Saturday, 19 June 2021

The Sentinels' Fire Brigade

Political cartoons have existed in newspapers for generations. Animated political cartoons? A little more rare simply because of the expense in making them and the danger of offending someone in a general audience. Walter Lantz’s Confidence (1933) was an unabashed love letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (an animated Roosevelt appears in it).

On the other side of the equation was The Amateur Fire Brigade—A Parable of the New Deal (1935), which ridiculed Roosevelt’s administration and policies. The cartoon was funded by a group called ‘The Sentinels of the Republic’ and the film was shown at rallies and meetings organised by it and its allied right-wing groups.

Looking at my notes, I intended on writing about this a number of years ago but got stymied because I was missing a vital piece of information—who made the cartoon? The 1935 Copyright Catalogue was silent. Fortunately, there are excellent and thorough researchers out there. Jonathan Boschen discovered it had been animated by Ted Eshbaugh’s studio in New York. Then Steve Stanchfield did a whole post on it on the Cartoon Research blog. That left really nothing for me to do. But I still have these notes so I’m not going to allow them to go to waste.

The Sentinels started making the rounds with the film by October 1935, apparently commencing with a “Safeguarding the Constitution” exhibition at the Garrick Theatre Philadelphia, with the intention of bringing it to Broadway in New York and then other cities. The Chicago Tribune claimed more than 30,000 in Philadelphia viewed the cartoon which was, it claimed, “so successful in arousing the public to the fallacies of the New Deal.” The Trib’s description in its February 1, 1936 edition:
“It shows what happens when a fire starts in Uncle Sam’s farmhouse. The New Deal fire company, headed by President Roosevelt and composed of “brain trusters,” answers the alarm. The movie pictures them as doing everything imaginable except putting the fire out. On their way to the fire they stop for the game of “soaking the rich,” playing poker with public funds, and building a house of alphabetical blocks. Gen. High Johnson stands in front of the “old soldiers’ home” and watches his Blue Eagle fly off to become an emblem on the useless fire engine.
Finally Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes drives up in his horse and buggy and knocks down the alphabetical blocks while the American eagle routs the “blue buzzard.” Meanwhile, Miss Liberty, Uncle Sam’s housekeeper, throws a few pails of “common sense” on the fire and extinguishes it without further ado.”
It should be pointed out that the publisher of the Tribune, Col. R.R. McCormick, was a backer of the Sentinels. His paper echoed the organisation’s claim it was “non-partisan” and “patriotic.”

As you might expect, a hardly non-partisan film like this was going to eventually run into trouble. And it did in Col. McCormick’s town. It had been shown “before 40 leading Chicago business men” but an attempt to show it in public on February 10, 1936 was waylaid by the city’s board of censors, which called it “propaganda against the Roosevelt administration” and disrespectful of the president (McCormick’s paper pointed out the head of the board was a Democrat). The board’s ban lasted 24 hours and the cartoon was shown on schedule.

The door was opened for protest. The next day, the State Division of Film Censorship in Ohio barred the cartoon because it “encourages disrespect for the office of the President” (no mention of Roosevelt personally). Labour groups started lining up against it.

Then the Sentinels ran into big trouble of their own making. In mid-April, the U.S. Senate Lobby Committee received a copy of a memo from the Sentinels’ files written in connection with a campaign to raise between $360,000 and $400,000 to finance the cartoon and the exhibition. Finding the money proved to be difficult, and a New York Times April 18th version of the story stated the film was later toned down (ie. edited) because some Sentinels though the Roosevelt was being caricatured too much.

But that wasn’t the bombshell. The Committee also was given a copy of a letter from Alexander Lincoln, the president of the Sentinels, declaring “the Jewish threat is a real one...and I am doing what I can as an officer of the Sentinels” and warned of a “Jewish brigade Roosevelt took to Washington” and a “fight for Western Christian civilization” against “the enemy is world-wide and that it is Jewish in origin.” For good measure, he used a familiar tactic from the right-of-centre playbook and bashed the media. Lincoln’s correspondent responded “the old-line Americans of $1,200 a year want a Hitler.”

Incredibly, Lincoln’s response to the Committee was, basically, some of my best friends are Jewish and my comments are being misconstrued. As his entire letter was made public, people could easily see the truth.

Big business leaders rushed to jump off the Sentinels’ ship before being tarred as anti-Semitic. Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors promised to stop pumping his money into the group; Sloan’s foundation in the 1940s and ‘50s sponsored pro-business/anti-government interference cartoons made by John Sutherland Productions.

The decline of the group is outside the focus of this blog. However, the Sentinels continued to show the cartoon. The group got an $8,000 sound truck so it could be screened outdoors. A showing in Elmira, New York in May 1936 was in a public park. Brigade appeared in an auditorium the same month in Akron, Ohio. According to the Beacon Journal “The picture is the censored version over which the board of Ohio censors squabbled for weeks early this year. The ‘objectionable parts’ will be displayed as "stills" over which the state censorship laws have no control.” A Republican group in Brooklyn and another in Montclair, New Jersey unspooled the film in October 1936. Attempts to find later showings have borne no fruit.

In a twist of irony, a pro-FDR film later made the rounds called Hell Bent For Election (1944). And some of the people responsible for it ended up before a government Committee, too, which demanded names of Communists. Blacklisting followed.

You can view Amateur Fire Brigade. It evidently is the edited version, courtesy of Steve and the Library of Congress.


  1. "Col. Richardson"? Perhaps you were thinking of McCormick's cousin, Capt. Joseph Medill Patterson? (Before he joined the Trib, Patterson had been a socialist, writing Dreiser-esque novels such as "A Little Brother of the Rich.")

  2. Tell us more of Hell Bent For Election.