erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1940s posts

Wednesday September 14, 2016

Movie Review: The Green Hornet (1940)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Is there a better example of white privilege in the superhero world than the Green Hornet?

He’s got a superfast car ... that Kato built. He’s a got a gas gun ... that Kato invented. He’s got a mask ... that Kato made. What does the Hornet do exactly to earn top billing? Is he good in a fight? Well, at one point we see him trade blows with a 50-year-old dry cleaner, so not really. It’s Kato who has the moves. In one of the earliest depictions of Asian martial arts in Hollywood movies, he sneaks up behind guys, and, with one swift, silent blow, karate-chops them into unconsciousness. It’s so swift it almost feels like a forerunner to (or inspiration for?) Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch.

Each evening, Kato (Seattle’s own Keye Luke) is there to help Britt Reid (Gordon Jones) on with his trenchcoat, mask and hat; then he drives him to the scene of a crime. After the cliffhanger, he’s there with the car to speed the Hornet from inquiry and prison. He’s the gentleman handler of an incompetent.

Did no one see this disparity back then? Were we all that blind?

The Green Hornet 1940 serial

Not the brightest bulb
The Green Hornet was born on the radio. In 1932, George W. Trendle, a rapacious lawyer, was searching for content for his radio station WXYZ in Detroit, and he thought a cowboy version of Robin Hood/Zorro would work well for Depression-era audiences; so with Fran Striker, a prolific freelance writer, he created The Lone Ranger. The Hornet is their 1936 update—the Ranger, but in a modern, urban setting:

  • Tonto --> Kato
  • Silver --> The Black Beauty
  • Revolver--> gas gun
  • The William Tell Overture --> The Flight of the Bumblebee

Instead of leaving behind a silver bullet, the Green Hornet’s calling card is a button reading “The Green Hornet.” (Not clever, but a must-have, I’m sure, for kids in the fan clubs.) Oh, and instead of the hero being thought of as a hero, or even a vigilante, he’s considered just another racketeer by the people in the city. 

Battling rackets is actually perfect for the serial form. It allows for progress within the stasis necessary to keep the serial going. The big boss doesn’t get his until the final chapter, but with each episode, and each racket ended, the Hornet gets a little closer.

But it works oddly here. At the beginning of most chapters, in Reid’s office at The Daily Sentinel, someone—the police commissioner, reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent), Reid’s own bodyguard Mike Axford (played with an over-the-top brogue and vaudevillian befuddlement by Wade Boteler)—will inform him of a racket in town: shoddy equipment at a mine; insurance scam at a flying school; car thieves at a parking lot. And invariably Reid dismisses the idea in either a high-handed or a jokey/fratboy manner:

Mike: I just made an important discovery!
Reid: Don’t tell me you solved perpetual motion!
Mike: No, I ... [saddened] No, it’s about the Mortensen place over at the Westwood Pike.
Reid (still joking): Is it haunted?

This is from Chapter 6, “Highways of Peril,” and it’s not hard for viewers to connect the dots:

  1. Hey, the Mortensen place is where the syndicate has operated in the past, and...
  2. Mike says it’s been taken over by the Blue Streak Bus Co., which...
  3. A rival bus operator has just told Reid is trying to run him out of business!

But it takes further cajoling before Reid finally, sourly relents: “Alright, alright, put Lowry on the story.” Is this obstinacy an act? The way Clark Kent’s meekness is an act? I could never figure it out. Worse, Reid often investigates things himself in a hamhanded manner: He rides one of the buses that’s breaking down; he takes off in one of the airplanes that crashes; his own car gets stolen from a parking lot.

In the very first chapter, after Reid refuses to take a public stand against the rackets, we see, via stock footage, a local dam burst, which is tied to faulty construction. “I tried to give you that story the other day!” Jenks cries. In a later chapter, an old friend of Reid’s phones him with news about a racket in the transportation biz; then he’s cut off, and found dead. Jenks offhandedly refers to his friend’s company as “the Jinx company” because of all of its recent accidents, and Reid expresses surprise. Jenks: “Ever read your own paper?”

You get the feeling that if Britt Reid were simply a better editor, the Green Hornet wouldn’t be necessary at all.

