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Lion Feuchtwanger and the Fall of France, June 1940

Downloaded 3 July 2020

Nazi dictated Armistice signed on 22 June 1940 at Compiegne, France

Eighty years ago, the German Wehrmacht began its invasion of France and Benelux (10 May 1940), surrounding British and French forces at Dunkirk, and occupying Paris on 14 June. It was a staggering defeat for the French, whose military simply collapsed almost without a fight, leading to the signing of a Nazi dictated Armistice on 22 June in a railroad car at Compiégne. Adolf Hitler insisted on the location, because it was where the German Imperial Army agreed to the 1918 Armistice, where the nation had been “stabbed in the back.” The terms of the Armistice allowed the Germans to occupy all of northern France, the country’s Atlantic coast and hinterlands, while southern France remained in the hands of a new proto-Fascist French government at Vichy, headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, while the Provence and most of Savoy were occupied by Italy, which had declared war after the French capitulated. The French government had imprisoned thousands of anti-Nazi Germans, Austrians and other Central Europeans in internment camps as early as September 1939, but the Armistice now called for the Vichy French to deliver these “enemies of Germany” to the Nazis for deportation to Concentration Camps. Among those interned were countless, German-Jewish writers and intellectuals, including Lion Feuchtwanger.

Although most Americans don’t necessarily remember the name today, Lion Feuchtwanger was one of the most successful German writers of the first half of the 20th century. Born in Munich in 1884, Feuchtwanger came to prominence in 1925 when he published the novel, Jud Süss, translated into 17 languages, and available in English under the title Power (1926). Subsequent novels, including Success (1930), Josephus (1932), The Oppermanns (1933), The Jew of Rome (1935), The Pretender (1936), and Paris Gazette (1940), were all best-sellers in translation for Viking Press. Meanwhile, the Nazis burned all of Feuchtwanger’s books on 10 May 1933, declaring him “No. 1 Enemy of the People,” and ransacking his Berlin villa, destroying his priceless library. Feuchtwanger was on an American book tour at the time, which allowed him to relocate with his wife, Marta, to Sanary-sur-mer, near Toulon in Southern France. With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Feuchtwanger was interned by the French at Les Milles, near Aix-en-Provence, but released after 10 days, due to international protests. He was imprisoned there for a second time on 24 May 1940. The story of his internment and miraculous escape were published in his book, The Devil in France. My Encounter with Him in the Summer of 1940 (Viking Press, 1941), which was republished by USC Libraries in 2012.

Rainer Ehrt, “Les réfugiés de Sanary-sur-Mer, Midi”, 2018.
German emigres in exile in Sanary-sur-Mer: On the quay wall on the left Egon Erwin Kisch and Marta Feuchtwanger Sitting in the front row from left: Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Katia Mann, Heinrich Mann, René Schickele, Julius Maier-Graefe, Alma Mahler-Werfel, Franz Werfel In the second row from the left: Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger, Friedrich Wolf, Christiane Grautoff, Ernst Toller, Erika Mann, Nelly Man, Klaus Mann, Golo Mann, Hermann Kesten, Joseph Roth.

Given his extremely exposed position, and the certainty that war was an inevitable consequence of Hitler’s lust for power, why hadn’t Feuchtwanger left France sooner? He may have been lulled by Sanary’s amazing community of German exiles that included Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, Erwin Piscator, Arnold Zweig, Ernst Toller, and Klaus Mann, among others. His income allowed him to live anywhere, but as Feuchtwanger noted in The Devil in France:  “What held me was the pervasive comfort of living in Sanary, the beauty of the place, my well-fashioned house, my beloved library, the familiar frame of my work that suited me and my methods down to the last detail, the hundred little nothings of our life there that had become dear habits which would have been painful to give up.” (p. 30) Feuchtwanger would recreate that environment from scratch, down to the world-class library, in Pacific Palisades, CA., moving into the Villa Aurora in 1943.

