Film Expert: Sony "Surrender" Joins Long History of Studios Bowing to "Intimidation Tactics" (Guest Column)

Sony Pictures Entertainment Studios - H 2014
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Sony Pictures Entertainment Studios - H 2014

On the evening of Dec. 4, 1930, inside the ornate Mozart Hall in Berlin, Universal's antiwar epic All Quiet on the Western Front was just starting to unspool when spectators noticed a rancid smell in the theater — stink bombs — and spotted dozens of white mice scurrying down the aisles. Women began to scream and, amid the chaos, a cadre of Nazi storm troopers stood up, pointed at the screen and screamed, "Judenfilm!" The Nazis — still over two years away from turning Germany into a gangster state — had vandalized and infiltrated the theater to shut down a Hollywood film that depicted the Great War as a muddy death trap. Days of protests and street demonstrations followed: The Nazis vowed that either All Quiet on the Western Front would be withdrawn or the theaters would burn.

It worked. Germany banned the film that its own censors had earlier cleared for domestic release. The capitulation — both political and cinematic — gave the nascent National Socialists a huge victory, gaining stature for a fringe party and exposing the wheezing Weimar Republic as a paper tiger. "The police are powerless," chortled Joseph Goebbels, the future propaganda minister for the Third Reich.

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That kind of on-site terrorism has not yet come to American theaters, but an email threatening to rain down 9/11-style death and destruction on moviegoers this Christmas was sufficient to hobble Sony Pictures and force the cancellation of The Interview, the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy about an assassination plot aimed at current North Korean dictator and murderous whackjob Kim Jong Un, a fit vessel for homicidal ridicule if ever there was one. The Sony surrender is at once part of a long history of studio accommodations to intimidation tactics, at home and abroad, and a gesture that, to use a screenwriterly cliché, takes things to a whole other level. I have been trying to think of a precedent case in American history — when the threat of terrorist violence has shut down the release of a Hollywood film, as it did in Germany on the cusp of Nazism. So far, I have drawn a blank. Anyone?

Of course, ever since moviegoers began queuing up at nickelodeons, Hollywood films have pissed off moral guardians, political hacks, progressive activists and thin-skinned foreigners, often with good reason. No less than lust and adrenaline, movies inspire fierce partisanship. Constituencies of all stripes have long enjoyed venting their spleen at an industry that, depending on the prevailing zeitgeist, has been variously condemned as a Sodom on the Pacific or a forward operating base for Moscow. For the old studio moguls, confronting picket lines, boycotts, embargoes, random bomb threats, scuffles in the lobby and the occasional incitement to mob violence all went with the business they'd chosen.

Still, in the American tradition, the disputes have been mainly intramural and, for the most part, peaceful. D.W. Griffith's racist classic The Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first big nationwide flashpoint, galvanizing the NAACP and rejuvenating the Ku Klux Klan. But considering how incendiary the provocation was, the push-back was orderly; it was the film's fan base that was prone to violence. A perennial magnet for picket lines and phoned-in threats to exhibitors, The Birth of a Nation remains the most controversial film in American history. We can expect a renewed round of demonstrations next year, when film historians and repertory houses commemorate, not celebrate, its centennial.

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The Birth of a Nation aside, the morality of the movies, not their politics, has been more likely to send folks into the streets and under a marquee. An aversion to indecency and vice was what animated the most influential pressure group ever to turn the screws on Hollywood, the National Legion of Decency. Beginning in 1934, the legion launched boycotts, set up picket lines and enlisted priests to deter Catholics from enjoying the wages of sin with scantily clad sirens and tommy gun–totting gangsters. (I remember my father telling me how, as a curious adolescent, he was eager to see Mae West cavort in She Done Him Wrong (1933) — until he spied his parish priest standing on duty next to the ticket window.) Hardball tactics from the legion led the studios to form the Production Code Administration, the in-house censorship agency that from 1934 to 1968 kept the clerics at bay. The code, and the ratings system that supplanted it, pretty much sums up the way the moviemaker-moviegoer tango works in America: the people kvetch and Hollywood responds.

In the 1930s, as the global hegemony of Hollywood cinema advanced apace, foreign nations entered the playing field, seeking to influence and, in some cases, exact a veto over production at the source. Almost always, the threatened repercussions were financial: the offended country would declare its determination to bar Hollywood cinema from its ports of entry — not just the films of the offending studio, but all Hollywood films. At this point, Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America from 1922 to 1945, would intervene for the good of the entire industry and negotiate surrender terms. In 1937, Turkey did not want MGM to produce a film version of Franz Werfel's The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about the Armenian genocide. Rather than lose the whole Turkish market, MGM pulled the plug. In 1939, France protested Warner Bros.' Devil's Island, an exposé of its brutal penal colony, so the studio withdrew the film from domestic circulation. Kowtowing to France, of all countries, caused a good deal of consternation in the press. "We resent this French censorship of what can be shown in American theaters," editorialized the New York Daily News. "We think it is time for our government to stop this censoring of American films by other governments." (Warners rereleased the film in 1940, at which point the French had more pressing problems.)

