Playwright Robert Sherwood, the six-foot-seven weather vane of midcentury liberalism, once complained, “The trouble with me is that I start off with a big message and end with nothing but good entertainment.” That’s no trouble at all, as writer-director Preston Sturges insisted in his wonderful film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), but then Sherwood was unduly modest. On back lots and in ginny writers’ conferences, he and others in Hollywood’s prewar “creative community”—I use the Entertainment Tonight locution—connived to turn the parochial mind-your-own-business citizens of fly-over land into battle-primed belligerents. Our shellshocked nation has never recovered.
Adolf Hitler said of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, “This is a film which could turn anyone into a Bolshevik.” Beginning in 1939, the spectacle of our stateside Eisensteins, many of them foreign-bred, urging American natives to sacrifice their sons for Winston Churchill provoked a brief, sad, and futile protest by the pugnacious guardians of the Old Republic.
Under the influence of European-born moguls, immigrant directors, and British actors, “movies have ceased to be instruments of entertainment,” charged North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye. “They have become the most gigantic engines of propaganda in existence to rouse the war fever in America and plunge this Nation to her destruction.” Nye, an agrarian populist and legendary scourge of the masters of war, was his chamber’s champion muckraker. Between 1934 and 1936 he led a Senate investigation exposing the “merchants of death”: those “great American and European bankers and the powerful international munitions makers” who had suckered us into the First World War, or so Nye believed. He dedicated the rest of his career to preventing a replay. Alas for poor Nye, Hollywood had retaliatory powers beyond J.P. Morgan and Company’s wildest dreams.
Nye made his case in an August 1, 1941, nationwide radio address. “Before we plow a million boys under the dust and mud of Africa, Indo China, France, arid far away Russia,” the senator declared, we ought to examine why “movie companies have been operating as war propaganda machines almost as if they were being directed from a single central bureau.” Nye named several films—among them That Hamilton Woman, Man Hunt, and Sergeant York—that “whip up the warrior spirit in young men, glorify militarism,” and altogether ignore Sam Goldwyn’s sly dictum, “If you have a message, send it Western Union.”
Nye’s target was clear. He was an Anglophobe, like so many Middle American populists, and he had no desire to sacrifice Dakota farmboys in order to pull the British Empire’s chestnuts out of the fire. (In 1933 the North Dakota Senate had voted to secede from the Union, in part to extricate the state from the tentacular grip of the Wall Street-British octopus.) “Go to Hollywood,” Nye urged his auditors in radio land. “The place swarms with refugees. It also swarms with British actors.” This charming Anglophobia, though jarring to modern ears, acted as a brake on the Wise Men. It has, regrettably, gone the way of anti-Masonry and the free coinage of silver. When we hear maledictions against Hollywood today we sniff for anti-Semitism; Nye, unfortunately, played down to our expectations by stating; “There are eight major film companies. The men who dominate policy in these companies—own or direct them—are well known to you.” He then rattled them off; Louis B. Mayer, Harry and Jack Cohn, Adolph Zukor, Joseph Schenck, Arthur Loew, Sam Goldwyn . . . you get the picture. Exotic names, none too American-sounding. Most were Jewish.
The reaction was fierce and immediate. “This was deliberately cooked up for the double purpose of terrorizing the Jews on one hand to keep them from active participation in the anti-isolationist fight and on the other to arouse public prejudice against the interventionist cause on the Jew Angle,” fumed the prolix hawk Robert S. Allen.
Braving a hailstorm of vilification, Nye and his senatorial confrere Burton K, Wheeler arranged subcommittee hearings to investigate the propaganda activities of the motion picture and radio industries. Nye, a scrapper, kicked things off by asserting that the film industry was run by men “born abroad and animated by the persecutions and hatreds of the Old World.” Many directors “come from Russia, Hungary, Germany, and the Balkan countries.” (This was true, by the way, if veracity matters.) Applying to anti-Semitism his most stinging epithet—”un-American”—Nye insisted that “those primarily responsible for the propaganda pictures are born abroad. They came to our land and took citizenship here entertaining violent animosities toward certain causes abroad. . . . If they lose sight of what some Americans might call the first interests of America in times like these, I can excuse them. But their prejudices by no means necessitate our closing our eyes to these interests and refraining from undertaking to correct their error.”
