Hollywood started fighting the Nazis before America did…but two films are seldom, if ever, mentioned in accounts of this isolationist period. Warner Bros’ Espionage Agent (1939) may not be a great film but it is certainly provocative, as I learned from watching the Warner Archive DVD. I also screened an obscure B movie from Republic Pictures called Sabotage (1939) which was rescued from oblivion by Olive Films on Blu-ray and DVD. Both pictures were made when the U.S. was officially neutral and the Motion Picture Production Code insisted that foreign countries be represented fairly—even Germany.
Yet Sabotage introduces familiar German-born character actor Frank Reicher as a key figure whose nationality is crystal clear. He is the coordinator of an underground spy network that has set its sights on the town of Midland and its busy aircraft factory. After a disastrous test-plane crash, the plant is temporarily shut down and a young worker is unfairly blamed. Who will speak for him as the newly-unemployed citizens grumble? None other than all-American character actor Charley Grapewin. Audiences had just seen him as Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz (and he would soon play Grandpa in The Grapes of Wrath, released the following year). His presence, as well as his words, must have carried great weight in 1939.
“This plant hasn’t been closed on account of my son,” he tells his friends and neighbors. “It was closed because it’s been poisoned, the same as our city’s being poisoned by a lot of alien forces that are trying to make us look at each other with suspicion. They want us to accuse each other. Why, you can’t pass judgment on my son and our family without knowing the facts, without giving us a trial. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, it isn’t justice. It is NOT the American way.”
Sabotage screenwriter Lionel Houser had trod similar ground in 1939 with an RKO B movie called They Made Her a Spy, starring Sally Eilers. It, too, dealt with a victim of sabotage whose sister is spurred into action. Little note was taken of this programmer, although it demonstrated awareness of an issue most of Hollywood was willing to ignore.
Most of the major studios in Hollywood were owned by Jews, but Warner Bros. stopped conducting business in Germany in 1934 following the rise of Adolf Hitler. Harry Warner was willing to go even further by releasing Confessions of a Nazi Spy in April of 1939. The feature was based on a well-publicized FBI investigation and thus was literally “torn from today’s headlines.” Other studios still tried to dodge world events and even tried to pressure Charlie Chaplin to abandon his anti-Hitler satire The Great Dictator, which was then in production.
But if Confessions earned the support of progressives in Hollywood and politically active people who were later labeled “premature anti-Fascists” it didn’t wow audiences or critics.
In The New York Times, the savvy and erudite Frank S. Nugent wrote, “Hitler’s pledge of non-aggression toward the Americas reached the Warners too late yesterday. They had formally declared war on the Nazis at 8:15 a.m. with the first showing of their Confessions of a Nazi Spy at the Strand. Hitler won’t like it; neither will Goebbels; frankly, we were not too favorably impressed either, although for a different reason. We can endure just so much hissing, even when Der Fuehrer and the Gestapo are its victims. The Warners had courage in making the picture, but we should have preferred to see them pitch their battle on a higher plane.”
Just four months later, Warners struck again with another plain-spoken story called Espionage Agent. For some reason this title is almost never mentioned in accounts of Hollywood’s run-up to World War Two. Its only real distinction is its aggressive anti-isolationist stance.
The film opens with a montage of man-made catastrophes, the results of sabotage dating from World War One. We fast-forward to the present day and meet Joel McCrea and Jeffrey Lynn, who are working at an embattled U.S. legation overseas, trying to protect American tourists who feel threatened by unrest and violence. The two friends return home to Washington, where they plan to join the Foreign Service. At a gathering of young, earnest recruits, a State Department official played by Stanley Ridges addresses them—off the record.
He reminds his young, idealistic charges that during World War One the U.S. was infested with a secret army of spies, enemy agents and saboteurs who wrecked bridges, blew up factories, sank American ships, and spread disease in the stockyards. Congress finally passed laws to counter espionage, but once war was over they were repealed. He warns that the network of spies is back and better organized than ever “If America, lacking the protective laws is drawn into another war, it will be because of those human ostriches who keep their heads buried in the sand. This, of course, gentlemen, is off the record.”
Meanwhile in Europe, we eavesdrop on a meeting of spies, one of whom assures his superior, “Should there be reason to order it, the war industries will be destroyed first: transportation lines crippled, food supplies poisoned or contaminated beyond salvage, reservoirs polluted. Overnight the nation will be in chaos, helpless, the civilian population in terror and confusion.”
Here at home, isolationism was Topic A and a volatile one at that. Cast as an experienced war correspondent, George Bancroft tells his younger colleagues to be on the lookout for undercover agents whom he characterizes as “fancy pants guys.” He doesn’t mince words. “When you get back to the States, try to convince them that isolation is a political policy, not a brick wall around the nation. The fancy pants guys walk right through political policies.”
