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The OWI in the Early War Years

picture pictures studios censorship

Roosevelt created the OWI by executive order in June 1942 in an attempt to bring order from the chaos of the half-dozen overlapping propaganda agencies that had operated before the war. Believing the movies were crucial to the propaganda war, he charged the OWI with establishing a liaison with the motion picture industry. FDR insisted that the OWI avoid the “hate the Hun” excesses of the World War I-era Committee on Public Information (the Creel Committee), which had given movie propaganda a bad name. Experienced newsmen were chosen in the hope that they would give the agency credibility. Heading the OWI was the popular radio commentator Elmer Davis, who insisted that his agency’s only goal was to “tell the truth.” 23 Promoting a war in which rights and wrongs were clearer than in many conflicts, the OWI committed fewer excesses than most propaganda agencies. But controversy, evasion, and falsification were endemic in a context in which, as the mot went, “truth is the first casualty.”

Whatever his commitment to the truth, Davis also believed, as he confided to his staff, that “the easiest way to propagandize people is to let a propaganda theme go in through an entertainment picture when people do not realize they are being propagandized.” Infusing movies with a memorable but subtle propaganda theme fell to the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP). It was run by the former newspaperman Lowell Mellett. His deputy was Nelson Poynter, the 39-year-old liberal publisher of the St . Petersburg Times . Operating from a suite in the Taft Building at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, Poynter handled the day-to-day relations with the studios. While these editors’ New Deal credentials appealed to the OWI, their lack of experience with film (Poynter seldom even went to the movies) proved to be a serious handicap. Several reviewers, mostly women, analyzed scripts, screened finished pictures, and helped with studio liaison. Dorothy Jones, head of the reviewing unit, devoted her life to movie analysis and political activism; after the war, she wrote a book on the portrayal of Asians in American films and founded Another Mother for Peace. The reviewer Marjorie Thorson parlayed her OWI experience into a job with MGM, where she spent many years as a script doctor.

The BMP insisted that its job was to advise, not to censor. The bureau could not bar production and exhibition of pictures it disapproved. Poynter correctly maintained that the studios could make any films they wanted and distribute them in the United States, so long as they were not treasonable. But the OWI in fact had considerable power. As a government agency in wartime, it had to be taken very seriously; a recalcitrant studio risked accusations of not doing its part. Moreover, the Office of Censorship…control of export licenses gave the government economic leverage that the studios took seriously. Since its recommendations carried weight with the Office of Censorship, the OWI had more than patriotic suasion at its command. As the Motion Picture Herald put it: “No one has yet advanced an argument in support of producing a picture known in advance to be doomed to domestic exhibition exclusively.”

In the eyes of OWI analysts, Hollywood displayed more zeal about the war than it did political judgment. Bending industry conventions to the OWI’s political goals was difficult. The BMP codified its view of the war in the forty-two-page “Manual for the Motion Picture Industry” in July 1942. The first question everyone involved in a production should ask, said the bureau, was, “Will this picture help win the war?” The bureau’s war aims were imbued with Vice President Henry Wallace’ Century of the Common Man (1943), the bible of liberals and left-liberals at war. The BMP manual described the global conflict as a “peoples war” between freedom and fascism. The enemy was not the German, Italian, or Japanese people but the ruling elites and their ideologies. An Allied victory promised a world New Deal, which would combine a regulated capitalism with an extension of social welfare programs; America would abandon isolationism to participate in a system of collective security. Many studios, particularly Warner Bros., whose namesakes admired Roosevelt, distributed the manual widely to their staffs. But other studios, notably Paramount, which was headed by the Georgia conservative Frank Freeman, were wary. To many industry executives, OWI doctrine was too statist and internationalist. Beneath the rhetoric of helping the war effort, the moguls fought with their new regulators over how far they would go in the OWI’s liberal crusade.

Conflict began in the summer of 1942 as the Bureau of Motion Pictures screened Hollywood’s first war pictures. The OWI reviewers found them appalling. LITTLE TOKYO , U.S.A., a B movie from 20th Century-Fox, encapsulated most of what the OWI disliked. OWI reviewers termed it an “invitation to the Witch Hunt!” The film portrayed all people of Japanese descent in the United States as disloyal and as tools in Tokyo’s diabolical plot, decades in the making, to attack Pearl Harbor. BMP reviewers also disliked the glorification of extraconstitutional methods; the detective hero tramples all over the Bill of Rights as he ferrets out traitors in “Little Tokyo” in Los Angeles. But the OWI had little leverage. The army cooperated in making the film, and the Office of Censorship gave it an export license. In response to the OWI’s objections, Fox made a few changes but did not alter the basic story. After all, it was the picture, rather than OWI’s pronouncements, that reflected government policy. LITTLE TOKYO , U.S.A. taught the propaganda agency a lesson. To have maximum influence, the OWI, like the PCA, had to first have a look at screenplays; once a picture was nearly finished, the studios were likely to make only minor changes.