Jenks, Axford, Reid in "The Green Hornet" (1940)

Jenks, Axford, Reid, slightly confused.

Raison d’été
That’s a good question, actually: Why does Britt Reid become the Green Hornet? This is an origin story so we should get a definitive answer. We don’t.

As the serial opens, Kato and Reid are in their garage testing a chemical; then we get some painful exposition, including why Kato, with World War II looming, is no longer Japanese, as he was in the radio serial:

Reid: That chemical has a powerful kick! You think the motor will stand it?
Kato: It’s the strongest motor ever built! And the fastest.
Reid: Thanks to your scientific knowledge.
Kato (subservient): I am satisfactory ... as a valet, too?
Reid: Perfectly. It was a lucky day for me when I rescued you from the native in Singapore.
Kato (affronted): He tried to kill me. Because I am a Korean.

Kato then pushes the car horn, Reid says it sounds like the “giant green hornet” they encountered in Africa, and he anticipates springing it on the world. “It’ll prove to that skeptical old dad of mine that I’m not just a playboy!” he says.

As the Green Hornet? Slow down, Sally. Reid hasn’t thought that far ahead. (Which raises the question: What was the superfast car for? To tool around town?) He first gets the germ of the idea later that day, when a judge and police commissioner encourage The Sentinel to look into the rackets:

Reid (ultra serious): The Sentinel will back you, but it won’t take the lead. That’s for you to do. What are you waiting for—a modern Robin Hood to lead you out of the woods?
Comm.: Yes, Reid. That’s just what this city needs: a Robin Hood.
Reid (to secretary, amused): Miss Case, check the want ads and see if there’s a modern Robin Hood looking for a job.

But after they leave, he strokes his chin and muses aloud: “A modern Robin Hood...” So you could say the Green Hornet starts as a joke.

Except he still doesn’t start. First, the local dam bursts; then a foreman named Gorman is about to blow the lid off a tunnel-digging operation. “I’m hoping to get something from Gorman tonight,” Jenks says. (“I doubt if you will,” Reid responds helpfully.) Of course, Gorman is killed, and that turns out to be the last straw for Reid.

No, he still doesn’t become the Hornet. Instead, he writes editorials against corruption in the city—so many editorials, in fact, that the racketeers try to shut him up by buying his newspaper. Reid is suspicious; but when Axford tries to follow a potential buyer, his car is cut off and he’s roughed up by hoodlums.

And that appears to be the final straw. Kato develops the mask and gas gun, and off they go:

Reid: Funny isn’t it, Kato?
Kato: What, Mr. Britt?
Reid: When we built this secret garage to construct our super speedster, we never thought it would become the lair for a modern Robin Hood! 

Yes. Funny.

Green Hornet Strikes Again

The first superhero?
The most annoying thing in the serial may be the Hornet’s voice. At first, I thought Jones was doing the Bud Collyer/Superman thing—dropping a register to key the transformation—except his superhero voice sounds tremulous, almost desperate. Turns out, it’s not Jones. It’s Al Hodge, who voiced the Hornet on the radio. Apparently, the producers wanted continuity from radio to theatre, even if they couldn’t manage it from scene to scene.

The serial does do a few things well. There’s nice irony in the fact that Axford, Reid’s bodyguard, keeps trying to kill him (as the Hornet). I also like the resolution to the mysterious crime boss. In every episode, in a nondescript office, three crooks gather before a fourth, Curtis Monroe (Cy Kendall), the chief’s right-hand man, who invariably mentions that the chief is about to call. Then he turns on an intercom-like device and they get instructions. The only point to an unseen chief is that he’s one of the other characters. So who could it be? The Judge? Jenks? Kato? Nope. It’s Monroe himself. “Using a phonograph record to conceal from the rest of the gang that you were the chief!” the Green Hornet cries in the final chapter. I liked this twist because I didn’t guess it, but it does make the syndicate seem a bit small? Just these guys? Taking over nearly every industry in the city? From that office?

