Monday, September 16, 2013

The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler

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...
Hold it right there.

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, 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.
In other words, the collaboration was so pervasive and so secretive that it can't be disclosed in an orderly manner—you have to look everywhere. Collaboration is really another word for conspiracy, and it can't be proved without attributing appeasement and Nazi sympathies to everyone from Jack Warner to King Vidor.

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.


Marilyn said...

Hoo boy, does this look like a stinker made to cash in on a fiend's name.

VP81955 said...

First of all, a clarification: "The House of Rothschild" was made by Zanuck's Twentieth Century studio in 1934, a year before it merged with Fox.

"Gabriel Over The White House" is less a call to fascism than a sounding of American frustration at the nadir of the Depression; it's meant as a fantasy, not a realistic call to arms. In fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt loved the script and supposedly suggested some changes (

Finally, if someone had told Karen Morley -- a committed leftist who regularly spoke on WBAI and its Pacifica brethren in her later years -- that she had worked on a "fascist" film in "Our Daily Bread," she probably would have punched them in the nose.

The Siren said...

Thank you VP! I will update.

Marilyn, it is not a good book, this I will tell you.

The Siren said...

Also, when I was researching this I looked at some of Morley obituaries and thought she must be spinning in her grave.

I agree about Gabriel, actually, but I personally find it nearly impossible to watch. Urwand does bring up the screening for FDR but then FDR is harshly criticized in the book too. There was not enough time in the day...

Ben Alpers said...

A marvelous review of a book that I've kind of been avoiding 'cause, the more I read about it, the more I fear it would annoy me in exactly the ways it seems to have annoyed you. Nevertheless, I really need to read it. These are issues I've written about in the past. And I have a paper, long on the backburner, about Borzage's three German movies from the '30s (LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?; THREE COMRADES; and THE MORTAL STORM) each of which is clearly anti-Nazi. Indeed, my paper is largely a defense of their anti-Nazi credentials against many critics who refuse to see Borzage -- whose own politics seem to have been pretty conservative and largely private -- as a fitting anti-fascist. Nevertheless, Borzage's melodramatic anti-Nazism is a species of anti-Nazism. I did a lot of research in the PCA and studio records regarding THREE COMRADES, so I really want to see what Urwand says about that controversy. In the past the scholarly emphasis has been on the story of the poetic Faulkner against the pedestrian studio system. I was interested in another story: I found that the studio seemed to have quietly but firmly insisted on retaining political -- and specifically anti-Nazi -- content in THREE COMRADES that the PCA would rather have been ditched. Am I right in assuming that Urwand would disagree with this?

The Siren said...

Ben, I read your piece on the first two movies in the Weimar trilogy, and would have linked it here. However, it was based on something you presented at a conference and there was a rather large note asking people not to quote it without contacting you. It was a wonderful piece though, and reassuring to me that a highly intellectual academic saw the movies the same way I did.

And yes, you are correct. As it happens, Three Comrades is the movie that Schulberg cites in the clip, which I've not seen; Schulberg says "I think there was Three Comrades, there were some films that Louis B. Mayer of MGM would actually run those films with Nazi German consul..."

There is no record of this, of course. Urwand then describes Breen bringing a list of changes to Three Comrades to MGM. I quote: "It is very unlikely that Breen came up with the list himself, for he had his own separate set of suggestions (relating to sex, foul language, et.). In all likelihood this secret document, which contained ten unusual changes, was the list that Mayer compiled with Gyssling at the end of their screening of Three Comrades." (My emphasis.)

See what was done there? From Schulberg's speculation, to Mayer screening Three Comrades with Gyssling.

Yes, you need to read this book.

Also, do you realize you're cited in The Collaboration? Note 19 in the prologue: "More general studies of Hollywood's portrayal of foreign dictators include Benjamin L. Alpers, Dictators, Democracy and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s."

rudyfan1926 said...

Well, I've had this sitting in the to be read pile (gifted to me) and I'm going to add it to the donation pile for the library or maybe the round file? Thanks for saving me some time for other more worthy books.

D Cairns said...

Terrific deconstruction. I'm shocked that any historian would condemn a film for being quoted in The Eternal Jew -- if one watches that piece of trash, you can find scenes from the German version of The Brothers Karamazov, included solely because star Fritz Kortner was Jewish. The voice-over makes several wholly inaccurate statements about the plot of that film. Just when you think you can't be shocked by the Nazis anymore, you find them making up shit about Dostoevsky...

The Siren said...

David, I've never seen The Eternal Jew myself (can't imagine wanting to unless I was researching my own book); I have seen a few clips here and there. But I HAVE seen The House of Rothschild and to suggest it's deliberately hateful won't wash.

