The impact of Victorian Theatre on the film industry

Most people going to see plays at the Belasco Theatre in New York would probably not recognise the origin of the theatre’s name.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Most people going to see plays at the Belasco Theatre in New York would probably not know the origin of the theatre’s name. David Belasco was an inspiring figure who was a leading figure in American theatre from 1895 to 1915. His theatre was flamboyant, extravagant and spectacular, and he dominated Broadway for decades.[1] Belasco certainly had an impact on Hollywood. He helped launch the careers of James O’Neill, Mary Pickford, Lenore Ulric and Barbara Stanwyck, who became major Hollywood stars. He also had a major influence on Hollywood directors such as Cecil B. DeMille and his influence continues to the present day.

In turn, Belasco had been building on the work of Imre Kiralfy and his spectacular circuses of the 1880s and 1890s. Kiralfy’s Nero or the Fall of Rome – The Greatest Spectacular Production of Modern Times was performed at St. George, Staten Island, New York, in 1888. These shows were part circus and co-produced with P. T. Barnum, the founder of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. [2]  The New York Times observed that Kiralfy was: …never satisfied with doing things on a large scale, and in his latest spectacular production, he is fully satisfied in his own mind that he has the biggest thing of its kind on earth. As far as magnitude is concerned, his production of “Nero: or the fall of Rome” is on a colossal scale, and Mr Kiralfy takes pride in the fact that on the biggest stage now built, he places 2,000 people and uses up 20,840 feet of scenery and has a ballet of 500 girls.[3]

Birth of A Nation employed Victorian publicity tehcniques. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Cinema was only in its infancy during this time, but such shows’ visual display would have impacted those growing up in this environment.  The first major Hollywood director D.W. Griffith had a strong background in Victorian theatre, and he employed a similar technique to Kiralfy when promoting Birth of a Nation in 1915. For example, this ad was printed in The Atlanta Constitution, 12 December 1915: D.W. GRIFFITH’S GIGANTIC SPECTACLE, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, YOU WILL SEE

18,000 People – 3,000 Horses – 5,000 Scenes

  • Petersburg at the height of battle.
  • Lee and Grant at Appomattox.
  • The shot that killed Abraham Lincoln.
  • The pillaging of Atlanta by Sherman’s invaders. [4]

Future directors such as Cecil B.DeMille was only a child at this time. His father Henry worked with Belasco for many years before his early death. With his family’s deep involvement in the theatre, he would almost certainly have attended performances of this or similar events. Such productions made an impact on his cinema. Posters for the Karifly production called it “The Greatest Show on Earth” – a title DeMille would eventually use for his film in the 1950s. Indeed, Nero would feature in The Sign of the Cross (1932), which was based on Wilson Barrett’s religious play of 1895.

Flyers supporting the film Fool’s Paradise (1921) showed an approach to promoting films from the period he would use for his entire cinematic career. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille’s debt to Victorian Theatre is obvious in both the films and in the publicity he employed. He would convert a stream of Belasco plays to cinema in his early years as a director. Flyers supporting the film Fool’s Paradise (1921) showed an approach to promoting films from the period he would use for his entire cinematic career. It involves highlighting the film’s most sensational aspect and constant repetition of the word “see”.

  • See the wonderful ice-ballet and the flight of the magic carpet.
  • See the marvelous growth of a Mexican oil town.
  • See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.
  • See the spectacular Siam Soo dances by natives and the attempt at a living sacrifice.
  • See the great theatre scenes, the cigar explosion, the knife-throwing villain, the sacrifice of a woman’s soul for the man she loves and a thousand other elements of a marvellous story. [5]
Victorian publicity techniques are in place throughout DeMille’s careers. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille used this strategy, a direct lift from Victorian theatre, of describing in sensationalist terms some of the key scenes from the film. As late as his third last film Samson and Delilah (1949), he would continue the motif of: “See the seduction of Samson by the infamous Delilah who robs him of his mark of power! See Samson strangle a lion bare-handed, crushing the breast to death with his grip of steel”.[6] The presentation of DeMille’s films never lost a sense of Victorian spectacle.

“See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.” Jurassic Park continues the tradition of Vicotrian Theatre on Hollywood. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille and Griffith could trace their origins back to Victorian Theatre, but they had a great deal of influence on future generations. Directors such as Stephen Spielberg would acknowledge their debt to DeMille. The same sense of spectacle can be seen in films such as Jurassic Park (1993). It has the same basic idea of the story: a family staying together in the face of enormous challenges – and you get to see some great dinosaurs. You could almost use the line that DeMille employed in Fool’s Paradise in 1921. “See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.” The same basic motif can be seen in thousands of films. Victorian Theatre is still very much with us.


[1] William Winter, and William Jefferson Winter, The Life of David Belasco.(New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1918).

[2] Robert Sugarman, The Many Worlds of the Circus. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).

[3] KIRALFY’S BIG SPECTACLE.: DRESS REHEARSAL OF “NERO” AT ST. GEORGE, STATEN ISLAND, The New York Times, 24 June 1888.

[4] The Atlanta Constitution, 12 December 1915: D.W. GRIFFITH’S GIGANTIC SPECTACLE, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, YOU WILL SEE

[5] Fool’s Paradise Flyer, Paramount 1921.

[6] Samson and Delilah, daybill from author’s collection.

Rediscovering Box office failures

It’s A Wonderful Life is now a cherished film, but it did not recover its costs on release. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Looking back on some films, it seems absurd that they were not popular on their release. Yet too many good films have failed for this to be the case.  A standout case is It’s A Wonderful Life. The film is now a classic shown almost every Christmas, and it is considered one of the popular films in American cinema. Capra considered it to be his finest film – indeed, he thought it was the greatest film of all. Yet, the film did not do well and failed to recover costs. What elements contributed to its failure? In 1946, the United States had been through a long and difficult war. It’s A Wonderful Life would have fitted in with a cycle of films about the afterlife and the importance of each life. But perhaps in the aftermath of the war, people did not want messages about death and life’s meaning. It may have made uncomfortable viewing. After all, it was about a man contemplating suicide for leading a wasted life. As Andrew Sarris noted, it was: “one of the most profoundly pessimistic tales of human existence ever to achieve a lasting popularity.”[1] In later times, Capra’s message of realising the richness of ordinary life appears to have resonated with the American public.

