Friday, May 9, 2008

Five Years Before HUAC

Fox Movie Channel are airing Gentleman's Agreement at 8:00 PM ET on May 9 as part of their "Fox Legacy" series, where they air a prominent Fox movie three times in succession, with an introduction by studio exec Tom Rothman, every Friday night. Gentleman's Agreement is, of course, the movie in which Gregory Peck plays a writer who pretends to be Jewish in order that he can document the rampant anti-Semitism in post-World War II America.

I was thinking about writing a post in conjunction with the airing of the movie on Hollywood's ambivalent views towards Jews. As I understand it, many studio executives were uncomfortable with the idea of Fox producing and releasing this movie. (Although, in their defense, this may be in part a desire not to rock the boat instead of pure anti-Semitism; there was a great reluctance to release The Lost Weekend two years earlier.) Also, back in the 1940s, a lot of Jewish people in Hollywood -- and there was a not insubstantial number of them -- downplayed their Jewish identity, as it was thought that moviegoers in the rest of America didn't want obviously "ethnic" people as stars. ("Ethnic", of course, means "not Northern European"; fans had no problems with the obviously non-Anglo Ingrid Bergman.) There was also the infamous agreement that Hollywood studios (except for Warners) had made with Nazi Germany, which in part made them testify that they were using only "Aryan" cast members in their productions. All this despite the relatively high proportion of Jews in Hollywood.

In doing some research on the topic, however, I also stumbled upon a very interesting historical incident I had known nothing about: in 1941, Montana Senator Burton Wheeler, one of the leaders of the isolationist "America First" movement, helped bring a Senate investigation into the production by Hollywood of movies that were, it felt, propaganda trying to get the US into World War II on the side of Great Britain. The ironic thing is that the Hollywood moguls had, like the cultural elites in the UK, ignored the Nazi threat for a long time, not making any strongly anti-Nazi movies until about 1939, and even these limited first steps caused internal controversy.

One other claim the author makes is interesting; namely, that the same philosophical strain that led to the 1941 Senate investigation led to the investigation of Hollywood by the Un-American Activities Committees after World War II. Both committees, as well as those in the early 1930s that led to Hollywood's "voluntarily" enforcing the Production Code, were led by "progressives" (of the Bull Moose/Bob LaFollette type) who feared what they saw as the concentration of power, whether it be in the hands of business trusts (which latter-day "progressives" still fear), or in the hands of an unelected government bureaucracy that could be infiltrated by subversives. There had already been one Red Scare in the early 1920s, after all.

I don't want to get in a political discussion here, especially not on the topic of the HUAC of the late 1940s and early 1950s which led to the blacklist. My real motivation for this post is that the 1941 investigation was something completely new to me; indeed, while quite a bit is made of the morals squads of the early 1930s who drove the strict enforcement of the Production Code, and much more talk is given to the 1950s investigations, very little is said about the 1941 investigation. To be fair, of course, a lot of this has to do with the march of time. The committee had really only begun their work, and were in recess, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (one big quibble about the linked paper is that it dates the Pearl Harbor attack to December 6, making me wonder if there are other errors in the paper). Naturally, after the attack, and America's entry into the war, almost nobody had any problem with Hollywood's supporting the war effort.

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