Movies are just movies, right? They can be frivolous entertainment, for sure. But they’re also serious business — both in terms of money and the way that they influence how we see the world.
Publicity shot for the 1929 film The Wild Party starring Clara Bow
People fighting the Cold War knew this. That’s why we remember Senator Joe McCarthy and the infamous Hollywood blacklist. And that’s why VHS tapes of American action movies were banned in communist Romania during the 1980s. (If you haven’t seen the documentary Chuck Norris vs Communism, it’s streaming on Netflix and I highly recommend it.) Movies, like all media, shape how we see the world. But people also knew this long before the Cold War reared its head.
I recently found a talk from the 1920s given by a movie studio exec that was quite explicit in addressing how film was being used to sell the American way of life around the world. And it’s a fascinating artefact.
Sidney R. Kent was a general manager at Paramount in 1927 before he would become president of Fox in 1935. In the book The Story of Films, there’s a transcript from a talk he gave at Harvard in 1927, just before the mainstream rise of synchronised sound movies. The most interesting part of the talk, (to me anyway), is when he elaborates on the global influence that American movies were having.
The movie distributor was “first a diplomat and secondly a salesman,” Kent explained. And even if movies weren’t made with the intent of influencing how people thought, they were “silent propaganda” to the people who watched them overseas. How so? Kent gives the example that when he screens films in poorer countries they get a particular vision of what the United States must be like — a vision filled with skyscrapers, enormous homes and cars. And in turn, that drives a desire in those countries for such things. Especially cars.
An excerpt from Sidney R. Kent’s 1927 talk (emphasis mine):
I doubt if there is a sales situation in any line of industry that is quite as intricate and fascinating as the distribution of modern motion pictures in foreign countries. The man who successfully distributes motion pictures in foreign countries must be first a diplomat and secondly a salesman, because he must meet not merely the usual problems of merchandising to a customer, but all kinds of obstacles in the shape of laws, agitations, and national aspirations peculiar to the people of each particular country. When you go abroad with oil or any other commodity, if your quality and price are right and you make a sale, all goes well. Your customer is probably satisfied and so are you. But that is not true with us. American motion pictures at the present time are meeting with a great deal of opposition in foreign countries because they carry something that no other merchandise in the world carries. Motion pictures are silent propaganda, even though not made with that thought in mind at all. You cannot prevent it. Imagine the effect on people in the Balkan States who constantly see flashed on the screen American modes of living, American modes of dressing, and American modes of travel, all the comforts and luxuries to which we are accustomed.
I remember shortly after the war being in a little town in Rumania that had been destroyed and was being rebuilt. I stayed throughout the day and went to the little theatre, which was in an old livery stable. An old projection machine was run there at night with an American motion picture. Women were working in the brick-yards, a great deal of brick being used to rebuild the town, and these women were hitched to two-wheel carts alongside of big dogs. At night their only form of recreation was to come in and see an American motion picture. As I sat there I wondered what was going through the minds of those people who were looking at those palatial homes and the marvellous skyline of New York, what restless thoughts and ambitions must be awakened when they compared them with the circumstances under which they themselves were living.
That is one of the things that foreign governments and foreign peoples are fighting against and not without just cause. It is a situation that has to be handled with a great deal of sympathy and understanding, because the American motion picture bears a great and direct relation to the American trade balance abroad. Do not forget that. If you investigate the automobile situation you will find that the American automobiles are making terrific inroads on foreign makes of cars and that the greatest agency for selling American automobiles abroad is the American motion picture. Its influence is working insidiously all the time and even though all this is done without any conscious intent, the effect is that of a direct sales agency.
Every one of those foreign countries in which we distribute has its own background and its own history. Each wants to produce the stories that are native to its own country; each wants to have its own industry. Take the case of a nation like the English nation, with colonial possessions all over the world, a nation that lives on trade and barter. The motion picture is a most vital thing in the life of that people. England is making a terrific effort to build up a motion picture industry by forcing on its exhibitors a quota that obliges them to show a certain percentage of homemade pictures. They are trying to meet American competition by making a market for their own product by law. We meet them in turn fairly by manufacturing what we think is a superior product and adapting it to foreign taste and needs.
Kent notes the pushback for protectionist trade policies in the 1920s, which would become commonplace around the world for films. But in many ways it was too little, too late. Especially after World War II.
The United States attached films to trade deals like any other commodity when they shipped things overseas. And American movies flourished. Sure, many of those movies were good and a “superior product,” as Kent insists. But many of them were garbage and simply got pushed through because the receiving countries had to take them if they wanted the other things on offer, like wheat.
Movies are no longer silent propaganda. But the film industry is as sensitive as ever to the global sensitivities. American film companies are constantly making changes to their films so as not to offend the Chinese market, a lucrative box office, if you can get your movie released. But that doesn’t mean that the movie is going to be any good.