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The OWI and Hollywood's Portrayal of the Allies

war china film

By the autumn of 1943, the once-antagonistic demands of propaganda and popular culture began to dovetail. The result was not unlike the process by which the PCA came to be accepted in Hollywood. As the studios learned that working with the OWI brought predictability and profit without damaging the moguls’ control of production, they were only too ready to cooperate. The results were visible in all areas of Hollywood production—the home front, the allies, the enemy, and the hope for a peaceful postwar world.

The OWI’s hopes for a suitable treatment of the home front were well realized in David O. Selznick’s monumental SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944). Bell praised the “corking story,” and his successor, William Cunningham, thanked Selznick for his "splendid cooperation with this office. " As seen in chapter 7, the film traces the experience of an idealized middle-class Ohio family as they cope with the father departing for war, the mother getting a factory job, and a daughter losing a boyfriend in battle; on a snowy Christmas Eve, the family receives the report of the father’s return to safety. Selznick included a host of OWI-approved vignettes to promote the war effort: the family cheerfully enduring travel on a crowded train, a sailor ponying up five months’ salary for war bonds, a well-heeled businessman improbably willing to pay 100 percent in income tax, and a stout matron praising the taste of margarine in comparison to butter. SINCE YOU WENT AWAY , concluded Commonweal’s reviewer, Philip Hartung, was “the definitive home-front movie…until a realist comes along to show us what life is really like in America during World War II.”

A realist would have found abundant dramatic material in the tensions that suffused the home front. Not surprisingly, neither the PCA-limited studios nor the OWI’s propagandists wanted to really tackle those issues. Instead, they crafted a message of reassurance as Americans tried to cope with the bewildering gender, racial, and labor conflicts that Selznick papered over in his idyll of Ohio middle-class domesticity.

Working women raised anxieties that the OWI was eager to dispel. The agency reported “all cheers and hosannas” for RKO’s TENDER COMRADE (1943), a Ginger Rogers vehicle that was Hollywood’s most systematic treatment of women’s wartime role. With a screenplay by the Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo, TENDER COMRADE praised working women, scolded women who hoarded scarce war goods or indulged in the black market, and gave women some of the good speeches that usually went to men about what we were fighting for. Yet for all the film’s supposed feminism, the OWI failed to notice that the film remained imprisoned in Hollywood gender conventions. Women are most intent on catching a man; the film implies that, when the war ends, they will leave the assembly line without complaint for their “normal” place in the kitchen and the nursery. Nor did the all-male production staff allow the heroine to grieve over her husband’s death in combat. Instead, they converted this private moment into a platform for instructing wives and sweethearts on how to place their loved ones’ deaths in geopolitical perspective.

The OWI also hoped to use the movies to improve race relations—one of the most conspicuous wartime problems. Jim Crow still suffused American law and mores, and the United States fought for democracy with a rigidly segregated army and navy. Race riots seared major cities like Detroit. The OWI paid lip service to a campaign led by Walter White, head of the NAACP, and Wendell Willkie, chairman of the 20th Century-Fox board, to improve the depiction of blacks. Some advances were made in improving what had been, with few exceptions, a dismal record. In a few instances, blacks won better roles, although they were often limited, like Lena Home’s role in STORMY WEATHER, to the cinematic ghetto of the song-and-dance revue. In other cases, they were dignified minor roles, such as Leigh Whipper helping to avert a lynching in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, and LIFEBOAT’S Canada Lee being treated at times as an equal by his fellow survivors, though his previous occupation as a pickpocket is also highlighted. MGM’s BATAAN sped up the integration of combat units by a decade by adding Kenneth Spencer to a platoon, if in a distinctly secondary position.

On balance, however, Hollywood’s vision was little changed by government oversight. TENNESSEE JOHNSON, the first major battle over racial issues, was also the last, since the OWI was not willing to go beyond mild admonitions to the studios about race. Lowell Mellett asked Metro to scrap the nearly completed picture, not because it was unfair to blacks but because it threatened domestic unity. The studio refused, and the OWI was content with some reshooting that softened Thaddeus Stevens’s villainy, used Andrew Johnson to spotlight upward mobility and the American dream, and preached progress through the ballot box instead of bullets. The last was surely an ironic message for blacks, who won their freedom in the crucible of war and then saw their right to vote systematically denied by legal chicanery and violence. TENNESSEE JOHNSON included only two black characters and barely hinted of slavery. “Writing out” black characters and racial issues was easier than relearning race relations for wartime Hollywood. Throwbacks to pre-World War II images continued. Selznick transposed Hattie McDaniel from her role as Scarlett’s devoted slave in GONE WITH THE WIND to the Hiltons’ live-in maid, suggestively named Fidelia, in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. Ann Hilton can no longer afford Fidelia during the war, but this devoted soul nonetheless returns to cook and clean for the white folks—for free—when she gets off work at the factory. The critic James Agee noted sardonically that, brimming with “malapropisms, comic relief, and mother wit,” Fidelia “satisfied all that anyone could possibly desire of a Negro in restive times.”