To better penetrate overseas markets, the studios were equally obliging about censoring their product to fit the eccentricities of foreign folkways. If the British were squeamish about surgical scenes, delete them for the British market. If the Japanese balked at onscreen kissing, eliminate the smooching. In those days — before motion pictures were granted First Amendment rights, before directors considered themselves visionary auteurs with the inalienable right of final cut — Hollywood looked upon a film pretty much the way a tailor looked upon cloth: Cut it to fit the customer. The consequences of noncompliance were economic; they threatened Hollywood's livelihood, not a constitutional principle, still less life and limb.

The rise of Nazism ratcheted up the moral stakes for Hollywood and threatened more violent encounters on the ground. Nazi consul Georg Gyssling, Hitler's man in Hollywood, regularly fired off angry letters to the studio heads threatening a German embargo of Hollywood films if an offending scene were not cut or if an anti-Nazi scenario were green-lighted. Gyssling's allies in the German-American Bund, basically a Nazi fifth column on native shores, backed up the dictates from the Fatherland and helped persuade Hollywood to avoid overtly anti-Nazi films for much of the 1930s. Finally, though, in spring of 1939, Warner Bros.' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) took the first point-blank shot at the Third Reich from a major studio. The German embassy squawked to the U.S. State Department — to no avail. During production, actors, executives and exhibitors received death threats and Bund members lurked menacingly outside the Warners lot in Burbank. Despite the intimidation, Jack Warner and Harry Warner, staunch anti-Nazis both, stood solidly behind the project. The studio hired armed guards and plainclothes policemen for the premiere while elsewhere American Legion veterans volunteered to stand guard at theaters. The Bund disrupted a few screenings — tearing up seats, releasing stink bombs — and a few exhibitors were cowed, but the film played widely and, having proven prophetic, was rereleased in 1940. (In Europe, the cost for screening Confessions could be lethal: Invading Nazi troops hanged a Polish exhibitor from the rafters of his own theater for playing the film.)

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Once Warners broke the seal, Hollywood declared open season on the Nazis — indeed 20th Century Fox's Man Hunt (1941) literally put Hitler in the crosshairs — but, of course, the most famous contract hit on a living tyrant was Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, released in October 1940, when America was still officially neutral. "I am making a comedy picture on the lives of dictators which I hope will create much healthy laughter throughout the world," declared Chaplin. No one had trouble connecting the dots. "There is of course only one dictator who shares with Chaplin the little moustache that actor patented first," commented Variety. Goebbels and his minions could spit out insults — the Nazis called Chaplin "a repellent, yapping little Jew from the slums of London" (they had the geography right and the religion wrong) — but they had no power to stop the film from playing coast to coast. Had Hitler threatened to bomb American theaters playing The Great Dictator, the U.S. might have gone to war a year before Pearl Harbor.

Throughout the long tradition of protests in and around American theaters, what was projected onscreen was fair game for attack but the theatrical venue itself and certainly the people sitting inside were off-limits. In America, the motion picture theater — from grand motion picture palace, to neighborhood Bijou, to multiplex mall — has always been a zone of safety and respite: hence the unholy shock when a madman in Aurora, Colo., killed 12 people at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

No wonder the threat on our theatrical space has struck such a powerful chord — and that Sony has received such searing criticism, from President Barack Obama to Rob Lowe, for deep-sixing The Interview. Comedian Bill Maher tweeted out his contempt with a sneering hashtag: #pussynation. In fairness, though, it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that a group so adept at cyberterrorism might be just as capable of actual terrorism, of being able to place a bomb or a zealot in one of the 39,056 targets of opportunity in the United States. For now, and given that this is new and uncharted territory, my own sense is that Sony was right to err on the side of caution.

But only for now. Once the agencies Hollywood has so often portrayed as its villains of choice — the FBI, the CIA and the NSA — ascertain and officially name the source of the threat, and determine its reach, Sony must make a decision that will be about more than damage control or bottom lines. It cannot bury this film or stonewall this issue. Sooner or later some patriot inside the corporation will upload The Interview to a file-sharing site. Better for Sony — and the country — if it stands behind its film and denies a not-so-great dictator a victory on American territory.

Thomas P. Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books on American film and culture, most recently Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, published in 2013 by Columbia University Press.