Historian Todd Bennett tells the story of an American propaganda film gone wrong.
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf here with Ed Ayers.
PETER: and Brian Balogh.
BRIAN: Hey, how are you?
PETER: Pretty good. Today we’re talking about history in the movies. We’re looking at different ways filmmakers have used history, whether that be to teach history or, in the case of the next story, to rewrite it.
BRIAN: During World War II, Hollywood studios were experiencing something of a golden age in moviegoing. After a decade of economic depression, people were finally ready to shell out for the big screen again.
TODD BENNETT: I think the figure that best illustrates that is throughout the war years 85 million Americans, 85 million, attended movie theaters each and every week. And this was at a time when the US population totaled roughly 130 million.
BRIAN: That’s a remarkable statistic.
TODD BENNETT: It is remarkable.
BRIAN: This is Todd Bennett.
TODD BENNETT: And I’m an assistant professor of history at East Carolina University.
BRIAN: And Bennett says that along with this massive surge in movies’ popularity came the idea that they could have a very profound influence.
TODD BENNETT: There was this sense that movies, in particular, could change the way people thought and even behaved.
BRIAN: So it’s the early 1940s. The US has just entered World War II, fighting on the same side as the Soviet Union. The Soviets are supposed to keep the Nazis busy in the East, while the US and other European powers take care of business in the West. But the American people, they’re suspicious of the Soviets.
One of the biggest fears being that the Soviets would sign a peace treaty with the Nazis like the one they had just signed a few years earlier– a pact the Nazis broke. But around this same time, an interesting character comes along, Joseph Davies, former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. And in 1941, Joseph Davies writes a memoir.
TODD BENNETT: Entitled Mission to Moscow.
BRIAN: About his time as an ambassador.
TODD BENNETT: And he did it, in his own words, to improve American views of the USSR and to support Roosevelt in his glorious crusade, I think he put it, to win the war by trying to build some kind of a viable alliance with Joseph Stalin.
BRIAN: And so the next year, either Davies or the presidents of Warner Brothers studios–
TODD BENNETT: Harry and Jack Warner devise the idea of turning the book into a film largely because they wanted to serve a political purpose, which was, again, to increase American support for their new– to use the word at the time– Russian ally.
BRIAN: And obviously that’s true of Davies. Is that true of the Warner Brothers, as well?
TODD BENNETT: It is. You know, Warner Brothers was known as the Roosevelt studio. And they supported the President’s both foreign and domestic policies.
BRIAN: The thinking was, with these 85 million people going to movies every week, maybe this was how to get people to see the USSR in a new light. In other words, Hollywood was getting into the business of persuasion.
JOSEPH DAVIES: If I were down there in the audience with you, there are certain things that I would want to know about the man who is telling the story–
BRIAN: This is from the preamble to the film.
JOSEPH DAVIES: And his bias or his lack of bias.
BRIAN: Joseph Davies himself sits in a chair looking directly into the camera.
TODD BENNETT: He basically assures you that, although you’re about to watch a pro-Soviet film, that he himself is no communist.
JOSEPH DAVIES: There was so much prejudice and misunderstanding of the Soviet Union, in which I partly shared, that I felt it was my duty to tell the truth about the Soviet Union as I saw it, for such value as it might have.
TODD BENNETT: So it’s a really weird way to start a film, which should indicate that Warner Brothers realized that the film would be controversial and that they needed to allay concerns.
BRIAN: The film was controversial. Critics claimed Davies whitewashed recent Soviet history, that he used his position to legitimize a history Stalin was inventing. One scene from the film recreates Stalin’s famous show trials, in which Stalin convicted a handful of Soviet officials of trying to overthrow the government.
MALE SPEAKER: And what was to happen to Comrade Stalin and Europe official administrators of the Soviet government?
MALE SPEAKER: They were to be removed.
MALE SPEAKER: Removed? What does that mean?
MALE SPEAKER: Removed means killed.
BRIAN: And in order to legitimate these claims–
TODD BENNETT: Walter Houston playing Davies, who was a lawyer in real life, Davies, explained to the American viewers–
SPEAKER: What’s your opinion, Mr. Davies?
TODD BENNETT: That based on 20 years trial experience–
SPEAKER: Based on 20 years of trial practice, I’d be inclined to believe these confessions.
TODD BENNETT: That these defendants were in fact guilty of treason.
BRIAN: But even a rewritten history does not necessarily make for a good story.
TODD BENNETT: The movie was terrible. The critics were extremely harsh, for the most part. Maybe the harshest critic was the well-known educator John Dewey. Dewey, in an influential letter that was published in the New York Times, called Mission to Moscow, quote, “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption.” Now, I don’t know whether that’s true.
