Trump, Davies and ‘Mission to Moscow’


Joseph E. Davies (Walter Huston) exhorts American to support Russia at a Madison Square Garden Rally in MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943)

You can’t make this stuff up. The Trump Organization uses (and his trademarked) a coat of arms that was granted by British authorities in 1939 to former American Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies, The New York Times reports today.

“There is one historical parallel between the Mr. Trump and Mr. Davies,” writes The Times’ Danny Hakim, who notes that Trump’s lavish Mar-a-Lago resort was built by Davies’ then-wife, Marjorie Merriwether Post. “Both men were controversially pro-Russian. Mr. Davies, who played an important role as a go-between for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Soviets, has been criticized for being taken in by Stalin’s propaganda machine.”

My longtime readers know that’s something of an understatement. Three-quarters of a century before Trump cozied up to Vladimir Putin, Roosevelt embraced another Soviet dictator — and Hollywood was more than happy to help out by selling Joseph Stalin to a skeptical American public. The most remarkable product of Washington and Tinseltown’s (temporary) celebration of the Soviet Union and its genocidal leader is “Mission to Moscow.” This jaw-dropping, lavish production (reportedly costing $2 million) is essentially a two-hour compendium of what Trump spokeswoman Kellyann Conway famously dubbed “alternative facts’’ about Stalin. With an investigation into whether Putin helped Trump win the presidency picking up steam, to call “Mission to Moscow’’ timely may be an understatement.
Of course, World War II was raging and there were sound strategic reasons for Roosevelt’s embrace of Stalin. Not a few military historians believe that tying up a substantial portion of Hitler’s armies on the Soviet front provided the margin of victory for allied forces over an over-extended Germany in Europe. And there was a legitimate fear that Stalin could forge another truce with Hitler, even if Hitler had broached an earlier non-aggression pact between the nations, forcing the USSR into World War II.

     Screenwriter Howard Koch, who ended up blacklisted because of his reluctant participation, writes in his memoirs that the brothers Jack and Harry Warner both told him that Roosevelt personally asked them to film “Mission to Moscow.’’ It had been a best-selling memoir by Davies, who was FDR’s ambassador in the pre-war period and a Soviet apologist par excellence. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee after Roosevelt’s death, Jack Warner repeated this claim but later recanted. Some historians believe the approach may have actually made through Roosevelt administration’s propaganda arm, the Office of War Information. But there is documentation that even during a war, the president found the time to meet with his longtime pal Davies on at least three occasions to be briefed on the film’s progress.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca’’’) with his usual panache and containing copious quantities of Soviet-provided archival footage expertly assembled by future Clint Eastwood directorial mentor Don Siegel, “Mission to Moscow’’ presents a hugely flattering portrait of a prosperous and happy Russia that’s at odds with most accounts by foreign visitors of the era. But the film more insidiously steamrollers history, providing tortured rationalizations for the non-aggression pact (to buy the USSR more time to build up its defenses against Hitler) and the USSR’s invasion of Finland (to protect it from the Nazis).

Walter Huston and Ann Harding as Joe Davies and Marjorie Post in “Mission to Moscow.”
The real Marjorie Post and husband Joseph E. Davies in Moscow, 1938. They brought back a boatload of Russian art.

Davies — who was given unprecedented control over the film — wasn’t satisfied with these lies. At his insistence, the film makes claims that do not appear in his memoirs, most notably excusing the purge trials of Stalin’s political enemies. In the film’s highly fictional retelling, they were all secretly spying on behalf of Germany and Japan! Davies, played in the film by Oscar winner Walter Huston (who had portrayed Abraham Lincoln under D.W. Griffith’s direction) declares that based on his experience as a trial lawyer, the defendants’ “confessions” are credible. In another scene with chilling contemporary relevance, Davies defends the Soviets when a surveillance device is found inside the U.S. embassy. (“We have no secrets’’).

Davies (Walter Huston) cozies up to Stalin (Manart Kippen).

“Mission to Moscow” producer Robert Buckner (who had willfully distorted American history for entertainment purposes in the Errol Flynn vehicle “Santa Fe Trail’’) later later labeled the film (which co-starred Ann Harding as his wife, referred to only as Marjorie) “an expedient lie for political purposes, glossily covering up important facts with full or partial knowledge of their false presentation.’’
Small wonder that “Mission to Moscow” was the first Hollywood film to get an official showing in the Kremlin — Davies was in attendance — and that Stalin even reopened the Soviet market to U.S. movies for the first time in decades, at least until the Cold War began a couple of years later.

The real Joe Davies with Stalin at the Moscow premiere in 1943.

