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How Hollywood Only Eventually Came to Fight the Nazis



Rob Hardy


Nazis have become staple villains for Hollywood, from Casablanca to Indiana Jones and to the counterfactual Inglourious Basterds. It took a long while for the movies to include them as bad guys, and this was at least partially because the moguls feared that they would lose the German market. Partly, too, it was because they thought American audiences didn't want politics injected into entertainment. The surprising story of the slow but eventual acknowledgement by Hollywood that Nazis were a menace is told in Hollywood and Hitler 1933 - 1939 (Columbia University Press) by Thomas Doherty who obviously loves the movies. He has written before about pre-code films and about the censorious life of Joseph Breen (who plays a big role in this book as well). He admits that "failure of nerve" by Hollywood during its "Golden Age" of the thirties was part of the general slowness of American culture to accept the Nazi threat, but the details of Hollywood's particular reluctance make for a fascinating part of movie history. 




It is distressing, in hindsight, to read that Hollywood had big plans for Hitler when he came to power. Variety predicted, "Hitler's policy definitely calls for friendliness to America." This hopefulness meant that the movie bosses blinkered themselves. "During the first wave of Nazi terror," writes Doherty, "the commentary from the motion picture industry journalists and Hollywood producers reflects the natural befuddlement of cool businessmen up against hot-headed fanatics." The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America declined to take an official position on how studios should conduct business with Germany, but it did insist that Germany should not be slighted in the films, and the Production Code Administration within the MPPDA, headed by Breen, did what it could to keep Hollywood out of political conflict. Mild jests and veiled allusions to Hitler were cut. When a movie based on Hitler was proposed in 1933, called The Mad Dog of Europe, Breen insisted, "The purpose of the screen, primarily, is to entertain and not to propagandize." When the MPPDA could do little, often local or state censorship did the job, suppressing, for instance, a 1934 documentary Hitler's Reign of Terror. When Breen reluctantly approved I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany in 1936, he said the approval was "based solely on the picture's technical conformity to the Production Code," but the movie (which does sound pretty bad; Doherty's summaries are quite useful) had trouble getting distribution. Doherty writes that the dedicated moviegoer of the thirties would have adventure and romance, but "scarcely a glimpse of Italy in Ethiopia, Spain in flames, or Germany on the march."  




There is a special interest in the case of I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany, the involvement of the German consul in Los Angeles, Dr. Georg Gyssling. He was always interested about forthcoming movie projects, and if there was any hint of a film that might impugn the honor of Hitler or the glory of the Fatherland, he was quick to get complaints to Breen, heads of studios, or Washington politicians. When Breen shrugged that he could do nothing about I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany because it was an independently produced film, Gyssling sent a letter, on official consulate stationery, to the woman who starred in it, and upon whose experiences it was based, warning her against production of the film. He also summoned German members of the cast to threaten them. In 1937, when Universal was bringing out the prestigious The Road Back, about shell-shocked German veterans of WWI, Gyssling was at it again. He wrote another warning letter, bearing a swastika letterhead, but this time he overreached, shotgunning it to all the actors in the movie.  




The letter produced a backlash and was an invitation for the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League to take the high ground of protest. The league had been formed in 1936, and was mostly actors who were more radical than their studio bosses. The bosses threatened to insert clauses into their contracts that would forbid any political activity, but the league kept it up, and it had influence. This was seen when Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator's son, came to town in 1937 to work out an ill-judged partnership to which Hal Roach had invited him. Sounding the alarm, the league ensured that there would be no enthusiasm for working with Mussolini, and he left town deeply offended. Similarly, Leni Riefenstahl came to Hollywood in 1938 with hopes of working out a distribution deal for Olympia, her epic documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The league, which called her "Hitler's Honey," made sure she got snubbed. She was mystified, as she saw herself as an independent filmmaker unattached to any government, but the league had a special dislike for her, perceiving her as a movie genius that had taken up the Nazi cause. Her timing for her trip was terrible; she was in Hollywood when the Nazis pulled the anti-Semitic terror known as Kristallnacht. Confronted by reporters, she assured them that the Nazis would do no such thing and that the reports were false and one-sided. Afterwards, no one regarded her as a brilliant film artist who was merely politically naive.  




Kristallnacht was a particular problem for the newsreels, a medium to which Doherty spends much attention. There were print and radio reports of the outrage, but no German nor American newsreel cameraman was there to make a record of the rampage. (A 38-second amateur film is all that exists.) It was generally impossible to get film footage of Nazis in action, as Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels controlled all such films. Newsreel images of Nazis, if there were any, were all Nazi-approved. Not only that, but when there were Nazis on the screen, audiences started booing and jeering, so commercial newsreel companies knew to keep such scenes to a minimum; even so, local exhibitors might snip out such footage. The silence was effectively broken by "The March of Time" newsreels, including a special edition called "Inside Nazi Germany" of 1938. It denounced Hitler's totalitarianism, and although it was supposed to have been photographed "inside Nazi Germany," much of it was staged in New Jersey.  




Beside "The March of Time," the other standout in making movies pay attention to the Nazi threat was the Warner Brothers studio. While other studios kept trying to make the connection pay until war was declared, Warner ceased business dealings with Germany in 1933. Jack Warner simply pulled out of Germany when the Jewish head of his studio's branch office in Berlin was viciously attacked by brownshirts. Warner had put out patriotic films and short subjects, but the studio's great stroke was Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released in 1939 only a few months before Europe went to war. It was the first time the word "Nazi" made it onto movie marquees and menacing Nazis were shown in a Hollywood drama. While the studio deserves credit for changing the way Hollywood got along with Nazis, it was still in the movie business and big on ballyhoo for itself. Publicity for the film called it "the picture that calls a swastika a swastika!" and patted itself on the back that "it was Warners' American duty to make it!" Gyssling tried to get Breen to share his indignation about the proposed film, but Breen had finally had enough and didn't try to placate the consul. In making the picture, Warner Brothers tried to keep portions of the script available to the actors only on a need-to-know basis, and they kept the set closed with signs that would misdirect potential saboteurs from Germany or from German-American groups. 




Doherty's history is a remarkable and stimulating account of an important part of movie history and American history. He has included not just how Hollywood handled Hitler but also Franco and the Spanish Civil War. His book closes with America entering the war, and after that it was pretty easy for Hollywood to decide how Nazis ought to be shown in American movies. It sure did take a while, though. 




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