Saturday July 17, 2021
More on 'Mission to Moscow'
I'm reading Alan K. Rode's excellent biography “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” which includes so much backchannel Warner Bros. stuff from the 1930s and '40s, and maybe none so important as the machinations of Joseph E. Davies during the making of “Mission to Moscow” in 1943.
Davies was a lawyer who had been ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938 as the Moscow trials began, and who wrote a book about his experiences there. It was published in 1941, sold well, and FDR supposedly encouraged Jack Warner and Warner Bros. to make a movie about it. They did, with Curtiz directing, and Walter Huston starring, but Davies was a problem from the get-go. He submitted 24 pages of rewrites to Curtiz and producer Robert Buckner: “Buckner attempted to finesse these issues,” Rode writes, “by inviting the ambassador to Hollywood to discuss his concerns.” That just led to additonal requests for changes. These weren't minor changes, either:
The most egregious examples concerned the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland and the characterization of the Stalinist purge trial that was the heart of the film. Davies insisted on adding dialogue indicating that Russia did not invade Finland. The final cut included Walter Huston as Davies reciting this whopper after being asked about the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939: “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 Mannheim refused and the Red Army moved in.” When Buckner challenged Davies on the veracity of this startling revisionism, the former ambassador stated that he possessed “privileged knowledge.” Buckner said that Davies was “often prone to pulling this 'mysterious knowledge' to silence us.”
Why was Davies so insistent on whitewashing Stalin's crimes? To what end? He wasn't a communist. Was it just an insistence on a worldview he assumed he knew better than anyone? Soon he and his wife relocated to Beverly Hills, where, during production, he kept nitpicking. He saw that actors were made up to look like Churchill and Stalin, and wondered why Huston wasn't made up to look like him. “That, Mr. Davies,” Curtiz responded, “is because you are not famous.” He was quoted in the trades in January 1943: “There is no man in the world I would trust more fully than Joe Stalin.” And the movie was made the way it was made.
And when it was released in April 1943, there was almost universal condemnation.
The brickbats didn't come only from those on the Right. Two noted liberals, John Dewey of Columbia University and Suzanne La Follette, niece of the famed progressive senator, castigated the film in the New York Times. Dewey had led an independent commission with La Follette that had investigated Stalin's purges. He categorized Mission to Moscow as “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption—a propaganda which falsifies history through distortion, omission or pure invention of facts.” Dewey and La Follette enumerated most of the film's more damning attributes, including deletion of any mention of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, the whitewashing of the purge trials, the overtly negative portrayal of prewar Britain and France, and the unfavorable portrayal of the U.S. Congress, contrasted with the film's presentation of “the Soviet dictatorship as an advanced democracy.” There was the additional fiction of the Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky being portrayed as one of the defendants in the trial sequence. There had been no public trial for Tukhachevsky; Stalin had him tortured and executed in June 1937.
But Davies didn't stop. He traveled to Moscow to screen the picture for Stalin. Apparently the Soviet leadership was tickled to see itself portrayed on a Hollywood movie screen, but the falsehoods were so egregious they burst out laughing.
Many in Hollywood weren't laughing.
Sam Wood, the director of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Kings Row, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, was a right-wing zealot who viewed domestic Communism as a clear and present danger. Mission to Moscow motivated Wood to join with the screenwriters James Kevin McGuiness (described by no less than Ronald Reagan as a Red-baiter), Casey Robinson, and Morris Ryskind, along with the director-producers Victor Fleming, King Vidor, Walt Disney, Clarence Brown, and others to form the Motion Picture Alliance for Preservation of American Ideals in February 1944.
The Motion Picture Alliance led to FBI and HUAC investigations, and the Hollywood blacklist, where careers and lives were lost. Sure, there were communists in Hollywood, screenwriters mostly, but most of their attempts to get Marxist thoughts on screen never made it past front-line producers—let alone a Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. It took an upstanding U.S. ambassador to do that.
One wonders if the scales ever fell from Davies' eyes.