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From Russia with Trepidation: The Rocky Ride of Edward G. Robinson

Photo by Trailer screenshot – Little Caesar trailer | CC BY 2.0

Every one of us bears within him the possibility of all passions, all destinies of life in all its manifold forms. Nothing human is foreign to us.

— Edward G. Robinson

In the darkest days of World War II, Hollywood went to bat for Russia—our ally then—by adapting Soviet propaganda films for the American audience and making some of its own on their behalf. This amazing documentary, a paean to the heroism of the Russian people and the Red Army, was shot before, during, and after Hitler’s siege of Moscow. Filmed between October 1941 and January 1942 during a time of invasion, privation, agony and death in the depths of the Russian winter, Moscow Strikes Back (Russian version here) may be a little hard to take in spots, but is well worth an hour of your time. Should the following video start in the middle, rewind by dragging the red button all the way to the left. Makes me think: wouldn’t it be nice to be able to rewind America away from the right?

Hollywood’s famous tough guy (also fine art collector and philanthropist) Edward G. Robinson narrates over a sound track featuring spirited scores by Russian composers. Directed by Leonid Varlamov and Ilya Kopalin, it won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Then, as soon as the war ended, along with thousands of government and private employees, Hollywood directors and screenwriters were purged for suspect loyalties. Robinson was among those who paid a steep price’s for their idealism and activism.

Now fascism is back in fashion. Who has the temerity advocate for Russian-American solidarity, given that Russia is once again on our rulers’ shit list and World War III wish list? We aren’t allowed to say good things about it or even that our countries once worked together, however mistrustfully. Thanks to several generations of hawkish propagandists, few of our countrymen remember or appreciate what the Russian people suffered in that war and how thankful they were for the goods the US shipped to them that helped them struggle through it, but it was their own fortitude that won the day. That and a regime that took civil defense seriously and directed the public’s efforts.

As Nazi forces encircled Moscow, Marshal Zhukov mobilized Moscow’s women to fortify the city. According to the WWII Multimedia Database, the women had to slog and dig through freezing muck to excavate their redoubts. With little more than shovels and wheelbarrows, they “emplaced or dug 201 miles (323.4 kilometers) of anti-tank obstacles and ditches, 158 miles (254.2 kilometers) of anti-infantry obstacles, and laid minefields. 3,800 prepared bunkers and fire bases were built. 37,500 metal ‘hedgehogs’ were set up to stop vehicles.” I hope they at least got medals.

Could today’s Americans match Russia’s Greatest Generation or even our own? Take it on the chin and go on to collectively mobilize ourselves to prevail? We have sufficient tools and wealth, but have we enough will and leadership? Anesthetized by the H-Bomb, our government let preparedness and civil defense institutions wither. Lacking action plans for what to do in an extreme emergency, we’re apparently expected to tough it out (use firearms responsibly and no looting, please). Of course, the government stocks bunkers for top officials and members of Congress, and our moneyed elites will repair to their hideaways and lock the gates at the first sign of mortal danger. Those of us who aren’t armed preppers will go first. As civil society collapses, militias will battle over whatever resources are left. And then, depopulated, America will be great again.

But I digress. Back to Eddy Robinson’s politics. In 1952, HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) plunged into ignominy Edward Goldenberg Robinson for being duped by fifth-columnists into assailing fascism and advocating peace and cooperation among the great powers. The anti-fascist Jewish Romanian immigrant film star had served in two world wars. Fluent in six languages, he narrated Allied propaganda broadcasts for which the American Legion honored him. His anti-fascist bona fides, left-wing Hollywood connections, and support and advocacy for several hundred civic, cultural, philanthropic, and political organizations only served to target him as postwar red-baiting and housecleaning proceeded apace.

On April 30, 1952, Robinson sat before HUAC for the third time. He hadn’t been subpoenaed; just harassed until he decided the time had come to clear his name. Through 20 pages of testimony (plaintext here), he states his opposition to communism over and over:

My conscience is clear. My loyalty to this Nation I know to be absolute. No one has ever been willing to confront me under oath free from immunity and unequivocally charge me with membership in the Communist Party or any other subversive organization. No one can honestly do so. I now realize that some organizations which I permitted to use my name were, in fact, Communist fronts. But their ostensible purposes were good, and it was for such purposes that I allowed use of my name and even made numerous financial contributions. The hidden purposes of the Communists, in such groups, was not known to me. Had I known the truth, I would not have associated with such persons, although I would have and intend to continue to help to the extent of my ability in worth-while causes, honestly calculated to help underprivileged or oppressed people, including  those oppressed by Communist tyranny.

Robinson closed his prepared testimony by saying:

Anyone who understands the history of the political activity in Hollywood will appreciate the fact that innocent, sincere persons were used by the Communists to whom honesty and sincerity are as foreign  as the Soviet Union is to America. I was duped and used. I was lied to. But, I repeat, I acted from good motives, and I have never knowingly aided Communists or any Communist cause.

