Hollywood began fighting the Nazis before America … but two films are rarely, if ever, mentioned in reports of this period of isolation. Warner bros’ Spy agent (1939) may not be a great movie, but it is certainly provocative as I learned from watching the Warner Archive DVD. I also showed an obscure B-movie from Republic Pictures called sabotage (1939), saved from oblivion by Olive Films on Blu-ray and DVD. Both pictures were taken when the US was officially neutral and the film production code insisted that foreign countries be fairly represented – even Germany.
Still sabotage introduces the German-born character actor Frank Reicher as a key figure whose nationality is crystal clear. He is the coordinator of an underground spy network targeting the city of Midland and its busy aircraft factory. After a catastrophic crash of the test aircraft, the facility is temporarily shut down and a young worker is wrongly accused. Who will speak for him when the newly unemployed citizens grumble? None other than the American character actor Charley Grapewin. The audience had just seen him as Uncle Henry The Wizard of Oz (and he would be playing grandpa soon Grapes of Wrath, published the following year). His presence and his words must have had great weight in 1939.
“This facility was not closed because of my son,” he tells his friends and neighbors. “It was closed because it was poisoned, just as our city has been poisoned by many alien forces who try to look at us with suspicion. They want us to blame each other. They cannot judge my son and our family without them Knowing facts without bringing us to justice. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s not just. It’s NOT the American way. “
sabotage Screenwriter Lionel Houser had taken a similar path in 1939 with an RKO B film called You made her a spy with Sally Eilers. It was also a sabotage victim whose sister is encouraged to act. This programmer was barely noticed, despite showing awareness of a problem that most Hollywoods were willing to ignore.
Most of Hollywood’s major studios were owned by Jews, but Warner Bros. ceased business in Germany in 1934 after the rise of Adolf Hitler. Harry Warner was ready to go further by publishing Confessions of a Nazi spy in April 1939. The feature was based on a well-publicized FBI investigation and as such was literally “torn from today’s headlines.” Other studios were still trying to evade world events and even tried to pressure Charlie Chaplin to give up his anti-Hitler satire The great dictatorthat was in production at the time.
But if Confessions deserves the support of Hollywood progressives and politically active people who were later referred to as “premature anti-fascists” and did not delight audiences or critics.
in the The New York TimesThe accomplished and learned Frank S. Nugent wrote: “Hitler’s promise not to take action against America reached the Warners too late yesterday. They officially declared war on the Nazis at 8:15 a.m. with their first performance Confessions of a Nazi spy at the beach. Hitler won’t like it; Neither did Goebbels; In all fairness we weren’t too impressed either, if for a different reason. We can endure so much hissing even if the Führer and the Gestapo are their victims. The Warners had the courage to take the picture, but we should have preferred if they waged their fight on a higher level. “
Just four months later, Warners struck again with another simple story Espionage Agent. For some reason, this title is almost never mentioned in reports of Hollywood’s lead-up to World War II. Its only real difference is its aggressive anti-isolationist stance.
The film begins with a montage of man-made disasters that are the result of sabotage from the First World War. We fast-forward to this day and meet Joel McCrea and Jeffrey Lynn, who work in a contested US embassy overseas trying to protect American tourists who feel threatened by unrest and violence. The two friends return to Washington, where they want to join the Foreign Service. At a meeting of young, serious recruits, a State Department official played by Stanley Ridges speaks to them – confidentially.
He reminds his young, idealistic protégés that during World War I, the United States was invaded by a secret army of spies, enemy agents and saboteurs that destroyed bridges, blew up factories, sank American ships and spread disease in warehouses. Congress eventually passed anti-espionage laws, but they were repealed after the war ended. He warns that the network of spies is back and more organized than ever. “If America, lacking protective laws, gets involved in another war, it is because of the human ostriches with their heads buried in the sand. That is of course confidential, gentlemen. “
In the meantime we are listening to a meeting of spies in Europe, one of whom assures his superior: “If there is a reason to order this, the war industries will be destroyed first: transport lines crippled, food supplies beyond salvage poisoned or contaminated, reservoirs polluted. Overnight the nation will be in chaos, helpless, the civilian population in terror and confusion. “
At home here, isolationism was issue A and a volatile issue. George Bancroft, who is manned as a veteran war correspondent, urges his younger colleagues to keep an eye out for undercover agents whom he describes as “chic trouser types.” He doesn’t crush words. “When you return to the States, try to convince them that isolation is a political policy, not a wall around the nation. The chic pants boys go straight through political politics. “
It is almost certainly a coincidence that Joel McCrea took up the same subject a year later Foreign correspondent (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by Walter Wanger. In his final scene, McCrea tries to give a speech on shortwave radio from England back to his homeland.
