The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939; The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939. By Thomas Doherty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. $35.00 cloth.

The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. By Ben Urwand. Cambridge:   Harvard University Press, 2013. $26.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Alexis Pogorelskin, University of Minnesota-Duluth

Ben Urwand recounts that he initiated the research for his monograph on “Hollywood’s pact with Hitler” in response to a brief reminiscence of screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg. Schulberg alleged “that in the 1930s Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, screened films to [sic] the German consul in Los Angeles and cut out whatever the consul objected to” (7). Urwand explains, “the comment . . . if true   . . . seemed to shatter a common idea . . . that Hollywood was synonymous with anti-fascism during its golden age” (7). Urwand then cites works that treat Hollywood productions during World War II, not strictly speaking the golden age of the thirties, to confirm his challenge to Hollywood’s reputation for anti-fascism in the decade before the war. He further admits that Mayer had denounced Schulberg’s novel, What Makes Sammy Run. Schulberg’s charge that Mayer took orders from a Nazi official, made in 2002, long after Mayer had passed from the scene, might therefore be seen as Schulberg’s revenge for Mayer’s earlier animus toward him.

Thomas Doherty’s work, devoted to Hollywood’s golden age and the question of the studios’ relationship to Hitler, has a very different origin. It emerges from his research on two other highly regarded studies of Hollywood: one on Hollywood films of World War II (Projections of War, 1993) and one devoted to Joseph Breen (Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration, 2009), each published by Columbia University Press.

Both books under review, however much they might differ in other respects, address the same questions about Hollywood and the Nazis in the 1930s. The first: Did the studio heads immediately grasp the significance of Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 or did Hollywood’s perception of the Nazi regime change over time? The second: What role did Hitler’s representative in Los Angeles, the German consul Georg Gyssling, play in studio production decisions? 

Thomas Doherty introduces his monograph by observing that Weimar cinema obsessed Hollywood. Before 1933, according to Doherty, “the Ufa style permeated Hollywood aesthetics” (17). Certain studios employed “Berlin artistry” and German directors “to generate” what they regarded as “a superior strain of moviemaking,” luring Ufa talent to southern California with the promise of high salaries and a measure of artistic independence (15). At the same time Weimar cinema proved popular with American audiences. In 1932 German imports “surpassed” the number of those from Britain (177). Doherty’s impressive knowledge of Weimar cinema allows him to perceive patterns of continuity and disruption before and after Hitler came to power.

Ben Urwand on the other hand sees only discontinuity between Weimar Germany and the Third Reich. Hollywood’s close ties with German cinema after Hitler came to power, according to Urwand, justifies his title. He contends, “ever since 1933, the various studios . . . vowed neither to attack the Nazis nor to defend the Jews in their films” (213). The aesthetic influence and popular imports that Doherty describes gave way overnight to political accommodation in Urwand’s account. Much of his argument hinges on the hitherto overlooked agency and compelling influence of the German Consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, a loyal Nazi whose extraordinary access to the moguls prompted Urwand’s use of the word “collaboration” to characterize the relationship of Hollywood to the Nazis. Urwand, in fact, goes so far as to attribute to Gyssling responsibility for “creating the system of collaboration …” (179). It would not be an exaggeration to say that upon its release Urwand’s accusations caused a sensation in otherwise cautious academic circles.

Urwand maintains that the German consul in Los Angeles had real power, “managing to terrorize an entire community” (185). Doherty in contrast argues that whatever influence Gyssling possessed, it could not rival that of Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration, Hollywood’s internal censorship board. Gyssling merely had the support of the Third Reich. Breen on the other hand could count on the 1930s Catholic hierarchy to back his decisions. As a result, Doherty characterizes Gyssling’s interventions as “meddling” rather than terrorizing. He would argue that Gyssling remained an outsider to the Hollywood community with the real power to censor in the hands of Breen. 

There is a troubling fact regarding Urwand’s treatment of Gyssling that should be noted. Urwand claims in his introduction to have examined “detailed reports about the activities of the German consul in Los Angeles” which can be found in “the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office” (8). This reviewer could find no trace of such material in Urwand’s footnotes documenting his account of Gyssling’s activities sprinkled throughout the book.

There are other problems with his thesis. By dating the onset of Hollywood’s alleged collaboration to the first months of the Nazi regime, Urwand suggests that the studios almost immediately possessed a view of the Third Reich that seems better suited to the later 1930s. Studio heads, he argues, recognized the regime as implacable and even long term, if not permanent, from the beginning. Doherty, on the other hand, emphasizes the movie colony’s uncertainty regarding the new German regime, making its members no different from the majority of its audience. From 1933 to 1939, he contends, “ the meaning of Nazism came slowly to Hollywood, like a picture out of focus—fuzzy and dimly lit at first, sharp and fully outlined only at the end” (12).

The works under review focus on many of the same films, a similarity that facilitates comparison. I will address their comparative treatment of three films: Warner Brothers’ Captured! (1933), The Mad Dog of Europe (never produced), and MGM’s The Mortal Storm (1940).

