Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Hollywood History: World War II Propaganda

Many Americans would bristle at the idea that Hollywood films were as deliberately propagandistic as the films made in Germany during the Nazi era. While most of those films were, in fact, heavy-handed and leaden, there were exceptions, such as Leni Riefenstahl's pre-war Olympics documentary Olympia. Few would argue that Olympia has artistic merits well beyond its propagandistic merits. Yet Americans remain even today resistant to any suggestion that pro-American propaganda is in any way comparable to the propaganda made by whoever may be our enemy at the moment. And yet, one need only look to Sylvester Stallone's Rambo III for confirmation. That movie makes heroes of the "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan who are now the terrorists know as the Taliban.

 Propaganda during World War II tended to be far less overbearing from Hollywood than it was from Berlin, but for only one reason. Even in the pursuit of a noble aim such as drumming up support for the war, Hollywood executives still have only one true goal: box office profit. It is a testament to the good old-fashioned greed of the studio bosses and to the talents of the writers, actors and directors in Hollywood that American movies weren't not mere propaganda. If the interlopers from the Office of War Information and the Bureau of Motion Pictures had had their way, it is highly doubtful that few war-related movies would be remembered today.

Where Hollywood succeeded best-or perhaps worst-in presenting Washington's idea of propaganda was probably in its short films and cartoons. Some Warner Brothers cartoons of the era have been effectively removed from existence as a result of the often racist and certainly overbearing portrayal of Germans and, especially, of the Japanese. The fact that these cartoons have not stood the test of time artistically and are now considered something of an embarrassment to the studios is really all the evidence necessary to prove that Hollywood knew what it was going. In addition to these cartoons, a host of short subjects were produced showing Hollywood stars doing their part for the war effort, attempting to raise war bonds and just generally pretending they were real people. These shorts are nearly as ridiculous as the cartoons now, presenting an image of authenticity and genuineness that didn't exist.

Washington sought to influence every aspect of wartime filmmaking, from how much blood flowed during battle scenes to whether movies that satirized American values in any way would be released internationally. (By the way, did you know that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was denounced by several real life Senators at the time of its release for being un-American? I kid you not.) The politicians seemed determined to play the very same game that their German counterparts were doing; that is to totally strip the movies of any artistic value in favor of pure gung-ho propaganda. Fortunately greed won out over shortsighted patriotism. Although a fair share of by-the-numbers, instantly forgettable propaganda movies slipped through, for the most part Hollywood's attempt at instilling fervor for war was surprisingly subtle. Even the typical combat movie that attempted to portray a military unit as a microcosm of the American dream by including a soldier from every ethnic group-except for negro and Japanese, of course-proved fertile ground for dramatic stories. The concept of a bunch of guys coming from different backgrounds and uniting for a common cause may have quickly become cliché, but it rarely hurt a movie.

A vital component during the war effort, of course, was the introduction of women into the workforce and this was reflected in movies. Any movie that had a contemporary setting-whether it was about the war or not-by definition had to deal with the absence of males in the workforce. As a result for the first time in American history, women in the audience were routinely presented images of working women. Although working women had long been a staple of movie plots, it wasn't until the war years that the fact that a woman had a job normally held by a man wasn't an integral part of the plot. That woman worked a man's job because it reflected reality.

The finest example of how subtly Hollywood conducted a propaganda campaign may well be the classic film Casablanca. Although recognized worldwide as quite possibly the greatest romance ever made, romance was not the only thing on the mind of its makers. Modern day filmmakers would do well to watch Casablanca a few times before launching into their pet propaganda projects; it is a grand example of how a movie can work equally effectively on two levels. While undeniably one of the all time great romances, Casablanca exists today primarily because some Hollywood power players wanted to do something that would convince America to quit being a country that sticks its neck out for nobody.