Les Milles Internment Camp

The internment camp at Les Milles was nothing more than an abandoned brickyard, where thousands of internees slept on bare dirt floors in a three story factory with broken windows, but spent their days and meals outside under the hot unforgiving sun. The latrines were dugouts, there was no place to wash and water was so scarce that it had to be used for drinking only. These conditions worsened, as more prisoners arrived once the French decided to arrest all Czech and Austrian nationals, even those who had become French citizens or had been in the Foreign Legion. According to Feuchtwanger, this horrendous situation was not a product of French maliciousness, or any deliberate intent, but rather the (French) “Devil of Untidiness, of Unthougtfulness, of Sloth-in-Good-Will, of Convention, of Routine, the very Devil to whom the French have given the motto, ‘je m’n fous’ = ‘I don’t give a damn.’ (p. 53)”

Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger in Pacific Palisades, CA.

On the day the Armistice was signed, Feuchtwanger and other internees were put on a train, which traveled to Toulouse, then to Bayonne on the Atlantic (where it was rumored they would be handed over to the Wehrmacht), then back East to Nimes, where they were deposited in an open field surrounded by barbed wire and kept there for months in makeshift tents. With the help of the American Consul in Marseilles, Hiram Bingham, Feuchtwanger flees and is hidden in the Consul’s home, while his wife, Marta, escapes from an internment camp at Gurs and joins him. After an attempted escape by ship from Marseilles fails in August, the Feuchtwangers travel to Cerbère on the French Spanish border in September 1940, accompanied by Waitsell Sharp, an American Unitarian minister with Red Cross papers. From there, the party climb by foot over the Pyrenees, illegally cross the border, and then make their way to Lisbon. Even though Lisbon is crawling with Nazi spies with orders to kill the novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger manages to board a ship for New York with an American visa under the name of Wetcheek (a literal translation of his last name). Marta follows two weeks later on another ship.

After World War II, Lion Feuchtwanger was hounded by the FBI as a supposed “premature anti-Fascist” with leftist sympathies and denied American citizenship in 1948.  Feuchtwanger died in Los Angeles in 1958, followed by Marta in 1987. Feuchtwanger’s Villa Aurora is now a German Cultural Center.

Villa Aurora

German writer Walter Hasenclever was not so lucky. He committed suicide in Les Milles the day the Armistice was signed, while Walter Benjamin, fearing being returned to France after being arrested by the Spanish police in the Pyrenees, hanged himself on 26 September, a week after the Feuchtwangers had passed the very same location. Robert Liebmann, Weimar Germany’s most successful scriptwriter, was arrested in Paris by the French police, sent to the Drancy Internment Camp, and eventually transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered in July 1942.  Nearly 75,000 French, German, and Polish Jews were deported by the French to Nazi Germany and almost certain death. Not until 1995 did the French government apologize for its role in the Holocaust.

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Rounded-up foreign Jews in Paris in August 1941, Courtesy Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

Archival Spaces 245

50th Anniversary, The Strawberry Statement (1970)

Downloaded 19 June 2020

The Strawberry Statement (1970, Stuart Hagmann), based on a bestselling book by James S. Kunen, premiered 50 years ago on 15 June 1970. That academic year I was a college freshman in Athens, Ohio, where reading the novel was de rigeur. as were other youth movement favorites, including One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest (1962, Ken Kesey), Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966, Richard Fariña), Getting Straight (1967, Ken Kolb), and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968, Tom Wolfe). I read them all, was active in the peace movement, travelling to Washington in November 1969. Early March saw large demonstrations at Ohio U. against a planned tuition hike, where local farm boys were given badges and billy clubs to beat up students. Two months later, the University closed prematurely, due to four days of partially violent anti-war demonstrations, in the wake of the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State killings at our sister school. Naturally, I had to see the movie, The Strawberry Statement.

Starring Bruce Davidson, Kim Darby, and Bud Cort, Statement’s locale was moved by Hollywood from Columbia University, the site of book’s action to a fictitious university in Stockton, CA, representing San Francisco State, a hotbed of student radicalism at that time. In the film, an apolitical male student joins campus protests, because he is getting a lot of sex meeting young women at demonstrations. Even though the film won a Jury Prize at Cannes, The Strawberry Statement flopped miserably, attacked by American critics and shunned by under 30 audiences as completely inauthentic. With a production budget of $ 1.5 million, the film’s domestic gross amounted to $ 804,274, a $ 2 million loss, if you add advertising costs. For me and my friends, the film was a typical Hollywood cop-out, which disappointed as much as the studio adaptations Getting Straight (1970, Richard Rush) and Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1971, Jeffrey Young) would be. In truth, I remember very little about The Strawberry Statement, except for the climactic scene which featured John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band performing “Give Peace a Chance,” while riot police toss tear gas and beat up students.

