Hollywood was not exactly teeming with overt anti-Nazi filmmaking in the years between Hitler's ascent to power and Confessions of a Nazi Spy in spring 1939, a fact known to anyone familiar with the period. That’s usually attributed to the studios' desire to protect their interest in the German market, with the added wrinkle that the Production Code Administration and its beady-eyed enforcer Joseph Breen frowned on explicitly political films in general. It is a depressing, frequently rehashed history, studded with abandoned or defanged projects that might have called out Nazi Germany much earlier than 1939.
Nine years ago, Ben Urwand saw a clip in which Budd Schulberg claims that in the 1930s, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer screened films for the German consul in Los Angeles and cut out anything the consul objected to. This prompted a voyage through diplomatic archives that, Urwand declares in The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, show “for the first time the complex web of interactions between the American studios and the German government in the 1930s." And by "government," Urwand means the man in his subtitle: "It is time to remove the layers that have hidden the collaboration for so long and to reveal the historical connection between the most important individual of the twentieth century and the movie capital of the world."
That certainly grabs the attention, doesn't it.
Let's add here that Budd Schulberg, author of What Makes Sammy Run?, was the son of B.P. Schulberg, Paramount’s chief. Budd also used to say that when L.B. Mayer read the novel, he told B.P. his son should be deported. There may, therefore, have been a certain amount of lingering pique on the part of Schulberg fils. So the first question is, was Schulberg telling the truth about Mayer and the Nazi?
Spoiler alert: You never find out. Urwand uncovered correspondence between Georg Gyssling, the German consul in question, and MGM, concerning films Gyssling didn't like and didn't want made. This is stitched in with previously reported facts about why It Can't Happen Here never got made and the laborious process of censoring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s script for Erich Maria Remarque's Three Comrades. But when it comes time to reveal Georg Gyssling's direct contact with Mayer, or indeed any other mogul around town, a curious thing happens. With regard to It Can't Happen Here, a proposed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' novel about a fictitious American dictator, it can't be corroborated that Gyssling even contacted Joe Breen about it.
Urwand is undeterred: "His presence in Los Angeles undoubtedly affected MGM's decision" to scuttle the film. Similar conclusions are drawn about the stillbirth of The Mad Dog of Europe, though "the evidence is inconclusive."
In fact, there is no smoking-gun evidence of any studio head ever writing to Gyssling with "Anything you say, old sport." Instead there are memos from Gyssling to studios, to Joseph Breen—the Hollywood figure with whom Gyssling worked most closely, although that fact isn't exactly highlighted—and to his bosses. Gyssling was aided both by the fact that Breen was an anti-Semite, and that a clause in the Code demanded that all nations had to be treated fairly. David Denby says in his generally excellent piece at The New Yorker, “Breen and Gyssling had overlapping briefs. Breen read every script before it went into production, and he used the ‘fairness’ justification to limit or kill any film that touched on Nazi Germany.”
To read The Collaboration attentively, you need an inexhaustible patience with endnotes along the lines of "Canty, 'Weekly Report 43,' April 22, 1933." Admittedly, interesting things do reside back there, such as Mayer's alleged desire to deport Schulberg and an observation that Thomas Doherty's rival history Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-39 relies on "trade papers." Also confined to the endnotes is the passage from Jack Warner's autobiography in which the mogul talked of the studio's Germany head, a British Jew who Warner said was "murdered by Nazi killers in Berlin...They hit him with fists and clubs, and kicked the life out of him with their boots, and left him lying there." Urwand corrects Warner for misremembering the man’s name—it was Phil, not Joe Kaufman—and says that while Kaufman was beaten, he recovered, and "died peacefully in Stockholm." I remain unconvinced that this, or anything else Urwand cites, proves Warner was in no way influenced to withdraw from Germany in 1934 by having his key employee severely beaten by government-sponsored thugs.
Even so, the pattern in The Collaboration is that, should you follow the note for an especially grim allegation, such as MGM accessing its blocked currency in December 1938 (a month after Kristallnacht, we are duly reminded) by loaning money to firms “connected with the armament industry,” you find something like "Stephenson, Special Report 53, December 30, 1938." This refers to a dispatch from an American trade commissioner. "In other words," Urwand summarizes with a sweep, "the largest American motion picture company helped to finance the German war machine."
At least one scholar working on consular reports of the period says, "Obviously, the information in the consular reports cannot simply be taken at face value." This entire book does just that.
