The entertainment industry in America is centered in a fairly small northern suburb of the city of Los Angeles, California. It has a unique place in American culture out of all proportion to its official authority, accountability or responsibility. It is not subject to critical peer review, or a vote of the judiciary for any content it may wish to publish – or project. It can literally say anything it wishes under the rubric of “artistic license” and still make money – lots of money. That is a lot of power!
Creative, but really not actual, truths (the truth is much more complicated) depicted in visual productions in motion pictures, on television and over the Internet are viewed by virtually all Americans all the time and affect our culture on a continuing basis – sometimes profoundly – after all, wisdom tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words. It is during times of national stress however, that they can become critical factors in how we, the People, perceive our national – and personal – situation and can influence how we react to what we perceive as reality. That’s a lot of responsibility!
According to Jack Wikoff in his review of Hollywood Goes to War, “… the motion picture industry began to become a force in American culture with the release of the first “talking picture” in 1927 (The Jazz Singer, a Jewish story starring Al Jolson). By the late 1930’s the “Big Eight” Hollywood studios dominated the domestic and foreign markets. These corporations had created a vertically integrated industry. As authors Koppes and Black (Hollywood Goes to War) tell us: “They controlled the entire process from casting and production through distribution (wholesaling) and exhibition (retailing). The ‘Big Eight’ Studios reaped 95 per cent of all motion picture rentals in the U.S. in the late 1930’s. Their control over theater chains, particularly the all-important first-run urban houses which determined a pictures future, was critical.”
Koppes and Black go on to explain briefly that the men who guided the industry in its transition to big business were mostly Jewish theater owners, who were uniquely suited to the task. The playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht once observed that Hollywood constituted “a Semitic renaissance sans rabbis and Talmud.” The movie industry and various government agencies were very much in the propaganda business before and during World War II.”
“In 1940, five of the fifteen highest salaries in the country went to movie people. Atop the greasy pole was the quintessential mogul, Louis B. Mayer, whose princely $1.3 million in salary and bonuses in 1937 probably surpassed the compensation to any other American executive – and this was during the Depression!
Playing to an audience they knew well; the studios’ content for their motion pictures became avidly internationalist and anti-isolationist long before Pearl Harbor. In 1938 United Artists released Blockade, a pro-Loyalist tale of the Spanish Civil War starring Henry Fonda. Catholic organizations protested the showing of this picture because of the pro-Communist Republican armies’ record of atrocities against priests and nuns.
Joseph Breen, the conservative Catholic journalist and head of the Production Code Administration, accused Hollywood and in particular the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League of an attempt to “capture the screen of the United States for Communistic propaganda purposes.” Not unexpectedly, he claimed the League was “conducted and financed almost entirely by Jews.” [At this time, many Christians still, ignorantly, held Jews responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ 20 centuries before.]
“In 1939 Warner Brothers premiered Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which claimed in melodramatic fashion that Germany sought to conquer the entire globe. “Using semi-documentary techniques and long periods of narration, the film identified the German-American Bund as an arm of the German government whose purpose was to destroy the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.” [Some things never change.]
“Also released in 1939 was Beasts of Berlin, capitalizing on the infamy of the 1917 film, The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin, which had sparked anti-German riots in many American cities during the First World War. The years 1940 and 1941 saw the appearance of such anti-Nazi films as Charlie Chaplin’s burlesque of Hitler and Mussolini, The Great Dictator, as well as Man Hunt, directed by German émigré Fritz Lang, The Mortal Storm, A Yank in the R.A.F., Sergeant York, I Married a Nazi and a host of other titles. These pictures were an integral part of the vigorous, although informal, propaganda campaign by various [private and commercial] elements to get the United States into the war, alongside our British allies, against Nazi Germany.
