Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

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by Mark Harris
     
 

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In Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris turned the story of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 into a landmark work of cultural history, a book about the transformation of an art form and the larger social shift it signified. In Five Came Back, he achieves something larger and even more remarkable, giving us the untold story of how

Overview

In Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris turned the story of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 into a landmark work of cultural history, a book about the transformation of an art form and the larger social shift it signified. In Five Came Back, he achieves something larger and even more remarkable, giving us the untold story of how Hollywood changed World War II, and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the prism of five film directors caught up in the war: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens.
 

 

It was the best of times and the worst of times for Hollywood before the war. The box office was booming, and the studios’ control of talent and distribution was as airtight as could be hoped. But the industry’s relationship with Washington was decidedly uneasy—hearings and investigations into allegations of corruption and racketeering were multiplying, and hanging in the air was the insinuation that the business was too foreign, too Jewish, too “un-American” in its values and causes. Could an industry this powerful in shaping America’s mind-set really be left in the hands of this crew? Following Pearl Harbor, Hollywood had the chance to prove its critics wrong and did so with vigor, turning its talents and its business over to the war effort to an unprecedented extent.

No industry professionals played a bigger role in the war than America’s most legendary directors: Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens. Between them they were on the scene of almost every major moment of America’s war, and in every branch of service—army, navy, and air force; Atlantic and Pacific; from Midway to North Africa; from Normandy to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi death camps; to the shaping of the message out of Washington, D.C.

As it did for so many others, World War II divided the lives of these men into before and after, to an extent that has not been adequately understood. In a larger sense—even less well understood—the war divided the history of Hollywood into before and after as well. Harris reckons with that transformation on a human level—through five unforgettable lives—and on the level of the industry and the country as a whole. Like these five men, Hollywood too, and indeed all of America, came back from the war having grown up more than a little.




From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Thomas Doherty
Five Came Back…is a tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war. Mr. Harris shows how—more than Technicolor, CinemaScope or even the collapse of the Production Code—World War II changed the way Americans looked at the movies.
The New York Times Book Review - Andrew O'Hehir
…[a] must-read for movie buffs and World War II aficionados alike…
Publishers Weekly
01/13/2014
American filmmakers undergo their baptism of fire in this insightful if sometimes chaotic war saga. Journalist Harris (Pictures at a Revolution) profiles five leading directors—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens—who ditched stellar careers to join the military and craft propaganda, battle documentaries and training films. (Ford’s first Navy assignment was an explicit primer on venereal disease.) Harris’s story is often simply Hollywood on steroids: generals and political strictures replace studio moguls and the Hays code; location hardships include getting shot at; the blurring together of authenticity and fakery deepens (some of the most acclaimed and innovative combat “documentaries” were staged reenactments). The fog of war sometimes obscures the big picture here; even more than civilian making-of epics, the author’s narrative of military movie production is a welter of confusion and misfires, turf struggles, budget constraints, and grand artistic impulses thwarted by philistine bureaucracies and petty happenstance. Still, Harris pens superb exegeses of the ideological currents coursing through this most political of cinematic eras, and in the arcs of his vividly drawn protagonists—especially Stevens, whose camera took in the liberation of Paris and the horror of Dachau—we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities. (Mar. 3)
From the Publisher
The Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Harris has a huge story to tell, and he does so brilliantly, maintaining suspense in a narrative whose basic outcome will be known ahead of time. Five Came Back is packed with true stories that, according to the proverb, are stranger than fiction. Mr. Harris's story of five particular directors at one particular moment of history tells us much about the motion-picture industry, about the nature of filmmaking and, more generally, about the relation of art to the larger demands of society. Although Five Came Back at first seems to be chronicling a collective enterprise, it turns out to be an inspirational, if cautionary, tale of the triumph of the individual over the collective, of personal vision over groupthink, and ultimately of art over propaganda.”

The New York Times:
“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.”

The Washington Post:
Five Came Back, by Mark Harris, has all the elements of a good movie: fascinating characters, challenges, conflicts and intense action. This is Harris’s second brilliant book about movies. Both books demonstrate meticulous research and exceptional skill at telling intersecting and overlapping stories with clarity and power. Five Came Back enables us to watch the films of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens with new insight.”

The New Yorker:
“A splendidly written narrative.”

San Francisco Chronicle:
“Can't-put-it-down history of World War II propaganda film.”

The Los Angeles Times:
“Meticulously researched, page-turning.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Mark Harris writes the old-fashioned way. His books are not quick and slick but meticulous. Definitive.  In these lush, informative pages, Harris indeed reaffirms his commitment to writing the old-fashioned way, the way that evinces profound respect for his craft, his material and his readers.”

Booklist (starred):
“It’s hardly news that the movies affect and are affected by the broader canvas of popular culture and world history, but Harris—perhaps more successfully than any other writer, past or present—manages to find in that symbiotic relationship the stuff of great stories. Every chapter contains small, priceless nuggets of movie history, and nearly every page offers an example of Harris’ ability to capture the essence of a person or an event in a few, perfectly chosen words. Narrative nonfiction that is as gloriously readable as it is unfailingly informative.”

Kirkus Reviews:
“A comprehensive, clear-eyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.”

Publishers Weekly:
“Insightful. Harris pens superb exegeses of the ideological currents coursing through this most political of cinematic eras, and in the arcs of his vividly drawn protagonists…we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities.”

Library Journal:
“Harris surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here… This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados.”

Library Journal
★ 03/01/2014
Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood) surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. These Academy Award-winning directors were at the top of their careers when they volunteered for military duty in World War II. Several joined the Signal Corps and the Field Photo Unit; Wyler documented flying missions of the Memphis Belle. This is also a well-documented analysis of how Hollywood moguls (the majority being Jewish) and film celebrities became divided on the issue of prewar U.S. isolationism vs. interventionism. Accusations were thrown at Hollywood for either being in collusion with the Roosevelt administration or being anti-American and communist sympathizers. These directors were responsible for creating effective propaganda and training films for new recruits, as well as documenting the realities of a devastating war. Their work took them everywhere from the Aleutian Islands to the South Pacific. After the war, they brought their experiences back home, each being affected both personally and professionally. While Wyler and Huston found new pride in Hollywood and the country they loved so much, Stevens became painfully withdrawn from the world after having filmed the horrors of Dachau in preparing evidence for the Nuremberg trials. VERDICT This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados. [See Prepub Alert, 9/1/13.]All five directors are featured in individual titles as part of the University of Mississippi's "Conversations with Filmmakers: Interviews" series. Other books to consider: Thomas Doherty's Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II ([Film & Culture] Columbia Univ. 1993); Clayton Koppes & Gregory D. Black's Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Free Pr. 1987); Frank Capra's The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (Macmillan. 1971; Da Capo. 1997); Joseph McBride's Searching for John Ford (Univ. of Mississippi. 2011); John Huston's An Open Book (Da Capo, 1994); Marilyn Ann Moss's Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film (Univ. of Wisconsin. 2004); Gabriel Miller's William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director ([Screen Classics] Univ. of Kentucky. 2013); Jan Herman's A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director: William Wyler (Putnam. 1996).—Richard Dickey, Washington DC
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-14
Entertainment Weekly writer Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, 2008) returns with a comprehensive, cleareyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how. "As long as they lived," writes the author, "the war lived with them." Arranged chronologically (beginning in 1938), the text generally includes the doings of each of the five (John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra) in each of the chapters, with Harris artfully intercutting events from his principals' private as well as professional lives. The author also keeps us up to date on Hollywood without his five, showing us the stars who were winning Oscars, how the five felt about the winners (sometimes themselves) and how Hollywood sought to profit from the war. Harris segues seamlessly to scenes all over the world--the Aleutians, England, France, Germany, Italy, the South Pacific and other venues important in the war and in his story. We learn along the way of the involvement in various cinema projects by other considerable talents--e.g., Lillian Hellman, cinematographer Gregg Toland, Theodor Geisl, Mel Blanc and animator Chuck Jones. Some of the five worked together (Capra and Stevens), but others worked separately on feature-length documentaries, short subjects and films for military use only. Among the more enduring productions were The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (Wyler, 1944) and the powerful, wrenching footage shot in 1945 at the liberation of Dachau by George Stevens' crew. Stevens was devastated by what he saw and later shot The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Harris also chronicles the politics, personality clashes (military vs. Hollywood), egos, drinking, carousing and sexual exploits. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780698151574
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/27/2014
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
528
Sales rank:
239,568
File size:
17 MB
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This product may take a few minutes to download.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue:
Pearl Harbor

John Ford was the first of the five to go. By the time the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, he was already three thousand miles from Hollywood and had been in uniform for three months. When news of the bombing came, Ford, now a lieutenant commander in the navy, and his wife, Mary, were guests at a Sunday luncheon at the home of Rear Admiral Andrew Pickens in Alexandria, Virginia. A maid nervously entered the room holding a telephone. “It’s the War Department, animal,” she said, stumbling over her employer’s rank. The visitors braced themselves as the admiral left his table to take the call. He returned to the party and announced, “Gentlemen, Pearl Harbor has just been attacked by the Japanese. We are now at war.” As the guests dispersed, the admiral’s wife tried to save the afternoon. “It’s no use getting excited. This is the seventh war that’s been announced in this dining room,” she said. She showed the Fords a bullet hole in the wall left by a musket ball during the American Revolution. “I never let them plaster over that,” she told them.

Mary Ford later remembered that for “everybody at that table, their lives changed that minute.” But Ford had already changed his life, drastically and unexpectedly. By late 1941, most people in the movie industry, like most people in the country, believed that it was only a matter of time before the United States entered World War II. But what many of his colleagues viewed as a vague shadow spreading across the distant horizon, Ford accepted as a certainty that would require, and reward, advance preparation. For months before he left Hollywood for Washington, D.C., that September, he had been spending his nights and weekends overseeing the creation of a group he called the Naval Volunteer Photographic Unit, training camera operators, sound technicians, and editors to do their jobs under wartime conditions in close quarters; he even used gimbaled platforms in order to simulate attempts to develop film on ships while they pitched and listed. If war was inevitable, he believed the effort to record that war would be essential, and its planning could not be left to amateurs or to the bungling of War Department bureaucrats.

Still, Ford was an unlikely candidate to lead Hollywood’s march toward battle. He was old enough to be the father of a typical draftee; at forty-six, he was just a couple of years from welcoming his first grandchild. And although he had done his part in Hollywood over the years on several of the industry’s various committees—toiling among the interventionists, the fervent anti-Nazi campaigners, the leaders of ad hoc groups trying to provide aid in the Spanish Civil War—he hadn’t been on the front lines of those battles recently. Since 1939, he had spent most of his time and energy directing a string of movies—among them Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath—that had turned him into Hollywood’s most respected filmmaker.

What moved Ford, just three weeks after completing production on How Green Was My Valley, the picture that would win him his third Best Director Academy Award in seven years, to step away from his thriving career and request a transfer from the Naval Reserve to active duty? Was it lingering shame at having failed the entrance exam for the Naval Academy at Annapolis as a high school student a quarter of a century earlier? Was it embarrassment about having missed America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, when he was busy trying to break into the movie business as a stuntman, actor, and fledgling director? Ford’s motivation was an enigma even to those closest to him—his wife, the colleagues with whom he made movies, and the drinking buddies at his favorite haunt, the Hollywood Athletic Club. “Is the ace director . . . tired of the tinsel of Hollywood?” one news story queried. Ford seemed to delight in withholding any explanation at all, burnishing his public image as a taciturn and cryptic man by accepting an invitation to be interviewed about his decision and then declining to offer anything more expansive than, “I think it’s the thing to do at this time.”

It may have been that simple—a sense of duty, combined with a fear of how he might feel if he shirked it. That September, he had boarded a train for Washington, D.C., predicting misery and remorse for the able-bodied men in Hollywood who were still waiting, wondering what the war would mean and hoping the draft might leave them untouched. “They don’t count,” he wrote. “The blow will hit them hard next year.” He checked into the Carlton Hotel, hung his uniform in the closet, and installed himself in his modest room with its single window of old, runny glass, stacking a couple of books on the bureau along with his pipes and cigars and living out of an open wardrobe trunk. He had the air, wrote a reporter who visited him, “of a man who might set out to sea with an hour’s notice.” In fact, that was just what he was thinking and even hoping; as Ford awaited orders from his mentor, intelligence chief “Wild” Bill Donovan, his mind was only on what was to come. “Things are moving apace here,” he wrote to Mary, admonishing her to avoid the needless expense of late-night long-distance calls to him whenever she felt lonely or sad or angry, and telling her of the “hum of preparation and excitement” that the city was experiencing. “It would take volumes to say what I think of your unselfish courageous attitude in this present emergency,” he added as he awaited her arrival in the capital. “Words literally fail me. I am very proud of you.”

When Mary finally joined her husband in Washington, Ford gave his wife of twenty-one years something she had always wanted, a proper Catholic wedding ceremony. It was a preparatory gesture, a gift before what they both knew might be a long separation. And when the moment finally came, Ford and the men he trained, who had been streaming into Washington in the last few weeks, could barely contain their enthusiasm. Just hours after the news of Pearl Harbor broke, his Photo Unit recruits began showing up at the Carlton, knocking on the Fords’ door, wanting to know what was going to happen next. The drinks started to flow, and as dusk fell on December 7, Ford and his men welcomed America into the war with cocktails.

•   •   •

The sense of urgency that had led Ford to upend his life was not shared by most of his colleagues in Hollywood until that December Sunday. William Wyler was at home in Bel Air the morning of Pearl Harbor, playing tennis with his friend John Huston. Wyler was a few weeks into shooting Mrs. Miniver, a drama about the gallantry of one middle-class British family and the inspiring home-front unity of their traditional village in the face of what, until that day, Americans still felt comfortable referring to as “the war in Europe.” Huston, who was Wyler’s junior and in many ways his protégé, was riding a wave of acclaim as his breakthrough directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, was opening around the country. During their match, the two friends talked about an idea they had cooked up for a celebratory men-only trip they hoped to take later that winter, once Wyler completed Mrs. Miniver. That afternoon, they planned to join another friend, director Anatole Litvak, and meet with a travel agent about a visit to the Far East. “Willy and I wanted to get out of Hollywood for a while. I suggested it would be great to go on a proper trip to China,” said Huston. “We wanted to see a bit of the outer world.”

When Wyler’s wife, Talli, who was pregnant with their second child, received a call telling her that Hawaii had been attacked, she ran out of the house and onto the tennis court, telling her husband and Huston to stop playing. The outer world was now at their doorstep. Later that day, the two men drove to Litvak’s Malibu beach house, their prospective jaunt abroad already forgotten, and started making plans: How soon could they wrap up their professional commitments? How quickly could they walk away from the Hollywood work that now seemed to them like a silly game?

