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A screenplay by Lillian Hellman and an all-star cast including Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim and Farley Granger (in his film debut) highlight Lewis Milestone's controversial 1943 World War II drama The North Star. The film focuses on the people of a happy Soviet farming collective in 1941 whose lives are shattered following a violent invasion by the Germans. Condemned by many as blatant Communist propaganda to help rally support for the alliance between the United States and Russia at the time, The North Star is a fascinating blend of politics and melodrama.
The idea to make The North Star came initially as a request from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to producer Sam Goldwyn. "In the winter of 1942, when the news from the Russian front was very bad indeed," explains actor Farley Granger in his 2007 autobiography Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway, "Goldwyn received a message from President Roosevelt through Lowell Mellett, the chief of the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information, that America needed a film about our Russian allies." It would be a portrayal designed to gather sympathy for the Russian people and strengthen American support for the U.S. government's alliance with the Soviet Union. Goldwyn was very enthusiastic about the idea and rushed the film into production. Fueling his enthusiasm was also the fact that President Roosevelt's son, James, was an executive at Goldwyn's studio at the time.
Securing the talents of writer Lillian Hellman, who was under contract to him at the time, Goldwyn first considered making a straight documentary about the war in Russia. Hellman began planning a trip to Russia with director William Wyler to research the project. Hellman had traveled there once before in 1937 but had not been able to visit the Ukraine, which was the area in which she was most interested for any potential story. However, when Wyler unexpectedly enlisted in the Air Force, plans for a documentary were scrapped. "But Goldwyn and I - and Washington, behind the scene - went on talking about a Russian picture," said Lillian Hellman in her 1969 memoir An Unfinished Woman, "and finally came to what seemed like, and could have been, a sensible solution: we would do a simple, carefully researched, semi-documentary movie to be shot in Hollywood." Goldwyn hired Academy Award-winning director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front ) to direct. Celebrated cinematographer James Wong Howe would be behind the camera, and Aaron Copland and Ira Gershwin would contribute the music and lyrics to several folk songs for the film.
Lillian Hellman went to work on the screenplay. While she had written adaptations of her plays for Hollywood before including These Three and The Little Foxes, The North Star would be her first original script written directly for the screen. "Once the outline had been finished and approved," said Hellman in a 1943 interview, "I wrote the first complete draft on the cuff, you might say. I was cheerful when I began and assured Goldwyn that it would take me only three months. Actually it took six." She spent seven weeks buried in research. Hellman re-read Russian novels and perused the Soviet newspaper Pravda regularly.
Hellman found that her trip to Russia in 1937 was extremely valuable in helping the authenticity of her script. "For one thing," she explained, "the action of The North Star takes place in a farming community, and I had once been taken through a collective farm new Moscow...Then little things kept coming back to me - the way a dining room table was laid, the faces of village people as they walked along the road or shopped in their village store, and snatches of their conversation. The script sounds authentic, I suppose, because Russian motion-picture people to whom I've shown it said it read like a Russian script, which pleased me very much."
After the stellar cast was assembled, shooting commenced on The North Star in February 1943. Farley Granger, whom Goldwyn had signed to a 7 year contract following his initial audition, was thrilled to be working with such talent on his first film. "I was starting my film career in the very best company," he says in his autobiography. "Each actor had his own beautifully honed technique, and every one offered something from which I could learn. Before each scene, Mr. Milestone...would explain to those involved what was happening and how he expected them to react. He would then shoot the scene as many times as he had to in order to get a finished product that satisfied him." Co-star Walter Brennan took Granger under his wing, mentoring him and making him laugh in the midst of such serious subject matter. "One memory from The North Star that still tickles me," says Granger, "is a trick Walter played for my benefit...One afternoon in his dressing room, he picked up his phone and, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Goldwyn, commenced firing people at the studio - the head of accounting, the motor pool chief, and the entire makeup department. Before too much chaos spread, he called back with outrageous explanations and rehired everyone. His practical joke was cruel, but his performance was very funny."
