In view of the spread of radical doctrine in our universities, the new photoplay at the Rivoli Theatre issues a symbolic warning to pacifist and liberal student organizations. If they persist in their unAmerican activities, Red Salute tells them, not only will Miss Barbara Stanwyck deny them her allegorical caresses but Mr. Robert Young will punch their noses. It is one of the weirdest exhibits to come out of Hollywood since that wartime masterpiece, The Beast of Berlin. With the subtlety of a steamroller and the satirical finesse of a lynch mob the film goes in for some of the most embarrassing chauvinism of the decade. It is the interesting economic theory of Red Salute that prosperity will return to the land upon the deportation of the university insurgents. On the romantic side it subscribes to the delightful conceit that one red-blooded American can lick ten foreigners any day in the week. — The New York Times, September 30, 1935
Such is the high-spot Red Salute, a red-baiting attack on student freedom of thought and expression and a grinning salute to fascism and war. For sheer unadulterated viciousness, it is something to marvel at Hollywood’s conception of a college student who is frank enough to say that he doesn’t want his guts blown out advancing civilization after the fashion of Mussolini in Africa . . . Student groups have recognized the menace of Red Salute as real. It is not, as the New York critics supposed, just a sporadic and puerile attack upon free expression in the colleges. It was conceived out of the planned viciousness of the present Hollywood anti-red drive and its fascist potentialities are greater than the critics realize. — Marxist entertainment magazine New Theatre, November 1935
Today’s topic is the 1935 film Red Salute aka Arms and the Girl aka Her Uncle Sam aka Her Enlisted Man aka Runaway Daughter, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Young. It’s a fairly obscure movie today — even among Barbara Stanwyck fans. It’s an enjoyable film, but far from a classic.
Longtime Trav readers know, however, that I have a penchant for time capsule films: movies that could only have been made at a particular time and place, and that give you some insight into what was on people’s minds during that period. If time capsule movies are your bag, then the early 1930s should be right up your alley, as Hollywood would regularly make movies “ripped from the headlines.” If something big was going on in the news, Hollywood would crank out a movie about it in record speed. Celebrity preacher Aimee Semple McPherson got caught faking her own kidnapping so she could have an extramarital affair, and then Hollywood gave us The Miracle Woman, a fictionalized account of the story. Ivar Kreuger, a Swede who became absurdly wealthy and famous by cornering the world market for matchsticks, suddenly goes bankrupt, and so Hollywood puts out The Match King. There were also several films inspired by Al Capone that were released while he was still at large.
Red Salute is one of these. In the early 1930s, there was a Communism chic fad sweeping American universities. All the cool kids were doing it. There were even some big Marxist student rallies that ended up getting pretty rowdy. This Communism craze was something people were talking about, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood made a movie about it.
Red Salute caused quite a stir when it was released. When It premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York, 18 students were arrested protesting it outside, and one student inside ended up getting beaten up by an off-duty cop for booing the film.
Red Salute was one of the first anti-Communist movies Hollywood ever made. You will sometimes hear people incorrectly say that the 1939 Greta Garbo film Ninotchka was the first one, but Red Salute came out four years earlier.
I grew up in the last years of the Cold War, so I was raised on anti-Communist propaganda. What makes Red Salute interesting is that it is a rare example of a pre-Cold War anti-Communist film. Judging by the reviews I quoted at the beginning, you would think Red Salute was like an American version of Triumph of the Will, or at least something along the lines of John Wayne’s ridiculously jingoistic pro-Vietnam War movie The Green Berets.
When compared to the anti-Communist movies I grew up on in the ‘80s, however, Red Salute is absurdly tame. I hope that some of those commies who complained that Red Salute was too over-the-top lived long enough get a load of Red Dawn or Rocky IV. Since Communism was not yet considered an existential threat to America, Red Salute’s tone is a lot less hysterical than what came after the Second World War.
