Cover image: Paramount Studios, 1935. Eagle symbol of the NRA (National Recovery Administration), one of the signature agencies of President Roosevelt's New Deal, sits atop the entrance.
After seeing Mrs. Miniver (1942), the Third Reich’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels anguished in his diary over how the Americans did it: “Its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of...the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished” (Macdonald). The man who had also headed German film production for the past six years complained that the cinema he oversaw could not come close to the American propaganda achievement. He screened the film to a gathering of German movie producers with the admonition that Mrs. Miniver showed “how to make it right” (“Mrs. Miniver”).
In his frustration the Minister of Propaganda, seething with envy, had failed to grasp the film’s origins. Produced on American soil, Mrs. Miniver succeeded because the exilic cinematic talent that had gathered in Hollywood in the course of the decade had come together to make it. Mrs. Miniver was as international as the medium that had produced it. William Wyler, the director, was born in Alsace, then a part of Germany. He had joined British artists such as Greer Garson and Dame May Whitty to an international assembly of writers: playwright and scriptwriter George Froeschel from Austria, novelist James Hilton, playwright R.C. Sherriff, and scriptwriters Claudine West and Arthur Wimperis, all from Britain. Wyler produced a film embodying the international character of the medium that more than any other in the doom-laden interwar years both captured the period and provided escape from it. The subject of this special issue of The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914–1945 is then the transformation of cinema, the experimentation with it, and the adaptation of it in response to technological innovation and events in one of the most tumultuous decades of the century.
We have extended the calendar decade of the 1930s to encompass an innovation that might have been expected to constrain cinema’s transnational character. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. The introduction of sound indeed provided the medium with its watershed moment. Breaking the sound barrier at the end of the 1920s remade the movies. The visual language of cinema acquired the aural language of dialogue and music. The movies had become a new art form, more international than ever, whose creative possibilities would prove unbounded.
The revolution in sound did still more. It resurrected old questions along with raising a host of new ones. With sound, censorship acquired renewed immediacy. Hollywood found itself under threat of censorship not just for what actors did off screen but for what they said on screen. In the Soviet Union the tyranny of the unalterable censored script preempted directorial innovation and impromptu design. The very sound of the human voice gendered the medium where crossdressing slapstick had once filled the screen. Among the new possibilities, the cinematic medium could marry itself to another. Movies and music could at last cohere.
Still other changes to cinema in the thirties had their origin outside the movie studio. History itself proved far too generous to the new technology in its first decade. Sound registered the renewed war between fascism and its opponents. The newsreel became a staple of the movies. The left and right of the battles in the street found their reflection on screen. The documentary emerged as a genre within the medium as a whole. From Triumph of the Will to the anarcho-syndicalist documentaries made in the Spanish Civil War, such films contributed to the propaganda that both sides employed.
Movie makers and critics asked anew: What is the cinematic medium supposed to do? What is it supposed to be? Should it reflect political commitments? On the other hand, should it preserve old forms of culture, harboring a conservative agenda, even while at times advocating pursuit of a progressive and liberal program? At the same time, could a cinema driven by Marxist ideals of the international working class really serve the purposes of national identity as was attempted in the Spanish Civil War? Our contributors explore those questions first on the left, then on the right, in the second and third sections of this special issue. Our final section explores the post-Holocaust creation of memory and cinema’s contribution to that process. But we begin where the decade began for cinema: with the revolution in the medium wrought by sound.
Macdonald, Fiona. “Mrs. Miniver: The Film that Goebbels Feared.” BBC Culture, 9 February 2015. Accessed 15 July 2020.
Mrs. Miniver. Directed by William Wyler, performances by Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942.
“Mrs. Miniver: Trivia.” IMDB. Accessed 15 July 2020.
Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, 1935.