In August 1940, just a few days before German bombs began raining down on London, Americans flocked to movie theaters to see a spine-tingling spy thriller whose story was unsettlingly close to real life. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the film, called Foreign Correspondent, focuses on Johnny Jones, a newspaper reporter in New York, who at the beginning cares little or nothing about the growing threat of war in Europe. After being transferred to London, Jones, played by Joel McCrea, is pitchforked into a surreal world of assassinations, fifth columnists, and murderous Nazi spies. No longer apathetic about Germany’s danger to the world, he becomes a fierce champion of the anti-Nazi cause.
In the movie’s last scene, Jones, in the midst of a Luftwaffe air raid on London, makes an impassioned radio broadcast to listeners in America, in effect urging them to ditch their isolationism and come to the aid of an imperiled Europe. With lights flickering and an air raid siren wailing in the background, he declares: “All that noise you hear…is death coming to London. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out — this is a big story and you’re part of it…The lights are all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning…Hang on to your lights, they’re the only lights left in the world.”
The Reich’s Joseph Goebbels, a master of propaganda himself, couldn’t help but admire what he called “a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.” Isolationist Sen. Gerald Nye was less complimentary about Hitchcock’s movie — and the flood of other anti-Nazi films that had poured out of Hollywood after the German conquest of most of Europe in the spring and summer of 1940. In a radio rant, Nye called the movie studios “the most gigantic engines of war propaganda in existence…. The truth is that in 20,000 theaters in the United States tonight, they are holding mass war meetings.”
Neither Hitchcock nor Walter Wanger, Foreign Correspondent’s producer, however, was remotely apologetic about the movie’s obvious message — that America must enter World War II. Wanger, one of the film industry’s few successful independent producers, made it clear that his goal in making Foreign Correspondent was “to shake the U.S. into an awareness of what must threaten her if she turned her back on Europe.” Wanger’s staunchly interventionist viewpoint was hardly a minority opinion in Hollywood. Four years before, energized by the growing threat of Nazi Germany, hundreds of screenwriters, directors, actors, and producers had come together to form the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which became the focal point of liberal, interventionist activity in the film community. Intent on raising the industry’s political consciousness, the league sponsored rallies, mass meetings, and letter-writing campaigns for a wide array of causes. By contrast, America First, the country’s leading isolationist organization, found it virtually impossible to recruit members in the film industry. One of the few prominent Hollywood figures who did enlist was the actress Lillian Gish, who became a member of America First’s national committee. Not long afterward, however, Gish resigned from America First after producers made clear they wouldn’t hire her as long as she belonged to the organization.
The British members of the Hollywood community, which included Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Ronald Colman, and Cedric Hardwicke, tended to be the most zealous interventionists of all. Many of them worked closely with the Churchill government to promote Britain and its war effort and to encourage the U.S. to enter the conflict. They were joined by an influx of British directors and writers who flooded into the film capital to help in the propaganda effort. Two of those budding British propagandists — playwright R.C. Sheriff and novelist James Hilton — worked together to write Mrs. Miniver, about the experiences of an upper-middle-class family in the London suburbs at the time of Dunkirk and the Blitz. An enormous hit, Mrs. Miniver, with its story of British resolution and courage in the midst of catastrophe, touched the hearts of millions of Americans. Churchill called it “propaganda worth a hundred battleships”; its American director, William Wyler, called himself a “warmonger” and acknowledged he made Mrs. Miniver because “I was concerned about Americans being isolationists.”
Prominent isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and Sens. Gerald Nye and Burton Wheeler continued to complain bitterly about the “war hysteria” being fomented by the movie studios, but their attempts to regulate the political content of films met with utter failure. Hollywood’s victory over its isolationist foes emboldened it to remain in the forefront of national debates over contentious political issues. Indeed, the film industry’s activism against the dictators in the prewar years was its “political coming out party.” From then on, leading Hollywood figures would have no qualms about making their voices heard on major national and international matters — a situation that still holds true today.