Rather than being portrayed as the pure embodiment of evil as they were in Cold War-era films, in Red Salute Communists are portrayed youthful, naïve idealists. They were seen as “dreamers” and are called such in the movie. At one point, Barbara Stanwyck says of her Communist boyfriend, “He dreams about such big things.” At another, Robert Young refers to Stanwyck and her Communist ilk as “you dreamers.”
Red Salute reminds me of two other films. The first is the romantic comedy It Happened One Night, which had been a monumental success the year before. The plot of Red Salute is a blatant rip-off of It Happened One Night.
It Happened One Night is about the daughter of a wealthy and famous businessman who wants to marry a celebrated aviator, but her father disapproves. While on vacation in Florida, she goes on the run to reunite with her fiancée. She then meets up with a scrappy newspaperman who ends up accompanying her on her journey. The newspaperman and the rich girl hate each other at first, but gradually fall in love. After the journey ends, they split up with their feelings still unresolved. With the encouragement of the girl’s father, the newspaperman dramatically shows up at the wedding to steal the girl away from her good-for-nothing boyfriend.
Red Salute is about the daughter of a wealthy and famous US Army general who wants to marry a prominent Communist radical that she met at college, but her father disapproves. He has her sent away to Mexico to keep her away from her fiancée and out of the news media. Once in Mexico, the girl goes on the run to reunite with her Communist fiancée. During her journey, she meets a scrappy Army soldier who ends up accompanying her on her journey. The soldier and the rich girl hate each other at first, but then gradually fall in love. After the journey ends, they split up with their feelings still unresolved. With the encouragement of the girl’s father, the soldier dramatically shows up at her fiancée’s May Day rally to steal the girl away from her good-for-nothing boyfriend.
The second movie Red Salute reminds me of is (((Cecil B. DeMille’s))) 1928 silent film The Godless Girl, which is about another emerging subversive social movement that was sweeping the youth at the same time as Marxism: atheism. Inspired by teenaged celebrity atheist (((Queen Silver))), The Godless Girl tells the story of a boy who is the President of his high school Christian club, and a girl who is the President of the school’s atheism club. The two clubs get into a rumble in which one of the students dies. The guy and the girl get sent to juvenile prison for inciting a riot. Once there, the two break out and go on the run together. The movie was a big hit in the Soviet Union, where they edited out the part where the girl finds God at the end. You can watch it here.
In both Red Salute and The Godless Girl, it is the woman who represents the more modern, subversive, and non-traditional position (Communism/atheism) and the man who stands up for the traditional status quo (patriotism/Christianity) and brings the woman back into the light.
It’s worth noting that Barbara Stanwyck was herself a hardcore Right-winger. Her life was a rags-to-riches story, and she believed that if she could make it without the help of the State than there was no reason why others couldn’t as well. She was a big believer in bootstraps. Stanwyck would later discover the writings of Ayn Rand and become a devout Objectivist. In fact, Stanwyck played a critical role in lobbying to get The Fountainhead made into a movie in the hope that she would get to play Dominique Francon. The movie was eventually made, but Stanwyck was deemed too old for the role by then. Further, at the time of Red Salute’s release, Stanwyck was married to the notoriously anti-Semitic America Firster, Frank Fay.
Red Salute begins on a college campus in Anytown, USA. We meet Communist student Leonard Arner, played by journeyman actor Hardie Albright, a man about whom one should feel no shame for never having heard of him. Arner is speechifying to a crowd of college students who cheer him on:
You’re all students. So am I. But don’t let that keep you from thinking. The world is sick and you’re going to be asked to pay the doctor’s bill, and if you don’t do something about it soon, it will be the undertaker. Don’t believe the lies they hand you here. They’re teaching you to crush labor, the proletariat of the world!
The film then cuts to two students. One asks the other, “What’s a proletariat, Jim?”
“You got me,” his friend responds.
Arner’s adoring girlfriend Drue Van Allen (Barbara Stanwyck) says to the two, “He’s talking for your own good. Why don’t you listen to him?”
Arner starts talking about America, and a skeptical student asks, “Are you an American?”
“As good as you are!” Arner responds.
Just then two older men approach, one a school official and the other a cop. The school official describes Arner as “quite a brilliant graduate student.”
