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Reconstructing American Historical CinemaFrom Cimarron to Citizen Kane$

J.E. Smyth

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780813124063

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813124063.001.0001

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War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939

War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939

(p.196) (p.197) 7 War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939
Reconstructing American Historical Cinema

J.E. Smyth

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the historical films produced in the U.S. during the period from 1932 to 1939 about World War 1. During this period, Hollywood's depictions of the war, the impoverishment of the war hero and national decline revealed the frustrating barriers between the American cinema's struggle for historical prestige and the antagonism of censors and critics. Examples of these films include I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, Gold Diggers and The Roaring Twenties.

Keywords:   historical films, U.S., World War 1, war hero, film censors, film critics, God Diggers, The Roaring Twenties

“And it’s chuck him out, the brute! But it’s savior of his country when the guns begin to shoot.”

—Rudyard Kipling, quoted in Samuel Taylor Moore, America and the World War, 1937

He was a big shot—once.

—Kansas (Texas Guinan) in The Roaring Twenties, 1939

Although Civil War and western histories would dominate American historical production by the end of the 1930s, the popular film biographies of bootleggers Terry Druggan, Franky Lake, and Al Capone had served as a source for Hollywood’s future lives of Jesse James and George Armstrong Custer. Prompted to rework the prestige and historical iconography of Abraham Lincoln and Cimarron, ironically, Scarface and The Public Enemy’s twentieth-century controversies paved the way for safer nineteenth-century blockbusters. Howard Hughes’s and Darryl Zanuck’s willingness to treat Al Capone and other gangsters with the same historical tools used to film Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton certainly inflamed the censorship of the gangster cycle, but equally disturbing to contemporaries were these and other films’ references to the Great War, foreign conflict, and the troublesome lives of returning veterans, soon known as “forgotten men.” Not all veterans chose the violent and disruptive path of Nails Morton, but the relationship between war and crime was a popular historical (p.198) explanation for the postwar era, and one that was increasingly censored in the 1930s. From 1932 to 1939, Hollywood’s depictions of the Great War, the impoverishment of the war hero, and national decline revealed frustrating barriers between the American cinema’s struggle for historical prestige and the antagonism of censors and critics.

Postwar Fugitives and Forgotten Men

Robert Elliot Burns began his autobiography with the war: “Discharged from the army, after the World War, a broken man, I committed petty crime in Georgia, was caught, convicted, sentenced to ten years on the Georgia chain gang.”1 Like many returning veterans in 1919, Burns had expected life in America to be as he had left it in 1917, but it was not. His former job had paid $50 per week, but a noncombatant had taken it. Try as he might, Burns could not find another that paid him even $20 per week. Employers were unsympathetic, and he grew despondent. His brother Vincent wrote that being at the front for over a year had permanently marked Robert Burns. “He was not wounded externally but he was mentally wounded—a casualty … a typical shell-shock case.”2 Although the government made some effort to help returning soldiers readjust, pensions were minuscule, full disability pensions were far from adequate and hard to get, and the educational programs and job networks that would be instituted after the Second World War did not exist. Vincent Burns felt that the government and the public had abandoned its veterans: “His country has rewarded him with indifference in his need, with flagrant neglect, with outright injustice.”3

In the circumstances, it was understandable that Robert Burns would turn to crime. Nails Morton and allegedly Al Capone had turned bootlegging into a successful livelihood, but Burns’s postwar fate was different. His attempt at petty theft in Georgia netted him a lengthy jail sentence to be served in a chain gang. With no money, no lawyer, and no possibility of an appeal, with little hope and an understandable bitterness toward the American judicial system, Burns escaped, changed his name, and eventually became a successful Chicago businessman before authorities recognized him and forced him to return to Georgia. Now, favorable press and a moneyed lawyer promised him a new trial, but Georgia officials incarcerated him again. Ignored by his wealthy friends and trapped in a repressive judicial system, he escaped a second time and published his harrowing autobiography, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. Warner Brothers quickly sought the rights to Burns’s story and, betting on (p.199) his need for quick cash and anonymity, paid him $12,500.4 The film was part of Zanuck’s program to make stimulating and high-profile pictures based on contemporary events, but it also fit with his historical productions that focused on the lives of important or unusual Americans.

In spite of the fact that Burns and his postwar experiences marked the deviant and declining course of twentieth-century America, Burns truly believed that he was an old-fashioned, upstanding, middle-class American war hero, struggling against the government and social injustice.5 After his first escape, he became a prominent magazine editor in Chicago, and after his recapture, many wealthy Chicagoans and friends wrote to Georgia authorities to secure his release. But Georgia’s reaction was summed up by a fellow prisoner: “‘You can’t edit any magazines here, Mr. Al Capone from Chicago.’”6 Burns felt very strongly that southern prejudice against northern big-city dwellers affected his treatment. Burns had been born and raised near New York City and had redeemed himself in Chicago, the country’s two richest, brashest, and most racially and culturally diverse cities. Down south, the newspapers characterized him as a “gunman” from New York and a hardened criminal, and prison officials treated him like an escaped slave. Indeed, Burns indicted “Georgia’s viewpoint” and the southern penal system as evidence of still-thriving slavery and described the harsh beatings and even murders of black inmates. Burns wrote, “History will account for their prejudice against Yankees and Negroes,” and he grimly acknowledged that Sherman’s March to the Sea had as much to do with his brutal treatment as did his residence in New York and Chicago.7 But like the South, Burns had been marked by war and disillusionment. His autobiography portrayed a man struggling to escape from the debilitating forces of history.

From the outset, Zanuck and his writers Sheridan Gibney and Brown Holmes followed Burns’s premise—namely, that he was a patriotic solider betrayed by his country after the war. Their decision to film the injustice and corruption of the American judicial system and the public’s apathy toward its veterans was unprecedented and dangerous. The filmmakers introduce Burns (renamed Allen) as a decorated U.S. serviceman, and the early scripts open on the parade grounds in France, where Allen receives a medal. After this prologue, the narrative dissolves to America, where Allen unsuccessfully attempts to find work, but his prewar job has been taken. His ex-boss and others have spent the last three years making money, and they have little sympathy for him. In his autobiography, Burns was bitter, writing, “The promises of the YMCA secretaries and all the other ‘fountain-pen soldiers’ who promised us so much in the name of nation and the Government just before we’d go into action turned out to be the bunk.” He regretted even serving in the war and blamed the government. “Is this how my country rewards its volunteers—the men who were ready and willing to sacrifice life itself that democracy might not perish?”8 Studio writers, assisted by Burns,9 scripted his impotent fury, and one of the most powerful sequences shows him, an unemployed veteran, seeking shelter and sleep on a park bench. A fat cop forces him out, and Allen looks eloquently from his swinging billy club to the Great War memorial partially obscured by the cop’s bulk. Soon after, he tries to pawn his war medal, another empty symbol of American patriotism. The broker stares at him grimly and wordlessly pulls out a tray full of such medals.10


War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939

Tray full of pawned war medals. (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang)

After reading these first treatments, Zanuck retained the screenwriters’ searing visual prologue, which presented the disjunction between the marginalized veteran and postwar America’s economic boom. But he quickly removed the more overt criticisms of profiteering American businessmen and at first objected to the cop chasing Allen out of the park.11 This scene may have been too reminiscent of the government-authorized pension massacre outside the Capitol in 1932, where future general Douglas MacArthur ordered his men to fire on peacefully protesting, destitute veterans and their families.12 Instead, Zanuck added a text foreword to the film, outlining in a memo that he wanted Burns’s own words, quoted from his autobiography, to open the “true story.”13 He also planned a number of newspaper inserts to structurally link the narrative to contemporary history.14 Undoubtedly hoping to prevent legal retaliation, the studios asked the Reverend Vincent Burns to authenticate the story, just as he had (p.201) supplied an impressive introduction to his brother’s autobiography. In the final script of the text foreword, Vincent Burns states that his brother, Robert, was “a fugitive from a chain gang” and that “the scenes in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang which depict life in a chain gang are true and authentic, being based upon my brother’s experience.”15 Studio publicity emphasized the film’s historical nature, and Zanuck compounded this by framing it as a historical document. Yet soon after the film’s release, this text foreword mired the studio in legal trouble.

