Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939.
Thomas Doherty's Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 is a tour de force of film history, deftly weaving together many strands of Hollywood and world history to explain Hollywood's vexed and often vexing relationship to the rise of Nazism and its charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler. Doherty begins his exposition with Hollywood's first confrontation with Nazism on December 4, 1930, when a mob of brownshirts invaded a motion picture theater and trashed the screening of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, an award-winning lament of the slaughter of the young in World War I to nurture old men's dreams of glory, and ends when after the death of its courageously anti-Nazi producer, Carl Laemmle, Universal Studios rereleased the film accompanied by a prologue reviewing the Great War and its aftermath, including the now iconic newsreel footage of the 1933 book burning. As Doherty notes, "Among the volumes being tossed into the pyre was, of course, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front" (364).
To explain Hollywood's convoluted relationships with Hitler between these historical bookends, Doherty's prodigious knowledge of Hollywood history-the glamour and the gossip but also the economic forces that shaped decisions about production and distribution-allows him to provide readers with a multi-variant analysis of Hollywood's initial neglect of Hitler and of its subsequent preoccupation even in present-day films with the Nazi leader. Hollywood's obsession with preserving the lucrative German market for its films impelled most producers to comply with German demands for the Aryanization of those involved in film production and distribution, firing or relocating many Jewish staff members stationed in Germany and increasingly conforming to the demands of Nazi censorship of American films to be screened in Germany. During the first wave of Nazi terror, motion picture journalists and Hollywood producers evinced "the natural befuddlement of cool businessmen up against hot-headed fanatics" and remained oblivious to contemporary Nazi horrors and impending disaster (39). Nazi censorship meant that Hollywood films seeking to be screened in Germany had to obtain one of a limited number of import permits, to be granted a certificate issued by the Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, and "to pass the home censor, who scrutinized the contents for moral, political, and eugenic purity" (25).
Just as the weak Weimar government had capitulated to Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda by rescinding the license for All Quiet on the Western Front, Hollywood moguls, many of them Jewish, not only conformed to the strictures of the German market but also imposed self-censorship within Hollywood itself. Hollywood relied upon the offices of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), which served the studio system by imposing self-censorship in order to avoid censorship by others. Moreover, in order to avoid offending Nazi officials and, in particular, the wrath of Georg Gyssling, the German consul in Los Angeles, Hollywood came to shun Jewish subjects in films, subjects that had been a staple of the industry since the t920s with the enormous popular success of the first commercial "talkie," The Jazz Singer (1927). Under the leadership of Will Hays and Joseph Breen, the MPPDA deployed the Production Code to shield Hitler and Nazism from public criticism, claiming that the code's vague admonition that "the history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly" meant that Hollywood was bound not to offend the people or culture of any nation on the planet. As a result, "under the Code, the transformation of the Weimar Republic into the third Reich was Germany's business" (43).
However, liberals and leftists within the Hollywood community, particularly actors and writers who had been active in the Popular Front, did coalesce to form the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) and deployed skills honed during the fights to unionize Hollywood workers in dramatic efforts to combat Nazism abroad. Although little known today except among film scholars, HANL "pioneered the celebrity-centric, pseudo-eventful tactics that have since become commonplace for progressive causes that grip the social conscience of famous entertainers: the deployment of star power to publicize and validate a political agenda, with the body of the celebrity dangled as bait" (99).
Hollywood's engagement with international politics took many bizarre turns, ranging from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's desire to be a patron of Italian cinema and his decision to send his son Vittorio to Hollywood as an ambassador to the film colony to fund-raising efforts and film production in support of anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. When the MPPDA and Breen Office censorship hindered such efforts, the latter half of the 1930s witnessed the rise of agit-prop films by independent producers. Thwarted in attempts to create fiction films, producers turned to the documentary, thereby creating a vital new developments in the genre. Doherty notes that "The newsreel coverage of the Spanish Civil War laid the groundwork and provided much of the raw material for the documentary cinema of the 1930s" (158). The images of battlefield carnage and of dead and wounded civilians-women and children among them-contrasted starkly with the sanitized images of the Great War that Hollywood had purveyed.
What emerges most clearly from Hollywood and Hitler is how prolonged and torturous a path Hollywood took before its willingness to condemn Nazism outright. While Hollywood dithered, even initially hosting Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl, independent projects often faced suppression by city and state censorship boards. It was Warner Brothers, "the only studio with any guts," which under the leadership of Jack Warner adapted the techniques of the March of Time newsreels into Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), an ardently patriotic anti-Nazi film with genuine audience appeal (311). By the late 1930s, Hollywood belatedly acknowledged that the German market for Hollywood film had evaporated and no longer catered to Nazi censorship, instead relying on the patriotism of its American audience, an audience that had been tutored to visualize and condemn acts of atrocity abroad.
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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