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Propaganda in American Films During WWII: and a brief review of Five Came Back (2014) by Mark Harris

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver

I’ve always been fascinated by the presence of propaganda in Hollywood movies made during WWII. It fascinates me because the propaganda is supposed to be for a good cause (to defeat the Nazis – what could be better than that?), but it always faintly annoys me when I encounter it in movies. Is this because it doesn’t fit in the story? I’ll be watching a movie and then suddenly, from way out in left field, somebody will start preaching and I’ll nod my head and say, “Yes, this is so a WWII movie.” Is it because the propaganda is so heavy-handed, obvious, and poorly incorporated into the film? Is it because I do not connect with the message they are preaching because I didn’t live through the war? Or is it because propaganda is, in and of itself, a bad thing?

I haven’t decided. I do like the movie Mrs. Miniver (1942) and that movie was purposed expressly by director William Wyler to be a propaganda piece, all about the brave British resisting and standing firm, who are made stronger when attacked. Even Hitler’s Propaganda Minster, Goebbels, thought it was an excellent example of propaganda. Wyler himself seems to have been mildly embarrassed by it (partially because he later went to Britain and was embarrassed by certain inaccuracies in his portrayal of the British). It seems to have been a movie that resonated with the movie going public, however. Is propaganda necessary? Was it necessary to win the war, to keep the American people engaged throughout the war?

I suppose what complicates the propaganda issue is the clumsiness of it. Because, of course, America not just fighting the Nazis. They were fighting the Japanese. Caricatures of the enemy, especially the Japanese, could be quite crude, if not outright racist. Appeals to patriotism, although estimable, provide an often rosy and inaccurate view of warfare.

And then there’s the obvious question of aren’t all movies just a form of propaganda anyway? George Steven, I read in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, came to believe that was the case. If that is the case, is it merely a question of how obtrusive the propaganda is? Is it only obvious propaganda that is bad, or propaganda that we happen to disagree with? According to The American Heritage Dictionary propaganda is “the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause.”

In that sense, I think I disagree with Stevens. I do agree that there is no such thing as a movie free of bias, opinion, belief, doctrine, but I think a useful way of looking at it would be a movie that is about the characters (or even just about the story) as opposed to a movie that is about a doctrine or belief with characters to support it…or perhaps I’m simply falling into the trap of saying that if the propaganda is well done, you won’t notice because the characters make sense and therefore it’s okay.

Frank Capra

Frank Capra

I’ve always liked to think about this topic, but what made it slightly more urgent to consider was reading Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. It is about the way that Hollywood responded to the war, but mostly about five directors who put on hold their careers so they could enlist in the military. John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens all enlisted, though their jobs turned out to be a little different than what they had anticipated. It turned out that the military was also interested in propaganda. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it was meant to align with military goals (such as not blaming Emperor Hirohito too much for the war because they thought they might need to keep him as emperor after the war and they didn’t want Americans to hate him). The military didn’t want to show too much death and loss to the American public, or to dwell on military reversals. Compromises were repeatedly made and all of the directors found themselves staging reenactments of battles to present to the public as fact.

The war changed them all, though perhaps Frank Capra less so. He remained in Washington D.C. and put together his famous Why We Fight series. However, John Ford was at the Battle of Midway and at Normandy. John Huston made a documentary at the Aleutians and was in Italy some. William Wyler flew on bombing missions to get film and lost his hearing as a result. But no one was more affected than George Stevens. He was known for his delightful comedies, such as Woman of the Year, but when he returned he never made another comedy. He was at Normandy, as well, and he was there to film the liberation of Paris. But he was also there when America liberated Dachau and he was the one to put together the films that were shown during the Nuremberg trials as evidence of the atrocities committed against the Jews and also to show that the atrocities were part of long-established policies.

When he returned, he never talked much about what he saw and he could never go back and watch any of the footage that he had taken.

Although the book is mostly about the five directors, Harris does also deal a bit with the movie studio’s reaction to the coming war and to the war itself. Before WWII, Hollywood studio heads tended to avoid any reference to the European situation. This was partially because they sold a lot of movies overseas and they didn’t want to alienate any of their foreign markets (such as Nazi Germany) and also because many of the studio heads were Jewish and were leery of being accused of not being sufficiently American and dragging America into foreign affairs and only being interested in Jewish concerns – accusations that they had heard before.

Harris implies that the studios, actors and directors were essentially burying their heads in the sand because their movies did not reflect the very real international concerns, specifically regarding Nazism and their treatment of the Jews. There was virtually no mention of Nazism in any of the films until the war began. This, I thought, was an interesting question. Does the movie industry have a duty to address social issues or international issues or only certain issues that are particularly pressing and how do we judge which issues are particularly pressing? Should the movie industry have also addressed the Ukrainian Famine in 1932-1933 when millions of Ukrainians died during a famine that was caused deliberately by Stalin’s regime? Should they have addressed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931? Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936?

Of course, what most movies during WWII were doing was not highlighting world realities but attempting to rally Americans to the cause and pep them up with patriotism. They rarely ever saw any of the disturbing images that were taken by Steven’s team during the landing at Normandy or afterwards at Dachau. John Huston’s documentary about veterans returning from the war who were suffering from psychological trauma was also suppressed by the military.

Of course, it is also true that documentaries containing reality can be structured for propaganda purposes. Even George Stevens’ footage of the liberation of Dachau could be used for propaganda, thought it is not itself propaganda. It is reality; harsh, horrifying, inescapable reality.

