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The Politically Incorrect Truths Old Movies Teach About America and Racism

What sort of backwards propaganda do you suppose Hollywood churned out in the 1930s?

by
Barry Rubin

Bio

March 1, 2013 - 3:00 pm

I’ve seen this kind of approach in loads of films from the 1930s and 1940s. One of the most remarkable is The Human Comedy, based on a story by the marvelous Armenian-American writer, William Saroyan. Rooney is a telegraph company messenger boy in a small town (based on Fresno, California) who feels he is missing out on all the excitement of World War II, where his brother has gone off to fight.

There’s an amazing scene when the telegraph office’s manager is driving his girlfriend past a succession of ethnic holiday picnics and makes a speech extolling ethnic diversity in America. In the film’s most moving scene, the Rooney character delivers a telegram to a poor Mexican-American woman about her son’s being killed in the war.

In Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, (1944) about the first U.S. air attack on Tokyo after Pearl Harbor, one of the airman gives a speech about how the Japanese he knew in California were nice people. I’ve seen such statements made in other wartime films.

And the Chinese people, who helped save the lives of the crashed fliers, are shown as heroic. There were many other films with a pro-Chinese theme. Sometimes it is mentioned nowadays that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor partly in response to a U.S. oil embargo on Japan, a fact presented as if it indicates that Tokyo was thus acting defensively against U.S. bullying and imperialism. What is never mentioned is that the embargo was a humanitarian gesture to protest and weaken Japanese aggression in China, operations involving mass murder of Chinese on a scale surpassed only by the Nazi genocide in Europe.

Now it might be pointed out that Thirty Seconds over Tokyo was largely written by the pro-Communist Dalton Trumbo, who later turned against the far left. But the film’s director Mervyn LeRoy was well-known as very conservative just like the director of Stagecoach, John Ford. And both of these directors were personal friends of John Wayne to boot.

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All Comments   (9)
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I caught "Bachelor Mother" the other day (1939, Ginger Rogers & David Niven) and got a kick out of how much compassion and support the single mother got during this supposedly backward and judgmental time in history.

It's not simply about who is right or wrong in their perspective, but the characature we have of times through history, and the assumption that moving forward in time ipso facto means progress.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1) John Carradine's character in Stagecoach is no villain. Something of a snob, perhaps, but he fights bravely to defend the women passengers, even to being mortally wounded.

2) In They Died WIth Their Boots, Hollywood's mythologizing of Custer, he is shown protesting to Congress over the corrupt machinations that have provoked the Sioux Uprising - and even says if he was an Indian, he'd be with Sitting Bull.

3) Speaking of SItting Bull, who ever said he was a war chief? He was a political/religious leader. Crazy Horse was the war chief.

4) There were serious corruption problems in the Grant Administration, as there were in the Republican state governments in the Reconstruction South. But the reports of corruption were harped on, played up, and exaggerrated by Democrats to justify the forcible seizure of those states for white supremacy. In the election of 1872, Grant was opposed by a faction of "Liberal Republican" reformers, who nominated Horace Greeley. But Greeley's crusade was joined by the Democrats, who added their endorsement. Throughout the South, Klan-backed "Redeemer" Democrats adopted the Liberal Republican label - using the issue of corruption to mask their real agenda. (Some of the most notorious grafters of the Reconstruction period were welcomed into post-Reconstruction politics after they embraced white supremacy.)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The films of this period, the '30s to just after WWII, are not particularly nuanced in plot or character and, I think, still cling somewhat to the simplicities necessitated by silent film. Characters and their motivations are broadly drawn - evil banker, kindly Priest, cold society lady, sweet virgin, etc. -and when deviations occurred it was usually due to a brilliant performance by a subtle and intelligent actor. I doubt there was another actress who could have brought such depth and humanity to the character of the prostitute in Stagecoach in quite the same way the magnificent Claire Trevor did.
Post WWII films became darker and more realistic and the characters more psychologically fleshed-out and complex. I think of this period as The Golden Age of film - until it was high-jacked in the '60s and became, with many notable exceptions, the superficial swill we see on our screens today.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One of my favorite World War II movies is "Bataan" with the great Robert Taylor, from 1943. Taylor's character leads a group of soldiers who have been assembled from here and there, and who are to hold back the Japanese during the American retreat. Among Taylor's group are a black American, a Hispanic American (played by Desi Arnaz, Jr.!), and a Filipino. The black, the Hispanic and the Filipino are all presented positively, and as heroes no less.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In the 1930's bankers were hated people. Not only was the nation still in the grip of the Great Depression, something bankers and Wall Streeters bore a lot of the blame for (but the politicians who made it worse were glorified), but the Dust Bowl had also taken effect. Thousands of farms were seized by banks because the farmers couldn't pay back loans and mortgages because the crops had failed. So the writers of Stagecoach were using the villains of the day.