It's also a short book for one with such a big premise, with a prologue and epilogue and six chapters: Hitler's Obsession With Film, Enter Hollywood, "Good", "Bad", "Switched Off", and Switched On. The titles in quotes recap the three ways Hitler reacted to the films he watched in his screening room. Austere and sinister, those three headings force Urwand to criss-cross in time, going back to discuss an event during a year he already covered. The headings do, however, accurately indicate that movies will be evaluated chiefly in terms of what the Nazis thought of them.
The chapter called "Good" comes down hard on The House of Rothschild for that very reason. Produced at 20th Century Pictures under Darryl F. Zanuck, the sole gentile mogul in Hollywood, it is a sympathetic portrait of the great banking family. Many lines refer bluntly to anti-Semitism, pogroms occur, and the family's chief antagonist, a Prussian, is played by Boris Karloff—in 1934, as clear a signal of villainy as casting could give.
The film opens with Mayer Rothschild hiding his gold from the tax collector and then, on his deathbed, sending his sons to five major European cities to establish banks. These scenes, with their implication of world financial control, deeply disturbed the Anti-Defamation League. They lobbied every studio chief in town—successfully—to have the studios "get rid of all possible references to Jews" in future films. It was a move that turned out to be shortsighted, but the ADL feared an anti-Semitic backlash, and as J. Hoberman and many others have said, that fear was not irrational.
Far more than that, Urwand condemns House of Rothschild because the opening was used in the nauseating Nazi screed The Eternal Jew. But taking scenes out of context is what ideologues do. Film analysis takes in the entire picture, as does historical analysis, or so I have always thought.
We are told that the Nazis thought Gabriel Over the White House was swell. That must fail to startle anyone who has seen this baroquely fascist mishmash, in which the Archangel Gabriel takes possession of Walter Huston's corrupt president, and it turns out that the angels in heaven want nothing more than to suspend habeas corpus. Released through MGM despite Louis B. Mayer's loathing of it, the movie was directed by Gregory La Cava and financed by William Randolph Hearst for Cosmopolitan Pictures. And, in the words of critic Michael Phillips, it’s “positively bughouse."
Urwand spends some seven pages on plot summary to make the same point, adding the deeply unsurprising hosannas from German critics. He builds to a climax:
For three years, Hollywood had avoided making movies that drew attention to the economic depression and the horrendous conditions under which people were living. Finally, one was released that cited all the major issues of the day—mass unemployment, racketeering, Prohibition, war debts, the proliferation of armaments—and the solution it proposed was fascism.
Anyone who's ever spent time watching Hollywood movies made from 1930 to 1933 should be able to tell you that this is plainly, spectacularly wrong. Thomas Doherty points out in his Pre-Code Hollywood that in an 18-month period from 1931 to 1933, one director—Roy Del Ruth—made ten films that bring up those subjects. Not to mention Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Little Caesar, Frank Capra's American Madness, or even Scarface, which Urwand must have seen, because he says the Nazis found that one unacceptable —good lord, how many does it take?
Pre-Code Hollywood further states that Gabriel didn't represent a Dictatorial New Wave in American film. If anything, it was the culmination of a mini-genre of totalitarian pipe-dreams representing just how desperate Americans were for rescue in 1933. Right before Gabriel was released, FDR took office. And thereafter, you find William Wellman shooting the NRA eagle over a judge's shoulder in Wild Boys of the Road, and La Cava himself offering hope to hobos in My Man Godfrey.
The Collaboration then moves to a film in a different genre altogether, Henry Hathaway’s Lives of a Bengal Lancer. The Nazis liked Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Again, this is not news. In his book Best of Enemies, historian Richard Milton says it was Hitler's favorite film. (Hitler was entranced by Britain to the point that he held English-style teas and read The Tatler.) Yet here comes a recap of things that a person might like about Lives of a Bengal Lancer if that person happened to be Hitler, or a Nazi, or soft on Nazis, or unable to spot Nazism.
I looked up Otis Ferguson's review of the movie and found him fully aware of the imperialist hogwash on view, saying that "from a social point of view it is execrable...[but] it is a dashing sweat-and-leather sort of thing and I like it." Ferguson adds, “The real emotional pinch is not what ideal the men are going down for, but in the suggestion of how men do the impossible sometimes, doing and enduring in common."
Then again, Ferguson also loved Mutiny on the Bounty, and so did the German critics. Urwand says darkly that a Hitler adjutant arranged for that one to be sent to the Führer's mountain retreat.
Films are, in The Collaboration, an agglomeration of plot and predetermined themes, talking novels dominated by dialogue. Anything in the cinematography, atmosphere, casting, or performances that works against the upfront text is either a side effect easy to wave away, or does not exist.
