Posted by David Kalat on July 2, 2016
You might wonder why I’ve chosen Independence Day weekend to write about a Hungarian immigrant’s movie about a British spy in Russia. Well, silly, as I’ve said repeatedly before in this forum–America is a land of immigrants, and when better than Independence Day to celebrate our melting pot society? Plus, this is a film by Michael Curtiz, whose Yankee Doodle Dandy is playing on Monday (set your DVRs), which gives you a chance to observe just what an amazing range this filmmaker had.
British Agent (which isn’t currently on TCM’s schedule but it comes along periodically) is a story of star-crossed lovers, whose relationship plays out against the backdrop of History with a capital H. With global events on such a gargantuan scale, what are two people to do but realize that their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans? This is of course the signature theme of Michael Curtiz’s most fabled creation, but eight years before he made Casablanca, he played in the very same sandbox on a movie that has not fared so well in posterity. British Agent is, if remembered at all, remembered as an oddity. Which means, of course, I’m all over it like ants on a picnic.
Once upon a time, though, British Agent was perceived as a distinguished and prestigious work by an up-and-coming artist.
Let’s start with that “up-and-coming artist” bit. Mikhaly Kertesz is said to have made the first feature film in Hungary. Fleeing the onset of Hungarian communism, Kertesz relocated to Austria where he distinguished himself enough in the Austrian film business to catch the eye of Jack Warner.
It was after the newly-renamed Michael Curtiz settled in to his new digs at Warner Brothers that Jack Warner fully realized what a find he’d made. Curtiz was a ruthlessly efficient workaholic with little to no social life, who elevated everything he touched above the routine. He was a contract director who excelled at get-‘er-done cheapies. His films were popular and profitable, and Warners took to assigning him to increasingly ambitious projects.
In 1930 he was directing Harry Langdon in a modest comedy programmer, A Soldier’s Plaything; by 1932 he was leading Warners’ first foray into Technicolor with thrillers like Dr. X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum; in 1933 he helmed a landmark Pre-code feminist drama Female. Warner Brothers began to wonder if there was anything this guy couldn’t do.
It was at this point that the studio purchased the rights to the worldwide bestseller Memoirs of a British Agent. Bruce Lockhart’s memoir hit bookstores in 1932 and took the world by storm. It told the true story of Lockhart’s 1918 assignment to Russia.
A quick history primer: Czarist Russia was England’s ally against Germany during the First World War. Part of the impulse behind the Russian Revolution was a massive popular hatred of that war. The incoming Soviet regime had been premised in part on negotiating a separate peace from Germany and withdrawing. England was rightly terrified of such a prospect, which would instantly return to the field of battle scores of German soldiers then held as Russian prisoner of war, while removing from that same battlefield all the Russian troops. By all logic, the English priority should have been to nurture Soviet Russia as an ally, but instead London simultaneously underestimated the staying power of Lenin’s regime and refused to grant it any diplomatic legitimacy. Lockhart was given the impossible task of making a tough sell to Lenin but without the official backing of the British government.
Spoiler alert: his mission was spectacularly unsuccessful.
When published in 1932, the book instantly shot to the top of the best-seller lists in both England and America, and appeared in translations across Europe. It was also a huge critical success, and the attention of movie moguls was to be expected with such buzz.
Warner Brothers hyped the movie version without blushing: “the greatest human document of the century,” and “the most important dramatic event of the year.” It was said to be the most expensive film then produced by Warners, which was an unusual achievement given the financial doldrums that Warners was then struggling to overcome. British Agent was also said to be the first time a movie has been made of a living person’s life.
Anyone who has both read the book and seen the movie will recognize that as a classic piece of studio puffery. To claim the movie was an adaptation of the life of a living person suggests a degree of fidelity to Lockhart’s life absent from the actual movie.
Part of the problem stemmed from the reason for the book’s popularity: it is a gloriously written rant against the stupidity and self-destructive policies of Great Britain at that time. 300-some pages of “I told you so”s made for a great read (who doesn’t like a good scandal?) but didn’t make the English government too pleased. British censors made their position clear to Warner Brothers at the outset: you make this movie at your peril. If the studio wanted to pass British muster and make it into British theaters, the story would have to be softened.
The critique of British foreign policy remains–it was a historical fact and hard to fudge, mind you–but took a back seat to a newly minted romantic plot courtesy screenwriter Laird Doyle.
In the film, Lockhart (now called Stephen Lockhart, and played by Leslie Howard) falls in love with Elena Moura, a fiery Soviet true-believer working as a secretary in Lenin’s inner circle. The character is a confabulation based on several characters in Lockhart’s book (one of whom was named Moura, and was indeed his girlfriend), but with a lot of writer’s invention besides.
As played by Kay Francis, Moura is an intriguing and distinctive figure–a forceful woman who sincerely and effectively articulates the revolutionary principles at stake. In the service of her beliefs she is forced into unpleasant compromises of her personal desires; meanwhile Lockhart advances a contrarian cause to hers, but without any deep conviction. The two are warriors in opposite camps, yet lovers. There is some spectacular drama to be had in a premise like that.
Off stage, Francis was having as tumultuous a time as the character she played. The actress was a famous sexual adventurer, who had a brief fling with costar Leslie Howard just because he was there.
Such things were kept out of the papers, but the Hollywood press did pick up on Francis’ life-threatening injury during production: she severed an artery in her right hand one evening and was only rescued due to the quick-thinking of her maid, who hastily prepared a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding.
According to the story, she had gone out to walk her dog and accidentally locked herself out of her own home. She broke the glass door to let herself back in, and cut herself in the process. The maid who saved her life? She was asleep at the time, and Kay had to waken her to get her assistance.
If this story sounds far-fetched, you’re not alone. Francis’ biographers, Lynn Kearney and John Rossman, spoke to some of her friends who speculated that the incident was a suicide attempt awkwardly covered up in the media to justify her bandaged wrists. The truth is now lost to us–Francis made no remark on the incident in her own diary and never spoke about it–so speculation is all that remains.
To her credit, Kay Francis brought her character crackling to life. If her own private existence was in arrears, she turned that personal turmoil into public entertainment. Aside from Curtiz’s visual flourishes, she’s easily the best thing about the movie.
For his part, Howard was something of a liability. The actor had script approval, and emerged from the experience delighted with the end result and eager to work again with Curtiz and producer Henry Blanke, but to modern eyes his character is too much a caricature of the stiff-upper-lipped Brit.
In the years between Lockhart’s disastrous mission in 1918 and 1934, any doubts about the longevity of the Soviet state had been laid to rest. The appeal of Lockhart’s book lay in its insider’s account of the inception of the defining struggle of the 20th century. Despite some silly moments and an uninspiring leading man, the film of Lockhart’s book is a fascinating window into what a pre-Cold War audience thought about the place of communist Russia in the world. Curtiz’s greatest hits yet lay in his future, but this forgotten curio from his early days rewards those who seek it out.
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