“Hello America,” he begins. “I watched a part of the world being torn to pieces …” His prepared speech is interrupted by the sound of air raid sirens and bombs. “I can’t read the rest of my speech because the lights went out … All the sound you hear isn’t static – it’s death to come to London … It’s too late to do anything here now, except stand on the internet dark and let them come … as if the lights were going out everywhere except America. Keep these lights on, cover them with steel, ring guns, build a canopy of battleships and bomb planes around them. Hello America, hold on to your lights: they are the only lights in the world! “
Walter Wanger was known for making current films that appeal blockade (1938), who plays during the Spanish Civil War but no longer takes sides. It was written by John Howard Lawson, who later became known as a self-confessed communist and a member of the so-called Hollywood Ten who opposed the Un-American Activities Committee of the US House of Representatives.
Foreign correspondent was released in August 1940, but America remained neutral until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Following the official declaration of war by Congress, Hollywood had no choice but to support the effort.
But Spy agent wasn’t as up-to-date as it might have looked. It was more than three years in the works at Warner Bros.!
Robert Buckner, who later became a studio producer, based his initial treatment on a story called “Career Man,” which bears little resemblance to the finished picture. It takes place in a Central American seaport in 1922. Barlow Corvall, 40, is the American consul. His wife is annoyed that he has been passed over for a better posting. The story continues 15 years later in Rio de Janeiro and ends in Shanghai.
Steadfast screenwriter Warren Duff, who had spent most of the 1930s working on musicals, filed for further treatment on November 18, 1938. It begins with a montage of sabotage activities by German agents in 1915-16: an American ship torpedoed, an ammunition factory blown up, etc. Bruce Corvall’s young son wonders why innocent people are being killed and his father says the government is responsible for unwillingness. His grim conclusion is, “The main thing is to lock the barn door after the horse is stolen.” The locale shifts to Geneva and ends with a pledge in Washington, DC, where a Senate committee drafts the McCormack bill and the president recommends an anti-espionage bill. It ends with the signing of the Munich Pact, which means “Peace in Our Time”. If only…
On March 6, 1939, production manager Hal B. Wallis sent a copy of the script to Jack L. Warner with a cover letter that said in part, “It’s pretty long, but it won’t be difficult to shorten. I know you have never looked at this topic before and I wish you would read it like you don’t like it. I have an idea that could be sold – possibly to METRO for Hedy Lamarr, as they are desperately needed stories for her. “
Warner liked the script to the climax. “The entire end of the hotel is a little wrong I think. Of course, it was written before Hitler took over Czechoslovakia [sic].
“One thing that is very important,” J. L. continued. “If we intend to write a story like this, we have to bring it in very quickly because the world is changing so quickly. If we wait too long, this will be very old news. We also want to get a good, hot title for it. “
By March 9, 1939, the script had grown to 181 pages and carried the legend: “For the career men of the American Foreign Service, the peace officers and guardians of our national security who serve no political party, no social class and no religious creed, this one Image is respectfully dedicated. “
The film still begins with a montage of acts of sabotage from the First World War. Bruce Corvall’s son, Barry, follows in his father’s diplomatic footsteps and ends with the main characters listening to a radio announcer who says, “The McCormack Act, which comes into effect Thursday, gives the State Department a weapon that it has long needed to kill the propaganda agents to combat the foreign government. President Roosevelt’s determination to urge Congress to put in place a counterintelligence system is another step in eliminating spies and saboteurs from America. “Above the great seal of the State Department, these words appear:” Ceaselessly striving for the hope of the world: PEACE. “
Still called Career manThere are at least four dated scripts in the Spring 1939 Warner Bros. files. One of them comprises 167 pages, another 152, a “final” version comprises 139 pages and drops the assembly from the First World War. Then there is the “revised finale” from June 8th, 39, when the assembly was restored.
Various executives suggest possible titles, including Neutrality zone, fake passports, girl without a country, secret soldiers, the man from Washington, trouble shooter abroad, danger over Washington, adventure seekers, and While the nations sleep.
On March 20, 1939, Walter MacEwan Wallis reported that he had spoken to James Hilton, the eminent author of Lost horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. “He’s very interested in Career man and feels that he can do a lot of good. He thinks it’s a good setting and likes the topicality and importance of the topic. In his own words, “The script is pretty lifeless, but it’s just about bringing the characters to life.” In other words, he tends to think of it as a quick buffing job. “
This wasn’t the British writer’s first brush with a script. He is one of three MGM writers Camille (1936). His frank notes speak for a decidedly non-Hollywood point of view.
