Inane Things With A Taste Of Freedom: Hollywood Movies During The Cold War


In 1945, the Soviet Army seized the film archive of the Third Reich, the so-called Reichfilmarchive, and brought it from Berlin to Moscow. The archive contained thousands of movies from various countries. Since then, the German, American, and a few European trophies circulated throughout the Soviet Union despite a lack of an effective distribution license. This copyright violation turned out to be a stumbling block in the relations between the USSR and the USA, while the early Cold War confrontation between the two superpowers added a political twist to the conflict.

Both countries were now using cinematography as a weapon in their fight, trying to do as much harm to the opponent as possible. Kristina Tanis, a researcher from HSE University, investigates the battles between the two film industries. 

The Soviet Union benefited from screening foreign films at the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s for two reasons. On the one hand, the distribution of the films provided a source of revenue from the box office. On the other hand, foreign movies expanded the Soviet film repertoire during the so-called film-famine (malokartinye), which coincided with a policy of making ‘fewer but better films’. For example, as many as 48 foreign movies and only 22 Soviet pictures were screened in 1948. The situation remained pretty much the same over the following couple of years, with this ratio being 44: 11 in 1949; 27: 13 in 1950; 37: 10 in 1951, and 39: 22 in 1952.

Foreign movies were shown either in state city cinemas or in closed networks. While anybody could buy a ticket to the state cinema, the closed networks, such as cinema clubs and other venues, distributed tickets to ‘members only’.

‘Bootleg’ Hollywood

As far as foreign films are concerned, the state cinemas demonstrated either German trophy films seized in Berlin, or the European and American pictures previously licensed for broadcast.

At the end of the 1940s, copyright was governed by the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which was adopted in 1886. Neither the USA nor the USSR was a signee to document. Moreover, the two countries did not have any bilateral agreement protecting copyright, and this resulted in the uncertain legal status of the American pictures from the Reichfilmarchive. Soviet officials did not dare broadcast them publicly, as they were afraid of being accused of theft, and they would prefer to avoid any risk of an international scandal. The USA was an ally of the USSR in WWII, and their movies could hardly be regarded as trophies.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union did not want to lose a reliable source of income either. The Soviet Ministry of Cinematography released American movies in closed networks. The films were often renamed or modified, if needed, e.g., scenes of a religious, ideological, mystical or erotic nature were cut out before a film was screened. No advertising in the press was allowed. A precedent was set though.

On February 22, 1949, Ivan Bolshakov, the Soviet Minister of Cinematography, wrote an indignant letter to the Head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department:

‘On behalf of the Ministry of Cinematography of the USSR, I would like to draw your attention to the inadmissibility of the publication in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda of the title of the American film Venetian Adventures released on closed screens. The American film Venetian Adventures (original title The Adventures of Marco Polo) was only allowed to be screened on a closed network, without any advertising. The publication in the press of any information about the films might lead to the studio receiving claims, since we have no license for broadcasting these films. <…> The USSR Ministry of Cinematography appeals to prohibit the publication by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda of any information about films released on closed networks.’

In 1948, the United States proposed that the USSR purchase 20 Hollywood films for a total of USE 1,000,000. The films included both new works and some of the booties kept in the Soviet film archive.

Negotiations lasted two years and were widely covered in the American and European press, which was designed to show that the Soviet Union did not shut itself off from the world. Unfortunately, the parties failed to reach any agreement.

Mirror Response

Meanwhile, the US started the production of the anti-Soviet film The Iron Curtain based upon a true story of Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko. In September 1945, a clerk of the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Igor Gouzenko, applied for political asylum, providing the Canadian authorities with evidence on Soviet nuclear espionage in Canada. The Gouzenko Affair served as a catalyst for the deterioration of relations between East and West. The movie was directed by William Wellman, Twentieth Century Fox, and screened in 1950. The works of Aram Khachaturian, Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai

Miaskovsky, and Dmitry Shostakovich were used as the film score.

The illegal use of these Soviet composers’ works made it possible for the USSR to instigate proceedings against the Hollywood company and unleash an active accusatory campaign in the press, trying to ban the release of the film and discredit the American film industry for Western European film markets. Although the legal claims came to nothing, as the two countries had not concluded any bilateral or international copyright agreement, the first nights of The Iron Curtain were accompanied by communist protests across Europe. Eventually, the Soviet officials gained an official injunction in the French Union, Luxemburg, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and Italy.

