29 January 2010

Rally Round the Flag Boys (And Girls)! Propaganda, Hollywood and World War II

                                  The Great Dictator
Unlike American military adventures of recent vintage, World War II enjoyed widespread popular support throughout the country. Moreover most citizens were willing to put their money where their mouths were. In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor military enlistments were high. Those not eligible to fight did far more than sport a bumper sticker claiming to "Support Our Troops." The president asked for sacrifices (yes, there was a time when Americans were willing to make them for the good of all, Republicans take note).

National morale was strong. There was after all a clear enemy and tangible, measurable goals: stopping the spread of fascism in Europe and ending Japanese aggression in Asia. Presenting a case for war to the American people was not a problem. Both enemies had clear and villainous leaders, Hitler and Tojo, along with easily identifiable symbols, the swastika and rising sun.

Still, maintaining morale for a long and costly war was never going to be easy. But even before the U.S. entered the fray Hollywood was rallying the people. The war in Europe had been raging for over two years before the U.S. declared war, and hostilities in Asia long preceded that. But Hollywood didn't want until December 7th 1941 to attack.

Maybe you can name some films out of Hollywood that argued the isolationist case because I sure can't. With many directors, stars and even producers refugees from Nazi Germany and its immediate neighbors, the American film industry was quick to expose the horrors of the Third Reich. With U.S. entry in the war the motion picture industry began cranking out propaganda, thinly disguised as fictional films.

One of the remarkable aspects of these movies is that many of them were quite good films and remain beloved to this day. There's no better example than Casablanca (1942), which on top of everything else (like being one of the greatest films of all time) was a superb bit of pro war propaganda. Sure the Nazis are evil, but also Vichy is vilified and the resistance is heroic. Perhaps its strongest message is in the form of Rick's (Humphrey Bogart) transformation from an isolationist ("I stick my neck out for no one") to a man who gives up the woman of his dreams for the cause. A cause he then goes on to fight for.

                                  Confessions of a Nazi Spy
One of the first successful attempts to use Nazis as bad guys was Anatole Litvak's Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Edward G. Robinson is a G-Man who goes after a Nazi spy ring. It was highly effective at creating the great fear of the "enemy within." Those bad guys are not just across the ocean but in our very midst, threatening our very way of life.

A year Later Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator (1940) which specifically belittled Hitler and to a lesser extent Mussolini. The message was clear. Hitler was a buffoon, albeit a dangerous one who needed to be checked. That same year saw Alfred Hitchcock get in the act with Foreign Correspondent (1940). A U.S. newspaper sends a reporter to Europe to report on growing tensions and the possibilities of war. He ends up uncovering spies in London as he has adventures there, in Holland and smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic. The film ends with the reporter giving a stirring Edward R. Murrow like radio report from London during a German blitz. It's a great film and  rallying cry.

1940 also saw the release of Escape (1940) from director Mervin Leroy, starring Claudette Colbert and Robert Taylor, about a famous actress imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and efforts to rescue her. And Mortal Storm (1940) which was an indictment of Nazi persecution of Jews.

On the eve of the war came All Though the Night (1941) in which Bogie plays a gangster who sics his New York based mob on a a group of Nazi spies who are planning sabotage. The head Nazi here is played by Conrad Veidt. Veidt was a German actor married to a Jewish woman. The couple fled Germany when Hitler came to power. He went on to play several odious Nazis, notably in this film and Casablanca. Peter Lorre and Judith Anderson (most famous for her role in Rebecca (1940)) were fellow Nazis in All Through the Night. The film, despite some weighty subject matter, is generally light in tone, boasting such comic actors as Allen Jenkins, Hugh Herbert, Phil Silvers and a young Jackie Gleason. But it slyly got across its message about the perils of Nazis.

Also that year the Fritz Lang thriller Man Hunt (1941) was released. Walter Pidgeon plays an Englishman pursued by Nazis first in Germany and then right within London. George Sanders is, not for the first time, excellent as a nasty Nazi. The film ends with Pidgeon's character parachuting into Europe as a soldier.

                                  Mrs. Miniver
One of the most effective pieces of Hollywood propaganda was William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (1942). Greer Garson and Pidgeon are an upper middle class British couple with a lovely house and family. Their idyllic life is shattered by the war which calls their son into service and brings bombs from above to their home. The final scene with the sermon in the bomb-shattered church had to have audiences ready to go out and buy war bonds.

Later films during the war showed men in battle. A key element in all was to see some of the good guys die. It was always a hero's death. Invariably with the soon-to-be-deceased uttering stirring last words. Often the deaths were not just a result of standard enemy fire, but resulted from sneaky, back-handed action. Witness efforts to rescue a downed enemy flier in Destination Tokyo (1942). The rat fink fires upon and kills an innocent American. According to Hollywood, the enemy did that sort of thing quite regularly and needed to be vanquished.  Destination Tokyo, aboard a submarine, like Action in the North Atlantic (1943) aboard a merchant marine ship, features one man not convinced that the fight was worth engaging in. Of course, they always see the light. The reluctant participant was clearly meant to symbolize those Americans still unconvinced the fight was worth engaging in.

Bataan (1943) in The Philippines, Sahara (1943) in North Africa, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944) in the air, are just a few examples of "our brave fighting men" in action. But women got in the act too, never more so than in So Proudly We Hail (1943) about the experiences of army nurses on The Philippines during the war. It is as blatant an attempt to tap into American patriotism and sentiment as you'll ever see. Also, it was doubtless highly effective.

                                  So Proudly We Hail
Hollywood's best directors and biggest stars featured in these films not to mention top screenwriters, cinema photographers etc. The result were dozens of films that both entertained and rallied the home front. Of course, I've only scratched the surface. There were also films about that very home front (something I may explore in a future post) and rallying cries that were disguised as films about other topics (another topic for another day). There were cartoons aplenty featuring the likes of Bugs and Daffy and clownish versions of Hitlers and racially stereotyped Japanese characters.

Of course I've not mentioned most of the WWII era propaganda fiction, some of which I've not seen. One example is something called Hitler - Beast of Berlin (1939), a title I stumbled across in the Internet Movie Database. Actually I'm just assuming it had an anti Hitler slant.

The flood of Hollywood films related to World War II has never abated as I've explored in previous posts. Such as this look at 25 of the best WWII films and this peak at a dozen more. I also wrote a post examining some of the best Nazi characters of films, which needs to be updated to include Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) from Ingloruious Basterds (2009).

So cinematically speaking World War II is the gift that keeps on giving, but there is nothing quite like those films made just before and during the war. They had the fresh perspective of those experiencing that time period. There is an urgency and a sense of getting an important story out.  But the dedication to telling a good story was never lost. Yes a message had to be gotten out but it had to be within what Hollywood did best, making a damn good movie.

1 comment:

Colt said...

I just recently watched the Disney Vault Collection that has the World War II shorts. Its a fascinating insight into that time in our nation's history. The collection had some great commentary from Leonard Maltin. If you have not seen it I highly recommend. The short An Education for Death is worth the price of admission alone.