“Three days after viewing it, the Siren still feels as though somebody rewired her brain,’’ wrote my friend Farran Smith Nehme (aka the Self-Styled Siren) after her first viewing on TCM, in 2009. We ultimately programmed “Shadows of Russia,’’ an entire series of films built around “Mission to Moscow,’’ that aired on the network in 2010. (It’s available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection).
I’ve introduced screenings of “Mission to Moscow’’ at both the Museum of the Moving Image and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (the second with a panel discussion). On both occasions, there were audible gasps from the audience during a scene where Davies meets briefly with a warm and cuddly Stalin (character actor Manart Kippen, billed only on some posters), who the film consistently portrays as a progressive whose goals are compatible with American democracy. This is when the ambassador tells the dictator, “Mr. Stalin, I believe history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.’’

The “Mission to Moscow” press book includes this comic strip to be distributed to local newspapers.

Of course, in the real world, exactly the opposite is true. Because of its talkiness and heavy-handed propaganda, “Mission to Moscow’’ has infrequently been seen since its theatrical release in the spring of 1943, a fascinating historical curiosity. But thanks to the new administration in Washington, it’s acquired a totally unexpected timeliness, even if it seems unlikely that present-day Hollywood will indulge President Trump’s mysterious desire to burnish Putin’s image. Then again, few would have predicted a Russia-loving Republican president could be elected a year ago.

Magazine ad for “Mission to Moscow,” which apparently lost money at the box office.

I’ve written two much longer pieces on the fascinating history of “Mission to Moscow,’’ one for the now-inactive Moving Image Source  and another for the New York Post. “Mission to Moscow’’ was backed by an extensive promotional campaign, including this remarkable 30-page press book that my colleague Gregory Miller posted to Tumblr on my behalf a few years ago.
The New York Times reports that British authorities wouldn’t allow Trump’s properties in Scotland to use the Davies coat-of-arms that is displayed at his U.S. courses (with the word “Integratas” — Latin for “integrity” — replaced by Trump). And that Davies’ descendants contemplated suing the future president few years ago but were dissuaded by his grandson, former U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings.
“The way he operates, you don’t sue Trump, because you’ll be in court for years and years and years.” Grandpa Joe Davies, Tydings told The Times, “would be rolling over in his grave to think he was using his crest.”

Tay Garnett’s ‘Destination Unknown’ (1933) is a major rediscovery at MoMA

Pat O’Brien and Betty Compson adrift in “Destination Unknown”

Some of director Tay Garnett’s best film take place at sea — “One Way Passage,’’ “China Seas,’’ and “Trade Winds.’’ But that didn’t prepare me for the intoxicatingly exotic strangeness of “Destination Unknown’’ (1930), which had its first showing in decades in a crisp new print derived from the original nitrate camera negative.

The extremely vividly evoked milieu is a whiskey-smuggling boat that’s been stranded somewhere in the Pacific after a ferocious storm. The crew is starting to go mad from lack of drinking water — and boy, Garnett and his cast will make you wish you brought along a battle of Poland Spring yourself. The scuzzy bootlegger (Pat O’Brien, who was a much darker and more interesting actor in his pre-Warner period) who hired the ship and his henchman (Russell Hopton) are guarding the last barrel of water with guns while taking swigs in front of the crew.

The vessel’s captain and first mate were swept overboard during the storm, so the crew is being led by a burly Swedish boatswain (Alan Hale) who discovers a cache of water in the galley. He fills empty whiskey bottles with the water and gives them to the crew — with orders to pretend they’re drinking whiskey. The crew is played by a gallery of great character actors like Willard Robertson and Charles Middleton, as well as juvenile lead Tom Brown as newcomer who’s been grievously wounded by trigger-happy Hopton.

Things quickly get seriously worse. The precious water supply is squandered, and the ship starts sinking. As everyone starts helping themselves to the cargo to drink themselves into oblivion as the end is nigh, a mysterious stowaway (Ralph Bellamy in easily the most unusual role of his half-century career) emerges from behind a cross of light — and begins to make things right. Let’s just say his closest collollary in classic Hollywood films is played by Ian Hunter in “Strange Cargo.’’

The metaphors in Tom Buckingham’s highly original screenplay aren’t always subtle, but the uniformly excellent performances make it clear that this rough collection of men are thirsting for more than water. That would include Betty Compson, a former girlfriend of O’Brien’s who apparently has been smuggled aboard by one of his confederates. But her role is so underdeveloped that it almost seems like an afterthought.

A beatific Ralph Bellamy with Rollo Lloyd, playing a doctor whose disability is miraculously cured.