From almost the beginning, Lillian Hellman and director Lewis Milestone butted heads. Hellman, who wasn't a big fan of Hollywood, resented Milestone's suggestions to improve her screenplay. According to A. Scott Berg's 1989 book Goldwyn: A Biography Hellman fired off a letter to Milestone in February 1943. "I understood that you were satisfied with the script and would not begin to add to it your own particular director's imagination and knowledge," she wrote. "I was, therefore, shocked to find that you are evidently not satisfied with the script, and that you seem to feel no hesitancy in basically changing not only the sequence of the story, but its characters, and its plot...just such goings-on is the reason why decent writers don't like to work in Hollywood. It is an ugly and insulting conception of writing." She complained to Goldwyn as she grew more disenchanted with the project along the way. Goldwyn tried to placate her, but he remained supportive of Milestone.
Tempers reached a boiling point between Hellman and Goldwyn during a rough cut screening of The North Star. According to A. Scott Berg, Hellman was not happy with what Goldwyn and Milestone had done with her script and began to cry 40 minutes into it. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Goldwyn yelled at her. "How dare you cry?"
"Don't tell me when to cry," she replied. "You've turned it into junk."
Hellman was so angry that she bought out the rest of her contract with Goldwyn and the two parted ways professionally forever.
Despite Hellman's objections, Goldwyn remained enthusiastic about the project. "I don't care if this picture doesn't make a dime," Goldwyn reportedly said, "just so long as every man, woman and child in America sees it." To help drum up support for the film upon its release in the Fall of 1943 Goldwyn called upon his old friend, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He sent Hearst a print of The North Star in hopes that he could ensure positive press in the newspapers that he controlled. However, the plan backfired. After viewing the film Hearst wired Goldwyn the following message: "You are a very great producer Sam but I think a good American like yourself ought to be producing pro-American propaganda instead of pro-Russian propaganda."
In response Goldwyn wired back to Hearst: "...I assure you that The North Star was not made as propaganda for anything but purely as entertainment and the locale might just as well have been Poland, Holland or any American farm community."
Even though several reviewers for Hearst papers liked the film, Hearst had all positive references pulled from his papers. "Hearst's major New York paper, the New York Journal-American, came out on the morning after the premiere with a very positive and enthusiastic review," recounts Farley Granger in his autobiography. "Goldwyn and everyone else connected with The North Star were thrilled. Hearst was decidedly not. That morning's review had slipped by him. He made sure that the next edition of the Journal-American reversed its positive review. It also made the outrageous suggestion that the film was not only Red propaganda but Nazi propaganda. Hearst's evening tabloid headlined its review, 'UNADULTERATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA.'"
While The North Star stirred up some controversy over its politics, the film also had many supporters. The New York Times called the film "heroic" and went on to say, "...this lyric and savage picture suggests in passionate terms the outrage committed upon a peaceful people by the invading armies of Nazi Germany and it offers a clamorous tribute to the courage and tenacity of those who have sacrificed their homes, themselves and their families in resisting the Fascist hordes in this war." Time magazine called the film a "cinemilestone" and added, "Does North Star effectively bring the experience of modern war to U.S. cineaddicts, most of whom have viewed modern war only from the safe distance of some 3,000 miles? Answer: No other Hollywood film has done the job quite so well."
Unfortunately, the positive reviews did little to help The North Star, which ultimately fizzled at the box office with little interest from the public. However, it did receive six Academy Award nominations including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Musical Score, Best Sound and Best Original Screenplay.
Later in 1957 with the burgeoning of the cold war and McCarthyism, The North Star was completely re-cut to air on television after being singled out by the House Un-American Activities Committee as being pro-Communist. All sympathetic Soviet references were completely removed, a narrator was added warning against the "menace of Communism," the location was changed from Russia to Hungary, and a new title was given to the film: Armored Attack. The original version of The North Star was not shown again to the public until 1976.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: Lillian Hellman (story and screenplay)
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson
Music: Aaron Copland
Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Cast: Anne Baxter (Marina Pavlova), Dana Andrews (Kolya Simonov), Walter Huston (Dr. Pavel Grigorich Kurin), Walter Brennan (Karp), Ann Harding (Sophia Pavlova), Jane Withers (Clavdia Kurina), Farley Granger (Damian Simonov), Erich von Stroheim (Dr. von Harden), Dean Jagger (Rodion Pavlov), Eric Roberts (Grisha Kurin), Carl Benton Reid (Boris Stepanich Simonov), Ann Carter (Olga Pavlova), Esther Dale (Anna), Ruth Nelson (Nadya Simonova)
by Andrea Passafiume