Movie Review: Mission to Moscow (1943)
If I’d been a member of HUAC back in 1947, this is the movie I would’ve focused on. Screw the others. Seriously, someone saying “Share and share alike” in a Ginger Rogers movie? Gregory Peck and Paul Muni portraying allied soldiers as heroes? Russian peasants smiling? You look small just bringing it up. You look like bullies. Which you were.
But “Mission to Moscow”? Good god, is there a movie more wrong in the history of Hollywood?
At the same time, I don’t think Hollywood is to blame for it.
Stalin: for all mankind
Some background: In 1941, Simon & Schuster published a book, “Mission to Moscow,” by Joseph E. Davies, about his experience as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Once the U.S. entered World War II, according to Jack Warner, Pres. Roosevelt urged him to make a movie out of it, which Warner Bros. studios did, with Walter Huston, Abe Lincoln himself, as Davies. The real Davies not only introduces the movie (in ponderous fashion), he had creative control over the script. And when he didn’t like the original draft, Jack Warner tapped Howard Koch to do the rewrite. Four years later, as a friendly witness before HUAC, Jack Warner denounced Koch as a communist sympathizer for that work, and he was later blacklisted.
Politically, Koch was definitely on the left, stumping for Henry Wallace in 1948, for example, but that’s only a crime to the Breitbarts of the world. One of the original “Hollywood 19” called before HUAC, he was also the first to break ranks with their ultimately unsuccessful legal strategy. In an open letter in The Hollywood Reporter in November 1947, he went his own way. Meanwhile, scapegoated and fired by Warner, he freelanced for a few years (“Letter from an Unknown Woman” for Max Ophuls) before work mysteriously dried up; so in 1950 he moved to England, where he continued to write under a pseudonym. He eventually returned to the U.S. and settled in Woodstock, NY, wrote several forgettable screenplays in the 1960s, published his memoir, “As Time Goes By,” in 1979, hocked his Oscar to pay for his granddaughter’s law school in 1994, and died in 1995 at the age of 93. (Heather Heckman, a Ph.D. student at Madison, goes deep into Koch’s story here.)
That Oscar, by the way, was for writing “Casablanca.” He also wrote “Sergeant York.” That’s your communist sympathizer. Sergeant York. Only in America.
The director of “Mission,” meanwhile, was Michael Curtiz, whose previous films had been “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and who went on to make “This is the Army,” starring Ronald Reagan, among others. Another obvious com-symp.
So how did we get this apology for Stalinism? The problem, I assume, is Davies. The dude was just wrong about everything.
In some respects, “Mission” is a typical, corny, Hollywood movie. As it opens, Davies, a lawyer, is about to go on a long-delayed lake vacation with his wife and daughter (Ann Harding and Eleanor Parker), when he’s pursued in a boat by his chauffeur Freddie (George Tobias, Abner Kravitz of “Bewitched”), with news of a phone call. “I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States!” Davies cries. Setting up the obvious punchline and titular mission. FDR wants him to suss out both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in terms of the looming war.
When he arrives in Germany? Awful! Davies looks with disgust as Hitler Youth march near the Hamburg train station. When he arrives in Russia? Great! Davies looks with delight as Soviet troops train near the Moscow train station.
How good are things in the Soviet Union? Very good! Caviar is plentiful, gender discrimination nonexistent, workers happy. The Soviet leaders, meanwhile, are down-to-earth and open-minded. “I believe in individualism as it’s practiced in America,” Davies declares upon arriving. “All we want is that you see all that you can before you arrive at your conclusion,” Soviet leaders respond sagely.
He visits a factory and is amazed by its output. His wife visits a department store (run by Mrs. Molotov) and is amazed by its luxury items. He’s told that the harder the people work, the more money they make. “The greatest good for the greatest number of people,” he’s told. “Not a bad principle,” he responds. “We believe in it, too!”
Ah, but there’s trouble in paradise. Sabotage! Betrayal! And in whose name? Nazi Germany! Thus we get a truncated, laughably incorrect version of the show trials, the Stalinist purges, that led to the death of millions of innocent people. But here, no one’s innocent. Here, they all confess without pressure. “The only pressure came from my own conscience,” says one saboteur stoically. “Based on twenty years of trial practice,” Davies pontificates from the cheap seats, “I’d be inclined to believe these confessions.”
Seriously, you couldn’t create a better dolt if you’d tried. At one point, others in the U.S. embassy are suspicious of the Soviets. Not Davies:
U.S. official: The Kremlin may be recording every word we say.
Davies: Well, perhaps they have a reason. Moscow is a hotbed for foreign agents.
Official: But eavesdropping, sir! Why that is an open affront of international rights!
Davies: I never say anything outside the Kremlin about Russia that I wouldn’t say to Stalin’s face, do you?
Official: Well, that’s putting it rather stiffly sir.
Davies: Then stop gossiping and stop listening to it. We’re here in a sense as guests of the Soviet government. And I’m going to believe they trust the United States as a friend until they prove otherwise.
The kicker is when he meets Stalin himself, and tells him, “I believe, sir, history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.” Then it’s off to Britain for a meeting with an up-and-comer, Winston Churchill, to tell him how the world really works.
At home, as war approaches, Davies makes excuses for everything Stalin does. The Nazi-Soviet Pact? Stalin had to do that to give himself more time to prepare for war. Attacking Finland? Finland asked Russia to attack it—to protect herself against German aggression.
You can barely watch “Mission to Moscow” for the number of times you facepalm.
Occasionally, we get something good. I like the conversation Davies and his family have on a train bound for Berlin:
German: You Americans have a very good tobacco. Ours is terrible—at the moment. We tend to improve it. Very shortly.
Mrs. Davies: Really? What do you intend to buy?
German: I’m not so sure we’ll have to buy from anyone. Our Fuehrer is a very clever man. He has many ideas. ... We Germans don’t mind a few discomforts now because we know what’s in store for us in the great future life.
Davies’ daughter: You mean on earth or somewhere else?
German: Shall we say, somewhere else on Earth.
That’s nice wordplay, and the scene isn’t overdone. Throughout, Curtiz plays with shadows well, as he always did. He’s a pro, Koch is a pro, it’s a Golden Age Hollywood movie.
And it’s still atrocious.
Even so, I would argue “Mission to Moscow” is less communist propaganda than war-time propaganda. If it stands out, it’s because the rest of our war-time propaganda (portraying Japan and Nazi Germany as cruel regimes), was, if anything, underplayed against the awful reality. There’s no conspiracy here, just stupidity. “Mission” is a tale told by an idiot, but the idiot didn’t come from Hollywood.