Shadows of Russia

A history of the Soviet Union, as Hollywood saw it
by Farran Smith Nehme  posted January 6, 2010
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A Russian! I love Russians! Comrade, I've been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last 15 years. —Leon (Melvyn Douglas) in Ninotchka

Like Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka, I am fascinated by all things Russian—but the idea for the "Shadows of Russia" film series, airing on Wednesdays in January on Turner Classic Movies, came about due to Cyd Charisse. I wrote a memorial tribute to her on my blog, Self-Styled Siren, and mentioned her brief turn as Galina Ulanova in Mission to Moscow. Up popped Lou Lumenick of the New York Post in comments, ready to discuss the movie, which had been an interest of his—his own word is obsession—for years.

Alas, at that point I hadn't seen Mission to Moscow. What we really needed, I suggested, was an "Our Soviet Allies Night" at Turner Classic Movies. Lou emailed me privately to say we should propose a whole run of movies. Before long we were dreaming up an entire series devoted to movies made in America, but concerned with Russians and Communism.

We decided to start with a couple of movies about the tsars. Hollywood's royalism is all over both The Scarlet Empress (1934) and Rasputin and the Empress (1932), although neither film constitutes a good case for enlightened monarchy. Both movies, however, throw as much sympathy as possible to the imperial woman at the center; she is, after all, the embodiment of glamour, and the movies of Hollywood's Golden Age thrive on glamour. The Russian people are offstage for the most part, except when they pop up in a local square to cheer the tsar or, at the end of Rasputin, to riot.

From there, we moved to romances about love across borders and political affiliations. The Red Danube (1949) is the tale of a ballerina repatriated against her will and the British officer who tries to rescue her. In Warren Beatty's beautifully constructed, much-imitated Reds (1981), the romance is as much John Reed's infatuation with communism as it is his affair with Diane Keaton. That connection is even stronger in The Way We Were (1973). In that film, Robert Redford's betrayal of Barbra Streisand is of a piece with his refusal to commit to the left. Her fidelity to the cause is, in the movie's world, evidence of her essentially romantic soul, and not due to any illusions about the nature of communism or the Soviet system. She has that in common with Beatty's Reed; for both of them, as Pauline Kael said of Reds, "promises that couldn't be kept are not the same as promises broken."

Oddly, those looking for searing references to Stalinist Russia will find them in the double bill "The Lighter Side of Revolution." There's Ninotchka (1939)—my favorite film in the series—with Garbo intoning, "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians." More startling is an episode late in Comrade X (1940), an MGM comedy scripted by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and an uncredited Herman Mankiewicz, and directed by King Vidor. Late in the movie Hedy Lamarr's streetcar conductor, improbably named Theodore, is imprisoned with Clark Gable's American reporter. A bunch of people enter their cell. Like Lamarr, they are purist followers of a doctrinaire communist who we've already learned is a fraud; she greets them joyously. "They are my friends," she tells Gable. A small group of them are then taken out, and we hear machine-gun fire. Dissolve to the same cell, near morning, and Gable and Lamarr and her father, played by Felix Bressart, are pretty much the only ones left in the cell.

This is comedy? It is not very funny at all, in fact, and serves as an illustration of why a single grim joke goes down much easier than an entire sketch on the same topic. In cinematic terms the scene is a colossal misjudgment, as the screwball antics suddenly turn into mass executions, and then it's fun and games once more with a farcical escape from the prison. But the scene still stands out in the series for showing an actual bit of Stalinist repression.

During World War II, Roosevelt's Office of War Information oversaw movies that explained to a whipsawed American public why we were suddenly fighting alongside the dreaded Russians. The notorious Mission to Moscow (1943), one of the purest pieces of propaganda ever made in this country, is a journey through the looking glass into a place where Stalin's Russia is full of happy people dancing, perfume-shopping, and fighting off the fascist menace. Of Mission to Moscow Manny Farber observed, with deadly accuracy, "Any truth that has ever been told about Russia heretofore now has this obstacle to face...a while ago it was Red-baiting, now it is Red-praising in the same sense-ignorantly." Farber had kinder words for The North Star (1943), rock-ribbed Republican Samuel Goldwyn's stab at conveying the heroism of Ukrainian partisans. While that film glosses over the history of Ukraine, it is still brutally frank about Nazi atrocities in that country, including scenes, extremely rare for the era, that depict the murder of children.