Georgia sued Warner Brothers for its alleged “unfair depiction” of the state’s penal system. Georgia authorities were particularly offended by Vincent Burns’s text foreword and cried that his endorsement was slanderous.16 Warner executives were treading a fine line. On the one hand, they had to insist on and prove I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’s historical accuracy to escape the charge of slander; on the other hand, they had to distance themselves from Burns, who was still a convicted felon on the run. In fact, Burns, who had vainly hoped that the film’s impact would secure his freedom, was recaptured shortly after its general release. In 1938, when the case against Warner Brothers was still pending, writer Sheridan Gibney gave a deposition in which he cited all the original penal code sources used in preproduction research as he was constructing the script. He also claimed in a letter to the studio that he had used Burns’s book only as a departure point for a modern discussion of chain gangs and social punishment.17 Walter MacEwan, executive assistant to producer Hal Wallis, even assured the Atlanta lawyers that the foreword had been deleted from all the 1932 release prints.18 Of course, it was a clumsy lie, but the studio won the case in October 1938, proving the hard way that an autobiography or a historical account cannot easily be charged with libel.

Despite the studio’s later efforts to camouflage the film’s controversial historical basis, Fugitive was marketed and received as a true story of a down-and-out veteran.19 In fact, despite Variety’s prediction of the failure of this “depressing” and “brutal” film, audiences were attracted by a press campaign that focused on the film’s authenticity.20 It was an uncomfortable but timely account of the country’s neglect and abuse of its war heroes. Zanuck, encouraged by the film’s critical success, injected another reference to the veteran in a much different type of Hollywood film: the musical. The Gold Diggers of 1933 was a sequel to the successful backstage Depression musical 42nd Street (1932). Gold Diggers, however, was not only set during the present Depression; the stock market crash and its aftermath were scripted as the subjects of the film’s fictional stage production (p.202) When a Broadway producer decides to stage breadlines rather than a chorus line, his audience of chorus girls is dismayed. By 1933, these women had seen too much of the Depression, both offstage and on. After all, the last musical number they appeared in (and the opening number of the film, “We’re in the Money”) was interrupted midway by the police and angry bank agents. The film’s treatment of the Depression, both onstage and backstage, is offhand and tongue-in-cheek—at least until the film’s and the stage musical’s final number, “My Forgotten Man.” Rather than ending on a major high, like the exuberant “42nd Street” coda, Carol (Joan Blondell) concludes Gold Diggers singing as “The Spirit of the Depression.” She is a somber-faced, cheaply dressed, bitter woman mourning in a minor blues key her country’s forgotten man. As the lyrics and staging indicate, the veteran is out of work, a nameless bum on the street corner hounded by fat cops who have no respect for him or even for the medals he wears on his frayed coat. The number is a soulful appeal to remember and to honor the past, which this modern age so quickly forgets, to remember the men who were used and then condemned to poverty.

It was an unusual choice for a musical finale. The fluffy stage success stories and romances of the early sound era made little reference to the past. Instead, protagonists who were obsessed with the future drove film narratives. They lived to make a hit; getting somewhere meant leaving the past behind them. Zanuck almost single-handedly created a musical that deliberately looked backward and forced the audience to remember, even as it invoked the words “forgotten” in its main lyric and refrain. Curiously, writers James Seymour, David Boehm, and Ben Markson and director Mervyn LeRoy had originally planned to insert the Great War number in the middle of the film.21 According to the script, “Shadow Waltz” and a reprise of “We’re in the Money” were supposed to conclude the stage musical and the film. But the production was shot in sequence, and Zanuck and LeRoy left “My Forgotten Man” until the end. Was Zanuck, the Great War veteran, indulging in the same historical references he had used in The Public Enemy and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang? Whatever the reasons, deploying the somber historical number at the end of the film gave it a prominence that was lacking in the script.

But according to the critics, the war was a jarring element in the modern musical. Often their reviews simply ignored the number, pointedly praising the other interludes and Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler’s innocent duets. Lucius Beebe of the Herald Tribune thought that Gold Diggers was a fluffy and pleasant film except for the last fifteen minutes. He (p.203) complained, “Superadded to this blithe and agreeable comedy recital, is an interlude depicting the woes of ‘My Forgotten Man,’ as the jazz score of the piece has it, which, although apparently inserted in the script of the film as an afterthought, tends to diminish in a very emphatic manner its effectiveness and its qualities as entertainment.” Beebe singled out the number for a thorough critique, saying that it was a “stupid intrusion on its integrity” and remarking, “It is only a pity that its producers had to diminish its effectiveness by the introduction of a shabby theme of bogus sentimentality which should be no concern of a photoplay designed primarily as amusement fare.”22 In his view, The Gold Diggers of 1933 was stepping outside its limited but charming range when it mentioned modern American history with such a definite attitude. Even Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times and Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, who enjoyed the number, called it “out of place” and a disjunctive element in a Hollywood musical.23

Perhaps for Americans, invoking the war in a film set during the Depression compounded too many tragedies. In recent years, films about the American involvement in the war increasingly stressed its fragmenting, bewildering experience and its disillusioning aftermath. In William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933), a returning wounded soldier becomes addicted to morphine and descends to an even more numbing existence of poverty and anonymity. At MGM, W. S. Van Dyck followed Manhattan Melodrama’s direct correlation between war and urban crime with They Gave Him a Gun (1937). Like Nails Nathan and allegedly Al Capone, the bookkeeper-turned-soldier goes to war and gets “another kind of diploma,” one that will prepare him for the urban battlefields. These war stories were not accounts of national endurance and success but counterhistories of the nation’s cast-off heroes. Even in John Ford’s The World Moves On (1934), a grand, generational narrative of a successful Louisiana merchant family, the Great War splits the family emotionally and ideologically. War profiteering competes with patriotism. The actual war footage that was added to the fictional narrative acted as a further fissure, separating the seamlessly scripted Hollywood fiction of the nineteenth-century South from the disjunctive documentary cinematography of the war era.24 Critics were appalled by the film; the war was part of a history that the public would rather forget.

