Of Film Propaganda
By ELLIOT PAUL
THE ideal way in which to make the people of nation X understandable and likable to the peoples of other nations is to present, over the air, on printed page, in the theater, or on the screen, a sympathetic group of X nationals doing the things which come natural to them. This has been done so seldom that it is simpler to use the word “never.”
In this connection there is no reason to point with pride to motion pictures like Mrs. Miniver, The White Cliffs of Dover, The Pied Piper, This Land Is Mine, The Moon Is Down, or any of the well-meaning efforts to make the British, Dutch, French, or other allies attractive, or even palatable, to Americans. The writers and producers of the above-listed films had the best of intentions, but what resulted was a presentation of a group of actors, actresses, and extras, with assorted incongruous accents, performing rites that would have scarcely kept any nation long enough intact to achieve greatness. One of the best of these “hands across the sea” endeavors, The Pied Piper, had Monty Woolley on the side of the angels, and that nearly earned the picture a base on balls. However, as an instance of international nonsense, the French uncle of the charming Anne Baxter (acting as a French girl, and competently) spoke with a Central European accent on which anyone could have hung his hat.
One of the most fantastic bits of casting had me guessing in The Moon Is Down. I came in late and saw Sir Cedric Hardwicke meandering around Norway with a lot of tough Nazis.
“There,” I said to myself, “is an Englishman with plenty of guts.”
Later, when I saw the beginning of the film, I realized that Sir Cedric was supposed to be the No. 1 Nazi in the town.
In Sam Goldwyn’s North Star, directed by Lewis Milestone, Russia, on the eve of the outbreak of the Nazi invasion, was given a Blossom Time aroma that was almost overpowering. A doomed aviator in a doomed plane plummeting toward the earth at an incalculable speed, delivered, in spite of his Yogi posture, a long speech which sounded like a collision between Lincoln at Gettysburg and Kipling’s “If.” This oration, in its unusual setting, purported to tell the American people what the Russian people were fighting for. Heaven knows the American people needed to know, and didn’t. I doubt, however, if in the excitement of seeing a good actor about to crash, they were in a position to receive what our Army boys call “The Word.”
Some of the documentaries turned out by the various government agencies have not been more effective. They seem to be maudlin in almost direct proportion to their distance from actual battlefields. In a way, that tendency is profound, for that is exactly what the inhabitants of the world seem to do. Anyway, documentaries cannot be considered the final answer in selling one people to another. Documentaries are not entertainment, within the interpretation of the men and women who pay from 20 cents up to enter a motion picture theater. For the most part, excepting the brilliant work of Joris Ivens, Herb Kline, and a few others, documentaries are not entertainment within the meaning of the word as understood by me. They give me a pain. While I am watching a self-conscious employee, camera-shy and awkward, doing a bit of unnecessary polishing on the doorknob of a tank in an American war plant, I dislike being assured that tanks are a good thing by an announcer with a voice like a psychopathic hospital attendant trying to cajole one of his wandering and harmless charges back over a hedge to institution property.
I worked on one documentary for Russian war relief called Our Russian Front. This was prepared from Russian material photographed informally but very skilfully on the scenes of action. It was finished months before the Russians had made a successful counterattack, and long before Pearl Harbor. The state of Russo-American amity in Hollywood at that time was such that Milestone, Ivens, and I were nearly put out of business because a few close-ups of Stalin and a quotation from his “scorched earth” speech were included in the picture.
Warner Brothers made a brave attempt in the case of Mission to Moscow, but the trial scene was so especially dry-cleaned that much of the effect of the picture was lost. Needless to say, the boy-and-girl episode did little to inject entertainment into the picturized essay.
The Girl from Leningrad would win more friends for the Russians in one evening than a year’s run of Mission to Moscow plus North Star, with Jerome Kern’s “Song of Russia” and Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” thrown in. The major studios turned it down flat. “How can there be a sex triangle without a fight?” was the unanswerable question asked by all the producers who saw the Russian masterpiece.
This is preparatory to a discussion of the all-out effort on the part of Writers’ War Board and God knows how many more earnest agencies for anti-Nazi or pro-democratic ballyhoo. It is entitled Tomorrow the World, and was previously seen on Broadway. No one connected with the picture means any harm. They all are sincere believers in an ideal American way of life that must be shown on the screen in a series of trite but wholesome actions and hackneyed phrases. The same kind of claptrap, with reverse English, applies to the ideally unwholesome Nazi way of life.
My question is this: Are these good folks effective propagandists?