Nye’s economic determinism led him to look at the export market for films. “If Britain loses, seven of the eight leading companies will be wiped out.” The question, then, was this; “Are you ready to send your boys to bleed and die in Europe to make the world safe for this industry and its financial backers?” The imputation here is too harsh, but again, Nye is at least arguably correct. Variety reported that in 1939 the foreign market—with England leading the way—accounted for one-third of American film company revenues.
The motion picture industry shelled out $100,000 to its counsel, Wendell Willkie, the barefoot boy from Wall Street whose 1940 Republican presidential nomination was largely engineered by House of Morgan henchman Thomas Lamont. (We used to be such a little village. Lamont’s sidekick Dwight Morrow had an ethereal daughter named Anne who fell in love with the stubborn Swede who had piloted the Spirit of St. Louis. This handsome public face of the America First movement, Charles Lindbergh, disliked his in-laws and all “anglophile bankers.”) Willkie called Senator Nye’s testimony “divisive,” which meant, then as now, that his shovel was hitting a little too close to the buried treasure for comfort.
The best witness was John T. Flynn, recently fired from the New Republic, a left-wing antimonopolist and author of the best-selling Country Squire in the White House. Flynn disclaimed any interest in censorship. What he decried was “monopoly control” by the major studios, many with ties to the beleaguered isle. Unlike Nye, who was no cincast, Flynn actually went to the movies.
He took a particular scunner to the Laurence Olivier-Vivien Leigh sudser That Hamilton Woman, a romantic account of the affair between Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. The film glorified decadent Old World adulterers and pushed a pro-intervention line with such clumsy earnestness that American moviegoers must have exited theaters all afire to have their Republic declare war on Napoleon. (Gore Vidal has discussed, with customary wit and percipience, the peculiar charms of That Hamilton Woman in his recent Screening History.)
Flynn pointed out that director Alexander Korda was a British subject, as was Charles Chaplin, a major stockholder in United Artists, which produced the film. Counsel Willkie laughed at the foolish nativist; the next day’s New York Times dripped with haughty scorn for Flynn the gutsy liberal turned xenophobic nut. Years later it was revealed—by his nephew Michael, among others—that Korda had been Churchill’s man in Hollywood. Sir Winston himself penned one of Lord Nelson’s overwrought speeches. Korda was an agent of British intelligence; his New York and Los Angeles offices were fronts for his country’s espionage operations. Flynn was ragged but he was right. Korda should have been deported as a spy. While brave English boys were dying in defense of their homeland, Korda and his ex-prostitute wife Merle Oberon were sunning themselves in Bel Air.
Witness Flynn was marvelous: he spoke with acuity, asperity, and passion. “Why is it that no picture is produced depicting the tyrannies and oppressions in India where at the moment there are 20,000 Indian patriots in jail?” he asked. “No, what we get are pictures . . . glorifying the magnificence, humanity, and democracy of the British Empire”—usually made by subjects of that empire.
Willkie ridiculed Flynn’s obsession with “the old monopoly humbug.” Within the decade, the Department of Justice would find that humbug to be quite real and order the studios to divest themselves of their thousands of theaters. But see how the ground was shifting under Flynn’s feet: a Wall Street flunky was defending monopoly and war and foreign spies, and the liberals cheered.
Where Flynn and Nye went off the rails was in pinning the blame on foreign-born directors. Their anticipation of auteur theory is commendable, but far more culpable were the screenwriters who were, as a group, solidly pro-war—and mostly American-born. Of course these bespectacled self-hating rumdum hacks avoided the abattoir themselves. Hell, as Charles Montague observed, hath no fury like a noncombatant.
