erik lundegaard

Tuesday May 17, 2022

Movie Review: Nation Aflame (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I rented this from Scarecrow Video—yes, I still do that—because of a screen credit that might not have been a screen credit.

Thomas E. Dixon Jr. is infamous as the white supremacist lawyer-minister who wrote the 1905 novel “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” which became the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie “Birth of a Nation,” which rejuvenated the KKK in the first half of the 20th century and led to who knows how many lynchings and how much more American misery.

And on IMDb, “Nation Aflame” is listed as Dixon’s last screen credit.

Here’s the thing, though: the synopsis of the film seems the opposite of Dixon’s earlier work:

Believing they can make a ton of money, a gang of opportunists uses the country’s racial and ethnic tensions to start a Ku Klux Klan-type organization.

So did Dixon, who died on April 3, 1946, have a change of heart about race matters?

Well, it turns out his prejudices were kind of complicated. He thought Black people were inferior but Jewish people superior. He never understood anti-Semitism, reminding people that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was Jewish. As for the reconstructed Klan he helped popularize, he saw it as “a growing menace to law and order.” Which is maybe why he helped write “Nation Aflame.”

If he helped write “Nation Aflame.” From the American Film Institute:

Although onscreen credits read, “Story by Thomas Dixon, author of Birth of a Nation,” and the film’s reviews state that the film was based on a story by Dixon, a 29 Jun 1936 HR [Hollywood Reporter] news item claims that the story was an original written by Leon d’Usseau.

OK, so who was Leon d’Usseau? According to his 1963 obit, he was a producer-director and sometime screenwriter who helped found RKO Studios. He was married to actress Ottola Nesmith and was the father of Arnaud d’Usseau, a playwright-screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1950s, refused to name names, and left for work in Europe. Apparently the son roomed with another blacklistee, Zero Mostel, for a spell, too.

So what evidence is there besides the 1936 Hollywood Reporter article that the story came from d’Usseau and not Dixon? Not much. A search of “d’Usseau” and “Nation Aflame” on newspapers.com brings up literally nothing. And Dixon is on the poster—prominently. And, as we’ve seen, he wasn’t exactly a fan of the new Klan. So … who knows? It’s a question for a college professor on sabbatical. (I really should’ve been a college professor with sabbaticals.)

As for the movie?

The suckers’ll eat it up
A bunch of grifters with a real-estate scheme get run out of town and need to come up with a new scam; and though they’re led by the portly, jovial Roland Adams (longtime character actor Harry Holman), it’s newcomer Frank Sandino (Noel Madison) who figures out that the next great grift is a very old one: xenophobia.

Sandino: We’ll capitalize on jealousy, intolerance and patriotism. We’ll form a secret lodge, and band our members into a legion of patriotic avengers: the Avenging Angels!
Adams: That’s a great name! The Avenging Angels: plenty of mystery, secret meetings, secret oaths, mysterious robes and phony rituals. [Laughs] Boy, the suckers’ll eat it up!

They wind up descending on a town where Adams was once mayor, and where Adams’ daughter, Wynne (Norma Trelvar), is now—inexplicably given his down-and-out status—a kind of socialite running the upper-crust party scene. Very quickly, Sandino, who has Americanized his name to Sands, has the rubes in his clutches, and Wynne turns out to be one of those rubes. She even begins a relationship with him. When Adams objects, Sands shuts him up by making him governor. Dad of the Year right there.

The forces aligning against the fascists are typical for ’30s Hollywood: the intrepid local DA (Arthur Singley) and the intrepid local newspaper editor (Allen Cavan). The latter goes an editorial too far and winds up being killed by Angels’ hatchet man Dave Burtis (Roger Williams). Both Adamses are appalled, and when Gov. Adams breaks from the group he—in a seeming nod to the 1935 assassination of Louisiana populist Huey Long—is gunned down.

So what finally stops Sands? The same thing that derails many a powerful man: a sex scandal. Except this one is kinda-sorta manufactured by Wynne, who sacrifices her reputation to bring down Sands.

Someday it would be nice if fascists were undone by, you know, their fascism, but apparently that's too much to ask.

The shame of my lifetime
“Nation Aflame” is not a good movie. It was directed and produced by Poverty Row brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, who probably deserved their Poverty Row status. It’s edited poorly, and, after years of neglect, the quality of the film isn’t the best.

But it’s worth watching for how much the arguments of its villains wouldn’t be out of place today on Fox News or at a Republican convention. Here’s an early speech of Adams’:

“We’ve been traveling all over the country studying the unemployment situation and the growing recklessness of our nation’s youth. After an extensive study of those conditions, Mr. Sands and I have concluded that their basic cause is primarily: foreigners. Too long have we permitted aliens and foreigners to prosper by whatever means they choose!”

And here’s Sandino/Sands:

“The only way that we can save the youth of our nation is to organize them in one single group, and through them, enforce the precepts of 100% Americanism! Corruption and politics must go! Civic virtue and patriotism must be our goals! We must enforce a reverence for our flag and our Constitution, and what is more, protect our American womanhood, and guard the sanctity of our homes. We must guarantee that the wealth of America must be shared only by real Americans! To maintain and declare absolute boycott against foreigners is our only salvation!”

What a shame that the rhetoric of stock villains in a 1930s movie is the rhetoric of the right-wing mainstream 100 years later. It’s the shame of my lifetime.

Posted at 09:49 AM on Tuesday May 17, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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