Wyler, who was thirty-nine, was exempt from military service because of his age. At thirty-five, Huston was a year under the cutoff and therefore eligible for the draft according to the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940, but the aftereffects of a childhood defined by frail health would probably have gotten him an easy 4-F exemption. However, there was no hesitation or second-guessing for either man. Wyler was a Jewish immigrant whose first sight of Americans had been the troops who liberated his hometown in Alsace at the end of World War I. He had relatives trapped in Europe. Eleven days after Pearl Harbor, he was awaiting his first assignment from the Signal Corps, the army’s communications unit. Huston’s attitude was more devil-may-care; he had been making up for lost time since his bedbound youth—he had ridden with the Mexican cavalry as an adolescent—and he was sure the war would offer more opportunity to reinvent himself as a man of action. Less than a month after Wyler, he accepted his own Signal Corps commission—“a distinct loss to the Warner studios,” noted the New York Times, “where he is the directorial find of the year.” When he had saddled up in Mexico, Huston said, “I was only a kid . . . I was more interested in going horseback riding than learning how to fight. This time it’s different.”

The men were seeking adventure, but more than that, they were reaching for relevance in a world that had become rougher and more frightening than anything their studio bosses would allow them to depict on film. Hollywood’s best moviemakers shared a growing concern that they were fiddling while Europe burned, using their talents to beguile the American public with diversions—means of escape from the churn and horror of the headlines—rather than striving to bring the world into focus. Hollywood had never been interested in anticipating the news or leading public opinion, but recently its ability to react to changing circumstances had felt agonizingly slow. Wyler had intended Mrs. Miniver, a paean to the British national spirit, to galvanize American support for its closest ally; now that the United States itself was at war, he fretted that what he had once intended as a bold statement would seem embarrassingly behind the times. And Huston had spent much of that autumn working with his friend Howard Koch on the script for a Broadway play called In Time to Come, about Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations after World War I. When their drama opened three weeks after Pearl Harbor and, despite good reviews, closed a month later, Huston wasn’t surprised. It “seemed dated,” he wrote.

Suddenly, Hollywood’s most skilled filmmakers faced the possibility that their movies would be of significantly less interest to audiences than the newsreels that preceded them. At MGM, George Stevens was busy making Woman of the Year, the comedy that initiated what would become one of the screen’s most beloved sparring partnerships by teaming Katharine Hepburn with Spencer Tracy. Over the last several years, Stevens had demonstrated an extraordinary knack for creating light-spirited movies that nonetheless seemed to take place in the here and now; he knew how to use the economic grind of the Depression and the buzz of modern urban life as context for deft romances that delighted moviegoers. His new film would be no exception—his heroine, Tess Harding, was a journalist, a staunch anti-Hitler interventionist whose must-read opinion pieces had themes like “Democracies Must Stand Together or Collapse.” (One ad for her columns shouted, “Hitler Will Lose, Says Tess Harding.”) The tone of Woman of the Year was perfect for a country engaged by world events but not yet ensnared in them. As the script had it, Tess’s professional passion was merely a distraction on the way to her real destiny; her meetings with Churchill and Roosevelt would ultimately be exposed as busywork for a woman who was uneasily attempting to avoid a more meaningful future as a wife and mother.

But the picture wasn’t working. The weekend of Pearl Harbor, Stevens was coming off a disappointing test screening of Woman of the Year. His producer at MGM, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, had told him that audiences had rejected the movie’s last scene, in which Hepburn and Tracy reconciled while covering a prizefight. They wanted to see Hepburn brought low, humiliated for her careerism. Reluctantly, he was preparing to shoot a new ending, in which Tess was to be shamed by her inability to find her way around a kitchen and cook a simple breakfast. Stevens had shot some of Laurel and Hardy’s funniest short comedies when he was coming up in the 1920s, and he knew how to execute the pratfalls the scene required, but not how to refute Hepburn’s bluntly stated conviction that the new ending was “the worst bunch of shit I’ve ever read.” He and Hepburn both went through with the reshoot, but by the time Woman of the Year was in theaters two months later, Stevens was already thinking about turning his cameras on the war. That winter, he had sat alone in a Los Angeles screening room and watched, with horror and enthrallment, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary tribute to Aryan invincibility, Triumph of the Will. After that, he knew he could not make another movie that could possibly be used to divert anyone’s attention from the war. Stevens often said that he decided to enlist that night, but what he saw stirred more than just his patriotic desire to beat the Germans. Watching the movie, he said years later, he realized that “all film,” including his own, “is propaganda.”

It was no longer a dirty word, although it had been until recently. In the fall, a group of isolationist senators had responded to a simmering combination of antiwar passion, anti-Hollywood rhetoric, and no small amount of anti-Semitism by summoning the movie industry’s studio heads to Washington for hearings on whether a small handful of the hundreds of movies they produced every year were barely concealed agitprop, dramas designed to exacerbate paranoia or spark a public appetite for militarism. Now, propaganda—documentaries, dramas, comedies, features, shorts, movies for public consumption, and movies for servicemen only—was being discussed in both Hollywood and Washington as a matter of strategic necessity. Sometimes the projects were given the less tarnished label “morale films,” but there was no longer any argument about the rectitude of their purpose.

For Frank Capra, the shift in public sentiment brought about by Pearl Harbor confirmed the wisdom of a move he had been planning to make for months. Capra, already a three-time Academy Award winner, was Hollywood’s most successful director, and its richest. At forty-four, he was, virtually alone in his profession, a millionaire, and he had gotten there via a series of comedies—Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and the more dramatic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—that were expert at rousing a kind of generic populist high-spiritedness in moviegoers without ever getting too specific about their politics, which were as hard to parse as Capra’s own.

In the summer of 1941, the columnist Stewart Alsop had written a piece for Atlantic Monthly called “Wanted: A Faith to Fight For,” that caught the eye of General George Marshall. In the essay, Alsop warned, “To fight the war we will be sooner or later called upon to fight we need a crusading faith, the kind that inspired the soldiers of 1917, setting forth the war to make the world safe for democracy. We haven’t got it; certainly the men who will do the fighting haven’t got it.” Marshall believed that movies could help to instill that crusading faith in both civilian audiences and new enlistees. Given Capra’s résumé, which included terms running both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Screen Directors Guild in their formative years, he was perhaps more qualified than any other director in Hollywood to draw on the varied resources of an industry that he believed would be indispensable to the coming war effort. Like Ford, Capra had missed serving in World War I, although not for lack of trying; after the death of his father in a farming accident in 1917, he had concluded that his family would no longer be able to bear the burden of his college tuition, and he began ROTC training with the intention of joining the army. Shortly after enlisting, he contracted the flu; by the time he recovered, armistice had been declared. Unlike Ford, the son of first-generation Irish Americans who had settled in Maine, Capra himself was an immigrant, the youngest child of working-class Sicilians who had moved him and three of his siblings to California when he was five. Not until the army tried to process him did Capra learn that he had never been naturalized, and more than twenty years later he still had not fully shaken off the immigrant’s desire to do right by his adopted country. (“That was his politics: ‘Pleased to be here,’” said Hepburn after they worked together.)

So as the war approached, Capra started planning his departure from Hollywood. He made a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. to direct Cary Grant in an adaptation of the Broadway hit Arsenic and Old Lace. “I thought, ‘Well, if I go into the Army, I’d like to have something going for my family while I’m there,’” he wrote later. “Perhaps I can find a picture that I can make fast and get a percentage of the profits. That will keep them going.” He was a week from finishing the movie when war broke out. Five days later, he agreed to join the Signal Corps as a major.

Decades later, Capra wrote of his decision to enter the army. “Patriotism? Possibly. But the real reason was that in the game of motion pictures, I had climbed the mountain, planted my flag, and heard the world applaud. And now I was bored.” If his characteristically self-mythologizing explanation doesn’t ring completely true, the grandiosity—and the sense of competition that lay just beneath it—were very real. In a matter of months, the war would reshape Hollywood from the top down, just as it reshaped the rest of America: Fully one-third of the studios’ male workforce—more than seven thousand men—would eventually enlist or be drafted. But few of them would enter the war as these directors did, with the sense that in impending middle age, they had found themselves with a new world to conquer, a task that would test their abilities to help win the hearts and minds of the American people under the hardest imaginable circumstances, with the greatest possible stakes.

The War Department’s decision to enlist the movie industry’s help after Pearl Harbor was not inevitable. The Signal Corps had used movies to train soldiers since 1929, just as the studios were making the transition from silent pictures to talkies, and in the 1930s, Roosevelt and his team had come to understand the power of short films and newsreels to sell the New Deal. But for much of the decade before Pearl Harbor, Hollywood and Washington had remained, in a way, competing principalities, each impressed by and distrustful of the clout held by the other. Hollywood feared the near-constant threat of censure, investigation, and regulation from the capital; Washington watched the growth of a medium that had become unrivaled in capturing the attention of the American people and, by degrees, learned to acknowledge, if sometimes unhappily, its power. But the beginning of the war marked the government’s first attempt at a sustained program of filmed propaganda, and its use of Hollywood filmmakers to explain its objectives, tout its successes, and shape the war as a narrative for both civilians and soldiers constituted a remarkable, even radical experiment.

Given how central the movies became to the way the nation perceived the Second World War, it is striking how little forethought or planning went into the War Department’s use of Hollywood. It began in an ad hoc way, the brainchild of a few senior officers—Marshall chief among them—who believed that the country, and the armed forces, had something to gain by the deployment of people who knew how to tell stories with cameras. The use of men like Ford and Capra came about in part because they were not only willing to serve, but eager to invent a program where none existed; they brought expertise and initiative to the table in an area that career military officers had neither the time nor the interest to master. In the immediate wake of the attack, there was no possibility of sitting down and calmly planning a cohesive approach to creating a filmed record of the war, or to let the half-dozen different government agencies and offices that shared a role in the dissemination of information sort out the lines of authority among themselves.

Nor was there any opportunity to discuss the complicated ethics involved. On December 6, 1941, nobody anticipated there might be a need for such deliberation; a day later, the opportunity had already passed. A serious, extended discussion of the problems that might occur when a documentarian’s duty to report the war with precision and accuracy conflicted with a propagandist’s mission to sell the war to Americans whatever it took, or about the suitability of Hollywood filmmakers for either role, would, without question, have been divisive. It never happened. Some in the armed forces were astounded, and affronted, that directors who had until recently been guiding Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers across a dance floor or teaching John Wayne to look heroic on a horse would now be entrusted with educating servicemen, inspiring civilians, and, armed with guns and cameras, standing shoulder to shoulder on the battlefield with real soldiers. Hollywood directors could, after all, be put to use in Hollywood; indeed, many of them were quickly deployed on their home turf, studio backlots, where by the end of 1943 they would infuse more than three hundred movies with spirit-building messages that were often handpicked from a list of government-approved suggestions and sewn into scripts on the fly.

Some in the armed forces believed that the prospect of filmmakers without any knowledge of “the army way” wearing officers’ bars on their shoulders was an invitation to chaos. The producers of newsreels would have been more natural choices to film the war than a group of fiction makers from California; they had proven experience in getting their crews to far-flung locations, and they knew how to communicate information with energetic, punchy economy to the audiences who saw their work in movie houses every week. But they were journalists, and thus untouchable; the only control over them that the War Department could exert was to keep them supplied with footage advancing the army point of view, and that footage would have to be too compelling for them to resist.

So the decision was left to those in Hollywood who wanted to be of service and who saw a chance to reshape the reputation of their industry in doing so, and to those in Washington who understood their value. The army needed Hollywood—its manpower, its know-how, its equipment, its salesmanship, its experience, and the ideas of its most skilled directors. Movies brought tens of millions of Americans out of their homes every week and stirred them to laughter, tears, anger, and, increasingly, patriotism. Filmmakers could not win the war, but Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens, and Wyler had already shown that they could win the people. That was more than enough to secure the five men—the most influential and innovative American film directors to volunteer for service—a place of critical importance in the war effort.

The men reported for duty with as much naiveté as excitement, almost as if they were novice actors freshly cast in starring roles. They had bid farewell to their families and pried themselves loose from the comfort of their careers, and they began their time in the armed forces ready to serve, though not necessarily to take command. Their first questions were almost childlike: When do I change into my uniform? Where should I work? What is a salute supposed to look like? How do I get supplies? What do you want me to do first? The war had begun, but the words Ford had used to describe what was happening back in October—“the present emergency”—felt somehow more appropriate in the early days after Pearl Harbor, before the Allies had mounted a counteroffensive and troops started to ship out. Everything felt temporary, unplanned, contingent.

The directors were ready to pitch in, but none of them, on the day they had enthusiastically received their commissions, had anticipated that they were walking away from their lives not for weeks or months, but years. They were men of vast ability and, in most cases, with egos to match—new officers with the experience of privates and, at least outwardly, the confidence of generals. And as genuine as their desire to make a contribution was, they had more personal reasons for volunteering: They saw their time in the military as the next chapter in the success stories they had all become—a testing ground and a proving ground. Huston imagined that the war might finally slake his thirst for risk and danger. For Ford, naval service represented the last chance to live the seafaring life he had always dreamed of, and a long-deferred opportunity to discover and measure his own bravery. Capra, the immigrant made good who still saw himself as an outsider, responded to the call to duty as a chance to define himself as the most American of Americans and win the respect he still felt eluded him. Wyler—the only Jew among the men, and the only one of the five with an imperiled family in Europe—wanted the chance to fight the Germans that he had never had as a boy. And Stevens, a skilled manufacturer of gentle diversions, hoped to trade in fantasy for truth, to use his camera, for the first time, to record the world as it really was.

Over the next four years, the war would give each man exactly what he wanted, but those wishes would come true at a cost greater than any of them could have imagined. They would go to London and France, to the Pacific theater and the North African front, to ruined Italian cities and German death camps; they would film the war from land, sea, and air in ways that shaped, then and for generations after, America’s perception of what it looked and sounded like to fight for the fate of the free world. They would honor their country, risk their lives, and create a new visual vocabulary for fictional and factual war movies; some of them would also blur the lines between the two, compromising themselves in ways they would spend the rest of their days trying to understand, or justify, or forget. By the time they came home, the idea they had once held that the war would be an adventure lingered only as a distant memory of their guileless incomprehension. They returned to Hollywood changed forever as men and as filmmakers.

Decades later, at the end of their lives, they were garlanded with honors and lifetime achievement awards for their enduring contributions to art and entertainment. But privately, they would still count among their most meaningful accomplishments a body of work that most of their admirers had long forgotten or never seen at all. As long as they lived, the war lived in them.