The Strawberry statement would hardly be worth a mention, much less a blog, except for the fact that the film had a strange afterlife. In the Communist German Democratic Republic, of all places, a dubbed version became a huge box office hit, a symbol of resistance for young people living under East Berlin’s authoritarian regime. I first heard this story from Prof. Jörg Schweinitz, who had grown up in East Germany and I met at a conference in Leipzig in 2016. He later sent me an article, published in 2010 in an anthology on film reception, “Ein amerikanischer Spielfilm als ‹Kultfilm› in der DDR” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278749912_Ein_amerikanischer_Spielfilm_als_Kultfilm_in_der_DDR_1968_The_Strawberry_Statement_und_die_Dialektik_der_Rezeption). According to Schweinitz, the West German synchronized version of Strawberry, Blutige Erdberren (Bloody Strawberries), premiered in the GDR on 3 March 1973. While West Germans have no cultural memory of the film, hardly any East German who entered adulthood in the 1970s has forgotten it, many having viewed it multiple times. Even after German reunification, the “cult film” remained popular in the East, a worn out 35mm print playing weekly for years in an East Berlin cinema. As late as 2003, the German distributor purchased a new print, specifically for screenings in East Germany.

For Germans born in the GDR in the postwar period to 1960, The Strawberry Statement became a part of their collective imaginary, identifying them as community, much as The Rocky Horror Show (1975) functioned for British and American kids coming of age around the same time. The question is why? Schweinitz notes that the GDR under Erich Honecker was going through a particularly repressive period, during which the Communist government rigorously controlled all aspects of daily life, especially public media. The Strawberry Statement offered youth there a vision of sexual liberation, “a playfulness, desire to break out, youthful romance, moral commitment, and gentle irony” (Schweinitz, p. 459), so completely different from the humorlessness and prudishness of Stalinist bureaucrats. The film’s soundtrack alone, featuring rock stars John Lennon, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Young, Buffy St. Marie, and Thunderclap Newman, presented songs that were unavailable for purchase and could only be heard on West German radio.

Like Cat Ballou (1965), To Sir With Love (1967), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), The Strawberry Statement was one of the few American films purchased by the Communist state film distributor for screening in the GDR. One can speculate that the government thought the film’s unflattering view of the United States fit in with its anti-American policy. But as Schweinitz notes, the reception context is everything. Whereas American youth saw the film as a disingenuous product of Hollywood fantasy, East Germans viewed the film in an environment of a repressive regime. East German youth clearly identified with the students in The Strawberry Statement, seeing their (sexual) revolution for the hell of it in stark contrast to the tired, old revolutionary slogans of their elders, and offering them a powerful fantasy of liberation.

Kristen Van Buren and Bruce Davison in The Strawberry Statement (1970)

Given the film’s importance in the collective imaginary of his generation, Schweinitz makes the final theoretical point that we must modify our parochial notions of national cinema, including not just domestic productions, but also widely distributed foreign titles, if we are to understand how cinema enters into our cultural memory. I would add that moving image archivists should probably be preserving dubbed versions of foreign language films that have had a demonstratively similar impact on the collective imaginary, a practice that is rarely implemented at the moment.

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Archival Spaces 244

Orphan Film Symposium Online 2020

Uploaded  5 June 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Orphan Symposium, which was to be held in Amsterdam from 23-26 May, was moved online via Vimeo, beginning Tuesday, May 26th and continuing for four days. The original interrelated Symposium themes, “Water, Climate, and Migration” were kept for the live streamed version, although I’m assuming the event was slightly abridged, given time constraints and rights issues. For Orphan founder and organizer Dan Streible, Professor at New York University’s Moving Image Archive Program (MIAP), however, it was no small feat to move online, after almost a year of planning with the Eye Institute in Amsterdam, the Symposium’s announced host. Thanks to former MIAP students, Paula Suárez, now Director of the Mexican documentary group, Ambulante, and Walter Forsberg, the Symposium was able to piggy back on Ambulante’s online film festival infrastructure, ably assisted by Edgar Domínguez and Manuel Guerrero. As a result, the Orphan Symposium ran like clockwork, except for a few minor streaming glitches, and was rewarded with an online audience of usually more than 100 participants for any individual event.