The OWI was willing to fight harder for labor unions, a key component of the Roosevelt coalition. Membership in unions doubled during the war, and their members were a big part of the movie audience. In the original screenplay for his epic AN AMERICAN ROMANCE (1944), MGM’s conservative King Vidor glorified his rags-to-riches industrialist hero and implied that unions were violent, subversive organizations. The OWI insisted that labor move from the streets to the conference table. Metro’s E. J. Mannix “yelled and screamed,” Poynter reported, and charged that the OWI forced him to make a “new deal picture.” The agency and the studio eventually agreed to show moderate unions and reasonable management as cooperative rather than antagonistic, in contrast to an early version in which management dispersed strikers with riot police and tear gas. As the union president said, in AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, borrowing from the OWI manual, “Efficient production demands cooperation between labor and management.”

Having won a position of power in American politics, moderate labor unions could be accommodated, albeit reluctantly, on the screen. But race and gender raised divisive issues that the national discourse was only beginning to address and often preferred to bury. Both propaganda monitors and popular culture marketers found safe harbor in an illusory national unity.

Just as the home front had to be remodeled into an idealized America, so too were the Allies airbrushed into progressive democracies. This effort required Hollywood to modify some of its cherished stereotypes of foreigners (specifically the British and Chinese) and to tackle a subject it had long avoided—the Russians. The results were misleading and in some cases grossly deceptive—in their own ways as bad, or worse, than Hollywood’s old stereotypes. Where Hollywood once tended to exoticize foreigners, the OWI taught how much they resembled Americans.

Great Britain presented the fewest problems. Although Americans generally admired and trusted the British, the OWI feared that hatred of imperialism and the class system might undermine that support. With Churchill determined to hang on to the empire, the OWI decided to ignore the issue. When MGM wanted to re-release KIM, and RKO GUNGA DIN (1939), two Kiplingesque adventures that glorify imperialism, the OWI appealed to the studios to leave them on the shelf, and they agreed. The class issue bedeviled Metro’s THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER (1944), peopled by condescending aristocrats who acted as if the war were being fought to preserve Ashworth Manor. Although the studio submitted eighty pages of script changes in response to OWI criticisms in 1943, the film’s warm aristocratic haze remained. The studio paid for its indulgence in 1944 when the OWI overseas branch ruled the film could not be shown in the lucrative British market. Ironically, two films that the OWI considered models of how to deal with the class issue—MGM’s Oscar-winning MRS. MINIVER and Fox’s THIS ABOVE ALL —were both released in 1942 before the OWI began its regulatory efforts. Both films projected a unified Britain, mobilized for war, in which class lines were being dissolved. If the class system proved more durable than these warmhearted films depicted it, they were nonetheless popular propaganda for Americans who believed they were all resolutely middle-class.

“Give us a Mrs. Miniver of China and Russia,” Poynter implored studio executives. He was asking the impossible, but Hollywood tried to comply. 39 The Chinese reality scarcely fit either the OWI or Hollywood image. Roosevelt envisioned China as a major power that could serve as one of the “four policemen” of the postwar world. But the country was riven by civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Tsetung’s Communists, neither of whom resembled FDR’s democratic ethos. The OWI wanted China portrayed as “a great nation, cultured and liberal,” that had been fighting the Axis since 1933 and was evolving toward democracy. This political mythmaking clashed with Hollywood’s mythic China, which veered between the simple, lovable peasantry of THE GOOD EARTH (1937) and the sinister factionalism of SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932). Hollywood capitalized on China’s exotic background for several pictures released in 1942 before the OWI began work. The propaganda agency disliked all of them, such as the John Wayne vehicle FLYING TIGERS, because they showed Americans winning the war single-handedly and the Chinese relegated to inferior positions.

The OWI converted Hollywood to its own myth, with results that were as politically dubious as the studios’ prewar fantasies, and certainly more tedious cinematically. The original screenplay for MGM’s DRAGON SEED, based on Pearl Buck’s novel of the same title, offended the OWI by showing the Chinese as backward illiterates with little political consciousness. The drastically revised screenplay, submitted in 1943, adopted the OWI’s vision of politically astute Chinese mobilized for the “people’s war.” Both the OWI and Hollywood preferred a Westernized China. Since Asians were unthinkable in the leading roles, DRAGON SEED starred (most improbably) Katharine Hepburn, who was Orientalized with slanted eyes.

The OWI took pride in another propaganda victory—KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, starring Gregory Peck as a Roman Catholic missionary in early-twentieth-century China. The OWI objected bitterly to the initial screenplay, by the star writers Nunnally Johnson and Joseph Mankiewicz, which showed a backward China beset by marauding warlords. The agency rejected the studio’s idea of an easy fix—a prologue stating that the film dealt with an earlier China. To the OWI, the screenplay should show the Nationalist forces battling for a new, modern, unified China. T. K. Chang, the influential Chinese consul in Los Angeles, seconded the OWI. Twentieth Century-Fox finally agreed and adopted the OWI’s political analysis. As always when Catholicism was portrayed, Catholic priests stood by to oversee church matters. Released in 1944, KEYS OF THE KINGDOM shows Republican Nationalist forces fighting for a new China, and peasants’ mud huts are transformed into what elated OWI reviewers described as “neat, little brick places with considerable feeling of civilization about them.” The China that Hollywood constructed under OWI regulation offered a reassuring—if grossly inaccurate—tribute to a modem China that was awakening, under Western political and religious tutelage.

