My wife gazes at me, and she's like, “Huh?”
“Since I'm watching all these Russian themed movies I feel the need to get in character.”
“Comrade Robert, if you please.”
My poor wife heaves a weary sigh.
“Comrade Robert, how long will this lunacy continue?”
“Counter-revolutionary! Saboteur! Trotskyite!”
Comrade Karen sternly points to the stairs, and I make my way to a Zhivago-like exile in the living room for the next few hours.
Oh, the sacrifices I make for my comrades at Big Hollywood.
Kim Darby and Bruce Davison in The Strawberry Statement.
She's a humorless scold.
He's a laid back golden boy.
Naturally, they fall in love.
We continue our look at Shadows of Russia, the TCM series that explores how American movies viewed Tsarist and Soviet Russia.
This time, we're on the American campus.
First up, The Strawberry Statement (1970), I never saw this movie and was kind of anxious to see the very young Bruce Davison and Kim Darby as college students caught up in the student riots of the late 60's.
Davison is an easygoing jock, completely apolitical. Darby is ardently dedicated to “the movement” and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Davison gets involved in the protests in order to hit on Darby. There are lots of shots of Darby and Davison walking around looking confused and soulful. As was the fashion among filmmakers during that period, there are lots of zooms, and the camera endlessly circles our young protagonists—I actually got nauseous—as they agonize over the clash of love and politics.
This is a wretched movie, akin to one of those dopey student films shot with a Bolex. The script is amateur, with no discernible structure. The director—and I'm using that term loosely—could not direct traffic in the Sahara desert.
Darby is supposed to be a student radical, but she has no fire. She looks drugged, lost in a role that is not there. Davison fares somewhat better. He manages to find his character, a romantic opportunist who is, at last, so outraged by, ahem, police brutality, that he actually gets angry and in slow motion, natch, leaps into action.
Not a Russian in sight. And though the students are a bunch of spoiled suburban middle class leftists, there is no direct talk of Communism.
Confused by the inclusion of this film in the series I shot off an e-mail seeking clarification from Self-Styled Siren, who, with The New York Post's Lou Lumenick programmed this fascinating series.
Replied Self-Styled Siren:
The Strawberry Statement — I haven't watched it yet and I have no idea. It wasn't on my and Lou's shortlist and you may quote me on that. They just programmed it as an overnight thing.
Done and done.
Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in The Way We Were.
She's a humorless scold.
He's a laid back golden boy.
Naturally, they fall in love.
This time it's Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were (1973). And I've got to admit, this film is much better than I remembered.
Initially set in the late 1930's on a gorgeous college campus, all autumn leaves and red bricks buildings, Babs is a committed Socialist/Communist/Idealist, working her way through college as a soda shop waitress. Redford is an apolitical athlete—code for Republican—who discovers that Babs is the only girl on campus who appreciates his more poetic side—he's a writer who eventually goes to Hollywood.
Though politics is central to The Way We Were, the film manages to keep the love story front and center.
Years ago I read the shooting script and there was a lot more politics, with an emphasis on the Hollywood blacklist. Previews in Pasadena were not good. Audiences intensely disliked—duh—all the political posturing and so it was left on the cutting room floor.
Talented screenwriters understand that the best characters are defined by their faults. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents serves up barrels of faults for both characters. Streisand is a relentless political animal, and though the filmmakers admire her idealism, they recognize that her radical pose masks deep insecurities and an abiding narcissism.
As Redford angrily observes: “Not everything that happens happens just to you.”
Redford and his friends simply want to enjoy their martini lunches, thereby maintaining the baronial privileges of WASP society. As in Ninotchka and Comrade X, the apolitical male is a down to earth sidekick to the whacky but lovable female radical. Redford, like Clark Gable and Melvyn Douglas, takes it upon himself to teach the Commie hottie to be more, um, female.
Early in The Way We Were, Redford orders Streisand to lift her foot. She complies and Redford ties her shoelace. Thus she’s characterized as an artfully shlumpy Jewish girl—hey, this is Babs—and Redford, glowing in Gatsby white, not only teaches her to be a better woman, but in a sly sexual and religious reversal, he’s the shicksah goddess. There’s a touching gesture repeated throughout the movie where Streisand tentatively reaches out and brushes Redford’s golden hair off his forehead. It’s a lovely and telling act that encapsulates all the tenderness and tension in their doomed love story.
Surprised at my affection for this film, I said to Comrade Karen, “You know, in spite of all the politics, I really like the film.”
Replied Karen: “I don’t remember any politics. I just remember the love story and crying like a baby in the end.”
Drum roll, please!
