Film Studies: True tales from Hollywood - you couldn't make them up. Honest

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The Independent Culture

"Intelligence" becomes less reliable every day. Still, loyal readers of this column and other despairing defenders of reason will have been captivated by the disclosure (in a book!) that Joseph Stalin and the KGB (and Janet Leigh - that is the news I am breaking) were all part of a plot to do away with that great American, greater Republican and greatest of all stars, John Wayne.

Why? Well, the Bolshevik regime of 1917 and afterwards was second only to Adolf Hitler's in Germany in the importance it put on kino, the movies. Uncle Joe was personally a very great fan of Mickey Mouse, and film scholars will know the photograph of the great Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein, in Hollywood, with the Mick himself. Hitherto, this was taken to be nothing but a cheerful snapshot, instead of an attempt to kidnap America's great mouse. The picture may actually have been taken by J Edgar Hoover himself, and is the best record available of one of the triumphs of American intelligence. In time, the disgraced Eisenstein went back to the USSR where he had to make Ivan the Terrible - two parts, and a portrait of Joe - in contrition.

We know now that Ninotchka was made with US government assistance as a thumb in the Russian eye. In that film, Greta Garbo played a Soviet commissar who comes to the West to rebuke delinquent Soviet officials, but who is herself seduced by Paris, romance and every other trick of capitalist seduction. Ninotchka was a stunning international success, but the rumours of Soviet retaliation - think of what happened to Leon Trotsky - was the principal reason for Garbo's early retirement in 1941.

During the war, a hollow bonhomie was alleged to hold the two countries together as Roosevelt and Stalin conferred (one of Joe's private questions to the President was: "Is Bambi really such a heart-breaker?"). Then after the official peace in Europe real hostilities began with the full weight of espionage, sabotage and propaganda undermining. But it was the House Un-American Activities Committee actions against alleged Communist influence in the film business that really set things off. Recently opened Kremlin records disclose a conversation between Stalin and Molotov, as follows:

Stalin: We have reds under their beds?

Molotov: So they say.

Stalin: We were never able to get those bum screenwriters to do a thing!

Molotov: Still, Washington appears to be alarmed.

Stalin: Aha! If those Americans will believe anything, suppose we feed them a juicier line?

Molotov: I am present at genius!

So it was that Soviet agents were able to infiltrate preparations for a new picture - Jet Pilot, to be produced by Howard Hughes. When I tell you how Hughes saw this picture, you are going to say I am making it all up. You are going to check your legs for length. Humbly, I direct you to the record and the video store. Jet Pilot has John Wayne as a US pilot who flies the most secret jet fighter. Lo, a beautiful Russian pilot (Janet Leigh) is sent from Russia to seduce the Duke so that he and astonishing new jet aircraft will defect to the Soviet Union. This picture was begun in the coldest year of the Cold War, 1951.

Now, from the point of view of Mr Hughes, the aircraft was the only reason for making the movie - well, not quite, there were two others and enthusiasts of Ms Leigh can guess what they were. But this is the new scoop. Janet Leigh, supposedly Jeanette Morrison, from Merced, California, and allegedly discovered by Norma Shearer herself, was actually a Soviet plant - deep cover - and yes, Norma Shearer, too, was a red.

The grotesque plan was, at the climax of the film's action, with Leigh and Wayne side-by-side in the cockpit, Leigh would give the Duke a left hook, seize control of the plane and head for the nearest landing strip in Siberia. Imagine the dismay in the US with headlines about "Duke! Say It Isn't So - Was Wayne a Pinko?"

Well, the best-laid plans - Leigh swung, and the hunky Duke was in sweet dreams. Janet let it go down the runway. But no lift-off. Like other Hughes aircraft, this was a very pretty looking thing that couldn't actually leave the ground. But director Joseph von Sternberg loved her punch and Ms Leigh herself had the wit to realise she should stay under cover for a few more years. (She did try to get home again with The Manchurian Candidate - but that's another story.)

The world kept on breathing. The Duke was saved for democracy. Jet Pilot remained under a cloud - it wasn't released until 1957. But Joe himself died in 1953, just after a private screening of The Greatest Show on Earth. You can look it up.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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