Remodeling the image of the Soviet Union was an even more daunting task than Great Britain and China presented. Before the war, Hollywood made few movies about the Soviet Union; the industry had no market there, and Russian subjects did not seem likely to be popular with Western audiences. The PCA was prepared to veto a picture favorable to the Soviets, as Lewis Milestone found in 1934 when Breen warned him against making “Red Square.” The most memorable prewar Russian film was NINOTCHKA (1939), in which Melvyn Douglas, an émigré Russian count, induces Greta Garbo, a Communist dominatrix, to defect by plying her with capitalist luxuries and romantic love. In place of such sly satire, Hollywood collaborated with the OWI during the war to humanize the Russians and whitewash Stalinism. As Variety said: “War has put Hollywood’s traditional conception of the Muscovites through the wringer, and they have come out shaved, washed, sober, good to their families, Rotarians, brother Elks, and 33rd Degree Mason.”

The most important—and controversial—wartime film about the Soviet Union was Warners’ MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943). The Warners eagerly accepted Roosevelt’s request that they make a picture from the memoirs of Joseph E. Davies, who as ambassador to Moscow from 1936 to 1938 displayed a credulous sympathy for the Soviet experiment. Davies worked closely with the studio and twice reported personally to Roosevelt on the film’s progress. While the OWI took a backseat in these negotiations, some of its favorite themes emerged, particularly the isolationists’ folly and the Soviets’ devotion to collective security. In MISSION TO MOSCOW, the Soviet Union became a pleasant land of consumerist plenty, the dreaded secret police bumbling Keystone Kops, Stalin an omniscient world statesman, and the massive purges of the 1930s necessary measures to root out a fifth column. The OWI called the film “a magnificent contribution” and superb entertainment—a judgment in which Jack Warner happily concurred.

To political critics, the film should have been titled, as the bitter joke went, “Submission to Moscow.” Breen abhorred the film’s politics. But ever the realist, he realized that the PCA had to yield to Washington on wartime political matters. Ruefully noting Davies’s and the OWI’s sanction of the film, he said: “In the face of all this, it seems to me that we… can do little but approve the material.” He cautioned Warners, however, that the film would arouse “considerable protest.” It did. Outraged editorialists and dogged pickets harried the film; most of the protest was generated by the right wing, but some emanated from tough-minded anti-Stalinist leftists. (In 1947, as the cold war and red-baiting intensified, Jack Warner withdrew MISSION TO MOSCOW from release and delivered Howard Koch, whom he had pressured to write the screenplay, to the wolves of the House Un-American Activities Committee.) Nor was the long, talky film as entertaining as the OWI and Jack Warner had hoped. “This mishmash is directly and firmly in the tradition of Hollywood politics,” said the New Republic’s Manny Farber. “A while ago it was Red-baiting, now it is Red-praising in the same sense—ignorantly. To a democratic intelligence it is repulsive and insulting.”

Every major studio except Paramount enlisted with a Russian picture, but they tried to minimize the politics. The OWI and the Soviet embassy read the screenplays. The best known was Samuel Goldwyn’s THE NORTH STAR (1943), written by Lillian Hellman and directed by William Wyler. THE NORTH S TAR tried to humanize average Russians and to valorize their resistance to the German invaders, but it succeeded mainly in Americanizing them. Metro offered a musical tribute with SONG OF RUSSIA (1943); romance leavens politics in United Artists’ THREE RUSSIAN GIRLS (1943); love and resistance are joined in RKO’s DAYS OF GLORY (1944); and a band of teenagers thwart the Wehrmacht almost single-handedly in Columbia’s BOY FROM STALINGRAD (1943). The last Russian film, Columbia’s COUNTER-ATTACK (1945), boasted a screenplay by John Howard Lawson, a Communist Party member, who worked in many of the OWI’s points. But by the time of its release in 1945, mounting doubts about Soviet-American friendship led Columbia to downplay ideology for straightforward action.

The propagandists tried to get the studios faithfully to translate national policy about the Allies to the screen. In this they were, perhaps regrettably, successful. The results too often were ludicrous: a classless Britain (or worse, a romanticized aristocracy) devoid of imperial ambitions; a progressive, unified China under Chiang Kai-shek instead of a desperately poor society plagued by corruption, brutality, and civil war; and a benign Soviet Union led by an avuncular, farsighted Stalin. Although the movies took on particular colorations because of the OWI’s intervention, they reflected a national disposition, which Roosevelt encouraged, to construct artificial allies and avoid hard questions. Experienced political journalists, epitomized by Henry Luce’s Time and Life, constructed the Britains, Chinas, and Soviet Unions they thought would be useful to their political agendas. 47 For all their encomiums to “the truth,” neither the White House, the OWI, the news media, nor Hollywood was willing to run the risk that the public would draw the wrong conclusions during wartime from a “warts and all” portrait.

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about 6 years ago

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