Another plus: The serial doesn’t overdo the standard cliffhanger resolution, which is to wait for the next chapter and then insert a shot of the hero falling off the thing about to explode before it explodes. Half the time, Reid survives simply because he’s ... thickheaded. He’s in a car that crashes into a gas station (knocked out, but fine), near a car that explodes (blown back, but fine), falls out a second-story window (no biggee), and near a gas tank that explodes (coolio). In a later chapter, a car goes over a cliff with him in it. “These armored cars are built for protection!” he tells Kato the following week.

Question: Was “The Green Hornet” the first modern superhero to hit the big screen? An argument can be made. The ones that came before were in the past (Zorro/Lone Ranger), the future (Flash Gordon), or in the jungle (Tarzan). So why didn’t the Hornet catch on like, say, Batman? The lack of a solid comic-book foundation probably didn’t help. More, I think it’s the white-privilege thing. The Hornet is a mix of cool (mask, car) and lame (everything else), and the lame trumps the cool. The minority does all the work and the rich white guy gets all the credit? For a fantasy, that’s a little too close to reality. 

Green Hornet and Kato, 1940

That's right, Kato, you got rooked. 

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Posted at 06:25 AM on Sep 14, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Friday June 17, 2016

Movie Review: The Red Menace (1949)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The Red Menace,” a 1949 B-picture from Republic Studios, was one of the first anti-communist movies to be released during the post-WWII Red Scare, but from a distance it’s kinda quaint. Sure, there’s a Soviet cell operating in the U.S., but it’s the furthest thing from effective. A better title for the movie might be: “Red ... Menace?”

A tall, broad-shouldered lunkhead, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell), is pissed that he’s been ripped off in some GI real estate scam and the government won’t do anything about it. Overhearing, a party member invites him to a nearby bar “for discriminating people,” where two broads make a play for him. While the brunette, Yvonne (Betty Lou Gerson), looks on disgruntled, the blonde, Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), takes him back to her place and mixes drinks while he peruses the shelves and ... Hey, what are these books? Marx? Lenin? You’re a commie! Yeah, but a looker. C’mere. Pucker up, baby.

The Red Menace

Irish Italian Jewish Negro
The Soviet cell that Bill Jones is slowly indoctrinated into is like one of those WWII movie platoons: someone from every race:

  • Henry (Shepard Menken), a nice Jewish poet, cuckolded by Mollie on a weekly basis.
  • Mollie, Irish Catholic, whose mother hangs around like a gray cloud, mourning the loss of her daughter’s respectability.
  • Sam, the affable Negro front-office worker at The Toilers, the commie newspaper.
  • Reachi, the Italian, who wonders if communism is a democracy as they say, why is it called “a dictatorship of the proletariat”?
  • Nina, the foreign beauty, who will become The Love Interest.

Things first go south when Reachi is killed in a back alleyway for asking questions. Then Henry gets curious, too, and is kicked out of the party. He quickly turns into a patriot:

At least that [American] flag has three colors in it, not one. Not one bloody one!

But he can’t take the ostracism and throws himself out a window. He leaves a note for Mollie, telling her to return to her mother, which she does; in a church. Sam leaves with his respectable father, while Yvonne, always ratting out others, is picked up by the cops, who, it turns out, know everything. (Because our law enforcement is on the case.) Then she goes mad. (Because that’s what happens to commies.)

That’s it. The filmmakers, I’m sure, wanted to make sure communism didn’t seem attractive, but they were so successful they made it seem hardly a threat at all. Which makes the way the movie is bookended even odder.

‘We can’t suspect everybody’
It opens steeped in paranoia. Nina and Bill flee California, sure that communists are right behind. At an Arizona gas station, the attendant makes small talk—Where are you from? Where are you going?—and Nina freezes:

Nina (whispering): Why’d he say that?
Bill: Just to make conversation probably.
Nina: I don’t believe it. There must be some reason why he’s so curious.
Bill: Take it easy, Nina. We can’t suspect everybody.

After we get the rest of the story in flashback, we see them driving into Talbot, Texas, where Bill suddenly becomes sensible: “I’ve been thinking, Nina. What are we running away from? This is the United States not a police state. Let’s go see that sheriff.” Which they do. And they tell him their tale. (This really should’ve been the spot for the flashback, but the movie screwed up that, too.)

The sheriff’s response to their tale?

You folks have been running away from yourselves, and the fear in your own minds.

