Thursday, 2 May 2019

How the CIA used the 1939 comedy film "Ninotchka" to stop Italy turning communist

I'm currently reading The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton by Jefferson Morley. As I wrote here, I've long believed that Ninotchka is the best anti-communist film ever made, so I was delighted to find the following in Morley's book (the background to the story is that there was a genuine danger of the Communist Party winning the 1948 Italian elections):
'Angleton... interrupted one embassy meeting in Rome in early 1948 to ask Ambassador James Dunn if he might offer an idea...
"I thought," he began mischievously, "we might take advantage of one of America's greatest natural resources: Greta Garbo...I realise she once belonged to another country," Angleton said, "but I believe by now we're justified in claiming her as our own. So I suggest we import one of her best pictures. " he paused. "I'd like to expose the Italians to Ninotchka."...
Ninotchka... was a comedy in which Garbo spoofed Stalinist Russia. The ambassador ratified Angleton's proposal on the spot. Actually,  Angleton wasn't the only wise guy with this idea. The Hollywood studios had printed extra copies of Ninotchka and made special arrangements to show the film in Italy as a way of contrasting golden America with ravaged Russia. At the end of the meeting, Agleton supposedly quipped , "Miss Garbo will prove a most lethal secret weapon."
And so she did. The Christian Democrats emerged from the election of April 1948 with 48% of the vote and an absolute majority in parliament."
I've no idea if any of this is true, but it's a nice story. I've posted enough clips from Ninotchka, so I've opted for a couple from Silk Stockings, the 1957 remake - one of MGM's last great musicals - which starred Fred Astaire in the Melvyn Douglas role, and the stunningly lovely Cyd Charisse replacing Garbo in the title role. Miss Charisse was no great shakes as an actress, but her facial immobility actually suited the part of a frozen-faced commie enforcer perfectly. In this first clip, she discovers the delights of feminine apparel (the censors insisted she hid behind a chair, which, of course, made the scene seem rather suggestive):

Here, Ninotchka and her comrades, who have been recalled to Moscow, perform the "Red Blues":

(Memo to self: Do not start reading a fascinating book on a fascinating subject at two o'clock in the morning. Idiot!)

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