OWI staffers’ frustration mounted as they screened other releases in the fall of 1942. Metro’s THE MAN ON AMERICA’S CONSCIENCE recklessly strayed into the tinderbox of race relations. The film limned an impossibly noble President Andrew Johnson and in the process traduced his adversary Thaddeus Stevens, the champion of the freed people during Reconstruction. The OWI settled for reshooting some scenes and a change of title to the less provocative TENNESSEE JOHNSON . Sometimes the OWI’s concerns were warranted; in other cases, the humorless reviewers lost their perspective. They were convinced that Preston Sturges’s THE PALM BEACH STORY , a satire of the idle rich, was a “libel on America at war” and exactly the wrong kind of escape picture for the time." 28

Alarmed by such pictures, the OWI became increasingly interventionist. When Poynter read the screenplay for So PROUDLY WE HAIL , Paramount S tribute to the heroic nurses on Bataan, he wrote several pages of suggested dialogue. The finished picture incorporated the thrust of his ideas but not his language, which was more suited to the editorial page than an embattled nurse. Poynter had breached an unspoken but fundamental taboo. Joseph Breen, an industry insider in a way Poynter never could be, might suggest rewriting a line or two, but never whole pages. The conservative Paramount hierarchy was infuriated by the OWI New Dealers’ invasion of studio prerogatives.

Compounding Poynter’s blunder, Mellett overreached himself. He notified the studios on 9 December 1942 that “it would be advisable” to submit screenplays, and even treatments, to the OWI for early appraisal. Never before had a government agency demanded such control over motion pictures. “CENSORS SHARPEN AXES,” bannered Variety . Most of the studio heads bitterly criticized the BMP’s demand, fretting about the OWI’s aspiring screenwriters larding their films with indigestible, liberal dialogue. Recognizing that Mellett’s letter was disastrous, the OWI chief, Elmer Davis, quickly backed down and said that submissions were “purely voluntary.”

The moguls’ outrage at being “censored” would have led the unwary to think Hollywood was a bastion of free speech. In reality, the industry had always lived with censorship. With scarcely a murmur, it had agreed to PCA regulation—a closeted, unaccountable censorship ideologically inspired by a conservative religious minority. The movies accepted censorship by a host of state and local censorship boards, bent to the wishes of pressure groups it deemed important, genuflected to southern racism, and allowed foreign—even hostile—governments to vet screenplays. Yet the industry claimed to be violated when its own government, in wartime, made similar demands. What was at stake was not a First Amendment principle but control of the production process. The PCA was a creature of the industry and had built a stable working relationship with the studios. External censorship boards dealt only with finished pictures, not the production process. Other interventions were episodic. Mellett threatened detailed invasion of studio prerogatives by an outside agency that spoke a language alien to Hollywood and whose minor bureaucrats often bypassed studio executives.

Mellett’s and Poynter’s blunders proved costly indeed for the OWI. In Congress, the conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats, under the guise of cutting government waste, took aim at the liberal propagandists. Part of this opposition stemmed from Hollywood’s complaints. In the spring of 1943, Congress whittled the OWI domestic branch’s budget to about 10 percent of its original funding, guaranteeing it would be ineffectual.

Ironically, the virtual demise of the domestic branch enhanced the power of the OWI’s Hollywood liaison office. The key to the kingdom of Hollywood lay in the overseas branch. These operations were handled by Ulric Bell, who forcefully presented the case that bad pictures hurt America abroad. The studios thought they were better judges of what American audiences wanted than was the OWI, but they were hardpressed to counter objections based on foreign and military policy. Bell convinced the Office of Censorship to follow OWI recommendations on almost all pictures; by the summer of 1943, his office had become “an advance guard for the Office of Censorship,” said the Motion Picture Herald . The OWI could now block exhibition, a power that always made the studios more tractable. As the Allied offensive liberated enemy territory, the agency’s ability to help the box office interested Hollywood even more. The standard package the liberators handed out included food, DDT louse killer, and OWI-approved movies. As industry executives realized that the OWI wanted “only to be helpful, their attitudes change[d] remarkably,” observed Robert Riskin, a top screenwriter who worked for the OWI overseas branch.

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