“The Bureau of Immigration might be interested,” the cop tells him. “I’ll look him up.”
Back in the day, the establishment had to contend with the First Amendment, so they couldn’t just arrest Americans for commie talk. However, they had more leeway with immigrants. They couldn’t lock Americans up for their political views, but they could deport immigrants. This famously happened to Emma Goldman and others, and becomes a plot point later on.
Arner storms on: “America must take the lead in creating a new world, but first you must tear down the old one!” The cop then approaches Arner and kicks him off campus. He leaves, but not before he has his picture taken by the press with his girlfriend, Drue.
Drue’s father is a famous US Army general, and so having his daughter running around with an anti-American and anti-military commie radical is a major scandal and a huge embarrassment for him. He has Drue shipped off to Mexico, where she will be chaperoned by her aunt. Once there, Drue is desperate to get back to Washington, DC to be with her fiancée, but alas, has no money.
Enter Robert Young as Jeff. He’s an Army soldier stationed in El Paso who crossed the border into Mexico with a friend, looking for some fun. Communists at the time called Red Salute not merely anti-Communist, but fascist. A lot of that is due to Jeff’s characterization. In conversation with his friend, we learn that Jeff joined the Army after seeing enlistment posters showing soldiers throwing bombs at each other. He joined to go to war and kill people, but finds peacetime military service to be a big disappointment. His dream was to fight for his country and kill its enemies. Thus, Jeff is a sort of fascist –or at least, someone a commie would consider a fascist. And Barbara Stanwyck ends up leaving her Communist boyfriend for him, which I guess makes this a “fascist movie” in their eyes.
Jeff’s friend is desperate to get back to base before curfew, but once Jeff sees Drue in a bar, he sticks around to flirt with her. He soon discovers that she is the famous General’s Communist daughter who he has been reading about in the papers. Due to some “opposites attract” sexual tension, they become frenemies and spend the evening drinking together while exchanging playful insults. Jeff calls Drue “Red” for her Communist leanings, and Drue calls Jeff “Uncle Sam” for his devotion to the establishment.
Drue and Jeff are both drunk by the end of the evening, and realize that neither has the money to pay the bill. So they run out on their tab, and in the process, Jeff ends up stealing a government car. Once he’s sobered up, he’s late getting back to base, which means he is certain to be court-martialled. As a result, Jeff has nothing better to do than accompany Drue on her journey back to DC.
This is something about the film that confused me the first time I saw it. This is supposed to be an anti-Communist propaganda movie: Communism bad, establishment good. And yet Jeff, the establishment’s avatar, is shown committing several crimes. In fact, it is a running joke throughout the film. Jeff runs out on his tab, steals a government car, breaks into a barn, and at one point even forces a man at gunpoint to drive the pair to Washington.
On a second viewing, it makes more sense: Part of Drue’s attraction to Arner is that he’s a bad boy. He’s anti-establishment and the establishment hates him back, and he earns the respect of his peers in doing so. Showing Jeff doing all these naughty things shows that establishment types can also be bad boys in their own way. It wouldn’t make sense for Drue to leave her bad-boy fiancée for Ned Flanders, but it would make sense for her to leave her intellectual bad boy fiancée for a more masculine bad boy soldier.
I was somewhat disappointed that Red Salute wasn’t more ideological. The Communism aspect of the film is largely MacGuffin. The film could have been about the girl joining the Klan or a religious cult, and they could have used the same script with just a few alterations in the dialogue.
One scene shows Drue and Jeff breaking into a barn so they can sleep for the night. Jeff leaves Drue in the barn to go off on his own, but ends up returning soon afterwards after he spots a mountain lion. When he gets back, Drue asks what happened.
“I’ve got as much right to be here as you do,” Jeff says.
Drue responds, “That’s my theory. This isn’t a free country, but it ought to be.”
That’s a reference to Communist opposition to private property. While breaking into the barn is illegal, Dure, being a Communist, believes it shouldn’t be.
