Celluloid Soldiers

Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign Against Nazism

Michael E. Birdwell
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Celluloid Soldiers
    Book Description:

    During the 1930s many Americans avoided thinking about war erupting in Europe, believing it of little relevance to their own lives. Yet, the Warner Bros. film studio embarked on a virtual crusade to alert Americans to the growing menace of Nazism. Polish-Jewish immigrants Harry and Jack Warner risked both reputation and fortune to inform the American public of the insidious threat Hitler's regime posed throughout the world. Through a score of films produced during the 1930s and early 1940s-including the pivotal Sergeant York-the Warner Bros. studio marshaled its forces to influence the American conscience and push toward intervention in World War II. Celluloid Soldiers offers a compelling historical look at Warner Bros.'s efforts as the only major studio to promote anti-Nazi activity before the outbreak of the Second World War.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3925-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Time Line
    (pp. xi-xxii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    During the 1930s many Americans avoided thinking about war erupting in Europe, believing that it was of little significance to their interests. Besides, America was suffering from its own myriad problems: the Great Depression, social displacement, political unrest, and burgeoning crime. Bitter memories of World War I and the failure of the Versailles Treaty prompted people from all walks of life to embrace isolationism and denounce any U.S. involvement abroad.

    Challenging the conventional wisdom of the day, Warner Bros. studio embarked on a crusade to alert Americans about the growing menace of Nazism, arguing that the United States could not...

  6. 1 Warner Bros. and the Opening Salvos against Nazism, 1934–1939
    (pp. 5-34)

    Jack Warner often boasted about his aversion to Nazism, even though his brother Harry had worked more vigilantly to make the American citizenry aware of the approaching war in Europe while the United States was officially neutral. The Warner brothers had reason for concern regarding the ominous events in Europe in the 1930s. Harry had been born in Poland, during an anti-Semitic pogrom, and Jack was a first-generation Polish American Jew. Their parents, Benjamin and Pearl Warner, both born (in 1857) and raised in Krasnashiltz, Poland, had to hide to study the Torah and the Talmud. After living in fear...

  7. 2 Black Legion: Fascism in the Heartland
    (pp. 35-56)

    Although Harry Warner announced in 1934 his intentions to expose Nazism through a number of hard-hitting features, pressures placed on the film industry from within and without made it impossible to make good on his promise before 1936. Hobbled by the federal government and the PCA’s restrictions against violating American neutrality, Warner had to find another way to fulfill his promise to expose Hitler. He opted to examine the burgeoning fascist threat at home and found inspiration when a news story broke in Detroit concerning a Works Progress Administration (WPA) worker who was murdered by clandestine cryptofascists the Black Legion....

  8. 3 The Road to Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Beyond
    (pp. 57-86)

    Benito Mussolini’s desire to produce films rivaling those made in Hollywood and Paris led to the creation of the Cinecitta Studio and, in 1932, the advent of the Venice Film Festival, the world’s first international competition.¹ Jack Warner enteredThe Life of Emile Zolain the 1937 festival as his studio’s prestige picture. The importance of the film had already been recognized: the French government had awarded Warner Bros. the Legion of Honor for its depiction of the crusading novelist. Centering on the infamous Dreyfus case, the film questioned the illogic of anti-Semitism and race hatred. That message, however, caused...

  9. 4 A Change of Heart: Alvin York and the Movie Sergeant York
    (pp. 87-130)

    Although the production ofBlack LegionandConfessions of a Nazi Spyhad produced conflict and controversy both in and outside of the studio, that paled in comparison to the initial furor that came about when Warner Bros. announced that it would produce a film based on the wartime exploits of Sgt. Alvin C. York. Known as the greatest hero of World War I, York avoided profiting from his war record before 1939.¹ On October 8, 1918, Cpl. Alvin Cullum York and sixteen other men under the command of sergeants Harry Parsons and Bernard Early were dispatched to capture the...

  10. 5 Using the Devil’s Tool to Do God’s Work: Sergeant York, America First, and the Intervention Debate
    (pp. 131-153)

    With the release of the film recounting his military exploits, Alvin York had again become one of America’s greatest living heroes, a man who had captured the imagination and admiration of millions of Americans. Perhaps the only other living individual who could have equaled his fame was the Lone Eagle, Col. Charles Lindbergh. Their political stances differed widely, however, and by 1939 national opinion had become polarized by the views that these two men symbolized. York called for intervention while Lindbergh preached isolation.¹

    Lindbergh’s life, like York’s, had not been a charmed one after achieving fame. He hated the cloying...

  11. 6 Hollywood under the Gun: The Senate Investigation of Propaganda in Motion Pictures
    (pp. 154-171)

    On August 1, 1941, Senators Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota and Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri introduced Senate Resolution 152, drafted largely by America First’s true believer, John T. Flynn, calling for a thorough investigation of the film industry.¹ The investigation would be carried out by a subcommittee of the Interstate Commerce Committee directed by isolationist Sen. Burton K. Wheeler. The subcommittee was chaired by D. Worth Clark of Idaho and included Homer T. Bone of Washington, Charles W. Tobey of New Hampshire, and Ernest McFarland of Arizona. Though Nye and Clark, who sponsored the bill that led to...

  12. 7 “This Isn’t What We Had in Mind”
    (pp. 172-176)

    The U.S. declaration of war in December of 1941 brought an end to the Nye-Clark subcommittee hearings.¹ What was ironic about those hearings was that the Nye-Clark subcommitteecouldhave proven their allegations of warmongering against Warner Bros. if they had followed John T. Flynn’s advice and had conducted a formal investigation. If they had subpoenaed studio records, production files, interoffice memoranda, or other documents currently housed at the Warner Bros. Archives, the committee would have had all the evidence it needed to prove that Warner Bros.—if not the whole industry by 1941—supported intervention. In the lengthy May...

  13. Postscript
    (pp. 177-178)

    In the years since the Depression, filmmakers have often looked back at that era with a degree of nostalgia. Movies likeBound for GloryandHonky Tonk Manmerely used the Depression as a backdrop for the celebration of the human spirit during times of national and personal crisis. Woody Allen’s endearing portrait of folks coping inPurple Rose of Cairodisplays the importance of movies as a refuge in the 1930s, while making audiences yearn for a simplistic, idealized past. One of the best attempts at examining the pain of the Depression is John Sayle’s independent filmMatewan; however,...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 179-224)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-258)
  16. Index
    (pp. 259-265)
  17. About the Author
    (pp. 266-266)