Business as Usual

J. Hoberman

  • Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-39 by Thomas Doherty
    Columbia, 429 pp, £24.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 231 16392 7
  • The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand
    Harvard, 327 pp, £19.95, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 674 72474 7

‘It’s easy not to be a Nazi when no Hitler is around,’ Hans-Jürgen Syberberg commented in his filmed interview with the aged, unashamed Führer-familiar Winifred Wagner in 1975. Eighty years after Hitler came to power in Germany, is it possible to imagine the world when the Third Reich was new? Before September 1939 and even after the Second World War began, the West was full of enablers and apologists. Hitler’s American admirers included Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst and Charles Lindbergh. General Motors, DuPont and IBM did business with the Nazis. So did MGM. It’s no shock to see democratic politicians cosying up to Saudi autocrats, or Rupert Murdoch or the Walt Disney Company ingratiating themselves with China’s authoritarian rulers. Business is business. But it is disconcerting if not appalling to learn that throughout the 1930s, some major Hollywood studios, despite being heavily populated by Jews and popularly identified with them, continued to distribute their movies in Germany and even pandered to the Nazi regime.

Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler and Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration cover much the same ground while emphasising different aspects of the Hollywood-Hitler connection. Doherty sees the moguls who founded and ran most of the large movie studios as only one part of Hollywood and is sensitive to the pressures both on and within the industry (his previous books include a study of the Hollywood censor Joseph Breen). He concludes, with some generosity, that when it came to dealing with the Nazis, Hollywood was ‘no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination, and often a good deal better in the exercise of both’. Urwand has dug deep in the German archives and found evidence that the Nazis’ business dealings with some of the studios were much closer than previously realised. He also draws attention to the flagrant lobbying of the Nazi emissary to Hollywood, the former Olympic athlete Georg Gyssling. Urwand, the Australian-born grandson of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, is far less interested than Doherty in the American cultural climate of the 1930s and far more accusatory. The implication seems to be that this group of culturally insecure Jewish showmen, presumably backed by anti-Nazi communists and other prescient Americans, could and should have taken the lead in combating Hitler’s ‘reign of terror’. In this, The Collaboration has a faint echo of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, except that Urwand’s villains are Hitler’s willing Jewish dupes, or perhaps even self-hating quislings. Where Hollywood and Hitler discusses the ways that Nazi Germany was represented (or not) in American newsreels and independent films, as well as the fate of German movies in the US, The Collaboration is more narrowly focused. ‘Hollywood’ in Urwand’s book ultimately refers to the management of three major studios, MGM, Paramount and 20th Century-Fox.

The Nazis took movies very seriously. Urwand opens his book by recounting a discussion of King Kong in 1933 by members of a committee convened to decide whether the film could be ‘expected to damage the health of normal spectators’. The expert witness from the German Health Office thundered that it was ‘nothing less than an attack on the nerves of the German people’. It ‘provokes our racial instincts’, he continued, ‘to show a blonde woman of the Germanic type in the hand of an ape’. The Propaganda Ministry disagreed, even though, as Urwand points out, American and British campaigns during the First World War portrayed the Germans as ‘savage gorillas who threatened the purity of innocent white women’. Hitler seemed not to mind: one witness reported that he was ‘captivated’ by King Kong and ‘spoke of it often’. Indeed, the Führer watched a movie ‘every night before going to bed’. Greta Garbo was among his favourite actresses and despite one Nazi critic’s description of Mickey Mouse as ‘the most miserable ideal ever revealed’, he enjoyed Disney cartoons. ‘Between twenty and sixty new American titles hit the screens in Germany every year until the outbreak of the Second World War,’ Urwand writes. ‘From the day Hitler became chancellor of Germany to the day he invaded Poland, American movies were massively popular in the Third Reich.’

German critics too found much to admire in American movies, from screwball comedies (It Happened One Night) to imperialist adventure tales (Lives of a Bengal Lancer) to outlandish political cartoons (Gabriel over the White House, William Randolph Hearst’s crypto-fascist memo to the newly elected Franklin Roosevelt). That Hollywood produced movies which the Nazis liked does not in itself amount to pandering. (Urwand’s arch-villain, the MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, attempted to squelch Gabriel, as well as cancelling a much publicised adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist yarn, It Can’t Happen Here.) After all, just about everyone loved Hollywood in the 1930s. In the US, however, it wasn’t only content but control of the movie industry that was the issue in a culture war that is with us still.

