S Y M P O S I A "Tom Mix Meets Leon Trotsky: Newsreel and Outtakes as Documentary" Dan Streible
Comrades: By the irony of fate, I bring you a remarkable piece of visible and sonic evidence that -- unlikely as it seems -- resides in a newsfilm archive in the southern United States. I want to begin by considering a particular story from Fox Movietone News. Recorded on the Fox lot in Hollywood on January 27, 1928, the "Dedication of Park Row" footage constitutes one of the earliest synchronous-sound newsreels. Produced before voice-over narration and unctuous music became conventions of the genre, early Movietone newsfilm favored long takes of natural sound, adopting the slogan "It Speaks for Itself." However, I think you'll agree that the words spoken here and the newsworthy visages juxtaposed in this six-minute montage, require some explanation. They do, in fact, ask us to re-examine the nature of newsfilm archives and how they have been deployed to narrate and illustrate history.
As the building blocks of historical documentaries, newsreels (from the 1910s through the 1950s) constitute a primary element of contemporary nonfiction film and video. We of course do not attribute normative status to the millions of feet of topical footage stored in archives around the world; they are not merely purveyors of documentation. Rather, we question, first, the ways in which newsreels have represented history and historical events, and second, how the material available in newsfilm archives needs to be scrutinized when it is re-appropriated in contemporary documentary and television news programming.
Consider what this odd little film documents, then contextualize it and consider its possible "use value" for the latter-day filmmaker. As newsreel subjects go, this is nothing unusual: Hollywood self-promotion, the film industry making itself news. The "Tsar of All Rushes", Will Hays, improvises one of his Babbitt-like speeches, touting Hollywood's benign conquering of the world via the universal language of motion pictures. A parade of major and minor Fox players -- obviously pulled in unexpectedly from their dressing rooms -- display their discomfort with the new microphone technology. Only director Frank Borzage seems at ease before the Movietone set up, but he has little to say short of polite promotion.
The piece has some obvious historic interest as a document about the history of Hollywood: the display of early sound-on-film production; the strong, silent Tom Mix speaking on-microphone for the first time; Los Angeles welcoming New York writers to talking pictures. And the anonymous master of ceremonies who introduces the speakers is none other than John Ford, then Fox's top house director, well known inside Hollywood, but not yet a public figure.
However, the real star here is this "Leon Trotsky of the Soviet Republic!" The startling incongruity of his appearance amid all these icons of conservative, Republican Americana is, of course, the joke, an absurd non sequitur worthy of Groucho Marx ("Tom Mix, Leon Trotsky; Leon Trotsky, Tom Mix. Mr. Mix, Mr. Trotsky; Mr. Trotsky, Mr. Mix"). Exactly what Trotsky is doing in Hollywood seems to bewilder even those standing behind him in this film. More bewildering still to most viewers in 1928 is the fact that his Russian goes untranslated. Is this confirmation that it is really he? It looks like Trotsky, albeit a little younger and leaner than he was at the time. While we, like they, might have wondered, for the Russian-speaker the joke is given away immediately. The actor's words (delivered haltingly, with a Slavic accent) can be translated as:
While he fails to name the film, this is a publicity stunt for Walsh's non-talking drama, The Red Dance or The Red Dancer of Moscow, starring Dolores del Rio and Charles Farrell as lovers caught up in a tsarist clique at the dawn of the Revolution. While there is not a character called Trotsky in the film, stage actor Boris Charsky (briefly under contract at Fox and presumably the man at Park Row) plays an "agitator," who the New York Times referred to as "Trotzky" in its review of The Red Dance. The stunt, then, is a very inside joke, tied to a movie that would not be released for nearly a year. While we might assume that audiences would have been uninterested in such nuances of historical detail, it's worth noting that two of the handful of exhibitor's reports available in print were critical. "Why did the Fox officials use a Ford Whirlwind mono-plane in picturing the Russian Revolution?" asked a theater manager in Montana. Another argued that "the spectator of average intelligence" would not believe a film in which a Russian aristocrat marries a girl "from the working classes." (1)
The ability of spectators to get the joke is also context-specific, this being a highly topical reference. Leon Trotsky had been in the international headlines again throughout January 1928. Reports of his exile from Moscow to Kazakhstan were sketchy and confused with Stalinist disinformation about Trotsky's betrayal of the revolution. Just as the daily newspapers were playing this game of "Where's Trotsky?", the newsreel appeared with this impostor saying, "Here I am in Hollywood, comrades." As absurd as it sounds, the possibility was perhaps not so far-fetched. A year later Paramount signed a deal with Sergei Eisenstein.