ONE

“The Only Way I Could Survive”

HOLLYWOOD, MARCH 1938–APRIL 1939

In the spring of 1938, Jack Warner hosted an industry dinner for the exiled novelist Thomas Mann. A Nobel laureate whose outspoken opposition to Hitler and his policies had led to the revocation of his German citizenship, Mann was then Germany’s leading anti-Nazi voice in the United States. His presence at a Hollywood event was, if not a call to arms, at least a call to wallets. It was also a political coming-out of sorts for Warner and his older brother Harry, who, just three weeks after the Anschluss, were ready to commit themselves—and, more significantly, the company they and their brothers Albert and Sam had founded in 1923—to the fight against the Nazis. The day before the dinner, the studio had shut down its offices in Austria. It had stopped working with Germany four years earlier.

The fact that Warner Bros. was at the time the only studio to take such a step suggests the extreme uneasiness that characterized the behavior of the men, almost all of them Jewish, who ran Hollywood’s biggest companies. Freewheeling and entrepreneurial within the confines of the industry they had helped to create, they approached politics only haltingly and after agonized deliberation. While bottom-line imperatives were unquestionably a part of their calculus, their trepidation also emanated from an accurate understanding of their fragile place in American culture; to confront any national or international issue that might turn the spotlight on their religion was to risk animosity and even censure. The motion-picture business was still just thirty years old; most of the people who had built it were first- or second-generation Americans who were still viewed warily by the large portion of the country’s political power structure—to say nothing of the press and public—that had in common a tacit and sometimes overt anti-Semitism. The moguls knew they were perceived as arrivistes and aliens whose loyalties might be divided between the adoptive nation that was making them wealthy and their roots in their old homelands.

As Hitler consolidated his power in the 1930s, studio chiefs tended to express their Jewish identity in personal, one-on-one appeals and in the quiet writing of checks to good causes, not in speeches or statements, and certainly not in the movies they oversaw. Mostly, they stayed quiet; the decorous country-club discretion of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was much more the norm than the recent behavior of the Warners (real name: Wonskolaser), Jewish immigrants from Poland who didn’t tiptoe around their hatred of Fascism and of Hitler and were increasingly unafraid to go public and to use their position to influence others. The Warners were ardently pro-Roosevelt (unlike most of the other studio czars, who were business-minded antilabor Republicans), and Harry, who was the eldest and very much the voice of his studio, had recently urged all of his employees to join the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy, the movie industry’s first and strongest anti-Hitler rallying and fund-raising organization.

Warner’s rivals were so timid on the subject that his endorsement of anti-Nazi activism was in itself controversial enough to make headlines. The Anti-Nazi League was not at the time openly backed by any other studio heads, nor did it have the support of Joseph I. Breen, the head of the Production Code and one of the most prominent Catholic watchdogs of Hollywood morality. It was also viewed with suspicion by many Washington politicians, among them Martin Dies, the Texas congressman who in 1938 created the first version of what would become the House Un-American Activities Committee with the intention of investigating Communism in Hollywood studios, unions, and political organizations. Warner’s dinner for Mann was such a startling break with tradition that the industry newspaper Variety was moved to suggest (approvingly) that he was positioning himself at the forefront of a nascent “militant anti-Hitler campaign in Hollywood,” and the columnist Walter Winchell cited Harry as “the leader of the fight to get the other major companies to discontinue doing business with” the Nazis. But the “fight” stopped well short of the Warners confronting their competitors at other studios; there wasn’t much that Harry and Jack could do except to lead by example and hope that their rivals would start to feel pressure from their own rank and file.

Even as most studios maintained a strong financial interest in the German market and continued to do business with Hitler and his deputies, the issue of how to fight Hitler’s rise to power was becoming a subject of discussion, and discomfort, in their boardrooms and executive suites. But in 1938, all of Hollywood’s major moviemaking companies—Warners included—were adamant on one point: Whatever they thought about the Nazis, they would not allow their feelings, or anyone else’s, about what was happening in Germany to play out onscreen. On rare occasions, a veiled or allusive argument against Fascism or tyranny would make its way into a motion picture, but it was then unthinkable that studios could use their own movies to sway public opinion about Hitler without sparking instant accusations that they were acting as propagandists for foreign—meaning Jewish—interests. Much of Hollywood’s creative class—directors, writers, actors, independent producers—was becoming far more forthright about making its political sympathies known at rallies and in aid organizations, but for the most part, the noise they were making stopped when they passed through the gates and reported for work every morning. The studios didn’t particularly care who among their “talent” was for or against Roosevelt, a Communist or a Fascist sympathizer, a Jew or a Gentile, but that tolerant indifference stemmed from a steely certainty that nobody’s beliefs, whatever they might be, would seep onto the screen.

The stern eye of the Production Code as well as the studios’ collective fear of giving offense meant that controversial material was systematically weeded out of scripts before the cameras ever rolled. It also meant that even the most highly praised and successful studio directors were treated as star employees rather than as artists entitled to shape their own creative visions. When a filmmaker’s work reliably struck a chord with audiences, he was rewarded with larger budgets, access to the best of his studio’s contract stars, and a greater, though not unchecked, ability to pick and choose from among those properties that his bosses wanted to turn into movies. But there were limits, and political self-expression was one of them; no movie under the banner of a studio would ever reach American theaters unless the head of that studio was comfortable defending every frame and every line—and ideally, not a frame or line would need defending in the first place.

Sooner or later, every working director in Hollywood would find himself on the losing end of an argument about the content of one of his movies, fighting against a litany of often self-imposed restrictions about what couldn’t or shouldn’t or mustn’t be said. In 1938, none of them was powerful enough to override the caution of the motion picture industry’s leaders—certainly not John Huston, who was still trying to break into the business, or George Stevens and William Wyler, who were still working their way up. Even Frank Capra and John Ford, who were already near the top of their field, knew that on this subject, the men in charge were immovable. Over the course of a career at Fox that had begun well before the dawn of the sound era, Ford had earned the trust and respect of his bosses, most recently Darryl F. Zanuck, who had overseen all production for the studio since its 1935 merger with a rival company called Twentieth Century Pictures. Ford’s public identity as a director had not yet been fully formed—the remarkable run that would firmly establish his reputation not just within Hollywood but with the American public would begin at the end of 1938 with the shooting of Stagecoach. Thus far, the reputation he had built steadily over the last fifteen years rested most firmly on a film that Fox and most other studios in Hollywood had declined to make because of its politics. In 1935, he had gone to RKO to shoot The Informer, a dark, unusually atmospheric melodrama about a man who sells out his friend to the police during the Irish rebellion. The film was close to Ford’s heart—he had gone to Ireland as a young man in 1921 to visit relatives and support the IRA—and, although it was not a major hit, it greatly elevated Ford’s status with critics and within the industry, winning him his first Academy Award for Best Director.

But if Ford imagined that the acclaim he had received would somehow result in greater clout or creative freedom back at Fox, he was soon disillusioned. Three years after The Informer was released, he saw Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, one of the first French-language films to win widespread attention in the United States. He was astonished by the power and the frankness of Renoir’s drama, which portrayed officers, including one explicitly identified as Jewish, who were being held as prisoners during the First World War. Ford was moved by its portrayal of personal nobility in the face of a catastrophic clash of nations. It was, he said, “one of the best things I have ever seen.” But when he tried early in 1938 to get Zanuck interested in an American remake, he was rebuffed so firmly that he was dissuaded from pressing his case further. The idea of pursuing a more socially or politically committed cinema, was, he felt, futile; no film with a strong political perspective would be able to surmount the studios’ fear of being labeled interventionists, or the antipathy of the censors and what he disdainfully called the “financial wizards” to making waves. “If you’re thinking of a general run of social pictures, or even just plain honest ones,” he complained, “it’s almost hopeless.”

In 1938, Ford began to do offscreen what he was not permitted to do in his movies, and walked onto the stage of Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium to speak at an Anti-Nazi League rally for the first time. He was not going out on a limb alone. The league was only two years old, but its membership already included hundreds, soon to be thousands, of actors, directors, screenwriters, and public intellectuals, a broad mix of Democrats, Socialists, and Communists. But Ford was particularly fearless about speaking out. “May I express my wholehearted desire to cooperate to [my] utmost ability with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League,” he said that fall, when Dies’s new congressional committee started to go on the attack. “If this be Communism, count me in.”

That rhetorical flourish spoke more of Ford’s long-standing detestation of bullies like Dies than of his own political sympathies. A lifelong Catholic, he had little in common with the Popular Front leftists—many of them Jewish, many of them Communists—who were among Hollywood’s most active anti-Nazi leaders. In a letter to his nephew, he had recently written of his conviction that “Communism to my mind is not the remedy this sick world is seeking.” Although he didn’t identify his politics publicly, in the same letter he described himself as “a definite socialistic democrat—always left,” and that was, at the time, accurate.

Ford was a deeply divided personality. On sets, he could be a sadist, often singling out a cast or crew member for abuse or humiliation. But in the public sphere, he would frequently become affronted at an unfair or lopsided fight and take a stand, always preferring David to Goliath. In 1936, incensed at the studios’ antiunion policies and firm in his belief (which was tinged with some unseemly precepts about Jews and money) that “the picture racket is controlled from Wall Street,” he urged his colleagues to make common cause with Hollywood’s trade unions, and became one of the founding members of the Screen Directors Guild. A year later, he joined the SDG’s first negotiating committee. And as the Spanish Civil War pricked Hollywood’s conscience, Ford helped found organizations like the Motion Picture Artists’ Committee to Aid Spain, which eventually boasted a membership of fifteen thousand; he also served as vice chairman of the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, an anti-Fascist, pro-Roosevelt group that was heavily involved in California state politics.

At the Shrine Auditorium on the day Ford spoke, the subject was Hitler, although Dorothy Parker, who presided over the rally, refused to use his name, referring to him only as “that certain man.” The theme of the day was twofold: the evil of Fascism abroad, and the possible menace of Nazi cells within the United States. An audience of four thousand listened as the Anti-Nazi League’s special guest speaker, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, warned via audio hookup from Carnegie Hall that “America is not free from . . . Nazi activity,” which was then a common it-can-happen-here refrain in newspapers and radio broadcasts. For many in Hollywood, fighting Hitler was a good cause, but not yet a crisis. For Ford, though, the rally’s message was resonant, and the threat felt immediate. It was not premature to imagine a day when the United States would have to defend itself.

Over the last ten years, Hollywood had not made many war movies, and even those that showcased the excitement of combat or of aerial derring-do tended to emphasize above all the grave human cost of military conflict. “War itself is so ugly and so terrible,” said the French writer André Maurois that year, “that I do not believe it is possible to see a representation of such life without wishing never to live it. The difficulty is not to give a war film the character of a great adventure—a characteristic which modern war does not have.” The trauma of what was then still called the Great War was still fresh, and the loss of more than 100,000 American soldiers in just a year had left the United States deeply averse to the idea of military involvement a continent away. The First World War had been a subject for movies as early as armistice, and in 1928, Ford had made it the backdrop of one of his most moving silent films, Four Sons, about brothers from Bavaria who end up fighting on opposite sides. But no movie had defined World War I for American audiences more than Lewis Milestone’s 1930 masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s widely read novel. The film had affirmed and reinforced the public’s perception of the war as a descent into carnage that had robbed every nation that fought in it of a generation of young men, all for a tenuous peace that few believed would last. Almost ten years later, it remained for many in the industry Hollywood’s last and best word on the subject.

George Stevens had been thirteen when the United States entered the war in 1917; as a child, he had read daily reports of the deaths of American boys just a few years older than he was. Twenty years later, he shuddered at the prospect of another costly war—and like many Americans, the conflict in Europe felt remote to him. Stevens had no old-country roots anywhere; he had grown up in California, his parents were stage actors, he had cut his teeth directing slapstick shorts when he was barely out of his teens, and show business was the only life he had ever known. Though he was, at thirty-four, a laconic and introverted man who was sometimes teased on his sets about the expression of impenetrable, stone-faced preoccupation that he tended to wear like a mask, most of the dozen features he had directed for RKO were loose, energetic, and joyful. Under contract to the studio, he had distinguished himself as one of Hollywood’s most adroit up-and-coming directors, a filmmaker who had a confident light touch and a gift for bringing out strong work in his actors. He’d made a critically praised literary adaptation, Alice Adams, and a hit musical, Swing Time, and he was a particular favorite of actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck (with whom he had made Annie Oakley), and RKO’s most important female star, Ginger Rogers, whom he had just directed in the sparkling comedy Vivacious Lady.

As he watched Ford and many of his fellow directors begin to immerse themselves in a kind of activism that might eventually lead to American intervention in Europe, Stevens felt his own consciousness begin to stir with a growing sense of alarm. As a filmmaker he believed, for the first time, that he had a duty to make a movie that engaged with the world’s dangerous realities, and he thought the hits he had delivered for RKO had earned him the right to make a passion project. In 1938, he had one in mind: an adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s novel Paths of Glory, the bleak and harrowing story of three French soldiers during World War I who face a court-martial and death sentence for cowardice when they refuse orders from their superiors to advance in an attack that they know amounts to a suicide mission. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, Cobb’s novel was a mostly apolitical indictment of the brutality of war, which it depicted as a vicious game in which vain old men with little at personal risk heedlessly send young soldiers to their deaths.

Stevens later said that his own position regarding the possibility of another war was vague and uninformed; like many Americans who were old enough to remember doughboys being gassed in the trenches, he imagined at the time that an American move against Hitler’s reinvigorated Germany could lead to unimaginable loss, and that the United States would do better to turn away from the nightmare that Europe was becoming. He thought Paths of Glory could serve as both a reminder and a warning. But his pitch to make the movie was rejected repeatedly by RKO’s production chief Pandro Berman. “He [said], ‘You can’t make that picture,’” Stevens recalled. “And I said, ‘Why the hell can’t we?’” When Stevens pressed him, Berman first said that his resistance was not ideological but financial: Foreign markets were extremely important to the studios, and he believed that France would not only refuse to show Paths of Glory but might boycott all RKO product in retaliation. “Well, don’t run it in France,” Stevens replied. “This is a picture for the rest of the world.” But another delegation from the studio then approached Stevens and said flatly, “It’s an anti-war picture.”

“Yes, it’s true,” Stevens said. “It’s an argument against war.”

“Well, this is no time to be making an anti-war picture,” they replied. “War is in the offing.”

“I said, ‘What better time for an anti-war picture?’” Stevens remembered decades later. “And they said, ‘What about Hitler? If somebody doesn’t fight Hitler, what will happen?’ . . . It was another eight years before I [understood] that. I got all the way to Dachau before I could say that we should’ve fought Hitler three years before the development . . . that brought [us] into it.”

