The familiar logo of the National Recovery Administration, seen at the beginning of innumerable '30s films.
The first instalment of this two-part blog looked at political cinema of 1932-3: how the Depression was shown on screen, and how Roosevelt's accession to power encouraged Hollywood to make hard-hitting movies about social issues. In this second article, I'll tell some of the stories of the subsequent decade, looking at the few radical movies made after the imposition of the Hays Code, explaining how Roosevelt's policies made and then broke Orson Welles, and examining the way that FDR himself was depicted on that most silver of screens.
PART 2: NOTHING TO FEAR (1933-1945)
1. Socialism on screen (1934-40)
A popular sport in America is to point at anything remotely progressive or liberal and say that it’s communist. But even a total idiot is correct sometimes, and there is something distinctly red about Our Daily Bread (August 1934), a drama about dispossessed workers throwing in their lot together on a rural commune. The studios wouldn’t go near it and so writer-director King Vidor – a conservative Republican, I’ve no idea what he thought he was doing – made his story as an independent movie, releasing it through United Artists. It’s actually a sequel to his 1928 film, The Crowd, one of the most acclaimed and enduring of all silent movies, rejoining everyman John Sims and his wife Mary (now played by Tom Keene and Karen Morley), as they’re turfed out of their jobs and their home by the Depression, struggle to make a living farming a relative’s land (rural poverty was still a rare topic on screen) and decide to pool their resources with other struggling souls to form a farm collective. The low-budget is evident in the casting of Keene, a B-Western star whose bad performance almost sinks the picture, and some of the plot machinations are synthetic and simplistic, but as a political statement it’s simply like nothing else seen on screen until John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the climactic irrigation sequence is one of the most thrilling, uplifting and arresting sequences in ‘30s cinema.
It wasn’t until John Ford adapted John Steinbeck’s titanic The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – a rare example of Code-era radicalism pushed through by Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, on the right of the political spectrum but a believer in telling stories the public wanted to hear – that a film dealt so frankly and powerfully with deprivation, or suggested socialism as the solution. The only solace that the Joad family find, when fleeing the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma for the fabled land of California, is in a camp run by the Roosevelt administration, Zanuck moving the sequence near the end of the picture so it could end on a note of hope, though not before Tom (Henry Fonda) delivers his extraordinary avowal of collectivism, one of the defining socialist statements of the 20th century:
“I'll be all around in the dark – I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build – I'll be there, too.”That unassailable classic was the climax of Ford’s ‘Popular Front’ period: though the director moved further to the right over subsequent decades, ending up as a supporter of Richard Nixon, in 1937 he described himself as “a socialist democrat – always left”. His 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach, which reinvigorated the moribund Western genre, was a thinly-veiled assault on the isolationism that FDR so vigorously opposed, with Berton Churchill (the crooked planter in Cabin in the Cotton, see Part 1) playing a xenophobic capitalist who claims that "what this country needs is a businessman as president", objects to state intervention in the market, and declares: “America for Americans!”
Berton Churchill as Donald Trump
2. Hollywood hits back: the birth of ‘fake news’ (1934)
“The American People will take Socialism, but they won't take the label."
Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 book, Oil! inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, some 80 years later, was also a socialist politician, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the early ‘20s and then twice for the governorship of Califonia. The second time – in 1934 – it was as a Democrat, and the signs augured well. His End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement had attracted phenomenal support, and would ultimately influence Roosevelt’s New Deal programme, and in the primary he received a staggering 436,000 votes, more than all of his other rivals campaign. His rival was incumbent Republican governor Frank Merriam, who had – with shades of Herbert Hoover – just called out the National Guard to shoot striking workers.
The studios, those monoliths of big business, were rattled (as, indeed, was William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul mentioned in Part 1). Mayer had threatened to move MGM to Florida if Sinclair won and, in common with the other dream factories, docked every member of his staff a day’s pay, giving all the money to Merriam. His immediate junior, Irving Thalberg, the wunderkind of MGM, went further. In the run-up to the election, he created three ‘newsreels’ – indistinguishable from the real thing, and screened in the place of genuine reports – in which actors posed as Sinclair and Merriam supporters. The current governor’s supporters were prosperous, intelligent, well-spoken and reasoned. His challenger’s backers were communists, African-American activists and the ‘bums’ supposedly flooding into the state in anticipation of a Sinclair victory. These were the first attack ads, and they were phenomenally successful.
