October 17, 2016

1943. Stalin Previews the Hollywood Film "Mission to Moscow"

A Film Screening for the Soviet Premier
Joseph Stalin (Manart Kippen) as Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin speaks with ambassador Joseph E. Davies (Walter Huston) in a scene from the Warner Bros. film "Mission to Moscow" (1943)
From Newsweek, June 14, 1943, p. 88:

Giggles in Moscow
Since its release early last month, Warner Brothers and Joseph E. Davies's "Mission to Moscow" has thrived on controversy (Newsweek, May 10). Vociferously attacked on the one side as a whitewash of the Soviet regime, and just as staunchly defended on the other as a worthy tribute to a gallant ally, the film has currently split Hollywood leaders into two sharply divided camps on the advisability of making films with political implications. The following dispatch from Bill Downs, Newsweek correspondent in Moscow, survived a three-day delay at the censor's desk to add an international huff and a puff to the storm in a samovar.

The Russian premier of "Mission" was staged at the Kremlin, following a banquet for an international audience of diplomatic elect. Flanked on one side by a translator, and on the other by a beaming Joe Davies (then on his return engagement as missionary to Moscow), Stalin sat poker-faced throughout the two-hour tribute to his people and regime. The next night the print was loaned to the United States Embassy and run off for the staff and a group of newspaper correspondents.

In each case the audience reaction is best summed up in one word—squirm. And alternating with the squirming was the self-conscious tittering of those who had to sit in the Presence while an onscreen Joe Davies held forth on the subject of Joe Davies.

On occasion there were cinematic touches that provoked outright laughter. A bevy of Russian girls tricked out in ski-and-skating costumes looked just like what they were—Hollywood extras. Frieda Inescort, playing Madame Molotoff, attempted a spot of Russian dialogue that gave the Moscow natives a bad moment. And when the camera faded in on a Muscovite restaurant featuring the soulful strumming of a gypsy orchestra, several young army officers at the preview enthusiastically volunteered to withdraw on the off-chance of finding the place.

Stalin's poker face may have derived from the fact that the film's portrayal of the Soviet Premier was judged the least adequate in a roster of generally excellent characterizations. Playing Stalin for sweetness and light, Manart Kippen missed the strength and power and twinkling humor with which Stalin invariably impresses foreign visitors.

There was less of the dead-pan among members of the British diplomatic legation, with some officials pointedly hinting that the film's unfriendly, inept, and undiplomatic conception of His Majesty's representatives to Russia was ill-advised.

No one doubts that "Mission to Moscow" will be a sensational success in Russia, if only because the Soviets are anxious to see how they look to a foreign, though friendly, observer. At the same time, it was unanimously agreed that the Warner film was excellent propaganda for fostering better relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, although a number of changes are indicated if the film is to obviate a tendency of the realistic Russians to laugh out loud at the wrong places.