At the time, though, Stevens didn’t recognize what he later viewed as his own naiveté; he just felt thwarted.* And more than that, manhandled, especially when RKO swiftly steered him toward the property it had decided should be his next film: Gunga Din. Stevens was given a budget of nearly $2 million—the largest the studio had ever approved—to film Rudyard Kipling’s rousing story of the glory and the valor of the British Empire in India, and the film proved to be tremendously successful with audiences, who loved seeing Cary Grant in uniform and Sam Jaffe play an Indian. The movie, which was released in early 1939, raised its young director’s profile considerably, and was mostly well received by critics. Stevens gave little thought to its pro-war subtext while he was making it. But decades later, his verdict on Gunga Din was close to that of the critic for the Bombay publication FilmIndia, which called the movie “Imperialist propaganda.” “The film is delightfully evil in the fascist sense,” said Stevens. “It celebrates the rumble of the drums and the waving of the flags. . . . I really got that film done just before it would have been too late. Another year . . . and I would have been too smart to do it.”

At the same time that RKO was steering Stevens away from Paths of Glory, a far more powerful filmmaker found himself in a battle with his bosses over a war movie. It was not a position to which Frank Capra was accustomed. By 1938, Capra was the most important director on the Columbia Pictures lot, and nobody else even came close. Columbia was not a powerhouse, not one of the studios that were then referred to in the industry as the “big five” (Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, RKO, MGM, and Paramount). Like Universal, it was considered a second-tier company with more modest financial underpinnings and a far less impressive stable of talent. Capra was the exception; his 1934 comedy It Happened One Night had swept the Academy Awards, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town had won him his second Best Director Oscar two years later, and the fall of 1938 brought an adaptation of the Broadway hit You Can’t Take It With You that would win the Best Picture Oscar and bring Capra his third Best Director trophy in five years.

In the public eye, Capra was the first brand-name director of the sound era; his latest movie had landed him on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Columbia’s Gem.” The article praised his understated on-set style, explaining that he “works without mannerisms [and] confers quietly with his actors and technical crew before each take.” It also enthusiastically advanced the rags-to-riches autobiography that Capra had, even at the outset of his career, actively promoted, taking him from his humble beginnings as an immigrant boy from Sicily selling newspapers on California street corners to his present $350,000-per-annum salary and his and his wife Lucille’s lifestyle as “two of the community’s most dazzling celebrities. . . . [They] spend most of the year in a vacation cottage in Malibu Beach and send two of their three children to the U.C.L.A. nursery school.”

Columbia president Harry Cohn had such confidence in Capra that he had not hesitated to pay $200,000 to buy him the screen rights to You Can’t Take It With You. But he also knew how to say no, and, just two months after the Time story, when Capra came to him with an idea for a new movie, Cohn turned his most valuable employee down flat. For several years, Capra had wanted to film an adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play Valley Forge, a drama about the conditions endured by American fighters in the Revolutionary War during the punishing winter of 1778. The New York Times had praised the play as a chance to “worship at the shrine of an inspiring figure,” George Washington, but in fact, Anderson’s play was perfectly suited to Capra; it was a veneration not so much of General Washington as of the common soldier whose fighting spirit convinced him not to surrender.

Cohn had already turned up his nose at Valley Forge when Capra first pitched it three years earlier, just after the success of It Happened One Night. Now Capra returned to make his case with considerably more clout as well as the inducement of casting Gary Cooper as Washington—and Cohn told him the answer was still no. The reason was something Capra hadn’t anticipated: Cohn said he couldn’t bring himself to finance a movie in which audiences would be encouraged to root against British soldiers at a moment when England was under an ever greater threat from Germany. Capra didn’t put up much of a fight; he got the point. He hadn’t even considered the potential public relations peril of appearing to take the wrong side.

It was not the first time Cohn had saved Capra from himself. Over the last few years, the director’s naïve and inconsistent political instincts had sometimes led him close to disaster. In 1935, after he visited Italy and expressed his admiration for Benito Mussolini, Il Duce—a big fan of Capra’s movies—offered Columbia $1 million if Capra would direct a film biography based on his life, with Mussolini himself writing the screenplay. Capra, who was said to have a picture of the dictator on his bedroom wall, may have been interested, but Cohn, after briefly considering it, scotched the idea, saying, “After all, I’m a Jew. He’s mixed up with Hitler and I don’t want no part of it.” Cohn was blunt, coarse, and abrasive—most filmmakers couldn’t stand him—but he was also hard-nosed and shrewdly protective of his assets, Capra chief among them, and he believed that as an outsider, the director could not afford to dabble in global politics without having his loyalty questioned. Hollywood was already seen by too much of the rest of America as a nest of perversion and subversion, and the industry’s growing population of foreign-born filmmakers, writers, and actors had to walk an especially careful line. Even in 1938, Capra’s foreign origins made him such an easy target for casual distaste that a Collier’s magazine profile could lightly refer to him as a “little wop.”

Capra’s infatuation with Mussolini soon subsided, but his sympathies remained maddeningly difficult to track, even for those who knew him. He supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War while most of his Hollywood colleagues were raising funds for the Loyalists. And when it came to domestic affairs, his politics were described as “reactionary” by Edward Bernds, a sound engineer who worked with him several times and who wrote in his diary in 1936 that Capra was a “bitter Roosevelt hater” who couldn’t stop complaining about the income tax.

At any given moment, Capra’s passions could be inflamed by populism or by distrust of the working class, by loathing for Communists or contempt for capitalists, by economic self-protection or New Deal generosity. Throughout the 1930s, his politics had been defined more by his quick temper than by any ideological consistency. His conflicting impulses were manifest in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a comedy about an eccentric young New England poet who inherits $20 million and learns what it’s like to have the whole world reach into his pockets. Capra’s left-wing screenwriter Robert Riskin brought an unmistakable progressivism to the film, especially in an episode in which a farmer is driven to madness by his inability to feed and clothe his family in the Depression; his plight moves Deeds to a quasi-socialistic resolve to spread the wealth. But the movie’s ideas, and its ideals, are highly mutable. In one scene, Deeds can sound like a people’s cry against the greed of entrenched financial barons; in the next, it turns into a near-Fascist rant against big-city sophistication, with both positions expressed in a kind of one-size-fits-all anger (“Salesmen, politicians, moochers—they all want something!” Deeds complains). Still, few in Deeds’s audience would have guessed that its director was an Alf Landon supporter who shunned practically every Hollywood organization as a potential hotbed of Communism. While Ford and many of Capra’s other colleagues worked to found the Screen Directors Guild in 1936, Capra refused to join for eighteen months. When he did, it was only because his growing interest in the fight for directors’ rights finally overtook his deep scorn for unions.

In 1937, Capra took a trip to Russia with Riskin; he was treated as royalty by apparatchiks who were convinced that his movies were anticapitalist, and he was said to have reciprocated their hospitality by expressing great enthusiasm for Stalinism and contempt for “the bosses of cinema” in America. But he also made his antiwar views plain; when he was invited to watch a military parade in Red Square, he asked to be excused, saying, “I can’t stand the sight of so much war paraphernalia. . . . Just imagine what will happen when all these tanks, guns and rifles begin to shoot. No, I definitely don’t want to see this. We Americans are a peaceful nation. We don’t intend to fight.”

All of his contradictory perspectives were even more apparent in You Can’t Take It With You, which he started shooting in early 1938. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comedy about the eccentricities of a large and chaotic New York family whose elderly patriarch has for years refused to pay any income tax allowed Capra (with Riskin’s considerable help) to combine his various economic and social hobbyhorses into something approaching a unified semiphilosophy. In the film, the grandfather opposes the tax system in part because of his belief that the money he would pay is likely to be spent on armament. One of the movie’s villains is a rapacious millionaire who serves as a mouthpiece for the then-popular contention that profit-obsessed tycoons would eventually manipulate the United States into entering a war: “With the world going crazy,” he practically cackles, “the next big move is munitions, and [we] are going to cash in on it! . . . There won’t be a bullet, gun, or cannon made in this country without us.” Kaufman and Hart’s play had also included some pointed jabs at anti-Communist paranoia, but those lines may have hit too close to home for Capra; the movie stripped them away and replaced them with a virtually indecipherable monologue that begins, “Communism, fascism, voodooism—everybody’s got ‘ism’ these days! . . . When things go a little bad . . . go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business!” The speech then goes on to praise (but not define) “Americanism,” and concludes, “Lincoln said, ‘With malice toward none and charity to all.’ Nowadays they say, ‘Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.’”

Critics and the public loved the madcap homilizing of You Can’t Take It With You—at least in America. Overseas, there was considerable dissent, much of it along the lines of Graham Greene’s assertion that Capra “emerges as a rather muddled and sentimental idealist who feels—vaguely—that something is wrong with the social system” but cannot come up with a better solution than for Wall Street magnates to “throw everything up and play the harmonica.”

As the opening of his movie approached, Capra was rocked by a personal tragedy. While he was at the first Los Angeles press screening of You Can’t Take It With You, he received an emergency call summoning him to the hospital, where he learned that his severely disabled three-year-old son John had died after what was supposed to be a routine tonsillectomy. As he and Lucille grieved, he again turned his attention outward and quickly returned to work. In late 1938, after Cohn told him he couldn’t make Valley Forge, Capra visited Washington, D.C., with the notion of making a sequel to Deeds. He had in mind a film, wrote one reporter, “with a political theme. He wants to show one of his honest people—say, a cowboy Senator in the guise of Gary Cooper—against the artificial background of the two august bodies of government we know as the houses of Congress.”

Capra’s original notion for the new movie, which he was then calling Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, won Cohn’s approval, which meant that almost alone among his peers, he would have the chance to make a film that commented directly on contemporary American politics—whether or not he could figure out exactly what he wanted to say. In a 1938 interview, he tried, for the first time, to explain where he stood on various issues, but what emerged was an awkward laundry list of tenets from a man who saw himself as an embattled patriot surrounded by enemies even within his own industry. “Capra likes American institutions,” the sympathetic reporter wrote, clearly paraphrasing him. “He doesn’t regard the men who made the country as a lot of fools. He is against dictatorship. He believes in things like freedom of the press. All this makes him a marked man in Hollywood, where so many of the intellectuals are sound, orthodox American-haters.”

Capra had long been a pacifist, but on a trip to Washington to research his new movie, that began to change. He had always been susceptible to the charisma of powerful men, and when he met President Roosevelt for the first time, he was surprised to find himself dazzled; the president’s “awesome aura” made his “heart skip.” Capra, who had twice voted against Roosevelt, couldn’t quite come around to supporting him for a third term, but soon after his visit east, he broke with many of his fellow Republicans by becoming a publicly committed interventionist. He returned to Los Angeles, and on November 18, 1938, he attended an Anti-Nazi League rally titled “Quarantine Hitler” at the Philharmonic Auditorium. Before an audience of thirty-five hundred, he stepped to the microphone and spoke in support of a trade boycott, endorsing a statement that “capitulation to Hitler means barbarism and terror.” Capra never looked back. Like Ford, he was about to become one of the movie industry’s strongest advocates for America’s involvement in what he now believed was a rapidly approaching world war.

The “Quarantine Hitler” rally was held a week after the rampage of Kristallnacht, which had made most studios realize with dismay that their days of releasing movies in Germany were probably numbered; in the wake of so much destruction, many in the Hollywood community (though by no means everyone) also came to grips with the fact that complacent silence was no longer a moral option. The beating of Jews and the burning and looting of thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in Germany and Austria might have galvanized the nation and moved Washington to action more quickly if Americans had been able to see the mayhem and cruelty unfold on movie screens. But the producers of newsreels were dependent on footage they received from overseas, and all they had to present to moviegoers were some photographs of the aftermath. The inability to show Americans an unfiltered version of what was happening overseas was of great enough concern to spur an unusual summit meeting the day of the rally among the five major producers of newsreels (which included Fox, Paramount, and Universal) to discuss pooling their resources in order to better educate the public about Nazi atrocities.

For the many émigré Jews in Hollywood’s creative class, Kristallnacht marked the moment when the oppression they or their families had fled Europe to avoid could no longer be forgotten or ignored. William Wyler had not been back to his hometown of Mulhouse on the French-German border since 1930, when he had traveled there during a vacation. At the time, he had described Berlin as “the most interesting and most pathetic city in Europe . . . torn by groups of radicals and reactionaries, each fighting for a different government. . . . The people . . . seem to be hopeless in all this chaos.” In the decade since, he hadn’t gone home again, nor did he do much to identify publicly with his Jewish or his European roots. Jewish filmmakers in the 1930s were easy targets—for anti-Semites, for anti-Communists, for xenophobes. Wyler, whose English was impeccable but unmistakably accented, had worked hard to become an American; as the situation in Germany worsened, he had shown little interest in activist engagement. When Jack Warner would press the point in a letter, he would write a hundred-dollar check to the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League; when the Motion Picture Artists’ Committee—whose rallying cry was, “Watch for the Ambulance from Hollywood to Spain!”—would nudge him, he would donate two hundred dollars to a relief fund. But more than anything, he simply wanted to be left alone to make pictures, preferably without having to infuse them with any topicality or political resonance.

By 1938, Wyler was so fully assimilated that it almost came as a surprise when his background became a subject for discussion—which it did a month before Kristallnacht, when he married. The future Talli Wyler was a tall, attractive Texan with a calm and gracious demeanor, a graduate of Southern Methodist University who had come to Hollywood with some minor acting ambitions, which she would quickly abandon after her marriage. She met Wyler that September; they married a month later. Not until that December did he meet Talli’s concerned parents, who had come from Dallas to Hollywood to spend Christmas with their daughter and the man she had impulsively wed. By then, Talli was pregnant (they would name the baby girl Cathy, after the heroine of the new movie Wyler had just started directing, Wuthering Heights). Talli had told her mother and father that Wyler was Jewish, and she remembered later that they arrived for the holidays worried about what their daughter’s new life would be like “because of all the terrible things happening in Europe.” Wyler, as a new husband and expectant father, shared their distress. As a private citizen, an emigrant, and a Jew, he was profoundly troubled by the news he was reading and determined to do what he could to fight back. But as an artist, he was relieved to report for work every morning freed from the burdens he carried in the rest of his life. On the set, he could be a director; not having to be anything else for those hours was a kind of luxury.