Comrades, the movie that inspired the Shadow of Russia
Mission to Moscow
(1943), based on the memoir of the same name by Joseph P. Davies, is, well, jaw dropping. Not because it’s so bad, which it is. But because it’s a piece of slick Stalinist propaganda produced by Warner Brothers.
How did this wretched film come into existence?
With the Soviet Union abandoning the Soviet-Nazi pact, and joining America and the allies against Germany and Japan, Roosevelt understood that the American people needed to be, um, reeducated in their attitude towards the Soviet menace. Thus, Roosevelt asked Hollywood to cooperate and produce films that cleared up all the alleged misunderstandings about totalitarian Soviet Communism and mass murdering Josef Stalin.
Or that’s the standard story. In Red Star Over Hollywood
, Ronald and Allis Radosh report that:
In a newspaper interview, Davies said that it was he who had approached Harry Warner about the book, after other film companies had shown interest. If it was to be a movie, he told Warner, “I want you to make it.” Warner agreed, and Davies was paid $25,000.
Whatever the truth of the film’s genesis, using Davies 1941 memoir, Hollywood went to work.
A credulous dupe, Davies, Roosevelt’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, was, like New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, a reliable apologist for Communism and Stalin’s murderous policies. Davies was, as Lenin famously labeled Western liberals, “a useful idiot.”
Most shocking in Davies memoir is the treatment of the Moscow show trials that took place between 1936 and 1938. In a major purge, Stalin accused the old Bolshevik leaders of plotting with Nazi Germany to overthrow the Soviet regime. The defendants were primarily old buddies of Lenin who had been celebrated as the first heroes of the Soviet Revolution. They were now accused of working with Trotsky to sabotage industry, assassinate Stalin, and bring down the Soviet regime.
The charges were absurd and most of the defendants were executed. Their confessions are lovingly rendered in a courtroom scene that paints the Soviets as scrupulous jurists. In fact, the hapless defendants were drugged, horribly tortured and told that their families would be murdered unless they confessed.
The film faithfully presents Davies view that the trials proved “a record of Fifth columnist and subversive activities in Russia under a conspiracy [involving] the German, Japanese governments that [was] amazing.”
Davies was intimately connected with the production and at every stage carefully vetted the script and demanded rewrites so that the finished product accurately reflected his pro-Soviet point of view. In fact, it was Davies idea to include the hagiographic prologue in which he pompously introduces the film.
Howard Koch, a member of the Communist party in the 1930’s, wrote the script. He hired Jay Leyda, former student of Soviet propagandist Sergei Eisentein and an ardent Stalinist, as his technical adviser. Thus with the triumvirate of Davies, Koch and Leyda in place, the film’s slavish adherence to Comintern discipline was assured. It was left to Michael Curtiz, a ruthlessly efficient and amoral director, to make sure that Mission to Moscow
had all the gloss of any normal Hollywood production.
The film looks great with a constantly prowling camera shooting through glass reflections. Ann Harding, as Davie's patient wife, wears fab-u-lous hats, and, natch, scrumptious furs. At an embassy dance a dashing and spiffily costumed Russian officer whirls Davies daughter, Eleanor Parker—yup, Davies pimps out his movie daughter—around the dance floor, assuring the unreasonably anti-Communist young woman that the great Soviet social experiment is just, um, misunderstood. And hey, try reading Marx’s Das Kapital
because it’s a total page turner.
At this point in the movie, I hit the pause button and got all interactive: I screamed.
Not surprisingly, the script enforces the outrageous Stalinist line for the infamous Soviet invasion of Finland. Walter Huston, playing Davies as insufferably heroic and saintly, cries out to an American critic: “Russia knew she was going to be attacked by Hitler so the Soviet leaders asked Finland’s permission to occupy strategic positions to defend herself against German aggression. She offered to give Finland twice as much territory in exchange, but Hitler’s friend Mannerheim refused and the Red Army moved in.”
Exactly the Soviet justification for the invasion of Finland.
Critical reception to Mission to Moscow
—it was a major release with klieg lights and a red carpet—was split along political lines more than aesthetics. The powerful and clueless Bosley Crowther of the New York Times gave it a thumbs up writing that the movie showed: “... a boldness unique in film ventures” since it “comes out sharply and frankly for an understanding of Russia’s point of view.”
Though on the left of the political spectrum, James Agee was far more perceptive: “Through rumor and internal inference the Stalinists here stole or were handed such a march that the film is almost describable as the first Soviet production to come from a major Hollywood studio.” Summing up, Agee lamented that the film’s essential thesis is, “there is no difference between the Soviet Union and the good old U.S.A.”
Meyer Schapiro, the distinguished art critic and historian, said it best: “One must turn to Nazi propaganda films for similar technique and indifference to truth.”
