Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mission to Moscow on TCM tonight

Following up on a screening and an informative panel discussion last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a rarely seen WWII-era propaganda film (not to be confused with the similarly-subtitled Police Academy installment) is airing on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 10PM EST (it's also available as an unrestored print-on-demand DVD via the Warner Archive, no doubt due to the involvement of Casablanca's Michael Curtiz and Howard Koch). During the era of the US-Soviet Union wartime alliance, the film, based on ambassador Joseph E. Davies's visit to the Stalinist USSR, goes all-out in seeing the nation through, well, rose-colored glasses, as an economically productive nation driven to war despite its lack of any aggressive intentions (even the invasion of Finland is portrayed as an act of self-defense), partly due to a treacherous Nazi conspiracy led by Leon Trostky; Stalin is shown as not only a great leader, but a friendly, avuncular fellow who's willing to stop by for a personal chat with Davies towards the end of his stay. (It should be noted that the film is somewhat coy about portraying Communism per se, in a way that's similar to how Richard Fleischer's Che!'s intentionally distances itself from its controversial subject's politics, and makes some stabs at showing free enterprise elements in the Soviet economy, such as bonuses for productive workers and a small perfume store in Moscow; also, despite the BAM blurb saying that the film portrays the Soviet system as "progressive" and Davies meeting directly with FDR, it doesn't compare the Soviet economy to the New Deal).

I've been curious about the movie ever since Jesse Walker mentioned it back in 2004, saying that in addition to the overly favorable view of the USSR, "It would be a terrible movie even if its politics weren't so repulsive: It's stiffly acted, poorly plotted, padded with stock footage, and just generally clumsy. But it's a must for fans of propaganda kitsch." And BAM's screening did not disappoint; while not a "good" film in the normal sense, this is definitely worth watching for its historical value and/or its unintentional humor (it says a lot about the film that the audience at BAM's screening was trying to be respectful, but still laughed at many of the more outlandish scenes), despite being somewhat overlong at a full two hours (including an extra half-hour or so about the war effort even after Davies leaves Russia).

And while most of the unintentional humor comes from the political stuff, and the crew at Warner Bros. does their professional best to make the material work (including an effective, if somewhat heavy-handed score by Max Steiner), there is indeed a lot of clunkiness to go around; from the real-life Davies's uncomfortable appearance at the beginning of the film, to the huge amount of stock footage (despite being well edited by Don Siegel, who hadn't yet started directing; there's enough montage material that Siegel claimed to have worked with more footage than Curtiz), to a very talky script, and some just plain odd decisions (in the scenes where Davies meets and talks with FDR, the latter is played by an actor, but is shown so obliquely that he's barely seen, whereas all the other actors playing real-life figures are shown normally). The acting is generally adequate, and much less hammy than one would expect, although nobody except Walter Huston's Davies has much screen time, and the lack of credits for most of the actors makes it hard to tell who's who in the many small parts (including a pre-stardom Cyd Charisse as a ballerina).

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