But these are very small complaint about the perfectly titled “Destination Unknown,’’ which Garnett steers to a memorable conclusion with consummate skill. Kudos to MoMA programmer Dave Kehr and his colleagues for rescuing this atmospheric treat from the sea of unseen films.

“Destination Unknown’’ was shown as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s second series of Universal Pictures rarities produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. If you’re in the New York area, I’d strongly recommend checking out MoMA’s repeat showing on Monday May 15 at 5 p.m. as this one has never been on TV, much less video.

And by all means, stick around (at 7 pm) for second program of unseen-for-decades Universal shorts picked out and introduced by Vitaphone Project founder Ron Hutchinson and featuring the likes of Robert Benchley, Ed Sullivan, Rose Marie and Henry Armetta. I haven’t seen these yet, but if they’re half as entertaining as the set shown last week you’re in for another very rare treat.


Someone claiming to be Universal uploads never-on-video 1930s rarities to YouTube

Updated: Someone representing themselves as Universal Pictures has quietly uploaded 28 feature films it released between 1929 to 1938 to a  YouTube channel called “Universal Vault.’’ The transfers vary widely in quality, but there are some real rarities — and only four of them have been released on video. Dave Kehr of the Museum of Modern Art describes them as “low-quality bootlegs.”

Alan Mowbray stars in Lowell Sherman’s ultra-rare “The Night Life of the Gods” (1935).


At least one — Lowell Sherman’s “The Night Life of the Gods’’ (1935) — has never even been shown on TV in this country. This way-out mythological fantasy derived from a novel by “Topper’’ author Thorne Smith has been tied up for decades by rights issues. Alan Mowbray stars in the effects-laden film, which has circulated in murky bootlegs that are vastly inferior to the authorized YouTube upload.

Helen Chandler and Walter Huston in the Eugene O’Neill-influenced “A House Divided” (1931).

A couple of these hard-to-see films have shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival — William Wyler’s superb “A House Divided’’ (1931) starring Walter Houston and John Ford’s “Air Mail’’ (1932) with Pat O’Brien and Ralph Bellamy in a fascinating precursor to “Only Angels Have Wings’’ — are included. Two others — Murray Roth’s “Don’t Bet on Love’’ (1933) with Lew Ayres and Ginger Rogers as well as Roth’s “Chinatown Squad’’ (1935) with Lyle Talbot and Valerie Hobson — are in the series of Universal restorations currently showing at the Museum of Modern Art. Edward L. Cahn’s “Afraid to Talk’’ (1932) with Eric Linden and Sidney Fox showed at MoMA last year — but these do not appear to be transfers of the new restorations.

There are three James Whale films uploaded to the “Universal Vault’’ channel: “The Impatient Maiden’’ (1932) starring Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke; “One More River’’ (1934) with Diana Wynyard and Colin Clive; and “Remember Last Night?’’ (1935) with Robert Young, Constance Cummings and Edward Arnold. Mr. Arnold also has the title role in A. Edward Sutherland’s memorable “Diamond Jim’’ (1935) opposite Jean Arthur as well as in James Cruze’s “Sutter’s Gold’’ (1936) with Lee Tracy.

Other interesting-sounding films on the list include Arthur Lubin’s “I Cover the War!’’ (1937) starring John Wayne; Edwin L. Marin’s “Bombay Mail’’ (1934) with Edmund Lowe; and the Russ Columbo musical “Wake Up and Dream’’ (1934) directed by Kurt Neumann. Also: Harry Beaumont’s “The Girl on the Front Page’’ (1934) starring Gloria Stuart; and Christy Cabanne’s “Graft’’ (1931), the Regis Toomey crime drama that supposedly got Boris Karloff the job of playing Frankenstein’s monster. Plus also a trio of Buck Jones westerns from 1935 (“The Crimson Trail,’’ “Stone of Silver Creek’’ and “Border Brigands’’).

Humphrey Bogart’s image is featured on Universal’s poster for its 1934 release of the independently produced “Midnight,” which was shot at the Astoria studios.

The Universal Vault channel includes four films that are available on DVD, including Frank Borage’s “Little Man, What Know?’’ (1934), released through the Universal Vault Series MOD program; and Tay Garnett’s English-language version of “S.O.S. Iceberg’’ with Rod LaRocque and Leni Riefenstahl, available via licensee Kino Lorber; as well as Pal Fejos’ musical drama “Broadway’’ (1929), which was included as an extra with The Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of Fejos’ “Lonesome.’’ Perhaps the biggest surprise is a sharp-looking transfer of Chester Erskine’s independently-produced crime drama “Midnight,’’ which Universal originally distributed back in 1934. It’s circulated in terrible public domain transfers on video for decades as “Call it Murder” — the new title it acquired for a 1947 Guaranteed Pictures reissue that promoted Humphrey Bogart from eighth to top billing.