Other examples are easy to find. One of the Chaplin’s main rivals was Buster Keaton.  Keaton had made a string of successful short and feature films.  When Buster Keaton released The General in 1927, he considered it to be his masterpiece.  Film scholars have echoed that opinion for more than 60 years.  Yet when it was released, it did not prove to be a box office success, and after its screening, his film career disintegrated.[2] 

Audiences were left cold by the inventiveness of The General and it was one of Keaton’s great commerical failures. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Looking back at the film, it is almost inexplicable why the film would be a financial failure. Keaton plays a train driver who loves his engine called The General. When the civil war breaks out, the Union forces steal his beloved engine. Despite its undeniable quality, the audience of 1927 simply did not respond to Keaton’s battling little character.  Keaton had enjoyed great success until this point, and his films are now regarded as works of genius. It could be that his benign depiction of the American South did not resonate with the audience. It could be that audiences had simply grown tired of his battling little character who overcame every obstacle. The reasons for the failure of a film are difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, to click with an audience of the time, a film must fulfill a need more complex than straight entertainment.  Keaton’s little character has lost favor with the public, and his decline had begun. 

While Keaton’s vision of the South did not resonate, a film made 13 years later certainly did. Gone with the Wind (1939) was a massively successful film, and it remains an extremely popular to this day.  It has been re-released several times and has made handsome profits on each occasion. More than eighty years after its release, the film now has Blu Ray sets, special editions, and it remains one of the most popular films on cable television.  The perennial nature of its popularity could indicate that good films will be successful whenever they are released.  The argument is flawed.  Gone with the Wind was a bestselling novel published in the 1930s, and it was because of that popularity that producer David O. Selznick picked it up.  So even before the film was made, there was strong popular support for it.  Many people who attended the film went to see it simply because of the wonderful spectacle.  But once again, the film provided more than simple entertainment.  It dealt with a society about to be torn apart by war – as America was – and the sacrifices that men and women would have to make in that war.  These themes were also present in a large group of films that enjoyed popularity at the time.[3]  Films such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Union Pacific (1939) reassured America about its great past, and the ability to face challenges was in heavy demand.  With fascism on the march in Europe, that reassurance was needed.

Gone with the Wind continues to entertain 8o years after its release. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The reasons for its perennial popularity have more to do with the quality of its artistry. Films must operate at two levels to be successful. One, they have to contain elements of good writing, direction and production or a well executed or clever idea. But on another level, they are products of their time and need to talk to the audience of the period in which they were created. To succeed at the box office, a film needs to have more than a high standard of artistic and technical ability, it requires to have a level of audience involvement.  At some level, a popular film must discuss issues and dilemmas affecting the contemporary audience.


[1] Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film History & Memory, 1927-1949, 356.

[2] Tom Dardis, Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1979, p.114.

[3] For a full discussion read John E. O’Connor, ‘A Reaffirmation of American Ideals’ in O’Connor, John E., and Jackson, Martin A. (eds.). American Film/American History: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, Continuum, New York, 1988, 97 – 120.

Hollywood’s First Auteur: Cecil B. DeMille and the Battle for Reputation

Cecil B. DeMille moved to suits in the late 1920s to project an image of the professional director.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In the late 1950s, French film theorists argued that the director was the most important
influence on a movie. Adopting these ideas, Andrew Sarris introduced the “auteur”
theory to the United States in his seminal book The American Cinema: Directors and
Directions
in 1968, wherein Sarris respectfully placed the film director Cecil B. DeMille at
the second-highest rank. What the French theorists and Sarris did not mention was that
the central idea of the director as the driving force of the film was one that DeMille had
developed consciously about himself fifty years earlier – well before the term “auteur”
became a more common term.

The full article can be found at: Brianton, Kevin.Film & History; Cleveland, OK Vol. 50, Iss. 2,  (Winter 2020): 20-36.

https://search.proquest.com/openview/f188e20f90e7166bc33a26d3b8107db9/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=25504

The production code and a Promising Young Woman

Despite the lurid poster, the film is notable for its restraint on a difficult subject.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In some dreary and anonymous urban bar, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is way too intoxicated to know what is happening around her. She seems hopelessly drunk at a bar. A male customer offers to take her home to ensure she is safe. The man then changes tracks and invites her to her apartment first. He then makes sexual advances to her comatose form. At that point, he realises that not only is she not drunk, and he is a potential sexual offender – and not the nice guy he imagines himself to be.

Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s ambitious first film Promising Young Woman is a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film. The central character Cassie was a ‘promising young woman’ when her friend was raped, which caused her friend’s and also her own breakdown. Cassie leaves her high level medical career to work in a coffe shop, while living at home. She remains highly embittered by the attack and vows revenge on the killers – and men who take advantage of drunk women.

The film is well made and astonishingly tense depiction of a troubled young woman. It also has elements that stretch back to the depression era films. The Production Code of the 1930s was issued to help the film industry avoid a raft of state and federal censorship. It was a type of industry self-censorship to forestall government intervention.[1] Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice, the major Hollywood studios used the code to deal with the pressure from religious lobby groups. The code developed real teeth later in the 1930s, and films could not get a release if it violated its rules. Rape and depiction of rape were highly sensitive topics of the period. Some have argued that the Production Code meant that directors and writers were far more careful and clever in the way they depicted

While no code is in place now, as it fell apart several decades ago, Fennel employs an impressive array of techniques to depict the impact of violence, without showing it. She shows that an intelligent director does not have to be explicit.