One of the few men in Hollywood who was close enough to Wyler to understand how hard he had worked to forge a new identity for himself was John Huston. When Wyler decided to marry, he and Talli had resolved that the ceremony would be private; he called Huston, who arranged for the wedding to take place at the home of his father, the actor Walter Huston. Aside from Wyler’s brother, lawyer, agent, and his aged parents (whom he had helped emigrate from Alsace and installed in a house near his), the only guests Wyler invited to the wedding were John and his wife, Lesley, who provided the cake. The friendship between Wyler and Huston, one of the deepest and most enduring bonds between two directors in Hollywood history, was in some ways a marriage of opposites. Huston was tall, brash, sybaritic, and reckless; Wyler was a compact five foot eight, quiet, and so meticulous that he earned his lifelong nickname (“Forty-Take Wyler” or “Fifty-Take Wyler,” depending on who was doing the complaining) before he had directed even a single major success. Huston’s romantic dalliances, which included but were not limited to five marriages, were wild, public, sometimes simultaneous, and almost always impulsive. Wyler, after a stormy early marriage to Margaret Sullavan and a serious affair with his most famous leading lady, Bette Davis, married Margaret Tallichet, the woman he called “Talli,” in 1938, and at thirty-six settled into a life of contented domesticity that lasted until his death more than forty years later. Huston, thirty-two when he helped his best friend plan his wedding, was just beginning to get past what had amounted to a destructive and anarchic adolescence that had seemed to stretch through his twenties.

But the two men were more alike than they appeared to be. Wyler, despite the buttoned-down reticence that would lead one columnist, just a few years later, to call him “an iron gray man in a gray flannel suit,” was, under the surface, something of a thrill seeker who loved downhill skiing and outdoor adventure; before he married Talli, he could often be seen at the end of a shooting day tearing through the studio gates on his Harley-Davidson, frequently with an actress holding on for dear life. And Huston, a last-call bon vivant who liked to present himself as a disheveled renegade (the New York Times called him “The Great Unpressed”), was painstaking and focused when it came to his work, a quality he deeply admired in Wyler and sought to emulate.

Both men were among the first filmmakers who could legitimately be called second-generation Hollywood. Huston was the son of the highly regarded actor Walter Huston, and Wyler was a distant cousin of the man Time magazine labeled “Famed Nepotist Carl Laemmle,” the head of Universal whose propensity for hiring relatives led Ogden Nash to quip, “Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large faemmle.” It was Laemmle who had paid for Wyler’s emigration from Alsace to America and had given him his first apprenticeship as a studio shipping clerk in 1920.

A decade later, it was Wyler who gave Huston his first job on a movie, rewriting dialogue for one of his earliest talkies, a loose adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms called A House Divided. Wyler hired him to please Huston’s father, the film’s star, and he never regretted it. “Willy was certainly my best friend in the industry,” said Huston. “We seemed instantly to have many things in common. . . . Willy liked the things that I liked. We’d go down to Mexico. We’d go up in the mountains. We’d gamble.” Wyler was the teasing older brother/mentor who would mock Huston as a “long-legged, lobster-nosed, shark-livered, mutton-fisted, pernivorous Presbyterian landlubber”; Huston was the devil on his shoulder, his barstool comrade, and his eager pupil in the ways of the movie business.

After A House Divided was finished, Wyler and Huston cemented their comradeship by taking an unlikely road trip together, dressing as hobos and sleeping in boxcars, all in the name of research for a movie they didn’t end up making. It may have been a lark for Wyler, but for Huston it was one more symptom of a life that was careening out of control. His first marriage, to an alcoholic he had wed when he was just twenty, had fallen apart. In 1933, he was involved in a drunk-driving accident in which a starlet was injured. Soon after that, a young actress was killed when she stepped in front of a car Huston was driving on Sunset Boulevard. Huston, who insisted he had not been drinking, was cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury, but the case generated harsh headlines across the country (“Why Should Auto Murderers Go Free?” asked a Los Angeles Herald Examiner editorial) and he was branded a spoiled, irresponsible wreck. “The experience seemed to bring my whole miserable existence to a head,” he said. Almost broke, he exiled himself to Europe. “Whatever I turned my hand to, nothing seemed to work,” he recalled. “I’d pull myself out halfway and slide back in again.”

When Huston returned to the United States in 1935, he had done little to change the perception that, as James Agee wrote, he would “never amount to more than an awfully nice guy to get drunk with.” He was, said producer Henry Blanke, “hopelessly immature. You’d see him at every party, wearing bangs, with a monkey on his shoulder. Charming. Very talented, but without an ounce of discipline in his makeup.”

It was Wyler who rescued Huston, giving him a writing job and, more important, the chance to reinvent himself. He saw a kindred spirit in Huston—“we were both young and adventurous and we did a lot of things together, everything, from girls to skiing, God knows what,” he said—but he also saw nascent talent. “He was a good writer,” he said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have lasted together.”

While Huston had been away, Wyler’s stock had soared thanks to well-received adaptations of Lillian Hellman’s Broadway play The Children’s Hour and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. He had also stayed close to Walter Huston, directing him in Dodsworth and winning his first Best Director Academy Award nomination for the movie in 1937. Now Wyler was behind the camera again, working with Bette Davis in the Civil War melodrama Jezebel, Warner Bros.’ attempt to jump in front of Gone with the Wind, and he was unhappy with the screenplay. A week into production, he urged the studio to hire Huston not only to do rewrites but, in Blanke’s words, “to sort of represent him in preparing the last half of the script.” Blanke told Warner production head Hal Wallis that Wyler “apparently knows Huston personally, spends a great deal of time with him and will see him at night, and he maintains that Huston knows exactly his feelings and thoughts about the script. . . . Huston apparently will be a sort of a go-between operating between the writers, and you, and himself. . . . [I] told Wyler we would try it out.” Wyler’s faith was repaid when Jezebel, which was released in early 1938, became a hit and won Davis her second Oscar. Warner rewarded Huston by hiring him as a full-time contract writer who would move from one project to another depending upon where he was needed.

With Europe still fresh in his experience, Huston had a keen interest in the brewing war and its political roots, and soon after Jezebel, the studio gave him a writing assignment that would fuel that passion and consume him for a year: Juárez, an expensive, overscaled nineteenth-century historical drama about the emperor Maximilian, installed by France as Mexico’s monarch, his mad wife Carlotta, and Benito Juárez, the country’s president. Huston would work with two other writers, Wolfgang Reinhardt and Aeneas MacKenzie, and all three men shared Reinhardt’s vision that “the dialogue, as far as it is political and ideological, must consist of phrases from today’s newspapers; every child must be able to recognize that Napoleon in his Mexican intervention is none other than Mussolini plus Hitler in their Spanish adventure.”

Huston was enthralled by the lengthy process and the three-way writing effort, which he said was “by way of being dialectic” given Reinhardt’s historical knowledge of Europe, MacKenzie’s love of “the monarchical system,” and his own status as “a Jeffersonian Democrat espousing ideas similar to those of Benito Juárez.” And he knew the film was lucky to have a home at Warners, the first studio that seemed willing to champion a strong anti-Hitler allegory. Throughout 1938, as Germany’s threat to Czechoslovakia became ever greater, the three writers redrafted their script to make the parallels even more explicit. At one point the screenplay ran to 230 pages, a blueprint for what would have been a four-hour movie. With each new draft, Huston in particular would embroider, adding lines like “Our task is to fight the tyrant . . . fight . . . fight . . . to keep the cause of democracy alive.”

It’s not clear that Huston’s preferred version of the screenplay would ever have been filmable, but when Juárez finally foundered, what undid months of his work wasn’t corporate trepidation but movie-star egotism. Warner Bros. had given the title role to Paul Muni, at the time the studio’s most prestigious male star. In the last few years, Muni had made a specialty out of transformative historical roles in costume dramas, having played Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola. Though still held in critical esteem, he was a vain and humorless man who was beginning to panic about his waning box-office strength and would do anything to get his own way. When he read the script and saw that his character was written with aphoristic minimalism while his costars Brian Aherne and Bette Davis got all of the big emotional scenes as Maximilian and Carlotta, he brought his brother-in-law onto the production and had him rewrite the entire screenplay to amplify his role, while the director, William Dieterle, stood by haplessly. “The first thing Muni wanted was more dialogue. . . . He just tore the script apart and ruined it,” said Huston.

At the end of 1938, a few months before Juárez was released, Wyler helped Huston bounce back from his disappointment by hiring him to do a final polish of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script for Wuthering Heights, which he was about to start for his boss, the independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. Huston gratefully took the job but declined credit, saying, “Hecht and MacArthur had written a beautiful screenplay but it was almost in treatment form, so I put it into a screenplay. . . . For me to have intruded my name would have been vulgar.”

Wuthering Heights and Juárez had their premieres within days of each other in April 1939. Wyler’s movie was rapturously received, and despite Goldwyn’s infamous remark that “I made Wuthering Heights—William Wyler only directed it,” the film—lushly mounted, extravagantly romantic, and perfectly suited for audiences who sought refuge from the troubles of the modern world—did a great deal to burnish Wyler’s growing reputation; in what later came to be seen as an epochal year for American movies, it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best picture, edging Gone with the Wind. Juárez ended up as little more than an unhappy footnote; the version that was first tested before audiences was received so poorly that Warner Bros. immediately cut twenty-five minutes out of it. The parallels to Hitler and Mussolini that Huston had worked so hard to instill remained thunderously clear, starting with the opening titles, which refer to a “dictator” building a “war machine,” and the first scenes, in which Napoleon III (Claude Rains) intones, “Let the world know that the conquest of Mexico is only the beginning of the fulfillment of our holy mission.” Reviewing the movie in the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent took notice that Hollywood finally seemed to be shaking off its studious neutrality about Europe; he wrote approvingly that “in the contest between dictator and democrat the Warners have owned their uncompromising allegiance to the latter. . . . With pardonable opportunism, they have written between the lines . . . the text of a liberal’s scorn for fascism and Nazism.” But other critics were chillier; the movie, which was still long and ungainly, was a costly box-office flop, and the experience left Huston determined not to have his work undercut again. “I knew that if I’d been the director instead of William Dieterle, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “So I knew I was going to have to be responsible for the things I wrote” by becoming a director. “That was the only way I could survive.”

Juárez failed in part because its elliptical, propaganda-as-historical-allegory approach felt quaint to an audience that had been watching goose-stepping German soldiers in newsreels every week and was now primed for tougher, more direct attacks on Hitler from Hollywood. The week Huston’s movie opened, it was overshadowed by the premiere of an energetic Warner Bros. crime drama that marked the first time any studio had allowed a movie to take as its subject the perceived German threat within U.S. borders. The challenge built into the new film’s ad campaign took aim not only at the pusillanimous self-interest of other studios but at the evolving taste of moviegoers. Finally, Warners announced in its slogan, the public would have a chance to see something that had been too long kept off screens: “The Picture That Calls A Swastika A Swastika!”

TWO

“The Dictates of My Heart and Blood”

HOLLYWOOD AND WASHINGTON, APRIL 1939–MAY 1940

Confessions of a Nazi Spy opened in New York City on April 28, 1939, the day Hitler gave a speech at the Reichstag in which he made it clear that he considered Poland to be his for the taking. Its title alone was shocking: The word “Nazi” had never before appeared in the name of a major studio movie, and this one had been the subject of controversy from the moment Warners had acquired the movie rights a year earlier. Confessions was directed by Wyler and Huston’s close friend Anatole Litvak, a Ukrainian-born Jew who had fled Germany as the Nazis rose in the early 1930s. The story was based on a former FBI agent’s account of the infiltration of a ring of Nazis within the German-American Bund in New York City. Other companies had openly opposed Warners’ intention to make the film; the head of Paramount’s internal censorship department warned that if Confessions was “in any way uncomplimentary to Germany, as it must be if it is to be sincerely produced, then Warners will have on their hands the blood of a great many Jews in Germany.” Some within the Production Code office, which had never been particularly sympathetic to the industry’s Jewish leaders, argued that the movie courted disaster by failing to depict Hitler’s “unchallenged political and social achievements” and would be “one of the most lamentable mistakes ever made by the industry.” Others feared that it would inflame anti-Semitic accusations that Hollywood was clannishly advancing a Jewish interventionist agenda. As Confessions sped toward production, Warner Bros. assumed that it would inevitably be banned in many European countries (which it was) and might also face serious opposition from state and municipal censorship boards (which it did not). But the studio stood by its conviction that the country was ready for the movie, and was aided considerably by its star, Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg), who lobbied hard to play the FBI agent Robinson, telling Hal Wallis, “I want to do that for my people,” and who proved to be an articulate and compelling spokesman for its themes. “The world is faced with the menace of gangsters who are much more dangerous than we have ever known,” Robinson told a reporter. “And there’s no reason why the motion pictures shouldn’t be used to combat them.”

Opinions about the movie’s quality varied, but it had arrived at the perfect moment—one in which Warners’ delivery of exactly the blunt-force drama promised by all the advance publicity looked not simply shrewd, but bold and prescient. “Hitler’s pledge of non-aggression toward the Americas reached the Warners too late yesterday,” wrote one reviewer. “They had formally declared war on the Nazis at 8:15 A.M. with the first showing of their Confessions of a Nazi Spy at the Strand. Hitler won’t like it; neither will Goebbels.” Variety wondered about its “bearing on German-American relations” and worriedly described it as “a wartime propaganda picture in flavor and essence.” And a few weeks after the movie opened, Time called it “as matter-of-fact and unmincing as a newsreel, undiplomatic as an artillery bombardment” and reported that other studios, noticing the long lines outside theaters, were dusting off “productions calculated to please haters of Hitler & Co.” Among the filmmakers mentioned was Charlie Chaplin, who was working on a comedy about der Führer and a lookalike that he had tentatively titled The Dictator.

For Hollywood, there was no going back, and so, a year after he had failed to get RKO to greenlight Paths of Glory, George Stevens thought it was time to try again with a new project. Gunga Din’s success had made him even more valuable to the studio, and recent headlines had shaken him out of his antiwar stance. Now, rather than directing another comedy or musical, he wanted to take on the Nazi threat. Stevens was an avid reader who, when he wasn’t shooting a movie, could happily spend a day in an armchair paging through one book after another, and in late 1938 he had come across two newly published novels that he thought were ideal for adaptation. One of them, Address Unknown, told the story of a Jewish bookseller in the United States and his business partner, a Gentile German American who returns to the homeland and becomes enraptured by the Third Reich, then destroyed by it when he is mistaken for a Jew. The other, The Mortal Storm, was set entirely in contemporary Germany and traced the professional and personal disintegration of an anti-Hitler professor and his family as the Nazis rose to power. Both novels were brutal, vividly anti-Fascist tracts with appropriately unhappy endings.

George Schaeffer, RKO’s president, was one of the few studio chiefs who was not Jewish; he was also arguably the most risk-averse of all his colleagues. When Stevens urged Schaeffer’s lieutenant Pandro Berman to acquire movie rights to the novels, Berman warned him that Schaeffer was “definitely afraid [to] commit . . . to any picture that is propaganda against anything. . . . He has every wish that we make a picture with regard to Americanism or democracy but [is] opposed to any specific movement against any other force.” Address Unknown was immediately ruled out as a possibility; Berman cabled Stevens that “after serious thought [I] believe if [RKO] would be willing to proceed with a picture that might be classed as anti-Nazi propaganda that we would do better to consider Mortal Storm.” But Stevens barely had a moment to hold on to that hope. Later the same day, Berman cabled him again, gently but firmly pushing him toward more benign material, an adaptation of a melodramatic novel about the sins and sacrifices of a pair of British nurses called The Sisters, which the studio felt would make a fine “women’s picture” and put Stevens back on familiar turf.