I wish to thank the committee for this opportunity to appear and clarify my position. I have been slow to realize that persons I thought sincere were Communists. I am glad, for the sake of myself and the Nation, that they have been exposed by your committee.

While you have been, exposing Communists, I have been fighting them and their ideology in my own way. I just finished appearing in close to 250 performances of “Darkness at Noon” all over the country. It is, perhaps, the strongest indictment of communism ever presented.  I am sure it had a profound and lasting effect on all who saw it.

During questioning, he doubled down on his anti-communism:

To me, communism is abhorrent. Certainly I supported Russia during the war but, as an ally, and no more than as an ally. What I did for Russia was relatively negligible, compared to what I did for our other allies.

Upon being pressed, he named film industry colleagues he had come to believe were communists: Albert Maltz; Dalton Trumbo; John Howard Lawson; Donald Ogden Stewart. This of course was not news to anyone, but as he had “named names,” the witch-hunters refrained from branding him with the Red Star label. But when Robinson asked members of the committee why they shouldn’t certify him as a loyal American, the best he could get was Rep. Morgan Molder (R-MO) telling him:

Mr. [Donald L.] Jackson [R-CA16] has made the statement that this committee is not in a position to exonerate or to vindicate any person who has been wrongfully accused of being a Communist or who has been smeared as a result of such false accusations. I will agree with him to a certain extent.  However, I believe that when, as a result of any proceedings or functions of this committee, someone has been unjustly smeared or injured it is our duty to aid that person and give that person an opportunity to appear before the committee to explain and defend himself as you have done.

In other words, he was potentially guilty until proven innocent, which the committee refused to do. Instead, they treated him like a student in a dunce cap scratching out “I will not be a commie dupe” over and over. His penitence extended to publishing “How the Reds Made a Sucker Out of Me,” in American Legion Magazine (October 1952), paraphrased in 2011 by USC historian Steven J. Ross:

Robinson told readers that while he had “never paid much attention to communism in the past,” he now knew how they went about duping loyal Americans. “They do not reveal themselves as communists,” but pose “as fine American citizens who are for ‘peace,’ or ‘decent working conditions,’ or ‘against intolerance.’ ” These were lies; their real aim was “world domination, oppression, and slavery for the working people and the minorities they profess to love.” The contrite actor ended by swearing, “I am not a communist, I have never been, I never will be – I am an American.”

It must have been soul-crushing for someone so allergic to fascism to prostrate himself before that jingoist tribunal. Thank Mother of Mercy, that wasn’t the end of Rico. Robinson returned to the stage for several years and then went on to act in more than 40 films. Somehow befittingly, his last role came in the cult classic b-movie Soylent Green (1973). He died soon after in Mount Sinai Hospital and was buried in Brooklyn. He was 79.

In that article, Little Caesar and the McCarthyist Mob, Ross observes, “The internationalist pronouncements of Robinson and other Hollywood activists soon came to haunt them as HUAC began portraying anti-fascists as the allies of Communists bent on destroying America.” And so it is today as anti-Russia hysteria paves the way to a fascist-style America-first militarism, cheered on by compliant corporate media and political opportunists from both sides of the aisle. Whoever objects to the gathering storm is apt to be fingered as soft on Putin and entered into watch lists.

Meanwhile, the corporate takeover of the Federal Government and more than several states is nearly a fait accompli. Our elections are rigged, not by Russian trolls but minions of the GOP. The First Family mixes governing with business and pleasure and the Bozo-in-Chief can’t get his wealth-addled mind around anything for more than a New York minute. Generals and billionaires have been placed in charge of arming and corrupting the republic, respectively. Democrats won’t take on the Electoral College or Republican stratagems to rig elections, even though reforms would be win-win for them.

We’re going down folks, and if Edward G. were around and still in the game he would understand where we’re heading. The old anti-fascist would be plunging right in to keep America safe for democracy. Since he can’t, I reckon we’ve got to.

Bonus Feature

Another pro-Soviet propaganda production from 1942, this one all-American, is Miss V from Moscow. Directed by Albert Herman and starring Lola Lane and Noel Madison, it is regarded as one of the cheesiest spy films ever to grace the silver screen. Lane plays Vera Marova, an untrained Soviet spy apparently fluent in German, French, and English. She slips into occupied France pretending to be a dead German spy whom she closely resembles. In an absurd sequence of implausible events, she and Steve Worth, a downed American airman, hook up and collaborate with Free French partisans in Paris. After she romances a Gestapo Captain and worms war plans from him, they send secret radio messages to Moscow from the back room of a bistro that enable American convoys bound for Russia to elude German submarines. As the film ends, instead of having Vera and her plucky American comrade Steve romantically embrace (that would be a bit too much bilateral solidarity) we get to cheer on American supply ships steaming through the Baltic to deliver the goods.

 

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Geoff Dutton is an ex-geek turned writer and editor. He hails from Boston and writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Currently, he’s pedaling a novel chronicling the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, completing a collection of essays on high technology delusions, and can be found barking at Progressive Pilgrim Review.

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