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Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 448
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    Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939
    Book Description:

    The abundance of WWII-era documentaries and the huge cache of archival footage that has emerged since 1945 make it seem as if cinematic images of the Nazis were always as vivid and plentiful as they are today. Yet between 1933 and 1939, representations of the Nazis and the full meaning of Nazism came slowly to Hollywood, growing more distinct and ominous only as the decade wore on.

    Recapturing what ordinary Americans saw on the screen during the emerging Nazi threat, Thomas Doherty reclaims forgotten films, such asHitler's Reign of Terror(1934), a pioneering anti-Nazi docu-drama by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.;I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany(1936), a sensational true tale of "a Hollywood girl in Naziland!"; andProfessor Mamlock(1938), an anti-Nazi film made by German refugees living in the Soviet Union. Doherty also recounts how the disproportionately Jewish backgrounds of the executives of the studios and the workers on the payroll shaded reactions to what was never simply a business decision. His history features a cast of charismatic personalities: Carl Laemmle, the German Jewish founder of Universal Pictures, whose production ofAll Quiet on the Western Front(1930) enraged the nascent Nazi movement; Georg Gyssling, the Nazi counsel in Los Angeles, who read the Hollywood trade press as avidly as any studio mogul; Vittorio Mussolini, son of the fascist dictator and aspiring motion picture impresario; Leni Riefenstahl, the Valkyrie goddess of the Third Reich who came to America to peddle distribution rights forOlympia(1938); screenwriters Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker, founders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League; and Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Bros., who yoked anti-Nazism to patriotic Americanism and finally broke the embargo against anti-Nazi cinema withConfessions of a Nazi Spy(1939). As Europe hurtled toward war, a proxy battle was waged in Hollywood over how to conduct business with the Nazis; over whether to address or ignore Nazism in Hollywood feature films; and over how to cover Hitler and his victims in the newsreels. Should Hollywood lie low, or stand tall and sound the alarm?

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53514-4
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xi)
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xii-xii)
  4. PROLOGUE: Judenfilm!
    (pp. 1-12)

    Hollywood first confronted Nazism when a mob of brownshirts barged into a motion picture theater and trashed a film screening—a resonant enough curtain-raiser, if a bit heavy-handed on symbolism. On December 4, 1930,All Quiet on the Western Front(1930), Universal Pictures’ spectacular screen version of the international best seller by Erich Maria Remarque, premiered at the Mozart Hall, a showpiece venue in Berlin, the true capital of the Weimar Republic, the democratic federation founded in 1920 and hanging on by a slim thread ten years later. The antiwar epic was the first must-see film, not starring Al Jolson,...

    (pp. 13-39)

    Soon after discovering the movies, Hollywood and Berlin discovered each other. Linked by business interests, ethno-religious affinities, and family ties, the filmmakers in the two cities competed, cooperated, and kibitzed over the great art of the twentieth century. There was magic to conjure, product to peddle, and money to be made.

    The codependency was encouraged by the state of the art. Before synchronous dialogue turned the universal medium into a babel of indigenous tongues, film of whatever national origin spoke a common language to a global consumer base. Silent pictures crossed borders with no fuss, no dubbing: merely translate the...

    (pp. 40-77)

    As reports of purges at Ufa and beatings in Berlin swirled though executive offices in New York and studio cafeterias in Hollywood, Col. Frederick L. Herron, foreign manager of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), left for Washington to consult with the State Department on “the Hitler activities in Germany so far as they affect [the] film business.”¹ The effect of Nazism on the film business—the release of American pictures into Germany and the depiction of the new Germany in American cinema—was the overriding concern of Hollywood’s corporate consortium. Jewish personnel in Germany were a...

    (pp. 78-95)

    “One of these days there is quite liable to be a mild riot in this house over Hitler. Two factions are definitely shaping up in the Embassy audience. There was a contest to a draw Saturday between applauders and booers. The din reached a deafening climax. It was just the opposite at the Luxer which, through Pathé, was daring enough to semi-close Hitler. Only manifestation there was subdued hissing.”¹

    The ear- and-eyewitness report on the vox populi reaction to Hitler’s screen image was filed by Tom Waller,Variety’s man on the newsreel beat. Throughout the 1930s, week in and week...

    (pp. 96-121)

    On the evening of April 26, 1936, in the swank dining room of the Victor Hugo Café in Hollywood, a mixed congregation of Jews, Catholics, and Popular Fronters paid upwards of $100 a plate to hear Prince Hubertus zu Löwenstein deliver a lecture entitled “Hitler’s War on Civilization.” A blueblood exile from Nazism, Prince Löwenstein had fled Germany one step ahead of a Gestapo hit squad. On a lecture tour of America to raise funds and consciousness, the Old World aristocrat was guaranteed a friendly reception from the local version of royalty.

    As if drawn to the searchlights of a...

    (pp. 122-136)

    Harold Eugene Roach, known around town and above the title as Hal, was there, in Hollywood, at the creation. A founding father of the motion picture industry and name-brand producer since 1916, the former muleskinner, prospector, trucker, movie extra, and gag writer was presiding kingpin of the Hal Roach Studios, the Culver City funhouse from which he mined the golden vein of slapstick screen comedy. With his friendly rival Mack Sennett, another Irish Americanmacheramong the Jewish American moguls, he churned out hundreds of picaresque one-and-two reelers crammed with cartwheeling flivvers, spritzing seltzer bottles, and aerodynamic custard pies.