Interestingly, FDR’s son, James, the president of Globe Productions, got into the propaganda business by distributing a British film titled Pastor Hall. This was a glamorized account of the anti-Nazi activities of Martin Niemöller, the “World War I U-boat captain-turned-pacifist-preacher.” James added a prologue written by Robert Sherwood and read by none other than his dear old mom, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Intimate ties between Hollywood and the Roosevelt administration abounded. In August 1940, [In the midst of the presidential campaign against Wendell Wilkie, for an unprecedented third term] FDR asked Nicholas Schenck, president of Lowe’s (the parent company of MGM Studios) to make a film on defense and foreign policy. By mid-October Eyes of the Navy, a two-reeler which a studio executive promised would win the President thousands of votes, graced neighborhood movie houses.
Schenck’s interest may have been personal as well as patriotic. His brother Joseph, head of Twentieth Century-Fox Studios, was convicted of income tax evasion. President Roosevelt asked Attorney General Robert Jackson to let the studio chief off with a fine, and so did Roosevelt’s son James, to whom Joseph had lent $50,000 [over $850,000 in todays’ money]. But the upright Jackson insisted on a jail sentence. Schenck served four months before being paroled to the studio lot.
In September of 1941 a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce began hearings on “war propaganda disseminated by the motion picture industry and of any monopoly in the production, distribution, or exhibition of motion pictures.” This investigation was instigated by the isolationist Senator from North Dakota, Gerald P. Nye. Chief Counsel for Hollywood was Wendell Willkie, the internationalist and 1940 Republican presidential nominee. This last-ditch effort by the isolationists was too little and too late. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor three months later ended any question of more hearings.
Once the United States was at war with Germany (declared on December 9, 1941), the studios churned out one anti-Nazi potboiler after another [to lift the nations’ spirits, especially in the early days of the war]. To be fair, Hollywood did make some quality [war-themed] pictures out of the 2400 movies made from 1939 to 1945. Some are Casablanca (Warner Brothers, 1943), The Story of G.I. Joe (United Artists, 1945), and Lifeboat (Twentieth Century- Fox, 1944). It has often been said that the best war movies are usually made long after the war is over.
The Japanese fared no better at the hands of Hollywood’s myth-makers. In Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1942) all people of Japanese descent were portrayed as loyal to the Emperor and capable of sabotage and treason. This film wholeheartedly advocated FDR’s internment of all Japanese-Americans. At the end of the film, when an “all-American Los Angeles police detective” named Mike Steele has broken the Japanese spy ring, he does what every red-blooded American supposedly wanted to do, namely to punch out the Japanese villain, proclaiming “That’s for Pearl Harbor, you slant-eyed …”
Well documented coldblooded Japanese militarism was portrayed in The Purple Heart, Guadalcanal Diary, Wake Island, Menace of the Rising Sun, Remember Pearl Harbor, Danger in the Pacific and others. Koppes and Black remind us “It is a rare film that did not employ such terms as ‘Japs,’ ‘beasts,’ ‘yellow monkeys,’ snips,’ or ‘slant-eyed rats.'” (Accurately depicting the common vernacular after the surprise unprovoked and dastardly surprise attack on a Pearl Harbor at peace on a Sunday morning).
Japanese soldiers were frequently shown about to rape white women, usually buxom blonds. [In fact, Japanese archives revealed that many Western women of Dutch and Australian nationality were forced into being “comfort women” for the Imperial Japanese Army and were raped, day and night, for years.] Another frequent cinematic image was that of a Japanese fighter-pilot with buckteeth taking several machine-gun hits to the body, blood splattering his windshield, and screaming in agony as his plane plunged into the Pacific (to raucous cheers from the audience, no doubt).
In 1943 Warner Brothers premiered Mission to Moscow, based on the book of the same name by Joseph E. Davies, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Mission to Moscow traces in pseudo-documentary style Davies’ career as ambassador and the events taking place in the Soviet Union and worldwide from the mid-1930’s through 1941. The Roosevelt administration was intimately involved in the making of this picture, which presented FDR as a great internationalist and anti-fascist [and, no doubt, pleased many in his inner circle of those enamored of the Soviet system and who personally held this same view – perhaps even some Soviet spies.]
