The movies reflect our times and challenges

The Examiner

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Harry S. Truman was president, the annual Academy Awards ceremony was the highlight of the Hollywood social calendar, as it still is today. (This year's Oscars are Sunday night.)

Randy Sowell

Critics of the industry, then and now, have often derided the major movie studios for providing lightweight, escapist entertainment for the masses, but several of the movies that received the Best Picture Oscar during the Truman administration were intense dramas dealing with serious social and political issues of the time – issues that President Truman confronted daily.

The Best Picture Oscar for 1946 went to "The Best Years of Our Lives" a powerful depiction of the challenges facing returning servicemen after World War II. The movie related the experiences of three “typical” veterans as they returned to their home town and struggled to adjust to the problems of civilian life. For the theatergoers of 1946, these characters could have been themselves, their relatives, or their neighbors: the decorated bombardier who finds himself back in his prewar job as a soda jerk; the infantry sergeant, now restless in his career as a banker, who tries to help other veterans with loans under the GI Bill; the sailor who lost his hands in combat and fears that his fiancée will not be able to accept his disability. The role of the sailor was played by Harold Russell, a disabled veteran who received the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

A year later, in 1947, "Gentleman’s Agreement" received the Best Picture Oscar. Ironically, this vivid indictment of anti-Semitism in American life was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox, one of the few major studio moguls who was not Jewish. "Gentleman’s Agreement" tells the story of a journalist (played by Gregory Peck) who pretends to be a Jew so he can experience discrimination firsthand. His experiment is all too successful: he is turned away from a “restricted” hotel, his personal life is disrupted, and neighborhood bullies subject his son to anti-Semitic taunts. Along the way, he discovers the insidious nature of bigotry, the way it poisons the minds of people who never think of themselves as prejudiced and how it worms its way into established institutions through informal “gentleman’s agreements” designed to deny Jewish people their full rights as Americans.

In 1949, the Best Picture Oscar went to "All the King’s Men," an uncompromising portrayal of the dark side of American politics. Based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren, this movie was a thinly-disguised portrait of a real-life figure, the late “Kingfish” of Louisiana, Huey P. Long, who achieved near dictatorial power as governor of his state during the early 1930s. The Long character (christened “Willie Stark”) was played by Broderick Crawford, who also received the Oscar as Best Actor. Initially an idealist dedicated to helping the common people of his state, Willie Stark is soon thoroughly corrupted by the political process. He accepts campaign contributions from wealthy interests, cynically exploits his working-class followers, and ruthlessly uses the powers of his office to crush dissent. Like the actual Huey P. Long, Willie sets his sights on the White House, but is assassinated at the height of his power.

Harry Truman was not much of a movie fan, but he would have been familiar with the issues raised in these movies, even if he didn’t see them. As president, he was responsible for carrying out the GI Bill of Rights, which provided loans and educational opportunities to World War II veterans similar to the characters portrayed in "The Best Years of Our Lives." Appalled by the terrible crimes Nazi Germany had committed against European Jews, President Truman fought against the anti-Semitism depicted in "Gentleman’s Agreement" by supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and by urging Congress to accept more Jewish refugees into the United States. And the political evils portrayed in "All the King’s Men" were entirely familiar to Truman, who had served with Huey P. Long in the U.S. Senate in 1935. According to the author Merle Miller, who interviewed the former president during the early 1960s, Truman said that Long was “nothing but a damn demagogue.”

Randy Sowell is an archivist at the Truman Library in Independence.