    (pp. 137-173)

    In March 1938, as Nazi troops stormed into Austria, Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, issued his annual report, a corporate press release that, along with the usual unctuous blather, hinted that even the imperturbable Hoosier hearkened to the clack of goosesteps in Europe. “In a period in which propaganda has largely reduced the artistic and entertainment validity of the screen in many other countries, it is pleasant to report that American motion pictures continue to be free from any but the highest possible entertainment purpose,” he intoned. “The industry has resisted and...

    (pp. 174-206)

    “That new picture that Amkino has looks interesting,” speculated the pseudonymous Phil M. Daily, the chatty columnist for theFilm Daily. “TitledDer Kampf, produced in Russia by German refugees, . . . it shows the events leading to the rise of Hitler, including the Reichstag fire,athe Leipzig trial of Dimitroff, with actual shots . . . view of the concentration camps . . . and of how cells were formed by the Communists and [how] underground work continued.”¹

    Sure enough,Der Kampf(1936) sounded interesting, but access to a foreign film, especially an anti-Nazi German-language film from the...

    (pp. 207-236)

    In the waning days of 1937, Martin J. Quigley, publisher and editor in chief ofMotion Picture Heraldand coauthor of the Production Code, sensed a danger looming over the industry that was more his vocation than business. “There remains in the eyes of the radical propagandists one medium of expression and one influence upon public opinion which thus far vainly excites their envy,” he warned. “That medium is the motion picture.” Fortunately, Hollywood had “escaped the blight of radical propaganda,” but the message mongers were lurking just outside the studio gates, ready “to muscle in, gain an influence over...

    (pp. 237-258)

    Once a featured attraction, theMarch of Time(1935–1951) is remembered today, if remembered at all, as the template for the first mockumentary in American film history, the sly send-up that jump-starts Orson Welles’sCitizen Kane(1941) scant seconds after the title character gasps his last word. A faux précis of the life of the fictional media baron Charles Foster Kane, the mini-biopic cops a style once instantly recognizable, now a joke lost on the unhip. Truth to tell, a member of the first-run audience who sauntered in a few minutes late might have taken the phony for the...

    (pp. 259-292)

    In 1934, Terry Ramsaye, editor ofMotion Picture Heraldand a former newsreel man himself, sought to disabuse newsreel editors of the notion they were in the news business. “The newsreel is not a purveyor of news and never is likely to become one,” he explained. “The newsreel ought to be an entertaining and amusing derivative—just so long as its avenue to the public is through the dramatic screen theater and along with the drama.” To aspire to the standards of print journalism or claim the protections of the First Amendment was to reach beyond the proper station of...

    (pp. 293-310)

    Dancer, athlete, actress, filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl was the Valkyrie goddess of Third Reich cinema, the lone shimmering star in a constellation of dim hacks. Murnau preferred Camilla Horn for the doomed Gretchen inFaust(1926), Lang tapped Brigitte Helm for the metallic siren inMetropolis(1927), and von Sternberg anointed Marlene Dietrich asThe Blue Angel(1929), but an impresario of greater magnitude gave the perennial understudy the role of her lifetime in the director’s chair. An authentic genius of the moving image, as graceful with the camera as her body, she choreographed two Nazi pageants that will live as...

    (pp. 311-350)

    On the evening of December 8, 1938, with the fires from Kristallnacht out in Germany but the anger in America still burning, a group of well-heeled anti-Nazi activists gathered at the Beverly Hills home of actor Edward G. Robinson to weigh options and plan a response. Circulating among the stars, screenwriters, and producers—and sampling the libations—was the town’s resident wise guy, Groucho Marx. Raising his glass, and for once not his eyebrows, he announced, “I want to propose a toast to Warners—the only studio with any guts.”¹

    Groucho, who with his brothers was under contract to MGM,...

    (pp. 351-364)

    On August 23, 1939, the romance of American communism collided with the realpolitik of the Soviet Union. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had come to an arrangement. In Moscow, Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed a mutual nonaggression pact that carved up Poland, surrendered Finland, and lit the fuse for a European war. Flashed worldwide by wire photo, pictures of the cozy diplomatic scene struck like a lightning bolt—or, to the staunch anti-Nazi, a knife in the heart.

    In America, literally overnight, the Hitler-Stalin Pact fractured the sense of common purpose that...

  18. EPILOGUE: The Motion Picture Memory of Nazism
    (pp. 365-374)

    World War II buffs and film geeks—often an overlapping category—cherish stories of serendipitous cinematic discovery. Somewhere in Germany, the grandson of a deceased Wehrmacht veteran, while rummaging through the old man’s things in the attic, comes across a cache of dusty film canisters. Unspooled, the reels show color footage of Hitler in Munich in 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe, or of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, taken from atop a tank barreling eastward. Or perhaps the lucky find comes from a more custodial source, a warehoused print left on a...

    (pp. 375-378)
  20. NOTES
    (pp. 379-408)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 409-430)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 431-436)