects that went into production around the same time. Those and the many other Hollywood propaganda films that Hollywood cranked out during World War II (or even Frank Capra’s Why We Fight documentary series, which had an episode on Russia co-directed by Anatole Litvak) were subtle compared to Mission to Moscow. The latter employs the hardest sell possible to convince skeptical Americans that Stalin, who had reached a nonaggression pact with Hitler (he joined with the Allies after Germany breached the agreement and invaded Russia in 1941) and had a reputation for putting his political enemies to death, was a reliable and noble ally.

Most writing about Mission to Moscow has focused on this ambitious agenda of re-education, but there were other goals as well. While Mission to Moscow fails as propaganda aimed at the American public because of its preposterous lies, historian Todd Bennett argues that the film’s rose-tinted picture of the USSR may have succeeded in keeping Stalin from making another deal with Hitler, which would have dragged out the war on the western front or worse. Mission to Moscow can also be partly viewed as payback from Jack and Harry Warner to American isolationists, who are consistently equated with the European leaders who appeased Hitler and even the Nazi-sympathizing saboteurs operating in the USSR. Right up until Dec. 7, 1941, the Warners were being investigated by congressmen who accused them of violating the Neutrality Act by covertly encouraging America’s entry into the war in films as varied as Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York, as well as a series of Technicolor patriotic shorts, including Curtiz’s Land of Liberty, which, significantly, centered on a Jewish Revolutionary War hero played by Claude Rains.

Though he directed a pro-communist short in his native Hungary in 1918, the fantastically prolific Curtiz was to all appearances an apolitical artist. The director constantly needed to have the political events he was filming in Mission to Moscow explained to him, according to the film’s producer, Robert Buckner, a conservative Southerner who had shared a screenwriting credit and Oscar nomination for Yankee Doodle Dandy. Nevertheless, Mission to Moscow conveys with great clarity an amazing amount of information in its two-hour running time—most of it so willfully incorrect it makes Curtiz’s historical farrago Santa Fe Trail seem almost true by comparison. Curtiz, who completed this immense film with the largest speaking cast of any American film of the 1940s in less than five months from first shot to premiere, is greatly abetted by Don Siegel’s montages, which extensively employ footage from the Soviet Archives and even two instantly recognizable sequences from Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will.

The film is anchored by a charismatic performance as Davies by Walter Huston, father of John, known for playing authority figures in movies like D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln and Gregory La Cava’s fascist fantasy Gabriel Over the White House. Huston had received an Oscar nomination for playing James Cagney’s father in Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the director virtually restages that film’s White House sequence, with FDR (played by the same bit player) seen only from behind and addressing Davies in a booming voice more suited to a congressional address than an intimate Oval Office conversation between two old friends. (While the film was in production, Davies, who reportedly had final cut because of his relationship with FDR, objected that Huston didn’t look like him, while other actors were chosen for their resemblance to the characters they played. As a compromise, Davies was allowed to deliver a stultifying and utterly superfluous six-minute speech before the film’s credits, in which his name appears an astounding five times.)

Mission to Moscow boasts several train station sequences—a Curtiz trademark well before Casablanca, several of whose bit players turn up here. In the most chilling of these scenes, Davies, his wife Marjorie (Ann Harding), and his teenage daughter Emlen (Eleanor Parker) watch with dread as singing, dead-eyed Nazi youth parade through a Berlin depot, as clearly Jewish refugees plead with a gate attendant in an apparently vain attempt to flee the country. Later, on their arrival at the Soviet border, the Davies family is greeted with a virtual banquet at the station. A substantial portion of the film is given over to Davies touring the farthest reaches of the USSR, marveling at industrial efficiency and wartime preparations and repeatedly remarking favorably on the (improbably) high standard of living and happy natives. Back in Moscow, Mrs. Davies—better known to American audiences as high-living cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, often referred to as the country’s richest woman—approvingly visits a Fifth Avenue-style perfume emporium presided over by the wife of foreign minister Maxim Litvinov. The latter is played by Oscar Homolka, who had portrayed a far less jovial commissar just three years earlier in King Vidor’s satire Comrade X—who in that film is purged by Vladimir Sokoloff, here cast as the benevolent Soviet president Kalinin.

