Showing the U.S.’ best features

Times Staff Writer

Can Lassie, Judy Garland and a young Elizabeth Taylor rescue America’s image abroad?

Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) thinks so. She wants to ship DVDs of classic Hollywood movies overseas, hoping they will reshape an image she believes has been tarnished by the Iraq war.

Her plan: Stock libraries of U.S. embassies and consulates with the films, then loosen restrictions so the public in each nation has access to them.


Not just any movies, but wholesome ones. One of Watson’s personal favorites is the musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Garland. Two other candidates she named were “National Velvet,” starring Taylor, and “Lassie Come Home,” both of which were shot in the U.S. but set in England.

“We can choose what we really feel represents us in the best light,” she said. “We’re not going to do films of war. We’re not going to do films that have great violence in them. We’re not going to do films of slavery. I wouldn’t want to do ‘Gone With the Wind.’ That’s not the image I want to promote.”

Watson, 73, is herself a former diplomat, having served as U.S. ambassador to Micronesia during the Clinton administration.

One problem is that funding cuts and terrorism concerns have tightened access to the libraries. So Watson has introduced a bill that would open the libraries to the public “to the greatest extent practicable” while maintaining security. The facilities would show films highlighting “American culture, society, values, and history.”

The proposal wouldn’t require any funding, Watson hopes, because she is seeking donations of DVDs and equipment to play them. She figures that people in the industry have plenty of freebies to share, including Oscar screeners and promotional DVDs.

Johnny Grant, Hollywood’s unofficial mayor, has offered selections from his 800-film collection, including classics such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “White Christmas” (in which he has a bit part). Watson proposes to name the public screenings the Johnny Grant Film Series.


“People are always calling me saying, ‘I have all of these movies. What can I do with them?’ ” Grant said. “Now I have an answer: Get a hold of Congresswoman Watson and send them overseas.”

The State Department doesn’t take positions on proposed legislation but is willing to work with Congress on ways to support ongoing public diplomacy efforts, said spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos.

Although films from Hollywood’s early years might seem outdated, they would help give foreigners a sense of America’s history and values, said Joshua S. Fouts, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

“People around the world are really hungry to learn about the U.S.,” he said.

Watson goes a step further.

“They love our films,” Watson said. “We want to put out materials that will captivate them and show who we are.”