Being on West Coast time, I missed the first morning’s live stream, although I didn’t actually know it initially, because I mistakenly watching a couple pre-recorded presentations, including a 1911 Thanhauser film about death and destruction caused when the Bayless Damn broke in Austin, Pennsylvania. By the afternoon session I had gotten into the groove, although it wasn’t until the next day that I figured out how to get into the simultaneous chat room (on the left side of the screen), which was a really great feature, because it allowed all the participants to comment, ask questions, and communicate with each other, as the presentations were unfolding, making for an extremely lively and interactive experience. For those that missed the Symposium, some of the films and presentations are still available (https://vimeo.com/user5490513).

If the Antarctic Ice Cap Should Melt? (1929, Fox Newsreel)

One of the most iconic images of the Symposium, seen repeatedly in the opening trailer, was of the Statute of Liberty sinking into the ocean, an image taken from a 1929 Fox newsreel outtake, If the Antarctic Ice Cap Should Melt?, introduced by MIAP students Shiyang Jiang, Zoe Yang, & Zhen Lai. Apparently never published at the time for being too phantasmagoric, 90 years later the image has become very real. Water as both a life-sustaining and hostile force informed other interventions, including Thanhouser’s Thirty Leagues under the Sea (1914), William Beebe’s Bathysphere in Haiti and Bermuda (1927-1934), Heinrich Hauser’s The Aran Islands (1928), and Les Blank’s The Ways of Water (1971).

Ironically, Tuesday afternoon began with Linda Tadic of Digital Bedrock discussing the adverse environmental impact of digital archives (and by extension) the digital infrastructure that made the Symposium possible. While we often assume that digital is “clean,” it in fact leaves a huge carbon footprint from tons of ewaste containing heavy metals to extreme energy needs for cloud servers. Digital technology does come at a cost to the planet, just as previous forms of modernization have.

Becoming Ocean (2018, Scott F. Foley)

In just how the present ecological disaster is taking its total on all forms of human life was visualized by Eiren Caffall in a brave and shocking film.  In Becoming Ocean (2018), she maps planetary climate change onto her own body in painful detail: she has a rare kidney disease and is “drowning” from within. That Caffall has outlived doctor’s predictions for decades, suggests a ray of hope for the earth.

Countdown to Collision (1972)

That became clear watching Jennifer Lynn Peterson’s presentation of two 1927 National Parks Service films on road building, Wheels of Change andRoads in Our National Parks, which both still exuded an optimism about future development. The Public Health Service’s Sources of Air Pollution (1962) and Countdown to Collision (1972) offered nearly apocalyptic and surprisingly prescient visions of our present ecological crisis. The latter film contains an ingenious scene of someone peeling off layers and layers of packaging, capturing in a visual nutshell our religion of waste. Equally prescient, if more depressing, was Rolf Forsberg’s short fiction film, Ark (1970), in which a man attempts to create a sustainable biosphere in an industrial wasteland, where survival is only possible with a respirator and a clear plastic hazmat suit, only to have it destroyed by other humans. Wildlife conservation and the anthropocene was also the subject of a group of silent era German nature films (Bird Images at Feather Lake, Around the World in 2 Hours, 1914-15), the former title featuring Lena Hähnle (1851-1941), an early leader in nature conservation,, as well as Western Greenland (1935) .

Leni Haehnle
Western Greenland (1935)

A completely different perspective on water was offered by Charles Musser and Walter Forsberg who presented the Union Films production of The Case of the Fisherman (1947), a previously lost film, recently found in the Pearl Bowser Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Shot in San Pedro, CA. for CIO’s fisherman’s union, the film countered the government’s suit to convict the union of Sherman Anti-Trust violations,  claiming the fisherman were businessmen, rather than workers engaged in collective bargaining. Given the virtual disappearance of a fishing industry in San Pedro, the film seems as anachronistic as the following film, the Soviet Let’s Get Acquainted (ca. 1972), which visualized fresh water fisherman in a pre-industrial never-never-land. On the other hand, Fisherman’s discourse on labor issues is as relevant today as ever.