Mission to Moscow reaches its nadir of deception in its depiction of Stalin’s notorious Soviet purge trials, in which scores of current and former Soviet officials were sent off to the firing squad. Not surprisingly, the trials are compressed into a single proceeding in which half a dozen defendants—whose guilt is cued by Bert Glennon’s ominous photography—are depicted as part of a Trotskyite plot to soften up the Stalin regime for the impending Nazi invasion. This plot was a bald-faced lie pounced on by the film’s many critics. Even Ambassador Davies’s memoir does not insist the defendants were innocent, but he apparently decided that as part of the effort to spin Stalin, his screen counterpart should pronounce the confession by Nikolai Bukharin (a very good Konstantin Shayne) and the others as convincing, “based on my 20 years’ experience as a trial lawyer.’’ Producer Buckner says that when he objected to this blatant falsehood, Davies offered to reimburse Warner Bros. the $1 million they had spent to that point and complete the movie with his own money as a patriotic gesture. His bluff worked.

The film’s climax depicts the ambassador’s genuine diplomatic coup, the reason he was sent by FDR to Moscow in the first place. Meeting with Kalinin on the eve of his departure, Davies is surprised by the appearance of the kindly, grandfatherly Stalin (Manart Kippen, later the doctor in Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce), who we are told never meets with foreign diplomats. Stalin expresses his admiration for FDR and for capitalist Davies, thanking him for looking at the USSR without prejudice. Davies predicts Stalin—the 20th century’s second most bloodthirsty leader—will be “remembered as a great leader,” and asks him about his intentions toward Germany. Stalin replies that while he would prefer to enter into an alliance with the “other democracies” against the fascists, if the Western nations fail to act, he will have to protect the USSR in another way.

Thus is introduced the movie’s next huge whopper: a defense of Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Germany, which Davies, after his return to the U.S., excuses as a device for the USSR to buy time to build its defenses. Unmentioned is the fact that Russia got part of Poland in the deal with Germany. In a crowd sequence shot in a remarkable special-effects simulation of Madison Square Garden, Davies also silences isolationist hecklers with the ludicrous claim that Russia invaded Finland to protect it from the Nazis.

Though the New York Times’ notoriously clueless Bosley Crowther praised Curtiz’s movie as “the most outspoken picture on a political subject that an American studio has ever made” and a “realistic impression of fact,” many of the other reviews were scalding. Writing in The New Republic, Manny Farber said Mission to Moscow deserved a “booby prize” and, after cataloging its calumnies, declared that “as a movie, [it] is the dullest imaginable.” James Agee of Time most devastatingly labeled it “a mishmash of Stalinism with journalism with opportunism with shaky experimentalism with mesmerism with onanism, all mosaicked into a remarkable portrait of what the makers of the film think the American public should think the Soviet Union is like—a great glad two-million bowl of canned borscht, eminently approvable by the Institute of Good Housekeeping.”

Warners marketed Mission to Moscow to the masses with the shameless tagline “One American’s Journey Into the Truth.” A full-page ad in Time compared it to Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, and Hawks’s Air Force, and positioned seeing it as practically a patriotic duty. The ad has a drawing of a beaming mom, pop, and young son leaving a theater. “We just saw something wonderful,” the quote says. “Civilian defense...the Red Cross...victory gardening…they don’t leave much spare time! So when we get to see a picture, we want to see something worthwhile. And Warner Bros. hasn’t let us down yet!” It describes the movie as a “grand entertainment...and a new kind of picture!” The very last part, at least, was sort of accurate. With its reckless rewriting of recent history on a grand scale, Mission to Moscow is unlike any other American studio picture. While box office figures from the era are notoriously unreliable, producer Buckner says the film, which cost around three times as much as Casablanca, lost money for Warner Bros. when it was released in May 1943, though not a huge amount.