The entire movie is an argument against the paranoia of groups like HUAC, presented as an argument in favor of such groups.

Nobody on either side of the political fence saw this. The Daily Worker denounced the movie, while California’s own HUAC, the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, honored it, commending “Republic Studios and those persons who have so courageously assisted in this production.”

And then, like most anti-communist movies, it died at the box office. No one went to see it because that stuff's a drag: preachy, heavy-handed. It's called the free market.  

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Posted at 06:00 AM on Jun 17, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Monday March 14, 2016

Movie Review: Intruder in the Dust (1949)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Intruder in the Dust” was one of several movies produced in the short progressive period between the horror of the Holocaust (when tolerance suddenly seemed like a good idea) and the paranoia of the Red Menace (when fuck it). They were called “message movies” or “problem pictures” and included such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” (anti-Semitism), “Pinky” and “Home of the Brave” (racism).

“Intruder,” also about racism, only got made because of one man, Clarence Brown, who learned at the feet of Maurice Tourneur, Jacques’ daddy, during the silent era, then became one of the main dudes at MGM during its lush glory days. He was also a member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, and a Southerner, making him an odd choice to push for such a racially progressive picture.

Intruder in the DustWhy did he do it? In Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends,“ he talks about being in Atlanta during the 1906 race riots when 16 black men were lynched. Three decades later, William Faulkner published his novel about a near lynching, and as Brown recounts:

I didn’t walk, I ran up to the front office at MGM. “I’ve got to make this picture,” I said. “You’re nuts,” said [Louis B.] Mayer, because the hero was a black man. “If you owe me anything, you owe me a chance to make this picture,” I said.

There were battles throughout production—both on location in Oxford, Mississippi (Faulkner’s hometown), and at MGM. Mayer felt the protagonist, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), was “uppity,” and that the picture would lose money. He was right about the latter—did it even play in the South?—but the picture earned critical raves. The National Board of Review included it on its top 10 list, and it finished second to “All the King’s Men” in the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture category. It received multiple nominations from the WGA, Golden Globes, and British Academy, and won BAFTA’s short-lived “UN Award” (for the film “embodying one or more of the principles of the United Nations Charter”). In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “By all our standards of pre-eminence, this is—or will prove—a great film.”

He’s right. At the least, I was startled by how good “Intruder” is. The cinematography is often reminiscent of Dorthea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs, while Beauchamp (pronounced “Beach-em”) is a type of rich, powerful African-American character that Hollywood, always worried about the Southern market, rarely allowed to be seen on screen.

It also bears a passing resemblance to a later, much-beloved film. Maybe more than a passing resemblance.

Before Atticus, before Superman
Seriously, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, didn't anyone bring up “Intruder in the Dust”? Let's count it off:

  • A black man is jailed for a horrific crime.
  • He’s represented by a white lawyer.
  • A kid, related to the lawyer, is central to the story—the main character, more or less.  
  • There’s a standoff on the courthouse steps between an unarmed white person and a white mob, who want to lynch the black man.
  • The real criminal is a white relative of the victim.

Yes, there are differences. It’s murder rather than rape. The black man here, Beauchamp, is proud, almost haughty, as opposed to the humble, bland Tom Robinson. Our lawyer, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian), is no Atticus, and starts the case assuming his own client guilty. Rather than the lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, it’s the lawyer’s teenaged nephew, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who acts as our eyes and ears. Oh, and Stevens proves Beauchamp innocent even without a trial. Apparently, in 1949 Mississippi, the criminal justice system worked.

The courthouse-steps confrontation not only prefigures “To Kill a Mockingbird” but—indulge me—“Superman vs. The Mole Men,” an hour-long intro to the 1950s TV series, in which the Man of Steel stops a Texas mob from lynching an alien. Of course, being Superman, he’s hardly unarmed, but otherwise the dynamic is the same as in the other two: the stalwart one (without a gun) against the angry many (Southern racists) to protect the defenseless one (black/alien). (Note to readers: If you know of other such scenes in novels/movies, write me.)

Here, the stalwart one is old Southern white lady, Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), sitting in a rocking chair and doing her mending. Why her? Calculation on the part of Stevens. The mob, he says:

...would pass even [deputized] Will Legate sooner or later when there's enough of them. But there's one thing that would stop them. Long enough anyhow. And that's somebody without a gun. [Pause] A lady. [Pause] A white lady.

