- "A World Film Fight":Behind the Scenes With Hollywood and Fascist Italy
Historians who study Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s generally focus on the film capital's remarkable cinematic output, its oligopolistic corporate structure, or the industry's complex response to Nazism. Hollywood's relationship with Nazi Germany's ally—Fascist Italy—has received scant attention, however. There are good reasons for this.1 Italy's film market was smaller than Germany's (and also Great Britain's, another common topic of historical inquiry), and therefore seems less consequential. On a less tangible level, Hitler's towering presence overshadows Mussolini in historical memory, relegating Italian Fascism to the geopolitical equivalent of a B-movie. Even at the time, the trade journals, politicians, and popular press that considered motion-picture issues nearly ignored the dream factory's dealings with the Italians. But an examination of Hollywood's preWWII interactions with Fascist Italy reveals a great deal about the industry's priorities and objectives. It exposes a backstage world in which movie men formulated talking points in conjunction with government officials, hired spies to gain access to unsavory characters, and negotiated with dictators, all toward the goal of securing profitable outlets in an unstable environment where an antidemocratic government increasingly treated movies as cultural, economic, and ideological weapons to achieve its larger fiscal and philosophical aims.
A study of Hollywood's interactions with Fascist Italy also restores Will Hays—president of the industry's trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA)—to a central position in cinematic history. Hays is a familiar yet shadowy figure among film historians. While he is understood to have played a key role in rationalizing the business of moviemaking, and in making movies respectable by selling the idea that they were a glamorous yet moralistic form of entertainment, the lack of scholarship on Hays makes it difficult to say exactly how he spent his twenty-three years in office.2
With studio executives' interests in mind, Hays took the lead in preserving Hollywood's profitable relationship with Italy by whatever means possible. Only when the [End Page 4] Fascists, pursuing their own, nationalistic priorities, made it nearly impossible to do business in their country did Hays and the studios take a principled stand not for democracy or individual freedoms, but rather for the free market—a market in which Americans could sell their products anywhere in the world without interference. Because American studios drew about half of their profits from overseas markets, industry leaders conceded the need to do business with unsavory sorts lest their businesses, and their stockholders, sink into financial oblivion.
Hollywood's accommodation of the Fascists began soon after Mussolini seized power in October 1922, several months after Will Hays relinquished his position as President Warren Harding's Postmaster General to assume command of the MPPDA. Many studio executives watched Mussolini's swift ascent to power with an admiration bordering on envy. They praised the dictator for shaking Italy from its post-World War I lethargy and for quashing a communist insurgency in his country. Louis B. Mayer of MGM modeled his office on Il Duce's, decking it out with white, wall-to-wall carpet and an elevated, semicircular desk that placed him above any supplicant who sat before him. Harry Cohn of Columbia released a quasi-documentary in 1931 titled Mussolini Speaks!, cobbled together from some newsreel footage and one of the dictator's speeches. Ironically, Mussolini banned the picture because he felt it was out of date. Cohn nevertheless kept an autographed photo of Mussolini on his desk for years to come.3
Other plutocrats shared the movie moguls' esteem. In 1923, Judge Elbert Gary of U.S. Steel commended the "wonderful renaissance of youthful energy and activity" that Mussolini brought about. "A master hand has, indeed, strongly grasped the helm of the Italian state," Gary continued. A decade later, Franklin Roosevelt admitted to being "much interested and deeply impressed by what [Mussolini] has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy and seeking to prevent general European trouble." Roosevelt, like many Americans, saw Mussolini as a reasonable man who...