From the early 1920s until the eve of the Second World War and in some ways beyond, the immigrant or first-generation Eastern European Jews who largely founded Hollywood and ran the studios were thought to embody dangerous foreign or anti-Christian values. Thanks to Henry Ford, the Ku Klux Klan and an abundance of political nativists, mass immigration ended in 1924, but as far as American purists were concerned, the damage had been done. The capital of this polluted nation was Hollywood; the men who’d created this new Babylon were an ‘Asiatic’ threat akin to the Yellow Peril or the Bolshevik Contagion. There were some, in the movie industry, the Catholic Church and eventually the US Senate, who saw Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 as a means to discipline Hollywood. Jeffrey Shandler and I argued in Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting (2003) that Nazi policies and anti-Semitic agitation made Jewish studio executives newly vulnerable. In Hollywood’s Censor (2007), Doherty quotes a letter written to a friend by Joseph Breen shortly after he was appointed head of Hollywood’s Production Code Administration in 1934: ‘These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence … They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.’

Hollywood and Hitler begins with a sensational prologue on the Nazi-orchestrated campaign against Universal’s 1930 adaption of All Quiet on the Western Front, ‘the first must-see film not starring Al Jolson of the early sound era’ and, the Nazi Party declared, a Judenfilm. Anticipating trouble, Universal had prepared a special German version of the movie; what the studio hadn’t counted on was that it might become an occasion for political agitation. After a week of protests and demonstrations in Berlin orchestrated by Goebbels, All Quiet on the Western Front was withdrawn. ‘Victory is ours!’ Goebbels’s newspaper Der Angriff exulted. This episode, taking place scarcely more than two years before the Nazis seized power, was a straw in the wind: it made clear that American movie companies could be threatened with the loss of the German market.

When Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, the consequences for Hollywood were soon evident. The Nazis not only purged Jews from Germany’s film industry but in April 1933 demanded the removal of all Jews employed by American film offices in Germany. The studios protested, then made a deal. They withdrew half their Jewish salesmen and the Nazis agreed to tolerate the rest. Urwand ascribes the compromise to a (presumably anticipated) drop in German film production which meant that ‘American movies were badly needed’. In addition, since the Nazis had passed a law to prevent foreign companies taking their money out of the country, Hollywood films were not only popular but profitable.

For the studios too, Doherty writes, ‘the German market, under whatever management, was too lucrative to abandon’, and they were willing to put up with the Nazi press attacking the film industry as a Jewish creation and the regime banning movies with Jewish performers, or featuring the crypto-Jew Charles Chaplin and the traitor Marlene Dietrich. MGM had the biggest financial stake in Germany and appears to have been the most sanguine studio. After a trip to Germany in 1934, MGM’s most powerful producer, Irving Thalberg, reported that ‘a lot of Jews will lose their lives [but] Hitler and Hitlerism will pass.’ Warner Brothers was the least compliant, and the first to pull out, at the end of 1933. Columbia, Disney, RKO and Universal followed in 1936 (although, unlike Warners, they maintained back-channel communications with the regime), leaving only the three largest companies – MGM, Paramount and 20th Century-Fox.

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As well as successfully bullying the studios in Germany, the Nazis brazenly attempted to influence production in America. In mid-1933 the regime established a Hollywood beachhead with the arrival of Gyssling, who established a de facto alliance with the Motion Picture Association of America to quash attempts to make films critical of the Reich. The first was already in the works. The screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who later wrote the script for Citizen Kane, and the producer Sam Jaffe had already announced an anti-Hitler feature, The Mad Dog of Europe. After the then Hollywood censor, Will Hays, advised them to drop the project, the treatment was sold to an agent, Al Rosen. He was warned by Hays’s successor, Breen, that given the ‘strong pro-German and anti-Semitic feeling in this country’, such a movie would be counterproductive: ‘The charge is certain to be made,’ Breen wrote, ‘that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler picture and using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes.’

