By Bethsheba Achitsa with Ogova Ondego
Published April 24, 2011
If you are like many other people around the world who view Hollywood films as an escapist, superficial entertainment devoid of ideology, you are likely to change your mind after reading A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigre Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948.
The 280-page paperback written by Nick Smedley and published by Intellect of the United Kingdom in 2011 examines how the film community of the 1930s and 1940s supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ‘s liberal reforms aimed at getting United States of America out of the Great Depression and going to war against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.
Smedley, a freelance journalist and writer who also teaches a course on Modern Hollywood Cinema and its Historical Roots at London University, writes that there was a close relationship between American cinema and Rooseveltian liberalism, otherwise known as the New Deal, in the 1930s.
Having been elected President of USA in 1932, Roosevelt embarked on a programme of social reconstruction that would introduce to USA the ideas and values of a welfare society and active state benevolence and intervention. This was a cultural as well as a political phenomenon and Hollywood’s response was to reiterate the need to preserve the country’s ideals at a time of threat.
The 1930s Hollywood Community developed a cinema of liberal idealism, providing a manual of ideals upon which life in USA should be based. “The cinema of the time was extremely topical, evoking not an intellectual, but an intuitive response.” Amid this conformist kind of cinema three distinct voices from Europe descended on American soil to offer new perspectives.
Fritz Lang (Friedrich Christian Anton Lang), Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder (Samuel Billie Wilder) all from Berlin in Germany became key voices in the Hollywood film industry of this time that challenged American conformity and articulated dissent from the moral consensus of Rooseveltian economic programmes that focused on relief, recovery, and reform and had led to the film of conformity. The three Europeans from the Nazi capital articulated criticisms of the American society left unsaid by their contemporaries.
Where Hollywood cinema emphasised female passivity and submission to male control, Smedley writes, Lubitsch opted to empower his female characters. While American cinema urged the women to recapture their true ‘feminine values’, Lubitsch formulated images of women who were free to express themselves.
For an industry that had championed the social values of America in the 1930s under Roosevelt, a Democratic Party president, it was shocking when the philosophical and social tenets of the New Deal came under attack from a resurgent Republican party in the 1940s and Hollywood quickly fell silent.
The onset of the Cold War, that followed the victory of the Allied Forces and the fall out between America and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that had fought on one side thus found the liberal community in Hollywood silenced. The film community was no longer in harmony with the political values of Washington but rather defending the values of the 1930s against the post-New Deal political settlement; the rise of the Film Noir was one such expression of Hollywood’s disillusionment, a dark, bleak setting for lonely exploration of murder and violence.
A Divided World:Hollywood Cinema and Emigre Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948 may appeal mainly to film historians, critics and journalists who already have background information on the subject under discussion.
With Smedley analysing themes of more than 250 films, his book requires one to have a prior knowledge and understanding of the films as the themes are not fully explored. Perhaps it is a good way to invite people not just to further reading about Hollywood’s engagement with the social life of the time but also to look for and watch the films he mentions with a view to examining them for oneself.
It is also not clear whether the varying accounts, as stated by the author, of the lives of the three European directors under examination could be the reason as to why he states that Lang once served in the German military while other sources claim he served in the Austrian Army. The reader at this juncture is not so sure whom to believe.
Like any other good scholarly book, A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigre Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948, that retails at US$40 per copy, has a comprehensive list of end notes, in-text referencing, bibliography, index and case studies that may be of interest to any one interested in further reading of the American Cinema during the 15-year period that the book examines.