The Red Menace
Greta Garbo was not called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, though she might have been when her delectable Ninotchka (1939) was rereleased in 1947. Reviewing Ernest Lubitsch’s comedy in the New York Times (10 November 1939), Frank S. Nugent began gaily: ‘Stalin won’t like it. Molotoff may even recall his envoy from MetroGoldwyn-Meyer…’ Garbo’s Ninotchka is a deadpan, sternly puritan, icily aloof, but stunningly beautiful Bolshevik emissary sent to Paris by her commissar to take over the duties of a comically floundering three-man mission entrusted with the sale of the former Duchess Swana’s court jewels. The script (a collaborative effort) contains such lines as: ‘The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.’ Garbo-Ninotchka gets hugely drunk, succumbs to the charms of Melvyn Douglas and the American-in-Paris way of life, chooses a frivolous hat, and generally loses her Lenin. This was scarcely ‘cold war’ and could indeed have misled fans into believing that most Soviet commissars looked like Garbo, a big plus for Communism. Ninotchka reappeared—was it a coincidence?—one month after the House Un-American Activities Committee provoked headlines across the world by subpoenaing Hollywood actors, writers, composers, and directors to testify about their political affiliations, past and present.
The Russians who appeared in Hollywood’s World War II movies were almost invariably brave and friendly Ivans and Natashas practising their own kind of patriotic ‘democracy’. This went down well with Stalin; proSoviet Hollywood films shown in the USSR during the war or within a year of its ending included The North Star (1943), Mission to Moscow (1943), and Song of Russia (1944),1 as well as some Disney and Deanna Durbin movies.
Directed by Michael Curtiz and written by the fellow-travelling writer Howard Koch, Warner Brothers’ Mission to Moscow was loosely based on