I have to admit, I always found the “Mockingbird” scenario absurd. Atticus thinks one unarmed man can turn back a mob in the middle of the night? Him and his lamp and his book? Really, he’s only saved because Scout and Jem show up, and Scout (a white lady) asks questions of different people in the mob. She humanizes them.

Faulkner’s way is smarter, and Patterson, supposedly handpicked by Faulkner, is a story in herself. Born in Tennessee in 1875, 10 years after the Civil War, she died in 1966, a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She began her career on stage, and became a frequent character actress on Broadway before doing the same in movies. The subhed to her New York Times obituary reads: “Was Said to Have ‘Played Mother of About Every Star in Hollywood.’” Here, she mothers this role into being. She was Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.

Her nemesis in the scene is the perfectly named Nub Gowrie (Charles Kemper), the brother of the deceased, and the man who actually did the killing. He’s a Southern stereotype—fat, ineffectual, unethical—but you also get a sense of a man trapped in his role. As in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Nub is propelled along by the expectations of the mob.

There’s already a sleepy, carnival atmosphere in town, as folks gather to watch the lynching, and Gowrie, sitting in his truck, is confronted in by-the-way fashion. A woman with a baby begins it. (Think about that for a moment.) She says, “Well, Mr. Gowrie, when you reckon you gonna get started?” Jokes are made, Nub gets fed up, and after he gets a metal canister overflowing with gasoline, he walks across the street, sloshing things as he goes, to confront Miss Eunice through the screen door. She refuses to budge. So he dumps gas on the floor, and, with a bully’s grin, lights a match.

Miss Eunice: “Could you step out of the light so I can thread my needle?”

And that defuses it. Literally. Nub waves the fire out, puts the match in his shirt pocket (nice touch), and we get the following exchange:

Nub: Miss Habersham, I ain’t gonna touch you now. You’re an old lady but you’re in the wrong. You’re fightin’ the whole county but you gonna get tired. And when you do get tired, we gonna go in.
Miss Habersham: I’m goin’ for 80 and I’m not tired yet.

Then she stands up, goes to the porch, and talks to the crowd. “Go home! Everyone one of you, go on home. You oughta be ashamed!” Trying to shame the crowd. So she was Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too. 

To be honest, I think the scene should’ve ended with “I’m not tired yet.” But the movie keeps doing this. It keeps pulling back to make grander, progressive points that deflate the power of its smaller scenes. It doesn’t trust its micro and insists upon the macro. It wants pontification. 

The worst example is in the movie’s penultimate scene.

Micro > Macro
“Intruder” opens beautifully with the arrival of Beauchamp in the custody of the benevolent sheriff (Will Geer), and his walk through a gauntlet of tense, Southern faces. Beauchamp, unbowed even in handcuffs is almost contemptuous here; and on the courthouse steps, he turns and orders Chick to get his uncle to represent him. Interestingly, though he asks for him, he never confides in the uncle; he confides in Chick, with whom he has a history. Halfway through the movie, Stevens wonders over this. Why didn’t Beauchamp trust him? It’s Miss Habersham who answers: “You’re a white man,” she says. “Worse than that, you’re a grown white man.” Worse than that. From a 1949 movie? Amazing.

Most of the movie’s casting (Miss Eunice, Beauchamp) is perfect, but Brian, I have to say, is all wrong for Stevens. Born and bred in New York, he doesn’t attempt a Southern accent; he just has that bland, post-World War II voice. There’s something unpleasant about him in look and manner, too; something pinched in the eyes. In his obit, from 1993, the Times wrote, “Mr. Brian repeatedly portrayed characters who were ruthless or powerful or both, including some villains in Westerns,” and I can see it. But maybe that’s what makes him right for this? Stevens isn’t an Atticus, after all. He’s supposed to be the hero but he actually gets in the way of justice. Everyone else does the hard work—digging up graves, jumping into quicksand—while he stands around pontificating and sucking on his pipe.

He’s doing the same in the movie’s penultimate scene.

