Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 19, 2016)
Despite the presence of big movie stars Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr, 1940’s Comrade X seems to fall into the category of “forgotten film”. Were it not for memories of my father’s praise for it years ago, I doubt I’d know of its existence at all.
But The Old Man’s comments remain in my head, so I thought I’d give the flick a look on DVD. Set in Russia, Commissar Vasiliev (Oskar Homulka) takes over the censorship of the foreign press due to the activities of an anonymous journalist known as “Comrade X”. This unknown reporter tells the truth about the ugliness behind the scenes in Russia, and Vasiliev places strict restrictions on the press.
Absent from this meeting, American journalist McKinley B. “Mac” Thompson (Gable) turns out to be the mysterious “Comrade X”. Hotel valet Vanya (Felix Bressart) discovers this secret and blackmails Mac. Vanya fears for his daughter Theodore’s (Lamarr) safety and wants the young woman out of Russia, so he forces Mac to perform this task.
One problem: Theodore doesn’t want to leave. This leads to a series of shenanigans – and maybe some romance – as the cocky American pushes the serious-minded Communist to escape the USSR.
After I finish with the DVD, I plan to send it to my father. I doubt he’s seen Comrade in decades, so I’ll be curious to learn if it holds up for him after all that time.
As for me, I think Comrade seems totally, perfectly, relentlessly… okay. Probably the film’s biggest problem comes from the lackluster script. Co-writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer worked on some classics, which makes this semi-feeble effort more perplexing, as I’d expect more zing.
Instead, we find a pretty limp screenplay. Where the movie needs to kick into gear, it tends to remain slow and semi-plodding. The script boasts glimmers of cleverness – such as the explanation for Theodore’s masculine name – but these moments stay in the minority.
Some of this comes from the movie’s unnecessary emphasis on plot. Comrade focuses so much on various story points that it forgets to do much else. We don’t really care about Soviet shenanigans or Mac’s exposé, so those moments bog down the tale.
Much of Comrade’s modest reputation stems from its climactic tank chase sequence. Perhaps I expected too much from this slapstick affair, but even this scene seems lackluster to me. The movie presents the pursuit with some wacky elements but fails to explore the potential laughs as well as it could.
When Comrade works, it does so via its actors. Gable lifts no heavy weights, as he essentially plays “the Clark Gable character”, but he remains charming and engaging. Lamarr displays decent comedic skills and looks lovely, which is all the part really requires, so she does fine. The supporting actors bring reasonable life to the proceedings as well.
All of this seems enough to make Comrade X watchable but uninspired. The movie gives us moderate entertainment without a lot of bite or vivacity.