TCM's Shadows of Russia: The Lighter Side of Revolution
“I feel a little reactionary,” deadpans Hedy Lamarr in Comrade X, 1940.
On their improbable wedding night, anti-Communist reporter—remember them?—Clark Gable gives Bolshevik Hedy Lamarr a luscious, Adrian designed silk nightgown. Unlike Travis Banton, Adrian was concerned with silhouette and in this exquisitely bias-cut negligee—Gable just happens to have it in his suitcase—Hedy Lamarr's figure is highlighted to a spectacular effect.
Long live the products of decadent American capitalism.
Capitalist Clark Gable puts Communist Hedy Lamarr in touch with her feminine side in Comrade X, 1940.
Hedy, playing a variation of Greta Garbo's Ninotchka, is a humorless Soviet scold more concerned with industrial production than with her own femininity, which translates into her humanity.
TCM's Shadows of Russia series, organized and programmed by my favorite film blogger Self-Styled Siren and The New York Posts's fine film critic Lou Lumenick, kicks into a refreshing mode—after the shallow and dopey Reds—as we view the lighter side of the Russian revolution.
Comrade X, directed by King Vidor from a story by Walter Reisch and script by the great Ben Hecht is the story of an American reporter who is blackmailed into getting the beautiful but ideologically rigid streetcar—not named Desire—conductor out of Russia.
Interesting to note that Hedy Lamarr's character is ideologically committed to Communism. But Clark Gable's hard-nosed American reporter never really claims an ideology. In fact, as he and Lamarr are about to face a Soviet firing squad, Gable passionately states: “You're a beautiful woman and nobody's gonna turn a machine gun on you. That's my politics.”
Clark Gable, more than any other American actor, exudes a deep and abiding love for women. In Comrade X he projects just the right degree of lust to melt Hedy Lamarr's Marxist heart. The flawless landscape of Lamarr's face allows this lovely but limited actress to project the heartless core of Soviet totalitarian rule.
Garbo surrenders to Paris fashions and Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka, 1939.
Ninotchka, produced a year earlier, Garbo's best role and her best film, was a huge hit. The story is a classic Hollywood fish-out-of-water tale. Garbo, a Soviet envoy who carries a portrait of Lenin in her suitcase, arrives in decadent Paris and is swept off her feet by the charming and corrupt Melvyn Douglas, and Paris fashions as interpreted by Adrian.
The script, credited to Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch was, in fact, the work of at least ten Hollywood screenwriters. But it is a seamless screenplay and Ernst Lubitsch's assured hand brings a consistent tone to this near-perfect Hollywood classic.
Casual but razor-sharp lines nail the murderous and corrupt Soviet regime.
Says Garbo: "The last mass trials were a success: there will be fewer, but better Russians."
This one piece of dialogue is more honest than the entire three-hour plus Reds.
As in Comrade X, a hard-core Commie babe is taught by a decadent American to get in touch with her feminine side. Love vanquishes politics. Like Gable, Melvyn Douglas has no particular ideological bent except a fondness for champagne and beautiful women. This, I suppose, is a way of indicating the American love of freedom in contrast to dreary and regimented Communism. When Douglas views the lights of Paris he sees beauty and romance. Garbo's Ninotchka sees a waste of electricity—she's already an insufferable Greenie. Thus, Garbo's transformation from Soviet drudge—wisely, Lubitsch keeps Garbo in medium shot emphasizing her chronically bad posture—to capitalist swan is deliriously romantic.
Comrade X and Ninotchka are like Soviet versions of What Not to Wear—and you thought I only watch classic Hollywood movies—with free market American males rescuing Bolshevik beauties from the unspeakable horrors of Communist shmattes. In both films the Commie females are decidedly, er, masculine until all American males effect fierce make-overs, thereby freeing up natural feminine impulses.
I'm sitting with my wife Karen watching What Not to Wear.
Karen: “You'd never nominate me for this show, would you?”
My wife is wearing a killer Prada dress and lethal Christian Louboutin heels. The rabbi's daughter is just as beautiful as when we first met in third grade.
Me: (totally sincere) “Of course not.”
Karen: (totally sincere) “Because if you did, I'd dis-em-bowel you.”
Satire is, perhaps, the most potent weapon in Hollywood's arsenal, and these two films, more than any other I have ever seen, expose and ridicule the evils of Communism. Comrade X and Ninotchka are classic Hollywood movies, hugely entertaining, and deeply enlightening. Both films recognize that Communism is an assured platform for mass murder, but it is also a decidedly anti-romantic ideology. And that is intolerable.
Both movies take it for granted that Stalin's regime was a monstrous killing machine liquidating vast swaths of its people. Hollywood is properly repelled by Soviet Communism. In contrast,Walter Duranty, Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for praising Stalin and defending the brutality of the Communist purges. The Soviet-manufactured mass starvation in the Ukraine never happened in the expert opinion of this Communist hack. Predictably, Duranty never recanted his noxious opinions—a true Stalinist—and the New York Times never returned the Pulitzer—true running dogs of elitism.
With two elegant and fluffy romances, Hollywood righteously skewers Soviet Communism.
For a shining moment tinsel town was on the side of the angels.
By the way, “Garbo Laughs,” was the line used by MGM to sell Ninotchka. But if you look carefully at the scene where Garbo laughs, it appears that her voice is out of synch—I ran the scene back on forth on my DVR like a complete lunatic. Almost certainly, Garbo's laugh was dubbed, probably by some anonymous actress or sound editor.
Robert J. Avrech