Alexander Heller-Nicholas’s survey of rape-revenge films mentions a whole stratum of these types of films, arguing that Thirteen Women was an early example of rape-revenge film. It is certainly a distant ancestor of a Promising Young Woman. The 1932 thriller film directed by George Archainbaud did not explicitly depict rape, but the film provides clear evidence that the attack or attacks occurred. The film also even repeats the “We were young,” defence that the witnesses and the rapists employ in a Promising Young Woman. [2]

A distant ancestor of Promising Young Woman was Thirteen Women. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Of course, the Me-too Movement’s politics in 2021 is a world away from the Production Code of 1930, and some aspects have altered markedly. The rape is the now central incident in the film – there is no veiled references. What is remarkable about the film is that while the topic is odious, the depiction of sexual violence is kept to a minimum. Fennell prefers to allow the audience to project their fears rather than depict the incidents. Aside from one scene, the film is an exercise in restraint.

The writers of the production code may not have liked the nudity or the violence – very subdued by today’s standards – but they would have understood the ending and it could have got the code’s stamp of approval. Each of the people who allowed the rape to occur unpunished receives some form of retribution. One of the basic tents of the code was that overt act against the law would be punished.

Unfortunately, under the code, anyone who commits a crime must also pay the price, and Cassie is guilty of a host of offences in her pursuit of revenge for her friend. The framers of the production code would understand her penalty as a suitable corrective to anyone who considers breaking the law.

The code is still hanging in there, even in 2021.


[1] Motion Picture Association of America, A Code Governing the Making of Motion Pictures: The reason supporting it and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. 1930- 1935,

[2] Alexander Heller-Nicholas, Rape Revenge Film: A Critical Study, London: MacFarland, 2011.

Godfather, Sopranos, and Suburra: Blood On Rome

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Melbourne, Australia

Suburra continues the transformation of Gangsters that began in The Godfather (1972) .

The year 2020 saw the release of The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, which is a re-editing of The Godfather Part III, originally released in 1990. The third part of the Godfather trilogy was always the most maligned of the Godfather set of films. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) are well entrenched in the cinematic canon, but the third suffered in comparison. Director Ford Coppola has re-edited the film with a new beginning and end. Critics have said it is a modest improvement on the previous version. Its release almost certainly denotes the final chapter of the most influential and important film series of the 20th Century.

With less fanfare, the year also saw the end of the Italian TV series Suburra: Blood on Rome (2017-2020), which concluded its run with a climactic shoot-out. While radically different visions of organized crime, both Suburra and The Godfather upended a long-held tradition in Hollywood films, where criminals tended to be brought to justice in the last reel. Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) were remotely based on figures such as Al Capone of the Prohibition era. Acting under the production code, all of them suffered the consequences of their law-breaking. However, audiences in the Depression still identified with their willingness to go outside the traditional system’s bounds to make a living. [1] The films of this era saw the gangsters and the law in direct opposition.

In the 1970s, with the release of the Valachi papers, and the realization of the Mafia’s workings, this formula underwent a radical shift, with the gangster now a respected member of society. Indeed, the way the gangster image has evolved reflects how we have moved as a society. In The Godfather, the Don’s immediate successor Santino Corleone is violent on occasion. Santino nearly beats his brother-in-law to death for striking his sister. He is much closer to the cinematic psychopaths of the 1930s, and he is passed his use-by date.

Vito Corleone is a controlled and intelligent killer. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The other Dons: Vito and Michael, kill for business or honour, as do their opponents. Santino is not seen as “a good Don” because he fights with a violent passion. He needed a practical approach as declared by their enemy Sollozo, the Turk. Sollozo told the Corleone family lawyer Tom Hagen: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman; blood is a big expense”. Neither of the other Corleone dons is likely to lash out for no reason at all or to even respond to a simple provocation. Murders are simply cold and calculated efforts to achieve practical goals.   Michael shoots the Turk and his police captain bodyguard to protect the family and to save his father. From that point on, Michael certainly uses his newly attained power to murder opponents or traitors, but always for “business” reasons.

Director Martin Scorsese took some elements of The Godfather and made it his own. His gangster world is lower-middle-class, and it has a violent edge. However, being a gangster is also fun. Brian Phillips has argued that Goodfellas (1990) is the bridge between The Godfather and the crime families that emerged in the TV series Sopranos. “Goodfellas is far more than a transitional film, but it does link the past and the future in some important ways. If it’s true that every great work of art ends one genre and founds another, then Goodfellas could be seen as the culmination of the tradition represented by The Godfather and as the vital link between the New Hollywood cinema of the ’70s and what we now think of as the golden age of TV.” [2]

Building on the world created by the Goodfellas, the TV series The Sopranos (1999 to 2007) focused on a more middle-class setting in New Jersey. While Michael Corleone strived for upper-class respectability, Tony Soprano has no such pretensions. As a physically imposing man, Tony Soprano used his stature and threats of violence to run a criminal enterprise. At best, Tony Soprano barely manages to keep his modest middle-class facade intact – needing some psychological support to do so. The Sopranos has no intersection with the political world, other than some links to the union movement. Unlike the Corleones who appear untroubled by the police or government, Tony Soprano and his group appeared doomed to either death or imprisonment. The Sopranos stripped away any sophistication or style from the image of gangsters.

With the end of the Sopranos in 2007, there seemed to be no likely successor to the organized crime family. However, the arrival of internationally based streaming services in the 2010s created an incinerator-like demand for high-quality TV shows. Countries outside the United States have started to fill the void. The clear successor to the Sopranos was Suburra: Blood on Rome – and to a lesser extent Gomorrah. Previously, shows such as Suburra: Blood on Rome would have played in Italy and a few foreign language television stations. With streaming services and the strong demand for content, the show is now shown in 190 countries. While the United States’ dominance in world culture is still strong, it is certainly being eroded by the new technologies that give access to programs worldwide – and we are starting to see and hear new voices.  

