The Unluckiest Man in Movie History

The forthcoming release of Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War movie The Patriot occasioned an essay by Bill Kauffman in the June 9 Wall Street Journal arguing that no one has ever made a decent movie about the American Revolution. What most interested Chatterbox about Kauffman’s piece was its lengthy aside about one Robert Goldstein, a filmmaker whose silent 1917 epic about the American Revolution, The Spirit of ‘76, got him thrown in jail for undermining the war effort against Germany because it portrayed Britain, a U.S. ally in the Great War, in an unfavorable light. Chatterbox had not previously heard of Goldstein, or his troubles, and felt sure that Kauffman was exaggerating. But a trip to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library confirmed what Kauffman wrote.

The library, housed inside a peach-colored Spanish building on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, is a poignant setting to read up on Goldstein, because Goldstein spent the last years of his life sending a stream of letters to the newly founded Academy begging it to help rehabilitate him. Here is a sample from 1927:

I am merely a lone man suffering a great wrong for no reason whatever, can you refuse to help me obtain justice? I have never done the slightest thing to warrant this persecution and prejudice against me, which denies the very right to exist. What, in the name of common sense, can be the reason for such wanton injustice?

Goldstein’s story, as best as Chatterbox was able to glean sifting through various documents collected by film historian Anthony Slide in a 1993 volume called Robert Goldstein and the Spirit of ‘76, is as follows. Robert Goldstein ran a costume shop in Los Angeles that supplied the nascent Hollywood movie industry. Among his clients was D.W. Griffith, who invited Goldstein to invest in The Birth of a Nation. After that film turned out to be an enormous success on its release in 1915, Goldstein decided to make a movie that would do for the Revolutionary War what Griffith had done for the Civil War. Griffith, by then busy at work on Intolerance, considered taking some supervisory role in Goldstein’s project, and apparently visited the set a few times. Eventually, though, he backed out, apparently because he wanted to make a Revolutionary War epic himself. (In 1924, Griffith did so; the film, America, is reputed not to be very good.)

Goldstein spent $200,000 making his movie, which he titled The Spirit of ‘76. We can’t know for sure what it was like, because the film has been lost for many years. (Robertson Davies’s 1991 novel Murther & Walking Spirits includes a scene in which the rediscovered film is shown to piano accompaniment at a contemporary Toronto film festival, but it’s doubtful Davies ever saw it.) Probably it was a dog–“based on extant still photographs, it would appear an overly melodramatic production,” is how Slide puts it in an introductory essay to Robert Goldstein and the Spirit of ‘76–though apparently it was well-reviewed in the Los Angeles Times. (Some things never change!)

According to Slide,

The story concerned George II’s mistress Catherine Montour and her efforts to become “Queen of America.” The character … was presumably based on the historical figure Hannah Lightfoot. Various historical tableaux depicted Paul Revere’s Ride, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, and, most conspicuously as far as later events were concerned, the British atrocities committed against the American settlers during the 1778 Cherry Valley Massacre.

These atrocity scenes showed Redcoats bayoneting a Yankee baby and carrying an unwilling Yankee maiden into a bedchamber. (Ironically, one also showed a Hessian, i.e., German mercenary, stabbing a saintly Quaker.)

The Spirit of ‘76 premiered in Chicago in May 1917, just one month after the United States declared war on Germany. The head of Chicago’s police censorship board, a man with the unforgettable name of Metallus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, immediately confiscated the film–apparently at the urging of Woodrow Wilson’s Justice department–on the grounds that it would create hostility toward Britain, America’s new ally against the Kaiser. Goldstein trimmed the offending scenes, got federal approval for the censored version, and resumed the Chicago run. But when the film premiered in Los Angeles a few months later, Goldstein snuck the British atrocities back in. The film was seized once more, and, this time, Goldstein himself was charged in federal court with violating the Espionage Act, a wartime law that gave U.S. officials ridiculously broad discretion to jail troublemakers. Goldstein was convicted on charges that he’d attempted to cause insubordination, disloyalty, and mutiny by U.S. troops and prospective U.S. troops, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. (The judgment was later upheld by an appellate court.) At the sentencing, Judge Benjamin F. Bledsoe told Goldstein he should count himself lucky he hadn’t committed treason in a country lacking America’s right to trial by jury. Goldstein entered the McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1918 and stayed there three years; after the war ended, Wilson commuted his sentence and Goldstein started writing his letters to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In retrospect, it seems amazing that Wilson, the same president who famously praised Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (“It’s like writing history with lightning”)–even though it was arguably treasonous in its nauseating glorification of the Confederacy–jailed Goldstein, whose movie was unassailably patriotic. Why did the feds throw the book at Goldstein? Obviously they wanted to make an example of him; Goldstein’s defiance of the censorship order seems to have infuriated Judge Bledsoe:

He knew, just as well as he knows we are sitting here now, that the private presentation of this film on last Tuesday morning was for the purpose of seeing if there was anything objectionable in it. To fit it for such private presentation it was gone over by him with a fine tooth comb, no doubt; but immediately thereafter a sedulous effort was indulged in by him to insert those things which would tend to “excite” and to create a prejudice against Great Britain. This demands an inquiry into the ultimate motives and purposes of this man.

Also, Goldstein’s lawyers were unable to argue that his First Amendment rights were being violated, because the Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that movies lacked such protection. (That has since changed, of course.) The biggest factor, though, was probably anti-German hysteria. Goldstein’s father (who’d founded the costume business) was a German immigrant. The film’s investors apparently included several Germans. The same Los Angeles Times that had previously praised Goldstein’s film subsequently hinted that Goldstein was involved in a plot to blow up U.S. munitions ships.

Goldstein was also Jewish, and anti-Semitism was still the norm among Southern California’s (and Washington’s) ruling class. After he got out of jail, Goldstein tried to re-establish himself as a filmmaker in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and England, which refused him a visa. Eventually he drifted to Germany. According to Slide, the last known communication from Goldstein was a 1935 letter to the Academy complaining that “because I can’t pay $9 to have my American passport renewed I have been fined 75 marks–and as I consequently can’t pay that either–two weeks in jail.” Goldstein almost certainly died in the Holocaust.