Actress Meryl Streep gave a starkly political speech at the 2017 Golden Globe awards, and the morning after, pictures and sayings and memes all over the Internet claimed that Hollywood should stay out of politics. People didn’t want to hear political spew from their movie stars, so shut up and be done with it.
Is that possible? Can we be done with politics in Hollywood, Jane Fonda in Vietnam, Michael Moore on the Oscars stage, Mark Ruffalo protesting the Dakota pipeline?
No, we cannot, and we should not. Hollywood, movie-making, and politics are stuck together with historical glue. To do away with political call-and-response is to get rid of the Hollywood movie industry entirely. The history of Hollywood is a struggle for and against the First Amendment, and one particular moment in that history might provide insight into the passionate activism we now see.
When I wrote The Glamorous Dead, I researched the period directly before the U.S. formally entered World War II. In Hollywood and the surrounding Los Angeles basin, that meant a moment tense with both fear and change. Los Angeles was growing out of its farming past, and although you could still drive through long swaths of strawberries, the scenery was changing. One sign of this was in Buena Park at the Knotts’ boysenberry farm on Grand (later to become Beach Boulevard). To accommodate those in line waiting for Mrs. Knotts’ fried chicken, Mr. Knott began building a ghost town. As we all know, the orange orchards surrounding his farm (and the Knotts’ berry fields) made way for an amusement park that took the name of the farm but deleted the farm itself. This was popularly called “progress.”
Outside of Hollywood, London was enduring the catastrophic Blitz. In Hollywood, the women movie stars knitted for London, stars of both genders turned out for a huge Red Cross benefit at Farmer’s Market (buy fruit from your favorite star!), and suspicion of Germans grew.
So here you are, having stood in line for three hours at Mrs. Knotts’ shack for a chicken dinner, and having visited the Farmers’ Market so Paulette Goddard could weigh and package your apples. What comes next?
You go home, and waiting in your mailbox is the October issue of Photoplay, the most popular and respected movie magazine on the market. On the cover, you see a hint of what is inside: “HITLER’S SPIES OVER HOLLYWOOD: Startling Expose of German Plans to Rule Movies.”
Nazis in Hollywood? Nazis, endangering my favorite movie stars?
The story starts with a two-page spread, four pages total. The author is one Jack Wade. As far as I can determine, Jack Wade was a staff reporter for Photoplay.
The article is illustrated by John Floherty, Jr., a skilled artist who later became known for his pulp novel covers. (I include one of his covers, left. The subject matter I’ll reserve for another post.) They’re tantalizing and downright delicious, the most famous of which is his cover for Take My Face. According to www.askart.com, the biographical sourcebook Who Was Who in American Art says that John Floherty, Jr., also served as a combat artist during World War II, and was present with his sketchbook both at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
So now, in Hollywood style, we have set our scene. We have an experienced writer and a famed illustrator, and the rest of the article is pure claptrap. Its central thesis is that Germans are posing as servants in the houses of the
stars–right under their noses! One star who “happened to” be looking in her maid’s closet found expensive evening dresses that the star herself would have loved. And what was her maid doing at night, zooming around in fancy cars with shadowy men? Then, just as the star gets suspicious, the maid gives her notice and is gone.
Another one: On the grounds of a country club “near Hollywood,” a plane overhead drops boxes of leaflets. It’s Nazi propaganda!
Another one: Good-looking young men with Germanic names are seen at A-list parties, but beware! They will begin by criticizing Roosevelt, then they will subtly and skillfully descend into the glories of fascist theory.
The article goes on. It seems the stars are inundated with Nazis, but in each instance are too stupid to catch on until the servant blithely leaves town in a downpour of Nazi pamphlets. This was how Nazis would overtake Hollywood: not from the top-down but from the bottom-up, as servants and cooks. Beware the maid who can cook but not serve at table! That is a sure sign.
The Nazi spies are portrayed as both sophisticated and amateurish, working alone and inexplicably at the same time working as part of an organized group. The article names Captain Fritz Wiedemann, at the time German Consul-General in San Francisco. Wiedemann, according to the Los Angeles Times, was expelled from the U. S. in July, 1941, along with the rest of the German consulate employees. But at the time of our “Hitler’s Spies” article, Wiedemann was at the center of a controversy hinted at within the text. Here is the Photoplay version:
[The Fifth Column’s] active, professional group of spies obviously takes its orders direct from Berlin, via San Francisco and the German consulate there headed by the ultracharming Captain Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s former World War commander and later his personal adjutant. Recently a German consular courier, one Herbert Hoehne, was arrested in Beverly Hills carrying a bag, which reputedly held, in code, plans for disabling the Panama Canal! His $15,000 bail was supplied by Captain Wiedemann.
Historical Los Angeles Times articles do confirm that Wiedemann was a close ally of Hitler’s, and had commanded Hitler during World War I. I was not able to confirm if Wiedemann was ultracharming. Herbert Hoehne was a 29-year-old German national who was arrested in San Francisco at his downtown hotel, readying himself for departure on a ship to South America. He was arrested for acting as a German consular courier between San Francisco and Los Angeles without having gained permission from the U.S. Department of State. He did phone Captain Wiedemann upon his arrest, and he did indeed have coded material on him, probably slated for delivery to German embassies in South America. I could not determine whether that code was immediately broken, although it’s doubtful, given that the German Enigma code was not broken until 1942.