Captured! bears scrutiny because Urwand bases his thesis regarding Gyssling on it. He maintains that Gyssling in “June 1933 . . . had . . . banned Warner Brothers from the German market on account of Captured!” and did so “personally”  (74, 179). As a result “for the remainder of the decade, the studios still doing business in Germany were very careful to remain on good terms with Georg Gyssling … they made all the cuts that he requested … they were collaborating with Nazi Germany” (58).

Doherty presents a different picture. Those studios that had embraced “Weimar aesthetics” and had most often employed Ufa talent, such as Fox and Paramount, maintained offices in Germany long after Hitler came to power. Fox and MGM were the last to leave, expelled only in the summer of 1940. MGM’s extensive German investments explained its longevity. Most studios only had an office in Berlin; MGM had seven located throughout Germany (32). Warner Brothers, too, constituted an exception, but of a very different sort. Any right wing German nationalist regime would regard that studio warily for the string of anti-German films that it produced from 1917 to 1918. Their plots read like a prelude to the Third Reich: women commit suicide rather than breed for the state, the German government connives to divide the U.S. among itself and its allies while initiating aggression against its neighbors. With Captured!  (1933), depicting World War I prisoners at the mercy of their brutal German captors, the studio appeared to revert to the earlier genre of World War I films as though warning that Hitler’s acquisition of power meant the ascendance of a new Kaiser. 

Goebbels himself intervened. He invoked a legal document that he had responsibility for enforcing. Employing Article 15 of the German Movie Quota Law of 1932, which held that the distribution of anti-German films anywhere in the world would give grounds to deny a German import license to the studio producing them, Goebbels excluded Warner Brothers from the Third Reich. Gyssling had seen the film before its release and objected to much of it. Warners had then obtained a more compliant response from the German consul in New York; but Goebbels overruled him, forcing Warners to withdraw from the German market, a pariah with the regime’s censorship (58). Goebbels declared, according to Urwand, that “Captured! was the worst hate film made since the World War” (58).

There are several problems with Urwand’s account. He fails to mention that Warner Brothers already had a reputation for “anti-German propaganda.” Goebbels obliquely refers to those films in his letter invoking Article 15. In effect, Warners may have been a marked entity as soon as the Nazis came to power. As for Gyssling, German consuls did not report to the Ministry of Propaganda until 1936. Gyssling’s reports until that year went to the Foreign Office, as the curator of the Propaganda Ministry’s archive explained to this reviewer. In June of 1933 Gyssling had just arrived in Los Angeles. He had no authority to issue a ban on a Hollywood studio in the name of Goebbels’s ministry nor is his role certain in the chain of command that led to Goebbels’s decree in January 1934, not June 1933. In other words Gyssling could not have “very quickly” and “personally” “kicked Warner Brothers out Germany for not making changes to Captured! (178-79). With Goebbels’s reaction to Captured!, Hollywood could recognize that the new Nazi regime intended both vigilance and vengeance. Warner Brothers on the other hand had been a likely target from the beginning thanks to its anti-German propaganda in World War I and did not therefore provide the cautionary tale Urwand alleges. 

Doherty provides a very different account of Warner Brothers withdrawal from the German market. He argues that the studio departed Germany “on principle” (38). He does not mention Captured! nor previous anti-German releases by the studio. Jack Warner’s belief that Nazi street thugs had murdered the head of the studio’s Berlin office, Phil Kaufman, impelled the studio’s departure, according to Doherty. The attack on Kaufman, never fully explained and still shrouded in mystery as to its motivation, may in fact have been revenge for Captured! and the propaganda films of the war. 

Doherty and Urwand also differ in their account of why a film about Hitler, The Mad Dog of Europe, first proposed in 1933, never went into production. According to Doherty the Hollywood establishment opposed the film. “Official Hollywood moved in” to stop it “for the sake of the German market” (55). Urwand would agree on the need “to preserve . . . business interests in Germany,” but with that the two part company (75). Doherty recounts that when the would-be producer of the film, Al Rosen, sought a Production Code Administration seal for it, Breen, “speaking for the industry,” ruled that “such a picture is an out-and-out propaganda picture” and therefore dangerous to Hollywood where “the large number of Jews active in the motion picture industry” could be accused of “using the . . . screen for their own personal propaganda purposes” (58). The ruling on a mediocre film that not even the studios on Poverty Row would touch nonetheless had serious consequences. Breen’s statement, noting the large number of Jewish studio heads, “shaped Hollywood’s attitude to anti-Nazi cinema for the rest of the decade” (57).

Urwand acknowledges the weakness of the script: “the characters … shallow, the writing mediocre” (68), yet he is certain that Gyssling lay behind Rosen’s production difficulties. The German consul, he alleges, threatened to ban all American movies in Germany if Mad Dog were ever made. It is unclear how a consular official working for the German Foreign Ministry could accomplish such a feat in 1934. Even Urwand admits, “It is uncertain whether Gyssling actually did this [made such a threat] . . . but he probably [italics mine] did” (68). In contrast to Doherty, Urwand insists that Breen’s ruling on the unmade film had no significance. He states, “there is no evidence . . . that . . . [the moguls] were . . . afraid of the potential anti-Semitic reaction that an anti-Nazi film might provoke” (75). If the moguls indeed lacked such fear, they possessed more bravado then most members of the American Jewish community of the 1930s.