During the silent era, before the onslaught of bitter war memoirs and rallies for disarmament, Hollywood romanticized the American wartime experience in France as a John Gilbert bildungsroman (The Big Parade, 1925) and even scripted the war as a redemptive experience for a young (p.204) Navaho brave (The Vanishing American, 1925). Filmmakers turned the war into comic relief (What Price Glory, 1926) and molded it into a classic tearjerker of thwarted love (Shopworn Angel, 1928). Narratives were set almost exclusively abroad; brief American prologues consisted of patriotic news headlines and the adolescent thrill of “joining up.” Exotic, disillusioning, and dangerous, Europe only enhanced the isolation of America. With the advent of sound, war films acquired cynicism, but the most successful of these focused on the German and British perspectives, not the American experience. The film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, filmed by James Whale in 1931, were some of the most honored films of their production years, and they reiterated the disputed nature of individual heroism and the overwhelming sacrifice of German and British youth. Their satire was new to American film audiences, who lacked Germany’s and Britain’s bitter literary tradition of war memoirs. Ernest Hemingway’s more successful novel, A Farewell to Arms, became a motion picture success for Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in 1932, but it lacked the anger, despair, and autobiographical components of its European competitors. Set entirely in Europe, the film had no American prologue, no display of cultural conflict, and no commentaries on war hysteria and indifference. In this sense, it was easy for Paramount to mold Hemingway’s novel into a familiar romance of thwarted love. American soldier Hervey Allen’s grueling, day-by-day account of his war experience, Toward the Flame (1925), employed all the horrific and bewildering images of Remarque’s and Sherriff’s fictions but had a fast, jumbled, confusing closeness to the noise, terror, and death that no fictional narrative could create. Curiously, Allen compared his memoir to a crippled film, bereft of its capacity for motion and vitality: “It is a moving picture of war, broken off when the film burned out.”25 War shattered both narrative form and cinematic time, burning history, memoir, and film narratives under the glare of Armageddon. History had reached its most destructive ends, and more than a decade later, in confronting that war, the American cinema came close to overexposure.

The Great War and Revisionist Historiography

Historian Michael Isenberg has argued that despite a growing cynicism toward war in 1930s Great War feature films, Hollywood set nearly all its war pictures abroad and therefore did not question American involvement. “The American cinema,” he wrote, “while willing to offer its (p.205) patrons an alternate version of war, was unwilling to debate issues that might transgress the nation’s most sincere ideals.”26 For Isenberg, Hollywood ingenuously absorbed and glorified the democratic rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson. Yet Hollywood filmmakers consistently plumbed the failure of Wilson’s dreams and interrogated the worth of national war aims in films set in postwar desolation and destitution. Just as in Preston Slosson’s and Louis Hacker’s institutional histories, American cinema’s critical reassessment of postwar America began with the failure of the war experience—veterans’ unemployment, urban crime, economic collapse. Despite Great War films’ popularity with audiences and critics, they attracted fervent condemnation from censors, politicians, and special-interest groups. America’s role in the war was hard to depict without recalling the nation’s postwar decline. Romance and poignant loss might flourish in war-torn Europe (A Farewell to Arms), but “over here,” the war was filmed from Robert Burns’s perspective. Even though the war made the United States a major superpower and created a postwar economic boom, it was also responsible for the devastating agricultural depression, the rise of urban America, and the influx of crime. It contributed to the decline and disappearance of the nineteenth-century values and past that still persisted in many American lives and in Hollywood’s historical films. It was the prelude to the Volstead era, Al Capone, and the Depression. It was not an event that could be credibly deployed to attract historical continuity and national patriotism. Instead, when Hollywood did mention America’s part in the war during the early sound era, it was to deliberately criticize the national past, to point out the result of the “Great Crusade”—the decline of America and the rise of a new and destabilized national history.

A huge number of American histories and memoirs of the Great War were published before the armistice, but many were merely military and political defenses justifying the nation’s involvement in the European conflict, texts that intoned the Wilsonian slogan, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” However, these words rang hollow in the next decade, particularly with many historians who were now ashamed by their willingness to spread government-approved propaganda during the war. Many American historians felt that the profession had discredited itself, so they directed their talents at exposés of war profiteering, propaganda, and political machinations.27 With the rise of urban crime and the ensuing Depression, an increasing number of popular and professional American historians condemned the country’s involvement in the war. In 1931 historian John Maurice Clark’s assessment of the war’s economic (p.206) effects acknowledged that although the Great War might not have caused the Great Depression, it had created the conditions for the nation’s decline.28 Clark did not credit the war with single-handedly initiating the crime spree, but he did not ignore the connection either. Veterans were exploited, the Veterans’ Bureau was an economic travesty, and although veterans eventually returned to the workforce, most lost their jobs within months of the stock market crash. Clark’s history was a shock to many who wanted to put the war behind them, because he showed that 1917–1918 was not a patriotic aberration without historical consequences, something that municipalities could simply commemorate with chunks of concrete and marble. The war did not make the world “safe for democracy”; it actuated postwar economic chaos and social unrest.

In 1936 former secretary of war Newton Baker published Why We Went to War in an attempt to counteract the effects of studies such as Clark’s. Baker gallantly proclaimed that public opinion from 1914 to 1918 was “well-informed” and therefore almost exclusively anti-German and inveighed against the current revisionist bent of historiography. He complained, “Twenty years later it has become the fashion to suggest that our entry into the war was not in fact for the reasons then stated and generally accepted, but was either the result of the pressure of special interests of one sort or another, or that we were beguiled by propaganda which came from overseas.”29 Baker constructed a vindication of his dead president and attempted to present a “just and clear” picture of the wartime nation by quoting Wilson, the press, and other pillars of the establishment. Unfortunately for Baker, these establishment figures were no longer trusted by much of the public in the 1930s. In 1932, still a Wilsonian and an avid internationalist, Baker failed to obtain his party’s nomination for the presidency. Instead, the aberrant voices of Tom Powers and Al Capone articulated the national mood during the post-Depression era. In his haste to defend Wilson and international intervention, Baker conveniently forgot the pre-1917 wartime press bias, Wilson’s failure to halt arms supplies to the Allies when the United States was still allegedly neutral, the British violation of the neutrality of the seas and the Treaty of London, and the massive war loans that Americans such as J. Pierpont Morgan made to the British on the assumption that the American government would bail them out. In his history, Baker refused to credit the rumor that American war policy was influenced by big business or British pressure, and he condemned those “pacifist” and even “communist” persons who subscribed to such vulgar economic determinism.30

Others, though, continued to question any simple patriotic explanation (p.207) for the government’s motivation for entering the war. Samuel Taylor Moore’s rebuttal followed in 1937. Rather than assuming that the nation shared Wilson’s and the jingoist press’s perspective, Moore’s research indicated that even as war was declared, the public regarded the conflict as “unreal, a distant nightmarish dream, incomprehensible to lay America.”31 America had been pushed to war by violations of neutrality from both Germany and Britain, but Moore also called into question America’s vaunted impartiality, citing the economic measures that consistently favored Britain. In 1939 historian H. C. Peterson went even further. Propaganda for War: The Campaign against American Neutrality, 1914–1917 concentrated on the machinations of the American plutocrats and governing classes in favoring and eventually supporting the British war effort. The war was no patriotic crusade but rather the result of a successful propaganda campaign. But according to Moore, the public simply did not care. The government’s and the press’s legerdemain was as unimportant to the public as Wilson’s democratic rhetoric was. The American war experience began in ambiguity and confusion and, for many, progressed to disillusionment and apathy. Returning soldiers faced civilian indifference and unemployment. Like Robert Burns, they soon discovered that patriotic phrases meant nothing.32

