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  • Hollywood, Washington, and the Making of the Refugee in Postwar Cinema
  • Libby Garland (bio)

Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.

—Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno1

Universal-International’s film Illegal Entry opened in June 1949. It tells the tale of Anna (Marta Toren), a beautiful European woman tangled up with the criminal ring that smuggled her brother, a concentration camp survivor, over the Mexico-US border.2 The studio marketed the film as an authentic depiction of contemporary US border enforcement—“the first explosive exposé of the illicit border traffic in human cargo,” as the film’s publicity materials put it.3 Universal-International was so committed to this notion of authenticity that, at one point, filmmakers even arranged to embed themselves with the Border Patrol near the Mexico-US border. While on site, or so the studio claimed, “the filmmakers and their camera crew flushed a car parked in dense undergrowth.” The car sped away, and the Border Patrol jeep pursued it, overtook it, and arrested the driver “and four aliens jammed like sardines in the fleeing car’s turtleback.”4 Whether true or invented, the story of this car chase serves to blur the line between the work of law enforcement and that of movie-making. The filmmakers, however briefly, are cast in the role of the Border Patrol itself, doing the work of securing the border against smuggled aliens.

Universal-Inte rnational was not the only studio looking to capitalize on the real-life dramas generated by the US government’s anti-alien-smuggling operations. In 1947 and 1948, several Hollywood studios pitched government officials on similar projects, hoping to be granted permission to mine the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) case files for screenplay material. Thus deluged, [End Page 81] government officials decided that they could not accommodate all the studios. Columbia Pictures, for one, having proposed crafting “an ‘A’ picture of great interest and suspense” based on INS exploits, was rebuffed.5 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), however, succeeded in getting federal government partners on board with its alien-smuggling picture. In 1950, MGM came out with A Lady Without Passport, exploring similar themes to those taken up in Illegal Entry.6 This time, the obligatory beauty (Hedy Lamarr) is herself a concentration camp survivor, stranded in Havana and desperate enough to pay smugglers to fly her to Florida.

Neither of these noirish films turned out to be a great critical or popular success (“unimpressive,” the New York Times yawned of A Lady Without Passport).7 Both, however, are of interest for reasons apart from artistic merit or mass appeal. The two films help us understand a piece of the process by which legal and cultural discourse of the post-World War II era created a new character—“the refugee”—and instilled it in the national (and international) imagination. The movies illuminate this process in two ways. The first is at a narrative level. The plots of both films wrestle evocatively with the liminal figure of the refugee. The tension between the imperative to extend sympathy toward those fleeing war-torn lands, on the one hand, and the desire to control the nation’s borders, on the other, was very much on the American public’s mind. In the early postwar years, government officials, journalists, civic leaders and ethnic community organizations engaged in heated public debate about the nation’s stance toward refugees—in particular, toward the millions of European “displaced persons.” That stance was undergoing momentous shifts in ways that would fundamentally reshape US policy. In 1946, a vast majority of Americans surveyed told pollsters they did not want US immigration law changed to allow more European refugees, broadly seen as undesirable and potentially dangerous influences, into the United States.8 In early 1948, when the films were first pitched, “refugee” was still not yet really a category recognized formally by notoriously restrictive US immigration law.9

By the time both films had premiered, however, two major and controversial pieces of legislation—the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and an amended version of that law passed in 1950—had begun permitting hundreds of thousands of refugees to resettle in the United...


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