Sinclair supporters rioted in the cinemas, Roosevelt kept his own counsel (having confirmed with Merriam that the governor would support the New Deal programme), and Merriam won. He took 48 per cent of the vote, ahead of Sinclair with 38 per cent and centrist Raymond L. Haight with 13, saying that the election was a “rebuke to socialism and communism”. Sinclair never sought office again. In 1951, he pointed to the success of EPIC and yet his own gubernatorial Waterloo, remarking with typical astuteness: “The American People will take Socialism, but they won't take the label.”
You can watch a clip from one of the newsreels here. I first saw them as uncredited, uncontextualised extras on a VHS of Our Daily Bread.
3. How Roosevelt broke Orson Welles... then broke Orson Welles (1936-42)
The Federal Art Project was one of the most astounding achievements of the New Deal, financially and creatively sustaining 10,000 writers, artists and craftsmen during the depths of the Great Depression. Though it was frequently used as a stick with which to beat the government, Roosevelt’s administration viewed the beneficiaries with sincerity and respect, taking their roles at face value. As one senior official bluntly put it: “Artists and writers have to live too.” The venture ran from 1935-43, creating 200,000 works of art – from murals to sculptures to photography projects documenting the New Deal – and launching the careers of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning (Robert Rauschenberg was later a notable beneficiary of the GI Bill), though its greatest success was in the early years, when it seemed to set the mood of the nation, and gave impoverished communities the chance to experience extraordinary works of art, which spoke of their lives, and featured people who looked like them. Perhaps the FPA’s single most successful event was Orson Welles’ legendary ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth, staged in Harlem in 1936, which transplanted the action to Haiti and featured an all-black cast, including Jack Carter and Canada Lee. It was a sensation, enrapturing the local community, attracting stellar (though not unanimous) reviews, and going on to tour the country, taking in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas, Texas. Welles was already in the ascendancy, but along with his modern-dress Julius Caesar, the production made his name, culminating in his RKO deal in 1940, which afforded him unprecedented creative freedom and led to his astounding debut feature, Citizen Kane.
The ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth is one of the few Welles stage triumphs captured partly on film, with four minutes of the action included in the Work Progress Administration documentary, We Work Again (1937). The same year, the WPA closed down Welles’ production of The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union work written by gay communist Marc Blitzstein, after a sustained attack on the play, the Federal Theatre Project and, by extension, the Roosevelt administration. On the first night, the audience marched from the original venue, the Maxine Elliot Theatre, to the larger Venice Theatre – booked at the 11th hour by Welles, Blitzstein and producer John Houseman – where they were joined by other members of the public, admitted free, to watch an impromptu production, with the composer playing the score at the piano, and the cast joining in from the house seats. This extraordinary, largely unplanned event was recreated in Tim Robbins’ exceptional 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, featuring Angus Macfadyen as Welles.
A 1937 rehearsal for The Cradle Will Rock.
Roosevelt’s most damaging intervention in Welles’ career, though, began with the best of intentions, as his government recruited (ordered) America’s hottest new director to direct a landmark documentary in Brazil as part of the Good Neighbour policy. The filming of It’s All True, which wasn’t released in Welles’ lifetime, became a debacle, and critically took the director out of America during the post-production phase of his second picture, the soon-to-be-notorious The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). With Welles unable to fight for his vision, his 148-minute epic was slashed to just 88 minutes, with the remaining footage dumped into the sea by the studio that had grown to loathe him. Welles would never be the same again. (I've written in great detail about the fate of Ambersons here).
Welles shooting It's All True in 1942.
4. Rom-communists and Russians (1933-44)
"They've made a rom-com about a communist. Don't mention it on the poster."
Prior to WWII, communists were figure of funs: shouty, silly men, either deluded or dishonest, who came around in the end once confronted with the virtue and basic common sense of The American Way. Even in the socially-progressive Heroes for Sale and the confrontational, uncategorisable Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (both 1933 and dealt with in Part 1), communists were a step too far, epitomised by Harry Langdon’s sad-eyed Egghead, and Robert Barrat’s pathetic ideologue, who ends up a ruthless entrepreneur (Barrat, as I’ve said, ended up being emblematic of the New Deal in Wild Boys of the Road two months later). Other stupid commies included the would-be assassin who takes up with a banker's wife in the risible rom-com He Stayed for Breakfast (1940), played somewhat embarrassingly by leading liberal activist Melvyn Douglas, and the loveably hapless Russian delegation in Ernst Lubitsch’s incomparable Ninotchka (1939), written by Billy Wilder. Though by 1961, Wilder would be firmly on the side of the capitalists in his bristling Berlin-set comic masterpiece, One, Two, Three, here both sides learn from one another, even if the reds are ultimately seduced by the quietly decadent beauty of Paris.
