When Marilyn went off message

Before examining the USIA's race-related documentaries, we should first ask why the agency actually needed to produce such films at all; why, that is, the government could not rely on Hollywood to do the job for it. After all, several historians have written of the symbiotic relationship that developed between the State Department and Hollywood during the Cold War. This relationship was built on links dating back to the 1920s, and saw the two bodies working together as natural allies to capture foreign film markets for political and commercial gain. In the years following the Second World War, Hollywood began to depend increasingly heavily on overseas audiences to help offset the decline in domestic cinema attendance, caused by the arrival of television and other leisure activities. The State Department's help in navigating tariff and tax barriers was therefore vital. Indeed, without Washington's muscle, in the 1950s, when roughly half of their annual revenue came from exports, many studios would probably have gone out of business.2

As it was, collaboration between moguls and diplomats continued well beyond the 1950s. On the one hand, this stymied the importation and exhibition of foreign films in the United States. As a result, few of the movies designed in the communist bloc to spread the 'sunshine of socialism' in the West were seen by ordinary Americans.3 On the other hand, the relationship also underpinned the American film industry's dominance of the international movie market.4 This helped Hollywood's values to structure the agenda of the Cold War not only for the American people, but also for hundreds of millions overseas. It played a central role in the United States' strategic use of 'soft' power (as opposed to 'hard' military and economic power), spreading its values in a form of Gramscian cultural hegemony, during the conflict. It was also one of the most powerful instruments in the process of American 'cultural imperialism' in the decades after the Second World War.5

This close relationship naturally had more explicitly political implications, particularly when the Cold War was at its height. Immediately after the Second World War, Washington made particular use of Hollywood movies in the process of 'de-Nazifying' Germany and Austria and in 're-educating' Japan.6 In the 1940s and 1950s, the film industry's trade lobby, the Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA), happily called itself 'the Little State Department', so isomorphic were its methods and ideology with American foreign policy.7 During this period and beyond, motion picture industry spokesmen regularly claimed they acted as 'ambassadors of goodwill' for the United States. Moreover, in emphasising their role in the 'struggle for men's minds', producers like Walter Wanger often echoed the very language that Washington's own psychological warriors used to describe the Cold War.8 Film executives and diplomats shared the same worldview, and could therefore easily agree on what types of films best served the national interest. The overall effect of this mutually beneficial, politico-economic arrangement was an extraordinarily powerful 'Marilyn Monroe doctrine', to borrow Austrian historian Rheinhold Wagnleitner's playful phrase.9 Overseas filmmakers might, to their cost, have been aware of this collaboration, but it is highly unlikely foreign film-goers were. Hence German director Wim Wenders' famous (if contested) claim in the 1970s that American movies — with their lavish sets and easily understood pictorial grammar glamorizing capitalism — had 'colonized the subconscious' of Europe.10

As important as these ties between Washington and Hollywood were in terms of facilitating the international supply of American movies, the State Department was never in a position to regulate systematically the content of commercial motion pictures exported overseas. State Department archives from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are replete with complaints from embassy staff about the damaging impression that Hollywood films were giving of American life to foreigners. Had the State Department had its own way, American movies would have produced far fewer pictures loaded with gangsters, corruption, sex and juvenile delinquency. Even portraying the high standard of living that Americans enjoyed — one of the central planks of Washington's propaganda throughout the Cold War — could have its downside if not fully contextualised. One US embassy report from New Zealand from the early 1950s, for instance, noted how rural audiences had greeted a March of Time story on farm modernisation in the United States with boos, reflecting the dismay the locals felt at the degree of material prosperity Americans were depicted as enjoying. Elsewhere, embassy reports and opinion polls showed that the common image overseas of the United States was one of a dynamic but violent place, a wealthy society where the opportunity to do well was available to all, but where it required aggression to take that opportunity.

An embarrassment of colour: 'Pinky' Johnson (Jeanne Crain), a light-skinned African-American who passed for white while at school in the northern United States, helps her aggrieved southern grandmother (Ethel Waters) with the washing in a scene from the liberal 'message' film, Pinky (1949). Twentieth Century Fox/The Kobal Collection.

Diplomats often believed that movies were chiefly to blame for constructing this impression of hedonism mixed with social Darwinism.11

State Department records from the 1940s and 1950s show that officials were peculiarly sensitive to Hollywood's depiction of American race relations and of black Americans generally. One 1953 report from the US public affairs officer in the Caribbean island of Martinique did comment positively on Columbia's Harlem Globe Trotters (1951), for showing the 'Negro basketball players . . . as well dressed, well-paid and well-fed Americans whose skill is admired by Negro and white fans alike'. However, more common were those like the 1951 report from the US embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, which condemned Twentieth Century-Fox's Pinky (1949), a film that dealt in a very gingerly way with the subject of 'passing for white', for 'lend[ing] itself to the Communist propaganda line that all Negroes in the United States are oppressed and subjected to discrimination'. Studios were aware of the problems the race question caused America's image, not least because they feared that offending non-whites overseas might damage box office returns. At times, therefore, they were willing to restrict the distribution of certain movies and to modify their age-old 'Sambo' stereotype of black Americans in others in order to make output more politically acceptable.12

However, on many other occasions even the most powerful of Washington's Hollywood insiders hit a brick wall. During the 1950s, Luigi Luraschi, Paramount's head of international censorship, was consistently told by the CIA to be on the lookout for insensitive portrayals of African-Americans and for opportunities to 'plant' blacks in scenes which would imply a 'normal' and 'equal Negro situation'. Yet when in 1953 Luraschi recommended the insertion of token blacks as spectators on golf courses in The Caddy, a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy, the studio's head, Y. Frank Freeman, flatly refused, on the grounds of upsetting southern whites. This was a small but significant example of the state-film network's limitations when confronted by commercial and domestic political constraints.13 Thus, while Hollywood had effectively sewn up the international film market with Washington's assistance in the 1940s and 1950s, this did not work out uniformly to the government's advantage. Consequently, when it came to the presentation of the 'Negro problem' on the big screen, there was plenty of room for official agencies to correct impressions, fill gaps or engage explicitly with communist accusations of racism.

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