Hollywood films of the early sound era were some of the most powerful revisionist indictments of American involvement in the First World War, framing one of the most disjunctive national events of the twentieth century within the broken lives of war veterans, crime, destitution, and loss. Although Zanuck had initiated the cycle at Warner Brothers, he also occasionally inserted Great War interludes into otherwise pedestrian scripts to lend a critical edge to their period dramas. In 1937 he authorized screenwriters to add an Arlington National Cemetery prologue to This Is My Affair. When the tour guide mentions that soldiers fought the Great War to “make the world safe for democracy,” there are a number of contemptuous sniggers from the crowd. A year later, Alexander’s Ragtime Band also received some Great War historical gloss when Zanuck wedged a war montage to complicate the lives of his three protagonists. In the script, war is a baffling series of exploding shells, wire, and feet marching through mud and then the streets of New York. But for Zanuck, for the soldiers, and for Stella, the girl loved by the protagonists, there was no glory in America’s fight. The war, she shudders, “was all so horrible—and useless.” It would take Zanuck six years and another world war to alter his jaundiced perspective (Wilson, 1944). As the decade wore on, other studios were tempted by the Great War, particularly as a means of (p.208) circumventing the Production Code’s moratorium on gangster pictures and excessive violence. MGM’s clout with Hays undoubtedly enabled it to make They Gave Him a Gun, which pursued Zanuck’s early work in The Public Enemy and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Yet while some filmmakers scripted anonymous veterans and gangsters within the framework of film biography and history (repeating past successes), others took an even more unconventional view of wartime protagonists. When MGM decided to remake Paramount’s 1928 silent success The Shopworn Angel, the filmmakers considered war from a woman’s perspective. In 1938 James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan re-created the story of Private Pettigrew, a Texas recruit stationed outside New York while he waits for overseas orders. While on leave, he runs into the cynical Broadway actress Daisy (Sullavan) and gradually persuades her to fall in love with both him and the war. After Pettigrew embarks overseas, she is able to sing “Pack Up Your Troubles” with real tears in her eyes. MGM was notoriously casual about its historical films, frequently using them as unabashed backgrounds for star romances (The Gorgeous Hussy, 1936). Unlike other studios, MGM preferred to develop the history and the screenplay in separate compartments. Waldo Salt’s script was therefore concerned with the Pettigrew-Daisy romance; he left the historical background and newspaper inserts for montage expert Slavko Vorkapich to work out with director H. C. Potter.33

By 1938, MGM filmmakers had to handle Great War material with extreme care. Europe was only one year away from another full-scale war, and many Americans were understandably anxious about yet another foreign entanglement. But although MGM’s portrayal of Daisy’s cynical ennui and ensuing romantic and patriotic transformation may have looked like subtle 1938 jingoism and standard MGM melodrama, it was actually a historically accurate presentation of many Americans’ reaction to the Great War in 1917.34 Unlike Paramount’s 1928 version, which still operated under the romantic war cycle instigated by The Big Parade and What Price Glory, Daisy’s initial disdain for patriotism in the remake reflects Americans’ 1917 perspectives, while engaging postwar critiques of American involvement and contemporary war anxieties. Although at the end of the film, like Carol in Gold Diggers, Daisy becomes the singing emblem of the war, the patriotic inspiration who “smiles” through her tears, MGM’s Shopworn Angel was not the studio’s usual escapist fare. The war killed Daisy’s ill-fated romance with Pettigrew, and it fissured MGM’s standard pattern for a classically happy ending. But even more crucially, the armistice did not end the narrative as a means of justifying Pettigrew’s (p.209) death; instead, Daisy, 1917 Americans, and 1938 audiences were left to endure future defeats and a world war that had no end.

In spite of its unusual, two-edged historical continuity between 1917 and 1938 America, MGM’s remake of Shopworn Angel resembles several other Great War films released during the early sound era and pre–World War II era. In particular, these films focus on a female protagonist who has to carry on when the male character becomes imprisoned in the past by death (Shopworn Angel, 1928), poverty (Gold Diggers of 1933), or persecution (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang). If veterans were modern American history’s victims in early sound-era war features, then women functioned as historians in a world permanently destabilized by war—just as white southern plantation mistresses were left to tell the Civil War’s untold history and bitter postwar struggle for economic survival. Carol in Gold Diggers exhorted viewers to “remember,” MGM’s Daisy advised Americans to smile, yet both were fictional women existing within a constructed modern history. It was left to RKO to represent a real American woman’s wartime story. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) not only narrates Irene Castle’s war experience but also illuminates the dialectic between women as historical protagonists and Hollywood actresses’ struggle to gain a measure of power in studio-era Hollywood, often through their involvement in prestigious historical films. Irene Castle’s and Ginger Rogers’s stories were each uniquely impacted by their war experience and war stories.

Women in Film History

Throughout most of the 1930s, Ginger Rogers remained America’s most popular adult actress.35 Although her early Warner Brothers hoofer roles brought her increasing fame, her reputation as a star solidified as half of the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers dance team. Their films together from Flying Down to Rio (1932) and The Gay Divorcee (1933) to the 1938 release Carefree were RKO’s most consistently successful productions. However, their work was never accorded serious consideration as prestige filmmaking. In 1939 film historian Lewis Jacobs pointedly ignored Astaire and Rogers in his contemporary history of American film. And although film critics such as Otis Fergusson, Frank Nugent, and Howard Barnes were often enthusiastic about Astaire’s virtuosity, they dismissed the scripts and character development as trite and repetitive. Just as frequent were their attempts to marginalize Rogers’s contribution and write her out of the historic dance team. According to most contemporary American critics, (p.210) Rogers merely mimicked Astaire; she certainly lacked any active role in creating their dance numbers. Top Hat was known as “the Fred Astaire dancing film,” and the series was playfully called “Astaire’s stock company.” Astaire was the star; Rogers was “just a good-looking girl, speaking lines for money.”36 Forty-odd years later, she would discuss her independent contributions to Warner Brothers’ 42nd Street and The Gold Diggers of 1933 and remember her demeaning treatment at RKO by director Mark Sandrich and Astaire: “Over the years, myths have built up about my relationship with Fred Astaire. The general public thought he was a Svengali, who snapped his fingers for his little Trilby to obey; in their eyes, my career was his creation. It just so happens that when Fred and I came together for the first time in Flying Down to Rio, it was his second film and my twentieth.”37 Rogers emphasized the endless rehearsals and the collaborative nature of their partnership when developing routines. However, Sandrich, who directed many of the Astaire-Rogers films, saw Rogers as “merely a clothes-hanger who could dance sometimes, sing upon occasion, and perhaps make the leading man smile.” Rogers recalled, “When we finished a take, Mark came scurrying over to Fred to tell him how terrific he’d been—and wouldn’t bat an eye at me.”38

Unfortunately, RKO executives shared this shabby assessment of her work; they silenced Rogers’s complaints on the set and prevented her from participating in more prestigious RKO films.39 By 1935, Rogers was tired of this treatment and the time-consuming musicals and wanted to attempt a more challenging role in a prestige film: Queen Elizabeth in Mary of Scotland. Rogers felt that the only way she could escape her typecasting in fluffy, modern roles was to audition in disguise. With the help of John Ford and her agent Leland Hayward, she appeared at RKO as “Lady Ainslie” and was a strong contender for the role until RKO executives discovered her real identity.

Although it is understandable that the front office would insist on her continued participation in the successful, inexpensive, but slight dance films, studio executives were undoubtedly remiss in their failure to exploit Rogers’s massive popularity by casting her in more impressive vehicles. Hollywood’s most powerful American actresses all graduated to period or historical productions after successful modern roles. Barbara Stanwyck’s early work with Frank Capra led to historical work at RKO and Paramount. Shirley Temple’s biggest box-office successes were period films at Fox. Jeanette MacDonald, Mae West, and Irene Dunne were consistently cast in American period films. After a sensational start at RKO, David O. Selznick gave the lead in Little Women to Katharine Hepburn. (p.211) Newcomers Margaret Sullavan and Olivia de Havilland had received a great deal of press coverage for their American historical films. Jezebel and The Sisters represented Bette Davis’s growing power at Warner Brothers. Even Claudette Colbert (Maid of Salem), Joan Crawford (The Gorgeous Hussy), Janet Gaynor (The Farmer Takes a Wife), and Jean Harlow (Hells Angels, The Public Enemy, Suzy) made historical pictures in the 1930s. Rogers, responsible for RKO’s biggest grosses, was conspicuous by her absence in prestige filmmaking.

