Motion Pictures and
Propaganda



On April 21, 1898-the day the United States Congress declared war against Spain-two New York City motion picture entrepreneurs sat in their office looking down upon the jubilant crowds filling the city streets, waving the American flag, and shouting nationalistic slogans. The two men realized their country was ready for a strong dose of instant patriotism. Within a few hours, the entrepreneurs assembled a film crew and hacked out a one-reel film entitled Tearing Down the Spanish Flag.Soon, thousands of New Yorkers sat in makeshift theaters at vaudeville houses, watching Vitagraph Company's version of the seizure of a Spanish government installation in Havana by U.S. Army troops-an event that was, historically, many weeks away. For the viewers, the fact that the film was entirely fictitious did not matter. Through the flickering images, moviegoers fulfilled their desires for adventure and victory, and rejoyced in the military prowess of the United States. Thus began the relationship of motion pictures and propaganda. (1)

During the early years of the twentieth century, the motion picture industry slowly developed new techniques and skill. By 1917, the year the United States entered the Great War in Europe, the industry had reached a level of sophistication. 1917 saw the beginning of a barrage of anti-German, propagandistic films. Cecil B. De Mille produced Joan the Woman,The Little American, and Till I Come Back to You-all of which depicted the Huns as barbaric,uncivilized, and depraved men who only wanted to violate America's sweetheart, Mary Pickford. Other studios and directors followed suit. When World War II ended in November, 1918, American moviegoers had seen dozens of silent films justifying the United States' intervention in the global conflict. Audiences had cheered in unison as they watched reel after reel of American doughboys defeating the Germans, and had lived vicariously their nation's great triumph.

Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, the motion picture industry grew by leaps and bounds. War folms were replaced with westerns, comedies, adventures-escapist entertainment for a nation faced with ever-growing economic depression. As times grew harder, movies became more popular, offering a relatively inexpensive way to forget one's troubles. In the 1930s, more than 80 million people a week went to the movies to see their favorite stars in an escapist role. Gradually, some films depicting a more somber view of WWI emerged, such as All Quiet On the Western Front. For the most part, however, propaganda and war films remained virtually absent from the screen during the inter-war period. America's love afair with Hollywood grew, and movie stars became idols. This was the era of lavish film epics, like Gone With the Wind.


Original movie poster from Gone With the Wind(2)



Moviegoers outside a theater in Washington D.C., 1939 (3)
Library of Congress digital ID fsa8a31535

With the start of the 1940s, the war in Europe drew ever nearer to American shores. Try as it might to perpetuate the escapist fantasy of the 1930s, Hollywood grew ever more awaare of the impending conflict. It became time for Hollywood to once again take up the propagandist role. A few propaganda films began to inch onto the screens, taking potshots at the old German nemisis. These early attempts invoked the wrath of congressional isolationists. On September 9, 1941, a battle began between the best talent in Hollywood and the U.S. Senate as isolationists sought to curb the interventionalist tone Hollywood had begun to take. The hearings adjourned after three weeks, but the debate about what role Hollywood should play in propaganda continued. In October of 1941, Senate Resolution 152 was enacted, calling for thourough and complete investigation of any film propaganda.

The debate ended on December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. entered a period of massive homefront mobilization. This mobilization effort permeated all aspects of American society, from industry to entertainment. President Roosevelt cited Hollywood for its role during the wartime period, claiming that the motion picture was the most effective medium to inform the nation. By June of 1942, the Office of War Information had become the official guardian of the film industry, supervising the Hollywood propaganda machine. Studios churned out countless movies glorifying the war, the men who served in it, and the American homefront which supported them. At the same time, other films reminded the moviegoer of what the fighting was for: the preservation of American culture and history. Hollywood stars set examples, joined the services and went on USO tours, sold bonds, and promoted scrap drives. When World War II ended, the film industry could congradulate itself for a job well done. Hollywood went to war for the mobilization effort, and returned victorious.


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