With characteristic hyperbole, Urwand calls the dropping of The Mad Dog of Europe ‘the most important moment in all of Hollywood’s dealings with Nazi Germany’. Perhaps it was, at least in demonstrating a confluence of interest between American moral enforcers and the Third Reich. Only two low-budget independent features – Cornelius Vanderbilt’s quasi-documentary Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934) and the exploitation docudrama I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (1936) – escaped the net. The producer of I Was a Captive managed this by presenting the finished film for approval, rather than the script, forcing Breen, as Doherty notes, ‘to concede fair treatment of a foreign nation did not mean sympathetic treatment’. This ‘created an opening for an anti-Nazi cinema that any of the major studios might have slipped through – had they been so inclined’. Overwhelmingly, they were not.

Gyssling, meanwhile, continued to lobby. Perturbed that Universal planned to film The Road Back, Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, he sent threatening letters to the movie’s cast and crew, warning that their subsequent work might be banned in Germany. Although he was rebuked by the State Department for this misuse of the US mail, Gyssling continued to put pressure on the industry to defang anything even remotely offensive to the Nazi regime. He was aided immeasurably by Breen, who took the lead in sanitising MGM’s adaptation of Remarque’s explicitly anti-Nazi Three Comrades.

Breen had his own agenda: he was particularly keen to derail any Hollywood movies that might appear to support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. In December 1937, some months after the neutered version of The Road Back had its premiere, Breen told an associate that he was fighting those who were attempting to hijack the movies for ‘communistic propaganda purposes’. The most obvious example was the United Artists production Blockade, an anti-Franco romance starring Henry Fonda as a heroic Spanish peasant, with a script by Hollywood’s most prominent communist, the playwright John Howard Lawson.

Strenuously opposed by groups like the Knights of Columbus and the Legion of Decency, as well as the Vatican, Blockade was the occasion for what Doherty calls ‘the most acrimonious case of doctrinal difference among movie-minded Catholics in the history of the Breen office’. It did not escape attention that Blockade’s producer Walter Wanger was a Jew, as were Lawson and the movie’s director, William Dieterle – who, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, came in for even greater suspicion. They had made a movie for Reds, ‘anti-Christian forces’ and ‘those who like to poison the wells’, declared the editor of the Brooklyn Tablet, New York’s largest Catholic newspaper.

Wanger had started work on a follow-up to Blockade, adapted by Lawson from the journalist Vincent Sheean’s memoir, Personal History. The hero – Fonda again – witnesses fascist brutality while covering the war in Spain; later, in Germany, he is repelled by Nazi anti-Semitism, rescues several Jews from persecution and marries a Jewish woman. Breen didn’t find any violations of the Production Code in Lawson’s script, but warned Wanger that with its inflammatory ‘pro-Jewish’ and ‘anti-Nazi propaganda’, Personal History would present ‘grave dangers’ for the entire industry. Wanger shelved it (denuded of all Jewish content, it would eventually morph into Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent).

It wasn’t until late in 1938 that a major studio put an unambiguously anti-Hitler movie into production. Warner Brothers announced Confessions of a Nazi Spy, based on a sensational espionage case, in the same month that Leni Riefenstahl visited Hollywood – it was also the month Kristallnacht took place. Gyssling protested to Breen; Breen dutifully passed on his letter to Jack Warner with a rote warning that the film’s certain censorship by foreign governments would harm the studio’s economic self-interest. Warner leaked Gyssling’s letter to the press. Not long afterwards, Hitler blamed Germany’s poor relations with the US on Hollywood’s ‘gigantic Jewish capitalistic propaganda’.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy opened on 6 May 1939 to predictable controversy. The Legion of Decency, which had defended Riefenstahl during her visit, claimed the movie wasn’t so much anti-Nazi as pro-communist, while the powerful ‘radio priest’ Father Coughlin described the Warner brothers and their star, Edward G. Robinson, as Jews whose ‘patriotism was only as deep as their hatred of Hitler’. (According to Urwand, Goebbels was flattered to see himself depicted in the movie.) It was business as usual: the Nazis threatened to ban all American movies but did not, while as late as June 1939, MGM was still trying to placate Germany by hosting a delegation of Nazi journalists at its Culver City studio.