Hoehne was released in September, 1940. According to the Los Angeles Times, he was not brought to trial because to do so would reveal U. S. secrets that needed to be kept, er, secret.
Let’s conflate our two versions, one from Photoplay and one from the Los Angeles Times. A group of German spies in Hollywood believed, but not proven, to be acting directly under the orders of the San Francisco German Consul General (who was, at the time, not in Los Angeles but in the major military port of San Francisco), were working both as “lone wolves” and as part of an organized group to systematically undermine the movie industry. These spies obtained jobs as servants to movie stars and studio heads in order to do their nefarious work. We could locate these spies by their Germanic names, and they were both skilled spies and, again inexplicably, amateurish. The movie stars noticed these spies were very well dressed, drove expensive cars, and met frequently in shadowy groups. Sometimes these servants/spies were not well trained in their service positions, with spycraft clumsy enough for movie stars to notice something “off.” Yet, not one movie star–not one!–put these clues together and thought maybe the police should be called. By the time the stars thought to take action, the servants disappeared, showing the hand of a larger conspiracy at work.
If you are drawing parallels between dangerous suspicion of German servants in 1940 and suspicion of Muslim communities today, you’re on the right track.
The Hoehne story is fascinating. From the information we now have, Hoehne was indeed a spy. He was a courier of German information, and his job was kept separate from the U. S. State Department’s watch. However, he was arrested in San Francisco, not in Beverly Hills, and his case was dismissed a month before the October Photoplay was released. When we place him in another city, Hoehne is completely separated from the Hollywood milieu. His inclusion in the Photoplay story is to show the article’s veracity, but when we look closely, there is no connection between Hoehne and the poor German servants of Hollywood stars. Oh–and by the way, I researched and could not find one credible instance of planes dropping Nazi pamphlets over a Los Angeles country club.
Yet, appropriation of Hollywood by Nazi Germany was a considerable threat. Sources tell us that President Roosevelt read the Hollywood Reporter along with his other daily newspapers, for at least two purposes. Firstly, he wanted to detect any possible infiltration of the movie industry by enemy propaganda. Secondly, he wanted to work with the studios for U. S. propaganda purposes. The key word here is propaganda.
Movie stars did not just knit for London for fun, nor did they become farmers-for-a-day at the Farmer’s Market out of devotion to the Red Cross. Such organized propaganda efforts were essential to helping people in the U. S. adjust to lifetime during war. Roosevelt had to convince the people of the United States to cross over from “holdout” nation to nation-at-war, and what better way to reach households across America than through the movies?
The “Hitler’s Spies” propaganda piece is just one of the many ways American citizens were eased into accepting the inevitable involvement of the U.S. in what was then thought of as a strictly European war. Oh, those poor Londoners were in dire straits, but it was so far away! What can we do? We can knit.
Although my discussion here may on its surface have nothing to do with Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, look closely. In 1940, studios owned its stars, and scripted their moves and public beliefs. In this way, the movie industry was in lock step with Roosevelt as we headed toward World War II. All through that war, movies showcased the endurance, courage, and downright civic goodness needed to defeat the Axis nations. Movies such as the film Mrs. Miniver sought to bolster citizens whose involvement in war efforts might be flagging.
During these years, other countries also used Hollywood and its stars as political devices. There is good reason why, at the German pronouncement in 1942 that American films would no longer be shown, many theaters in Europe chose as their last film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Then, during the 1950s, the studio system broke down. At the same time, we see the rise of the McCarthy era. Who are called to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee? Movie stars, writers, directors. Who were blacklisted for their views or because of popular opinion? Those same movie stars, writers, and directors. They no longer had the protection of studios, and the First Amendment was under siege.
Hop forward to the 1970s, when Hollywood reflected growing frustration and anger over the Vietnam War. We also see the inevitable backlash from the McCarthy era. Where stars had been silenced through politics, now they shouted their political beliefs. Even after the war had ended, Hollywood continued its debate in movies such as 1979’s Apocalypse Now. We needed that debate. We needed to reflect on the human toll of that war, and the political impulses that kept it going. Just as I’m writing this essay, I’ve discovered that director Francis Ford Coppola is turning Apocalypse Now into a video game. I don’t know his reasoning, but it’s sure to stir up a healthy debate.
And now I come back to Meryl Streep. She is a central figure in an industry that has bolstered citizens, criticized regimes, changed and focused an entire country’s beliefs about World War II, reflected that same country’s conflicting sentiments about Vietnam, highlighted myriad topics that otherwise may not have reached the level of national discussion, been purged through a political blacklist, and provided a touchstone for the First Amendment. Seventy years ago, Meryl Streep’s studio would have scripted her acceptance speech. Today, she writes her own. No other Hollywood representative could have given that speech, because no other carries the respect within her industry necessary to silence a roomful of peers.
Let her speak. That’s the power of the First Amendment! Better yet, listen to what she has to say. She speaks from the historical perspective of an industry that has seen it all. If we can learn from a 76-year-old propagandist fluff piece, imagine what we can learn about ourselves now from this complex and still-developing industry. And finally, if you can’t stand what she says, well, that’s the power of the First Amendment, too. You get to change the channel.