There is another scene where Jeff and Drue are travelling in the back of another man’s mobile home. It has a bed, a stove, and the works. Jeff and Drue talk, and the conversation leads to the Communists’ “modern” ideas about sex and marriage. Given the censorship at the time, they had to be very careful with the wording:
Jeff: How home-like the old place is getting. I think I’ll renew the lease.
Drue: Please. Don’t go domestic on me.
Jeff: I suppose when they change the world your way, there won’t be anything domestic.
Drue: Why argue? You’re just not in sympathy with modern ideas.
Jeff: I have my sympathies. Now suppose a young couple gets married.
Drue: It happens every day.
Jeff: Okay, and they have a little scrap, like all married couples do.
Drue: The “do” is unnecessary.
Jeff: Yeah, like your crazy ideas. So instead of making up before breakfast, they go out and get a divorce for 50 cents.
Drue: That’s freedom.
Jeff: Then I’ll take slavery.
Drue: That’s what you’ve got, only you don’t know it.
Jeff: You’ll never make me believe that. The argument’s over.
Drue: Over your head.
Funny that we didn’t get workers’ control of the means of production, but we did get the 50 cent divorces.
We soon find out why Drue is in such a hurry to get back to DC:
Drue: I have to get to Washington by May 1.
Jeff: What is it? Your birthday?
Drue: Bigger than that. It’s May Day, and Leonard is going to make the speech of his life.
Jeff: May Day? That’s the day you dreamers drive the cops screwy. You had one of those meetings in El Paso last year.
Drue: Were you in the audience?
Jeff: I was all over the audience. They called us out to stop a riot. You never saw so many ambulances in your life. You better stay away from that speech, Red.
Drue: Thanks for the warning, but I’m going regardless.
Remember that cop from the beginning of the movie who said he would run Arner’s name past the Bureau of Immigration? Well, the cop did just that, and it turns out that Arner is a liar. He is not an American after all, but in fact a dirty, rotten, stinking foreigner — from which country is never specified –and that he is likely an agitator being paid a foreign country — again, not specified, but we are supposed to assume the Soviet Union. Alas, Arner still has four months left on his visa, and they cannot legally deport him for his speech — unless, that is, his speech incites a riot. Foreshadowing, anyone?
The authorities finally catch up with Drue and Jeff. Drue is sent back to her father and Jeff is thrown in the clink. Drue is still hellbent on marrying her commie boyfriend. Her father figures out that she may have grown fond of this random enlisted man she met, however. Realizing that Jeff is the only person who might be able to woo his daughter away from the degenerate commie, he pulls some strings to get him sprung out of jail.
The movie’s climax involves Jeff showing up at Arner’s May Day rally. During Arner’s speech, he criticizes the military. Arner sees Jeff in the audience and invites him onstage to justify his service to the audience. Drue expects Jeff to humiliate himself onstage and to be crushed by Arner’s superior intellect and verbal ability.
But Jeff surprises everyone by giving a rousing, patriotic speech. What he lacks in intellectual and verbal dexterity, he makes up for with heart and old school, salt-of-the-earth authenticity. While the crowd is hostile to him at first, he slowly he starts to win them over. Before long, the crowd is cheering for Jeff and booing Arner.
This reaches its crescendo when a brawl breaks out between the Communists and the patriots in the audience, wherein Robert Young beats up many commies and even slugs Arner himself. Now that Arner’s rally has turned into a riot, the authorities have the excuse they need to deport him from the country. Drue and Jeff get married and live happily ever after.
Red Salute would prove to be the first of several movies in the mid-1930s addressing Communism, including Fighting Youth, which again lampooned college radicals, and Riff-Raff, which dealt with the West Coast labor movement.
As hated as it was by Communists, Red Salute was one of the most inspiring movies since The Birth of a Nation for nationalists. The ultra-violent Ku Klux Klan splinter group, the Black Legion, famously took a lot of inspiration from this film.
Red Salute is not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it is an interesting historical document. In a way, it serves as a fictional prequel to the McCarthy era, when all those kids who got swept up in the 1930s Communism craze were made to pay the price.
* * *
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