Case of the Fisherman (1947, Carl Marzani, Union Films)

Labor, but also migration, informed the somewhat strange, industrial film, Hands Across the Border (1963), made by the Great Western Sugar Company about the so-called “Braceros,” Mexican workers imported by the agricultural industry from the 1940s to 1964. As presenter Jessie Lerner noted of this new digital restoration, the film is tinged with racism, even as it tries to assuage the white fear of brown people. Equally disturbing for their revelation of subconscious societal racism were Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness (1933), which treated aboriginal people as fauna, Schwertmühle  (1967-69), about migrants living in Germany in temporary displaced persons housing from the 1940s, and the Swedish, Medical Age Assessment (2017), whose subject were Middle Eastern émigrés.

Polish Settlements in the Brazilian Wilderness (1933)

However, the Orphan Film Symposium 2020 offered not only darkness, but also light in the guise of a series of remarkable avant-garde films, including Helen Hill Award winners Martha Colburn and Jaap Pieters, as well as the films of Tatjana Ivančić, Zora Lathan, and a sneak preview of Bill Morrison’s in progress The Village Detective. Apart from the films still available on line, I should mention the great Orphan Symposium blogs, which can be read at https://wp.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/.   

Martha Colburn’s My Secret Shame

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Archival Spaces 243

Hugo Haas’ The White Sickness (1937) restored; a Plague Allegory

Uploaded 22 May 2020

Thanks to my archivist colleague and friend, Adrian Wood, I learned that the Národní filmový archive in Prague has restored Bílá nemoc (1937) from the original nitrate negative (the sound came from a nitrate print) and made it available online on their You-Tube channel with English subtitles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJMUIBEzYnI).  An adaptation of a play by Karel Čapek, The White Sickness or Skeleton on Horseback, as it was called in the United States, was one of the few films my dad consistently mentioned to me when we talked about films that he remembered from his youth. I was also interested in the film, because it was directed by Hugo Haas, who fled Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation in 1939 – he was Jewish – and had an interesting career in Hollywood as an actor and low budget filmmaker, one of many Central European refugees. Finally seeing the film, I realized that it visualized a world-wide pandemic as a political allegory.

BILA NEMOC (1937)

The film opens with a superimposition of soldiers marching towards the camera and a camera moving in  to a balcony where “the Marshall” gives a bellicose speech, while a large crowd cheers below; he declares the nation ready to enlarge the country’s borders by force.  The camera then pans down over the crowd, where we see a bearded gentleman, who we learn later is Dr. Galen, turning away. In the following scene, the camera tracks horizontally from a crucifix to medical charts hanging above bedposts, as patients below muse off camera about their illness which first appears as a form of leprosy with white dermatological spots , but inevitably leads to death. Hugo Haas thus sets up through contrasting camera movement two harbingers of death: 1.) An unnamed fascist regime that glorifies war rather than peace, consciously symbolizing Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany; 2) A highly communicable,  mysterious and deadly disease, for which there is no apparent cure and which originates in China and is expanding to a world-wide pandemic through hand-shaking. Fascism sacrifices the youth of humanity, the virus kills the elderly who are usually responsible for making wars, i.e. war is like the virus. Indeed, we never see the concrete manifestations of the disease, just as the war itself remains hidden off screen, amplifying the allegorical nature of the narrative.

Dr. Galen (Hugo Haas), who we see in the first scene, has found a cure, but he is not ready to make it public, unless the Marshall and other world leaders agree to forsake their armies and all wars. Instead, he only treats the poor who are unable to pay and are most often the victims of war.  The ensuing conflict rages between the forces of the military-industrial complex which are unwilling to give up war profits for peace, and the doctor who steadfastly refuses to treat the representatives of power, as they successively succumb to the white disease. It is only when the country’s megalomaniac dictator becomes ill, after he has attacked a small neighboring country (clearly Czechoslovakia) with disastrous effects for his army, that there seems hope to end the plague. However, the masses crazed by mindless nationalism have other ideas

Published play

Born in 1890 in what is now the Czech Republic, Karel Čapek achieved world renown with his expressionist play, “R.U.R.” (1920), which coined the term robot, and his satirical dystopian science fiction novel, War with the Newts (1936). In 1937, his anti-Nazi play, “Bilá nemoc,” premiered at the Czech National Theatre in Prague, starring Hugo Haas, who also directed. Haas then wrote the screenplay and hired virtually the whole cast of the original for his filmed adaption, which premiered on 12 December 1937. The film was partially funded by the Czechoslovak government, certainly a courageous move at the time. While the film was banned in Nazi Germany, it was released in other European countries before World War II began in Europe. While Čapek died in December 1938, just before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, – the Gestapo tried to arrest him only to learn he was already dead –  Haas supposedly smuggled a print into the United States when he emigrated; it was released by Carl Laemmle in 1940.