Thanks, and on a better note, how is the German version of Brothers K?

Tom Block said...

Wonderful work, Ms. N.

KC said...

I've been trying to avoid reading this book, because it sounds like sensationalist crap to me, but there's been so much said about it that I'm curious now. Is it worth the read just so I can better understand the controversy? I noticed it's at the library, so I wouldn't have to deal with reviewing it if I found myself too disgusted to give it more attention. Anyone who would imply Doherty's book is a sort of whitewash couldn't have read the whole thing!

The Siren said...

KC, if you're getting it from the library I'd say go ahead and give it a try, although I think I've given a pretty accurate picture of the writing style and tone. It's also quite confusingly organized. I wouldn't recommend buying it at all, as you've probably gathered.

Urwand himself has been very circumspect about what he says about Doherty, although the endnote is a tell, and if you read the link to the Chronicle of HIgher Education his attitude is pretty plain too. It's the press that's been implying Doherty's book lets everybody off the hook (I think Tablet magazine says exactly that).

Daniel Riccuito said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Riccuito said...

I've been corresponding with Thomas Doherty (who will be in the next Chiseler, btw); and he's pretty staunch in his criticism of the Urwand book. Still, Urwand documents one thing that made my blood run cold... MGM directly funded Nazi munitions in 1938 and only stopped for business reasons in '39. (Hitler was tampering with Louis B. Mayer's European markets.) Apparently, the documentary evidence does prove this narrow and crucially important point; and since I'm inclined to despise MGM's highly questionable Depression-aesthetics anyhow, it's easy for me to dismiss the studio on the basis of ethics. Mayer probably had a hand in paying off judges, lawyers and at least one witness in the elaborate and successful cover-up of the rape of a 17-year-old girl. I ain't an apologist for such crimes. Back to Urwand: keep in mind that MGM's deal with the Nazis was cemented *after* Krystallnacht.

Daniel Riccuito said...

The Eternal Jew is unwatchable.

Lemora said...

Wars are temporary. Political movements are temporary. Heads of countries and studios are temporary. But business goes on forever. This is a little bit off topic, but only a little: In "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion And The Powerful Women Of Early Hollywood," Cari Beauchamp states that the two people FM could not abide were Louis B. Mayer and Joseph Kennedy (himself not exactly anti Nazi).

Daniel Riccuito said...

Agreed. In the case of Hollywood's collusion with Nazism, we're speaking less in terms of ideology and far more about idolatry. MGM was a company, after all, and it did what companies do. Without IBM's help, the Holocaust does not happen.

Steven Elworth said...

F, thanks so much for this review of a book that is obviously being pushed by its publisher. I read the Tablet piece and could not believe that they wrote that this is an important book and the Doherty is a whitewash. Doherty is a real scholar who actually knows how to watch films and do real research including the important trade publications To make the Warner brothers into collaborators as Urwand does is beyond disgusting. I do agree with you that Doherty's previous book on Breen is way too sympathetic for my taste. Breen was a despicable man and a terrible censor. A final thing seeming to be missing from Urwand is how censorship worked in Hollywood after the code. What changes that were made in the scripts and how some productions circled around the code. The work of Lea Jacobs is excellent in showing this through comparing the written records to the films. I also think that Urwand does not the variety of films made in Germany before and during Hitler. The Zarah Leander vehicles made by a young Detlef Sierk, later Douglas Sirk are quite interesting.

hamletta said...

Thank you so much for writing this. I didn't know about this book, but I got into an argument with someone at Gawker who kept insisting Warner Bros. collaborated with the Nazis.

I countered "You mean Jack "premature Anti-Nazi" Warner? Are you high?"

I didn't know where it was coming from. Now I do.

gmoke said...

_In the Garden of Beasts_ by Erik Larson includes a vignette about the author of _Little Man, What Now?_, Hans Fallada, being visited by Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador (1933-1937), and her impression of Fallada having retreated from public life for fear of the Nazis.

Thanks for your work trudging through what seems to be a distasteful tome.

KC said...

Okay--I think I'll order it and at least give it a skim. I suspect that you've given me all the information I need though.

I don't think Doherty let anyone off the hook so much as he speculated as to what motivated various people, and the studios in particular. That's what bothers me about journalism sometimes--the superficial interpretations that lead to misinformation. I appreciate your research and especially what you have done with this post. It's hard work, and I admire your integrity.

D Cairns said...

As regards the German Karamazov, co-produced by Pathe-Natan: it has Fritz Kortner and Anna Sten (who is remarkable; her husband directed). Amazing montages and mobile camera and performances. A very compressed version of the book, no doubt, but a cinematically fascinating one. Clip here:
Bernard Herrmann regarded the score as a major step forward in film music.

