8 February 2009 | bkoganbing
FDR's Man In The Kremlin
One of the most controversial films ever made, Mission To Moscow was not good for anyone's career who got involved with the making. Like Song Of Russia made over at MGM, Mission To Moscow was a film made specifically to improve Soviet-American relations in facing the common enemy they had.
The Soviet Union no matter how much the American Communist Party trumpeted their virtues, still had a real image problem in a lot of quarters due to the purges that Joseph Stalin conducted, due to the tremendous dislocation his five year plans created, due to the misery caused by the collectivization of agriculture and the systematic slaughter of Kulaks. Kulaks roughly translated could be anyone who owned a large estate to someone who might own a slightly bigger piece of land and maybe some farm animals. Stalin slaughtered thousands of them to force collectivization.
Our first ambassador to the Soviet Union was William C. Bullitt who was sent there in 1933. The Republican post World War I presidents did not diplomatically recognize the Soviet Union, Franklin Roosevelt's first foreign policy initiative was to extend recognition. Bullitt was a guy at first enthused, but then got very disillusioned by what he saw. He and FDR had a falling out and he left Moscow in 1936.
Joseph E. Davies was an industrialist and large Democratic contributor who did go back with FDR to the Wilson administration. He was appointed US Ambassador and after that became a cheerleader for the Soviets. As is shown in the film, Davies just blindly accepted every piece of propaganda handed to him. Films made in 1943 were not going to cast a critical light on the dark underside of Communist Russia.
Walter Huston dusts off his Sam Dodsworth persona to play Ambassador Davies. Ann Harding plays his dutiful wife and Eleanor Parker their daughter. Vladimir Sokoloff is President Kalinin, Gene Lockhart plays Prime Minister Molotov and Oscar Homolka plays Foreign Minister Litvinov all well known personalities of the day. In the Soviet Union like other countries Davies would have been required to present his credentials to the president and Russia did have a figurehead president who was a great deal less than Mission To Moscow makes him out.
At that time Joseph Stalin was only the Secretary of the Presidium of the Communist Party, but as such wielded the real power. The People's Republic of China adopted a similar set up that never changed with Mao Tse-tung as Party head and holding the real power while Mao lived.
Stalin is played by actor Manart Kippen and is only seen once as Davies is prepared to leave the Russian embassy. He's so shy and retiring the portrayal is so absolutely ludicrous that it leaves me laughing. But Davies sitting through the purge trials and accepting without question all the testimonies and forced confessions is also ludicrous.
After his time was up as Ambassador, Davies wrote the book on which this film was based and did go on a speaking tour promoting Russo-American cooperation. He was doing this on behalf of his friend and president FDR, but Davies had also become a real true believer in the 'miracle' that was Soviet Russia.
When the Cold War started three films became the targets of the House Un American Activities Committee, they were ripe targets that the conservative members were grateful for. The three films were The North Star from 20th Century Fox, Song Of Russia from MGM, and Mission To Moscow. None got more criticism than this one. Screenwriter Howard Koch who had won an Oscar this same year for Casablanca, earned a place on the blacklist because of Mission To Moscow. Whatever Koch's personal political convictions were, in this case all he did was translate to the screen what was in Davies's book.
Davies was held up to ridicule and in some measure deserved a bit of it because of Mission To Moscow. Time and the end of the Cold War have given us a proper perspective of the Russian contribution towards defeating the Nazis. In fact it was the lion's share in Europe. Policy decisions were made on the basis of keeping the Russians in the war before the Americans and British and respective allies got on the European continent with forces to make it a two front war, first in Italy and then in France. There was a justifiable fear that Stalin would make a separate peace with Hitler just as he signed the non-aggression pact with him before World War II started in 1939.
Of course the reports that Davies wrote off about the brutality of the Soviet Union were also true. The reactionaries had a field day with him, he was never taken seriously again. For that reason Mission To Moscow has not worn well either as history or entertainment.