How to pull off a “Secret Mission” in 1942


This post is my contribution to the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Classic Spies, hosted by Movies, Silently from June 1-3. See the complete list of films and participants here.

Have you ever wondered how to pull off a successful spy mission? Perhaps you’re planning a trip back to occupied France, and you need a few pointers before you turn the dial on the ol’ time machine. Never fear; the British show you how to do it all in Secret Mission.

  • Introduce your crack espionage team. You’ll want a handsome commanding officer (Hugh Williams); a Free French fighter and cook (James Mason); Michael Wilding as a private who…well, we’ll get to him later; and a trusted right-hand man (Roland Culver). This is a good cast; keep them. You’ll need them to carry the script.


  • Always remember that it makes total sense to send a team of commandos across the English Channel (at great risk to both boats and men) to poke around an unfamiliar locale for info on troop movements, bombing targets, and all that sort of thing. Putting local citizens in jeopardy to procure papers, shelter, and transportation while sheltering the Brits is par for the course. Setting up a local intelligence network and sending communiques via less risky methods is for wimps.
  • It is a moral requirement that at least one member of your party (preferably the handsome officer; it’s best not to assign the cook or the lowly private to this role) fall head over heels in love with a local beauty. Corollary: there must be a local beauty, preferably living in the same house where you’ll be holed up for the week. Here, her name is Michele, played by Carla Lehmann; she’s Raoul’s (James Mason’s) sister.
  • Maintain a blissful disregard for actual languages and/or accents used by various nationalities. Have James Mason attempt a French accent.
  • For added personal drama, have the local beauty encourage her brother to come back to France, as it’s difficult running the family farm alone. And then urge him frantically to stay out of sight, because the Germans might see him. (Um…)
  • Being holed up in a house is boring for the audience. Allow your spies to wander the village and surrounding countryside at will. A disguise of civilian duds and downward-cast looks provides adequate concealment. The issue of not having identification papers can be addressed by dodging behind trees and under café counters – just be quick about it!
  • Champagne merchants can go anywhere. Anywhere. Including driving directly into local German military headquarters and requesting to see the man in charge, like any good door-to-door salesmen. (If you’re looking for the origins of Hogan’s Heroes, look no further. They’ve even got the Disguise!Glasses.) Frankly, this scene is pretty funny; everyone is playing it tongue-in-cheek. (Culver: “Do you think we overdid the ‘Heils’?”)
Just a couple of friendly neighborhood champagne salesmen.

Just a couple of friendly neighborhood champagne salesmen.

  • The outrageous bluff always works. Especially if your fellow “champagne merchant” just handed the nice German officer an English cigarette.
  • It’s always embarrassing if you wind up in a situation you weren’t trained for in Hogan’s Heroes’ School of Espionage. Luckily, there is no such situation. The Germans, you see, were A+ students at Col. Klink’s Military Academy. When your champagne merchants show up, they’re immediately spotted for who they must really be: Gestapo counterintelligence agents!
  • Provide comedic relief. Cast Michael Wilding as a British private who doesn’t want to go back to St. Antoine (the village in question) because his overbearing French wife lives there, and the one perk of the war is not seeing her again. At least, I think this was comedy relief? (Seriously, this part made for a few chuckles, and no sense! But I’m told it was parodied to the hilt in ‘Allo ‘Allo!.)

Michael Wilding. Cleverly disguised with a beret.

  • If any German soldiers are suspicious, claim to be Gestapo.
  • Hijack a German patrol vehicle blasting Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture. Turn it up full blast. Why? Because you can.
  • As a plot device, have the French love interest change her mind every five seconds: I’m so happy you’ve come! Wait, my brother’s not coming back to work on the farm? Get out, you’re going to endanger everyone! Wait, I think I’m falling in love with you. The Germans killed my brother! Now I will refuse to help you escape! Until I change my mind and rush out to save everyone at the last moment…  (More seriously, it was a nice touch to have a character who wasn’t passionately pro-Resistance from the get-go. The point gets muddied by too many whiplash mood changes, but Michele’s desire to protect her family’s home and livelihood by lying low was probably not uncommon – and understandable. She adds the necessary heart to the implausible plot.)


  • This is 1942. Happily-ever-after endings are for after the war. A tear-jerker parting scene between the English officer and the French woman is called for – with a message that the brave citizens of occupied France are secretly fighting the good fight, while the Allies are successfully bombing the stuffing out of hidden factories.


And that’s how you pull off a successful Secret Mission! Congratulations; you’re ready to be a spy. Don’t forget to finish the semester at Hogan’s Heroes’ School of Espionage before you go.

Secret Mission isn’t going to land any lost classics awards, or make it onto a “10 Best WWII Spy Films” list, but it’s fluffy, Espionage Lite entertainment, with a side of fantasy and a morale boost for WWII-era audiences. In a darkened theater in 1942, following the end of the Blitz, it may have been reassuring to see that the Nazis were just a bunch of dressed-up bowling pins, ready to be knocked down by British know-how and gumption.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t also ridiculous: see above. It may have hit almost every spy/commando/resistance trope in the book as of 1942 – and probably contributed a few to the cause. As a How-To Guide for a WWII spy movie, it’s gold. You’ve got a Cafe Scene, a Walk in the Moonlight Scene, an Infiltrating Enemy HQ with a Bluff Scene, a Listening to the BBC Scene, a Tragic Death of Team Member Scene (with accompanying Patriotic Speech), a bombing, a chase, a scurry through soldier-infested woods, a paratrooper invasion(!), and Discussions with French Citizens About the Occupation.