Gloria said...

During the late thirties, in Hollywood were produced a number of films -like William Dieterle's Blockade, which took a stance in defense of the legitimate government of the Republic of Spain, and against Franco's fascist putschists (Supported generously by Hitler and Mussolini).

Honest, if people Hollywood did films like that, most certainly had a voice against fascism.

The Siren said...

Lemora, there's a book I need to read. Can't believe I haven't yet.

Steve, I have never seen a single Zarah Leander film but I have wanted to.

David, I forgot about Anna Sten, and I've wanted to ever since seeing They Came to Blow Up America.

Gloria, tell me, ever seen this one? Came across it researching this and I am intrigued.

Daniel Riccuito said...

My understanding is that five years before the agreement was signed, the Nazis established a law prohibiting foreign businesses from withdrawing German currency from the country. So Paramount had its own way of dealing with the problem -- making pro-Nazi newsreels and investing its profits in German film crews and so on. MGM decided to buy Hitler a few bombs. A yok.

The Siren said...

I'll be interested in hearing what Doherty has to say.

Hamletta, yes, exactly.

Daniel Riccuito said...

Doherty has written a beautiful essay on agitprop (anti-Nazi) radio shows hosted by refugees. I'm running it in a few days.

barrylane said...

Just a word re Joseph Kennedy -- and not a defense but because he misread the situation in Europe does not extend anti-American or anti-Semitic beliefs. An awful man, perhaps, for many reasons, but not necessarily either a traitor to his country or a killer.

Chris Walters said...

Immensely refreshing to see spurious history get the thrashing it deserves.

camorrista said...

For a useful, readable survey of both the studios' postures towards Nazi Germany, and their portrayals (and casting) of Jews, a terrific source is Aljean Harmetz's ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

The subtitle--"The making of CASABLANCA--Bogart, Bergman and World War II"--gives a notion of the scope of the book.

Among the more astonishing facts Harmetz documents is that most of the refugees in Rick's were, indeed, refugees--not American actors testing cringe-inducing middle-European accents.

The Siren said...

Oh, I have been meaning to read that one for a while. A friend of mine is working on a book about the real-life Casablanca during WW II, which was even more intriguing than it looked on WB's back lot.

Ed Hulse said...

Wonderful piece, Siren. A marvelous job of debunking.

Vanwall said...

I'm not inclined to read books that seem to be promoting a specious agenda - I don't need any more chaff in life, my phaser is set to simplify. Basically, I already got the premise long ago that money talked in the Nazi agenda, and everyone in the way was tossed under the bus, a standard practice already in Hollywood at the top levels in commercial cinema at the minimum, over and over, just as in the corporate grab-o-sphere. Notice caring is not in that equation, except for a very few - Warners being an exception noted already. Of course, belief is stronger than fact for a lot of people. The worst thing about books that are casually factual is their seeming is taken as literal by a lot of people - the real danger is the false dharma arises and will subsume the true dharma. Sadly, it happens all the time, and I have no wish to feed the coffers of ignorance.

hamletta said...

I have the mega-deluxe version of Casablanca from several years ago with the Roger Ebert commentary. He mentions the verisimilitude the real refugees lent to the movie and tells about how Jack Warner would give them a small salary/stipend so they could immigrate to the U.S. and GTFO of Germany.

The Siren said...

Thanks Ed; your expert good word here is extra appreciated.

Vanwall, on a basic level I agree, which is why there are a lot of books I never glance at. But this one was unavoidable. As soon as the laudatory article in the Times came out, I was getting emails and tweets and what have you asking what did I think of this. So if nothing else, I now have a link for those occasions.

Hamletta, I have been on a Casablanca diet for a few years. I do this with films that I am risking over-familiarity and thus maybe a wee bit of, well never contempt, but taking for granted. The diet can take years. I went a decade and a half without seeing It's a Wonderful Life, for example. And I think it's been nearly that long for Casablanca. It may be time!!

Gmoke, I forgot to say; that sounds like a great book. (I'd like to read the Fallada novel too, which apparently has a big rep these days.)

Gloria said...

I haven't seen Last Train from Madrid, but I'm going to check the link thorougly ASAP

Daniel Riccuito said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Riccuito said...

I'm not sure whether Fascist-themed films constitute a genre in the early days of synchronized sound, but I collect as many as I can find. Gabriel Over the White House is well-known but a pretty tame example compared to the weirdies out there -- I'm thinking of Night Beat,which contains strident calls for Mussolini-style Fascism here in the States.

Unknown said...


While researching my book "Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy" (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), I discovered that Salka Viertel's contributions to the screenplays of Greta Garbo's films consisted of sitting in on story conferences. S.N. Behrman did most of the writing for which Viertel received credit.