TODD BENNETT: Ouch, absolutely. But I think the final measure is that Warner Brothers lost money on the project because people didn’t go. But not all viewers received the same message, I suppose.
BRIAN: See, the film wasn’t just intended for an American audience. Back in April of 1943–
TODD BENNETT: Just before the film premiered.
BRIAN: Ambassador Davies took a copy to the White House.
TODD BENNETT: And he and Roosevelt viewed the film together at the White House.
BRIAN: That being President Roosevelt, FDR. And the two of them said to themselves, you know who would really love this movie? Joe Stalin.
TODD BENNETT: Stalin was a movie fan. Stalin was highly involved in the production of Soviet films. One of the great stories is he regularly called Soviet directors in the middle of the night with quote, “suggestions” to improve their film, which must have struck fear into their hearts. I cannot imagine.
BRIAN: If Mission to Moscow was supposed to convince Americans to love Stalin, FDR hoped it might also convince Stalin that, hey, America’s on your side. We don’t have any axes to grind.
TODD BENNETT: And so Davies went to Moscow on what he called a second mission to Moscow. Again, the first being his stint as ambassador back in the ’30s, flying, I should say, on a plane emblazoned with the words “Mission to Moscow” on the side of the plane. But the film is shown in Stalin’s private movie theater in the Kremlin. Davies watches it with Stalin, with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and other Soviet officials.
BRIAN: So thumbs up from Stalin? How did he react?
TODD BENNETT: Maybe a grunt up. I’m not quite sure. It became a bit of a parlor game to decipher Stalin’s grunts. He apparently grunted several times during the showing of the film. And so people were trying to figure out, is this a good grunt, is this a bad grunt, what’s going on?
BRIAN: But after the grunting subsided, it seemed safe to say that Stalin liked the film, because–
TODD BENNETT: Soviet officials decide to release Mission to Moscow to the public.
BRIAN: In the Soviet Union?
TODD BENNETT: Yes. And that’s [INAUDIBLE]. What that means is that Mission to Moscow became among the first American films to play in the Soviet Union, before popular Soviet audiences, in over ’20 years.
BRIAN: Do we know how the Soviet public responded?
TODD BENNETT: Yeah, that’s a good question, too. And as you well know, gauging popular reception in the United States is hard enough. Gauging popular reception in the Soviet Union is even harder. What we do know is that popular Soviet audiences teased out meanings from the film that were not intended by either Davies, the Warner Brothers, Roosevelt, or certainly even Stalin.
BRIAN: When they watched the film, the Soviet public didn’t much care about the political propaganda in it. But what they did take notice of was it’s portrayal of everyday life in the USSR. According to the movie, Moscow was filled with fancy department stores and luxury cars.
TODD BENNETT: They bore no resemblance to reality in the USSR. But instead to these people, fancy automobiles, the high fashion, all of the wonderful material goods in this department store that’s supposed to be in the Soviet Union said something real and important about American audiences, the original audience for the film. They said something about the higher standard of living in the United States compared to that in the Soviet Union.
BRIAN: So this film, intended by its producers as pro-Soviet propaganda for American audiences, was picked up as a pro-Soviet propaganda film by Stalin before eventually being interpreted as pro-American propaganda by the Soviet public. You following this? And as if that weren’t enough, there’s one final twist to the story.
A few years go by. The war ends. And relations with the Soviets start to sour. They stop showing American films in the USSR entirely. But back in the States, Mission to Moscow gets an encore performance.
TODD BENNETT: Investigations of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which began in 1947, are of course seen as a Cold War drama. But the roots of that investigation are located firmly in World War II. Among the first witnesses to be called to testify was Jack Warner, who was essentially asked to account for his studio’s wartime production of pro-Soviet films, Mission to Moscow included. And HUAC investigators pressed Warner, for example, on whether he considered Mission to Moscow quote “pro-Soviet propaganda.”
And Warner answered, I think, in a really interesting way. He said, well, look when we made this film in 1943, we did this as a patriotic gesture. Because we were at war at the time. And the purpose was to solidify our relations with the Soviet ally to win the war. That’s right.
But none of us, Warner essentially said, could have looked into the future and expected the Soviet Union and United States to be mortal enemies in 1947. The essential point was, yeah, now this film is seen as being bordering on treasonous. But in 1943, it was patriotic, the same film. The movie hadn’t changed, the context had.
BRIAN: Todd Bennett is an historian at East Carolina University. His latest book is One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II.