Fred Niblo's Dangerous Hours (1919): An Anti-Bolshevism "Propaganda" film resonating the first American Red Scare
The Russian Revolution of March 1917 was, at first, generally welcomed by Americans as a courier of democracy. However, the proceeding Bolshevik Revolution introduced the alarming threat of anarchy to American high society. Bolshevism’s identification not only with common ownership but also irreligion deeply offended the Victorian values many Americans were keenly adhered to. The resulting backlash to this “Red Menace” was a patriotic campaign that upheld republican aristocracy while condemning the opposition through Anti-Bolshevistic propaganda. This was revolutionized through the use of the American film medium. Relying principally on visual representation, propaganda filmmakers faced the unique challenge of instilling positive characteristics on its American protagonists while openly portraying its socialist antagonists negatively. Fred Niblo’s Dangerous hours is a quintessential example of this negative portrayal of Bolshevism. Through blatant cinematography, narrative, and film techniques of the silent film era, Niblo’s Dangerous hours galvanized the trepidation, and subsequent impediment, of socialist-progressive ideals in a conservative capitalist America.
By the early 1900s, a progressive spirit was already invading American public life, as the confidence created by the renewed prosperity, combined with uneasy memories of the recent class violence in labor movements, fostered a popular mood broadly sympathetic to proposals for economic, social, and political reform. Progressive reform was being advanced particularly as the answer to the social problems of the cities. All seemed well with Americanization of immigrants and moderate social reform. But it was the First World War that escalated the western drive against alleged anarchists and other radicals into a national campaign. But the definition of the red menace as the foreign anarchist limited the states’ ability to act, for immigration was a federal responsibility, and by the 1910s considerable pressure was being placed on Washington for greater curbs on radical aliens. Theodore Roosevelt called for legislation to bar anarchists from entering the country and to deport alien anarchists who advocated assassination. Congress, for the first time in American history, finally concluded that it was legitimate to turn people away from the United State because of their political beliefs. The immigration act of 1903 provided for the exclusion of defined categories of anarchists and prevented anarchist aliens who were already in the country from becoming naturalized. Anarchism was being officially defined as un-American. There was “disloyalty active in the United States,” warned Wilson during the 1916 presidential campaign, summoning the fraternal spirit of republicanism and pointing the finger at those “born under foreign flags”. In 1919 alone twenty-six states enacted laws prohibiting the display of the red flag. The Big Red Scare had long been gathering momentum, spurred by the responses of American society and government to the First World War. With the passing of the urgent need for labor cooperation in the defense industries, the federal and state governments had less reason to befriend trade unionists or to mediate between labor and capital. The labor movement, eager to protect wartime gains and to win compensation for galloping inflation, adopted a more belligerent posture, which employees were not slow to impute to Bolshevist influence. “When you hear a man tryin’ to discredit Uncle Sam, that’s Bolshevism”. This strategic move successfully sundered the American protest for socioeconomic reform from radical Bolshevistic position. Niblo’s Dangerous hours was a product of this anti-anarchism shift in American view.
Dangerous hours carefully established emotional responses to its characters predominantly through their appearances. The opening scene of Dangerous hours portrays a mob outside of a factory protesting for labor reform. They are seen arguing with police officers while “true” American onlookers shake their heads at them. Through the subtitles we read them call the protester’s lazy and un-American. The filmmaker then introduces us to the protagonist, John King, by displaying his character through high-key lighting with a white-powdered face in every scene. King’s clothes, hair, body are depicted as clean cut while the Bolshevist Boris Blotchi had dark clothing and dark circles around his eyes, often widening them in a frightening manner. John King’s father, the sagacious “voice of reason”, was seen wearing an all white suit, white hair, and powdered face; a symbol of purity. The Bolshevist women, represented primarily in the film by Sophia Guerni, were seen moving frantically and viciously speaking publicly during their anarchist meetings. They were shown smoking and having bodies resembling that of a man. This was contrasted by the true American women, represented by May Weston, who were illustrated through classy womanly clothing and gentle soft skin with longer hair. May’s scenes were usually shown in “comfort” areas of the home, like a bedroom or living room, but rarely outside since in the American conservative view, the woman’s proper place was in the home. The Bolshevist’s themselves were represented as being hunched with abnormal facial expressions, often distorting their words or phrases, while the Americans were seen standing upright and proud. This portrayal of characters helped immensely to clearly establish its subjective view of who was bad and who was good.
The film’s Mise en scene and soundtrack also incorporated an obvious Anti-Bolshevist perspective in its propaganda. The low-key lighting of the Bolshevist meetings and appearances gave it an eerie pre-film noir feel as though something was not right. One scene in particular showed King waking up from being struck in the head and in reminiscing about Boris, a low-key lit dissolve shot shows Boris in the background creating a frightening chiaroscuro effect. The establishing shot portraying the Bolshevik Revolution in a flashback exploited the event as chaotic and horrifying. Nationalization of women was displayed by seeing Boris walking out of a bedroom while a frightened, guilt-stricken girl tries to cover herself up in the bed alluding to her rape. Bolshevist soldiers are seen walking past a dying child and its dying mother. A man who speaks out against the Bolshevist ideals in a congress-like setting is quickly apprehended and silenced by the surrounding members symbolizing the death of democracy. Soldiers are seen shooting at ordinary unarmed citizens. This flashback sequence serves to completely discredit the Bolshevist ideal in the mind of its audience. Title cards also played a role in Dangerous hours to help establish its Anti-Bolshevist views. Whenever a Boris was speaking, his accompanying title card showed a machete in the background. This item is a symbol of violence and discredits Boris’ statements as admirable and sound. On the contrary, May’s statements were seen with either a flower or a piano in the background giving a calming and serene attached to her voice in the picture. The non-diegetic sound played in Dangerous hours also served a crucial role in favor of its propaganda. Whenever Bolshevist characters were shown, stronger bass driven sounds accompanied their presence. But whenever American characters such as May or King’s father were shown, a light-hearted woodwind sound accompanied them.
The Anti-Bolshevist propaganda of Niblo’s Dangerous hours however, was not to be confused with an Anti-American Labor Union stance. One key scene shows John King proposing to help an American Labor Union official with the physical fighting of worker’s rights. The official, seeing King’s allegiance to a Bolshevist party, denounces him, claiming that true Americans fight democratically and are non-violent. This separated the American protestors from the lime light and focused the hatred on the foreign radicals. The scene was extremely vital to Niblo portraying the stance of his film on oppressing Bolshevism and avoiding negative portrayal of the American Labor union. This is aided by showing two Bolshevist members being tarred and feathered toward the end of the film.
In many ways, the first American Red Scare prompted arguably inequitable actions toward foreigners and their ideals. The Bolshevist movement was at the heart of this oppressive fiasco. Many political parties, newspapers, songs and films become instruments for the American government’s Anti-Bolshevist initiative. Fred Niblo’s Dangerous hours was one such example of American propaganda. When John decided to follow the Bolshevist party, his father makes the film’s stance clear, that it is “Not the blind leading the blind, but the blind leading the vultures.” The film’s techniques for portraying Boris as an unlikable character, such as the low-key lighting and ominous black-circled eyes, would later reemerge in monster films such as Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). It was no mystery what Niblo’s film setting out to accomplish, and it’s legacy was one small vital drop in the tidal wave of oppression and fury that would accompany the First American Red Scare.