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Did Historical Film Encourage Mutiny?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Feb 07, 2018

New Jersey socialist Frederick Krafft was sentenced to five years in prison for trying to cause a mutiny in the U.S. armed forces by saying, “I can’t see how the government can compel troops to France. If it was up to me I’d tell them to go to hell. It’s a damn shame” on a street corner in Newark. Shortly after, on Oct. 27, 1917, U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory stated that this was just the beginning.

“I have spoken thus far, not of the legal penalties which attach to obstruction and disloyalty to this government. I have purposely moved slowly and with caution in invoking the strong arm of the law for seeming disloyalty, believing that more mature consideration would show the occasional agitator that he was wrong and the rest of us were right. However, I shall not be half measured in undertaking the control of those who persist in their disloyalty and schemings against the Government and its purposes.

“The Federal Government is not powerless to handle such malcontents. Amongst other offenses, it can prosecute those who willfully make or convey false reports or false statements … also those who willfully cause, or attempt to cause, insubordination or disloyalty.”

In Hollywood, Robert Goldstein was about to premier his new film, “The Spirit of ’76.” Production on it had begun before the United States’ entry into World War I and the passage of the Espionage Act. The film had been shown despite some local censors’ objections that it might offend the British when it played in Chicago, but now the federal government was about to become involved.

The Los Angeles Times on Nov. 27 announced, “Tonight the much-talked-of patriotic film, ‘The Spirit of ’76,’ will go on at Clune’s Auditorium. A special orchestration has been written for the picture and will be interpreted by a symphony orchestra of forty pieces, while novel staging effects have been arranged for the presentation of this colossal photo spectacle, including huge replicas of the first Colonial flags.”

But it wasn’t to be. The Times reported on the 30th, “On the ground that its exhibition might interfere with and prevent the enforcement of national war regulations, the 12,000 foot film, ‘The Spirit of ’76,’ showing at Clune’s Auditorium, was last night seized by United States District Attorney O’Connor. … Judge Bledsoe of the United States District Court paused in the midst of an elaborate turkey dinner to invest Dist.-Atty. O’Connor with a writ and a search warrant for the seizures.”

Once at the theater, “Robert Goldstein, author and producer of the film, appeared upon the scene shortly before the film was seized by the government officials, and asked the privilege of cutting out any parts of the picture to which the government agents objected, but the officers refused to delay the execution of the writ. … Last night the producers asked Mr. O’Conner what there was objectionable about the show. ‘Anybody with a spark of patriotism in him would know that by taking one look at the picture,’ was the reply. ‘Don’t you know that if you stop the exhibition of the film it means financial ruin for many people’ pleaded Mr. Goldstein. ‘We will not discuss the matter,’ said Mr. O’Connor.”

The next day Goldstein tried to get his film back. The Times explained, “Things happened quickly yesterday to Robert Goldstein, producer of ‘The Spirit of ‘76.’ In a spirited hearing before United States District Judge Bledsoe in his chambers, on Goldstein’s motion that the film seized Thursday evening should be returned, the motion was denied. … The charge against Goldstein is that he exhibited a picture calculated to arouse the antagonism of the American people against the English.”

In his own defense, “Goldstein claimed that he had … conceived the idea that a production showing the battles and sacrifices of our forefathers during the revolution would make a hit. Beginning with the ride of Paul Revere he wrote a scenario depicting certain phases of that historic struggle, winding up with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was full of thrills and interspersed in the story were a number of love episodes to give the production the proper ‘pep’ from a motion-picture exhibitor’s point of view.”

By Dec. 4 Goldstein learned he was in danger of losing more than just his film.

“The charges against Robert Goldstein, who is alleged to have put on the moving picture, ‘The Spirit of ’76,’ at Clune’s Auditorium, last week, that, in the opinion of the Federal authorities, contained a number of pictures hostile to the cause of the Allies, will be investigated by the Federal grand jury this afternoon. … If Goldstein is indicted, an effort will be made to expedite the trial, as, under a recent ruling of the Attorney-General, cases involving a violation of the Espionage Act are to be given a preference on court calendars.”

Within 24 hours, according to the Times, “The Federal grand jury acted quickly yesterday in the case of Robert Goldstein, local moving-picture producer, charged with violation of the espionage act in producing the war-of-the revolution film, ‘The Spirit of ’76.’ An indictment against Goldstein was returned on three counts. … Under the indictment Goldstein may be sent to the penitentiary for a period of two years on each count or six years.”

What would put him in prison for up to six years?         

“It is charged that on November 28 Goldstein ‘willfully and unlawfully attempted to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty on the part of the military and naval forces of the United States, in that he presented at Clune’s Auditorium a certain moving picture play entitled ‘The Spirit of ’76’ designed and intended to arouse antagonism, hatred and enmity between the American people and the people of Great Britain, at a time when the defendant well knew the government of Great Britain, with its military and naval forces, was an ally of the United States in the prosecution of a war against the imperial government of Germany.

“The second count asserts that by the exhibition of the picture Goldstein attempted to influence those not yet called for military duty, who had so far failed to present themselves to the proper military authority.

“The third alleges that by the exhibition of the picture Goldstein conspired with others to influence those who had not yet been called to selective service.”

Unable to raise the bail, Goldstein waited until April 1918 in county jail for his day in court, where he would not be allowed to use the defense “the truth will set you free” – because the truth might offend someone.

Next Week: Is a fact the truth?


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