By 1938, Rogers had succeeded in raising the standard of her film vehicles, starring in Gregory LaCava’s Stage Door and George Stevens’s Vivacious Lady. In 1939 RKO decided to cast Astaire and Rogers in a historical film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Rogers was delighted because, as she remembered, she now had a role she could research at the library.40 In her first historical film, Rogers was appropriately cast as the dance and fashion trendsetter Irene Foote Castle. The historical development in Hollywood filmmaking had become so widespread and successful that it infiltrated the most ultramodern film cycle of them all. Rogers traded the contemporary fashion of Bernard Newman for costume designer Walter Plunkett and Irene Castle’s period prewar gowns. Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin were replaced with the hits of twenty-five years ago, and instead of Astaire and Rogers’s imported Broadway ballroom hoofing, RKO’s dance coach Hermes Pan trained the team to imitate the Castles’ dance innovations: the Castle walk, the fox-trot, and the tango.

A few years earlier, when RKO purchased the rights to Irene’s stories, studio executives had agreed that she should act as a consultant on the film.41 Although she had married twice since Vernon’s death in an air accident during the Great War, Irene remained in the public eye mainly as the arbiter of their history as America’s most famous dance and fashion team. In the 1920s she published several articles and pamphlets on her career with Vernon, including My Husband.42 RKO assigned the script to Broadway librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, who had also written the screenplay for another period musical, Show Boat. Hammerstein drew heavily on Castle’s narrative as he worked in the autumn of 1937,43 and he emphasized both the historical period and how the Castles transformed it with their chic European style. But even as the Castles changed their era, Vernon became its victim after only a few years of international stardom. Born in England, Vernon had joined the Royal Air Force in 1915. He flew in France for several months before returning to Canada to train new recruits. Then, just before he was supposed to (p.212) go home on leave to see Irene, one of his students crashed into his plane and killed him.

Hammerstein planned the war as the centerpiece of the narrative, the event that splits the historic team. He alluded to the outbreak of hostilities with an elaborate series of newspaper inserts and projected headlines, later cementing the hyperbolic textual rhetoric with Vernon’s own understated explanation of why he had to return to England to fight Germany long before the Americans joined up.44 Even as the war and Vernon’s death end the Castle dance team, Irene’s friend Walter reminds her and the audience that Vernon Castle’s memory and impact will be more lasting than his life. The diegesis may end with Vernon’s death, but Hammerstein planned to close the film with a montage of future dancing teams, all influenced by the Castles: Carl Hyson and Dorothy Dickson, Clifton Webb and Mary Hay, and the DeMarcos. And “as a wind-up to this pageant of talent and youth and gaiety,” he wrote, “Mr. Astaire and Miss Rogers emerge in a series of quickly shifting eight-bar fragments from their succession of pictures, Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time, establishing them as ‘themselves,’ the outgrowth, the modern equivalent, the symbol of rhythmic beauty and romantic appeal the Castles had for the public twenty years ago.”45 Casting Astaire and Rogers as the Castles was a smart publicity move, capitalizing on both their current popularity and the historical cycle; it also represented Hollywood’s understanding of historical continuity, of the persistence of the past and its coexistence with its most modern symbols of Hollywood glamour: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Like Rogers, Irene Castle had always been the second half of the dance team, but her memoirs served to both commemorate Vernon and describe her own active role in managing and publicizing their work. Hammerstein, with writers Dorothy Yost and Richard Sherman, followed Irene’s lead by emphasizing her role in forming the dance partnership and deciding on its professional attitude and presentation. At the beginning of their careers, Vernon tries to explain their dance style to a prospective producer, but he is diffident and inadequate. “It’s—sort of a dance,” he says. Irene replies firmly, “It is a dance.” The producer, old-time comedian Lew Fields, expostulates, “So when have you had any dancing ambitions?” Irene answers for Vernon, “Since he met me.”46 This was more credit than Ginger Rogers ever got for influencing Astaire, but the unique relationship between the Castles and Astaire-Rogers created an onscreen-offscreen resonance between the two pairs. It is unusual that Irene/Ginger is the one attempting to raise their careers from Vernon/Fred’s usual brand of corny comedy, and it was Ginger who was most anxious to (p.213) inject her career with historical prestige. As his initial treatment indicates, Hammerstein wanted to focus on the many connections between the two dance teams, and Irene’s professional assertiveness, her creation of the team, and her control of its professional etiquette and public success in Europe and America say much about Rogers’s often marginalized role in classical Hollywood filmmaking.

At the same time, Rogers decided to take the initiative and publicize her more active role in making the prestige film. Unfortunately, Irene Castle was not supportive of her decision. In fact, in her autobiography published twenty years later, Castle claimed that Fred Astaire had “begged her” not to let Rogers get the part and that the head office had promised to institute a nationwide search to keep Rogers from the role.47 But Castle was not Scarlett O’Hara, and RKO was not Selznick International or MGM. Rogers felt the antagonism but thought that Castle’s creative energies were misdirected. Castle seemed more proud of her influence on the fashion world than on dancing and insisted that she design Rogers’s wardrobe. RKO agreed nominally, but the studio hired famed period costume designer Walter Plunkett, fresh from his work on Gone with the Wind, to supervise. Plunkett, the acknowledged doyen of period design, was also a close personal friend of Rogers, and the two worked secretly to alter the designs. Rogers supported Plunkett’s and Castle’s push for historical authenticity, but perhaps out of spite, she refused to alter her platinum pageboy for the shorter Castle bob. Historical film or not, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was also a Ginger Rogers film. By 1939, Rogers had an image that, if not exactly immutable, was well established from her days at Warner Brothers. Her decision to maintain her hairstyle was her way of asserting her own creative image, of melding her dance fame and style with Irene’s. After all, there were no disagreements when Astaire did not mimic Vernon Castle’s hairstyle or British accent. Irene, however, resented this competitor whose fame had already eclipsed her own.

Aside from these disagreements over sartorial and tonsorial details, both Astaire and Rogers reacted well to the script. Although several writers worked on it, each maintained a consistent historical structure, using text titles, newspaper inserts, fashion layouts and montages, shots of the film studio where Irene worked, and frequent dialogue references to the Castles’ place in history.48 But as the scripts developed, Hammerstein’s final film references to the real Astaire and Rogers disappeared, and the text inserts of the First World War remained. Dorothy Yost in particular offered a fascinating approach, uniting the Castles’ story with the international war crisis. Text inserts show the headlines announcing (p.214) that President Wilson will keep America out of the war, while inside the newspaper, Irene models the “Castle bob,” which sent women flocking to their hairdressers.49 The scripts emphasize these competitive histories in their contrasting text inserts. The Castles’ wealthy, successful lifestyle and their impact on art and fashion represent a playful prewar innocence that looks forward to the social revolutions of the 1920s. Yet this image-driven entertainment history competes with the written history, the documents of the war and its deadly toll on British and later American youth. In the course of the film narrative, these document inserts become historical intrusions, black-and-white events to be feared by Irene. Even as they chronicle contemporary events, they also represent the inescapable historical record. It turns out that even the Castles are not immune from the grip of history. The war separates them (literally, in split-screen imagery), and Vernon enlists in the Royal Air Force. Irene retreats to Hollywood to make war pictures for Hearst’s International Studios. While on the set of one film, the director, a Cecil B. DeMille type, growls, “Let’s make this bigger than the war.”50 The film is Patria, soon to be Irene’s most popular film. But as Irene’s cheerful disregard of these overblown films intimates, these wartime pictures hardly aspired to be “accurate” portrayals of the war or even masterpieces of propaganda. Soon after her sojourn in Hollywood, Vernon is killed. Instead of going on alone, making her own dance and fashion history, the war forces Irene to become a passive receptacle of patriotism—an instrument of the established historical event. The Castles’ partnership has now been totally destroyed by the war, and the last glimpse of them together is as ghostly wraiths gliding in the air of Irene’s imagination.

