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Harry Anslinger Goes to the Movies: To the Ends of the Earth

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the author of The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Ends of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Ends of the Earth Lobby Card

Ends of the Earth (1948) lobby card. Image courtesy of MoviePosterdb.

Above one of the many neo-classical governmental buildings that populate Washington, DC, an American flag waves proudly. “United States Department of Treasury,” the voiceover intones. “That’s right, the place they make money.” Dissolves bring us inside where assembly lines stack and sort sheets of cash, “that green stuff,” the narrator drones, “you scramble to get, and then give back at the end of the year, so cheerfully.” But Columbia Pictures’s 1948 thriller To the Ends of the Earth isn’t about money or taxes. Or, at least, it isn’t about their physical presence. Instead, it’s about unassuming quiet objects. It’s about secret circulations of global capital flows. And in particular, it’s about an “innocent, pretty little thing”: the poppy flower and its dark passenger, opium.

Following Agent Michael Barrows, the narrator and protagonist, through China, Egypt, and Lebanon before returning to the harbors of New York, the movie tracks across opium manufacturing and trade routes while regularly referencing the drug onscreen—shocking for a Hollywood film produced during the era of the Production Code. And while the movie has been mostly forgotten, never released on DVD let alone streaming services, it’s an important document about the ties that bind drug policy, governance, censorship, mass media, and the twilight of the Hollywood studio system.

International Cooperation on the Big Screen

FBN window (Ends of the Earth)

Screenshot of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics office as featured in To the Ends of the Earth.

Much as the Treasury is “money, but a lot more than that,” To the Ends of the Earth at first seems to concern only the Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). But just a few minutes into the film, the real-life Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the FBN and Agent Barrows’s boss, appears onscreen. In 1935, the narrator explains, Anslinger and the international community “came to realize that the enemies of decency were using opium as a weapon to keep the world divided and its citizens slaves.”

Anslinger (Ends of the Earth)

Screenshot of Harry J. Anslinger (center) as depicted attending the 1936 Geneva Convention for the Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs in To the Ends of the Earth.

International alarm at the dangers of opium and other narcotics led to the meeting that Anslinger supposedly attends early in the film: the 1936 Geneva Convention for the Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs. The treaty resulted in the first international criminalization of some drug offenses, but, afraid that it was too weak, the United States declined to sign. It’s a strange note to open on: a relative failure on the FBN’s part positioned as a raging success. But To the Ends of the Earth, a curio of later studio system Hollywood and its chumminess with the federal government, blithely sidesteps its contradictions.

Robert Stevenson directed To the Ends of the Earth, but its real author was Jay Richard Kennedy, screenwriter, financier to the stars, novelist, and charlatan extraordinaire. Kennedy had long wanted to write a movie glorifying Harry Anslinger, one of his heroes. According to Kennedy (and his regular ballyhoo), in 1945 the Treasury Department sought his assistance to “help smooth the way” for the Bretton-Woods agreement in the United States [1]. Conceived at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in New Hampshire, Bretton-Woods pegged 44 countries’ currencies to gold and created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group. For Kennedy, though, this marked the beginning of his obsession with what he called “international cooperation”—which might be more accurately described as the maintenance of systems of order. The concept of “international cooperation” was hardly unique to Kennedy; it was also Anslinger and the FBN’s approach for combatting the global traffic in drugs.

Jay Richard Kennedy

Jay Richard Kennedy, screenwriter and Associate Producer of To the Ends of the Earth.