Davies had power of script approval and was ultimately responsible for Mission to Moscow’s glossing over of Stalinist crimes. Davies insisted on the lie that the Soviet invasion of Finland be portrayed as happening at the “invitation” of Finland to the Soviets to occupy strategic positions against Germany. Likewise, other Soviet crimes of the 1930’s are ignored or passed over: the invasion of the eastern portion of Poland in 1939, the aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the forced collectivization of the kulaks (small farmers) in the Ukraine with the resulting starvation of millions of peasants [widely known and estimated to be in excess of 50 million].
The film represented the Moscow purge trials as the result of attempts by Trotsky, Bukharin, Krestinsky and other “Old Bolsheviks” to sell out the Soviet Union to Germany and Japan. Mission to Moscow used documentary film footage to add verisimilitude to this vintage “docudrama,” which depicted the American isolationists as a small cabal plotting to thwart the people’s will to “collective security.”
The Soviet Union was depicted as a land of plenty in contrast to National Socialist Germany’s alleged chronic lack of food and consumer goods. The public was led to believe the Soviet Union was a “democracy” and the Russian people were “just like Americans”. [In fact, the Russian people were terribly conflicted between their love of their Motherland and fear of the regime in Moscow.]
In order to capture the “Roosevelt” audience, most of the major studios produced pro-Soviet films in the last years of the war, including Song of Russia (MGM, 1943), Three Russian Girls (United Artists, 1943), North Star (MGM, 1943), Boy from Stalingrad (Columbia, 1943), Days of Glory (RKO, 1944) and Counterattack (Columbia, 1945). [All contributed to the “cult of Roosevelt” that still exists in the United States – specifically in Democrat precincts.]
While the United States was at war, several overlapping and competing government bureaucracies sought to influence the content of motion pictures. Most influential was the Office of War Information, set up in 1942. The Bureau of Motion Pictures played a role as well. The Office of Censorship, created by the Roosevelt administration to oversee the wartime censorship of mail, films, maps and other materials, could deny an export license for a movie. With forty percent of an average picture’s revenue coming from the foreign market, the Office of Censorship had considerable power over motion picture content, from script approval to final cut.
Hollywood also produced training films and documentaries made by the Army and Navy with enlisted Hollywood personnel and studio-made short films, newsreels or animation. There was also the Field Photographic branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), created by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, which was the predecessor of the CIA. Utilizing the talents of such Hollywood directors as Budd Schulberg and John Ford, the Field Photographic branch collected “evidence” of alleged atrocities in German concentration camps captured at the war’s end. This footage was used by the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials and in denazification films shown during the forced “re-education” of German citizens.
Without a doubt, the Hollywood studios wanted to contribute to the war effort and defeat of the Axis, yet at the same time the movie moguls did not want to be told how to run their monopolistic corporations. Most important to these film executives was the profit motive. In the early and mid-l930’s the studios had altered the content of films to allow them to play in the lucrative German, Italian, Spanish and Latin American markets. In 1935, when the National Socialist government demanded that foreign companies with offices in Germany hire only Aryan employees, the major studios complied.
After the war’s end the great studio system which had flourished in Germany from 1919 to 1945 was unable to rebuild in West Germany, and the internationalist film industry gained a virtually open market. In contrast, the Communist government of East Germany rebuilt a studio system that was totally state-owned and-operated.
Research makes it very clear that the power to shape the content of entertainment and information was extraordinary during World War II, when dissenting opinion was likely to be stifled and censored in the name of the “war effort”. Hollywood had always claimed that it only gave the public what it wanted, and cited the movies’ popularity as proof. But since the cartel controlled the range of choice, Hollywood was saying only that “the public bought what it was given.”