It is almost certainly coincidental that Joel McCrea dealt with the same subject one year later in Foreign Correspondent (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by Walter Wanger. In its closing scene, McCrea is attempting to deliver a speech via short-wave radio from England back to his homeland.
“Hello, America,” he begins. “I’ve been watching a part of the world being blown to pieces…” His prepared speech is interrupted by the sound of air raid sirens and bombs. “I can’t read the rest of the speech I had, because the lights have gone out… All that noise you hear isn’t static—it’s death, coming to London… It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come… as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!”
Walter Wanger was known for making topical films that like Blockade (1938), which was set during the Spanish Civil War but stopped short of taking sides. It was written by John Howard Lawson, who later gained notoriety as an avowed Communist and member of the so-called Hollywood Ten who defied the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee.
Foreign Correspondent was released in August of 1940, but America remained neutral until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. After Congress’s formal declaration of war, Hollywood had no choice but to support the effort.
But Espionage Agent wasn’t as topical as it may have looked. It was in the works at Warner Bros. for more than three years!
Robert Buckner, who later became a studio producer, based his initial treatment on a story called “Career Man,” which bears little resemblance to the finished picture. It takes place in 1922 at a Central American seaport. Barlow Corvall, 40, is the American consul. His wife resents that he’s been passed over for a better posting. The narrative continues 15 years later in Rio de Janeiro and winds up in Shanghai.
Screenwriting stalwart Warren Duff, who spent most of the 1930s working on musicals, submitted another treatment on November 18, 1938. It opens with a montage of sabotage activities by German agents in 1915-16: an American ship torpedoed, a munitions plant blown up, etc. Bruce Corvall’s young son wonders why innocent people are killed and his father says the government is responsible because of lack of preparedness. His gloomy conclusion is that “it’s very much a case of locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen.” The locale shifts to Geneva and ends on a note of promise in Washington, D.C. where a senate committee is drafting the McCormack Act and the President is advising a counter-espionage act. It ends with the signing of the Munich Pact, indicating “peace in our time.” If only…
On March 6, 1939 production chief Hal B. Wallis sent a copy of the screenplay to Jack L. Warner with a cover letter stating, in part, “It is quite long but it will not be difficult to cut down. I know you have never been hot on this subject and so I wish you would read it as if you don’t like it… I have an idea that might be sold—possibly to METRO for Hedy Lamarr, as they are desperately in need of stories for her.”
Warner liked the script until the climax. “The whole hotel finish is a little off-key, I think. Of course it was written before Hitler took over Czecho Slovakia [sic].
“One thing that is very important,” J.L. continued. “If we intend to make a story of this kind we must get it in real quick because the world is changing so fast, if we wait too long this is going to be very old news. We also want to get a good, hot title for this.”
By March 9, 1939 the script had ballooned to 181 pages and bore the legend, “To the career men of the American Foreign Service, the officers of peace and guardians of our national safety who serve no political party, no social class and no religious creed, this picture is respectfully dedicated.”
The movie still opens with a montage of sabotage acts from World War One. Bruce Corvall’s son Barry follows in his father’s diplomatic footsteps and ends with the principal characters listening to a radio announcer who states, “The McCormack Act, which goes into effect Thursday, gives the State Department a weapon it has long needed to fight the propaganda agents of foreign government. And moving along even further in the drive to eliminate spies and saboteurs from America is President Roosevelt’s determination to urge Congress to launch a counter-espionage system.” Over the great seal of the Department of State these words appear: “To unceasingly strive for the hope of the world: PEACE.”
Still called Career Man, there are at least four dated scripts in the Warner Bros. files from the spring of 1939. One of them runs 167 pages, another 152, a “final” version clocks in at 139 pages and drops the World War One montage. Then there is the “Revised Final,” dated 6/8/39, with the montage restored.
Various executives suggest possible titles, including Neutrality Zone, Forged Passports, Girl Without a Country, Secret Soldiers, The Man from Washington, Trouble Shooters Abroad, Danger over Washington, Adventure Seekers, and While Nations Sleep.
On March 20, 1939 Walter MacEwan reports to Wallis that he has talked to James Hilton, eminent author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. “He is very interested in Career Man and feels that he can do it a lot of good. He thinks it is a good framework and he likes the timeliness and significance of the subject. In his own words, ‘the script is rather lifeless, but it is simply a question of breathing life into the characters.’ In other words, he tends to see it as a quick polish job.”