In the world of Suburra: Blood on Rome, all are corrupt, from the Vatican, through all government levels to the streets – no one is safe, and no one is clean. Suburra: Blood on Rome began life as a 2013 novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo. The book was based on a 2015 Italian neo-noir crime film directed by Stefano Sollima, which the TV series then reworked. Despite its Italian origins, Suburra: Blood on Rome owes a great deal to The Sopranos in taking a similar path of sending the gangster genre down market. The lead character in Suburra: Blood on Rome is Aureliano Adami, from a gang from Ostia – a port near Rome.  Son of the chief, Adami is a gang member who appears to have no interest in upper class or even middle-class respectability. He will kill on impulse and exacts savage revenge on anyone who crosses him. In one scene, Adami beats a man to a pulp and then shoots him – he makes Santino Corleone look restrained.

Even so, Adami is a charismatic leader, and, with his allies, they challenge the gangster hierarchy of Rome. In 2020, our gangster figures have moved far away from Michael Corleone, whose murders were “strictly business,” to figures who murder for revenge – or simply because they are just in the way. Other changes are evident in the projection of power in the key actors. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a man whose rage is tightly controlled, and he acts after thinking things through. Tony Soprano is an intelligent thug who rules with cunning and violence – he is no planner. Aureliano Adami is just a scary human being with a possible death wish.

As the gangster genre continues to move along, it has become more violent and continues to set out in different directions.In the 1970s, The Godfather was seen as a commentary on the Nixon administration with its conservative façade and criminal underpinnings. When the Watergate scandal derailed Nixon, it also led to a toxic loss of confidence in the government’s honesty and integrity. As time has progressed, the cultural myths about gangsters have become more violent, and the government appears to be ineffectual in helping people. In the Trump era, that loss of confidence has ebbed further.[3] In Suburra: Blood on Rome, the government is now in alliance with the gangsters, and it is hard to see where one begins and one ends. In The Godfather, there are references to political connections, where Vito Corleone has a strong influence. When a Senator threatens the Corleones, Michael looks blankly and says: “Senator, we are all part of the same hypocrisy.” Suburra takes that idea to another level. Close to 50 years down the track, we can barely say who is worse: the gangster or the government. Yet with all the evolution of style, the end is a shoot out is straight out of the 1930s. Despite Aureliano Adami’s clear psychotic behaviour in Suburra: Blood on Rome, he has some sense of honor, but the central politician is a repulsive character. The politician gets away with it.


[1] Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. Chicago: Elephant, 1992, 3 – 17.

[2]  Brian Phillips, “How ‘Goodfellas’ Serves As the Bridge Between ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’,” The Ringer, 17 September 2020, accessed at https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/9/17/21440866/goodfellas-martin-scorsese-the-godfather-the-sopranos, on 12 December 2020.

[3] Among many surveys see OECD survey, Trust in Government, https://www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm.

The age of the instant legacy: Comey’s Rule, Mank and the Crown

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow,

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

When George Orwell died in 1950, he requested that no biography be written. It was request that stood for a few decades until scholars began to research one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. Now many Orwell biographies have been written, and it is certain more books are on the horizon. While Orwell’s request was followed for a long time, a major public figure would see little point in making the request. Today, we face the trend of the instant biographies of people living and working. More importantly, depictions on TV and in the movies are coming thick and fast. Indeed, the half-life between an event happening and its depiction on the screen used to be decades. The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events on TV screens surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

That gap has been narrowing and it has become a matter of months before a prominent figure is depicted. At the time of writing Donald Trump – who is still president – has had a raft of books written about him. (Few seem to be interested in the new president Joe Biden.) Donald Trump has had two biographies written about his presidency by the iconic Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, but Woodward’s impact is nothing compared to the impact of TV shows. The Comey Rule is a recently released American political drama television miniseries, based on the book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by the former FBI director James Comey. The miniseries has Jeff Daniels playing Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. The remarkable aspect of this series is that it depicted a sitting President in recent events. For Comey’s book, the gap was barely two years.

Mank will shape the reputation of Herman Mankiewicz.

The impact of these shows is profound. The author of the highly regarded dual biography of Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz,  The Brothers Mankiewicz, Sydney Ladensohn Stern noted when watching the newly released film about Herman Mankiewicz: “Movies are so much more evocative than books that I knew no matter how accurate my research, how convincing my writing, and even how widely my book might be read, Mank’s Herman was going to be the Herman Mankiewicz for the ages.”[1]

The same process can be seen in other political figures. For example, the rumour of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover being in a closeted homosexual relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson and engaging in cross dressing is widespread. Rumours about Hoover’s homosexuality had circulated for many years as he had lived and worked closely with Clyde Tolson and neither were married. Based on a verbal account, one biographer argued that Hoover was a cross dresser. The account was almost immediately attacked by investigative journalist and Hoover critic Peter Maas soon after the biography was published. He re-interviewed the sources and demonstrated that every piece of evidence to support the case was flawed.[2]Maas believed the stories were nothing more than hearsay.[3]Maas’s conclusions were backed by FBI historian Athan Theoharis, who is also a strident critic of Hoover, and has demonstrated the evidence is particularly weak and it seems unlikely that Hoover was in a homosexual relationship with Tolson.[4] Another Hoover biographer Ronald Kessler has concluded the FBI director simply could not have engaged in homosexual activity at the Plaza with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out. “The cross-dressing allegations were as credible as McCarthy’s claim that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department, yet the press widely circulated the claim without further investigation. That Hoover was a cross-dresser is now largely presumed to be fact even by sophisticated people”.[5]  

J. Edgar shaped Hoover’s reputation as a cross dresser. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

So, you would assume that the rumour would be dismissed. However, films trounce books in setting agendas. When J. Edgar Hoover was represented in the 2001 Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, wearing a dress, historians of the period rolled their eyes. Hoover’s cross dressing and supposed homosexuality had hit the silver screen, and no amount of detailed academic research was going to erase a discredited claim. The image had been set in stone by a film.