It is a curious forgotten fact that before Pearl Harbor most “real” writers—novelists and poets and essayists—were antiwar: Edmund Wilson, e.e. cummings, Theodore Dreiser, ILL. Mencken, Robert Penn Warren, Sinclair Lewis, William Saroyan . . . the list is long and multifarious. Yet nearly all the top Hollywood scenarists were rabid for war, and the exceptions—Donald Ogden Stewart, for instance—were often Communist Party foot soldiers whose plowshares transubstantiated into swords once Hitler betrayed Stalin. (The most outspoken Hollywood opponent of American involvement in the war, Lillian Gish, was virtually blacklisted for her pacific heresy.)
The dour Mr. Sherwood, whom Noel Coward dubbed “this nine foot tower of gloom,” was typical. A native-born graduate of Milton and Harvard, Sherwood wrote a series of pacifist-flavored works culminating with Idiot’s Delight, winner of the 1936 Pulitzer Prize. The play is something of a screwball antiwar comedy. A motley crew—vaudevillians, newlyweds, a doctor seeking a cure for cancer, a fake White Russian countess, and others—is detained at a mountain resort on the Italian-Swiss border as the next world war breaks out. Bombers are taking off from an adjacent runway; the detainees are desperate to make it into neutral Switzerland. Among those present is Achille Weber, a munitions manufacturer whom an idealistic young Frenchman denounces as a “merchant of death” who has armed belligerents on all sides. Sherwood has imbibed 90- proof Nye: at one point in the play (though not, signally, in the film version thereof) we are told that England instigated this new war to preserve her empire.
The playwright evidently hates war; he is capable of raw, brutal descriptions of its carnage. Irene, the phony countess, imagines a pregnant woman in a bombed-out cellar, “her firm young breasts are all mixed up with the bowels of a dismembered policeman, and the embryo from her womb is splattered against the face of a dead bishop.” The line did not make it into the film. Nor did Irene’s declaration of conscience, “I’ll tell you what you can do in these tragic circumstances. You can refuse to fight!”
The film Idiot’s Delight starred Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. Released in 1939, it was—despite the prissy expurgations—the last of a string of 30’s Hollywood movies embodying the Nyeish belief that we’d been tricked into the First World War and wouldn’t get fooled again. When Clark Gable, a wisecracking American vet and two-bit impresario, sneers at the idea of “fight[ing] to make the world safe for democracy—again,” he is rebuking Woodrow Wilson and his globalist heirs.
Sherwood was one of the few talented American writers who aligned himself with the New Deal; he even ghostwrote fireside chats. By the time Idiot’s Delight was released, its author was blowing with the wind, recanting his antiwar convictions with alacrity, if not anguish. Sherwood’s second Pulitzer Prize winner, Abe Lincoln in Illinois (published in 1938, filmed in 1940), was derived from Carl Sandburg’s fantasy and can be read as an allegory urging American intervention in Europe. As peace sentiment became less fashionable, Sherwood went whole hog for war, writing the agitprop There Shall Be No Night and overseeing the propaganda machine in the Office of War Information.
To his shame, Sherwood ghosted FDR’s infamous October 30, 1940, pledge to the “mothers and fathers” of America: “1 have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” Sherwood later confessed that he knew this was a lie, but by that time the lofty old conceit about speaking Truth to Power had collapsed to the more familiar job of speaking Falsehoods for Power.
Sherwood’s apostasy was bitter. His script for William Wyler’s overwhelming (and, at times, quite moving) homecoming epic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) contains a memorable scene in which Harold Russell, a boy-next-door who has come back from the war with pincers where his hand used to be, and Dana Andrews, a decorated yet now toiling as a soda jerk, get into a row with a nervous little man at a lunch counter who bears what cannot be a coincidental resemblance to Thomas E. Dewey.
“It’s terrible when you see a guy like you who had to sacrifice himself—and for what?” our Dewey stand-in says darkly, staring at Russell’s prothesis.
“For what? I don’t getcha mister,” replies Russell.
“We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into that war.”
“Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis.”
“No,” gusts Dewey. “The Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the limeys and the Reds, and they woulda whipped ’em too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.”
Dana Andrews tells the loudmouth to beat it. He stands to leave, grumbling, “And that’s another thing. Every soda jerk in this country’s got an idea he’s somebody.”
“Look mister,” Russell demands. “Just what arc you sellin’?”
