By John Morrish
CFS Extra is our annual mini-season of three older films chosen to illustrate a theme. This year we have chosen to look at the rivalry between the Superpowers which marked much of the 20th century.
This is a year of important Cold War anniversaries. Between the formation of NATO in 1949 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Britain was the aircraft carrier for the US nuclear deterrent and we lived with the prospect of fiery extinction. How did we cope? Well, one mechanism was humour. So for this season’s CFS Extra, all three films we have chosen are, in their different ways, comedies.
Know your enemy
Our first film, Ninotchka, is a Hollywood rom-com from 1939. It was put together by MGM, which sought a vehicle for the great Swedish actress Greta Garbo. Sweden, Russia: it must have seemed a close enough fit. Garbo, a fine classical actress with an austere manner, made a number of films in the early 1930s, won Oscar nominations, but soon came to be considered “box office poison”. Ninotchka was based on a three-sentence idea from Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel, pitched around an LA swimming pool in 1937: “Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolist Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.” The playwright earned £15,000 for his idea.
German emigrés Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder were brought in to direct and co-write. Wilder, who longed to direct, adored Lubitsch: after the director’s death a sign was found on the wall of his office. “What would Lubitsch do?” The pair ensured there was a scene for publicists to push with the line “Garbo laughs!” It was Garbo’s first comedy, but her penultimate film.
The attitude of the film is interesting. The US and the USSR had no love for each other. US troops had assisted the White Russians in the civil war. After that, the Soviets had coupled rapid industrialisation with massive repression, but little was known about that outside the vast country. In 1936 Moscow adopted a new constitution theoretically granting freedom of speech, religion and assembly. Even before that, a string of gullible western intellectuals had toured the country praising it as a humane alternative to capitalism, then in the midst of the Depression. From the early 1930s, Stalin had opposed Hitler, when others, including in the US, were more ambivalent.
So the Wilder/Lubitsch version of the Soviet Union is a satire, mostly gentle, with barbs about the Five Year Plan and Uncle Joe Stalin. The commissars, except for the incorruptible Ninotchka, are a sort of knockabout vaudeville act. At one point, a photograph of Lenin smiles indulgently.
Wilder had fled the Nazis (Lubitsch was already in the US), but he was no leftist. The horrors of the USSR were not then widely known, but he found room for the odd acerbic note. “The last mass trials were a great success,” says Ninotchka. “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Later, he would oppose the McCarthyite purges in Hollywood, but on the grounds of justice rather than politics: he was interested in the struggles of individuals, not the masses.
Ninotchka is funny and likeable, and Soviet Russia is shown as an impoverished materialist hell with no room for romantic love. It was conceived when Stalin was hostile to Hitler, so its satire was potentially tricky. By the time it was released, the pair were allies, having carved up Poland. The New York Times’s critic remarked “Stalin won’t like it” and he was right. The film was banned in Russia and its satellites (including, bizarrely, France) and attacked by the US left. No-one else could see any harm in it. It did good business at first, and every studio readied its own “defection comedy”.
Then Hitler attacked Stalin. Suddenly the film was satirising America’s valiant ally, and it faded away without really fulfilling is potential. Later, though, it was to become a Cold War propaganda favourite. MGM rereleased it in 1947, immediately after the start of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as if to prove its anti-communist credentials. The CIA printed extra copies to show in Italy when that country seemed on the brink of a communist takeover. An Italian communist reportedly complained, “What licked us was Ninotchka.”
Our second film is Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Ninotchka was released, the Soviet Union was a source of horror and fascination but it wasn’t much of a threat to America. It took the demonstration of overwhelming Soviet strength in World War II, the swallowing of half of Europe and Moscow’s sponsorship of communist regimes around the World, notably in Korea and Vietnam for that to become more urgent.
By 1962, when Strangelove was taking shape, the dominant note in superpower relations was fear. The US, losing ground to communists in former colonial territory around the world, had taken comfort in its overwhelming nuclear arsenal. That comfort was long gone by 1961, when the Soviet Union detonated the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba, still the most powerful explosive device ever constructed. The following year, Moscow conspired with the communist Cuban regime to place missiles 100 miles off the coast of Florida.
Dr Strangelove, though, is not a film about the fear of the Soviet Union, although there were plenty of those now Hollywood had rediscovered its anti-communist zeal. It is a film about the possible destruction of life on the planet through a nuclear exchange. Director Stanley Kubrick started to research the idea of the “balance of terror” and came across a novel called Red Alert by a British former flight lieutenant called Peter George (Two Hours to Doom in the British version). It told of a paranoid USAF general who launches a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. It was a serious thriller and had been snapped up by Hollywood. Kubrick acquired the rights, and George was employed to work on the script, which was updated to included the idea of a Doomsday Machine, a real proposal for a bomb that would automatically render the earth uninhabitable for 100 years if its owners came under attack. US nuclear strategists considered it for themselves and thought it might make sense for the Soviet Union and China: buried in the earth, it would be much cheaper than a network of nuclear missiles.