This Universal obscurity surfaced briefly on TV 60 years ago.

Hopefully, Universal will eventually get around to uploading some of the hundreds of pre-1950 Paramount titles it owns, many of which have been unavailable for decades in any format for decades. But in the meantime, there is a lot to savor here — from Ray Milland in H.C. Potter’s “Wings Over Honolulu” (1937) to Joseph Santley’s “Swing Sister, Swing” (1938) starring Ken Murray.

Rediscovering pre-code queen Mary Nolan at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting “Son of Universal,’’ a sequel to last year’s series of new restorations by that studio of rare films from the late silent and early talkie era produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., many of which haven’t been seen in many decades.

A couple of especially fascinating ones are being repeated this coming Sunday afternoon, May 14. They both star Mary Nolan, whose name didn’t ring a bell with me — though I recognized her face immediately from an iconic image in Kenneth Anger’s notorious (and often factually challenged) collection of vintage Tinseltown gossip, “Hollywood Babylon.’’

Mary Nolan and Ralf Harolde in “Young Desire” (1930)

Nolan first rose to fame as a Ziegfeld girl who danced and sang under the name Imogen “Bubbles’’ Wilson. “Only two people in America would bring every reporter in New York to the docks to see them off,’’ columnist (and future film producer) Mark Hellinger wrote in 1922. “One is The President. The other is Imogene “Bubbles” Wilson.”

A stunningly beautiful blonde, Wilson was undone by her poor romantic choices. An involvement with a married vaudevillian snowballed into such a scandal that Ziegfeld fired her in 1925. She traveled to Germany, where she appeared in 18 silent films under her real name, Imogen Robertson.

She returned to the United States two years later under — rechristened Mary Nolan. Mostly, she was under contract to Universal Pictures, which loaned her out to MGM for her best known role — as Lionel Barrymore’s drug-addled daughter in Tod Browning’s sordid 1928 Lon Chaney vehicle “East of Zanzibar.’’

Ralf Harolde (center) comes between Mary Nolan and her rich admirer (William Janney) in “Young Desire.”

By this time, Nolan was the mistress of MGM executive Eddie Mannix. She later blamed a beating administered by Mannix for extensive surgeries and the morphine addiction that would end her film career.

The two films showing Sunday at MoMA, Lew Collins’ “Young Desire’’ and Tod Browning’s “Outside the Law’’ were both released in 1930, just before Universal dismissed the troubled Nolan, who was around 25, reportedly because she had become so difficult to work with. After that, she toiled on Poverty Row for a couple of years before that before hitting the vaudeville circuit. She died of an overdose at the age of 42.

In both the restored films, art imitates life with Nolan making poor choices in men. She’s a cooch dancer for a sleazy carnival under the thumb of sleazy boss Ralf Harolde in “Young Desire.’’ She decides to run away to Hollywood, but make it only as far as an orange grove where she is picked up by the owner’s son, a rich young college boy played William Janney.

Swedish poster for “Young Desire” (1930)

He is so smitten by the beautiful Nolan that he puts her up in an apartment building owned by his father. Nolan writes to a pal at the circus that she plans to take her younger admirer for every cent he’s got, but she eventually succumbs to his lack of guile and the promise of a better life.

But then Harolde shows up like a bad penny, and the boy’s parents pleads with her not to ruin their son’s life and theirs. Let’s just say Nolan’s “Camille’’ like gesture — which involves a trapeze act on a balloon 100 feet in the air — drew gasps at the screening I attended.

Mary Nolan and third-billed Edward G. Robinson in detail from a hand-tinted lobby card for “Outside the Law” (1930).








It’s a stunning performance and Nolan is almost as good in “Outside the Law,’’ which is a remake of Browning’s 1920 Lon Chaney vehicle. Though she again gets top billing, in the first half Nolan’s part is subsidiary to Owen Moore (the erstwhile Mr. Mary Pickford, who had his own substance abuse issues) as Fingers, clever bank robber she has unwisely hooked up with. Fingers has pulled off a half-million-dollar heist, but crime boss Cobra (Edward G. Robinson) demands a cut from Fingers, who has muscled in on his territory. (Chaney played both the male parts in 1920).

Trade ad for “Outside the Law.”