By this point, Nub has been arrested for the murder of his brother, the crowd dispersed, Beauchamp freed. We get some awful dialogue between Chick and Stevens as they watch the crowd disperse (“It’s alright, Chick”/“Is it?”), when silence would’ve spoken volumes. Then a few days later, Beauchamp shows up at Stevens’ office to settle his debts, but Stevens, all paternal benevolence, refuses payment since he didn’t do anything. (He’s right.) Beauchamp insists; Stevens mentions that he did break his pipe, and it cost two dollars to fix. Beauchamp says he’ll pay for that, then pays him with: a bill, two quarters and 50 pennies. “I was aimin’ to take ’em to the bank, but you can save me the trouble,” he says, with a glint in his eye. Then he insists, as in any transaction, that the pennies be counted. Stevens, still with the upper hand, tells him to do it. Which he does. And as he does, we get this exchange:

Stevens: That night in the jail—why didn’t you tell me the truth?
Beauchamp: Would you have believed me?

It seems straightforward enough, this back-and-forth, but there are chasms beneath it. Stevens is acting the great white father here, even though he knows what he knows; and instead of playing along, Beauchamp calls him on it. Beneath the bland words, he’s calling Stevens a racist. And that’s too much for Stevens, our ostensible hero, whose face suddenly darkens and becomes pinched; and he puts up a barrier—a book—between himself and Beauchamp. He expects Beauchamp to leave. But Beauchamp doesn’t leave. He keeps standing there until Stevens testily admonishes him. 

Stevens: Now what. What are you waiting for now?
Beauchamp: (Standing taller) My receipt.

Holy crap, that’s good. The movie really should’ve ended there (the novel, in fact, does), or with Beauchamp walking outside, and through the town, and past the people that wanted to lynch him just a few days earlier. But instead we pan back to Stevens and Chick on the balcony, watching Beauchamp. And we get more pontificating:

Chick: They don’t see ‘em—as though it never happened. ... They don’t even know he’s there.
Stevens: But they do—same as I do. They always will as long as he lives. Proud, stubborn, insufferable. But there he goes, the keeper of my conscience.
Chick: Our conscience, Uncle John.
(Music wells up: THE END)

MGM saves the white man in the end by letting him sound profound; by pretending he’s the hero. The story knows different.

SLIDESHOW


  • INTRO: Lucas Beauchamp (an amazing Juano Hernandez) arrives at the police station, unbowed, despite being charged with the murder of a white man.

  • The crowd isn't exactly friendly. 

  • It is, however, reminiscent of Dorthea Lange's photography. 

  • John Gavin Stevens: the lawyer Beauchamp asks for but never trusts. Not exactly Atticus Finch. 

  • The movie's villain, the perfectly named Nub, walks with a cannister of gasoline to confront another of the movie's heroes. 

  • Miss Habersham is Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman. 

  • The threat is ignited. 

  • And defused. “Could you step out of the light so I can thread ma needle?”

  • Shaming the crowd that has no shame. She's Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.

  • The movie ends on this false note, with this false hero. 

  • Faulkner's novel ends on this true note with this true hero: ”My receipt." *FIN*
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Posted at 07:03 AM on Mar 14, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Wednesday March 09, 2016

Movie Review: Mission to Moscow (1943)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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. Mission to MoscowThe 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.

War-time propaganda
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.

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Posted at 07:41 AM on Mar 09, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Thursday March 27, 2014

Captain America (1944): The Slideshow Review


  • The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered World War II. It was a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies, but Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were bolder: they drew Cap decking Hitler on the first cover. So what did Hollywood do when they got ahold of Cap three years later? 

  • They turned him into this. Where are his wings? Where is his shield? Where's Bucky?

  • He isn't even Pvt. Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. Worse, he doesn't fight the Nazis.

  • He fights this guy.

  • With a gun.

  • He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is.

  • But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.

  • And this.

  • Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. No, he doesn't want that.

  • There's some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...

  • ... a few shots that impress.

  • And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...

  • Some of the time.

  • But it is what it is: a 15-chapter movie serial with cliffhangers. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, actually demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence.

  • He tries ...

  • ... and tries ...

  • But he keeps failing.

  • It's almost like a bad dream. Full review here. *FIN*
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Posted at 06:00 AM on Mar 27, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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