Farley Granger as a noble Russian peasant in The North Star.
From the delusions of Mission to Moscow we move to The North Star (1943), another lyrical ode to Communism, this time penned by Lillian Hellman. She joined the Communist Party in 1938, and resigned in 1940, but she continued to defend the Soviet Union for years. Called as a witness by the HUAC in 1952, Hellman took the fifth in order to avoid going to prison.
In many ways, The North Star is an even more shocking piece of Soviet propaganda than Mission to Moscow. The film tells the story of a happy go lucky peasant cooperative in the Ukraine. So delirious with joy are our farmers—Walter Huston all noble and saintly again, that they break into song and dance, music by Aaron Copeland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, in the sun drenched fields.
The Nazis invade. Which is great because Erich von Stroheim finally shows up as a sadistic Nazi physician and actually brings some fire to this listless production directed by Lewis Milestone. Young villagers fight and die as heroic partisans.
This is, to say the least, a complete Orwellian rewriting of history.
The Ukranians furiously resisted collectivization. Hundreds of thousands of farmers smashed their tools and killed their own animals rather than hand them over to the Soviets. Mass starvation followed and Stalin withheld all aid. Four million Ukranians died of hunger and disease. When the Nazis invaded, the Ukranians did not rise up as partisans. In fact, most welcomed the Nazi army as liberators. And let us not forget that the Ukranians were rabid Jew-haters, aiding the Nazis at every step. Indeed, the Ukranians were active and enthusiastic genociders notorious for being even more brutal than the SS. The 1941 Babi Yar massacre of 34,000 civilians, mostly Jews, could not have taken place without the willing collaboration of the Ukranians.
The North Star was nominated for six Academy Awards.
After screening these two pieces of Communist propaganda, I really needed a break so I turned to the next titles in the TCM series, under the heading Diplomatic Immunity.
Okay, this photo of Liz Taylor is not from Conspirator, it's actually from Suddenly Last Summer, but we need some visual relief, right?
Conspirator (1949) with Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor is an anti-Communist film. And you know what, it’s pretty darned effective. The story is simple, Elizabeth Taylor—she was only 17-years old when she made this film—falls in love with the dashing military officer Robert Taylor—he was 38 and really uncomfortable in their love scenes. Taylor and Taylor marry and she discovers that he’s a Soviet spy.
Says Liz: “You’re a traitor and a spy.”
Robert Taylor gets all dialectical and responds: “Those are just unpleasant words. I’m a loyal supporter of the greatest social experiment in the world. It will take a while for you to change your political attitude.”
Liz shoots back: “I haven’t got a political attitude, all I know is it’s wrong and I hate it.”
Okay, that’s kind of refreshing. Right and wrong. Good and evil. But have you noticed that not one of our movies gives voice to a coherent defense of capitalism and democracy? Nevertheless, Conspirator builds to a restrained but powerful resolution.
Bibi Andersson in The Kremlin Letter.
Finally, we come to The Kremlin Letter, (1970). I scribbled a few notes and here they are.
Exposition. More exposition. Whoopeee, lesbians! Exposition. Oh my gosh, George Sanders is in DRAG!!! More exposition. Okaaaay, hot Ruskie prostitutes. Richard Boone is really fat. Have bottle will travel. Orson Welles phones it in. Ditto Max von Sydow. Barbara Parkins is sex starved! She gets it on with… Patrick O’Neal!?!? Bibi Andersson is sex starved. Oh no, she’s also hooking up with O’Neal. Am I missing something? I have no idea what’s going on. John Huston must have been hammered. Whoa! George Sanders just jumped out a window. He actually did commit suicide three years later. Depressed. Eyeballs bleeding. Help, I'm melting!!!!
George Sanders in drag in his last role.
As you can glean from my notes, The Kremlin Letter is incoherent. The cold war is reduced to a sleazy sexual tableaux. According to the cynical minds who developed and produced this film, the conflict between Western democracy and Communist totalitarianism is meaningless. Both sides are evil. Both sides murder indiscriminately. This film is an excellent model for post-modern moral equivalence.
I’m beginning to think that Hollywood cannot be trusted to deal honestly and effectively with the evils of Communism—unless the story is framed as a romantic comedy. So far Ninotchka and Comrade X are not only the best films in the series, but far and away the most insightful.
I climb the stairs, back to the master bedroom.
“Karen, I'm done for the night. Whatcha doing?”
“Watching Comrade Obama speak to the proletariat.”
I turn on my heel, and head back to my gulag in the living room.
Time to indulge in some escapist entertainment, Project Runway: a celebration of the free market, fashion, diva designers and my very favorite comrades, extremely thin, extremely neurotic models.
Robert J. Avrech