BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new expanded law on extremism, supposedly intended to stifle neo-Nazis and other hate groups. But it's written so broadly that it could be applied to any criticism of the Russian government.
This is not an unusual move for Putin, or for Russia. For most of the century, Russian media have been firmly under the thumb of the government. Of course, we Americans have no problem with criticizing Russia, especially in film, and Hollywood's portrayals usually track with our political relations. Now, with our geopolitical relationship in flux, so is our view of Russians on the big screen.
Harlow Robinson is the author of the upcoming Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image. He joins us now. Welcome to the show. HARLOW ROBINSON: My pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you write that an obsession with the Russians happened early in Hollywood filmmaking. American audiences seemed to find The Romanoffs extremely sympathetic. How come? HARLOW ROBINSON: Well, you know, I think it's an interesting historical fact that the Russian Revolution, 1917, coincided almost exactly with the creation of Hollywood. And on top of that, lots of Russians were flowing into Hollywood as refugees.
And, you know, I think Americans have always been fascinated with monarchs, and politically it was very urgent, the struggle between Capitalism and Communism after the Russian Revolution. I think all those factors contributed. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's focus on the political factor right now. One of the most successful early Russian characters was Greta Garbo's 1939 portrayal in Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka. HARLOW ROBINSON: Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about her resonated with American moviegoers? HARLOW ROBINSON: Well, I think, for one thing, it's a very funny film. Ernst Lubitsch has that wonderful comic touch, and Billy Wilder was one of those who helped write the screenplay. But I think the story, you know, it was 1939 that that film came out, and following the Depression was when Americans were most interested in Communism, actually.
Ernst Lubitsch, interestingly, went to Russia in 1936 and he was extremely disillusioned with what he saw there, and felt when he came back that he wanted to make this film. But being Ernst Lubitsch, of course, he made it a comedy and got the message across even better. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, I think this falls into the category of what you would call a "conversion story." HARLOW ROBINSON: [LAUGHS] Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the quintessential moment there? HARLOW ROBINSON: Well, she arrives in Paris, you know, as this extremely severe Soviet commissar. This is Greta Garbo. She sees this hat in a store window, and she says, oh, my goodness, if they're wearing such things here it won't be long before capitalism collapses. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
But, of course, the story is how she changes in the course of having met particularly this one playboy, who at first she thinks is very silly and frivolous, but eventually he turns her head.
And the moment when she actually goes and buys [LAUGHS] the hat and puts it on and admires herself in the mirror, the transformation has occurred. [BEGIN CLIP] GRETA GARBO: Isn't it amazing? At home there is still snow and ice, and here - look at the birds. I always felt a little hurt when our swallows deserted us in the winter for capitalistic countries. Now I know why. We have the high ideal but they have the climate. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once we got into World War II, that must have put filmmakers in something of a bind. Our former foils were now our allies. How did some of the pro-Soviet films of the 1940s reconcile themselves with Communism? HARLOW ROBINSON: When the war began in 1941 and we became allies, actually the Roosevelt administration asked Hollywood producers to start producing films that would present the Soviet Union in a different light.
And there were five or six very high-profile features that were made during that short period of time between 1941 and 1945. One of them is Days of Glory, starring Gregory Peck in his first big role. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet it didn't take long for Cold War paranoia to reappear. Would you say that the films from the '50s sort of set the template for the Soviet villain/zombie? HARLOW ROBINSON: After the war, and the Cold War, virtually all Russians who were seen in the movies became villains. One of my favorite films is called Red Danube, from 1950, and actually it stars Janet Leigh, and she plays a fugitive ballerina who's in Vienna after the war when Soviets were being repatriated forcibly back to the Soviet Union. And she's trying to escape this fate.