Sc. 45 – Let’s have a decent American tourist (other than the clergyman) with the group
Sc. 53 – Rewrite Garertt’s speeches so that he gives out information a little less directly
Sc. 83 – If we have to laugh at a negro servant, let’s have a better one
Sc. 336 – I know that in a sense it is appropriate that Dr. Rader refers to his organization as something called “World Peace Headquarters,” but this could not be misunderstood as a hint against the idea of international peace for which so many well-intentioned people have organized, especially until recently? I suggested a name like “World Economic Federation”.
Sc. 326 – all the resolution is too casual and scout-ish
Sc. 444-445 – If we want to be really original we might have a scene in England with no fog
Employee producer Lou Edelman wrote to Wallis on April 18th: “I think Hilton made a lot of improvements to the first script of Career man… The script is long and headlined, but since his contributions were mostly in characterizations and incidents and not so much in the reconstruction, I don’t think it will be very difficult to make the necessary cuts. “
Wallis shared his enthusiasm for the revisions with director Anatole Litvak and wrote in a memo that Hilton “did a nice job with the dialogue”.
But Hilton was concerned about being involved in the project. On June 6, his agent William Dozier (later a successful producer) confirmed with Walter MacEwan that his name would be removed from the credits. No explicit reason was given. Did he change his mind after reading the script, or did he just realize that being associated with a mediocre movie doesn’t do him any good?
The film itself names Warren Duff, Michael Fessier, and Frank Donoghue as authors, with Robert Buckner being cited for its original story. Where the prolific Fessier and the little-known Donoghue come into the picture is unclear. It’s another example of incomplete or misleading credit writing that doesn’t accurately reflect who was responsible for a script.
The movie, still known as Career man, Filming began on May 16. Warners paid Samuel Goldwyn $ 5,200 a week to serve Joel McCrea after shutting down the idea of loaning Fred MacMurray from Paramount and removing the other male leads from their contract roster: John Payne, Alan Hale and Henry O. ‘ Neill in the parts that were ultimately taken over by Jeffrey Lynn, George Bancroft and Stanley Ridges. Only Bancroft has increased the production budget a little; His name still held enough weight to make him $ 2,000 a week for four weeks of work.
Ardis Gaines, known professionally as Brenda Marshall, was making $ 500 a week with a minimum of four weeks. McCrea confirmed through his agent that he would agree to Marshall receive an equivalent settlement – a gracious gesture from an established star to a newcomer tackling her first film role. She was touted in the film’s trailer as “the most exciting new discovery of the year”.
Hal Wallis considered adding Dennis Morgan to the new studio as McCrea’s closest colleague, but decided the actors were too much alike and stuck with contract player Jeffrey Lynn. And to show that no detail was too small to escape his attention – especially if it would save a dollar – Wallis wrote to a subordinate: “I spoke to Eddie Mannix [of MGM] Today and he said he’d be fine train shooting for Idiot’s Delight for us. So please try again with Metro and tell everyone you contact there that Mr. Mannix has approved this and let them inquire at Mannix. “
To direct the picture, the production manager chose the ever-reliable Lloyd Bacon. Born into a show business family, he cut his teeth in silence as an actor (in several Charlie Chaplin comedies) before becoming a gag man for Mack Sennett and eventually a director. He was reportedly the highest-paid director at Warners, ready and willing to take on any assignment. Among his many credits: The Singing Fool, 42nd St., Marked Woman, and A light murder case. Spy agent was one of six features he completed for the studio in 1939.
The newly baptized Spy agent was previewed at Warner’s Hollywood Theater on September 20, 1939, and was officially released a week later. Despite provocative advertising lines like “The first picture that says what it’s about!” and “Don’t let SPIES gain a foothold here!” The film didn’t attract a large audience and it all but disappeared from view. A well-intentioned tribute to “Uncle Sam’s unknown problem solvers” didn’t have what it takes to stand out in a year of top-notch films. I have consulted a number of articles and books about this turbulent year and haven’t found even a passing reference to it.
I wish I could report it as a find or an unsung gem, but I can’t. It would be a few more years before Warners found just the right mix of romance, adventure, humor, and topicality – and even then, his success was the result of chance and preparation. Casablanca is the kind of movie that comes while once in a lifetime Spy agent was just one of 54 features that rolled off the studio’s assembly line.
I researched this article in the USC’s Warner Bros. Archives and benefited from comments from Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press).