“I’m not selling anything but plain old-fashioned Americanism,” declares Dewey.
Russell snatches something from the man’s lapel, and it falls to the floor. They scuffle, and Andrews lands a roundhouse to Dewey’s jaw, sending him sprawling. Russell retrieves the item from the floor. It is an American flag pin. Russell carefully sticks it on his own lapel.
See how cleverly Sherwood fixed the game. The Nye position—that Americans are dragged into foreign wars by external influences—is presented as reactionary poison peddled by impolite creeps who detest President-for-Life Roosevelt. Peace, it seems, is for rightwing cranks. The Nyes, populist Main Streeters, sneer at uppity soda jerks in Sherwood’s world. “Americanism” is a hate-crime, though the flag is recaptured by the spunky crippled vet. Our hero was maimed by “those radicals in Washington,” but he’s still willing to fight on their behalf. Mr. Sherwood has come a long way from Idiot’s Delight.
In later years the makers of such films were remarkably honest about their intentions. Jack Warner boasted of the tendentiousness of such Warner productions as Espionage Agent (1939), in which an American peace group is a Nazi front, and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), which I have not seen but which the New Republic‘s Otis Ferguson ripped as “a hate-breeder” made for “playboy intellectuals . . . charging around proclaiming the duty to go into battle of somebody else.” Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941), a personal favorite, finds big-game hunter Walter Pidgeon being chased through the alleys of London by monocled Nazi George Sanders, who bellows, “Today Europe, tomorrow the world!”
The jewel of the Crown offensive was MGM’s Mrs. Miniver, which began shooting one month before Pearl Harbor. The masterly William Wyler directed; he later called the picture “perfect as propaganda.” The film can make an Irish Republican wave the Union Jack; even the most indurated Anglophobe will be reduced to tears. The English, we are told in the prologue, are a “happy, careless people,” and every stock character in Albion—the snobbish dowager, the g-dropping pub crawler, the socially conscious Oxonian, the ditzy chambermaid—lives in the Minivers’ cheerful village. Class differences melt in the crucible of war, and this cohesive community resists Nazi aggression with pluck and patriotism. England is Greer Carson and the luminous Teresa Wright, and what red-blooded American boy wouldn’t fight for that? (Miss Wright, minus the accent, was also the prize awaiting returning Americans in The Best Years of Our Lives.) Mrs. Miniver ends with the doughty villagers singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a ruined chapel. In a spicy bit of irony. Idiot’s Delight ended on stage—but not on him—with Irene and Harry humming the same hymn, to rather different effect.
Exposing the evils of Nazism (as Frank Borzage did in his fine The Mortal Storm) was not enough; nor was fitting Englishmen for halos. American peace leaders—most of them old liberals opposed to war and regimentation—had to be recast as jackbooted heavies with suspicious five-o’clock shadows. One of the most despicable such Hollywood efforts was the little-known Hepburn-Tracy film Keeper of the Flame, scripted by wealthy Communist Donald Ogden Stewart from a novel by Ida A.R. Wylie and directed by the talented “women’s director” George Cukor. The film was written in the fall of 1941 and released in 1942.
The opening credits roll against scudding louring clouds, as though we are piloting an airplane encountering frightful turbulence. As the picture begins we sec a ear hurtling off a bridge in a rainstorm; it strikes the ground and explodes into flames. The spinning newspapers of movie cliche reveal that a national hero, Robert Forrest has died. America mourns.
Forrest, as even the dullards in the audience must realize, is Charles Lindbergh. We hear testaments to his courage. He was a superman, worshiped by his countrymen, yet there was still a “simple, homely” Middle American quality about him. Spencer “Tracy plays a noted war correspondent who wants to write his authorized biography in order to stiffen the national backbone in these parlous times.
While studying “Forward America,” the organization Forrest has dedicated to “true Americanism ” (the noun’s the tip-off), Tracy uncovers the startling truth: Robert Forrest was . . . A Fascist Traitor! It turns out that Mrs. Forrest (Katharine Hepburn) facilitated the killing of her own husband as an act of patriotism. “Of course they didn’t call it fascism,” she sobs to Tracy. “They painted it red, white, and blue and called it Americanism.” Hepburn is murdered at film’s end by a squirrelly Forward America leader, but in death she is eulogized by a grateful nation for saving us from a cornfed Hitler. No wonder Lucky Lindy wanted to live among the Tasaday.