Cinema's cuddliest Stalin
Garbo’s famous line that there would be “fewer but better Russians”, though, wasn’t supported by state-sanctioned films dealing with Soviet Russia. Once the bear had waded into WWII on the Allied side, FDR’s administration encouraged the studios to start making pro-Russian pictures, which became critical pieces of evidence in the subsequent HUAC investigations into supposed communist infiltration of Hollywood. Among the most notorious are The Song of Russia (1944), starring noted red-baiter Robert Taylor, who denounced the film in committee, and Mission to Moscow (1943), a filmisation of US ambassador Joseph Davies’ diaries, which detailed his inability to see the notorious show trials of 1937 as just that: a travesty of justice, a relentless purge of Stalin’s party rivals, who were threatened, tortured and then forced to recount their supposed crimes in open session. The movie ends with Davies (Walter Huston, 10 years earlier the conduit for Walter Wanger’s fascist fantasies, see Part 1) telling the peace-loving Premier: "Mr Stalin, I believe history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.”
5. The Reich Stuff: Hollywood and the Nazis
Hollywood had a similarly complicated (i.e. dodgy) relationship with Nazi Germany, though here no executive pressure had been brought to bear – except that of the screen censor, Joseph Breen (see Part 1), who exploited the vagueness of one of the Hays Code’s ‘be carefuls’:
International relations (avoiding picturising in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry)to quash any anti-Nazi projects. His letter to Al Rosen, denying permission for the producer to pursue a project critical of Hitler entitled The Mad Dog of Europe, read:
Because of the large number of Jews active in the motion picture industry in this country, the charge is certain to be made that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler picture and using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes. The entire industry, because of this, is likely to be indicted for the action of a mere handful.Bizarrely and ironically, the script had been written by future Citizen Kane scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who – despite having Jewish heritage – was one of the most virulently anti-Semitic figures in the industry (The first volume of Simon Callow’s Welles biography deals with this issue at some length).
I'm sorry, this is not a convincing Nazi
On those rare occasions when Hollywood made films set in Germany, it tended to sidestep the issue completely. In Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1936), which features footage of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Games in Berlin, the teutonic police force weren’t virulent racists, merely officious, old-fashioned types who looked like Kaiser Wilhelm. Studios, afraid of losing the lucrative German market even though all except Fox were run by Jewish businessmen, were happy to oblige, and MGM put pressure on the great and unspoken Myrna Loy to apologise, after she criticised Hitler and her movies were banned. She refused, because she was a badass.
It wasn’t until 1939 (1939!) – 12 months after Breen had followed the Pope's lead in denouncing Nazism, and with the War in Europe breaking – that the censor allowed anti-Nazi pictures to pass, beginning with Warner’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and then Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm (1940) over at MGM, the world’s richest and most powerful film studio. That was the first American movie to deal with domestic life in the Third Reich, though it doesn’t say the word “Nazi” at any point, and nor does it say the word “Jew” (the Roth family, central to the story, are referred to only as “non-Aryans”, which seems almost more inflammatory). Upon seeing it, Hitler, with his customary good grace, immediately banned all MGM films, past, present and future.
"It's not the *most* exciting picture, but it's- oh."
He didn’t hold a grudge, though (he did sometimes, just not here). He was a huge fan of American cinema – his favourite movie was that classic of imperial derring do, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1936) – and later announced an intention to use Clark Gable in German propaganda films, after the Nazis’ inevitable triumph over the US. Goebbels would surely have concurred, being a huge fan of It Happened One Night (1934) (“A funny, lively American film from which we can learn a lot, The Americans are so natural. Far superior to us,” he wrote in his diary). Meanwhile, he added Myrna Loy to his list of post-victory victims.
6. Fala games: FDR on screen
Myrna Loy (second right, eating cake) with Eleanor, Gene Kelly, Ronnie Lake and others, January 1945.
Loy was oft-cited as FDR’s #1 movie pin-up, and was also an activist for the Democratic Party, counting Eleanor Roosevelt among her closest political friends. The president watched movies twice-weekly in a private screening room at the White House, and will have seen himself depicted in quite a few films of the period, from a Three Stooges’ short, Cash and Carry (1937), to an Oscar-winning musical. (John Ford never included him as a character, though, he was too busy making umpteen films about Abraham Lincoln.)
