The Unluckiest Man in Hollywood, Part 2

Chatterbox hasn’t seen The Patriot, but in scanning the reviews he’s been struck by a few parallels with the 1917 silent film The Spirit of ‘76, whose director, Robert Goldstein, was thrown in jail for undermining U.S. mobilization as it entered World War I. (To read Chatterbox’s earlier item on this topic, itself prompted by a few paragraphs in a June 9 Wall Street Journal article by Bill Kauffman, click here.) Both films are about the Revolutionary War. Both films have been criticized for demonizing the British. Both films have been said to be very violent. Roland Emmerich, director of The Patriot, was raised in Germany and began his filmmaking career there; Goldstein was the son of a German immigrant and spent some of his youth in Germany. Of course, Chatterbox doesn’t anticipate that Emmerich or his star, Mel Gibson, will be imprisoned for making The Patriot–partly because the United States is not presently allied with Britain in a war against Germany, and partly because civil liberties are in better health today than during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. (Wilson’s was the era of the infamous subversive-hunter A. Mitchell Palmer, who was appointed attorney general while Goldstein was serving his three-year prison term.) Still, Chatterbox feels certain that, were he alive, Goldstein would be chuckling ruefully.

Chatterbox can offer this opinion because he has just finished reading Goldstein’s memoir, “The True Story of the Making of a Motion Picture and Its Maker, Written in Narrative Form, Comprising the Facts.” Goldstein sent this manuscript in 1927 to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of an unsuccessful campaign to enlist the Academy in his rehabilitation. It is one of the documents published in a 1993 volume, Robert Goldstein and “The Spirit of ‘76,” edited by film historian Anthony Slide. Although Goldstein attributed the document to one Robert G. Moran, in his introduction Slide opines that the author was obviously Goldstein himself. Chatterbox agrees. If Moran existed at all, it’s possible he wrote a draft that Goldstein completely reworked; it’s also possible Moran edited Goldstein’s draft. But the obsessive tone–the narrative resembles one of those aggrieved monologues in a Philip Roth novel–makes clear that the victim is telling the tale.

Goldstein lied about who wrote the manuscript. He also comes across in the manuscript as mentally unstable–deeply paranoid not just as he reviews events after the fact, which would be understandable, but also in the actions related. (For instance, Goldstein describes, long before his legal troubles begin, becoming convinced that his father was trying to kill him.) With those caveats in mind, Chatterbox will revisit two questions addressed in this document:

1.) Why did Goldstein risk imprisonment by restoring banned footage to The Spirit of ‘76?  The judge who sent Goldstein to jail hinted it was because he was a German spy. Chatterbox previously assumed it had something to do with Goldstein’s artistic vanity. Goldstein’s manuscript reveals him to be an excitable fellow, deeply convinced that he was an accomplished film director, even though he’d never directed a film before. (“In a few days, [I] was so far advanced that [I] directed a love scene … with all the routine of a veteran.”) This would support the latter hypothesis. But Goldstein himself makes a plausible case that there was much confusion about what was “in” or “out” of his film at any given time. After Goldstein cut the film to satisfy censors in Chicago, he brought the film to Los Angeles. By this time, however, Goldstein had lost financial control of the corporation that produced the film, and The Spirit of ‘76 had been altered by various other people, including the Los Angeles theater owner. While Goldstein and his financial backers were fighting over whose version of the film would be shown in Los Angeles, it was screened for U.S. District Judge Benjamin Bledsoe and various other government officials. Afterward, Goldstein put in what he described as “important close-ups and parts of scenes, which would have made jumps in the scenes if they were left out.” These, he insists, did not include any scenes of British atrocities. An assistant U.S. attorney, Goldstein writes, claimed the final version included a scene showing a baby being bayoneted by a Redcoat. But Goldstein argues that the he couldn’t have seen that scene, because it was “cut out long before the picture was finished and had only been shown a few times in the studio projection room.” Rather than view it, he must have been told about it by someone who worked on the film. Goldstein also insists that he was unjustly accused of sneaking in other scenes that had been shown in the advance screening but that the officials didn’t remember–either because they didn’t stay for the whole thing or because the silent film was screened at such high speed that it was easy for them to miss parts.

2.) Why was Goldstein suspected of being a spy in the first place? Goldstein’s manuscript mentions, all too briefly, that he signed a petition urging Congress not to vote for the declaration of war. Also, one of Goldstein’s leading ladies testified at his trial that Goldstein had joked that if the United States did go to war, he would “be a German spy”; Goldstein fulminates about this, but never gets around to saying it isn’t true. Taken together, these would have been more than enough to convince war-frenzied government officials that Goldstein was indeed a spy.

A “Fray” reader identified as “Corey ye” offers the opinion that Goldstein really was a German spy. (Go to the earlier item and scroll to the bottom to review this argument.) It’s possible, but, Chatterbox thinks, very unlikely. After his release from prison in 1920, Goldstein did eventually drift to Germany in the hopes that he could find work there. But the Weimar government doesn’t seem to have treated him anything like a hero; he was no more successful there than he was anywhere else.

“Corey ye” also says anti-Semitism couldn’t have been rampant in Southern California in 1917 because Jews were amassing power in Hollywood. (Chatterbox previously suggested that Goldstein was persecuted partly because he was Jewish.) The fact is that anti-Semitism flourished among Los Angeles’ governing elite, a quite separate community from the people who ran the movie industry, through mid-century. According to Goldstein, a U.S. attorney exclaimed at his trial: “The carpenter of Nazareth was a Jew, but so also was Judas. And so also is this Jew, this vile beast, this traitor, who, while our boys are wallowing in their blood on the battlefields of France, stabs them in the back.” To this, Judge Bledsoe blandly responded (again, according to Goldstein): “The prosecutors were carried away by their genius and were somewhat heated, but this is very excusable, for this is a superheated case.”

Photograph courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.