The Russian-set movies of World War II ultimately emphasized that the Bolshevik enemies of the past weren't nearly as menacing as the fascist enemies of the present. To represent the Cold War, a war of covert diplomacy where elaborate surface courtesy masked the most ruthless of tactics, we chose (among others) Conspirator (1949), a movie entwining Soviet double espionage and domestic romance (with a script by, of all people, Sally Benson of Meet Me in St. Louis fame).

As tensions escalated abroad, matters also heated up at home, with hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee into alleged communist influence in Hollywood. The studios, thoroughly spooked by the case of the Hollywood Ten and subsequent blacklist, were in no mood to show any aspect of communism in even an obliquely favorable way. That meant some pictures were so unambiguous they veered into comic territory. In I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), you wonder how any Communist could possibly implement a takeover plot, when Frank Lovejoy's title character is treated by ordinary Americans like a child molester, terrorist and typhoid carrier rolled into one. One group possibly susceptible to indoctrination, it is suggested, is African-Americans, and so some are seen listening to a speech we never hear (we seldom hear any actual Communist talk in any of the pre-1960 movies). What we do hear is a young, clean-cut African-American man jumping up to denounce the recruiter's tales as "greatly overstated." (That must have had ‘em howling in Harlem.)

Leo McCarey's My Son John (1952), a movie that Lou and I are very pleased to have helped gain a television airing, does a much better job of creating menace. Robert Walker's character doesn't skulk around trying to infiltrate labor unions or plot sabotage while sipping vodka, as do the villains in I Was a Communist. Instead, he's a son whose education and sophistication lead him to treat his homespun family and all-American background with contempt that he sometimes masks, and sometimes does not. His affiliations are implicit in his mocking reaction to his father's (Dean Jagger) American Legion beer-drinking anthems and his priest's sermon ("A little mustard seed," says Walker with faux wonderment, "and out of that, you got two hours.") At least initially, McCarey doesn't tilt the scales too far. Walker has many dryly funny lines, and the priest and (especially) his father really are prosy old bores. McCarey lulls the audience into sharing at least some of Walker's impatience with all this homely virtue. Then he shatters that identification by showing the son's cruelty to and betrayal of his own mother (a superb Helen Hayes). Walker died mid-production, and as it stands, My Son John is half masterpiece, half mess. Even so, it is well above most of the era's overt anti-communist pictures.   

What is striking about the anti-communist movies of the 1950s is how little they have to do with the actual concepts or practice of communism. The philosophy is seldom discussed in any detail, and it's defined largely in broad strokes: Communists don't believe in freedom, of course; they want to rule the world and (this point is particularly emphasized) they don't believe in God. The movies focus on the communist threat to America but rarely, if ever, mention the gulag.

Eventually the supposed danger of communists infiltrating the country within gave way to movies driven by the real terror of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Russians. That fear underpins John Frankenheimer's superb Manchurian Candidate (1962), focused on an attempt to take over the White House with powers that, as Angela Lansbury memorably gloats, "will make martial law look like anarchy." James Gregory's nasal-voiced, henpecked dictator wannabe will also have his finger on the nuclear trigger, and that adds weight and urgency to the plot. Here Hollywood fuses all aspects of the prior decade's paranoia: Communists not only want to take over, they are on the verge of doing it, and they can do it because Russia's attitude toward human life is far more casual than our own.

The Manchurian Candidate gives the audience what it expects and usually wants from Hollywood—entertainment, not factual revelations about history. What you can glean from the 20 films in this series, though, is insight into changing attitudes, and that is what drove our programming selections and groupings. With Shadows of Russia, the films move from nostalgia for the tsars, through comedies with a sting, through a sudden attempt to portray the Soviets as "just like us" when a war demanded it, to desperate suspicion that Russian agents could put communists into our own families, to thrillers that play off the worst fears about the Cold War enemy. We see the romantic allure of the Russians and the intelligentsia's flirtation with communism. By the end of January, viewers will hopefully have a better fix on the zigs and zags of American ideas about communism and Russia, if not on enigmatic Russia itself. 


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Paramount Home Video
Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in his film Reds
Photo Gallery: Shadows of Russia


January 6-27, 2010 Shadows of Russia


Hollywood  |  Cold War  |  USSR  |  World War II


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In her online guise as the Self-Styled Siren, Farran Smith Nehme has been blogging about classic film since 2005. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children.

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