It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve hosted my own blogathon, even though it’s only been four months since I paid tribute to my first ever favorite actress, Natalie Wood, on what would have marked her 80th birthday back in July. Since then, I’ve seen so many inspiring movements on social media and beyond saluting female filmmakers and classic leading ladies, and I knew I had to honor yet another icon whose wide array of accomplishments inspires me to be my best every day: none other than actress, mathematician, scientist, and inventor Hedy Lamarr. All her life she was marginalized simply for being beautiful, and all her life she fought to prove herself as the genius and visionary that she truly was inside. I could have chosen to discuss any aspect of any number of her remarkable careers, both onscreen and off, but Comrade X (1940) called my name. It displays her acting talents in full glory as she portrays a woman who tirelessly fights for a cause that holds a deep place in her heart, just as Hedy strived to do even after the cameras stopped rolling. So here’s to you, Hedy, on what would have been your 104th birthday! I admire you endlessly and think about you always.
The film begins in Communist Russia, where reporters and foreign correspondents from all around the world wait eagerly to send news to their respective press outlets. We see that it’s already very difficult from them to do so as every telephone call and piece of mail is heavily censored by those in power, but matters are made even worse when Commissar Vasiliev (Oscar Homolka) informs the press that more drastic measures will be taken to restrict communications until an unknown reporter smuggling vital information out of the country who goes by the pseudonym of Comrade X can be found and punished. This leaves the journalists, including the shrewd and fast-talking Jane Wilson (Eve Arden) annoyed and dumbfounded as no one seems to know Comrade X’s true identity, but the audience soon learns that the spy secretly writing and sending out the truth is in fact McKinley B. Thompson (Clark Gable), a reporter who’s managed to evade the heads of state with his party animal slash drunkard facade and by sending coded messages that can only be read through specific holes in a torn handkerchief. At first this method is foolproof, but a wrench is thrown in Thompson’s plans when his bumbling friend and valet Vanya (Felix Bressart) discovers his strategy and threatens to expose him to the police unless he finds a way to take his daughter, a hardheaded idealist named Theodore (Hedy Lamarr), to America and out of harm’s way. Seeing no other way out, Thompson succumbs to the blackmail and poses the idea to Theodore, but soon he gets more than he bargained for when she informs him that the smartest way to flee the country is by getting married. Will Thompson be able to follow through with his end of the bargain, or will he be exposed as Comrade X once and for all?
Comrade X (1940) is well-known today primarily because it was among the first prewar Hollywood films to openly condemn Nazis, and the movie proved to be even more prophetic after its release. One scene involves Clark Gable’s character lying to his German colleague and Russian hotel manager by telling them the false news that Germany had broken their non-agression pact and occupied the USSR, which ended up really happening less than a year later when Germany invaded Russia as part of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941. Despite these groundbreaking political achievements and Hedy Lamarr’s excitement in being involved in the picture, some believed the plot of Comrade X (1940) to be old news. To quote her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me (1966): “A lot of my advisers, of whom there were now many, suggested I was making a mistake because the script was a lot like the famous Ninotchka (1939) made only a year before. But I thought it was fashionable to make fun of the Russians, and the parallel didn’t bother me. There was a lot of sex in the picture and the idea of a hundred percent Communist party member being softened up by a an American reporter appealed to me. While I always liked to be first in any cycle or trend, it was perfectly all right with me to be second in this case. First it was the idea to josh the enemy. The propaganda boys felt this would do more damage than hate and scare tactics. My Teddy in Comrade X (1940) brought applause. I felt it was patriotic… and it made a pile of money.” That it did, earning over $2 million worldwide and cementing itself as the 11th highest grossing movie of the year and the 7th biggest moneymaker for MGM, overtaking iconic films like The Sea Hawk (1940) and My Favorite Wife (1940).
Of course its revolutionary political statements are worth noting, but I think the true success of this film lies in its outstanding cast. Clark Gable is more clever than ever as McKinley Thomspon, which to me is saying a great deal, and I truly admire the fact that MGM was able to find a vehicle for Hedy Lamarr that suited her heavy accent without making her appear stupid or inferior as other movies of hers unfortunately did. She asbolutely sparkles as an intelligent woman with ideals and a strict moral compass, yet still with more emotion and passion in her role to me than Garbo’s Ninotchka. What’s amazing too is that she isn’t the only smart gal either, as Eve Arden steals her scenes with the biting wit that we all know and love. Still, to me the real unsung hero of Comrade X (1940) is undoubtedly Felix Bressart, one of the most underappreciated character actors in motion pictures. He provides necessary comic relief that really helps put the audience at ease, and his amusing dialogue is perfectly coupled with his genuine selflessness and concern for his daughter. If you’ve never heard of Felix Bressart, watching this film is the best way to discover his talent, and the cast is so exemplary as a whole that you could really make the same statement about any of the actors who appear in this feature. If you want a lighthearted movie that still takes Hedy Lamarr seriously and gives her the spotlight that she so rightfully deserved, I couldn’t advocate Comrade X (1940) enough on her 104th birthday!