Though the United States is a nation of immigrants, in times of trouble people act of fear and ignorance, hating and blaming the other for their problems. Throughout the country’s history, in times of economic problems, the newest immigrant group found itself hated and attacked for the ills affecting other ethnic groups. Families passed down myths and folklore concerning those of other nations as well.
During World War II, at a time when the country should have banded together to fight our common enemy, some were still attacking others for looking or being different, be they those wearing zoot suits or those of Japanese or German persuasion.
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Frank Sinatra in Modern Screen.
Frank Sinatra had endured taunts of “dago” as a child back in Hoboken, New Jersey, and remembered these painful slights even as he became a successful singer and movie performer. As he soared the charts of stardom and success, he dreamed of a way to reach those across the country with a simple but powerful lesson that we are stronger together. Banding together with Mervyn LeRoy and Frank Ross, he starred in the short “The House I Live In,” promoting religious and racial tolerance for all.
Composer Earl Robinson, author of such songs as “Ballad for America” and “Soldiers of God,” came up with “The House I Live in” in 1942 for the show “It’s Up to You,” and Lewis Allen’s moving lyrics gave the song a powerful emotional centerpiece. Allen was in actuality Abel Meeropol, a Jewish communist sympathizer and writer of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” Singer Josh White first recorded it, but Sinatra recognized the power of “The House I Live in” as he surreptitiously visited schools and playgrounds talking to kids about acceptance and tolerance.
In 1945 Sinatra decided to employ his fame for a positive cause, gently preaching religious and racial tolerance through the powerful tune. Finding like-minded souls in Frank Ross and Mervyn LeRoy, Sinatra helped shape a touching message through the medium of song and film. Communist sympathizer Albert Maltz penned a story around the tune, about Frank taking a break from a recording session to confront kids attacking a boy of another religion and explaining that we all came from other places to create the wonderful country called America.
Trades announced in May 1945 that the trio negotiated a deal with RKO in which the studio would distribute ”The House I Live In” with Ross, LeRoy, Sinatra, and Maltz waiving fees for their work and all profits from sales going to groups working to halt juvenile delinquency. The one-reeler started production the week of May 15 in order for Sinatra to leave for an overseas tour entertaining the troops. They quickly wrapped production and began editing and prepping it for release.
Mervyn LeRoy, left, Frank Sinatra, center, and Frank Ross in Motion Picture Herald.
Lyrics set a poignant note, such as this verse.
My neighbors, white and black,
The people who just came here,
Or from generations back,
The town hall and the soap box,
The torch of Liberty,
A home for all God’s children,
That’s America to me.
By June 26, 1945, Grosset and Dunlap offered to publish the story in book form and donate all profits to charity as the filmmakers pushed the need to change minds and hearts. The studio worked to get the short screened at the meeting of the short subject branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at its August 27 meeting at RKO and screened it in multiple free screenings at a Radio City Musical Hall projection room in on October for various civic, church, and press groups.
Variety called “The House I Live in” “More than propaganda..It’s fine entertainment” in its October 10 review. They called it “a simple, appealing story” full of heart and warmth. On October 18, Film Daily described it as “a noteworthy contribution to the cause of racial and religious tolerance.” New Movies magazine reported that the National Board of Review stated that “The House I Live In” would “foster tolerance and amity on both a national and international scale.”
George Murphy, left, Peggy Ann Garner and Frank Sinatra after he was presented with an Academy Award for “The House I Live In,” Screenland.
RKO opened the one-reel featurette at the Palace Theatre on November 6, 1945 on a bill with the feature “The Spanish Main” and went all out in promoting it. Theatres beyond the RKO chain bought it for exhibition, leaving many to suggest that it would gross the highest box office of any short up to that time. Sinatra gained free publicity for the film as he talked to schools, parent groups, and civic organizations about acceptance and tolerance.
Nondenominational and social groups all over the country honored Sinatra and the film. B’nai B’rith screened it and praised its message of understanding and harmony. The Common Council for American Unity presented Sinatra with the American Unity Award. After a screening for the National Conference of Christians and Jews on December 16, he pleaded with the film industry to produce more pictures like this “as the greatest weapon in the fight for tolerance” as reported in Film Daily.
Even regular citizens realized its power, as Motion Picture Herald quoted Doris E. Pyle of Salina, Kansas explaining in her second prize winning essay that “If every person in the United States can see this short feature, future America couldn’t help but turn out as Frank and millions of others want it to.”
“The House I Live in” cleaned up at the box office and award shows. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave it a special Golden Globe in 1946 for the “Hollywood picture promoting the finest international relationship.” Later that year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored it with a special award as a message of good will at the 18th Annual Academy Awards. Actor and Screen Actors Guild president George Murphy presented the trophy to Ross, LeRoy, and Sinatra at the ceremony.
Sheet music with Sinatra’s portrait came out promoting “The House I Live in,” making it a popular sell with regular audiences as well as singers who recognized its emotional power. The song appeared in concerts as a salute to the country.
RKO granted 16mm distribution rights to Young America Film who possessed school film exchanges in every states. The filmmakers hoped it would become a popular subject for screenings in schools and community organizations. The Film and Education magazine in 1948 stated, “This film emphasizes as its aim that ‘America is a nation made up of a 100 different kinds of people.’”
Today these words resonate even more than ever, as the nation demonstrates that another wave of racial and religious intolerance is sweeping the country. It is the blending of cultures, races, and faces that makes the country what it was always intended to be: a melting pot of freedom and acceptance.