The Crown is helping to define the image of future King: Prince Charles.

The impact of movies and TV shows on reputations can have wide ranging consequences. The Crown is a retelling of the rule of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II and it is now colouring the perception of the royal family. Camilla and Prince Charles have spent many decades slowly building their reputation, since their divorces and eventual remarriage. The pair have worked hard to gain public trust. The most recent season of the TV series follows the relationship of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, outlining their failing marriage. The creators of the show have declared that the show is historical fiction. This statement may be their intention, but the show is seen as a historical record. Prince Charles is often depicted as being uncaring in the face of Diana’s suffering. The show has created endless debate on the fairness of the depiction, but it is now the version of history against which all must negotiate. More than any other source, a TV series is now shaping Charles’s reputation, who will be King, assuming he lives longer than his mother: Queen Elizabeth II. King Charles III – as he will possibly be called – and Trump’s eventual reputation may not be decided by the political historians and journalists, it may well be decided by the audience response to TV shows such as The Comey Rule and The Crown along with the other series that are sure to follow.


[1] Sydney Ladensohn Stern, “The Mankiewicz Brothers’ Biographer Weighs in on David Fincher’s Mank,” Literary Hub, 4 December 2020 accessed at https://lithub.com/the-mankiewicz-brothers-biographer-weighs-in-on-david-finchers-mank/ on 7 December 2020.

[2] Peter Maas, “Setting the Record Straight”. Esquire, May 1993, 119(5), pp. 56 – 59.

[3] May 1993, Esquire  and for a broader perspective see Gerry O’Sullivan “G-Wo/Man – homosexuality of J. Edgar Hoover – Against the Grain – Column,”.Humanist. retrieved from  FindArticles.com on 4 June 2010.

[4] Athan G. Theoharis, J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime: An Historical Antidote, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1995 [2009]. p. 39.

The cold war of Leo McCarey

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In 1944, Leo McCarey directed Going My Way, concerning Father Chuck O’Malley. A film showing the positive influence of religion on american life. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

During the Second World War, religious films were in vogue.  The Song of Bernadette (1943) was a popular film, based on the bestselling novel of 1941. In 1944, Leo McCarey directed Going My Way, concerning Father Chuck O’Malley, who guided young people an it proved to be one of the most successful films of the year. This benign vision of religion reverberated with the American public, who probably needed reassurance of religious guidance. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), was its follow up and was also successful.

Leo McCarey was a devout Catholic and his Catholicism helped spawn a strong anti-Communism. McCarey testified before HUAC in 1947 and in 1948, Leo McCarey, wrote an article for The New York Times on the need for films with religious themes. McCarey wrote that the film industry had a tremendous opportunity for ‘education, enlightenment, and influence’.  He claimed there was a growing plea for motion pictures with a religious influence.  McCarey called for religious pictures that entertained.

Religion and its principles can be absorbingly and tellingly presented within the basic screen itself.  After all, the cinema would soon lose its influence, if it lost the primary function of entertainment.  As an example, the unentertaining, heavy handed pounding of a theme is one of the mistakes which the Communists repeatedly make in the filming of their Soviet propaganda.  Pictures which are so colossally dull that their points, if any, are already lost. [1]

McCarey argued for the tactful and tasteful use of religious stories to show the ‘goodness of good as against the banality and wastefulness of those living without beliefs.[2]  By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism. [3]  McCarey wanted religious films to be more effective propaganda than the Soviet efforts and he wanted Hollywood to contribute to ensuring a deeper belief in religion throughout the world.  He looked forward to the production of The Robe to demonstrate the strength of his arguments.

McCarey would also be a key ally for DeMille when conservatives moved against Mankiewicz in 1950, but his anti-communist activity did not end there. In 1950, he made a film You Can Change the World was a short film for the Christopher movement who were members of Catholic church aiming to reinvigorate the United States with strong religious values. It features Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Irene Dunne, Rochester, William Holden, Loretta Young, and Ann Blyth. The film hoped to energise people to do more good work in the community, as antidote for those who were taking control – read communists. Despite the clear talent, it is like a poor lecture on the Declaration of Independence and the need for religion or religious values. The participants, aside from Benny, Rochester, and Hope, are lifeless. The film gives the distinct impression of being an exercise to prove anti-communist credentials, and the actors appear to be disinterested in the whole lecture – which includes slabs of the Declaration of Independence. It is not a Catholic film as the participants covered a wide range of religious views. Ann Blyth was a devout Catholic and Jack Benny was Jewish.

Despite its noble grandstanding, the film has a barely concealed racism. Rochester, as an African-American, is not invited to hear the father speak, even though he is just as famous as the rest of the guests. He was a valet, and his rejection is either based on class or race or both. Race is also mentioned when the priest tells the story of a young man who may lose his job at a service station because he is African-American. After a community boycott, one person finds the service station 25 new customers and he is allowed to keep his job. The film does not question the right of the customers to discriminate or the service station owner’s ability to sack his employee, because of his customer’s reaction to race. The implicit assumption in the film, “You Can Change the World,” is that the “you” is limited to white people. They can help African Americans, but it is one-way street.