In 1941, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland performed ‘FDR Jones’ – a song actually written at the low point of the president’s popularity in 1938 – as part of their musical extravaganza, Babes on Broadway. The number celebrated/satirised the then-common practice of African-American families naming a newborn after the Commander-in-Chief, and while it’s heartfelt in its celebration of FDR, it seems sneery, snide and a bit racist, an impression not improved by it being performed in blackface.
Glad to see the back of him: 'The President' in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The following year, FDR was a character in the George M. Cohan biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), which was intended to rehabilitate James Cagney’s career after accusations of communism (in 1933, the actor had described Stalin as “the greatest man in the world”). In a deeply moving framing sequence, FDR – played by Jack Young, who’s shown only from behind, as if he were God – awards Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal (this did really happen, though in 1936, not 1942). Young would ultimately play the president six times on screen, including in Edge of Darkness (1943), Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon (1941), the all-star musical This Is the Army (1943) and Mission to Moscow (1943) (see above), though the others were all voice cameos. The scene in which Cagney – as Cohan – plays FDR on stage, sees the president depicted as an all-singing, all-dancing premier: Roosevelt’s infirmity wasn’t common knowledge during his lifetime.
One of the cutesiest, most unconvincing invocations of Franklin D. was in Princess O’Rourke (1943), an embryonic version of Roman Holiday in which European princess Olivia De Havilland falls in love with serving soldier Robert Cummings. This being wartime, it ends happily (and stupidly), with FDR inviting the pair to stay at the White House, where his dog Fala (played by one-time actor, Whiskers) helps to engineer a happy ending. The picture climaxes with the president summoning a Supreme Court judge to perform the ceremony, and Cummings accidentally tipping Roosevelt on the way out, mistaking him for a butler. Well I said it was stupid.
These FDR-on-film projects are fairly anodyne, and most were made during the war, when a president's politics become relatively unimportant, and he is simply a leader (in FDR's case, as in Churchill's, a leader who has offered an olive branch, and appointed his old political adversaries to his cabinet). The exception to all this is The President’s Mystery (1936), an important and enduring movie, and the only film ‘written’ by a serving president! This fascinating snapshot of the mid-‘30s political scene credits its story to FDR, who as an avid fan of mysteries had posited a poser to the popular short story publication, Liberty Magazine, asking:
"How can a man disappear with five million dollars in any negotiable form and not be traced?"Seven writers, including Philo Vance creator S. S. Van Dine, contributed a chapter each to a story, which was loosely adapted into the low-budget film (proceeds from which went to the Warm Springs Facility for sufferers of polio, which the president had established in Georgia). In a post-modern touch, the lead character here gets the inspiration to fake his own death from that very magazine story!
Henry Wilcoxon plays James Blake, a corporate lawyer for National Canneries, who's sent down to Washington to destroy a progressive bill that would have given co-operatives a more level playing field on which to face big business (represented, naturally, by the snide, ruddy-faced Sidney Blackmer). While on a fishing trip, Blake comes face to face with the victims of his lobbying: dirt-poor workers and the pretty factory owner trying to keep their cannery open after her father's death at the hands of the Depression. Seeing the story in Liberty, he decides to leave his old life for a new one, but his plans are complicated by the sudden death of his adulterous wife (Evelyn Brent).
Frank Nugent, who went on to pen some of John Ford's best postwar films, was then a film critic for the New York Times, and embraced the film's relevance and thoughtfulness, saying: "It is so unusual to find a motion picture attuned to any serious aspect of the contemporary national scene that 'The President's Mystery,' now at the Globe, deserves to be treated as something more than just another melodrama."
And while it has some scruffy plotting and cartoonish comedy that rubs up awkwardly alongside its more serious intentions, although it's only available nowadays in a 53-minute version (as opposed to the 80-minute original cut), it is a passionate, confident, rousing film, with a left-leaning perspective uncommon in the Code era, which is critical of Wall Street, of lobbyists and of the intrinsic selfishness and greed of big business. Though FDR had commenced his presidency with a tone that encouraged Hollywood it could make progressive, hard-hitting films, by 1936 the Hays Code – as heavy-handedly enforced by Joseph Breen – had largely taken the teeth out of the tiger.
Perhaps it's hard, though, to insist that a script is too radical and must make concessions when the story was made up by the president.
