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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

U.S. v. The Spirit of '76

I first recall U.S. v. The Spirit of '76 (a film) as a reference in a Howard Zinn history, an oh so obvious example of U.S. overreaching. More detail was provided in Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment, which also referenced a book complied by film historian by the same name. This book had some introductory and supplemental (ads, two lower court opinions) material along with an unpublished 1927 account by the convicted writer/producer  himself.  The movie itself is lost.

The account is rather a drudge, starting with around thirty tedious pages on his struggles getting funding and so forth, but obviously is a useful historical source of his side of things. The whole thing is a tragic footnote in the history of film and the First Amendment, but a bit less so than the accounts I first read suggested as to Robert Goldstein himself. Goldstein was an American Jew of Irish-German (his father) ancestry, which probably didn't help matters when he was arrested for being seditious in connection to showing his film on the American Revolution during in 1917.  The film has some melodrama (in the account, Goldstein himself notes the female lead is a symbolic composite of two people; the historian for some reason misses this and cites only one of the women) but he got in the most trouble for a few violent scenes portraying British atrocities.

The whole thing was also discussed after the first book but long before the second in a series of Chatterbox articles in Slate, which helpfully provides various details, including the suggestion that the alleged attempt by him to show the scenes even after censors told him not to very well might have been a mistake or misunderstanding.  Dirty Words spends a few pages on the case, but not in as much detail and along with the earlier book assumes Goldstein died in the Holocaust, since the last we hear of him is out of money and in trouble with the German authorities in the 1930s.  But, another researcher found a later message from him that references an expulsion from Germany. Seems like he died in obscurity in the U.S. A more recent NYPL account notes this as well. A bit of a research fail but also a reminder mistakes happen.

There were various travesties during WWI involving free speech matters though Robert Goldstein was particularly singled out as far as filmmakers go. The film historian references a few other cases of film censorship, but Goldstein actually was imprisoned for a few years.  His ethnic and religious background, opposition of the war and the timing of the release -- right when the U.S. entered the war -- didn't help.  The tenor of the times is seen by one court opinion in the case where WWI is deemed the "greatest emergency" in U.S. history, the Civil War apparently trivial or something.  The chance that a few scenes in a long film* would cause insubordination of troops or more so it was a "willful" attempt to do seems mostly to be assumed.  Film itself a few years earlier were not deemed protected by the Supreme Court.

As is often the case, behind the case (and rather ironic case caption) there is an interesting story. A costumer that helped supply The Birth of a Nation himself gets the film bug and makes a picture.  There is various behind the scenes matters, some as noted above rather dull to dwell over including financing and such things as tidbits like the fact film at the time was played at different speeds depending on the action.  An ordinary man gets caught in the times and becomes a tragic footnote. But, his life continues afterwards, if a series of failures which his own account portrays with some pathos.  A possible subject of a film.


* It is unclear if ANY showing the Revolutionary War would be deemed a problematic attack on an ally, but certain scenes -- which Goldstein notes amount to seconds of film -- were highlighted.  Stabbing of a baby etc. does sound gruesome. There is one general scene involving a massacre, Native Americans a major factor in the plot, the lead actress half-Indian.

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