Despite the honour roll of talent, the film is a rather dull lecture. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

McCarey would again tackle communism in his feature films. In My Son John (1952), his message was clear: communism was a cancer in American society which had to be ripped out. The film was a strange mixture of political intolerance, homosexual repression and anti-intellectualism.  The film was not well received, and it is now regarded as one of the more feverish of the anti-communist films. (See: https://cinemahistoryonline.com/2019/08/23/my-son-john-1952/ for a fuller discussion.) A decade later, he would try again with Satan Never Sleeps and it was also a dismal failure. The actors appeared to be going through the motions, and the Chinese Communists were moronic thugs. If My Son John is feverish, Satan Never Sleeps is just dreary. Leo McCarey and fellow writer Claude Binyon were accomplished comedic writers and drama appeared to elude them. It represented a sad end for McCarey, who was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, but simply did not know his limitations. McCarey had made some highly effective and notable religious films during the Second World war, but something seemed to be missing when he made religious or political films in the immediate period following the cold war.

The advertising for Satan Never Sleeps, gives it a message of unresolved sexual tension between the two leads., which is simply not present in the film. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] New York Times 12 December 1948. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, p. 259.

Tenet and MAD superpower conflict in the 1960s: the end of moral superiority

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The recent film Tenet looked at the possibility of worldwide destruction, where civilsation is eliminated.
Image courtesy of eMovie Poster.

The recent film Tenet (2020) looked at the possibility of worldwide destruction, where everything is destroyed, in order to satisfy the crazed needs of a suitably deranged villian. The film is the latest of a long line of films, where the world faces destruction through nuclear annnihilation that stretches back to the 1960s, when fears about nuclear weapons began to be discussed more openly. In the 1950s, science fiction films, often had themes of nuclear armageddon, but this was usually disguised as aliens or monsters being unleashed in Them or Earth versus Flying Sources. Direct discussion of this issue was clearly too painful during this decade, because it simply did not happen.

While nuclear fears were discussed in these films in allegorical terms, the biblical epics of the 1950s created a cultural mythology that assured the eventual destruction of the communist empires.  As communists gained power in China and Russia became a nuclear power, the American people needed reassurance that this rising threat of a Sino-Soviet bloc with more soldiers and nuclear weapons would inevitably fail.  At the time, communism appeared to be on the march, with the Korean war beginning and McCarthy’s allegations of communist conspiracy within the United States Government.  The biblical epics provided another depiction which showed the communists empires vulnerable to resistance based on spiritual values.  The rhetoric of historian Arnold Toynbee, evangelist Billy Graham and State Department head John Foster Dulles linked religious conviction with national strength.  It was this message which was eagerly taken up by the American people.

Cold war messages were contained in all these films, but they received their most reverent and inspired treatment in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  The biblical epics created the cultural myth for Americans that society needed a firm moral basis to succeed and flourish.  Communism lacked this moral basis and may flourish for a while, but they would wither in time because of this absence.  The image of doomed or damned communism was highly reassuring to audiences.  The domestic and international political strengths contained within the United States would eventually lead to the destruction of communism and the re-birth of freedom. The Ten Commandments (1956) painted a picture of the irresistible conflict between the superpowers. The spiritual strength was the only permanent bulwark against the rise of the Soviet Union.

Almost exactly one year to the day after the release of The Ten Commandments, the satellite Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957, destroying American certainties of technological superiority.[1] Previously, the Communsit powers had gained advances by duplcity. Now, the Soviet Union was a step ahead. These fears would crystallise in 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis led to the two superpowers coming perilously close to nuclear conflict. As the real impact of a possible conflict between the superpowers began to sink in, these ideas of moral superiority began to lose their hold, and with the change, cinema began to shift directions. Superpower conflict was not going to be an event with moral strength prevailing – everyone was going to die and civilisation was going to end. The term ‘mutually assured destruction’ had its origins in this period, and it began to be seared into the American political consciousness.[2] No one was going to win the nuclear war.

The Manchurian Candidate was a black political satire which said the political extremes had joined forces against the United States. (Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was the first film to cast doubt on the idea of a Manichean conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The book and film feature a McCarthyite figure in the United States who is an unwitting dupe of the communists. The film had a short run, and some have suggested it was removed from public view considering sensitivities regarding the Kennedy Assassination in 1963. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had spent some time in the USSR, and one theory argued that he was brainwashed there to shoot the president. Whatever the reasons for its short run, the film had a massive impact, and the film’s title entered popular language. It was remade in 2004, with a different political setting in the Iraq war. Most recently, President Donald Trump has been called: “A Manchurian Candidate,” for his foreign policy positions – particularly with Russia.[3] The film is notable in that it began to blur the lines between the super patriots and the communist threats – both were dangerous to the political system.

The United States President, played by Henry Fonda, must release a nucelar weapon over New York, after US fail safes are broken and Moscow is destroyed. (Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

While The Manchurian Candidate was a black political satire, other films delved into the impact of the Cold War. The first cinematic response to the possibility of mutually assured destruction was Fail Safe (1964), directed by Sidney Lumet, was based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The film was released in early 1964 and it portrayed an accident leading to nuclear war, with destruction for Moscow and New York. While the film enjoyed critical success, it was not popular at the box office. It is an overwelmingly bleak assessment of the chances of nuclear war.

Dr Strangelove, played with impeccable comic style by Peter Sellers, depicted the moral morass that the United States found itself in deploying nuclear weapons.
(Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

The bleak vision of nuclear conflict was followed by Dr. Strangelove’s black satire, directed by Stanley Kubrick, which was also released in 1962. With the comedic genius Peter Sellars playing three roles, including the crazed scientist Dr. Strangelove, the film argued that the whole system was a mess, and a madman could release the nuclear holocaust. Based on the Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Peter Sellers also played a US President fighting being the greatest mass murderer in world history. He also played the unforgettable Dr Strangelove, a clearly insane scientist, who has taken the world to a nuclear abyss. In most films, a James Bond hero manages to meet all the challenges, but the worse does happen in this film, and the world is destroyed. Even satire provided no escape from nuclear terrors.