The film was more warmly received in the Soviet Union, where Davies himself returned to host a VIP screening for Stalin and other Soviet officials. Though they were reportedly amused by the stereotypical depiction of their culture, Stalin, a film buff, liked Mission to Moscow enough that he allowed it to become the first American movie to be widely distributed in Russia in more than a decade. (Only a scene where Davies defends electronic surveillance of foreign embassies was cut by state censors.) Some two dozen U.S. movies, including The North Star (in which Huston and Harding appeared as Ukrainian peasants directly after shooting Mission to Moscow), Song of Russia, and less political fare, circulated until Soviet officials pulled the plug in 1945, fearing their burgeoning popularity with audiences was endangering the USSR’s struggling local film industry.

More important, Mission to Moscow, which was viewed as a diplomatic tool by the Roosevelt administration and its Hollywood arm, the Office of War Information, may have helped convince Stalin that Americans (or at least corporate America, as represented by the Brothers Warner) had his back. Germany was obliged to continue fighting on the eastern front, dooming Hitler’s dreams of world domination. “The Normandy invasion would not have been possible without Mission to Moscow,” says Davies’s granddaughter, Mia Grosjean.

Americans were totally unsympathetic to the USSR by the time the last prints of Mission to Moscow were pulled from circulation in 1947 by Warner Bros. The studio’s once-noble gesture had become not only an embarrassment but a major political liability as Hollywood plunged into Cold War paranoia. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain the movie’s pro-Soviet prevarications, Jack Warner joked that he didn’t know anything about Russia, most movies were factually inaccurate, and besides, this was only a wartime morale booster. When this failed to mollify the congressmen, Warner briefly tried to blame FDR—before telling them what they wanted to hear, that it was communist propaganda slipped to him and his brothers by Howard Koch. Koch, who had tried to turn down the assignment, was blacklisted for his trouble and moved to England. The Warners started cranking out more politically correct fare like I Was A Communist for the FBI. Davies’s family (he died in 1958) says that while he was proud of the movie’s role in World War II diplomacy, he was embarrassed by the wild embellishments of the truth.

Mission to Moscow was among hundreds of movies that Warner Bros. sold to TV in 1956, but such was its notoriety that it was never offered in domestic syndication by its longtime distributor, United Artists. After the American Film Institute rediscovered and championed the film in the 1970s, it made its TV debut as part of a PBS series on propaganda films. It’s seldom been seen on big or small screens since. I introduced a showing at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2004 as part of a series chosen by members of the New York Film Critics Circle, and the audience at the well-attended screening seemed fascinated by this strange, forgotten artifact. Warner Bros., which reacquired rights when it bought Turner Entertainment in 1996, has recently come to embrace this unique part of its heritage, with segments devoted to Mission to Moscow in two 2008 documentaries sponsored by the studio. Last year, it became available on home video for the first time as part of the Warner Archive, a DVD manufacturing-on-demand and download service devoted to less popular catalog titles.

The film is the centerpiece of “Shadows of Russia,” a film series I created with classic-film blogger Farran Smith Nehme (who writes as the Self-Styled Siren), airing every Wednesday night in January on Turner Classic Movies. (We will join film critic Glenn Kenny and author Ed Hulse for a panel discussion following a Jan 12 screening of Mission to Moscow at BAMcinématek.) “It’s not a film for the ages,” Jack Warner told his congressional tormentors in the blacklist era, and it’s not for all tastes. But Mission to Moscow endures as a fascinating footnote to World War II 67 years after its release. 

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THE AUTHOR

Lou Lumenick is the chief film critic of the New York Post.

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Author's Website: New York Post movies blog