Kennedy’s admiration for the FBN’s pursuit of international cooperation inspired his screenplay. The script focused on the Customs and the Coast Guard Bureaus of the Treasury, and Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger both agreed to participate. In 1945, Anslinger wrote his approval of Kennedy’s proposed film: “The story, as you recited it, appeals to us because it portrays international cooperation which has been so necessary in the past and is vital for our postwar efforts” [2]. Such a strategy of “international cooperation” implied a nonviolent means of spreading western democracy designed to appeal to a public tired of war and financial devastation. Yet, “international cooperation” also resonated with the spread of the media as a tool of law enforcement. Spectators in any number of countries watching a film made in concert with government officials might be convinced of ideologies of lawful good without ever fully realizing it. Winning hearts and minds could thus be achieved cooperatively. Like smuggled narcotics, media can filter past international borders, addicting people around the world; or it can work like a global police force, bounding from continent to continent to enforce its rules of engagement.

Drugs on the Big Screen

The final script, Assigned to Treasury, sparked a bidding war among four major studios, but Kennedy instead established an independent corporation with producer Sidney Buchman, who had written a number of successful films including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) and Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) [3]. FBN staff allowed the producers access to documentary footage, while Anslinger tried unsuccessfully to stop the movie’s title change. Over Anslinger’s objections, the Columbia team dropped the uninspiring Assigned to Treasury title in favor of the more sensational To the Ends of the Earth. Nevertheless, a film glorifying globetrotting agents tracking down evil smugglers seemed, for Anslinger, an excellent addition to his arsenal of self-congratulatory material. He continued to support Kennedy and introduced him to T.H. Lew, Chinese delegate to the United Nations, so that Kennedy could gain access to Hsio-Hai Liu, Special Commissioner for Opium Suppression in Shanghai [4].

But a larger battle loomed with the Production Code Administration (PCA), which reviewed all movies prior to their theatrical release. Representations of narcotics, along with sexual contact, nudity, and unpunished crime, were verboten by the Code. For a film centered on international trafficking, this naturally posed a problem. Anslinger intervened. In a memo to Columbia’s Harry Cohn in August of 1947, Kennedy remarked that he had “arranged matters with the Treasury Department and Anslinger so that we will be able to involve them… [with] the ticklish matters lying ahead concerning the Legion of Decency, etc. Anslinger is quite prepared to do anything that I see fit within propriety and reason” [5].

To the Ends of the Earth Poster

Movie poster for To the Ends of the Earth advertised that the story was “based on hitherto secret files of the U.S. Treasury and its Bureau of Narcotics, Customs, and Coast Guard.” Image courtesy of MoviePosterdb.

Under the “Crimes Against the Law” section, the Code had ruled since 1934 that “illegal drug traffic must never be presented” [6], and, early on, Kennedy had received word from the PCA that his planned film was in violation of the code [7]. But on September 11, 1946, in an about-face entirely due to direct FBN intervention, the MPAA approved a change to the code: “the illegal drug traffic must not be portrayed in such a way as to stimulate curiosity concerning the use of, or traffic in, such drugs; nor shall scenes be approved which show the use of illegal drugs, or their effects, in detail” [8].

Still, the MPAA’s decision hardly ended the battle, and a “hysterical campaign” started against the film. In Kennedy’s view—one later espoused by the PCA—the film was less about narcotics than the work done by the bureau to stop opium smuggling. Anslinger himself defended the film’s use of narcotics, insisting that “at no point… is the traffic of drugs and the trade therein dramatized or referred to” [9]. Instead, the film focuses on the prevention of such trafficking. What is particularly notable here is that drugs are not seen while in use, arguably their most dangerous state. Instead, the film depicts the FBN’s effort to stop drug use. Just as law enforcement seeks to stop the revelation of smuggled drugs, so the film’s visual structure is a preventative effort to mask before appearance.

By March of 1947, seven “dope pics” had been submitted to the PCA for approval under the newly relaxed Code [10]. Yet, despite the public outcry, only the film with Anslinger’s support—To the Ends of the Earth—passed.

Drugs Unseen on the Big Screen

Poppy (To the Ends of the Earth)

Screenshot of a poppy in To the Ends of the Earth.