Stevens was furious. At times of distress or adversity, he tended to turn inward, becoming withdrawn rather than combative. So it was characteristic that rather than confronting Berman or Schaeffer, he drafted a long letter to himself in which he railed against RKO, complaining that he had worked tirelessly for the studio, that he had been given just four weeks off in the last four years, that he had never been thanked for delivering Gunga Din, and that the company’s heavy hand was making it impossible for him to “do first-rate pictures” that were “comparable in quality to those of the first-rate directors.” Stevens was in the middle of a contract renegotiation with RKO, and in the spring of 1939 he reluctantly re-signed with the company and agreed to make The Sisters (which was retitled Vigil in the Night) as his next film that fall. Other directors would make the movies he had proposed; almost immediately, the rights to The Mortal Storm were sold to MGM, Columbia acquired Address Unknown, and before he had shot even a foot of film under his new contract, Stevens began to feel certain that he was at the wrong studio.

•   •   •

In the spring of 1939, Frank Capra was at the height of his power in the film industry. He had just tested his authority in a remarkable game of brinksmanship between the Screen Directors Guild, which was petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for certification as a union, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was in the late 1930s the primary representative of the interests of studios and which fiercely opposed unionization. Capra, who had been president of the Academy since 1935, had recently overcome his initial reluctance to join the SDG and had become its president as well. He thus had the power to turn himself into a kind of Trojan horse who could undermine either institution from within—that is, once he chose a side. He could have gone either way, but ultimately he chose to cast his lot with directors and, although he disliked them, unions. Capra threatened to resign from the Academy—the strong implication being that the creative community of Hollywood, which gave the organization whatever credibility it had, would quickly follow—unless antiunion producers agreed to leave the Academy altogether. It didn’t come to that, but the producers did agree that the Academy would no longer play any role in labor negotiations. In one bold stroke, Capra had permanently altered the Academy’s role in Hollywood, and had helped strengthen the SDG. Then, perhaps even more impressively, he managed to broker a peace between the SDG and the Association of Motion Picture Producers. In February, when the Academy presented him with a surprise third Best Director Oscar for You Can’t Take It With You and President Roosevelt’s son James, an aspiring producer, showed up at Los Angeles’s Biltmore Hotel to give the film the Academy Award for Best Picture, the honors were widely seen as a recognition not just of Capra’s artistry but of his service to the industry.

It was a surprising moment for Capra to decide to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Hollywood was beset not only by labor unrest, but by racketeering charges, the stain of organized crime in its largest trade union, and accusations that it was rife with Communists. In addition, a serious antitrust case was being pursued by the Justice Department; as one columnist would soon write, “it is probable that the industry has never faced blacker days.” The studios were trying to curry favor in the nation’s capital, not alienate it, which meant that the timing was spectacularly bad for a script that painted the entire political establishment as a swamp of crooks and cronies. Moreover, Mr. Smith’s screenwriter, Sidney Buchman, was actually a Communist. (Like many in Hollywood at the time, he was attracted by the party’s committed opposition to Fascism.)

Buchman, who became a victim of the blacklist two decades later when he refused to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, said that Capra was “terribly suspicious” about the possibility that his screenplay for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington might contain a “hidden message” that would not be apparent to him until it was too late. But what seems most remarkable about the dialogue and storyline of the finished film is that, while replete with the quasi-populist anger that Capra had first dramatized in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, its politics are completely nonspecific. The idea of making the movie as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was dropped when Sam Goldwyn refused to loan Gary Cooper to Columbia. But Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is very much a cousin to the pugnacious innocent that Cooper played; he’s an overgrown child, the head of the Boy Rangers and publisher of a kiddie newspaper, who is appointed to fill a Senate vacancy. He has no experience, little knowledge, and very few concrete ideas; his primary virtue, according to love interest Jean Arthur, resides in his “plain, decent, everyday common rightness. And this country could use some of that. Yeah. So could the whole cockeyed world.” Capra’s definition of the “cockeyed world”—a favorite locution that he would go on to use in both private letters and subsequent movies—was broad enough to encompass the entire U.S. Senate, which is steeped in corruption and pork-barrel politics, as well as most reporters, several of whom Smith beats up after they write stories noting, correctly, that he is a stooge who doesn’t understand how he’s being used. Nobody in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington belongs to any party or espouses any recognizable cause—Smith’s only big idea is a “national boys’ club,” and the closest he comes to stating an ideology is his argument that “lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for” and his climactic plea to “love thy neighbor.”

The contradictions—a veneration of the little guy but a deep distrust of a bunch of little guys once they coalesce into a mob, a pronounced contempt for the intellectual elite intermingled with a hyperpatriotic montage of monuments to great political thinkers—were pure Capra. “He was a very simplistic man,” said Buchman. “His view of the world came down to that of a fairy tale. . . . For him a politician or a capitalist were [sic] always marionettes representing good or evil. . . . I really believe that he never knew what Mr. Smith actually was saying.”

Even Capra’s closest associates were confounded by the chasm between the man and his movie. At one point during the shooting of Mr. Smith, Buchman tried to draw Capra out about some of the ideas that mattered to him in the film, particularly that of the importance of maintaining vigilance in a democracy. “Go get fucked with your theme!” Capra snapped, arguing that his only obligation was to entertain the public. “Are you a Communist?”

“Are you a Fascist?” Buchman shot back. He wasn’t the only one who wondered. In July 1939, as Capra neared the end of production in Los Angeles, Edward Bernds witnessed him explode when he couldn’t get a large group of extras to pay attention. “These are the people, the fellows you want to do things for!” Capra sneered, baiting his pro-union colleague. The tantrum led Bernds to speculate in his diary that Capra’s real credo was that “the mob is so lazy, so stupid, so wrong-headed that only harsh leadership of energetic, able men (fascism) is practical. Sure F.C. feels something like it.”

If war was on Capra’s mind, there is little evidence of it in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. When Smith makes an ardent plea to “get boys out of crowded cities”—a favorite target of Capra’s scorn—“and stuffy basements for a couple of months of the year” so they can “build their bodies and minds for a man-sized job,” it’s not the job that many were speculating was imminent; Smith quickly explains that “those boys are going to be behind these desks” sometime soon. During the making of the film, Capra almost willed himself to ignore the front pages; for all its rhetoric, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington makes almost no mention of international events at all. Capra was locked away in an editing room on a September Friday working on a cut he was planning to test a few weeks later in New York City when he learned that Germany had invaded Poland. By the time he returned to work on Monday morning, Time had given a name to what had begun. The magazine, using its own coinage, was calling it “World War II.”

Capra still had a movie to promote, and he had no intention of allowing Mr. Smith to arrive quietly. On October 16, 1939, he presided over an invitation-only preview at Washington, D.C.’s four-thousand-seat Constitution Hall with a guest list that included 250 congressmen and about half of the ninety-six senators who were so pointedly lampooned in the film as thieves, boobs, and ineffectual fogies. In his autobiography, Capra, relishing every embellishment, recounts the story of how that evening unfolded as an inexorably mounting fiasco of tragicomic proportions, with cries of “Insult!” and “Outrage!” reverberating in the auditorium and a handful of walkouts eventually turning into a stampede that left more than a thousand seats empty. Capra claimed that the press corps, which was in attendance cheek by jowl with cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, and elected officials, had turned on the movie because journalists “envied and feared film as a rival opinion maker” and were offended at being depicted as alcoholic layabouts; they “berated, scorned, vilified and ripped me open” after the movie ended, he wrote. Their contempt, in his telling, was rivaled only by that of the senators, who were affronted by the film’s suggestion that “graft could rear its ugly head in the august Senate chamber.”

The reality was less dramatic—newspaper reports at the time mentioned only minimal walkouts, no catcalls, and a polite though not effusive reception that included a round of applause at the end. But there was no disputing that Mr. Smith had made Capra some powerful enemies that evening. Kentucky senator Alben Barkley, the Democratic majority leader and a dead ringer for the Senate president played in the film by the veteran character actor Harry Carey, was particularly vocal, denouncing Capra’s work to the New York Times as “silly and stupid” and complaining that it “makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks.” Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. dismissed the movie as “ridiculous—just something from Hollywood,” and Senator George Norris, an independent from Nebraska, remarked, “I’ve been in Congress 36 years, but I’ve never seen a member as dumb as that boy.” “Not all Senators are sons of bitches,” complained another.

With some congressmen punitively suggesting to the press that it might be an ideal moment to advance anti–block booking legislation—a series of laws intended to loosen the studios’ collective chokehold on theater owners—Washington’s hostility to the movie industry was threatening to reach another of its now-frequent boiling points. Joseph P. Kennedy, then serving a brief term as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, weighed in as well, telling Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, that he considered the film “one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country,” and warning Columbia’s Harry Cohn that “to show this film in foreign countries will do inestimable harm to American prestige all over the world.”

Capra wasted no time in launching a counteroffensive. Days after the Washington preview, he told reporters, “With all those things they’ve got to do down there, with the neutrality bill, and social legislation, with war breaking loose in Europe . . . the whole majesty of the United States Senate has to move against one moving picture. It’s amazing!” As soon as it opened, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington found all the defenders it needed; the New York Times spoke for most critics when its reviewer commented that the picture was protected by “that unwritten clause in the Bill of Rights entitling every voting citizen to at least one free swing at the Senate. Mr. Capra’s swing is from the floor and in the best of humor; if it fails to rock that august body to its heels—from laughter as much as injured dignity—it won’t be his fault but the Senate’s and we should really begin to worry about the upper house.” Even those who belittled the movie’s plot as “eyewash,” as the sharp-minded, sharp-tongued Otis Ferguson did in the New Republic, argued that “the Senate and the machinery of how it may be used to advantage is shown better than it ever has been.”

Although Mr. Smith was only a middling box-office hit at the time of its release, the movie’s warm critical reception reaffirmed Capra’s status as, in the words of the New Yorker, “the surest director in Hollywood” and “professionally, at least, a consistent champion of people in the lower income groups.” In interviews, Capra was becoming increasingly prone to lofty self-aggrandizement, and in early 1940, as the film opened around the country, he was moved to announce that “the underlying value of my movies is actually the Sermon on the Mount” and to reveal his desire to make a film in which “Mussolini . . . or the Prince of Wales . . . goes down to a bordello, and then a little trollop like Mary Magdalen tells him . . . to throw away your guns, throw away every goddamn cannon in the ocean, open up your borders.”

But in private, Capra was generally more modest and temperate. Even as he started making plans for his next film, he was deeply troubled by firsthand news of the war in Europe. For the last several years, he had corresponded with Lionel Robinson, a bookseller in London whose help he had enlisted when he decided he wanted to furnish his Brentwood home with more than $100,000 of rare and antique volumes and first editions. “My dear Frank,” Robinson wrote just weeks after England declared war on Germany. “I think you might like to know what is happening to us in London now that this dreadful war has been forced upon us. So far the expected has not happened and instead of being regularly bombed by enemy aircraft we have been subject only to an uneasy anticipation of them. . . . We shall of course remain in Pall Mall as long as we can but if, and when, the position becomes really dangerous we have arranged for temporary accommodation in Oxford . . . God willing . . . whatever happens the world of books will carry on.” Within a month Robinson and his family were forced to evacuate. “I am glad your wife and children are at least out of the center of things,” Capra wrote back. “Somehow, we feel over here this terrible thing will end without too much destruction. Maybe it is just . . . hope.”

His encouraging words notwithstanding, Capra was coming to believe that the war would not be a short one. And he was among the first of his colleagues to realize that film and filmmakers would have a crucial role to play. “I never cease to thrill at an audience seeing a picture,” he said in February 1940. “For two hours you’ve got ’em. Hitler can’t keep ’em that long. You eventually reach even more people than Roosevelt does on the radio.” After four years as Academy president, Capra had recently decided to hand the reins over to the outspoken liberal producer Walter Wanger, but he planned to stay active in the organization, and in the spring, he and the Academy’s Research Council met with James Roosevelt and began to formalize plans to oversee the production of a series of new training films for the Signal Corps. The meeting, and Roosevelt’s presence at it, helped to quiet some of the antistudio bluster coming from the capital, and would mark the war’s first official alliance between Hollywood and Washington.

Soon after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington opened, Capra made a career decision that would prove pivotal: He left Columbia Pictures, the studio that he had helped put on the map over the past decade, to become an independent producer-director. At first, he considered taking his new company, Frank Capra Productions, to United Artists, which at the time functioned as what would now be considered an independent distributor, bringing strong producers like David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, and Alexander Korda into the fold, then sharing costs and profits with them while letting them make virtually all the creative decisions on their movies. But when a deal with UA failed to materialize, Capra decided he would remain itinerant. He assumed, correctly, that any studio in town would be happy to have his next movie, and it took little time for him to get Warner Bros. to agree to cofinance the film he wanted to make, Meet John Doe.

Capra’s departure left Columbia with a huge void, and created an opportunity for George Stevens. When war broke out in Europe, Stevens was just ten days from beginning production on Vigil in the Night, the melodrama RKO had insisted he direct instead of The Mortal Storm. Vigil was based on a novel by A. J. Cronin, a Scottish physician turned writer whose best seller The Citadel had been the basis for an extremely popular MGM movie two years earlier. His new story, about a young British nurse who lets her sister take the fall after her carelessness causes the death of a child, was contrived and soapy. Three writers had worked on the screenplay, but none of them could do much to fix the scene in which an elderly gossip who threatens to expose the young woman conveniently goes over a cliff in a bus, or a preposterous last act that punishes the guilty sister by having the 1918 flu epidemic sweep through London.

Stevens never felt engaged by the material, but the start of war offered him an opportunity to make it relevant. Suddenly, stories of British grit and determination under fire had an immediacy that RKO hadn’t anticipated six months earlier; throughout 1940 and 1941, stories of English patriotism would become a staple of pro-intervention Hollywood filmmaking. With almost no time to overhaul the script, Stevens did whatever he could to bring it up to date once his cameras were rolling. He had already abandoned the World War I setting and reset Vigil in present-day London. Now he made sure that the street scenes were dressed with army recruiting posters. He had background extras appear in military uniforms. He even managed to insert a few lines that acknowledged present-day realities—“Do you realize we’re as close to war as we’ll ever be?” says a hospital administrator arguing for the conservation of resources. And in Vigil’s final scene, he planned to make the presence of war explicit: As the climax played out, the main characters would hear the speech that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had delivered just weeks earlier, on September 3, 1939, in which he announced over the radio that the British government had warned Berlin that “unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany. You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.”