In revenge, the Soviet authorities decided to film an anti-American movie. The Ministry of Cinematography was supposed to produce a film drawn upon the American defector Annabelle Bucar’s book The Truth about American Diplomats and also make a film sketch based on Maksim Gorky’s novel City of the Yellow Devil. Alexander Dovzhenko was appointed to direct the cinematic adaptation of Bucar’s book. The film called Farewell, America was scheduled for release in 1951, but, for unknown reasons, the film was put on shelf until 1996. As for the production of the film sketch based on Gorky’s novel, no relevant documents can be found in the Ministry of Cinematography’s archive.

After the release of The Iron Curtain, the Soviet authorities felt entitled to show American films from the seized Reichsfilmarchive publicly in state cinemas. In 1949, Frank Capra’s film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town appeared on Soviet screens under the modified title The Dollar Rules. The original plot of the movie was changed dramatically. In the American film, the main character, a naïve Mr. Deeds, inherits a fortune and moves from a small town to New York, where he faces the cynicism and injustice of the megalopolis. Overcoming all obstacles, Deeds comes out as winner and finds true love. While the original film had a happy ending, the Soviet version depicts the anti-humanism of the US social and political system, ending with a close-up of the imprisoned protagonist. Moreover, the following opening credits prefaced this film:

‘Gorky called New York the citadel of American imperialism, and the “city of the yellow devil”. People sacrifice everything to money here, i.e., the conscience of a judge, the honour of a journalist, the life of millions of ordinary people. The main character of this film, Longfellow Deeds, is an honest but simple-minded person who tries to help people without shelter and work. For the Soviet viewer, it is not difficult to understand that, going this way, Deeds cannot change anything in the world of the Yellow Devil, the dollar.

Starting from 1950, Soviet officials added the opening credit title ‘This film was captured as a trophy…’ to each film of the Reichfilmarchive, which aggravated the diplomatic confrontation over the copyright between the USA and the USSR that lasted until the Soviet-American relations improved under Nikita Khrushchev.

In September 1952, the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) was accepted under the auspices of UNESCO. The treaty filled in the gaps of the international legal framework caused by the Berne Convention, centered largely on European countries.

Foreign Movies through the Eyes of the Soviet Viewers

The Soviet cultural phenomenon of trophy films began appearing in the late Stalin period. Interestingly enough, viewers’ attitudes to those movies changed dramatically over the 30-40 years after their release. While at the end of the 1940s, those pictures were believed to be primitive and inane, at the beginning of the 1990s, people regarded them as a taste of freedom.

This is indicated by what’s written in people’s diaries. For instance, in 1948, Boris Vronsky, a geologist, a writer and a poet, recollects that ‘it’s been a long time since I last was in a cinema club. Tonight I watched La bohème, one of the German films which Glavkinoprokat allows to be screened from time to time. Beautiful voices, good acting, although the plot is a bit trite.’ He added a few months later: ‘I’ve taken my daughter to the cinema today. It was one of the German musical comedies, Song for You, a banal and inept thing, the only merit of which is the main character’s voice.’

In his novel In Search of Melancholy Baby (written in 1987 in the USA, first published in Russia in 1991), Vasily Aksenov writes that ‘I have watched The Journey Will Be Dangerous (originally titled Stagecoach) 10 times or more, and The Fate of the Soldier In America (originally titled Roaring Twenties) at least fifteen times. My friends and I used to quote those films incessantly. For us, they were a window into a bigger world, outside of Stalin’s stinky den.’

‘In the 1940-1950s, viewers scrutinized entertaining and ideology-free movies of different genres though the lens of the “high-brow message”, where each piece of work was supposed to convey, or in the context of education, asking themselves what they could learn by watching a particular movie’ explains the author of the research. ‘In 1980-1990s, trophy films were regarded as a window to another world and, in general, as a trigger of destalinization and total westernization processes, or sometimes even the collapse of the USSR. The differences in the interpretation might have depended on the common historical context that set certain perception, or, perhaps, the Soviet viewers simply did not know the right words to describe the entertaining movies.

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