Produced by Carey Wilson; directed by George Sidney; screenplay by Gina Kaus and Arthur Wimperis, based on the novel Vespers in Vienna by Bruce Marshall; cinematography by Charles Rosher; music by Miklos Rozsa; starring Walter Pidgeon, Ethel Barrymore, Peter Lawford, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, and Louis Calhern. DVD, B&W, 118 min., 1949. A Warner Bros. Archive release, www.wbshop.com/Warner-Archive.
Janet Leigh as Soviet defector Maria
On October 20, 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities launched its infamous set of investigations into alleged communist subversion in the motion-picture industry, a star-studded, mule-headed grudge match that brought newsreel cameras and shouting matches into the staid hearing rooms of the U.S. Congress. The next month, terrified by the bad reviews and contempt citations voted against ten of the defiant witnesses, the Motion Picture Association of America, on behalf of the Hollywood moguls, issued the so-called Waldorf Statement, firing the Hollywood Ten and pledging never to “knowingly employ a Communist” or kindred fellow traveler. It was the starting gun and founding document of the blacklist era, the venomous epoch of naming names, premature antifascists, and are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been. “In pursuing this policy,” declared the MPAA with a straight face, “we are not going to be swayed by hysteria or intimidation from any source. “ In the film industry, the purgatorial passage lasted until producer-star Kirk Douglas insisted that Spartacus (1960) grant screen credit to Dalton Trumbo, one of the original recalcitrants, and on television until The Smothers Brothers strong-armed CBS into letting Pete Seeger sing on their comedy-variety show in 1967.
Though the impact of the blacklist is best measured in human terms, it can also be calculated by the number of films that were not made—the civil rights anthems, antiwar preachments, or hard-hitting dramatizations of other progressive causes that were unpitchable because of presumptive tinges of red. Yet a more tangible cinematic legacy is the polemical anticommunist thrillers and melodramas produced in direct response to what the Cold War critic Robert Warshow referred to as “the present atmosphere”: a blip of didactically anti-Soviet films made mainly to show the industry’s undiluted, pure blooded, 100% Americanism. Unlike WWII propaganda—made with enthusiasm by dedicated enlistees—the whiff of coercion hovers over the anticommie cycle, the smell of production under the gun. The films were protection payments in 35mm, palpable proof, now playing at the local Bijou, that Hollywood was not a nest of subversive termites burrowing away at the foundation of democracy.
Digging deep, as usual, the Warner Bros. Archive Collection has excavated one of the forgotten nongems of the era, MGM’s waltz through the currents of postwar Europe, The Red Danube. Not as fascinatingly whacked-out as Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952), as fire-breathingly jingoistic as Big Jim McLain (1952), or as hilariously loony as Red Planet Mars (1952), The Red Danube warrants attention as a curious historical artifact. Though light years away from the studio’s last major excursion into communism on European soil—Ninotchka (1939)—the slow-flowing melodrama has none of the red-menace frenzy or fear-mongering hokum that, by the late 1960s, had undergraduates toking up and hooting over. Perhaps the job-of-work ethos of the pros behind the camera tempered the tendency to careen too far out of control. Besides, no one’s heart really seems to be in it.
Based on Bruce Marshall’s novel Vespers in Vienna and set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, The Red Danube follows a tight-knit trio of British officers who are the best occupying forces a defeated Axis power could possibly want: one-armed Col. “Hooky” Nicobar (Walter Pidgeon, stiff as ever), dashing ladies man Maj. “Twingo” McPhimister (British pretty boy and future subaltern rat packer Peter Lawford, an empty uniform), and the spunky, resourceful gal Friday Audrey Quail (Angela Lansbury, and thank God for her). Perfectly happy in postwar Rome, where none of the civilians seem to have heard of Mussolini, the threesome is transferred to the bleaker posting of the former Reich satellite of Vienna. As they leave Rome, newsreel shots of the Vatican and the Pope unspool in the background. Beholding the multitudes of worshipers, the Colonel mutters “blind superstitious fools.” The sentiment is so unconscionably blasphemous in the context of Hollywood under the Production Code—had Joseph Breen fallen into a coma?—that you just know that the real plot of the film is not communist perfidy but the spiritual transformation of the bitterly antireligious colonel. Actually, the one feeds off the other: anticommunism equals Christianity equals anticommunism.
