Monday, August 6, 2012

DVR Diary: BRITISH AGENT (1934)

R. H. Bruce Lockhart had a dramatic diplomatic career that became the makings of a movie drama when he published his Memoirs of a British Agent in 1932. Warner Bros. bought the film rights and had Laird Doyle write a script for Michael Curtiz to direct. Lockhart had been sent to the new Soviet Union in 1918 on a forlorn mission to keep the Bolshevik state in the war against Germany. He was eventually arrested and accused of conspiring to kill V. I. Lenin, only to be released in a spy exchange. Needless to say, Warners elaborated on this. In real life, Lockhart fell for the widow of a Russian diplomat of the old regime. Not dramatic enough. Why not have the movie Lockhart, called "Stephen Locke" (Leslie Howard) fall in love with a revolutionary instead? Star-crossed lovers and all that. So Locke meets cute with Elena (Kay Francis) when she strays onto diplomatic property trying to escape a Cossack she'd shot at during a riot. Since she's a revolutionary, why not make her part of the government after the Revolution takes place? That way she can be torn between her love for Locke and her love for her country and its new government. Thus she betrays his confidence as he negotiates with the Soviet leaders by letting them know that he has no actual authority to fulfill promises made to them. Events gallop beyond his control anyway; "the Soviet" concludes a peace with Germany and the British land troops in Russia to spark a counterrevolution. As in life, Lenin is shot, though for dramatic purposes he is more gravely injured, falling into a coma. As the arch-revolutionary fights for his life, his cohorts call for harsh measures -- "call it terror if you will," one says -- to suppress the White armies of the counterrevolution. Locke and his diplomatic buddies -- a gum-chewing American (William Gargan), a card-sharp Italian (Cesar Romero) and a young Frenchman (whoever) -- are trying to smuggle arms to the Whites, but the net is tightening. The non-anglophones are shot down and the American is captured and tortured. He won't give up Locke, but Elena convinces him to tell her so she can tip Locke off. Instead, she resolves the contradictions of her career by ratting Locke out, but meeting him in advance of the attack so she can die with him. But wait! At the last possible moment, Lenin wakes from his coma. Lenin will live! And his first words upon waking are "Stop the terror!"

You heard me. It'd be a moment of high camp if so many people wouldn't refuse to find it funny. It exemplifies the way British Agent bends over backwards to be evenhanded in its account of the Bolshevik Revolution. It's really an apolitical film -- certainly an unideological one. The Bolsheviks aren't recognizably "totalitarian" here; the movie takes their demands for peace and bread for the poor at face value, which is fair to a certain extent. One reason for the delicate approach may have been that some of the participants were still living. That requires some name changes. Instead of Alexander Kerensky, the Provisional Government that ruled between the fall of the Tsar and the Bolshevik coup is led in the movie by a fictional "Kolinov." J. Carroll Naish is easily identifiable by his fake hair as Leon Trotsky, also living in 1934, but his character is referred to only as "Commissioner for War." A couple of characters look like Josef Stalin, but no one is called by that name. So it's not quite the Russian Revolution we've grown familiar with in more than one sense. A difference in attitude would come shortly, as you can tell by comparing British Agent with Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, released five years later. That film, a product of European imagination (Billy Wilder wrote it), famously portrays Soviet Woman as de-sexed, humorless, nearly soulless, someone who sacrifices her humanity, or at least her femininity, for ideology's sake. Kay Francis, however, is no Greta Garbo. Her Elena is passionate, violent (at least initially) and incorrigibly romantic. There's no suggestion that she's had to sacrifice her womanly nature to fight for the revolution or help govern the new state. If she seems unconvincing in her role, -- and she doesn't really live up to her first gun-toting appearance -- she's probably more so now than when the movie came out, as long as the emotionless-Commie archetype still prevails. The more romantic idea of a revolutionary still had an audience before Stalin gave revolutionaries in general a bad name. British Agent may be seen as an artifact of a more naive time -- that "stop the terror" line can only inspire bitter laughter from those who know their history -- but it's essentially a film about a revolution, not the tyranny that followed. In keeping with the anti-war mood of the Pre-Code era when the film was made,-- it was released under the Code Enforcement regime in the fall of 1934 -- the film can't get too worked up over the Soviet refusing to stay in that stupid war, and who can blame it? In any event, all those issues don't amount to a hill of beans compared to the love of two people, which shows that, despite its vaunted sophistication, Pre-Code was a simpler time in some ways after all.
Warners (here using their First National alias -- check out that FN shield!) insisted on calling Lockhart's book a novel. Here's how they pitched British Agent to 1934 audiences, as preserved by the ever-reliable TCM. com.

1 comment:

jtwoody1 said...

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