In the end, she ends up jumping out of a window and committing suicide because the idea of going back to the Soviet Union is so horrible to her. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in the '60s and the '70s, amidst the evil Communist portrayals, there came a kind of backlash in the form of satire. HARLOW ROBINSON: By the early '60s, you know, you have films like Dr. Strangelove and then The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming. [BEGIN CLIP] MAN: In Union of Soviet, many are saying Americanzi are bad people. All mistrust American. But I think that I do not mistrust American. I wish not to hate anybody! [END CLIP] HARLOW ROBINSON: And here there's a sort of different tone. It becomes the Soviet and Americans together against their leadership, in a way. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in the last decade of Communist Russia, you wrote that Russian portrayals were just confused. You had Warren Beatty's Reds, who portrayed them as vaguely romantic. On the other hand, you had John Milius' Red Dawn, which was paranoia of the first order. And then you had Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson - HARLOW ROBINSON: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - with Robin Williams. I guess that's the quintessential conversion film. HARLOW ROBINSON: Yes. And, you know, of course, remember that the late '70s, early '80s, defection was very much in the news. There were hundreds of thousands of Jews who were leaving the Soviet Union, and on top of that, all these artists who were defecting - you know, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Godunov.
So, you know, Moscow on the Hudson¸ it is a defection story. Robin Williams plays a Russian musician who's on tour with a circus in New York, and he defects at the fragrance counter in Bloomingdale's. [BROOKE LAUGHS] [BEGIN CLIP] MAN: Say what? ROBIN WILLIAMS: I defect. MAN: You not gonna do that here. I told you where the men's room was. ROBIN WILLIAMS: I am Russian. I defect. MAN: You about ready to get Maced. MAN: Oh, my God. Don't you get it? He's defecting! [DRUM ROLL] [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you think filmmakers, with all of these various portrayals, were just trying to make sense of the end of the Cold War? HARLOW ROBINSON: Oh, I think definitely. And, you know, these films of the '80s, it was an interesting kind of confusion in how to exactly take the USSR. Reagan's administration was very anti-Soviet. He called the Soviet Union the evil empire, and that was very much reflected in these films of the early '80s, like Red Dawn, where you have the Soviets invading Colorado. [LAUGHS] [BEGIN CLIP] MAN: It is World War III down there. People are being killed. Those could be Russians. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've suggested that since the late '80s there's been a kind of palpable feeling of loss in the portrayals of Russians - regret, perhaps, that they don't fill the same role they used to? HARLOW ROBINSON: Yes. I think there's a nostalgia for the certainties of the Cold War. You know, what's interesting in this most recently James Bond film, Casino Royale, Judi Dench, who plays, you know, the runner of the James Bond character, says, God, I miss the Cold War. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Because it's hard to make sense of this new world. And I think you really see that in the films that have come out in very recent years. The Russians still tend to be very negative. They're no longer Communist, but now they're terrorists, they're the Mafioso. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Russia has loomed so large in the last century. Why do you think we're still so all over the place when it comes to depicting them? HARLOW ROBINSON: Well, I think, you know, especially since the collapse of Communism, people are really unsure. Is this a friend? We were great buddies now, but it became clear that that was not really the case. Russia is still a great power with its own agenda, and so I think that also scares people. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Harlow, thank you very much. HARLOW ROBINSON: Oh, you're welcome. It was a pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Harlow Robinson is the author of Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image, due out this fall. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [CLIP]: MAN: A hotdog, please. MAN: [RUSSIAN] MAN: Boris? MAN: Don't worry, my friend. I am retired. MAN: Yeah? MAN: Oh, yeah. MAN: What are you doing here? MAN: Did you think I could go back to Moscow after what's happened? Have you been well? MAN: Yeah. It's a strange country, huh? MAN: Oh, yeah, strange and wonderful. Can I say thank you? MAN: Sure. MAN: Thank you. MAN: [LAUGHS] Wait. MAN: Oh, put your money away! MAN: Ah! MAN: It's a good hotdog. MAN: The best in New York. [LAUGHS] MAN: See you. MAN: Okay! [END OF CLIP] [RUSSIAN MUSIC UP AND UNDER]