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This is one for political debate ... in a free society, when does a film promoting a political point of view cross the line into damaging, damnable propaganda? Warner's 1943 Mission to Moscow is a key case in point. It's based on a book by FDR's Ambassador in the Soviet Union, Joseph E. Davies, an apologist for Stalin's regime who between 1936 and 1938 toured Soviet industrial plants and even witnessed some of the dictator's purge trials. The ambassador gave his enthusiastic approval to the show trials, which is odd because he himself was a lawyer. Davies' own Moscow staff reportedly threatened to quit over his refusal to object when Stalin's secret police arrested American citizens working in Russia, placing some in gulag camps.
By 1943 the U.S. and Stalin were allies against Hitler. It's unclear who approached whom, but Jack Warner got together with Joseph Davies to produce a movie dramatizing Davies' "historic" trip to the Soviet Union. 1 All involved would later describe the show as "an expedient lie", one needed to improve relations and strengthen the alliance between Washington and Moscow. During the war Washington enlisted Hollywood's help for the war effort; war movies were cleared for content. The Disney organization devoted much of its production capacity to information films and "good neighbor" propaganda to promote harmony with South America. Roosevelt may have asked for a pro-Soviet picture, and Davies was a likely hook on which to hang one.
The resulting movie, over two hours long, is an amazingly didactic speech-fest with almost zero dramatic value. Its only real value is as a study of propaganda filmmaking. But who was being propagandized? Stalin liked the picture and, in a rare move, approved its distribution in the USSR. Americans that knew little of Russia beyond samovars and Bolsheviks might buy the film's blatant misrepresentations at face value. Those better informed might have expressed more shock, had the movie made more of an impact.
Mission to Moscow begins with a dull speech by Davies himself, a bad sign. After a title sequence (scored by Max Steiner with the unimaginative Volga Boat Song) we meet the dramatic version of Joseph Davies, Walter Huston. His lovely wife (Ann Harding) and gorgeous daughter (Eleanor Parker) form a perfect family. Davies even has an amusing chauffeur, who accompanies the Davies to Moscow as a valet but then is given almost nothing to do. There isn't time for character bits, as Mission to Moscow is 100% preaching. It must have the most speaking roles of any film in Hollywood history. Get set to meet a parade of at least two hundred featured players and bits, all with too much to say.
FDR is given the holy treatment sometimes afforded Jesus Christ in films: except for one brief panning shot he's not pictured on screen. The vocal impersonator used for the President is the same in Warners' Yankee Doodle Dandy. We keep expecting to see Jimmy Cagney as George M. Cohan pass Davies outside the oval office.
Davies and company travel to Germany first, for a quick stop in a train station where director Michael Curtiz arranges a couple of complex master shots to establish half a dozen bad Nazi conditions. Soldiers and Hitler Youth march by while deportees wearing numbers huddle to be removed by train ... somewhere. A display case sells copies of Mein Kampf. The Nazi officials are suspiciously shifty.
On to Russia. In 1943 Americans had heard about Soviet purges; Billy Wilder even joked about them in his screenplay for Ninotchka, made more or less around the time that Davies served as ambassador. But few could know that Stalin's secret police were liquidating hundreds of thousands of "inconvenient" comrades. American communists continued to praise the USSR as a worker's paradise and a better alternative to our capitalist system, until revelations after the war and especially after Stalin's demise in 1953 resulted in a steep drop in Soviet sympathizers. But in 1943 Mission to Moscow could tell almost all the lies it wanted to. Exaggeration in service to the war effort was considered a good thing; Frank Capra's own Why We Fight series told expedient falsehoods about the axis, especially about the Japanese.
Mission to Moscow's image of the Soviet Union now seems an evil distortion, as if it were produced by Stalin himself. Moscow life is a succession of pleasant parties; Davies hobnobs with the foreign minister (Oscar Homolka) while Mrs. Davies clinks teacups with the minister's stylish wife, who runs a cosmetics factory to meet the needs of "glamorous" Soviet citizens. The daughter interacts with a stylish class of youth her own age while ice skating and taking sled rides. Everywhere the ambassador goes he finds happy farmers and industrial workers in colossal factories and on model farms. The system has problems but they're all being worked out. The officials blame the glitches on Nazi spies and traitorous saboteurs.