As he began the screenplay, however, Kubrick was struck by how absurd, even funny, the idea of mutually assured destruction seemed. He took on Terry Southern, a comic novelist, to enhance the humour: he was responsible for the US general’s obsession with “precious bodily fluids”. From the beginning, the film’s financing depended upon Peter Sellers being engaged to play four roles. He ended up with three: a British RAF officer; the US President; and Dr Strangelove, a US nuclear scientist and former Nazi. He also improvised some of his own dialogue, which Kubrick, unusually, allowed to stand.
Production began at Shepperton Studios, near London, because Sellers was in the middle of one of his divorces. Three expensive sets were built: the general’s office; the Pentagon War Room; and the interior of a B-52 bomber.
During production, a rival film from the same studio got under way. Fail Safe, an entirely serious drama with a similar plot, was based on a novel plagiarised from Peter George’s book. Kubrick was able to launch a legal challenge to it, ensuring it came out months after his own film.
Dr Strangelove, meanwhile, went on to great success. Today it is recognised as one of the greatest comedies ever made, although its satire, sadly, never loses its capacity to shock.
A laughing matter?
Our third CFS Extra film this year is another comedy: Hail Caesar!, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Here the connection with the Cold War is less central, but it does provide one of the film’s plot strands, exploring as it does the old notion that Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s was riddled with Communists and fellow-travellers.
For the most part, the film is a celebration of old Hollywood. It gives a fictionalised account of a real studio “fixer” called Eddie Mannix, whose job is to keep a string of troublesome stars and pictures out of trouble. Lovers of classic Hollywood will find plenty of allusions to real people and events, as well as ingenious and funny pastiches of different genres and movie sequences.
One of these strands features George Clooney as a Roman soldier in a corny Biblical epic, the “Hail Caesar!” of the title. Then, for complicated reasons, he becomes entangled with a group of Communist scriptwriters, who pride themselves on inserting leftist propaganda into otherwise innocuous films.
Most of us know the story of the McCarthyite purges in America and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which followed. Congressional efforts to counter Bolshevik propaganda in America began only two years after the Russian Revolution. They continued formally until 1975. The HUAC began its activities in 1938, investigating theatre groups, youth groups, writers’ projects and public works organisations before, in 1947, turning to Hollywood. Film industry figures who would not testify before its hearings – being required to say whether they were communists and to name their associates – were convicted of contempt of Congress. Ten, “the Hollywood Ten”, were blacklisted immediately and given prison sentences. More than 300 more were informally boycotted. Big names including Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Alan Lomax, Paul Robeson and others left the country. Some, like Dalton Trumbo, stayed on, working under pseudonyms.
Studio executives conceded that wartime films had included pro-Soviet propaganda, but that this had been in response to the war effort and requests from the White House. Later, the studios knuckled down to the task of producing anti-communist films.
For many years the episode was seen as almost a paranoid delusion. Many mild liberals were swept up in the anti-communist witch hunt, famously analogised in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. (He pleaded the First Amendment, his right to remain silent, and was found guilty of contempt. The chairman of the committee had offered to cancel the hearing if Marilyn Monroe, Miller’s then-wife, had agreed to be photographed with him). And yet, there certainly were communists working in Hollywood. Some were fellow-travellers. Others were hard-line Stalinists, happy to wrap themselves in the protection of the Fifth Amendment (protecting themselves against self-incrimination) of a US constitution they would happily have overthrown. We know they existed, because in recent years many of them have come forward to claim credit for the work they did, including those passages of pro-Soviet and leftist propaganda. Nowadays it is common to treat these people as victims, mere enthusiasts and idealists. Some were. But that was not how it seemed at a time when America was on the brink of an actual shooting war with Moscow and its international acolytes.
This was all a long time ago. In Hail Caesar!, the Coen Brothers play it strictly for laughs, demonstrating the way in which history repeats itself as farce. In their version of 1940s Hollywood, there are lots of Communist screenwriters, and they are vain, pretentious and greedy. They have given their leader, Professor Marcuse, the name of a legendary far-left philosopher, now widely discredited. It is said that the brothers even sought actors who would look like some of the more famous Communist writers of the day.
The Coens’ aim seems to be to remind us of the web of deception, sexual, moral, financial and political, that underpinned Hollywood’s pretensions to old-fashioned American values, and the inordinate amount of repression it took to keep that in place. Mostly, though, they just want to be funny and in that they succeed very well.