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September 21: Jailed for His Silent Movie

September 20, 2015

Robert Goldstein, a costume supplier for the nascent Hollywood film industry who was jailed for making a silent movie, The Spirit of ’76, that portrayed Great Britain in a critical light just as the U.S. was entering World War I as Britain’s ally, was born on this date in 1883. Goldstein had been an investor in D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, The Birth of a Nation, and sought to make a Revolutionary War movie that would match Griffith’s success. His melodrama came out one month after the U.S. declared war on Germany. “The head of Chicago’s police censorship board, a man with the unforgettable name of Metallus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser,” according to Slate, “immediately confiscated the film — apparently at the urging of Woodrow Wilson’s Justice department — on the grounds that it would create hostility toward Britain... Goldstein trimmed the offending scenes,” which showed British redcoats bayoneting a baby and about to rape a woman, but “when the film premiered in Los Angeles a few months later, Goldstein snuck the British atrocities back in. The film was seized once more,” and Goldstein was sentenced to ten years in prison for violating the Espionage Act, one of America’s most undemocratic laws in history. He served three years before his sentence was commuted by President Wilson. He then “tried to re-establish himself as a filmmaker in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and England, which refused him a visa. Eventually he drifted to Germany,” where he “almost certainly died in the Holocaust.”

“I am merely a lone man suffering a great wrong for no reason whatever, can you refuse to help me obtain justice? I have never done the slightest thing to warrant this persecution and prejudice against me, which denies the very right to exist. What, in the name of common sense, can be the reason for such wanton injustice?” —Robert Goldstein, 1927