A further film, The Bedford Incident (1965), showed a clash between a US destroyer and a Soviet submarine that leads to the destruction of both in an exchange of nuclear weapons. The depicted clash that occurred before or during the Cuban Missile Crisis – accounts differ. In October 1962, a Soviet submarine was pursued by the US Navy. When the nuclear-armed Soviet vessel failed to surface, the destroyers began dropping training non-lethal depth charges. The officers on the submarine argued over deploying the weapon, believing that World War Three had begun. Senior officer Vasili Arkhipov prevented any escalation by refusing to launch the weapon. After an argument, it was agreed that the submarine would surface and await orders from Moscow.[4]

This small group of films was criticised for being alarmist about the possibility of an accident or a madman leading to a nuclear war. In time, it would be demonstrated that the film’s writers and the directors were close to the truth. The United States and the Soviet Union could have easily gone to war, as the security around nuclear weapons were poor, and systems were haphazard. Both The Bedford Incident and Fail-Safe had an underlying message that nuclear weapons were too dangerous and would inevitably lead to destruction. The safeguards were not in place. In sharp contrast, The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove depicted the whole government apparatus as insane. The political certainties of the Eisenhower period were being eroded. [5] Its political system looked rickety, its religious shield was ineffectual, and its technological lead looked shaky. The moral certainity of the Ten Commandments (1956) had all but disappeared.


[1] The Ten Commandments was released on 5 October 1956.

[2] The term “mutual assured destruction” was coined by Donald Brennan, a strategist working in Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute in 1962. Daniel Deudney, Whole Earth Security: A Geopolitics of Peace, Washington: Worldwatch Institute, July 1983, 32-33, accessed at https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED233950 on 18 November 2020.

[3] Travis M. Andrews, “Some call Trump a ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ Here’s where the phrase originated,” Washington Post, 13 January 2017.

[4] Nickola Davis, “Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize, The Guardian, ,” 27 October 2017.

[5] Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everyhting in “Dr. Strangelove” was True,” 17 January 2014.

The sad predictions of The Last Hurrah (1958)

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Skeffington begins his last campaign in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The recent United States election has certainly been a memorable one. Asthe dust settles, it is an absolute certainty that films and TV shows will be produced on the Presidency of Donald Trump – if they are not already in production. Whatever people think of Trump, it is undeniable that he generates interest in whatever he does – and will continue to do so for many years. The TV network Showtime has already shown The Comey Rule depicting the relationship between Trump and FBI director Comey. Based on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, it focusses on their relationship, leading to his sacking by Trump. The political drama stars Jeff Daniels as Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. Trump has such an over the top persona that actors will undoubtedly be queuing to do their intrepretation of him. Brendan Gleeson has had the first serious crack, but the mini-series highlighted that political drama done well could be engaging and popular. [1]

In the TV series, the FBI is depicted as an organisation that has to constantly balance out political pressure, while investigating crimes. Founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would barely recongise what his successors at the FBI were even doing. Hoover highlighted the Bureau’s role in catching gangsters, or identifying communists. The focus was on crime and treason. In the social media age, the FBI director’s working life seems consumed with emails from politician’s computers, along with the antics of Russian social media trolls. As well as dealing with tweets from the President, the media dominates all communication and Comey is even advised that he had been sacked by television.

The days of the FBI hunting criminals such as Dillinger are clearly over in The Comey Rule.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While not predicting the future of media and politics, one film that certainly made some prescient observations about American politics was The Last Hurrah (1958). The film was adapted from the 1956 novel of the same name by Edwin O’Connor. The prestigious director John Ford and the actor Spencer Tracy joined forces to depict a long term Irish-American mayor preparing for a final election campaign. Mayor Frank Skeffington and his campaign are followed by his nephew and journalist, Adam Caulfield, who covers American politics at close range.

Skeffington – a mayor of a New England city which appears to be Boston – delivers one of the novel’s finest political speeches when talking to his nephew about politics, saying it is the greatest spectator sport in the United States. Everyone knows ‘who is up and who is down’, according to Skeffington. He wants to run one more campaign the old fashioned way, knowing his time is up, as Skeffington realises that radio and television were becoming the dominant force, reducing politics to a televised sport.[2]

The election contains a scathing vision of American politics with a dolt of a candidate opposing Skeffington. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times , would call him “a farcical nitwit.” [3] Backed by the town’s moneyed interests, the only advantage he seems to have over Skeffington is the use of new technology, which in 1958 was television. The book was written after Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson’s disastrous drive to solicit votes through speeches, where the more media savvy President Dwight Eisenhower used advertising and television to promote his political profile.  Eisenhower slaughtered Stevenson in both the 1952 and 1956 campaigns. The Democrats would take note of the lessons of campaigning against Eisenhower, and use them to full effect when they worked for the future President John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election campaign.

While a supporter of Kennedy, John Ford was not a fan of television politics at which JFK would prove to be a superb practitioner. Ford was concerned with the rise of media politicians, and he could see that the days of Skeffington were numbered with their low-level corruption, but with a focus on distributing goods to their lower income neighborhoods. The new politicians had a commitment to nothing. The film highlights the impact that television would make on American politics for the next 60 years. In more recent times, television has been supplanted largely by social media, of which US President Donald Trump has shown some mastery. In the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson could still attempt to campaign with beautifully written speeches.[4] Ford would never have imagined that a reality TV star could use the medium for a political base. It is inconceivable that Ford could not even envisage reality TV, but he understood that image was now as important as substance in the 1950s.

Ford’s film is lament for a political past where politicians were elected on character and policies. The warnings from 1958 in O’Connor’s novel and Ford’s film are clear for all to see. Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction of his political campaigns in Young Mr Lincoln (1939). Lincoln commands through use of language, logic and force of personality. In Lincoln’s time, two hour speeches were recorded in full in newspapers and people rode or walked miles to hear them. Lincoln would later develop the precursor to the grab with the Gettyburg address, which was a ridiculously short speech by the standards of the time. Today, neither side would even bother with a speech of any length in the age of twitter. Our society has election campaigns with all image and no substance, having reached the bottom of the slippery slide identified by O’Connor in 1956.

Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction in Young Mr Lincoln, who commands through simple persuasion, logic and force of personality – and the occasional use of his fists.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film also has one remote link back to Trump. At the end of the film and the book, Skeffington lies dying, having lost the campaign, and one of his detractors says if he were alive, he would regret what he did in his political life. The comatose figure comes back to life and says: “Like hell, I would.” I cannot imagine Donald Trump saying anything else much different in similar circumstances. Despite the massive impact of television and social media, over the preceeding seven decades, it seems politicians do not change all that much.


[1] Rick Porter, ‘The Comey Rule’ Draws Solid Initial Ratings for Showtime,’ Hollywood Reporter, 30 September 2020.

[2] The clip from The Last Hurrah (1958) can be seen at:

https://www.tcm.com/video/480786/last-hurrah-the-1958-spectator-sport

[3] Bosley Crowther, “Spencer Tracy in “The Last Hurrah;” Portrays Skeffington, John Ford directs,” The New York Times, 24 October 1958, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/1958/10/24/archives/spencer-tracy-in-the-last-hurrah-portrays-skeffington-john-ford.html on 12 November 2020.

[4] Jill Lepore,  If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, London: John Murray, 2020 has an excellent discussion of the election and the links between advertising and politics.

Horatio Alger and The Queen’s Gambit

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The Netflix’s series The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis novel. which is part of a long tradition of Horatio Alger characters.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Queen’s Gambit released by Netflix looks to be an ultra-modern series with state of the art set design and touching on a whole set of current issues – such as drug addiction and feminism. Yet the story is a particularly old fashioned Horatio Alger style tale, which is almost the quintessential American myth. Alger was a Nineteenth-Century writer whose central characters rise through meticulousness and industry to become a respected society member.[1] In many ways, the central character Beth Harmon, played with style by Anya Taylor-Joy, represents the traditional Alger protagonist. A creature of the 19th century, Horatio Alger’s characters were invariably young men. Despite the difference in gender, Harmon resembles one of his characters perfectly. Beth comes from the humblest of origins. Harmon worked hard at her craft – which in this case is chess. She succeeds through a combination of hard work and the astonishing mental gifts bestowed on her. Her gender is a barrier, and she still has to break into the chess world, but the doors were open to her through the vastly superior American system.

Alger’s central characters are usually young, white men living in big cities with low-paying jobs. Published in 1868, Alger’s first major work Ragged Dick followed the story of a young boy working as a shoeshine on New York streets. Dick befriends a customer who gives him five dollars for a service. The protagonist then uses that small sum to create a small fortune through being frugal and mostly through hard work. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is also given five dollars to play in a state chess tournament by a kindly janitor who taught her how to play chess. She wins the tournament and moves onto becoming US champion, before taking on the world.

In contrast, the Soviet system is no place for genius, but it allows a player such as her rival Bogrov to succeed. He is a machine, who shows no flashes of brilliance, but can crush any opponent in the end game. In the Soviet system, players with ability are hand picked by the Soviet bureaucracy, and drilled to play at their best. The state provides every assistance, and the players are a team who help each other, planning how to beat their foreign opponents.

The show depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other, which is a departure from the Alger myth. Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, an United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972.[2] The show does not mention that the Soviet Union dominated chess from 1948 until Fischer loosened their grip in 1972. While one of the greatest players in chess history, Fischer was only a blip to Soviet domination. It is rarely mentioned that the Soviets retook and retained command of the sport until 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia retained its grip for a while, and it still has two players in the top ten.

Fischer and Harmon have similar traits, such as learning Russian, and both are outsiders who are obsessed with chess. In the 21st century version of the Alger myth, the protagonist must fight both external forces and internal demons. Beth Harmon must deal with her parent’s separation, her mother’s death, being an unwanted orphan in a dreadful school, a remote stepfather, a loving but crushed stepmother coupled with a drug and alcohol problem. Beth is also compared to Paul Morphy of the 19th century, one of the finest players of the era, who dazzled the world with his brilliant attacking play, then went mad after being compelled to stop. 

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A distant ancestor of Beth Harmon is Harold Lloyd, who triumphs against adversity. While Harmon had to conquer a Russian giant in chess, Lloyd had to conquer a building in Safety Last. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Horatio Alger provided the basis for many cinematic heroes. In the silent period, Harold Lloyd was the personification of the Horatio Alger myth. With his get up and go, the Lloyd character conquered massive obstacles to his ambition, of which the climb up the side of the multi-storey building in Safety Last was the most famous. Despite his glasses, his tenacity would win over the biggest obstacle and strongest opponent.

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Horatio Alger in boxing: Rocky Balboa triumphed in boxing against the USSR in Rocky IV. Beth Harmon’s triumph is far more dignified. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In more recent times, the boxer depicted in Rocky is a prime example. A loser Rocky Balboa is given one chance to fight the world champion. He trains hard and then comes close to beating Apollo Creed. In later sequels, like The Queen’s Gambit, it developed a cold war edge with Rocky going up against an inhuman Soviet Goliath and triumphing. In contrast, Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but also courteous and dignified. This a post-Cold War series and we are allowed to see the Russians as human. While Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph.

At the time of writing, The Queen’s Gambit, is the most popular TV show on Netflix. The success of TV series shows how underlying Horatio Alger myths retain a stranglehold on the American imagination. The story may shift from a young man to a woman. It may shift from commerce to boxing to chess, but the myth remains in firmly in place.


[1] For a discussion  on  Horatio Alger see Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success : From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

[2] Edmonds, David & John Eidinow. Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time  provides an excellent account of the 1972 world championship.