This was not the British author’s first brush with a screenplay; he is one of three credited writers of MGM’s Camille (1936). His candid notes bespeak a decidedly non-Hollywood point of view.
Sc. 45 – Let’s have one decent American tourist (apart from the clergyman) among the bunch
Sc. 53 – Rewrite Garertt’s spseches, making him give out information a little less directly
Sc. 83 – If we must have a laugh over a Negro servant, let’s have a better one
Sc. 336 – I know it is suitable in one sense that Dr. Rader should disguise his organization as something called “World Peace Headquarters,” but might this not be misunderstood as an insinuation against the idea of international peace for which so many well intentioned people have organized themselves, especially until recently? I suggested some name like “World Economic Federation.”
Sc. 326 – the whole denouement is too casual and Boy Scout-ish
Sc. 444-445 – If we want to be really original we might have a scene in England without any fog
Staff producer Lou Edelman writes to Wallis on April 18, “I think Hilton has considerably improved the first script of Career Man… The script is long and overwritten, but since his contributions have been largely in characterizations and incident, and not so much in reconstruction, I don’t think it will be very difficult to make necessary cuts.”
Wallis shared his enthusiasm for the revisions with director Anatole Litvak, writing in a memo that Hilton was “doing a beautiful job with the dialogue.”
But Hilton had second thoughts about being involved with the project. On June 6 his agent, William Dozier (later a successful producer), confirms with Walter MacEwan that his name will be removed from the credits. No express reason was given. Did he change his mind after reading the shooting script, or did he simply realize that being associated with a mediocre film could do him no earthly good?
The film itself names Warren Duff, Michael Fessier and Frank Donoghue as writers, with Robert Buckner cited for his original story. Where the prolific Fessier and the little-known Donoghue enter the picture is unclear. It is yet another example of incomplete or misleading writing credits that don’t accurately reflect who was responsible for a screenplay.
The movie, still known as Career Man, began filming on May 16. Warners paid Samuel Goldwyn $5,200 a week for the services of Joel McCrea, having jettisoned the idea of borrowing Fred MacMurray from Paramount and casting the other male leads from their contract roster: John Payne, Alan Hale, and Henry O’Neill in the parts ultimately taken by Jeffrey Lynn, George Bancroft and Stanley Ridges. Only Bancroft swelled the production budget a bit; his name still had sufficient heft to net him $2,000 a week for four weeks’ work.
Ardis Gaines, professionally known as Brenda Marshall, earned $500 a week with a four-week minimum. McCrea confirmed, through his agent, that he would agree to Marshall getting equal billing—a gracious gesture from an established star to a newcomer tackling her first screen role. She was touted in the movie’s trailer as “the year’s most exciting new discovery.”
Hal Wallis considered using new studio arrival Dennis Morgan in the role of McCrea’s closest colleague but decided that the actors looked too much alike and stuck with contract player Jeffrey Lynn. And to show how no detail was too small to escape his notice—especially if it would save a buck—Wallis wrote to an underling, “I talked to Eddie Mannix [of MGM] today and he said he would okay stock train shots for Idiot’s Delight for us. Will you therefore please try Metro again and tell whoever you contact over there that Mr. Mannix has approved this and have them check with Mannix.”
To direct the picture, the production chief chose always-dependable Lloyd Bacon. Born into a show business family, he cut his teeth in the silent era as an actor (appearing in several Charlie Chaplin comedies) before becoming a gag man for Mack Sennett and finally a director. He was reportedly the highest paid director at Warners, ready and willing to take on any assignment. Among his many credits: The Singing Fool, 42nd St., Marked Woman, and A Slight Case of Murder. Espionage Agent was one of six features he completed for the studio in 1939.
The newly rechristened Espionage Agent was previewed on September 20, 1939 at Warner’s Hollywood Theatre and officially released one week later. Despite such provocative ad lines as “The First Picture That Tells what it’s All About!” and “Don’t let SPIES get a foothold here!” the movie didn’t attract much of an audience and all but disappeared from sight. A well-intentioned tribute to “the unknown troubleshooters of Uncle Sam” didn’t have what it took to stand out in a year overflowing with first-rate films. I have consulted a number of articles and books about this turbulent year and found not even a passing reference to it.
I wish I could report it as a discovery or an unsung gem but I can’t. It would take a few more years for Warners to find just the right mixture of romance, adventure, humor and timeliness—and even then, its success was the result of serendipity as much as preparation. Casablanca is the kind of movie that comes along once in a lifetime, while Espionage Agent was just one of 54 features to roll off the studio assembly line.
I researched this article at the Warner Bros. Archives at USC and benefited from comments by Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press).