I think not. I cannot believe that any American, wavering in his loyalty to the principles of the Constitution or muddled in his thinking about the respective merits of free and dictatorial governments, will be saved or brought into the fold by Tomorrow the World. There are many reasons.
The only Nazi in the picture is a twelve-year-old boy, Emil Bruckner, who has been “educated" by the Nazis in Germany, and who comes to a Wisconsin home, that of Fredric March (as Professor Michael Frame). Other members of the household are Pat, his eleven-year-old daughter; school teacher and Michael’s Jewish fiancée, Lee (Leona), played by Betty Fields; Jessie, Michael’s sister, who was sitting out on the back porch when the family brains were distributed; and Frieda, a German-American cook who spits at the mention of Hitler.
What is clearly demonstrated by Tomorrow the World is that the Nazis, if given a promising young boy, can train him so well that he is able to put almost anything over on anybody. That might be believable, if the Americans involved were in any way normal or even desirable. That is where the propaganda goes cock-eyed. Michael Frame believes in reasoning with children, but does it so vaguely that it takes them six or eight months to learn what a simple crack in the puss would teach them in six seconds. The Jewess is so far off the Mosaic eye-for-an-eye beam that her school runs wild, and any discerning parent would prefer to see his child learn about life in the gutters of city streets. She oozes forgiveness for the wrong things, patience when force is de rigueur, and decides not to marry the man she loves, on a pretext so flimsy that it would not pass in a grade B musical, to tide the plot over one short act.
One could forgive the slanderous interpretation of Americans and their way of screen life in the case of the adults. The case of the school children is more grave.
I cannot believe that a single responsible writer or producer thinks that any child like the screen version of Emil Bruckner could enter a schoolroom or schoolyard in any city, county, town, or hamlet in the United States without being beaten up and effectively reformed by the school children themselves, without resort to such lines as poor Fredric March had to deliver, not to mention those of Betty Fields. A few samples follow: —
LEONA: I could punish you for this, but punishment isn’t the thing. More important is your realizing how much unhappiness you’ve caused.
(Emil was of course delighted on two counts — escaping punishment and causing grief to his enemy.)
MICHAEL: Maybe you’ll learn that you can get ahead further by being a part of a team, where everybody works along with everybody.
(Emil quite rightly concluded that, as teams went, the Nazi outfit was well organized and the U. S. teamwork left much to be desired.)
LEONA: What happens is really up to you.
(This to a kid just out of central Europe in the 20th century.)
Little Pat, the daughter of Michael, is a female Lord Fauntleroy without the sartorial elegance. In return for being scorned and insulted, embarrassed and finally hit over the head with a poker (seven stitches), Pat spends a whole year’s allowance to buy Emil a watch with an illuminated face for night espionage missions.
No cacophony of false notes can hide the talent of young Skippy Homeier as an actor. He gave his stilted role an emotional content that was remarkable. I am willing to bet that, being an intelligent lad, he knew all too well that the play was synthetic and preposterous. Almost anyone would realize that an Emil Bruckner, with superior gifts and nimble wits, is not the type of young Nazi that will be a problem after the war. Emil could learn any set of political routines, one as well as another, and could, in record time be as glib with Tom Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, et al. as he was with Mein Kampf when he landed in America.
It is the stupid, brutish, slow-minded clods, which form the bulk of the German population, who will continue their parrot-like banalities and mass crimes indefinitely. The fist fight between Emil and Stan Dombrowski was real Hollywood stuff. Each blow was a haymaker that felled first one antagonist, then the other. They had steam behind them that the unlucky Henry Armstrong could not achieve in his prime, and the children both took punishment that would have flattened such talented professionals as Ortiz and Chavez.
Propagandists should take time off to watch a couple of 12-year-olds fight some day. It is a heartbreaking experience, especially if the loser has a lot of stamina; for within thirty seconds after the start, it is perfectly apparent that one child or the other has the edge and will batter down the weaker one inevitably. The more stamina the loser has, the more he will suffer, in pain and shame and injured dignity. American kids, even if they need a lot of proverbs about Democracy, should not be bamboozled into thinking that in their early teens they are Battling Nelsons or Popeyes.
Furthermore, immigrant children, however tough and well-Nazified, should not be encouraged to believe they are going to be able to push around an entire American town and get away with it for more than five minutes at the outside.
Newspaperman, globe-trotter, novelist, musician, ELLIOT PAUL is writing screen plays in Hollywood, with occasional reports to this department.