Over the next several years, directors, writers, and producers would become accustomed to revising their war movies on the fly, sometimes frantically adding or rewriting scenes just weeks before production ended or even scheduling last-minute reshoots to keep their work as reflective as possible of the latest breaking news. Since Hollywood pictures could reach theaters as little as six weeks after shooting was finished, timeliness, especially in the hundreds of movies that would be made about the war while it was still taking place, would quickly become of paramount dramatic (and box-office) value. By the middle of 1940, Walter Wanger and Alfred Hitchcock wouldn’t think twice about scrapping the ending of a movie they had already completed, Foreign Correspondent, and shooting a new final scene that acknowledged the bombing of Britain with an impassioned plea that the United States remain engaged and alert. (“It feels as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America . . . It’s a big story and you’re part of it . . . Hello, America! Hang on to your lights! They’re the only lights left in the world!” the reporter played by Joel McCrea shouts over the radio.) With his hasty addition to the ending of Vigil in the Night, Stevens may have been the first American director after the start of the war to try to bring some of the immediacy of a newsreel to a Hollywood drama.

But audiences never got the chance to see Stevens’s finale. RKO head George Schaeffer flew from New York to Los Angeles to order the director to cut the scene in which the characters listened to Chamberlain’s speech. “In the film,” said Stevens, “the great irritation of the war overcomes the lesser irritation of their mundane activities, which is something I was really aiming for. . . . They wanted the [scene] cut on the basis that we brought up the idea of war, and America [was] not in war, and people would be so disturbed by the picture they wouldn’t go and see it. . . . It ruined the picture.”

Stevens later said he wished that Vigil in the Night, which was ignored by audiences and rejected by critics (“heavy and stolid” was one of the kinder verdicts), had never been released. In its promotional materials, RKO made no mention of the war at all, selling the movie, which opened in February 1940 as a soap opera, with the slogan “The world’s most famous doctor rips the veil from the hidden lives of those bitter women who know men too well!” Stevens may have felt all the more mistreated because the day Vigil had its first preview for the press, the movie he had really wanted to make, The Mortal Storm, began production at MGM with Frank Borzage directing.* This time, he did not keep his feelings to himself. In March, the New York Times reported that “after several weeks of friction that started when George Stevens was assigned the megaphone at RKO for Vigil in the Night, the director and the studio parted company today.” Within a month, Stevens had signed a two-picture deal with Columbia, which was so eager to replenish its roster of talent after Capra’s departure that it agreed to an unusual proviso: Stevens, wary of any further interference from studio chiefs, stipulated that the company’s notoriously meddlesome president Harry Cohn would not be allowed to visit his sets during production. Cohn, surprisingly, agreed, promising, “You make a picture here, and I’ll never speak to you.” But looking to the future, Cohn insisted on a new contractual rider of his own, one which, with some variations, would soon become an industry standard: If a war or national emergency resulted in the closing of American movie houses for more than a week, all contracts with talent would be null and void.

William and Talli Wyler were in Tijuana on a brief vacation with two of their closest friends, Wyler’s agent Paul Kohner and his wife, Lupita, when they heard the war had started. For the Wylers, the Labor Day weekend getaway was an attempt at a brief respite after a summer of upheaval. Wyler’s father had died in July 1939, shortly before Talli had given birth. Carl Laemmle, the grudging early mentor who had helped Wyler come to America and then seen him grow into the family’s greatest success, was gravely ill with heart disease and just weeks from death. Wyler had been working nonstop—he and Talli hadn’t even had time for a real honeymoon during their first year of marriage, and as soon as they returned to Los Angeles, Talli would have to begin preparing for their move to a new home in Bel Air while Wyler started preproduction on The Westerner, Sam Goldwyn’s attempt to capitalize on the surprising success of John Ford’s Stagecoach. It was pure happenstance that the Wylers were out of the country when the news broke—they had been staying in San Diego and had just crossed into Mexico for a day trip to see a bullfight—but for Wyler it was a reminder that the border represented for so many not just a formality but a terribly significant barrier. While in Tijuana, they ran into Franz Planer, a respected cinematographer in Europe who had fled Austria and was now, like many refugees, watching weeks stretch into months while he was stuck in the no-man’s-land of a Mexican hotel, waiting for permission to enter the United States legally and hoping to obtain employment in the American movie industry.

As he returned to Hollywood, Wyler felt the war was closing in on him, but he shared his feelings with colleagues only when the pressure became too great to bear. When he declined repeatedly to contribute to Harry Warner’s pet cause, the Hollywood Community Chest, Warner gave him a private scolding. “I don’t know of anything that will breed more discontent . . . more resentment among those unfortunates who must be helped, than the knowledge that people with heaven blessed incomes refuse to extend a helping hand,” Warner told Wyler. “It is of such stuff that Communism is born. And brother, I’m sure neither of us want that in America. This is a pretty stiff letter to write, especially by one who is appealing for charity . . . but I’d rather thrash this out between ourselves than have the public learn that the ‘fantastically wealthy’ movie people are too self centered and too selfish to give a thought to their unfortunate neighbors.” The subtext, from one “brother” naturalized American to another, would have been easily understood by Wyler: Successful Jews in Hollywood had a special obligation to practice nondenominational good-neighbor philanthropy as an inoculation against the increasingly loud charge that the industry was, as one anti-Semitic senator would soon claim, “swarming with refugees” who were only “interested in foreign causes.”

Warner was serious about going public if Wyler didn’t comply; he had already planted an item with the syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist Jimmie Fidler in which he threatened to take out newspaper advertisements listing the names of all showbiz luminaries who had failed to make donations. Wyler sent Warner a check for a hundred dollars, acknowledging that it wasn’t the “real generous contribution” he had requested, but explaining in almost pleading terms that he had to put his money to “more vital” use. “Due to the fact that my original home and all branches of my family are abroad, and the political situation as it is today, I have had to distribute my charities according to the dictates of my heart and blood, and I ask you to believe me when I say that my quota has been more than commensurate with my income.” Wyler went on to tell the studio chief that he had spent so much money that he had even been forced to renege on a pledge to the United Jewish Welfare Fund. Warner softened his tone and did not make good on his threat, but his reply was still stern: “I know your heart has been disturbed by what has been going on in this turbulent world,” he wrote back, “but the fact remains that we do have hundreds of thousands of people living right here in our community and we must all extend ourselves to help them.”

As a director, Wyler was well compensated—a few months after he finished The Westerner, Warner would borrow him from Goldwyn to direct Bette Davis in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s stage melodrama The Letter at a salary of $6,250 a week. But he had not exaggerated the severe financial strain he was under. Since 1936, he had been in ongoing correspondence with the State Department, trying to sponsor two dozen distant relatives and family friends, including the man who had been his parents’ personal physician, all of whom wanted to emigrate from Mulhouse to America. In each of the cases in which Wyler petitioned the government, he had to pay the application fees and agree to serve as the guarantor not just of their travel expenses but of their financial security if they were permitted to come to the United States. As the situation for Jews in Europe grew more dire, the tone of the letters he received became desperate. “Mein Lieber Willy, we will eternally thank you for this with all our hearts,” read one. “Please do not let me and my child go under,” read another. “Give me the chance to pull ourselves through.”

In those months, Wyler seemed to want nothing more than to escape, either by throwing himself into work or by leaving the country. But there was little refuge to be found. In early 1940, he and Talli decided to plan their long-postponed honeymoon, driving from Lake Placid to Montreal and then planning a visit to a ski lodge in Quebec. When they attempted to make reservations, they were rebuffed by a hotel clerk, who told them, “I’m terribly sorry. Jews are not allowed.” The Wylers were welcome to ski and dine, but not to stay overnight. “We were stunned,” Talli said. “We had never run into anything like that. . . . It was so bald it was shocking.” After a few days at a smaller resort, the Wylers decided to end their ski vacation and take a cruise down to Cuba instead. The liner they boarded was painted with the Dutch flag—a sign of neutrality in case Hitler’s U-boats were in the vicinity. After a couple of weeks, the Wylers cut that trip short as well and returned home.

At the end of February, Wyler attended the Academy Awards banquet at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. He had received a nomination for Best Director—his second—for Wuthering Heights, which was also up for Best Picture. His competition included Capra, who was in contention for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ford, who was nominated for Stagecoach. To nobody’s surprise, they were all beaten by Victor Fleming, whose Gone with the Wind swept the awards. But in some ways the night also belonged to Ford, who had been on an unprecedented run during the last twelve months that had ended with three of his movies up for Oscars and a fourth opening just past that year’s voting deadline and bringing him the highest praise of his career.

A year earlier, Ford’s Stagecoach had arrived in theaters to reviews that were not only positive but openly surprised. Westerns had long been an essential part of Hollywood’s output; as many as 20 percent of the movies produced every year were cowboy films, but most of them were ultra-low-budget “programmers,” generally running under an hour and used to fill out double bills in rural theater chains. Stagecoach, which Ford had made for Walter Wanger at United Artists, was something different: an “A” picture with a top-notch cast, a strong screenplay by Dudley Nichols (who had won an Oscar for writing Ford’s The Informer), and an unabashedly adult story that tested the limits of the Production Code by including the apparent endorsement of a revenge killing and sympathetic depictions of a prostitute and an alcoholic. Ford won considerable credit from critics for turning a lesser genre into something respectable and even challenging, and also for his work with the hitherto unremarkable John Wayne. Ford had known Wayne for years before casting him as the movie’s hero, the Ringo Kid; he thought the actor was able but lazy, and he upbraided him mercilessly on the set (“Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes!”), but Stagecoach helped make Wayne a star and turned Ford into a first-rank director.

Wanger, a committed progressive and interventionist with a sharp eye for publicity opportunities, used the opening of the movie to initiate an attack on the Production Code in particular and industry timidity in general, proclaiming at a press conference that Hollywood was America’s best hope against European totalitarianism and that “democracy depends on the easy and prompt dissemination of ideas and opinions,” which should not be “hobbled or haltered” by censorship. Wanger would have been happy to enlist his director to the cause, and Ford did use Stagecoach to score his own political points, making one of the movie’s villains a rapacious banker, a Hoover/Coolidge surrogate prone to rhetoric like “America for Americans!” and “The government must not interfere with business . . . what this country needs is a businessman for president.”

But Ford wasn’t much interested in joining Wanger’s war of words. By the time Stagecoach opened in March, he was already back at 20th Century Fox directing Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda. The film, which was shot quickly and opened that June, didn’t make much of an impression with moviegoers, but Ford’s gentle, elegiac treatment of Lincoln confirmed for many critics that he was now, as Graham Greene wrote, “one of the best directors of the day.” Ford spent the summer of 1939 making Drums Along the Mohawk, a drama about the Revolutionary War that marked his first foray into Technicolor; although less elegantly wrought and finely shaded than Young Mr. Lincoln, the vivid, crowd-pleasing picture also offered history without politics, and high-spirited Americana with no attempt at contemporary allegory.

Ford was preparing to shoot his fourth movie in a year when the war started; this time, the politics would be so overt that there would be no chance of avoiding controversy. When Fox’s Darryl Zanuck bought the rights to John Steinbeck’s just-published novel The Grapes of Wrath, Ford told Zanuck he would “leap at the chance” to make it, but some in Hollywood assumed he had acquired an unfilmable property. Even apart from a climactic scene in which a young woman whose child has died offers her breast milk to a starving man, the story of the Joad family’s agonizing displacement was an unremitting portrait of the plight of migrant workers amid Dust Bowl poverty that depicted exactly the kind of suffering most Hollywood movies were designed to help audiences forget. Zanuck and Ford planned to shoot the film in stark black and white, using many outdoor locations and working quickly—production lasted just six weeks in October and November. Fearful of leaks to the press, they kept Nunnally Johnson’s script under lock and key.

Zanuck worried about attacks from the California Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Farmers of California, which were shown treating migrant workers as animals, and he kept the identities of those groups murky in the film, but there was no missing the fact that The Grapes of Wrath was domestic agitprop on a scale that Hollywood had almost never dared.

In the movie’s most direct political statement, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is in a work camp when someone reads him a headline about vigilantes running “Red agitators” out of the county. “Listen, what is these ‘Reds’ anyway?” Tom asks. “Every time you turn around, somebody’s callin’ somebody else a Red.” In Ford’s hands, the gentle, almost throwaway moment is hardly pro-Communist; it’s more an expression of contempt for the mob idiocy that Ford felt anti-Communist paranoia was fueling. But that, plus the movie’s implicit suggestion that a kind of benevolent, self-sustaining socialism emerged naturally from the work camps, was enough for some on the right to call Ford a Communist sympathizer. (It probably didn’t help that in the Daily Worker, Woody Guthrie announced that Ford had made “the best cussed pitcher I ever seen.”) The Catholic-run Motion Picture Daily huffed, “If the conditions which the picture tends to present as typical are proportionately true, then the Revolution has been too long delayed. If, on the other hand, the picture depicts an extraordinary, isolated, and non-usual condition . . . then no small libel against the good name of the Republic has been committed.” And Time magazine, its editorial pages all firmly in the grip of the fanatical anti-Communist Henry Luce, sneered, “Pinkos who did not bat an eye when the Soviet Government exterminated 3,000,000 peasants by famine will go for a good cry over the hardships of the Okies.”

When The Grapes of Wrath opened in January 1940, those dissents were soon drowned out. New York Times critic Frank Nugent—who after World War II would change professions and become Ford’s most prolific screenwriter—praised its “resoluteness of approach to a dangerous topic. . . . If it were any better, we just wouldn’t believe our eyes.” Variety, rarely moved to praise topicality in its bottom-line, give-the-people-what-they-want reviews, called it “a shocking visualization of a state of affairs demanding generous humanitarian attention. . . . It took courage, a pile of money, and John Ford” to tell the story. The New Republic wrote with astonishment, “There is no country in the world where such a film of truth could be made today . . . and the public is going to this picture.” And even Time grudgingly conceded that “The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book.” Ford didn’t do many interviews to promote the movie, allowing only that he was moved by the story’s similarity to the Irish potato famine, “when they threw the people off the land and left them wandering on the roads to starve. That may have had something to do with it . . . part of my Irish tradition.”