Chaplin was apparently inspired by Confessions of a Nazi Spy to finish The Great Dictator and, after war broke out in Europe, Hollywood began to release more demurely anti-fascist fare. This caused political uproar. Joseph Kennedy, the US ambassador to Britain and a former movie executive, warned some of his former colleagues that Jews would be held accountable if America entered the war. The Senate hearings on Moving Picture Screen and Radio Propaganda in 1941 began by suggesting that the movie industry had been captured by foreigners who, ‘more interested in the fate of their homelands than they are in the fortunes of the United States’, were ‘the most potent and dangerous “fifth column” in our country’. The hearings, during which senators denounced movies they were unembarrassed to admit they hadn’t seen, may have been ridiculous but they were also symptomatic. In general, anti-Semitic attitudes increased when the US entered the war, but at that point Hollywood really did become something like a propaganda arm of the US government, with the industry’s communist writers leading the charge.

For Urwand, Hollywood’s wartime anti-fascism was not so much too little as too late. He concludes The Collaboration with a postscript recounting a tour of Germany given by the American army in June 1945 to a delegation of moguls, including Darryl Zanuck and Jack Warner, to thank them for their contribution to the war effort and to enlist their support in the creation of a postwar Germany. They were taken to visit Dachau, but the climax of the tour was a six-hour Rhine cruise on Hitler’s yacht. This self-congratulatory victory lap is a grotesque irony, and Urwand is thrilled to have discovered it (‘That was the one time I actually shouted out in an archive,’ he told the New York Times). But The Collaboration is far more startling for what it downplays or omits than for the new material it turns up. The book barely acknowledges the existence of political anti-Semitism in America, let alone the degree to which Hollywood was a target for nativists and anti-Semites, or the common identification made between communists and Jews. Father Coughlin isn’t mentioned. Neither is Henry Ford or Charles Lindbergh, who while addressing a 1941 America First rally in Des Moines, maintained that the ‘greatest danger to this country’ lay in Jewish ‘ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government’.

In its way, Urwand’s view of Hollywood is just as blinkered. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, set up in the summer of 1936, is referred to only in passing. As well as agitating for the boycott of German products and protesting against the visits to Hollywood of Vittorio Mussolini and Riefenstahl, the Anti-Nazi League gave vociferous support to the Spanish Republic (Breen, unsurprisingly, saw it as a cabal of communist screenwriters ‘financed almost entirely by Jews’). During its three-year existence, the league was arguably the most prominent opponent of Nazism in America. It was certainly the most glamorous: its several thousand members included movie stars, screenwriters and directors, not all of them Jewish. Supporters included Harry and Jack Warner, who broadcast the league’s shows on their radio stations.

A Popular Front organisation, as well as an early example of movie-star politics, the league was the subject of a 1938 Congressional investigation before it disintegrated in confusion with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Urwand, focused solely on Hollywood’s pact, overlooks such premature anti-fascism. His hero isn’t one of the writers and producers who attempted to make anti-fascist movies in the 1930s, but the screenwriter Ben Hecht, who chose not to use his considerable clout to launch a cinematic attack on Hitler until the war began, after which he did grow increasingly outspoken, lambasting Hollywood Jews for their cowardice and fundraising for the Zionist paramilitary organisation Irgun.

The Collaboration nurses a poignant fantasy: if the American movie industry had been less craven in the 1930s, a few well-made features might have exposed the horrors of the Nazi regime and averted the catastrophe of the Second World War. Imagine a 1937 version of Casablanca with Paul Henreid’s character or even Ingrid Bergman’s on the run from Dachau, branded with a yellow star. But although producers make their own movies, they do not make them as they please. Hardly ‘willing executioners’, even the most pusillanimous moguls were seeking to protect their stockholders’ profits and their own politically vulnerable flanks. The 1938 House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation into Hollywood inspired Dorothy Parker to remark that ‘the only ism Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.’ To which we might add that, then as now, the only line the movie studios ever drew was the bottom one.