War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939

The Great War splits the couple in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).


War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939

Ginger Rogers as Irene Foote Castle in Patria.

In the final stages of production, RKO decided to add an extra historical touch: a text foreword. “In a famous and beloved era,” it began, “near enough to be warmly remembered, two bright and shining stars, Vernon and Irene Castle, whirled across the horizon, into the hearts of all who loved to dance. This is their story.” But director H. C. Potter, fresh from working on Shopworn Angel, even included an afterword that reaffirmed the film’s historical basis while admitting that the script took liberties with the names of other characters. Publicity and reviews made the most of Astaire and Rogers’s venture into historical filmmaking and RKO’s choice to historicize events only twenty-five years old, but it was certainly not the first time that Hollywood gave the twentieth century the historical treatment.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was also the last time that Astaire and Rogers would dance together at RKO. Their partnership ended, fittingly, with a historical film recounting the brief but spectacular careers of their dancing antecedents. Whereas the most important event of the last generation, the Great War, had severed the Castles, only career ambition ended the Astaire and Rogers series. Rogers went on to fulfill her dream of being a serious dramatic actress, winning an Academy Award the following year for her performance in Kitty Foyle, a text-bolstered, self-proclaimed “natural history” of the American woman. But after Kitty’s saga, Rogers only occasionally made historical or period films, such as the 1920s courtroom farce Roxie Hart (1942) and a Dolley Madison biography, Magnificent Doll (1945). Just as Astaire was the epitome of the modern man, Rogers was the essence of the modern woman, and historical films seemed inconsistent with their image. Although Frank Nugent (p.216) admired The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and gave Rogers unusual top billing over her costar, he wrote, “Rogers and Astaire have been so closely identified with light comedy in the past that finding them otherwise employed is practically as disconcerting as it would be if Walt Disney were to throw Mickey to the lions.”51 But the blame, he said, lay with the conditioned audience’s familiarity with thin scripts and the brittle present, not with the actors’ work in a faultless and powerful historical drama. Film historians such as Arlene Croce have noted that Astaire and Rogers’s foray into history may have indirectly ended their future as a team.52 But in spite of both Nugent’s worries about its unconventionality and film historians’ cool reception, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was a huge box-office hit in April 1939, particularly in New York. With only The Story of Alexander Graham Bell and Dodge City for competition, the film about the Castles cleared more than $100,000 in the first week at Radio City Music Hall.53 Rather than ending a historic partnership, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle provided Ginger Rogers with the prestige to tackle RKO’s biggest film of 1940: Kitty Foyle.

American filmmakers had placed the war and the bootlegging 1920s in the past tense since the early sound era. Perhaps it was the sudden Depression that ended the Jazz Age with such decision, or perhaps it was the new sound medium that made the silent 1920s even more remote and in need of “explanation,” but Hollywood’s historical interests expanded beyond the solid outlines of the nineteenth century. Yet this willingness to historicize the antebellum and postwar eras did not necessarily condemn films to standard linear narrative and academic stodginess—Public Enemy and Scarface ensured that. By 1939, however, with many filmmakers anxious to rival or exceed the work of traditional historians, they also tended to take themselves too seriously. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle ended the pairing of Astaire and Rogers for a decade; something similar happened to James Cagney’s career in screen crime with the release of The Roaring Twenties.

Mark Hellinger, American Historian

Mark Hellinger was no ordinary filmmaker, although he shared the background of some of Hollywood’s most articulate screenwriters, having been a New York newspaperman and columnist and then a successful Broadway playwright and producer before heading west. His gritty Night Court (1932), an unproduced play, was an instant success as a film and brought him to the attention of the Hollywood studios. In spite of a few erratic (p.217) story credits, by the late 1930s, Hellinger had not yet made a name for himself. But like many of his colleagues, Hellinger realized that prestige and historical films were the industry’s most lucrative combination. Yet he was no DeMille; for him, the most powerful historical events were those that affected his own generation. The Great War and the aftermath of the Roaring Twenties were definitive historical periods, and Hellinger’s most haunting realization was that his world had become part of the past. He selected Warner Brothers, the studio most connected with filming modern American history, and pitched his story, “The World Moves On,” with the pronouncement, “This is a big picture: It is either big—or it is nothing at all.” Specifically, he believed that the history made it “big” and prestigious. “For, while it deals with a specific set of humans, the background is far more important than the characters. And the background is the history of an era.” Hellinger planned to film the history of postwar America, the Prohibition era. Perhaps worried that the historical aspects would seem too abstruse to Jack Warner and Hal Wallis, he defended his idea, saying that history was more exciting than fiction and that the events of twenty years ago would still appeal to audiences. He asked, even though he was too young to have fought in the Great War, “Did that spoil my enjoyment of The Big Parade, What Price Glory, Journey’s End, All Quiet on the Western Front ? Hell, no. … Was the earthquake too close for me to enjoy San Francisco? Did the fact that Ziegfeld died only a short time before, destroy the notion that The Great Ziegfeld was a glorious musical?”54 On the contrary, he argued, history, particularly modern history, was more interesting than fiction.

Hellinger’s efforts to persuade Warner and Wallis of the marketability of American history may have been unnecessary. The studio was in the process of making a series of highly successful and expensive western blockbusters, although it had been several years since the studio had made a large-scale gangster picture. Will Hays’s 1935 moratorium still prevented the studios from rereleasing Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. In the early 1930s, Zanuck had often tried to deflect attacks on the films’ morality by stressing their historical accuracy, but this was the very approach that the Production Code Administration feared. By 1939, Hellinger thought that he had solved the ban on gangster films and the critical uneasiness that accompanied Hollywood’s treatment of the First World War. Histori-cizing the Lost Generation, placing it within the conventional historical film framework, would make it censor proof and audience safe.

Hellinger’s treatment was unlike that of any previous historical film. He began with the armistice and proceeded year by year to focus on the (p.218) national events and how the film would introduce and structure the history. “Always remember that the background is ever-present,” he reiterated, “the Prohibition picture in the whole United States. We introduce background whenever possible, whenever logical …newspaper articles, copper situations, discussions, maps drawn in pencil on tablecloths, and so on.” Robert Lord’s short treatment took Hellinger’s pronouncement on the history of Prohibition to heart. He began the script with the Senate’s ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and planned to end the film with another senator years later denouncing the effects of the Volstead Act.55 However, it was Earl Baldwin and Frank Donohue’s rough script that fully captured Hellinger’s historical conception of the era. It was not enough to film from the present’s omniscient perspective; the writers understood Hellinger’s demand for a self-conscious structural commentary—a modern reaction to history. They constructed a foreword superimposed over a revolving globe, capturing the paradox between American national history and the challenge of international events thrust on the United States in 1914 and again in 1939. “Today, while an era crumbles beneath the heels of marching men, America has little time to remember an astounding era of her own recent history. An era which will grow more and more incredible with each passing generation—until someday, people will say it could never have happened at all.” They then outlined a Great War montage of exploding shells, spitting machine guns, and waves of falling soldiers.56 Later, writers Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay complicated this traditional historical structure by layering a foreword over a series of images, drawing the viewer from the present of fascist armies and labor riots back to breadlines, Hoover, Coolidge, big business, Wilson, and the war. But they eschewed the traditional text foreword and turned completely to the modern visual and oral qualities of cinema and radio historiography.