Nolan dominates the second half of the film, which takes place on Christmas Eve. She and Moore are nervously hiding out with the loot, and both of them are going stir crazy. Moore, a sentimental sort, befriends a child down the hall of their apartment building — and that brings out all sorts of feelings that the Nolan’s hardboiled character has been bottling up.

Nolan is still billed under her real name in this beautiful German poster for “Outside the Law.”

Things end badly for both of them, and even worse for Cobra. There’s a very strange final scene that suggest Nolan may have departed the film rather abruptly. But for all the contrivances, this and “Young Desire’’ reveal that Mary Nolan deserves a spot in the pre-code Hall of Fame alongside Dorothy Mackaill and Jeanne Eagels.

“Outside the Law’’ was restored primarily from an incomplete 35mm negative from Universal’s vaults. Two missing reels were filled in using a digital scan of a 16mm print held by Wesleyan University — and the difference is barely noticeable.

“Sensation Seekers” (1927).

Another 16mm print, from the Library of Congress, was used as the sole source for Universal’s remarkable digital restoration of Lois Weber’s “Sensation Seekers’’ (1927). Silent star Billie Dove is terrific as a wild flapper who falls in love with a hunky young minister (Raymond Bloomer).

Writer-director Weber, who helmed only one minor talkie, expertly toggles between naturalistic romantic scenes and a wildly melodramatic climax at sea.

The series includes some interesting if little-seen films that Universal made after establishment of the Production Code Authority. Murray Roth’s “Million Dollar Ransom’’ (1934), which carries PCA certificate No. 93, is being repeated this Saturday, May 13. It’s an entertaining vehicle for character actor Edward Arnold, who stars as a former bootlegger who stages a fake kidnapping with fateful results in a gimmicky but fun story by Damon Runyon. Also repeating on Saturday is Roth’s “Don’t Bet On Love’’ (1933) stars Lew Ayres as a plumber with a gambling problem and Ginger Rogers (who’s surprisingly only in around a third of the 63-minute programmer) as his long-suffering girlfriend.

I also enjoyed Frank Strayer’s “Sea Spoilers’’ (1936), which apparently hasn’t been seen in New York since a week-long run on WOR’s “Million Dollar Movie’’ 54 years ago. In one of six non-western programmers that John Wayne made for Universal in the 1930s, Wayne stars as a brave Coast Guardsman who rescues his girlfriend (Nan Grey) and commanding officer (William Bakewell) from seal poachers with the help of Fuzzy Knight. The action-packed 63-minute film is enhanced by considerable location shooting.

Before Hollywood, Virginia Mayo did a PG-13 act with a horse

Before she starred with James Cagney (“White Heat”), Dana Andrews (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) or Danny Kaye (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) — much less Gregory Peck, Randolph Scott or Zachary Scott et. al. — Virginia Mayo was part of a PG-13 vaudeville act with a horse.

The libidinous dancing horse, Pansy, was originally played by her sister Florence in front, with her brother-in-law Frank Mayo bringing up the rear.  The former Virginia Clara Jones had adopted Mayo as her stage name by the time the three of them appeared in a 1939 Universal short called “Gals and Gallons.”

Virginia Mayo was still with the act when she made her Broadway debut in “Banjo Eyes” (1942), a musical version of the classic farce “Three Men on a Horse”’ that starred Eddie Cantor. She was photographed with Pansy by Eliot Elisofon for Life Magazine.

Mayo had apparently quit horsing around and was a featured dancer at the Copacabana when she was signed by Samuel Goldwyn, appearing first as a Goldwyn Girl in Kaye’s screen debut, “Up in Arms” before becoming his most frequent leading lady.

It’s unclear whether “Gals and Gallons” has survived. I couldn’t even find a production still online, let alone a clip. It’s supposedly available for download from a dodgy-looking Czech website.

But there is a clip http:// of the Mayo vaudeville routine that was apparently filmed in the mid-1940s. It’s been identified as part of the “Soundies” series — cheaply-shot 16mm musical shorts that were designed to be shown in jukebox-like devices called Panorams.

A woman who’s been identified on YouTube as Connie Haas has Virginia’s old part as Pansy’s whip-wielding mistress in this weirdly mesmerizing routine, which can be viewed in its original film at Vimeo, apparently uploaded from a Library of Congress restoration.

There are several Pansy supercuts on YouTube. The most famous reedits the short to the techno-rock number “The Drill,” reversing the film at some points and zooming in at others to emphasize the act’s sexual aspects.


As for Pansy, her (or she) was still hoofing as late as 1958. Pansy, who has had a makeover, even gets star billing in this more family-friendly number from “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

It’s unclear when Pansy retired. When Mayo passed away in 2005, Pansy was mentioned in her New York Times obituary.