The MGM feature film of 1940 The Mortal Storm was the first major Hollywood production to put the plight of Europe’s Jews on the screen. Doherty states, “The Mortal Storm sailed through the Breen office” (360). In fact, it did not. The Production Code Administration closely monitored the film, for example, forcing removal of the Horst Wessel song. MGM replaced it ironically with even harsher lyrics in its Nazi fabrication, Close Up the Ranks: “No race on earth can keep our land from glory. We are by birth the rulers of the world” went the lyrics of the faux Nazi anthem. The Breen office objected to costumes and a myriad of other details with which MGM readily complied as revealed in extensive correspondence in the Margaret Herrick Library. 

Both Urwand’s treatment of The Mortal Storm and the film itself pose problems for his thesis. Released in June 1940, the film depicted Nazi brutality toward Jews in stark terms. MGM did not “quickly” purchase the film rights, as he states, (212); but only after intense and frustrating negotiations with the novelist Phyllis Bottome, hastened by the impending release of Warners’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy and pressure from the North American Jewish community. Urwand’s discussion of removal of the word “Jew” from the film and its replacement with “non-Aryan” also raises difficulties. He misquotes Bottome’s letter to Sidney Franklin, the film’s producer, in which she argues for retention of the word. According to Urwand “Bottome emphasized that the question of Jewish pride was ‘the crux of the book and the world today’” (215). In fact, she wrote to Franklin, the question, “What is a Jew?,” and its answer (Bottome held that Jewish contributions were foundational to Western civilization) “is the crux of the book and . . . of the world today-to leave it out is to betray . . . how criminally ignorant Nazi anti-Semitism is.” The Jewish gift to civilization, not Jewish pride, constituted the issue for Bottome.

Urwand argues that removal of the word “Jew” from The Mortal Storm arose from the “wariness” of studio heads “to project their Jewish identity” after “years of collaboration with Nazi Germany” (218). The connection between the two assertions is unclear to this reviewer. The repeated script changes from February to May 1940, culminating in the production of two different versions of the film, one with the word “Jew” and one without, suggests how cautious the moguls were regarding their Jewish identity and how fearful they were of the backlash, certainly box office poison, it could cause, as Breen had observed in rejecting a PCA seal for The Mad Dog of Europe in 1933. Removal of the word “Jew” from The Mortal Storm sooner suggests insecurity on the part of the moguls rather than collaboration.

Urwand misspells the name of the character Amelie Roth, writing “Emilia” instead. The name can be found in both the British and American editions of Bottome’s novel, in the numerous scripts for The Mortal Storm, and in the significant amount of publicity material that MGM generated regarding the film. One might ask therefore, how attentively did Urwand read the sources he cites and the ones that he claims to have read. Elsewhere he refers to Chaplin’s Tomanian dictator as “Hinkel.” The correct spelling is “Hynkel.” Chaplin’s use of the letter “y” in the name of his dictator not only makes it strange, foreign-looking, but also suggests an existential “why?” The very letter in the center of the dictator’s name captures the questions at the heart of fascism:  How could such a mad ideology arise?  Even worse, how could ideas so strange and foreign propel a lunatic to power?  Chaplin thus makes the question why the very essence of his Tomanian Fouie. Such examples represent more than typos or sloppy editing. They lie at the core of scholarship and interpretation.

In recounting the Senate Isolationists’ investigation of Hollywood in the fall of 1941 for having produced “propaganda pictures” designed to entice the U.S. into war, Urwand neglects to mention one of the most telling points made by Harry Warner in the hearings. Warner noted the absurdity of the moguls ever taking what Urwand has labeled a “vow” to collude in a common effort. The moguls, Warner observed, were bitter rivals who, with the exception of a subpoena to a Congressional hearing, rarely ever met together in the same room. With a more nuanced account, Doherty finds that out and out collaboration with Germany may have existed only on the part of Paramount News and Fox Movietone News. The latter “maintained the biggest operation in Germany” after Hitler came to power (93). Both were “especially compliant conduits” for what was labeled “naziganda” (93). But then among the Hollywood studios, Fox and Paramount had established the strongest ties to Germany in the Weimar period. 

In sum, this reviewer advises instructors to refrain from adding Urwand’s book either to graduate or undergraduate reading lists. His insistence on Gyssling’s agency, while briefly sensational, distorts the reality of Hollywood in the 1930s. Doherty has made a more reliable and lasting contribution. Hollywood and Hitler complements his previous study of censorship and the control over it of Joseph Breen, the Director of the Production Code Administration. It also serves as a fitting prelude to his study of Hollywood in World War II.

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