 
 

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The Maltese Falcon: 1931, 1936, 1941- Movies of Their Era

th4KX2L17OImagine if The Hobbit were remade three times in ten years. Maybe that’s a bad example. I can’t think of an appropriate one. But The Maltese Falcon, written by Dashiell Hammett in 1929, really was made three times between 1931 and 1941…the 1941 version, with Humphrey Bogart, being the most famous and celebrated. What’s surprising, despite the similarities, is how different each version is. You could say that each version is a movie of its time…which goes to show how quickly times change.

Last Saturday, my sister and I had a Maltese Falcon Movie-thon. We started late in the day and kept going, pausing only to make cookies.

I don’t know what I was expecting from the first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. It’s a pre-code movie, which means it was made during that time, after silent films, when the Hays Code was in effect, but not well enforced (not until 1934). There has been a lot of recent interest in pre-code era films, which often have a raw energy and morally un-inhibited tone and despite the fact that the depression had begun there were still more than a few shades of the carefree, loose attitude of the 1920s. The 1931 Maltese Falcon definitely conforms to this pattern, but despite that, my sister and I found it a little dull.

It’s fairly faithful to the book, all things considered – apart from a rather silly ending with Spade visiting the Brigid character in prison- and I recognized a fair number of lines from the 1941 version, but it lacked the tautness that I am used to see in a detective or noir story. I think Movies Silently said it best: “They are so busy being naughty that they let the plot stop dead in its tracks.” It’s not that the naughtiness isn’t in the book (or even in the 1941 version), but in those versions there is an economy of plot and pacing, which as I said, is usual in detective stories (when was the last time you read a five-hundred page mystery?) and so the tempo of this version is slow and there was little tension. Perhaps it was because I already knew the story and I felt like the older version had little new to offer.

It is a mystery, of course, but also plays up Sam Spade as a playboy. Ricardo Cortez, as Spade, is constantly grinning in this smug, wolfish way at every woman he comes across and keeps a negligee at his very opulent apartment. The tone of the movie is much lighter, though not a comedy – playboy detective meets unique characters, solves incidental mystery and has fun in the process. The movie did quite well in its day, but was not shown after the code was enforced.

12_satan_met_lady-1024x803The next movie incarnation came in 1936, called Satan Met A Lady. Wacky, oddball, bemusing, in an era when screwball comedy and light escapist movies were becoming popular as the depression continued. Screwball comedy really seems to have gotten going after the Hays Code was enforced. It Happened One Night, with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable was one of the first screwball comedies and, ironically, one of the first films to be released when the code was being fully enforced.

When we watched Satan Met A Lady our reaction was a bit like “What on earth was that?” It has been described laconically as a “misfire.”Bette Davis was billed first, but if she had played the secretary instead of the femme fatale she wouldn’t have been in it less, which is either a testament to how significant a role the secretary has or to how little they utilized Bette Davis. I’d had a feeling from the beginning that that secretary was going to be the only woman left standing at the end – she had staying power and ends up with Ted Shane, the Sam Spade character.

It’s a comedic version of The Maltese Falcon, apparently made in an attempt to capture the magic of The Thin Man, which was a screwball comedy/detective story based on the book by the same name, also written by Dashiell Hammett. Another reason to turn the story into a comedy was because the original story – as told in the book and partly told in 1931 – was considered beyond what could be portrayed under the Hays Code.

Bette Davis actually hated the role, which I don’t necessarily blame her for. She didn’t have much to do. Warren William is Ted Shane and he, like Ricardo Cortez, is an inveterate ladies’ man. There is no attempt, as in the 1931 and 1941 versions, to portray any real, or at least strong, love or lust between William and Davis. They flirt outrageously, but he does that with every woman he sees. The Fat Man is a woman in this version and Joel Cairo is instead a very tall and polite Englishman who violently tears up people’s rooms and then apologizes later. And the Maltese Falcon is instead an ancient horn of Roland that is supposed to be stuffed with jewels.

The film was not a success, either critically or financially.

The Maltese Falcon8

And then came the final version, released in 1941, and directed by a first time director who had previously been a script writer, John Huston. This movie seems to me to be a little ahead of it’s times, actually – portending the kind of film noir, anti-heroes, interest in human greed and desire and the sordid condition of humanity that is seen after the war rather than before or during.

It set the standard for movies to come, set the standard for Humphrey Bogart’s later roles and rise to stardom, and even partially set the standard for film noirs. I don’t think there was anything like it before or even during 1941 and I can’t think of much like it later, until 1944 with films like Double Indemnity – a film that is often credited as the first film noir…when people aren’t giving that title to The Maltese Falcon. But unlike Double Indemnity and other film noirs, The Maltese Falcon is primarily a detective story.

I’ve seen the movie several times now and it improves each time I see it. Once I have the plot down, it is marvelous to go back and watch Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade figure things out – all the while knowing what is actually going on with the other characters that he doesn’t see. The 1941 version, unlike the 1931 version, sticks exclusively to Spade’s point of view and the viewer only knows what he knows.  However, after watching the movie through once, it is fascinating to go back and put all the pieces together with fresh eyes. It is also fascinating to watch the actors. You could pick an actor and focus solely on them for one viewing, then pick another one for the next viewing, and learn much about what they are thinking and why they are acting as they are.

Maltese-Falcon-TheSydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr. are all marvelous and unforgettable. It was the perfect way to end our evening and I’m so glad no one thought that it was ridiculous to try and get so much mileage out of a mere 217 page book.

If The Maltese Falcon were made today, I wonder what it would be like and how it would reflect our era.

What books do you think ought to be remade as movies…or even movies that you enjoy but think could be even better?

 

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