During the 1920s, American films gained a prominent position on the world's cinema screens, in many countries dwarfing not only other imports but domestic production as well. In 1930, a survey published in the trade publication the Film Daily Year Book estimated that American-made motion pictures accounted for two out every three films shown in theaters outside North America. This pattern of dominance would prevail, by and large, for the rest of the century. It would, in due time, apply not only to films shown in theaters but also television entertainment, and it would be the object of debate abroad from the 1920s on.(1)
Although a number of recent historical studies have dealt with the success of American films in foreign markets, relatively scant attention has been paid to specific government contributions to that success. This study focuses on the 1920s because that decade witnessed the most concerted and also the most well-documented effort by the U.S. government to aid Hollywood exports. Throughout the 1920s, the Commerce Department and its Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce both encouraged and facilitated Hollywood's overseas prominence. The purpose of this article is to discuss the extent of the government's assistance and the reasons why such assistance was given.
The U.S. cinematic push into foreign markets began in earnest during World War I, although, as Kristin Thompson notes, deliberate attempts by U.S. producers to challenge European competitors internationally dated back to 1909.(2) In the course of the war, American distributors moved aggressively to exploit markets not only in Europe, where the conflict had all but halted domestic production, but also in Latin America. As a result, one producer, George Kleine, sensed as early as 1919 "an enormous demand for American films in the foreign market."(3) In several markets, films from the United States already dominated as the 1920s dawned. A 1921 article in Scientific American claimed that Hollywood films held "first place" in Britain, Western Europe, and South America and were poised to do the same in Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe, and Asia.(4) These claims were confirmed by the official trade statistics of the Department of Commerce; a few years later, an official of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce (BFCD) surveyed field reports from consular officers around the world and was struck by "the way America dominates the motion picture market nearly everywhere."(5)
The worldwide triumph of Hollywood filmmaking soon attracted the interest of U.S. government officials, who saw in it a way to further American foreign policy objectives and consequently took steps to support it. While U.S. government assistance to American exporters in general dated to the turn of the century, it grew in significance after World War I for two main reasons. The first was a tendency of the three Republican administrations of the 1921-32 era to eschew direct political intervention overseas and instead use the strong position of American finance, industry, and mass culture abroad as a means to achieve its foreign policy goals of preventing war and promoting economic and political stability. The second reason trade promotion increased in intensity in the 1920s was the appointment of Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. Hoover brought a great deal of international experience and recognition to his position, and he was a firm believer in the power of American foreign trade and in government assistance.(6)
To that end, Hoover paid particular attention to the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, the agency responsible for trade promotion. He greatly expanded the bureau, boosting the number of foreign offices from 23 in 1921 to 58 in 1927 and quadrupling the overall agency staff. Hoover also made certain that trade promotion became the sole responsibility of the Commerce Department. Rivalry between Commerce and State …