So Way Out West, It Happened One Night and the cartoons of Mickey Mouse get a pass for being movies that Nazis liked, yet Lives of a Bengal Lancer is compared, quite seriously, to Triumph of the Will. But that third-example clincher is needed:
The next Hollywood movie that delivered a National Socialist message would be be both popular and contemporary, and as a result, it would set a new standard for future German production.
The film was called Our Daily Bread...
Our Daily Bread, the film that King Vidor conceived as a sequel to his masterpiece The Crowd? Which sang the praises of farm collectives, lambasted banks, was rejected as "pinko" when its maker tried to buy an ad in the Hearst press, and won second prize at the Moscow film competition? The one that Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon say "goes beyond any specific social or political position, and hymns the relationship of humans, work and earth,” that’s the Our Daily Bread we’re talking about?
Ah, but it was deemed "artistically valuable" in Nazi Germany and had a long successful run there, and unless the movie is Laurel and Hardy, that can mean but one thing: "Viewers there [in Germany] understood Vidor's sensibility better than anyone else because it so closely resembled their own." The Collaboration compares the hero John's election as leader of the collective to Hitler at the Reichstag. When John is tempted by trampy blonde Sally, Urwand sees the Nazis' attempt to give a human dimension to their leader. The planting of fields reminds Urwand (again) of Triumph of the Will. When John must rouse the collective to action, there's this: "As Hitler had once said, the point of the spoken word was 'to lift...people out of a previous conviction, blow to blow to shatter the foundation of their previous opinions,' and that was just what [John] Simms did."
There's an endnote there; it gives the Hitler-quote source as Mein Kampf. What isn't cited is anything out of King Vidor's mouth to suggest he was trying to make a fascist propaganda film, or that he intended his hero to ape Hitler. Urwand insinuates that Vidor was being cagey by sniffing that the director "didn't mention" things like the fact his film was distributed by United Artists. My copy of Vidor's autobiography A Tree Is a Tree has this on page 222: "I appealed to my friend, Charles Chaplin, who was one of the owners of United Artists, to assist in getting the releasing contract."
Our Daily Bread is an authentic indie, financed by Vidor himself, who mortgaged his house to do so. Put aside, if possible, the infuriating slant on Vidor’s motives and his film. What is this movie doing in this book? It illustrates nothing about the studios because it was made outside them. Urwand, to the extent that I can discern a point other than he's not clamoring for a Blu-Ray of The Crowd, appears to have included Our Daily Bread as a way of illustrating that Hollywood was making movies that went over like gangbusters in Nazi Germany, not because the Nazis had a uniquely blinkered way of looking at cinema, but because the filmmakers were deliberately espousing pro-fascist sentiments.
"Over the years, the Hollywood studios provided Germany with many other similar pictures" like Lives of a Bengal Lancer, the author says. He cites MGM (without attribution) as having marketed Looking Forward as embodying "the optimism of the New Germany." But he also lists other films including Night Flight, Captains Courageous and Queen Christina, noting merely what the Nazis liked about each. Urwand then says, "The various studios had found a special market for their films about leadership, and this, along with the success of their politically innocuous movies, justified further business dealings."
What, precisely, is being said here? The chapter's material deals with American films that, in Urwand's view, didn't merely appeal to the fascist sensibility, they embodied it.
And it seems that indeed, Urwand believes himself to have demonstrated just that. Some fifty pages later, he says that "ever since MGM's Gabriel Over the White House, the Hollywood studios themselves had released 'one pro-Fascist film after another'—films that expressed dissatisfaction with the slowness and inefficiency of the democratic form of government."
This will not do. Salka Viertel, the Jewish writer already becoming known for hospitality to the emigres ditching Europe, conceived Queen Christina for her friend Greta Garbo. Viertel wrote the screenplay with S.N. Behrman, who was also Jewish. It was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the Armenian American who with King Vidor (yes, King Vidor) co-founded the Directors Guild and was blacklisted in the 1950s. If there is evidence that these people "provided Germany" with Queen Christina, in tandem with MGM's "politically innocuous" movies, as a sop to Nazi taste, I should like to see it.
Looking Forward I've never seen, Gabriel—well, no sane person is going to defend that one on a political level (although it has formal merits). But that movie tells you more about why we should be grateful that William Randolph Hearst never held public office than it does about the political leanings of Hollywood in general. Otherwise, Urwand is tainting an incongruous set of films with the Nazi seal of approval, and advancing his case for Hollywood's pro-fascist filmmaking not one bit, at least not with anyone who has actually seen Queen Christina.