The entertainment viewing habits of America evolved over the next two decades as peacetime America entered an unprecedented period of economic growth, innovation and social progress amid what became known as the “Cold War”. Some context should be helpful here:
The Cold War was a decade’s long military, economic, cultural, scientific and political confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union – two nuclear armed military superpowers – the free and democratic former attempting to prevent the latter, a brutal, godless, xenophobic, communist and imperialist amalgamation of several ethnic Central Asian nations under Russian domination, from imposing a Stalinist-style violent dictatorship throughout the entire world by proxy-wars, political intimidation and the arming of radical, dissident groups in countries on six continents while also attempting to claim rights in Antarctica and outer space.
General war was prevented by the United States building a completely credible, multi-faceted nuclear arsenal (called the Triad) of land, sea and air based nuclear armed ballistic missiles, bombs and submarine launched ballistic missiles and torpedoes, with trusted crews trained and prepared to deliver them and convincing the Soviets that we were ready at all times to use them instantly in a massive retaliation for any use of nuclear weapons by the Soviets. The Soviets never tested our resolve although they frequently threatened a nuclear response in retaliation for all sorts of imagined and real challenges from the United States. This nuclear deterrent standoff was called Mutual Assured Destruction or M.A.D. – certainly an appropriate acronym.
The Cold War ended in 1989 with the political collapse of the Soviet Union after a prolonged and intense military and economic competition with the United States initiated by Republican President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s with the express purpose of bringing the Soviets to their economic knees because their corrupt, centrally planned and controlled industrial and technological base was simply incapable of competing with the creative, innovative and dynamic free economy of the United States. Remnants of this system still exist and continue to deter the use of nuclear weapons.
“The “Cold War” began in March 1947 when the President proclaimed “The Truman Doctrine”, the first in a series of moves by the United States to contain communist expansion worldwide, most notably by strong Communist parties – fronting for the Soviets in free Greece and Italy, followed by economic restoration of Western Europe through the Marshall Plan and military “containment” by the creation of NATO in 1949. President Truman made the proclamation in an address to the U.S. Congress on March 12, 1947.
The Cold War continued to chill the air during the 1950s. As the decade began, the Cold War suddenly heated up on the peninsula of Korea when the Soviet–equipped [and encouraged] North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the Republic of South Korea on June 25 1950. Lead by the U.S., the United Nations reacted by sending a poorly equipped and trained multi–national force to repel the North Korean Army in what was nominally called a “police action”. The Korean War had started, and [former World War II Allied Supreme Commander in Europe] Dwight D. Eisenhower would be elected President in 1952 by promising to end it.
In the U.S. itself, the Communist “Red Scare” was in full flower. As we have seen, Alger Hiss, was convicted of perjury for denying he had once [and perhaps still] spied for the Soviet Union. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted of organizing an international Soviet spy ring [to steal America’s atomic secrets]. Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, officials at Britain’s embassy in Washington, escaped to Moscow when it was discovered they were Soviet spies who had infiltrated the atomic bomb research program.
Then, when a somewhat unstable Republican U.S. Senator, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, claimed that he had a list of 205 Communists who had infiltrated the State Department, he became an unstoppable anti–Communist crusader using his Senate committees to accuse, harass and often destroy many innocent people. It wouldn’t be until 1954 that the Senate would censure McCarthy and end his Communist witch–hunt. Meanwhile, in televised hearings, the Senate Crime Investigating Committee, chaired by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, began exposing America’s criminal underbelly and inaugurated what would become known as “electronic journalism”.
As the “Arms Race” escalated, the threat of a nuclear Armageddon became part of everyday life. The Soviet Union tested their own atomic bomb (from intelligence stolen from British and American programs) in 1950, and during the next few years both the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed and repeatedly tested the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. It didn’t take long for the hydrogen bomb tests to create a huge demand for underground fallout shelters and, along with the American families’ mass migration to the suburbs, these shelters came to symbolize the decade.
The ‘50s were also the decade of the American Civil Rights Movement; the merging of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) into a labor superpower; the authorization by Congress, under Eisenhower’s prodding, of a massive 40,000 mile interstate highway system and the launching by the Soviet Union of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 – which shifted the “Space Race” into high gear and spurred new emphasis on math and science in the nation’s schools.
