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‘The Man Who Invented the Political Commercial’

Freeman Bernstein pitched a photoplay about Woodrow Wilson

Walter Shapiro's "con-man" uncle Freeman Bernstein on the lam in Ceylon in the early 1930s, just before he hustled Hitler. (Courtesy Walter Shapiro)
Walter Shapiro's "con-man" uncle Freeman Bernstein on the lam in Ceylon in the early 1930s, just before he hustled Hitler. (Courtesy Walter Shapiro)

My great-uncle Freeman Bernstein, who died broke before I was born, was famous on Broadway as the vaudeville agent with the loudest voice, the longest cigars, the most outlandish dreams and the biggest reputation for not paying his bills. In 1915, hounded by bill collectors and inspired by “The Birth of a Nation,” Freeman fled to Germantown, Pa., where he set up shop as a silent movie producer with his wife, showgirl May Ward, as his star.

His first production, a re-enactment of the Battle of Saratoga called “The Continental Girl,” was a modest success. But his more ambitious second movie, “Virtue,” was the story of a paragon of purity (May Ward) who (horrors) is abducted from her prep school and lured to the low dives Manhattan until she is (hurrah) rescued by her boy friend. The nightclub and party scenes were too steamy for the censors, even in New York.

That’s where we pick up this excerpt from my new book: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.”

By early 1916, the primary business of Freeman’s Franklin Film Manufacturing Corporation had become shelling out Ben Franklins to pay legal fees. The firm’s Pennsylvania lawsuit established the precedent that decisions of the Board of Censors could be appealed to state courts. But that legal victory turned out to be worth as much as two tickets down front for the Broadway run of “Virtue.” The Court of Common Pleas ruled that while the demands of the censors were “minute and far-fetched,” they did not violate the statute.  

So now Philadelphia, too, was permanently off-limits for “Virtue.” In fact, the motion picture’s next showing would not be until April 1916, when it debuted in that American metropolis known for its sophistication and tolerance — Bismarck, N.D. The promotional ad in the Bismarck Daily Tribune heralded May Ward as “BROADWAY’S LEADING ACTRESS” and called the photoplay the “Most Sensational and Daring Moral Lesson Ever Presented to the Public.”  

But Freeman plugged on — trying to imagine who might pay for a new movie starring May Ward and shot at the film works in Germantown. Freeman still had one powerful friend whom he had never touched for a loan. When he was struggling to bust out of Bayonne, N.J., Freeman had gotten to know an up-and-coming Jersey City politician named Joe Tumulty. Now Tumulty, who remembered the free passes from Freeman, was personal secretary to Woodrow Wilson. And Freeman kept struggling to figure out how to make a buck off the Tumulty connection — especially since he sensed that the president didn’t have the time or talent to star with May Ward in a motion picture.  

But what about a photoplay “about” Wilson?  

The president was preparing for a second term — and he needed the kind of promotion that a feature-length movie could provide. With the economy roaring down the track like a runaway locomotive, the film would be called “Prosperity,” filled with visual evidence of the good times that had accompanied Wilson’s first three years in office. Tumulty agreed to raise Freeman’s novel idea with the Democratic National Committee, which would be handling the publicity for Wilson’s reelection campaign. Freeman, making sure that he got publicity of his own, planted an item in Variety headlined, “DEMOCRATIC ‘PROSPERITY’ FILM.”  

“Prosperity” once again proved elusive for Freeman. His Woodrow Wilson movie idea died — and Tumulty steadily lost influence at the White House. But, in what may have been the most visionary moment of his life, Freeman Bernstein invented the campaign commercial. And never made a penny from his genius. Not until the 1940 presidential campaign, nearly a quarter century later, did anyone try to use a movie to sell a candidate. And the first “I Like Ike” television ads only appeared in 1952.  

Genius may be its own reward, but it doesn’t pay the bills for a motion-picture studio. In late March 1916, the Franklin Film Manufacturing Corporation declared bankruptcy. A week later — in a stunning coincidence known to beleaguered Jewish businessmen everywhere — a devastating $125,000 fire swept through the movie lot in Germantown. As the Philadelphia Evening Ledger reported, “Six explosions of chemicals at the height of the spectacular fire made rescue work dangerous. Thousands of dollars worth of aniline dyes, rare because of the war, were destroyed.” But a vault containing $25,000 in movie negatives somehow survived the fire unharmed.  

Freeman, by chance, was in New York when the fire erupted. Variety editor Sime Silverman visited Freeman the next morning as the burnt-out movie mogul was sorting through a pile of insurance policies. “See, I told you there was money in pictures,” Freeman said. “I have had a fire … [and] what an intelligent fire this one was. It missed some negatives. Of course, I didn’t have many and I didn’t have many studios, but give me credit for having one dandy fire.”  

The Great Germantown Film Fire — the towering inferno of Freeman’s cinematic dreams — left the burnt-out movie mogul in the ash can. For all of his initial bravado, the movie studio had been underinsured with just enough money left over to pay the mortgage. Back in New York, his finances remained the butt of jokes. A minor comedy act (Fenton and Green) showed off in Variety by advertising its version of the Seven Wonders of the World. Wonder Number Six: “Freeman Bernstein paying his debts.”  

In the fall of 1916, as Woodrow Wilson (“He Kept Us Out of War”) was being reelected to a second term, Freeman was as cheerful as a Republican ward heeler. About all of Freeman’s operating capital came from a single source — pawning his wife’s jewelry. “When it goes against you, kid, how it does come,” Freeman moaned to Sime Silverman. “Certainly that gloom tornado picked me out and just hung around me for three months. It’s still hanging too. I can’t chase it away.”  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro will be talking about “Hustling Hitler” at Politics & Prose bookstore (5015 Connecticut Avenue NW) in Washington on Friday at 7:00 p.m. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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