After the opening scene in DC, To the Ends of the Earth proceeds with a plodding straight-forwardness. Despite its aspirations of globe-trotting detection thrills, the film is, simply, competent. Yet its treatment of the opium crop illuminates, in visual form, the difficult and destabilizing effects that drugs presented for Kennedy, both on and off-screen. While Agent Barrows refers to opium within the first few minutes of the film, opium, itself, is not seen.

Camel x-ray (Ends of the Earth)

Screenshot of opium workers’ stained fingers in To The Ends of the Earth.

Instead, the film shows the “pretty” poppy flower several steps removed from the drug. In a film that fixates on the international drug trade, viewers might expect opium to play a stronger visual role, but To the Ends of the Earth refuses to show the drug beyond early stages of production or through a multitude of mediations. When Barrows discovers the farm in Egypt where poppies have been grown, no traces of opium remain; instead, there are bits of poppies, workers’ stained fingers, and abandoned equipment that implies its production and, now, its absence.

Camel x-ray (To the Ends of the Earth)

Screenshot of an x-ray of a camel’s stomach used for smuggling opium in To the Ends of the Earth.

As Barrows follows the path of the shipment eventually destined for American shores, opium continues to have a diminished practical presence, obscured via various means and hidden inside everything from bales to containers of butter to the stomachs of unsuspecting camels. Here, the drug’s vanishing act is all the stranger: it’s there, but not; seen, but unseen; available, but unreachable. It can be revealed only by the searching eye of x-ray technology. Only the void of the drug—its outline and its doubled mediation via x-ray and then film—can sustain its representation.

Is this because opium visualized would upend the image’s relationship to the law? Is opium so addictive that it might spark insatiable audience desire? Or does the governmental version of opium’s threat depend upon its not being seen? For opium to act as imminent threat to both global stability and the machinations of legal authority, depiction of the actual drug is dangerously anticlimactic. Only its shadow can maintain effective fears of distribution. And only the medial implication of its destabilizing powers made its depiction acceptable for censors, commissioners, and long arms of the law.

After the first screening in Lake Success, Long Island, for an audience of United Nations delegates and members of the Economic and Social Council, To the Ends of the Earth ended up middlingly successful [11]. But in looking back at this mostly forgotten film, the connections between capital, censorship, Hollywood, and American drug policy coalesce into a peculiar tale. Where the movies met Harry Anslinger; media met opium. And despite the strong arm of the most domineering man in American law enforcement, the undeniable power of narcotics—despite their invisibility in To the Ends of the Earth—illustrated authority’s fear of its limits in controlling representations of drugs. Censoring films and opium independent of one another might work as a temporary solution. But taken together, mass media and drugs threatened to expose the crumbling foundations on which governance rests.

 

Watch To the Ends of the Earth at the Internet Archive.

 

References

[1] Jay Richard Kennedy, “An Approach to Pictures,” The Screenwriter 3. no. 1 (June 1947): 5.

[2] Letter from H. .J. Anslinger. 9/6/1945, Untitled Folder, Box 46, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[3] Kennedy, “An Approach to Pictures,” 5.

[4] Memo from Sidney B to JRK, 2/13/47, Folder 37.1, Box 37, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[5] Memo to Harry Cohn, 8/19/47, Folder: Correspondence, Box 44, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University.

[6] Motion Picture Association of American, “A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures,” 1934 reprint in 1944, p. 6, Herrick Library.

[7] Kennedy, “Approach to Pictures,” 5.

[8] Motion Picture Association of America, “A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures,” 1948, p. 6, Herrick Library.

[9] Kennedy, “An Approach to Pictures,” 8.

[10] “PCA Ban on 6 Dope Pix Refutes Scare of ‘Cycle,’” Variety, March 12, 1947, 3-27.

[11] Invitation to first showing of To the Ends of the Earth, Box 45, Jay Richard Kennedy papers, Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University; “Kennedy Urges Series of Features on UN’s Work,” The Film Daily, Wednesday, February 11, 1948, 6.

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