Suddenly, Ford was threatening to unseat Capra as the populist conscience of the movie business, a role he couldn’t have been less interested in taking on. As The Grapes of Wrath continued to open around the country in the spring of 1940, his mind was not on Hollywood at all. Back in 1934, Ford had attempted to rekindle his twenty-year-old dream of joining the navy by buying a 106-foot boat he named the Araner, as a tribute to his Irish mother’s Aran Islands heritage. The ketch was a perfect fit for Ford’s romantic conception of himself as a roving seaman always ready to light out; it fit right in with his founding of what he first called the “Young Men’s Purity, Total Abstinence, and Snooker Pool Club” and then the “Emerald Bay Yacht Club,” a dues-paying members-only group of high-powered Hollywood friends who would meet to drink and talk and take steambaths and sometimes go out on the water, and whose mission was, Ford said, “to promulgate the cause of alcoholism.” His jocularity wasn’t far from the truth: Ford was a blackout drunk whose long, brutal, self-obliterating benders, which always occurred when he was between movies, could last for days or weeks and sometimes ended with friends rescuing him from soiled sheets in hotel bedrooms. By that time, he would often be gaunt, malnourished, and sometimes ill enough to require hospitalization. “Drinking,” said John Wayne, “was one way Jack could really relax and shut off his mind.” But the Araner was another means of escape, and the navy commission Ford had secured for himself in 1934 meant a great deal to him.

After The Grapes of Wrath finished production, Ford and some friends, including Wayne, had boarded the Araner and sailed down from San Pedro to Guaymas harbor, a Mexican port sheltered from the open sea by Baja and the Gulf of California. While there, Ford did some semiofficial reconnaissance for the navy, looking for Japanese trawlers off the coast and filing, with almost boyish eagerness, a report to the navy’s chief intelligence officer in San Diego. “The Japanese shrimp fleet was lying at anchor,” Ford wrote. “The most striking point concerning the fleet is its personnel. This has me completely baffled. The crew came ashore for liberty in well-tailored flannels, worsteds and tweed suits. All carry themselves with military carriage. . . . For want of a better word I would call them the Samurai or military caste. . . . During three trips to Japan I have studied this type very closely. I am positive they are Naval men. . . . They constitute a real menace. Although I am not a trained Intelligence Officer, still my profession is to observe and make distinctions. . . . I will stake my professional reputation that these young men are not professional fishermen.” The pro forma letter of commendation Ford received from the navy seemed to mean more to him than any movie could. In March 1940, when Ford learned that his Emerald Bay Yacht Club pal Merian C. Cooper was leaving his job as an executive at RKO to help form the Flying Tigers, a fleet of American pilots who would work with the Chinese air force to help defend China against Japanese attacks, he was, wrote his grandson Dan Ford, “green with envy.”

That April, Ford decided to devote a greater part of his life to the navy. He had been moved by letters from friends in England predicting “heavy bloodshed if the [Germans] start air raiding” and testifying to the “great unity of purpose” in England and France. As he began production on the seafaring drama The Long Voyage Home, he worked with Merian Cooper and Frank “Spig” Wead, a World War I navy pilot who had become a successful screenwriter, to draft an official proposal for a new “Naval Photographic Organization.” Ford did not entertain any fantasies of further spy missions or glamorous postings abroad; he knew that most of the men in what came to be known as Field Photo would be, as his wife, Mary, unsentimentally put it, “over-age and rich, people who could never have been drafted.” Instead, his proposal emphasized the potential value of Hollywood professionals in creating propaganda that would show “the Navy’s weight, prowess, power, high morale, and striking force.” Ford had been impressed by the success of German propaganda and wanted to “show that a Democracy can and must create a greater fighting machine . . . than a dictator power.”

The armed forces did not yet have any cohesive plan to assemble an organized unit of filmmakers that could be widely deployed during a coming war; nobody in the navy imagined at that time that a group of middle-aged civilian filmmakers would ever find themselves anywhere near a battlefront. Ford’s proposal simply seemed like a good way to boost the navy’s image through public relations, and with surprisingly little bureaucratic impediment, he quickly won approval from the 11th Naval District Command in San Diego to oversee photographic personnel for the Naval Reserve and was told to recruit up to two hundred volunteers along with his Grapes of Wrath cinematographer Gregg Toland and sound engineer Edmund Hansen, each of whom were to bring in specialists in their own areas of expertise. They combed lists of employees at studios and processing labs, looking for electricians, film developers, publicity photographers, assistant cameramen, lab technicians, and cutters, contacting anyone with valuable experience, and many who had little more to offer than enthusiasm. The men would meet on Tuesday nights on the Fox lot, often training with props and using costume uniforms. It was, wrote Dan Ford, “a ragtag little band that looked more yacht club than navy. . . . From the very outset, John loved the theatrical side of the military . . . and if nothing else, everyone in the [unit] learned all the drills.” One early recruit recalled Ford’s decision that “all the officers were going to wear swords. . . . I was always afraid that he was going to kill someone the way he waved his sword around.” (Ford, who had an arthritic thumb, would often need help with the resheathing.)

Ford was serious about his passion for the navy, but initially Field Photo was a part-time indulgence—little more than an extension of the director’s love of pageantry, his fondness for uniforms, and his desire to spend as much time as possible in the company of like-minded men in a sort of fraternity where he could indulge a vision of himself as an admiral manqué. That changed on May 10, 1940, just weeks after Field Photo was approved, when Germany invaded France. The unit was no longer a wealthy man’s unpaid hobby. Ford was now in charge of a part of the Naval Reserve that was just eighteen months from being called up for active duty.

THREE

“You Must Not Realize That There Is a War Going On”

HOLLYWOOD, JUNE–SEPTEMBER 1940

In 1940, 60 million Americans—more than half of the adult population of the United States—went to movie theaters every week. What they got, for the price of a twenty-five-cent ticket, was usually a double feature, a cartoon or two, a historical or musical short, and ten or twenty minutes of newsreels—narrated weekly reports from Fox or Hearst or Pathé or The March of Time that served as one of the primary means by which Americans saw and heard their news before and during the war. Theaters in the 1940s were more likely to advertise what time they opened their doors—and, far more crucially, the fact that they had air-conditioning—than the actual starting time of the main feature. People would straggle in, take their seats in the middle of a picture, and watch until a full cycle had been completed. The programs were often seamless, without long breaks or sharp dividing lines between information and entertainment, documentary, reenactment, and fiction. For some, theaters were a place to shelter from the troubles of the world, but they were also where most Americans were first confronted by vivid images of the troubles themselves, brought home in footage that was more immediate and overwhelming than newspapers or radio broadcasts could ever be.

The fall of France in June 1940 was a shock that millions of Americans took in as a collective experience at movie houses, where footage of Nazi soldiers on the march and Parisians weeping in the streets made the war feel closer and more frightening. To many moviegoers, Poland and Czechoslovakia were foreign countries with foreign cultures, points on a map somewhere far away. France was closer, more real: It was the country of Charles Boyer and Jean Gabin, of romance and sex comedy and sophistication. Just a year earlier, Americans had watched Paris thaw Greta Garbo’s icy exterior in Ninotchka and turn Claudette Colbert from an ordinary girl into a pretend baroness in Midnight. Now, in the space of just six weeks, moviegoers across the country saw Winston Churchill take over from Neville Chamberlain as prime minister; they filled theaters as newsreels competed to present the best footage of the successful evacuation of Dunkirk; they heard Churchill’s thunderous “We shall fight on the beaches . . . we shall never surrender” speech to the House of Commons; and they witnessed the occupation of Paris by the Wehrmacht.

The so-called phony war was over, and Hollywood responded with a combination of economic apprehension—it was now apparent that much of the lucrative European market for its movies was going to shrivel away in a matter of months—and fervent activism. The interventionist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which opposed any further enforcement of the Neutrality Act that Congress had passed the previous fall, had formed in May, with a strong outpost in Hollywood that was funded by, among others, Zanuck, Wanger, Goldwyn, and the Warners. Weeks later, writer Philip Dunne, an instrumental early organizer of the Screen Writers Guild, helped found the Motion Picture Committee Co-operating for Defense, the first official Hollywood group committed to making films that would support any future war effort. That summer, the committee, which had been formed by all eight studio heads with the tacit approval of Roosevelt and his inner circle, kept its activities quiet, hoping not to spark any new antitrust charges or inflammatory accusations from isolationists. Its members scrupulously avoided using the word “propaganda.” But the group stood ready to produce movies if ever the administration made an official request; among those who served on its production committee was Capra, who was there to represent the Directors Guild and had agreed to make a short himself if necessary.

That summer, the Warners again made their voices heard first and loudest. The day after Churchill’s speech, Harry Warner summoned more than three thousand of his employees (as well as several members of the Hollywood press) to a vacant soundstage on the Warner lot and made a speech denouncing, in parallel terms, Nazism and Communism, all totalitarian governments, American anti-Semitism and racism, isolationists, and appeasers. His language was sometimes more impassioned than coherent, but it won considerable attention and national news coverage. In case his point had been missed by other studios—many of which, unlike Warner Bros., were still attempting to hold on to their businesses in countries that Germany had invaded—Warner promptly had his speech printed as a pamphlet he titled “United We Survive, Divided We Fall!” and made sure it was mailed not just to his colleagues and rivals but to columnists, congressmen, cabinet members, and Roosevelt.

In June, Warner Bros. had brought William Wyler back into the fold, convincing Goldwyn to loan them the director so that he could reteam with his Jezebel star Bette Davis, who was becoming so instrumental to the studio’s fortunes that she was jokingly referred to as “the fifth Warner brother.” (In the typically elaborate and personalized system of talent trading that was common at the time, a year later Jack Warner would loan Davis to Goldwyn so that Wyler could direct her again in The Little Foxes; in exchange, Goldwyn would loan Warner Gary Cooper and forgive Jack part of a $425,000 gambling debt.)

Wyler’s affair with Davis had, by all accounts, ended with his marriage to Talli, but the two were eager to work together again. The Letter, the story of a married woman on a Malayan rubber plantation charged with murdering her lover, would be the greatest of their three collaborations; it stands as one of the most psychologically acute melodramas of the era, with deep, fine-grained work by both director and star. But the shoot was, from the beginning, fraught with misery. Davis discovered she was pregnant during the first week of filming; uncertain who the father was, she kept it a secret and had an abortion, her third, the following week, telling friends later, “I should have married Willy.” She and Wyler fought several times over her interpretation of the role, and at one point she walked off the set. In the end, she said, “I did it his way. . . . Yes, I lost a battle, but I lost it to a genius. . . . So many directors were such weak sisters that I would have to take over. Uncreative, unsure of themselves, frightened to fight back, they offered me none of the security that this tyrant did.” Davis loved Wyler’s intensity, the way he braced for battle on the set, the “Who do you hate today?” attitude that she said they shared. Nor did she mind his request for repeated takes of scene after scene; she felt it mirrored her own perfectionism.

Jack Warner, however, was not so forgiving. His studio was a factory; second and third takes were permissible if something went wrong with the first one, but he had little patience for more. After he received a daily production report on The Letter showing that Wyler had used sixty-two takes to complete nine scenes, he was furious. “You are a very good director and no one can tell me you can’t make a scene in 2 to 4 takes tops and print the one you really know is right. . . . I am not going to let any one man put us out of business,” he wrote. “You must not realize that there is a war going on and that the film industry is in a very bad condition. . . . I will not stand for this practice and you must discontinue it immediately.”

Warner’s jab about the war must have particularly stung Wyler, whose attempts to help get his relatives out of France through promises of sponsorship were giving way to more direct, and probably hopeless, gestures; he had started to send packets of cash abroad with the intention that the money be used to bribe Vichy officials to protect his family. It took him a couple of false starts before he was able to compose his polite, cool response. “Please be assured that I have no intention of putting your company out of business,” he replied. “Quite the contrary. If I found it necessary to make fourteen takes of one scene there must have been a very good reason. I . . . have made a particular effort toward speed and economy in the production of this picture (even at occasional sacrifices of quality). . . . I would consider it a favor if you would . . . at least give me the benefit of the doubt.” Wyler kept his temper and got his way; Warner did not interfere again, and The Letter came in at $665,000, $35,000 under budget. Wyler never learned whether the money he had sent to France had reached its intended recipients, or if it had done any good.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
The Wall Street Journal:
“Mr. Harris has a huge story to tell, and he does so brilliantly, maintaining suspense in a narrative whose basic outcome will be known ahead of time. Five Came Back is packed with true stories that, according to the proverb, are stranger than fiction. Mr. Harris's story of five particular directors at one particular moment of history tells us much about the motion-picture industry, about the nature of filmmaking and, more generally, about the relation of art to the larger demands of society. Although Five Came Back at first seems to be chronicling a collective enterprise, it turns out to be an inspirational, if cautionary, tale of the triumph of the individual over the collective, of personal vision over groupthink, and ultimately of art over propaganda.”

The New York Times:
“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.”

Leonard Maltin:
“In addition to being a prodigious researcher and a knowledgeable film buff, Harris is a graceful writer whose prose brings the world of wartime, at home and abroad, to vivid life on every page. I tore through this hefty book as if it were a novel and can’t recommend it highly enough.”

The Washington Post:
Five Came Back, by Mark Harris, has all the elements of a good movie: fascinating characters, challenges, conflicts and intense action. This is Harris’s second brilliant book about movies. Both books demonstrate meticulous research and exceptional skill at telling intersecting and overlapping stories with clarity and power. Five Came Back enables us to watch the films of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens with new insight.”

The New Yorker:
“A splendidly written narrative.”

San Francisco Chronicle:
“Can't-put-it-down history of World War II propaganda film.”

The Los Angeles Times:
“Meticulously researched, page-turning.”

David Thompson, The New Republic:
“I recommend this book for its narrative sweep, its revelation of character, and for the many ironies that attend the idea of ‘documentary.’”

Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Mark Harris writes the old-fashioned way. His books are not quick and slick but meticulous. Definitive.  In these lush, informative pages, Harris indeed reaffirms his commitment to writing the old-fashioned way, the way that evinces profound respect for his craft, his material and his readers.”

Booklist (starred):
“It’s hardly news that the movies affect and are affected by the broader canvas of popular culture and world history, but Harris—perhaps more successfully than any other writer, past or present—manages to find in that symbiotic relationship the stuff of great stories. Every chapter contains small, priceless nuggets of movie history, and nearly every page offers an example of Harris’ ability to capture the essence of a person or an event in a few, perfectly chosen words. Narrative nonfiction that is as gloriously readable as it is unfailingly informative.”

Kirkus Reviews:
“A comprehensive, clear-eyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.”

Publishers Weekly:
“Insightful. Harris pens superb exegeses of the ideological currents coursing through this most political of cinematic eras, and in the arcs of his vividly drawn protagonists…we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities.”

Library Journal:
“Harris surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here… This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados.”

Meet the Author

Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which was a New York Times notable book of the year and was named one of the ten best nonfiction books of the decade by Salon. An editor at large at Entertainment Weekly, a columnist for Grantland, and a contributing editor at New York Magazine, he has written about pop culture and film history for many other publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostTime, and GQ. A graduate of Yale University, Harris lives in New York City with his husband, Tony Kushner.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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