Davies also meets happy American specialists helping the Russians build their industries. In contrast to the horror stories of American citizens being deprived of their passports and executed in gulags, these Yanks praise the Soviet system and remind us that Russia buys a lot of American heavy machinery.
The film goes completely insane when we see a number of Soviets (including obvious intellectuals like a journalist) rounded up and put on trial as conspiratorial saboteurs. In court they voluntarily confess their guilt and inform on comrades that refuse to fess up. Yes, they've been directed by contacts in Nazi Germany. Davies completely approves of this process. As played authoritatively by Walter Huston, these distortions are given maximum credibility.
Around this time the dramatic content of Mission to Moscow more or less disappears, to be replaced by endless montages and position speeches that advance the timeline right up to WW2. The production value here is staggering, with dozens of complicated matte shots and clever transitions involving much original photography. The show must have been a second-unit and special effects challenge. As something we have to watch, however, it's a long-winded ordeal.
Insidious is the only word for the film's whitewash of Stalin's actions and the motives behind them. The speeches and narration excuse his participation in the Nazi-Soviet Pact (a ploy to buy time, they say), ignoring the fact that the USSR seized a big piece of Poland in the bargain. Stalin's invasion of Finland is also grossly misrepresented. Davies, who actually stopped being the ambassador in 1938, continues as a magical envoy for FDR's foreign policy, personally making deals with other European leaders. All of them condemn appeasement policy, a point-blank lie. The last half hour of Mission to Moscow restates arguments, especially the numbingly repetitive message that Uncle Joe Stalin can do no wrong. Stalin (Manart Kippen) appears for the finale like Santa Claus. He's a happy friend of the common man, a sage puffing on a pipe. Boy, is Davies impressed.
Everybody expects topical movies to date, at least a little bit. Mission to Moscow will outrage political minds all across the spectrum. Damned lies are now a matter of everyday living but back in the forties our sources of information were few. Writer Howard Koch was a leftist but Mission would seem the brainchild of the grossly self-promoting Davies. The ex-ambassador was awarded the Order of Lenin (gee, why?). His Wikipedia entry isn't the last word in reliability, but it paints him as a horrible political villain. After the war he lived on an enormous estate in Washington D.C.. He once sold his yacht, the largest private pleasure craft in the world, to the notorious dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo.
When the House Un-American Activities Commission began purging Hollywood of commies and premature anti-fascists in 1947 Mission to Moscow was a frequent topic. The wartime propaganda argument didn't wash for the witch hunters that insisted that the film was evidence of an effort to sneak pro-Communist propaganda into films. Jack Warner and Joe Davies weren't touched, of course, but writer Howard Koch, a hired hand, was soundly blacklisted. For most of the 1950s the writer of Sergeant York and Casablanca, The Sea Hawk and Letter from an Unknown Woman had to go to Portugal and England and work under an alias.
PBS broadcast a week's programs of propaganda films in the early 1980s, with guest speakers. Experts explained and critiqued Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and then Frank Capra came on to talk about his Why We Fight "information" films. For some reason Capra immediately took the defensive, explaining that he had to fight fire with fire against Nazi propaganda; the idea was to unite America into a consensus position. The show of course ended up debating issues like the use of the word "Japs" in Capra's film, as if he were personally expected to reverse the racial attitudes of the time. Why We Fight is, in the balance, so positive a production that it's a shame Capra should have been put on the spot that way.
Mission to Moscow is not even in the same class. I'm glad that it hasn't been destroyed or suppressed, for the insights it gives on political propaganda in a free society.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Mission to Moscow is a fresh, sharp transfer that brings out the best in Bert Glennon's slick cinematography and Don Siegel's montages. A bizarre trailer is included. The movie has an inadvertent use as a trivia game, to spot and identify all the character actors. I mistook a young actress for Marie Windsor but got Gene Lockhart, Victor Francen, Henry Daniell, Roman Bohnen, Vladimir Sokoloff, Virginia Christine, Charles Lane, Mike Mazurki and Frank Reicher. I missed dozens of others, including Cyd Charisse's momentary appearance as a Russian ballerina.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mission to Moscow rates:
1. According to Anne Froelich, assistant to screenwriter Howard Koch, Davies "demanded that the film be made on patriotic grounds." from Tender Comrades, Patrick McGilliganand Paul Buhle, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
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