Keeper of the Flame was a box-office disappointment. Director Cukor, a wholly apolitical man, called it “pure hokey-pokey.” Yet it remains a fascinating artifact. As a piece of celluloid slander it is unmatched: it makes Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane look like a tribute commissioned by William Randolph Hearst. (Hepburn later averred, lamely, that Keeper of the Flame had been based on Hearst, not Lindbergh.)
How could a major studio (MGM) make a film calumniating the towering American hero of its age? The answer, of course, is that Lindbergh had just been reviled as “the Number One Nazi fellow traveler” by FDR’s tame curmudgeon, Harold Ickes. The hit, if not authorized at the top, was inspired by it. Lindbergh’s father was a Minnesota congressman whose populist attacks on the merchants of death won him the sobriquet of the “Gopher Bolshevik.” Young Charles was his father’s son, and his opinion, shared on so many Oak and Elm and Maple streets, was simply this: “What happens in Europe is of little importance compared with what happens in our own land. It is far more important to have farms without mortgages, workmen with their homes, and young people who can afford families, than it is for us to crusade abroad for freedoms that are tottering in our own country.” This is hate and perfidy and treason?
I know that I am stepping, none too daintily, among the land mines. I readily concede that anti-Semitism was a motive in later unjustified government investigations of Hollywood. For example, two of the martyred Hollywood Ten, American Communist Party members Edward Dmytryk and Adrian Scott, were haled before the silly House Un- American Activities Committee largely because of their roles directing and producing Crossfire (1947), in which a psychopathic soldier (Robert Ryan) beats to death a Jewish man he has picked up in a bar. Crossfire is a strange hybrid: a fast-paced film noir clogged with tedious moralizing by detective Robert Young, who knows best and wants to tell us about it. Nevertheless, making preachy films is not against the law, else Stanley Kramer and Dickey Attenborough would be in the hoosegow, and, besides, those Communists who clammed up and refused to betray their friends deserve a grudging respect. (Dmytryk did eventually squeal.) It should be noted, however, that the wicked national security state of which the witch-hunting HIJAC was a minor part was bequeathed to us by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. What comes around . . .
Hollywood’s evangels of globaloney discovered that there were limits to their audience’s credulity. One deserving flop was Darryl Zanuck’s lavish Wilson (1944), a stiff and hilarious bio-pic intended to promote Zanuck’s great enthusiasm, the United Nations. Wilson is a hoot: this is hagiography gone haywire, for Alexander Knox plays the great man as such a prig that even the most fanatical World Federalist must cheer as the pursed schoolmarm sees his League of Nations rejected by the benighted multitude. Thrown for a loss by Wilson’s disastrous box office—the people of Zanuck’s hometown of Wahoo, Nebraska, site of the glitzy premier, were so indifferent that the miffed magnate vowed never to return—Zanuck shelved plans to film the egregious Willkie’s One World.
Wilson bombed in 1944; so did Senator Nye, who lost his reelection bid. The muck had stuck: Nye went to his grave wearing the scarlet-lettered cerements that shroud so many of our best dissidents. The funny thing was, he had been correct: Hollywood was run by European-born moguls; a disproportionate number of its directors were European immigrants; British actors did “swarm” all over the place; the monopolistic studios did have a powerful interest in keeping open their lucrative European markets; American theaters were flooded with war propaganda. But the excursion into nativity checks was a dead end. Robert Sherwood had a Yankee Doodle lineage, as did such sanguinary intellectual partisans as Archibald MacLeish and William Allen White. And the man in the White I louse was a Dutch patroon who made your average Plains isolationist look like a wetback.
The studio chiefs survived the Republic, but only by a few years. The mini-empires they built are owned today by Japanese and Australians and the faceless conglomerates of the New World Order. Come the next war, a Nye for the 90’s won’t know where to begin.