In Vienna, the colonel and his staff are billeted in a convent presided over by a strict but kind-hearted Mother Superior (Ethel Barrymore). At vespers, Maria, a pretty young thing not in nun’s habit (a lithe Janet Leigh, who tends to lose her faux Russian accent during moments of peak emotion), catches Twingo’s eye, a patented eyeline match in close up telegraphing their romantic inevitability. You will not be surprised to learn (though Twingo is) that Maria is an escapee from the U.S.S.R., where she was a famed prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet. The Soviets—in the person of the always reliable Louis Calhern—seek to force their former red star back to Moscow to dance to their tune. That human drama was real enough: hundreds of thousands of displaced persons were forcibly repatriated back to the Soviet motherland only to wind up against a wall in Lubyanka or in a camp in the gulag.
The Cold War union of dogmatic Catholicism and doctrinal anticommunism was a perfect theological-ideological double whammy—see also Bishop Sheen on television and Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty on trial (the torture and recantation of the Hungarian primate is the subject of Guilty of Treason (1950), another spiritual fusillade at communism). As a God versus godless communism polemic, however, The Red Danube lacks the addled commitment of McCarey’s My Son John, a cri de coueur that,for all its rabid froth, remains the most fascinating and accomplished film of the anticommie cycle.
The orthodox Catholicism presents a conundrum when a desperate Maria chooses to plummet to her death rather than pirouette for the Russians, a suicidal leap that would have damned her to hell had she not repented and been absolved before expiring. As Susan L. Carruthers reminds us in her 2009 study Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape, and Brainwashing, the “leap to freedom” was something of a trope in Cold War film and fiction, inspired by the real-life jump of Oksana Kasenkina, who in 1948 dove from the third floor window of the Soviet Embassy in New York to make good her escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Maria’s death is not in vain, however. Her sacrifice inspires the colonel to oppose the Allied repatriation policy and to soften his bitter anticlericalism. Restored and reinvigorated, the trio heads off to their next assignment, striking up a sprightly reprise of their traditional group sing-a-long, “Row Row Row your boat/Gently down the stream.” Seriously.
The Warner Archive releases are typically short on extras, but the DVD includes the original trailer for the film, an exercise in direct address which features the stars—Pidgeon, Lawford, Lansbury, and Calhern (shot while preparing for a round of golf) all saying how proud they are to have been in a picture so worthy and significant. None say, nor does the trailer’s voice-over or taglines, that The Red Danube is—surprise—an anticommunist film.
Perhaps as a consequence of the nasty vibes sent out by Hollywood’s Cold War, The Red Danube incited a rare instance of intraperiodical enmity between Daily Variety and Variety. The Los Angeles-based daily edition praised the film while the New York-based weekly edition panned it. “Director George Sidney turned in the finest job in his career…breath[ing] life into characters which easily might have been over-dramatic, so humanized [the] film’s characters and its suspenseful incidents, its moving romance, that [the] audience at all times is absorbed by the panorama of events,” opined Daily Variety, predicting, incorrectly, that: “With Russian situation steadfastly in the headlines, the film, topped by a name and able cast, is a natural for exploitation purposes and should net high returns.” Variety demurred. MGM “aims a haymaker at” the USSR “but the punch lands short of the mark,” it observed. “Although it has the headlines behind it, an overtalky and unwieldy story brakes the action more often than not. Its topicality may help Danube score at the box office though past anti-commie pix have shown no such trait.” The box office for The Red Danube was no less pallid.
Of course, The Red Danube can only suffer by comparison with that other Cold War espionage thriller from 1949 set in occupied Vienna, Carol Reed’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. The well-remembered setting and the evocative location photography almost makes one hear the strains of Anton Karas’s zither in the background. Like The Third Man, however, which was produced partly at the behest of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, The Red Danube has its own backstory of extratextual intrigue. In 1946, while shooting location photography for the film in Vienna, art director Hans Peters was arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Soviets. That would have made for an interesting story.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, to be published by Columbia University Press in 2013.