However, the spectator's ability to distinguish between an actual historical figure and a performer representing one is not just context-specific. Even educated viewers looking at this film clip today hesitate about declaring this Trotsky an impersonator. More problematically, film archivists, stock footage researchers, and documentary filmmakers often have trouble separating actuality footage from staged performances. A brief review of how footage of Leon Trotsky has been used and archived points up this problem.
First is the problem of verifying dates: what footage was shot when? Again this case study poses a problem. In the archived outtakes for this 1928 Movietone story the Trotsky-ite says (in Russian) of Fox's forthcoming film: "This is the first time that Trotsky will be shown on the screen." Not true, of course. At least one Hollywood feature depicted him in 1921. (2) He had often been seen alongside Lenin in European and U.S. news and propaganda films since 1917. More notably, in the Soviet Union Eisenstein's film October (1927) had portrayed Trotsky prominently, but -- by the irony of fate -- most of these scenes were being eliminated precisely at the moment that Hollywood was promoting him.
Perhaps then we might qualify that this Movietone Trotsky was the first one to talk. While we usually emphasize documentary images (i.e., visible evidence), sound in this case proves the more authenticating element. It is how we verify that the Fox Trotsky is a hoax. Both Lenin and Trotsky became strong visual icons of the revolution, with shots of their flailing arms illustrating their leadership of the masses. But Trotsky was the great orator, playing Aaron to Lenin's Moses. (3) When was his voice recorded? Four years into his exile he began to appear in public. When newsreel microphones set up as he toured Pompeii in November 1932, Trotsky was seen declining to speak. (Pathé, British Movietone, Paramount News). But in December, British Movietone recorded his "first talking pictures interview" in Copenhagen. (Archive Filmss catalog incorrectly dates the outtake as recorded in the 1920s.) American newsreels featured this English-language footage as well, with Trotsky reading from his recent memoir about the decline of Europe and the rise of the United States.
The author himself seems not to have thought much of the new medium. Later that same month he derided new psycho-biographies of Lenin for inventing dialogues like those "put on for the talking pictures." (4) He spoke on film at least once more in 1937, defending himself during a truth commission (the Dewey Commission) designed to refute the lies presented at Stalin's show trials.
The problem for the archival filmmaker is not only that most of the world's newsreel footage is no longer extant, but that much of it exists (or is accessible) only in stock footage libraries -- lacking its original sound elements. Universal News, for example, is one of the most widely recycled sets of images because it is freely available at the National Archives in Washington. But Universal destroyed all of its pre-1950 soundtracks.
Looking at how these commercial archives catalogue footage is instructive. Most of these are now centrally organized with a global, web-based search engine at footage.net. Enter "Trotsky" there and you'll be linked to over 250 records in 27 databases from 697 stock footage collections. But the majority of these are copies of the same, familiar silent shots: Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky addressing crowds, walking with Lenin, visiting the Red Army, sitting at party conferences, writing at his desk. Some exist purely as stock shots, others are from secondary films and news telecasts. Reading the descriptions available to researchers, we can readily see how the cinematic narration of history becomes so reified.
In the institutional documentaries found here, shots of Trotsky are most often used as silent filler to illustrate a narrator's thesis. James Cagney, for example (having just starred in Billy Wilder's Cold War comedy One, Two, Three ), provides voice-over about a "massacre ordered by Trotsky," while we see a shot of Trotsky saluting, followed by a short of dead bodies, followed by various shots of Trotsky and Stalin. A Stalinesque use of the Kuleshov effect by capitalist filmmakers! Another, Soviet Dissidents . . . Then and Now, equates Trotsky with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Even Trotsky soundbites are almost exclusively deployed as anti-Soviet advocacy, as in The Truth about Communism, an early 1960s film in which host Ronald Reagan introduces a clip of Trotsky attacking the Stalin purges.