And you know, despite all that, it’s actually rather fun.

Tomorrow, we’ll be taking a more serious look at a real WWII spy in George Seaton’s The Counterfeit Traitor. Meanwhile, don’t forget to stop by the Snoopathon and check out the other entries!

Trench coats for all!

Trench coats for all!



A Cuppa Tea

Today’s post is sponsored by my morning cup of coffee. Old movie stars with teacups! Or coffee cups, as the case may be.

Formula for guaranteed chuckles: put a rough-edged guy in a situation where he has to hold a teacup. It’s audience-proof.



Charlton Heston vs. The World’s Tiniest Teacup in The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962).
(It was coffee, and it wasn’t even the real stuff. Poor guy.)

Lillian Gish in Way Down East (1920). The classy, lace-and-pearls way to drink tea:


Not the lace-and-pearls type? There’s room for you, too, in the classic movie canon:

Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Truck drivers downing hearty breakfasts and coffee in Young and Innocent (1937).
Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock


Charlie Chaplin with a Blue Willow cup in Modern Times (1936). And a Pug.


“Veronica Lake, lovely star of Paramount’s hit, ‘The Hour Before the Dawn,’ relaxes with a cup of brisk Liptons’ Tea.”


Veronica Lake in ad for Lipton tea, 1944. Source


And last but certainly not least: those cricket-loving gentlemen, Charters & Caldicott!

Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in The Lady Vanishes (1938).  Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in The Lady Vanishes (1938). Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock



“The Hour Before the Dawn” (1944)


I don’t usually go into old movies blind, but I was excited to finally watch The Hour Before the Dawn (1944), one of Paramount’s elusive archive that has never been released on DVD.  All I knew was that Veronica Lake was in it, that she played a German spy or sympathizer, and that the title sounded appropriately dramatic.  Full of eager anticipation at watching one of Lake’s more obscure movies, and one with WWII espionage elements at that, I settled in for a good watch.

The fact that nobody in recent memory had reviewed it as “a lost classic” or “a real gem in the rough” should have been a tip-off that it wasn’t on anybody’s must-watch list…

The first thing that strikes the unsuspecting viewer, as the titles roll, is this.

Franchot tone & Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake and…Franchot Tone?!

Okay, then.  Unlikelier pairings have been successful: Fredric March and Veronica Lake, anyone?  Besides, I like Lake and tolerate Tone.  Hmm…credits, credits, more names…ooh, Miklos Rozsa score…

The second thing that strikes the viewer (after the Miklos Rozsa credit), is the director: Frank Tuttle.  Three years earlier, Tuttle had directed Lake in This Gun For Hire, a tersely plotted, bona fide noir classic, and incredibly stylish to boot.  We also note, in passing, that the movie is based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham.  Well, not exactly “in passing.”  We pan in on a giant leather-bound book, with “W. Somerset Maugham” in gilt letters.

This is your tip-off that the action-packed, thrilling spy story promised by the poster is going to have a distinctly literary flair.  Because it’s Maugham, however, it’s not a tip-off that the film is going to plod along at the pace of a cracked quill pen on vellum – to wildly mix a metaphor.  But mixing metaphors is okay, because The Hour Before the Dawn isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be, either.
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Color Palettes: “Easter Parade”


Judy Garland in “Easter Parade” (1948)


Presenting a new feature of this blog: color inspiration palettes!  I enjoy browsing the palettes put out by places like Design Seeds (for a movie take, see Movies in Color and Wes Anderson Palettes) – and thought the world needed more color combinations based on classic movies.

Use them for outfit or project inspiration, or just as a fresh look at the color schemes used in movies we love.


Parody or Thriller? Ambler’s “Highly Dangerous” (1950)


Highly Dangerous (1950) is an entertaining amateur-turned-spy British espionage adventure film, elevated by the presence of Margaret Lockwood and several skilled character actors.  Lockwood plays Dr. Frances Gray, a renowned entomologist [translation: bug scientist] who’s about to begin a long-awaited holiday when the British government requests her services as a spy.  A tiny (fictional) European country is rumored to be experimenting with insects as vectors for biological warfare, and Britain needs an entomologist to confirm its suspicions by identifying samples from a top-secret research facility.  Initially, Dr. Gray refuses, figuring that there are plenty of scientists but few vacation days…
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Favorite Picks from Debbie Reynolds’ Costume Auction

In my fantasy world, I’m a wealthy costume collector who could start a Classic Hollywood Costume Museum.  Unfortunately, in real life I’m nothing of the kind, but luckily I can flip through a (digital) catalog and ooh and ahh over the historic costumes within.  Kind of like going through LEGO catalogs as a kid and picking out all the sets you were going to “buy.”

Here are some of my favorites from Debbie Reynolds’ finale auction, which I blogged about last week.

Dress worn by Katherine DeMille in "Romeo & Juliet" (1936). Designed by Adrian & Oliver Messel.

Dress worn by Katherine DeMille in “Romeo & Juliet” (1936). Designed by Adrian & Oliver Messel.

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