Cattle barons were common villains as seen by the settlers who came later. The cattlemen were in a lot of the places out west first and had lots of land. Often this land wasn't fenced or marked as such because they all knew who's land was who's and the cattle needed to be moved around. Settlers came in and tried to grab some of that land and put up fences so conflict arose. That's not saying some of the cattlemen weren't nasty but in a real sense many of the settlers were squatters stealing land. Things got bad at times because there was little law in places, few courts and fewer lawmen, save private contractors and they were often the worst of the lot. What we get it the tale of the evil cattle barons vs. the little guy who may not have been so innocent.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One thing I like about the great movie "Shane" is that, although the main villain played by Jack Palance is working for some cattle barons, the chief cattleman played by Emile Meyer gets to give his side of the story--how he and other cattlemen were the first ones to tame the land which is being fought over, and were using that land productively before any "sodbusters" came on the scene.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thank you, Mr. Rubin, for pointing out the humanity of George Armstrong Custer, which is usually completely neglected by know-it-alls today.

I read a lot about one of Custer's officers, Edward S. Godfrey, who became friends with Chief Gall, a Lakota warrior who also fought at the Little Big Horn. Gall told Godfrey that many of the Lakota warriors had a very low opinion of Sitting Bull. Gall and these other Indians believed that Sitting Bull was very poor at military leadership, and was a glory-hound who didn't deserve nearly the amount of credit he received. Of course you won't hear that at all in the public schools.

And its true that many American Indians were just as racist as the whites were. Wars of extermination occurred between Indian tribes long before Columbus arrived in the western hemisphere. Archaeology and oral tradition provide much evidence of that.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well stated. Progressive liberals are fond of behaving as if everyone born before them were racist, women-oppressing, gay hating morons.

In literature it is simply assumed authors were at least casual or unwitting racists - a product of their times they'll say. In fact I detect an almost bored indifference to race, and not "unwitting," just not interested in dissecting people like that.

That's not to say we didn't have racial failings on a Federal, regional and state level, but I think the scope is exaggerated for effect. Slavery is smeared all over America, lynching too, though no such thing occurred, the same with Jim Crow.

This week there've been two science-fiction and fantasy novels promoted on a third author's site. Neither the author or the commenters make a secret of the fact they are delighted the settings are outside Western-centric (white) locales, or that the authors are female, gay and black and the the characters too.

When you see those types of comments have equal traction in reviews and comments with the artistry, it reveals the true identity sickness and racial advocacy of today's progressive liberal you simply won't see in old school literature and cinema.

One of the authors had a long story on another website about finding her book in the Afro-American section of a bookstore rather than fantasy and how angry that made her - a black woman was on the cover. I was thinking, lady, you go through a lot of trouble to purposefully and conspicuously adopt a narrow, parochial and racial viewpoint and then complain about it being perceived as exactly that. Why do you think there are Afro-American sections like that in the first place? White people didn't create that market.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
No surpise to this 'boomer who loves to watch old shows on the "retro" channels. Even "Leave it to Beaver" has some social commentary surprises.

And a common set of villains that The Lone Ranger and Tonto battled? Unscrupulous cattle barons.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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