While none of this ideological use of archival film is surprising, we might be more concerned about how often these libraries confuse the identity of historical figures. Descriptions often guess. Example:
Many catalogues simply list figures by name and Trotsky's name frequently appears with a question mark in parenthesis after it. Such is the case in the University of South Carolina's Movietone catalogue. The original Fox studio description, however, simply identified him as "Trotsky." Compounding this problem is the commingling of actuality and fictional representations within newsfilm libraries. In one house's stock reel of "Scenes of the Russian Revolution" a long catalogue of shots ends with: " NOTE: Some scenes are from theatrical films."
At the far end of the spectrum, there are blatant misidentifications that lead to historical inaccuracy. Despite Kevin Brownlow's debunking of this myth (5) reference sources still erroneously state that Leon Trotsky appeared as an extra in American films between 1914 and 1916 -- years he was not in the U.S. In fact, it was merely a man who resembled Leon. (The issue is also debunked in Linda Tadic's 1985 experimental documentary about Trotsky's meeting with Andre Breton in Mexico.)
Finally, the issue of falsifying historical images becomes especially complicated in the case of Trotsky under Stalinism. As William J. Mitchell suggests in his book The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, the erasure of Trotsky from photographic evidence has become virtually synonymous with fakery and effacement. (6) David King, an obsessive collector of Trotsky photos and Soviet-era visual records, has published no less than three books on the subject, most notably The Commissar Vanishes in 1997. (7) Given how difficult it is for any film to survive for long, the likelihood that undoctored originals might survive remains poor. Even if the falsified and effaced can be distinguished from the original, the reliability of the master remains in doubt. We might fairly easily establish that Fox Movietone did not film the real Lev Davidovich Bronstein in Hollywood in 1928; but who has been able to identify the newsreel footage of Stalin that records the real Iosef Dzhugashvili and distinguish it from actuality footage in which one of Stalin's official doubles is standing in for him? (8) No doubt new revelations will appear as researchers and filmmakers continue to work with prints formerly locked in Soviet film vaults. However, seeing the ways in which on-line searches make it all too easy to reify histories written with motion pictures, we must be skeptical of new resources such as russianfilm.com, although russianarchives.com gets us a little closer to originals in the Russian State Film and Photographic Archives.
Ultimately, my point is neither that we should always distrust images nor that we should simply try to sort out the real and the fake. Rather it is that documentary filmmakers, researchers, historians and archivists should look for the surprises. (9) A forgotten moment of topical humor like the hoax of the Fox Trotsky should enrich our understanding of Hollywood, of Soviet film, of Trotsky as a historical figure, of U.S.-Soviet relations, of how the world is documented, controlled, and confused when moving images and recorded sound are the building blocks of knowledge about that world.
(1) Moving Picture World and Exhibitor's Herald, December 1928. See Thomas Doherty's discussion of newsreel in Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 (Columbia University Press, 1999). (back)
(2) The Dangerous Moment (1921, Universal) (back)
(3) Emma Goldman heard his farewell address, when he departed New York for Russia in 1917: "His speech, first in Russian and then in German, was powerful and electrifying." Living My Life, New York: Knopf, 1931, p. 596] (back)
(4) Leon Trotsky, "On Lenin's Testament," from Prinkipo, Turkey, December 31, 1932 (reprinted at trotsky.org and trotsky.net). (back)
(5) Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence: The Social Problem Films of the Silent Cinema (New York: Knopf, 1990). (back)
(6) William J. Mitchell, "How to Do Things with Pictures," in The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994): 190-223. Mitchell also cites Alain Jaubert, Making People Disappear: An Amazing Chronicle of Photographic Deception (McLean, VA: Pergamon-Brassey's International Defense Publishers, 1989). (back)
(7) David King, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997); Trotsky: A Photographic Biography (New York: B. Blackwell, 1986); Francis Wyndham and David King, Trotsky, a Documentary (London: Allen Lane, 1972). (back)
(8) Stalin's Official Double Dies at 93. Associated Press news reports, June 16, 1991. Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe reprint.
(9) The confusion and conflation of film images of Trotsky and Lenin are commonplace, even among the most educated. Consider, for example, this published remark by a university professor complaining about his student's lack of literacy.
Mark Edmundson, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: 1. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students," Harper's Magazine, September 1997, pp. 39ff. (back)