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  • "A Particularly Effective Argument":Land of Liberty (1939) and the Hollywood Image (Crisis)
  • Phil Wagner

Henry James, the American author who lived in an English village, was criticized for ignoring..."the most important event of his lifetime—the rise of the United States of America." No such broad accusation, of course, can be leveled against our industry[.]

Cecil B. DeMille1

The Industry has redeemed itself.

Review of Land of Liberty (Richmond News Leader)2

On July 15, 1938, an important announcement circulated the offices of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA). It declared that "'Cavalcade of America,' a film panorama of the highlights of American history will be prepared by the [MPPDA] and will be presented at the World's Fair of 1939."3 Cavalcade, the first collective effort of the American motion picture industry, would tell the formative history of the United States through the assemblage of over 120 Hollywood-produced films.4 The venerated authorial hand of Cecil B. DeMille would edit the project, while Columbia University history professor James T. Shotwell, the self-defined "first scholar to recognize the power and [pedagogical value] of movies,"5 was hired as historical consultant. On June 14, 1939, Cavalcade, whose title had by then been changed to Land of Liberty, premiered in the Federal Building of the World's Fair for a select audience of invited guests.6 The next day, the two-and-a-half hour long compilation film was screened twice daily for the Fair's general public.7 In 1941, the film was re-released theatrically for an America on the brink of war.8 [End Page 7]

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Justly regarded as a banner year for American cinema, 1939 witnessed the releases of Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, and The Women.9 That year's slate of remarkable productions, however, has diverted critical attention from the commotion and trepidation that characterized Hollywood's corporate climate at the end of the 1930s. The American film industry, at the time, was in a delicate state both at home and abroad. As Thomas Schatz has pointed out, "the domestic market was...mired in a late-Depression recovery mode," while, at the same time, the war in Europe nearly blighted Hollywood's market overseas.10 Hollywood was also experiencing growing legal pressure towards its monopolistic business practices. The National Recovery Agency's (NRA) 1939 Report for the Code of Fair Competition instigated legal scrutiny of studio policy. That report framed the acquisitive capitalism of Hollywood as anathema to the cooperative spirit of New Deal America. "The film industry functioned within a regime of [End Page 8] competition" that is symptomatic of the "natural monopolistic tendency of the industry," the NRA concluded.11 The NRA's verdict precipitated the fateful Antitrust Motion Picture Cases, which only intensified the ideological tension between the Hollywood studios and the New Deal ethos. Giuliana Muscio has observed how "the scrutiny of the studio system...[was a testing ground] on which the New Deal measured its economic theories and interpretations, carried out through a series of investigations, committee hearings, and trials culminating in the Paramount case."12

The growing awareness of Hollywood's cutthroat business strategies compelled the industry to transform its public image. This essay demonstrates how Hollywood adopted the cooperative rhetoric of the New Deal state in order to deflect negative publicity that accompanied mounting legal accusations of unfair competition. Ultimately, Land of Liberty—a film that is nearly forgotten today—came to symbolize the populist self-fashioning of Depression-era Hollywood.

The philosophical ideals of the World's Fair—a hybrid of FDR-inspired good will and progressive technological utopianism—shaped the formal design and thematic structure of Land of Liberty. Franklin Delano Roosevelt kicked off both the Fair and the film.13 On opening day, the president welcomed eager patrons as they entered the Flushing Meadows fairgrounds of Queens, New York. Similarly, Land of Liberty opened with FDR narrating the story of the Mayflower in a fireside chat. After the president's opening address, a title card spells out the film's core democratic themes...


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