The final script of The Roaring Twenties, as it was soon retitled, began with an oral newsreel commentary controlling the slew of images. Rather than the deliberate contrast of media and room for ambiguity and deliberate contradiction in the use of text, The Roaring Twenties gave an updated and assertive historical commentary. This new approach to historical credibility created total control over the images and an almost ethnographic distance between viewers and their remote and quaint past. The writers planned the voice-of-God narration to punctuate the entire narrative, from April 1918 and the war through 1919, 1920, 1922, 1924, 1927, and 1929, creating what film historian Philip Rosen considered to be the epitome of nineteenth-century historical positivism.57 Yet in spite of its orally contained historical narrative, the documentary images were superimposed so quickly that they presented a rich and historically over-determined surface, a roaring complexity that no voice-over could fully restrain.


War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939

Overdetermined images: the Great War, Hoover, and 1929—all superimposed over a spinning world in The Roaring Twenties.

The film tells the stories of three fictional doughboys who meet during the war and return home to become a gangster, a bootlegger, and a lawyer—unobtrusively connecting Hollywood’s fictional narratives to history. The technique also emphasized the veteran-gangster connection established in the early 1930s by journalists and filmmakers.58 Curiously, Warner Brothers seemed comfortable with the script’s elaborate historical structures and overt didacticism. The Roaring Twenties was its prestige history picture of 1939. The studio hired Raoul Walsh to direct and then cast top star James Cagney and rising players Priscilla Lane, Jeffrey Lynn, and Humphrey Bogart. Surprisingly, the studio allowed the filmmakers a great deal of time to research and assemble the opening foreword and montage, examining everything from historical texts to newspaper clippings to Hellinger’s own memory.59

Although Hellinger had written only the story outline, Warner Brothers retained him as a reliable historical compass throughout production. Like so many other historical productions, The Roaring Twenties remained the writer’s film. Wallis even commissioned Hellinger to write “a special narrative foreword” for the film based on the opening historical montage.60 Hellinger’s foreword did not condemn or judge the 1920s and its gangsters; instead, it said, if “we will be confronted with another period similar to the one depicted in this photoplay … I pray that events as dramatized here, will be remembered.” Hellinger was “grateful” for his memories of the 1920s, not ashamed or horrified, as censors had once been. Although he envisioned American history from 1918 to 1939 as a time of major political movements and legislation, years dominated by presidents from Wilson to Roosevelt, Hellinger’s narrative was about the rise and fall of marginal figures struggling against the establishment. Shots of FDR, Hitler, Mussolini, and Wilson may have crowded the opening prologue, but the true narrative of the Roaring Twenties belonged to anonymous ex-doughboys like Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney). Although he might adopt the structures of institutional historiography, Hellinger wanted to use that establishment voice to place the country’s misfits within the trajectory of American history.


War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939

Mark Hellinger’s modern history. (The Roaring Twenties)

Hellinger’s vision was realized. Under Wallis’s supervision, Warner Brothers covered the historical highlights of the past twenty years—the war, the armistice, the Volstead Act, the crash of 1929, the repeal of Prohibition. Warner Brothers even managed to advertise the studio’s own claim to national historical importance by including its great contribution to the motion picture industry, the talking Jazz Singer (1927), within the great events of modern American history. As Wallis remarked, he wanted the spoken foreword to sound like Henry Luce’s popular newsreel series “The March of Time,”61 blending the terse authority of contemporary news reportage with the “text” of established historiography. But this establishment voice was capable of expressing postwar cynicism, noting that in 1918, “almost a million young men are engaged in a struggle which they have been told will make the world safe for democracy” (emphasis added). (p.221) In the process, the film adopted an omniscient, didactic historical tone that appealed to the studio’s burgeoning sense of prestige but often struck others outside the industry as pretentious. Warner executives admitted that they hoped to stave off any censor criticism at home or abroad by putting out publicity that The Roaring Twenties “is an historical picture,” not a crime drama.62

Many critics admired a film so obviously conceived to impress, but curiously, Frank Nugent despised it. As the years went by, the critic grew increasingly annoyed with Hollywood’s prestigious historical films. While DeMille’s willfully inaccurate western epics might elicit his amused contempt, Warner Brothers’ self-conscious modern history was too much. He wrote: “The Warners are presenting The Roaring Twenties (at the Strand) with the self-conscious air of an antiquarian preparing to translate a cuneiform record of a lost civilization. With a grandiloquent and egregiously sentimental foreword by Mark Hellinger, with employment of newsreel shots to lend documentary flavor, with a commentator’s voice interpolating ultra-dramatic commonplaces as the film unreels, their melodrama has taken on an annoying pretentiousness which neither the theme nor its treatment can justify.”63 For Nugent, American history was clearly the traditional, nineteenth-century national tales rehashed and transcribed with deadly precision in school textbooks. Warner Brothers, in attempting to emulate that style of historiography for a comparatively modern subject, was guilty of an absurd “pretentiousness.” Here, cinema had stopped being the harmless entertainment he loved to demean and was attempting something above its station. Nugent continued with his diatribe, hoping to deflate the film’s pomposity by remarking that The Roaring Twenties was really just Warner Brothers’ return to its profitable gangster era. Accidentally, Nugent hit on the heart of Warner Brothers’ original decision to film Hellinger’s history. The Roaring Twenties was a continuation of the early gangster films—but it was a culmination of the historical gangster pictures initiated by Little Caesar and The Public Enemy.64 Critic Leo Miskin, though more sympathetic to Warner Brothers’ attempt to narrate modern history, also remarked that the film was less a “view of that decade between 1920 and 1930” than it was “a condensed history of all those Warner gangster films.”65 Warner Brothers created a dual history—a deliberate and structured traditional history of the United States from the First World War through the Depression, and a farewell to its early gangster films now banned from circulation by the censors. Ironically, history was the only way to return to its early triumphs with historical gangster pictures and the effects of the war. But critics would not allow Warner (p.222) Brothers the right to make such a historical film. The studio had gone too far.

Although Hollywood had been producing critical historical successes since 1931, Nugent’s ire and Miskin’s misunderstanding resulted from the fact that Warner Brothers chose to historicize the Roaring Twenties with all the structural solemnity of a more traditional nineteenth-century historical drama. The 1920s was not a decade of national harmony, peace, prosperity, and virtue. Rather than heroic Valley Forges or poignant Gettysburgs, there was only confusing, mechanized foreign war. There were no triumphant returning heroes but disillusioned veterans and gangsters. There was no democratic freedom to return to but political and economic repression and the Volstead Act. There was crime, graft, sex, money, violence, depression, and despair. The war began the narrative of The Roaring Twenties; it created a fissure in American history, a deeply violent age, and the Great Depression. It was an era when small-time fellows struggled against the bewildering forces of history and lost. As the Texas Guinan– inspired character Kansas says of Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) in the final sequence of the film, “He used to be a big shot.” Hollywood’s historical gangsters had once been antiheroes to be proud of. Censorship silenced them, and by 1939, under a burden of history, they were defeated in the final frames of the film. It is true that Rico, Powers, and Camonte also died, but ahead of their time. Rico may be unrecognizable in death, but his name still haunts the Chicago papers. In contrast, Cagney’s character in The Roaring Twenties is a relic through much of the film. His name is forgotten by the time he is shot.