This was also the decade when the structure of DNA was discovered; when the Salk vaccine proved to be effective against polio; when the Census Bureau utilized the first computer to use magnetic tape instead of punch cards; when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba and when white–collar workers outnumbered blue–collared workers for the first time in U.S. history.
On the lighter side, this ten-year span also gave us Elvis Presley, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Motown sound; the “I Love Lucy” TV show and Ed Sullivan; beatniks; McDonald’s; hula–hoops; the Barbie doll; Disneyland, Davy Crockett and the Mickey Mouse Club.
For the motion picture industry, this would be the decade of changing technology and competition from television. While the “studio system” fought for survival, foreign films, independent production companies and freelance movie stars undermined the very foundation and power of the old Hollywood studios. By the end of the decade, business executives and accountants had replaced the Hollywood “Movie Moguls”, and virtually all of the early motion picture pioneers had faded away.
The studios now used more innovative techniques in presenting their films through widescreen and big-approach methods, such as Technicolor, Cinemascope, Vista-Vision and Cinerama as well as gimmicks like 3-D films. Big production and spectacle films, perfect for this new technology, gained popularity with the many historic and fantasy epics like The Robe (1953), The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and Ben-Hur (1959) (written by Civil War Union hero General Lew Wallace in 1880) being highly successful.
This spectacle approach, coupled with Cold War paranoia about nuclear Armageddon, renewed interest, not only in math and science as well but also increased interest in the mysteries of outer space which lent itself well to what this film decade is best known for – science-fiction.
The science fiction genre began its golden age during this decade with such notable films as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, The War of the Worlds, It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Them!, This Island Earth, Earth vs. Flying Saucers and Forbidden Planet (1956). There were also Earth-based subjects, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and When Worlds Collide (1951).
The most successful movies dealing with the subject of war became more character centered and psychologically themed [rather than what we called in the Navy – “ordnance flicks”]. The best were The African Queen (1952), Stalag 17 and From Here to Eternity (1953),The Caine Mutiny, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Korean War)(1954) and The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Strategic Air Command (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Witness For the Prosecution and Run Silent Run Deep (1958).
The movie industry was now under attack by a new foe: television. This new “home theater” kept people in their homes and the cost of making a blockbuster movie rose sharply in the 1950s. Also popular were television war documentaries like Crusade in Europe, based on Eisenhower’s memoirs, The Twentieth Century, produced by CBS and The Silent Service, about the secret submarine war against Japan. Series like Steve Canyon, from the comic book series, and the light-hearted McHale’s Navy were also popular with viewers.
Ticket sales for Hollywood films fell from over 90 million in 1930 to less than 60 million by 1950 to less than 20 million by 1960, where it has remained, even though the population has increased from about 125 million in 1930 to more than 325 million today. Films do however, continue to make money once they begin to be available on the small screen. Growth in film revenue over the past 30 years however, has increased only from $2B to about $10B while the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. grew from $2.8T to about $16.5T.
Movie historian Fred Camper tells us that American cinema of the 1950s expressed both celebration and disillusionment toward such subjects as the human cost of consumerism and the drive to achieve the “American dream”, popular culture and even the American family. Deliberately differentiated from the new medium of television, Hollywood film style of the 1950s was uniquely rich in ways that were designed specifically for celluloid, experimental and independent films to illuminate key themes of the period: the family, the Bomb, corruption, materialism, and cinema itself as a metaphor for lived experience – Support your government! Fight the Communist peril! Defend the American Family! Respect authority!
What began to happen during the 1950s was a movement away from the big-studio film to the little film about believable characters whose conflicts are more inward than outward, the anti-hero – perhaps influenced by the blacklisting of many of the truly creative people in the industry by the anti-communist hysteria at the beginning of the decade. Most notable among them were: Death of a Salesman (1951) by Arthur Miller; The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) by Sloan Wilson and What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg, a live television production in 1959.” Then came the 1960s. Next time: Assault on the American culture.