Baron Krog – the Capitalist Arms Manufacturer and his nameless secretary

Given its theatrical origins, Bilá nemoc is heavily dialogue driven, but is striking for both its leftist political stance – the capitalist armaments manufacturer Baron Krog (Vaclav Vydra) is clearly identified as a willing supporter of the militarist dictator (Zdenek Štepanek), who believes himself to be the savior of the nation and immune to any disease. He recklessly and knowingly shakes hands with the stricken Baron Krug. Thus, the rich and powerful fall prey to their own machinations, while the film saves its sympathies for the urban poor. However, the film ends on a highly cynical note when the masses protest the Marshall’s call for an end to the war. However, for today’s audiences, the film’s depiction of the pandemic, the overriding sense of fear it engenders in the not yet afflicted, the helpless victimization of the innocent, and the incredible arrogance of a leader who believes he is immune with a “I don’t need to wear a mask” attitude, all strike a very contemporary chord for anyone living in corona virus America.

JEALOUSY (1945, Gustav Machety) Jane Randoph, Nils Asther and Hugo Haas

An incredibly popular star in Czech cinema in the 1930s, Hugo Haas would play mostly supporting roles in Hollywood during the 1940s, but in 1951 saved enough money to set up his own independent film production company, where he began producing, directing and starring in a series of lurid, low budget melodramas. Most are variations on the theme of older men who form liaisons with much younger, often amoral women, including Pickup (1951), The Girl on the Bridge (1951), Strange Fascination (1952), The Other Woman (1953)and Hit and Run (1957).In 1961 he returned to Europe, settling in Vienna, where he occasionally appeared on Austrian television; he died there in December 1968. The White Sickness remains his most enduring work, one of the only anti-Nazi films made in Europe before the  Holocaust

For my dad as a seventeen year old high school student in Prague,Bila nemoc probably represented a political awakening; less than two years after the film’s premiere, he was incarcerated in KZ Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg and would eventually be active both in the anti-Nazi and the anti-Communist underground. 

Poster, 1952

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Archival Spaces 242

Will Movie Theatres Survive the 2020 Plague?

Down loaded 8 May 2020

On Thursday, 30 April, Ross Melnick and the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara hosted an online panel discussion, “Moviegoing in the Age of COVID-19,” with Manohla Dargis (New York Times) and Alison Kozberg (Art House Convergence) about the future of movie theatres. While there was some pessimism about the present state of cinema culture, the general tenure of the discussion was positive, noting that they (and hopefully many other people) miss not seeing films with an audience in a big theatre and that the hunger of moviegoers for that experience will survive the present plague. Such a positive attitude is not surprising, given their expressed nostalgia for movie theatres and their professional attachment to them. But this may be a minority view of patrons, certainly of those under the age of 30, who seemingly prefer smart phone viewing. The fact is that Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal are now launching online platforms for the release of new films, as well as their back catalogs. Indeed Universal released the new Trolls movie online, leading AMC to ban Universal from their screens.

trolls-world-tour-watch-online.png
Disney’s Trolls World Tour (2020)

These developments make me less optimistic about the survival in this country of all but art houses and subsidized non-profit screening spaces. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (5-3-30), Jonathan Kuntz, himself a long-time moviegoer, notes that the present pandemic is accelerating online delivery of moving image entertainment, and that except for special event screenings, “everything else will be streaming.” What is certain is that this crisis will change the film industry, just as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had huge consequences for the structure of the film business. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people across the globe, including 675,000 Americans in 1918/19.

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Richard Koszarski was the first modern day film historian to remind us of the Spanish Flu’s horrific influence on film-going in the 1918 pandemic, a fact that film historians, like Benjamin Hampton, Maurice Bardèche/Robert Brasillach, and Lewis Jacobs took for granted. In an article in Film History (2005), Richard noted that “Photoplay estimated that 80 per cent of the movie houses in the United States and Canada had closed for between one and eight weeks, losing $40,000,000 in revenue and putting 150,000 employees temporarily out of work. Production in California was said to have been cut by 60 per cent, while the eastern studios ‘ceased completely’.”