Oddly, Nugent’s choice of words in his review was apt: the postwar era was “antique” in 1939, and the gangster-veteran was a relic. But in choosing the film format of the traditional nineteenth-century epic historical narrative, Warner Brothers made critics and audiences uncomfortable. Unlike the other historical releases in 1939, including Gone with the Wind, Drums along the Mohawk, The Oklahoma Kid, and Jesse James, this was no tale of unity and patriotism or even of rebellious heroism. It was a tale of defeat and decline, initiated by the war. Hellinger’s commitment to documenting recent American history, even when narrated by an omniscient personal voice, only disconcerted the public. Hollywood had examined controversial points of view before, but always from a safe historical distance. The war, bootlegging, and the Depression were too close for comfort. Hellinger focused on the war and on the historical background to such an extent that it ceased to be background, and the characters faded into pallid nothingness. Self-consciously or not, he (p.223) created a historical world without heroes and without hope. The historical prologue, rather than reassuring and stabilizing the narrative, succeeded only in presenting a destabilized view of the national past.


(1) . Robert E. Burns, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1932), foreword, 5.

(2) . Ibid.,11.

(3) . Ibid., 35.

(4) . John E. O’Connor, ed., I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Madison: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, 1981), 12.

(5) . Burns, I Am a Fugitive, 14, 93–94.

(6) . Ibid., 146.

(7) . Ibid., 79, 196–97.

(8) . Ibid., 38–39.

(9) . Ralph Lewis to I. Howard Levinson, 5 February 1938, legal file, Warner Brothers Archive, USC, reprinted in Rudy Behlmer, ed., Inside Warner Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 6.

(10) . Undated temporary script, 1–5, Warner Brothers Archive, USC.

(11) . Zanuck memo, 7 July 1932, USC. Zanuck eventually let the cop sequence stand.

(12) . Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, The Bonus Army: An American Epic (New York: Walker, 2004).

(13) . Zanuck memo, 7 July 1932.

(14) . Zanuck’s conference notes, 7 July 1932, Warner Brothers Archive, USC.

(15) . Script, 19 July 1932, 1, ibid.

(16) . See story file, ibid.

(17) . Sheridan Gibney, deposition and letter, 23 March 1938, ibid.

(18) . Letter, 15 April 1932, ibid.

(19) . Thornton Delehanty’s New York Evening Post review mentions Burns’s autobiography.

(20) . Variety, 15 November 1932, 19; see press book, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, and Wilton A. Barrett’s review in National Board of Review, November 1932.

(21) . See revised final script, 8 February 1933, 53, 142–43, Warner Brothers Archive, USC. Production files note that “Forgotten Man” rehearsed and finished 6–9 February.

(22) . Lucius Beebe, Herald Tribune, 8 June 1933, 18. The studio kept a copy of this review (production files, Warner Brothers Archive, USC).

(23) . Edwin Schallert, Los Angeles Times, 3 June 1933, 7; Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, 8 June 1933.

(24) . William Troy, “The Unregenerate Art,Nation, 19 September 1934, 336, viewed the film as “pretentious” and turgid.

(25) . Hervey Allen, Toward the Flame (New York: George H. Doran, 1925), viii.

(26) . Michael Isenberg, War on Film (London: Associated University Presses, 1981), 140–41.

(27) . Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 111–32. See Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists: Lessons of Intervention in World War I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

(28) . John Maurice Clark, The Costs of the World War to the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1931), 285–88.

(29) . Newton Baker, Why We Went to War (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936), 4.

(30) . Ibid., 124–27.

(31) . Samuel Taylor Moore, America and the World War (New York: Green-berg, 1937), 2, 16–60. For other critical contemporary perspectives on American war aims and neutrality, see Charles C. Tansill, America Goes to War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), and Charles Seymour, American Neutrality, 1914–1917 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1935).

(32) . H. C. Peterson, Propaganda for War: The Campaign against American Neutrality, 1914–1917 (1939; reprint, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968); Moore, America and the World War, 305–6.

(33) . See Shopworn Angel, 23 March and 17 July 1938 scripts, AMPAS.

(34) . See Robert Zieger, America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

(35) . Variety polls placed her third after Temple and Deanna Durbin in the latter half of the 1930s.

(36) . Don Herold, Life, November 1935, 50; Sid, Variety, 4 September 1935, 14.

(37) . Ginger Rogers, Ginger: My Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 147.

(38) . Ibid., 150.

(39) . Ibid., 170–75.

(40) . Ginger Rogers, foreword to Irene Castle, Castles in the Air [1958] (New York: Da Capo, 1980), 5–6.

(41) . RKO Collection, Production Records, UCLA Arts Library Special Collections. The studio paid $20,000.

(42) . Irene Foote Castle, My Husband (New York: Scribner’s, 1919).

(43) . The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, script, 6 October 1937, RKO Collection, UCLA Arts Library Special Collections.

(44) . Ibid., 46.

(45) . The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, treatment, 6 October 1937, 58, ibid.

(46) . The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, revised final script, 8 November 1938, 50, ibid.

(47) . Castle, Castles in the Air, 246.

(48) . See Dorothy Yost’s script, 10 June 1938, passim, RKO Collection, UCLA Arts Library Special Collections.

(49) . The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,revised outline, 15 June 1938, 76, ibid.

(50) . Patria, script, 8 November 1938, 125, ibid.

(51) . Frank Nugent, New York Times, 31 March 1939, 19:2.

(52) . Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (New York: Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972),155–57; Edward Gallafent, Astaire and Rogers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 100.

(53) . Variety, 5 April 1939, 9, 15. In the second week, it made a remarkable $110,000 (Variety, 12 April 1939, 9).

(54) . Hellinger outline, n.d., 1–2, Warner Brothers Archive, USC.

(55) . Lord, short treatment, n.d., ibid.

(56) . The Roaring Twenties, script, 20 January 1939, 1–2, ibid.

(57) . Philip Rosen, “Securing the Historical: Historiography and the Classical Cinema,” in Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices, ed. Patricia Mellencamp and Philip Rosen (Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1984), 17–34.

(58) . This was more fully expressed by Humphrey Bogart’s doughboy–future gangster when he looks at his machine gun and says, “I think I’ll take it with me.”

(59) . Letter from Wallis to Hellinger, 16 August 1939, Warner Brothers Archive, USC.

(60) . Walter MacEwan to associate producer Sam Bischoff, 6 September 1939, ibid.

(61) . Wallis to Levinson, 4 October 1939, ibid.

(62) . A memo to Wallis from MacEwan, 1 August 1939, mentions that the British censors’ objections to crime films might be stopped if they put out advance information that the film “is an historical picture in a sense.”

(63) . Frank Nugent, NewYork Times, 11 November 1939, 12.

(64) . In an appropriate epitaph for the cycle, Jerry (Cagney) is shot to death on the steps of a massive public building, just as Rico (Edward G. Robinson) had murdered one of his former gang members in Little Caesar.

(65) . Leo Miskin, Morning Telegraph, 11 November 1939, 2.