To Henry Hazlitt, a pro-capitalist economist and writer [Letter 438]

Item Reference Code: 140_HAx_020_001

Date(s) of creation

December 25, 1950


Henry Hazlitt


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December 25, 1950

Dear Harry,

Here is the detailed story of what I told you in our telephone conversation.

The movie of “BORN YESTERDAY,” produced by Columbia [and premiered the day following this letter], was adapted from a play by Garson Kanin, who is known as a Pink. The play was actually and mainly a non-political farce, but Kanin stuck into the plot some political touches of crude collectivist propaganda. This, as you know, is the usual technique of the Left, in regard to plays and movies. Few works openly preaching collectivism have ever succeeded with the public. The technique is to introduce the propaganda into otherwise innocent stories and make the public swallow the poison in small doses—which mount up to a thorough job of indoctrination, if that is all the public hears whenever politics are mentioned on the screen.

The disastrous and tragic part of this situation in Hollywood is that the Pinks have succeeded, not because the movie producers are Leftist, but because the producers are as ignorant and confused politically as the rest of the country—and the so-called conservatives have done nothing to enlighten them. The conservatives in Hollywood, with very few exceptions, have been just as muddled and inconsistent as they are everywhere. They have put up no ideological battle in the studios. They have confined themselves mainly to denouncing persons, not ideas—and, as a consequence, the Pinks have won by default. Collectivist propaganda is permitted to go on the screen, simply because few people have the courage and intelligence to fight against it.

By the usual Hollywood practice, a play such as “BORN YESTERDAY” would have been given to a Leftist writer to adapt for the screen (the Leftists always see to that and the studios don’t care), and all the political poison which it contained would have been preserved in the movie, to be shown to millions of people the world over and to do an infinitely greater amount of damage on a wider scale than any Broadway hit could do. But in this case, Columbia Studio, unaware of and unconcerned with the political issues involved, gave the adaptation job to Albert Mannheimer, fur purely literary reasons, because they

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considered him an excellent comedy writer. And so it happened (which is almost unprecedented in Hollywood) that a big “property” slanted to the Left, such as “Born Yesterday,” was given for screen adaptation not to a Leftist nor even to a middle-of-the-roader, but to a real conservative like Mannheimer.

If you read the studio’s statement, which I am enclosing, you will see the nature of the political problem involved in this adaptation and what Mannheimer has done with it. (This statement was sent by Columbia Studio to their New York office for the purpose of answering one critic who attacked the movie as “Marxist,” not on the ground of the movie itself, but on the ground of the play and of Kanin’s political record. This statement was written for the studio by Mannheimer.)

It is most unusual for a Hollywood studio to support so clear-cut a political statement in defense of Free Enterprise. This will give you some idea of what a Herculean job of political teaching Mannheimer had to undertake while working on this script. The heads of Columbia were not Leftist, but they were truly “babes in the woods” politically and they did not know a Pink line of dialogue when they heard one. The director of the picture, George Cukor, was a close friend of Garson Kanin; he kept in constant touch with Kanin; there were also other influences at work, which I can only suspect. They fought to keep in the movie every collectivist line of the play. Mannheimer was, at first, alone to fight against them. He had nothing to fight with, except ideological persuasion—and he had to convince producers who were indifferent to politics, annoyed by the issue, and, normally, would probably have preferred to give in (with the “Who cares about a few lines?” attitude) to the director—particularly in the case of George Cukor, who is one of the big Hollywood names.

The movie of “Born Yesterday” is not as good politically as I could wish it to be. That is, Mannheimer had made the pro-Free Enterprise aspect much clearer and more explicit in his script than they finally shot for the screen. Some of his political speeches were cut out by the director. Some of Kanin’s vague touches of Pinkness remained on the screen, in spite of Mannheimer’s protests; but these touches now are merely innocuuous.

Mannheimer could not, of course, win on every point. But he won the two major victories which were politically crucial: the elimination of the “Free Enterprise Amendment” and of the “You’ve got all the oil and all the lumber

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and steel and coal—” speech. (I’ve marked them on the enclosed statement.) To keep millions of screengoers from hearing it preached to them that a law which “guarantees no interference with free enterprise” is Fascism—represents, to my mind, an enormously valuable service to the cause of Free Enterprise, and it is more than most conservatives have so far been able to achieve in Hollywood.

To the credit of Columbia Studio, it must be said that they are finally beginning to understand the issue and that this battle seems to have had an extremely good effect on them. But they are literally like children learning to walk and making their first stumbling steps. This is why I think it tremendously important that they get ideological encouragement and support from the conservative press.

If they hear the conservatives noting the elimination of Kanin’s collectivist ideas from the movie, they will begin to believe the full importance of political ideas, of what they should permit on the screen and how careful they should be about it. If nobody notices or gives them credit for the changes they made, it will throw them right back into the attitude of “Who cares about ideas?”—which is where the Pinks want to keep them.

Whenever a Hollywood writer or studio puts out something favorable to collectivism, the whole Leftist press cheers them for it. So it would be tragic if, when a studio tries to respect Free Enterprise, the fact is denounced or ignored.

I do not know whether it is true that Westbrook Pegler intends to attack this movie or whether it is only a rumor, nor from what aspect he wants to attack it. If he wants to denounce Garson Kanin’s politics or the Hollywood practice of buying any stories at all from Pinks—he would be fully right and I would certainly agree with him. But I hope that if he discusses the content of the movie, he will note the changes made and evaluate the political message of the movie accordingly. I hope that he will not lump it together with the play, on the ground that the general story is the same. The general story is non-political. The issue lies in those crucial little touches and slants. If he cares to look up and compare the texts of the play and the movie, he will see the full difference, better than I can present it here in outline.

If you find that you agree with me and if such an occasion arises, I would appreciate it very much if you

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would point out to Pegler the exact nature of the changes made in the movie, as explained in the enclosed studio statement, or show him that statement, if you wish. But please consider my letter confidential—because I am not connected with Columbia Studio, I know the inside story of the battle only from Albert Mannheimer and this behind-the-scenes battle should not be made public. It would be most unfortunate if any publicity came out praising Mannheimer at the expense of the Columbia producers, just as they are beginning to adopt his political viewpoint and are now coming to him for political guidance. You may, of course, tell Pegler, if you wish, that it was I who called your attention to this picture.

I will not lengthen this letter with personal news, except to tell you that I finished Part I of my novel yesterday. I’ll write to you about it separately. Until then—Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year to you and Frances from both of us—