Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1939 Guest Column: How Movies Can Broaden Cultural Education

The sixth-anniversary issue of Daily Variety, on Oct. 20, 1939, contained something that was unprecedented for the newspaper and for the author: A guest column by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt about movies.

She started by saying she was uniquely unqualified to write about the motion picture industry. “However, I have one great interest in the movies, namely, how can the movies become a force in education. The great majority of our people see motion pictures as part of their recreation. … They want to be thrilled, to live in another world for a time.”

But to her, movies had powers beyond escapism. “Stories can be told in such a way as to develop an interest in literature, and in the arts and history. It is a great field, this field of visual education and propaganda, if you use the word propaganda as the South Americans do, meaning education. … I look for a time when the culture — the culture of our country — will be immeasurably improved by the quality of our movies.”

She admitted she didn’t go to movies often. But she had family ties to the industry. James Roosevelt, her son, worked as an administrative assistant to Samuel Goldwyn from 1938-40. (The column for Variety was accompanied by a photo of her visiting James on the Goldwyn lot.)

She and her husband, Franklin D., were certainly media-savvy. He embraced radio when it was a new medium, offering “fireside chats” starting in 1933. And years later, Eleanor Roosevelt herself went into radio. On Nov. 9, 1948, Variety reviewed the new radio show “Anna and Eleanor Roosevelt,” airing three days a week on KECA-ABC.

The review said the entire family seems “born to the microphone.” Eleanor was “shortwaved from Paris” while attending United Nations meetings as a delegate. An ABC ad that month said the mother-daughter duo offered “recognition of female intelligence,” speaking about current events more than most other female radio personalities of that time did.

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