Thursday, September 26, 2013

Watch on the Hudson

Last week, I spent a few days at Bouchercon, the largest of the US mystery writer/fan conventions, held this year in Albany, New York, a couple of hours up the Hudson River from my house.

Four swell things happened up there.

One, I was assigned a terrific panel on amateur sleuths, with Catherine AstolfoKate George and M.K. Graff. Here’s a pic of me with moderator Nora McFarland, who did a tremendous job – preparation is the key to spontaneity (and lots of laughs)!

Second, Rose and Robert Knightly threw a buffet dinner for writers and readers at their lovely townhouse in Albany. It was the only location associated with the conference that did not seem to be uphill both ways.

Third, I discovered my opening line to the fifth Lauren Atwill mystery. [Book number 4 in the series is already cuddled up with the publisher, ready to go out next spring.] It’s weird how one line can generate so much enthusiasm to get to the computer each day.

Four, I was able to share with an audience of mystery fans a portion of the screenshow I've created for presentations at libraries. Called “You Can’t Put That in the Movies”, it’s about the Production Code censorship in Hollywood in the Golden Age of Film. [I blogged a bit about the Code back on April 25.] It’s always good to get your work out before an audience: I saw I needed to shorten it, to allow for more discussion afterward.

There’s one part of the presentation I’m pretty sure I’ll never cut: The Production Code vs. Watch on the Rhine.

Let me tell you the story, briefly (I promise).

The 1943 film Watch on the Rhine is based on a stage play by Lillian Hellman. Warner Brothers wanted to turn it into a movie, and had submitted a preliminary script for Production Code Administration (PCA) review as was required by the Code office. 

Spoiler Alert! Watch on the Rhine is set in 1940, when Europe is at war but the US remains on the sidelines. Its hero is Kurt (Paul Lukas, who played the role on Broadway), an engineer who’s been working in Europe and has returned to the US with his family to visit relatives of his wife (Bette Davis, who took a smaller role than she normally would because of her strong opinions about the subject matter). It becomes clear along the way that Kurt has been working with and raising money for anti-Nazis in Europe. When one of a network of operatives is arrested, Kurt’s determined to go back to try to free the man, at great risk to himself. The villain of the piece, a Romanian count called Teck, discovers all this, and threatens to go to the German embassy with his information unless his silence is purchased. Kurt kills him.

The PCA had some ‘suggestions’ for the final script. One in particular astonished and disgusted the playwright Hellman, and here’s part of the letter she wrote to the Code office. (I found the letters included here during research at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.)

In the red-framed portion, she says “There is, however, one suggested change which I find deeply shocking. Your office says that, in order to have Teck killed by Kurt, it must be established that Kurt will be assassinated if Teck reports him and that, having killed Teck, it must be clearly established that Kurt has been finally killed by the Nazis.”

Yep, the PCA wanted Kurt to die.

Today in film, we grant vigilante rights to anybody who could even marginally be considered a protagonist. But the PCA took seriously its rule that crime cannot pay. Criminal acts – for example, taking the law into one’s own hands – were not allowed to go unpunished.

Here’s part of the letter Joe Breen – who was in charge of administering the Code – wrote to his boss, Will Hays, about the situation, no doubt in anticipation of the uproar that might occur if Hellman went public. Remember that in 1943, the US was fighting Germany in World War II.

He contends that in the movies under the Code, the law "can not be suspended, even when there is great provocation and even when we are at war." No matter the circumstances of a movie, no exceptions should be made.

And the PCA had the last word: they had to approve your script and your movie.

How did all this end?

No matter that America was at war, and that anti-Nazis were risking their lives every day in Europe, the Code office could not bring themselves to allow a man to kill another outside the framework of the justice system, even in the circumstances set forth in the script. In the released film, Kurt does kill Teck, and Teck is unarmed when it happens. Although the killing is committed offscreen, it remains a shocking moment when this good man marches Teck away. Kurt returns to Europe and communication is lost (which would not have been unusual in time of war). He is missing, but there is still hope he could be alive, which is the play’s original ending. The compromise from the PCA was to allow the movie to retain it.

What Breen's (and the Code's) position ends up accomplishing of course is to make it very difficult to portray the risks faced by the anti-Nazi underground in Europe.

Lots of books have been written about Hollywood’s neglect of social and political issues beginning from the moment the Code was adopted in 1934, and about Hollywood's unwillingness to take an on-film stand against Nazi oppression, particularly of Jews, after it was clear what was happening in Europe with the rise of Nazism and even after America got into the war. While it’s true that Hollywood was careful not to offend the Hitler regime in the 1930s (and threaten overseas revenues) and that the PCA even allowed the German attaché in Los Angeles on occasion to review draft scripts during that period, the industry was largely held hostage, not by Europeans, but by the considerable power of what most of us today would consider extremist views inside the United States – racial, religious, ethnic. Studios were very reluctant to endanger their domestic business by opening themselves up to vitriolic charges that they were making "political" movies, advocating certain kinds of social change or promulgating before Pearl Harbor American involvement in what was often referred to as a "Jewish war" in Europe. 

Hollywood was not alone in kowtowing to the power of those who advocated these views, but some other American corporations went even further, with some of their leaders (see Henry Ford for one) publicly and enthusiastically embracing shockingly racist and anti-Semitic views.

But unlike those companies, Hollywood left behind a powerful visual history of what it had done. Or not done.

© 2013 Sheila York


  1. That was a lovely tribute to Rose and Bob...from all the complaints re the accommodations , etc at Albany last week I'm sure their dinner was a real joy! All best with your new venture! It sounds very ambitious and I hope you get top kudos. tjs

    1. I thought about tossing a sleeping bag into their beautiful back garden. Alas, they probably would have noticed the toilet flushing when I sneaked back into the house. As a bonus, Triss Stein and I had a simultaneous idea for the same opening to a short story while we were approaching the open door to their house. The convention center might have looked like it hadn't been properly tended in years -- not often do you see colored duct tape on carpeted stairs -- but the conference panels were terrific. Salute to Judy Bobalik on those!!