It has a little of Capra in the run on the cannery – crystallising the notion that only fear can harm a harmonious, co-operative community – and its portait of Blake's growth from a lost, cynical husk, old before his time, to a virile, noble leader of men is persuasive and thrilling:
Compare too his closing peroration to that of Cabin in the Cotton, which just prior to FDR's election hedged every bet it made.
"This place isn't only yours," Blake says. "It belongs to thousands of poverty-stricken towns with their men and women on relief. Now they demand the right to work for a decent living and it's up to you boys to help 'em to get it. This idea is bigger than any one man. I can't help you, nor can National Canneries or anyone else stop you, not if you work together."
And then he places the leftist co-operation of the New Deal in the proud and pioneering American tradition. Men died to forge these towns, saying: "This factory is now a fort in a new frontier."
7. How Deanna Durbin fought Tammany Hall: further viewing
For those who wants to dig a little deeper (or, indeed a little wider), here are a few other movies casting light on the world that FDR occupied:
All the King’s Men (1949) is the story of a rabble-rousing, crusading and crooked populist, patterned after Roosevelt’s old sparring partner Huey Long. Long, one of the most important progressive voices of the ‘30s, was partly responsible for FDR’s tack to the left (the president trying to out-flank his rival, whose Share the Wealth programme was simply a phenomenon). He was assassinated in 1935.
The Best Man (1964) provides perhaps the most insightful, incisive look at the smoke-filled rooms and packed halls of the Democratic National Convention, and of the finagling, bottling and compromising that goes on there. It’s lit by Lee Tracy’s miraculous comeback performance as a weary former president (patterned after FDR’s successor, Harry Truman), above. Advise and Consent (1962) does something similar with the Senate, marshalling an extraordinary cast of Golden Age veterans, including Franchot Tone, who hadn’t been this good in decades. Medium Cool (1969), shot partly at the Democratic National Convention of 1968, is New Hollywood’s version of The Best Man: elliptical, fragmented and fatalistic.
This film is rubbish.
FDR spent years fighting with New York's Tammany Hall, the working-class Catholic ‘machine’ that genuinely campaigned for social justice, but did so from the mire of industrial-grade corruption. In 1948, Deanna Durbin starred in a very bad musical-comedy (!) about Tammany in the 1870s, Up in Central Park, co-starring Vincent Price as a crooked politician. When Durbin quit movies saying that her final four films had been “indefensible”, this was one of the movies she had in mind. By contrast, The Last Hurrah (1958), directed by John Ford, is a deeply sensitive, reflective take on similar subject matter, with a fine feel for old time politics. Spencer Tracy plays Frank Skeffington, who rose from dire poverty in the Irish ghetto to becomes mayor of a New England city, aided by the Catholic machine. The film’s profundity is somewhat undercut by Ford’s crass treatment of his younger characters (Ford seemed to regard his son’s generation as callow, gutless and idiotic), but it has some fine moments.
Two films written by Donald Ogden Stewart, from a Philip Barry play, directed by George Cukor and starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn seem to epitomise the battle for America’s soul going on during the 1930s and early ‘40s. Holiday (1938), filmed first in 1930, is the New Deal philosophy of empathy, exploration and spiritual advancement wrapped up in a deeply beautiful rom-com. The Philadelphia Story (1940), by contrast, belittles a boring, nouveau riche duffer for being a ‘man of the people’ (John Howard) and has his wife (Hepburn) elope with an aristocratic yacht designer (Grant) on her wedding day. Frank Capra’s mid-‘30s films (all written by Robert Riskin), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington all seemed to reflect the FDR ethos to some degree. Riskin was a socially-conscious liberal, in contrast to his director, a conservative Republican who opposed government intervention in the economic meltdown of the early 1930s.
Finally, Philippe Mora’s 1975 documentary, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime is essential for anyone interested in the things I’ve been talking about: an impressive, impressionistic and immersive collage of the Depression and its aftermath, arranged in roughly chronological order and mixing newsreel footage with classic movie clips, the majority from Warner – the studio most pre-occupied with the real world – and many featuring Jimmy Cagney, who's used as a recurring character. It gets across, like little else I've seen, the feel of the '30s: a world in flux, with its poverty, violence, confusion and raw ideological fervour, its vivid contrasts, a decade where fantasy and reality clashed, as contemporary concerns bled into movies, and movie stars came out to endorse politicians. And it's chock-full of classic Franklin D. Roosevelt speeches, America's greatest president providing a virtual narration: idealistic, flavourful and funny.
Thanks for reading.