Mission to Moscow
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Synopsis: In 1936 Joseph E. Davies, a respected former lawyer, was appointed as ambassador to the Soviet Union by President Roosevelt. His primary mission was to determine the extent to which the Soviets were able and willing to serve as partners with the United States against the growing threat of the Axis powers. During his stay Davies observed the 1936-37 purge trials, the intrigues of Germany and Japan behind the scenes, and what he considered to be Europe's reluctance to offer the necessary support to the Soviet Union. Davies and his family also overcame a number of misconceptions about ordinary life in the Soviet Union. In 1941, he published his account in the book Mission to Moscow.
Among the many films produced by Hollywood for the wartime effort, Mission to Moscow (1943) stands out for the boldness and controversial nature of its message, as well as its unique attempt to recreate recent history in fictionalized form. The book, which was compiled from diary entries, letters and official reports, became a surprise bestseller upon its initial publication. Easily the most controversial aspect of it--carried over in the film--remains its defense of the infamous 1936-38 Moscow show trials, during which a number of highly placed officials within the Soviet government were accused of collaborating with the exiled political figure Leon Trotsky to undermine the Soviet regime through acts of treason and sabotage, including the 1934 assassination of Stalin’s potential rival Sergei Kirov. Although he expressed reservations about the trials, Davies stated that the confessions appeared genuine, concluding: “To have assumed that this proceeding was invented and staged as a project of dramatic political fiction would be to presuppose the creative genius of a Shakespeare and the genius of a Belasco in stage production.” Nonetheless, many commentators at the time argued that the trials were staged and still do so today. It is widely believed, for instance, that Stalin himself was behind the assassination of Kirov.
One of the chief difficulties that Warner Brothers and director Michael Curtiz faced was that of casting actors in the roles of prominent and very much living public figures. It is very odd indeed to see Joseph E. Davies himself introducing the film, followed immediately by a scene with Walter Huston as Davies writing the book. The Forties character actor Manart Kippen is often lauded for his remarkable resemblance to Stalin, though he is arguably no match for Mikheil Gelovani, a native Georgian who began playing Stalin in various Soviet films starting in the late Thirties, culminating in the monumental late Stalin-era propaganda features The Fall of Berlin (1949) and The Unforgettable Year 1919 (1952). The actor playing President Roosevelt, in contrast, is barely shown at the beginning of Mission to Moscow and even then is largely off-screen.
While the film was necessarily studio-bound, Warner Brothers exercised an unusual degree of care to create an aura of authenticity. The technical advisor on the film, Jay Leyda, was a noted film scholar who studied in Moscow during the 1930s under Sergei Eisenstein and thus had firsthand knowledge of the Soviet Union. Leyda later wrote classic histories of the Soviet and Chinese cinemas. In recognition of its meticulous recreation of Russian locations, the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction (Carl Weyl and George James Hopkins).
Given the inherent logistical difficulties in casting a film of this sort, it is hardly surprising that Mission to Moscow is a hodgepodge of foreign accents. There are many native Russian speakers in the film, most prominently among them Vladimir Sokoloff as President Kalinin--but Russian-speaking viewers will most likely snicker at Frieda Inescort's mangled attempt at the language as Madame Molotov. More credibly, Austrian-born actor Oskar Homolka played Maxim Litvinov and fellow Austrian Helmut Dantine played Major Kamenev, while Belgian actor Victor Francen played Vyshinsky. Incidentally, look for the young Cyd Charisse in a bit part as a ballet dancer.
The film's sympathetic view of the Soviet Union stirred considerable debate upon its release. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, far from complaining about the film's propagandistic qualities, praised it for "a boldness unique in film ventures, which usually evade all issues, it comes out sharply and frankly for an understanding of Russia's point of view." He added that "[...] it has no hesitancy whatever in stepping on a few tender toes." At the same time, he criticized the film for overlength and excessive reliance on dialogue, which he felt came from its dependency on the book.
In many other publications, reviewers attacked the film as propaganda, especially for its glorification of a "totalitarian" regime. Most notably, in the May 9 issue of the New York Times, the noted philosopher John Dewey and his colleague Susanne La Follette, a news editor, published a lengthy letter to the Editor characterizing the film as "totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption." In particular, they complained about the film's liberties with the purge trials and its refusal to recognize the sheer scale of the purges, which affected every level of Soviet society. They also noted the film's "subtly anti-British" bias and accused it of a "sinister totalitarian critique of the parliamentary system." In their conclusion, Dewey and La Follette described Mission to Moscow as a "major defeat for the democratic cause" and even compared it to Hitler's "method of confusing public opinion through propaganda." The scholar Arthur Upham Pope rebutted many of Dewey and La Follette's accusations, sparking a sharply-worded reply from Dewey and La Follette. Upon its New York release Mission to Moscow broke house box office records at the Hollywood Theatre, while in Boston the City Council asked to have it banned.
Howard Koch, the film's screenwriter, answered the widespread accusations in a New York Times column dated May 27 and published on June 13. While conceding that the film may have presented Davies as too readily adopting a rosy view of the Soviet Union, he defended his decision to condense the purge trials for dramatic purposes and insisted that the defendants' confessions came from "an authenticated transcript of the trial." He also maintained that his depictions of the Soviet occupation of Finland, the English and French governments' reluctance to aid the Soviet Union, and the conservative American Congressional critics of Roosevelt were supported by the historical record. In addition to the classic Casablanca (1942), Koch was also known for his scripts for the patriotic wartime films Sergeant York (1941) and In Our Time (1944). However, his work on Mission to Moscow would later attract the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who accused him of being a communist sympathizer and had him blacklisted. It is a mark of how politically turbulent the Forties and Fifties truly were that the very same film, allegedly produced by Warner Brothers at the suggestion of President Roosevelt to serve the immediate wartime needs of the state, would later serve as evidence by that same state against lowly Hollywood scriptwriters.
Producer: Robert Buckner
Director: Michael Curtiz
Script: Howard Koch, based on the 1941 book by Joseph E. Davies
Photography: Bert Glennon
Music: Max Steiner
Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Set Decoration: George James Hopkins
Technical Advisers: Don Siegel, Jay Leyda
Cast: Joseph E. Davies (as himself in Prologue), Walter Huston (Joseph E. Davies), Ann Harding (Mrs. Davies), Oskar Homolka (Maxim Litvinov), George Tobias (Freddie), Gene Lockhart (Vyacheslav Molotov), Frieda Inescort (Madame Molotov), Eleanor Parker (Emlen Davies), Richard Travis (Paul Grosjean), Victor Francen (Vyshinsky), Henry Daniell (Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop), Barbara Everest (Mrs. Ivy Litvinov), Dudley Field Malone (Prime Minister Winston Churchill), Roman Bohnen (Krestinsky), Maria Palmer (Tanya Litvinov), Moroni Olsen (Colonel Faymonville), Minor Watson (Loy Henderson), Vladimir Sokoloff (Mikhail Kalinin), Konstantin Shayne (Nikolai Bukharin), Manart Kippen (Joseph Stalin).
BW-124m. Closed captioning.
by James Steffen