https://pmcvariety.files.wordpress.com/2020/04/variety-magazine-flu-pandemic.jpg

While the first outbreak of the Spanish Flu in the United States may have been on a military base in Kansas is early 1918, the Flu raged mostly in Europe until September, when it hit Boston, New York, and Philadelphia hard. Surprisingly, theatre owners refused to close until ordered by city officials, although New York’s theatres remained open with show times staggered to avoid crowding on subways in and out of Times Square. It also banned smoking and standing-room admissions in theaters, but allowed theatres to fill seats without social distancing. However, even where cinemas stayed open, the audiences stayed away for fear of contracting the deadly virus, attendance dropping often below 50%. By November 1918, the Flu was everywhere, although some cities, like St. Louis, which had instituted social distancing early, had significantly fewer deaths than San Francisco, which reopened prematurely. Los Angeles had closed all theatres and places of amusement on 11 October, later mandating the wearing of masks. Many other cities, like Indianapolis also ordered the wearing face masks, although they seemingly did little to stop the spread of the virus.

https://cdn1.thr.com/sites/default/files/2020/03/spanish_flu_4_embed.jpg
Seattle Tram Conductor with face mask (Courtesy NARA Archices)

The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry announced an embargo on their release of new films in October, and film production in and around Hollywood ground to a halt during October and November, while the shooting of crowd scenes was banned even longer. Even though film production recovered by early 1919, many smaller producers and countless mom and pop exhibitors went out of business. So how did the Spanish Flu change the industry structurally?

Adolph Zukor

Even before the virus hit, Paramount’s Adolph Zukor was in a huge struggle against First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, a distribution network formed in 1917 to amalgamate 26 first run cinema chains.   Adolph Zukor, who had been producing films since 1912 through Famous Players, and distributing films through Paramount Pictures since 1914, saw his theatre clientele suddenly disappearing. According to Benjamin Hampton, Walter Irwin told Zukor that he could destroy First National, if he built first run cinemas in every city where First National owned theatres. After a merger with First National failed, and the incredible losses independent theatre owners suffered during late 1918 and early 1919, due to the flu pandemic, Zukor went into action. He secured a $ 10 million loan from Wall Street and purchased 135 theatres in Southern States in 1919; by 1921, Paramount-Publix had acquired a total of 303 first run theatres in major cities across the country, creating the first vertically integrated film company in the United States, controlling production, distribution, and exhibition. Given that in Europe Nordisk, Pathé Frères, and UFA had previously already gone that route, which would become the model for all the American majors by the mid 1920s, it is likely that Zukor would have consolidated, regardless of the pandemic, but it undoubtedly created an economic opportunity.

New York’s IFC Film Center on COVID-19 hiatus

Similarly, the move to digital distribution of movies directly into the home is a trend that has been accelerating for the past ten years, but the corona virus pandemic of 2020 may actually deal the coup de grace. AMC Theatres, which is carrying $ 4.9 billion of debt, is likely to file for bankruptcy shortly with its stock plummeting. John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, predicted in a speech to Congress in late March that the great majority of this country’s theatre owners will go bankrupt, if Congress does not give them financial relief in Corona Virus rescue legislation. If we are witnessing the death of cinema(s), I will be in mourning. Unlike my daughter’s generation who has grown up watching movies on smart devices, I have always been happiest in a darkened space where dreams can be real. 

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Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Archival Spaces 241 

Thomas Doherty’s  Show Trial. Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist (2019)

Uploaded 24 April 2020

Thomas Doherty’s Show Trial Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist relies on original historical evidence, including documents, newsreels, contemporary newspaper reports, and the official protocols of the HUAC Hearings of October 1947, to recreate an historical event that constituted on of this country’s  greatest violation of the Bill of Rights on a grand political stage. Doherty’s book on the HUAC’s hearings sifts through the insignificant to give weight to the consequential, vigorously cutting through the Committee’s noise. But make no mistake about it, just as today we have our dangerous and now deadly struggle with a President who believes he can rule by fiat, so too were Congressmen then willing to violate the rights of defendants  to eliminate enemies and further their own political careers.