Again and again, Urwand expresses dismay, at times even rage, that Hollywood was making entertainment when it might have been alerting the world to Nazi atrocities. This seems to reflect a belief that narrative film could have changed history, where reams of print and the hard work of activists (many of them in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, including Jack and Harry Warner) could not. Urwand is on firm ground—and has decades' worth of prior company—when he criticizes Hollywood silence as the Nazis began to enact their horrendous plans for the Jews. But it is some big leap from the fact that studio movies did not assail Nazism and the persecution of the Jews by name, to the idea that Hitler's "great victory would take place on the other side of the globe" (he means Hollywood, in case there’s any doubt).
In Urwand's interviews he has strenuously denied that the title of his book is anything other than a straightforward echo of what the moguls and German officials themselves called their dealings. Thomas Doherty in The Hollywood Reporter was having none of that: "To call a Hollywood mogul a collaborator is to assert that he worked consciously and purposefully, out of cowardice or greed, under the guidance of Nazi overlords."
That title also locks Urwand into an approach that scorns dissent. Says the prologue,
That title also locks Urwand into an approach that scorns dissent. Says the prologue,
...it suddenly became clear why the evidence was scattered in so many places: it was because collaboration always involves the participation of more than one party. In this case, the collaboration involved not only the Hollywood studios and the German government but also a variety of other people and organizations in the United States.
Doherty, for his pains, is finding his Hollywood and Hitler held up in much of The Collaboration’s notably unquestioning press as some kind of whitewash. That isn't true, as Dave Kehr shows in his review. Doherty discusses Hollywood's failures of the period with great vigor, and Denby is right when he says it's the superior book. (I say that as someone who gave Doherty's Joseph Breen bio a decidedly mixed review for—oh, the irony—being too generous to its subject.)
For one thing, Doherty does not, as Urwand does, dismiss Confessions of a Nazi Spy (which cost more than Dark Victory) as "an obvious B-picture," a designation that holds up only if you are defining a B movie as "one I personally dislike." Doherty's book brings in films that Urwand discusses either not at all, or only briefly, such as I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany—again, that's in endnotes. (It was an independent, but hey, that didn't stop Urwand with Our Daily Bread.) What Hollywood and Hitler does lack is prosecutorial hindsight.
Gutting political filmmaking was—and Doherty's book gets this—the most malign impact of the Production Code. The gloomy fact is that in the 1930s, there were any number of horrors that were largely or entirely missing from studio movies: Jim Crow and the ghastly violence with which it was enforced; the Rape of Nanking; forced collectivization and the ensuing famine in Ukraine; fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.
At least there were a few films and filmmakers that, in Martin Scorsese's familiar phrasing, smuggled in political ideas and anti-fascist allegory. Unfortunately, they smuggled them right past Urwand. Unmentioned are the relatively overt The Black Legion and Fury; much less do we find something really sly like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, Juarez, or The Prisoner of Zenda.
Meanwhile, also missing from The Collaboration is any sense that escapist movies had value to people other than Hitler or Goebbels in a time of worldwide misery. There's nothing in The Collaboration like Doherty's sad evocation of Victor Klemperer, attending San Francisco to get away from what was happening in Dresden, and noting in his diary, "all too American."
Early in the book, Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle is assailed at great length for agreeing to cut All Quiet on the Western Front after the Nazis provoked riots at screenings. In a bit of particularly well-inflated dudgeon, when Urwand discusses Laemmle's work to rescue hundreds of Jews from Germany, he puts it alongside the observation that “at precisely the moment that Carl Laemmle embarked on this crusade, his employees at Universal Pictures were following the orders of the German government."
One wonders if the German government ordered Universal to make Little Man, What Now?, an exquisite 1934 Frank Borzage film where you know who those brownshirted, crop-haired men are, even if they’re not identified by name. Urwand has said he watched more than 400 films for research, but if he caught that one, he doesn't say. Borzage, that mysterious, romantic pacifist, turns up twice: filming a "completely sanitized" version of Three Comrades, and getting a good performance out of Frank Morgan in MGM's The Mortal Storm, grudgingly called the "first truly anti-Nazi film" but one that nonetheless "made very little impact."
At Columbia earlier in 1934, Borzage also made No Greater Glory, a shattering antiwar film with clear intimations of fascist behavior. The director even substituted stock footage of Berlin landmarks for the Hungarian setting of the Ferenc Molnár novel on which his film is based. The Collaboration doesn't mention that one, either.