Films are sometimes forgotten for a reason. One of the great things about TCM – and their festival – is that whilst they while happily vaunt the famous and already well-regarded titles, they display no discrimination in championing old movies in general, rescuing titles from obscurity whether they are apparently worth it are not; Hollywood’s more oddball outings preserved for those with an interest, helping fill in the whole great tapestry of American movie-making and by extension, twentieth-century history. Thus we were treated to this somewhat bizarre 1933 offering from Warner Brothers/First National, British Agent, based with cavalier abandon on the memoirs of R.H. Bruce Lockhart, British Consul in Russia at the time of the Revolution,. It is a film which I could never recommend to anyone without a specific interest in the period, but which was nevertheless a perfectly enjoyable show.
- Director: Michael Curtiz
- Script: Laird Doyle, inspired by the memoirs of R.H. Bruce Lockhart
- Camera: Ernest Haller
- Cast: Leslie Howard, Kay Francis, William Gargan, Philip Reed, Cesar Romero, Irving Pichel, Ivan F. Simpson, Halliwell Hobbs, J. Carrol Naish
It’s 1917 and those inconsiderate Reds have just had a revolution. If they make peace with Germany, the Allies are in trouble. The British clear out of Russia, leaving Consul-General Steve Locke behind to obstruct the peace. He is frustrated by his unofficial capacity, his inability to achieve his aim, and by constant betrayals from the young communist with whom he falls in love.
This is 1917 seen through the none-too-sophisticated political eyes of mid-30s Hollywood and the fast looseness played with the memoir source means that despite the presence of Lenin and Trotsky there’s nothing here that feels true to life, either historically or emotionally. Howard is accompanied in his plotting by an under-explained trio of cheerful Allied representatives (with Romero playing Italian and Reed French) and entangled with the wavishing Kay Francis, all droopy eyes, insipid posture and strange lisp. She’s Lenin’s secretary and an apparently passionate Red, and with little ado they fall in love.
There’s a lot of explanatory text and old men in government offices trying to make the politics sound important, but the recurrent distraction is this love affair between two people with staunchly conflicting beliefs, of which Howard can blithely say “you” (not me, mind) “cannot let political beliefs come between us”. Presumably because he holds hers in such low esteem and cannot admit to anything but the supremacy of the British way of thinking. Francis’s speech about her communist awakening is actually quite moving, but don’t worry – she’s not actually a peasant, just very sorry for them; the Bolsheviks are not out and out vilified, merely treated as though it should be taken for granted they’re completely wrong. And thank heavens, by the end Francis declares she’s had enough of it all to which Howard responds that she’s too much of a woman for politics in any case. The love affair is so perfunctory and their political dialogue so ridiculous, that neither the passion nor the conflict plays.
For all his pathological self-deprecation, Locke is a pretty odious sort, seen from this distance, gliding by on the traditional English charm built on a bedrock of connote arrogance. The troubles of Russia are as of nothing to him, and he’ll cozy up to the Reds and the Whites with equal ease; the troubles of England – which naturally are the troubles of all humanity in general – are all that matter. Further misjudgements abound, such as the distasteful disparity between the opulence of the consulate and the mob in the street; it is presumably unintentional, but we wind up feeling a bit sorry for the Russians, despite their brusque, haranguing characterisations, and particularly for the slightly drippy Francis, in the face of all this interference from snooty types who assume they know better. It’s always rather a surprise when she does something bold – murder, betrayal – because her acquiescent ending seems so inevitable.
Director Michael Curtiz’s most winning contribution is the good number of quick, startling deaths, but was forced into an astonishingly perfunctory climax and a particularly idiotic coda by the MPAA and nascent Production Code (it’s code number 56). A tougher ending would have helped – script and direction are so frequently abrupt, inelegant or simplistic that if it weren’t for the unintentional amusement and the film’s complete failure to engage in any meaningful way with the substance and subject of the story, it might well be downright offensive.