Doherty opens his book with “Backstories,” where he enumerates the numerous historical reasons why the House Un-American Activities Committee took such a lively interest in the film industry; an industry that had more or less faithfully toed the government’s line for decades. They included the founding of the Screenwriters Guild in the 1930s, and the cartoonist union strikes of 1941 against Disney, and 1945 against Warner Brothers, labor actions which constituted a direct threat to the absolute power of the studio bosses. Then, there was the issue of Hollywood’s premature anti-Fascism, leading to the first HUAC hearings in Hollywood in 1940 under Martin Dies, which was supposed to investigate the German-American Bund, but quickly pivoted to anti-Communism, but thanks to united industry resistance failed to generate any publicity.

Warner Brothers Strike, 1945

The Book’s next section, then, gives a detailed accounting of each the Hearing’s nine days. Doherty emphasizes that these hearings are “show trials” constructed for their publicity value, as much as to eliminate any opposition, just as the Stalinist purges in Russia of the late 1930s had; caught, like HUAC’s  hearings by the motion picture  camera. Doherty described Committee Chairman,  J. Parnell Thomas, thus:

“(he) refused to permit lawyers to coach or advise their clients, although Consultations between attorneys and clients were usually permitted in congressional hearings. He allowed some witnesses, usually the Friendlies, to read opening statements, but denied the right to others, usually the Unfriendlies. The hearing was too public to be a star chamber and too open-ended to be a kangaroo court, but it was not a judicial proceeding either. It was a bastard hybrid, part show, part trial.”  (p. 105)

           

Lauren Becall, Humphrey Bogart, Committee for the First Amendment

Each witness receives a short biography before Doherty characterizes their testimony. Among the “friendly” witnesses were studio bosses Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, und Walt Disney, the actors, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, and Ronald Reagan, the director’s Leo McCarey and Fred Niblo Jr., as well as an array of lesser industry lights. Many happily named names of supposed Communists in Hollywood, others were more reluctant, like, Gary Cooper, who just mumbled he “weren’t no friend of the Commies, … because it isn’t on the level.” (p. 171)

In subsequent chapters, Doherty describes the efforts of the Committee for the First Amendment, an ad hoc group of Hollywood liberals, who after one trip to Washington and rallies throughout the USA, caved in the face of the anti-Communist onslaught. Among them: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Becall, Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, Marsha Hunt, und Paul Henreid. The actor’s staged events outside the HUAC Hearing rooms and dramatized the violation of human rights in the chambers. Most members recanted their participation to save their careers, or ended like Marsha Hunt and Paul Henreid  on the Blacklist.

The real war of words began with the testimony of John Howard Lawson, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, and surreptitiously the acknowledged cell captain to the town’s Communists. Like his fellow accused, the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” e.g. Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz und Alvah Bessie, Howard was first gaveled into silence by the hammer of Committee Chair Thomas, and then forcibly removed from the room by D.C. Police when he continued to insist on reading his opening statement. They believed in their in the Constitution guaranteed right to free speech, meaning they refused to answer the question of their membership in the CPUSA. Thomas destroyed numerous gavels during the hearings, especially when Samuel Ornitz noted the extremely high percentage of Jews among the Ten, accusing the Committee of Anti-Semitism. The efficiency with which the Committee asked the essential question, “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” increased daily, so by the time Lester Cole appeared, he was gaveled out of the room in less than six minutes.  

House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings, October 1947

The 1947 HUAC Hearings ended with a victory for the liberals, because HUAC was not able to make its case to the public that Hollywood brimmed with Communist propaganda, but that victory was turned into a defeat, when the major studios released “the Waldorf Statement,” which pledged to no longer hire known Communists, leading to the creation of the “Hollywood Blacklist.”  Fearing losses at the box office, just as they were relinquishing their monopoly power over film exhibition, due to the government’s Paramount Consent Decree, the studios betrayed some of their most productive and valuable artists, then turned around and hired them surreptitiously for pennies on the dollar of their previous wages. Dalton Trumbo won two Oscars for screening writing under fake names, while hundreds of film industry workers were unemployable for a decade or longer.   

Given the meticulous documentation of the events around the 1947 HUAC Hollywood Hearings, the book offers a superb introduction to the complexities of the era to a younger generation; many may not realize that the Trump presidency is not the first American government to ignore basic Constitutional rights.

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Thomas Doherty (second from left)

3 thoughts on “Blog

  1. Chris, Sorry to tell you there is no “page 3” on this site and no link. We should talk. Joan’s father and mother lived across the street from Villa Aurora, to the right of the photo. Her mother was also called up by one of the HUAC subcommittees.

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