If you look in the M-G-M story files for Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, and Conquest at USC and the Academy, you will find nothing written by Viertel, not even a scene. She was given credit because she provided a unique service to M-G-M. She got Garbo to respond to their letters and phone calls. She was a go-between.

This is a sad commentary on the business practices of Golden-Era Hollywood, but I can assure you that it's true.

Mark A. Vieira

The Siren said...

Mark, thank you for stopping by. That sounds interesting (and well sourced). I was basing my words on the information in Viertel's own autobiography The Kindness of Strangers which (unless it was ghosted, do you know?) seemed to prove she could write. But she also makes it clear she had influence with Garbo...and possibly more, a topic I assume you cover. I'll seek out your book.

I will say that I still think it's safe to assume Behrman wasn't smuggling coded fascist propaganda into Queen Christina.

X. Trapnel said...

When I first got wind of this book I assumed there was some political agenda (greedy Jews conniving in their own destruction perhaps) and that I would approach it as I would Ray Teal at a lunch counter ("Hey mister, what are you selling?" "Just read the facts, my friend" [brandishes book]). Just perused it at Barnes and Noble and it looks to be pure sensationalism for its own sake, sadly, under the aegis of Harvard U P. Unfortunately (and especially where Hollywood [and Jews] is [are] concerned) groundless accusations, rumors, myths have a way of becoming facts "everyone knows."

The Siren said...

XT, I should respond substantively, but I am just happy to see your name again. Been a while!

X. Trapnel said...


I've been lurking, but it seems like it's been 2-3 months of posts on films I haven't seen.

I'm grateful for your demolition of this volume (and that's enough for me), but I still feel the need to read it for future arguments in which it is cited as common wisdom. God knows I've no fondness for Louis B. Mayer, but I've always felt there was an odd subtext in so much film literature when the Jewishness of producers is adduced. It may not even be anti-Semitic, but derive from some deep cultural ambivalence about Hollywood or even film in general or the nexus of art and commerce.

Unknown said...


gmoke said...

Ben Urwand discusses The Collaboration:
Hollywood's Pact with Hitler
Co-sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves

Friday, October 25, 2013
3:00 PM Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

The Siren said...

XT, "It may not even be anti-Semitic, but derive from some deep cultural ambivalence about Hollywood or even film in general or the nexus of art and commerce." Yes, nicely put.

Mike, thank you!

Gmoke, sigh--yes, I know, and on his site is a huge list of appearances. Even my UK readers can look forward to a live appearance. And yesterday apparently the author was on CBS This Morning facing another interviewer who had swallowed The Collaboration's thesis wholesale.

Unknown said...

Mission to Moscow. Hollywood's pro-Stalinist movie that rationalized,indeed justified, every deed of a tyrant who killed over 10 million. Curtiz who condemned Nazis was only too happy heap praise on Stalin.

'Racist' anti-Japanese propaganda.
Hollywood propagandists and animators caricatured all Japanese in crude fashion that wasn't much different from how Nazis caricatured Jews. Lots of images of fiendish yellow dwarfs with buck tooth and slanty eyes behind thick round glasses.
And Hollywood, which later raised a storm about the blacklist, was perfectly fine with the dispossession of 100,000 Japanese Americans and didn't raise any objections at all.
Hollywood greeted Nixon's trip to China to meet Mao, the killer of at least 50 million.
Warren Beatty made REDS, a film that glorified the Russian Revolution that destroyed so much culture and so many lives.

Until 1939, no one knew what Hitler would do with his war plans. Also, his acts against certain groups were hardly more extreme than cruelties in other parts of the world. By 1939, Soviets had killed at least 8 million people, Nazis had killed less than a 1000.
Hollywood was just doing business as usual--as it continues to do so with tyrannical regimes today--, and through such engagement, thought to ease Hitler's anti-Jewish stance.
It didn't work but no one can predict the future.

Kirk said...

Well, The Three Stooges (of all people) did make a couple of anti-Nazi spoofs before the US entered WWII, the first of which premiered even before Chaplin's movie. These shorts went under the radar because, well, they were the Three Stooges. Who the hell's goin to take them seriously?

A book came out about 15 years ago claiming the Stooges were communist. Yet they were never called before any committee. I guess Joe McCarthey didn't take them seriously either.

gmoke said...

Everybody should know that the Stooges, like the Marx and Ritz Brothers, were anarchists. Which were followers of Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin, or Gramsci I leave it to you to decide.

D Cairns said...

Shameless self-promotion dept. A columnist in Colorado sees my film NATAN and connects it to The COllaboration.

jqb said...

Superb takedown of this crank and his awful book ... Harvard should be ashamed.

barrylane said...

A dozen years ago I had the opportunity to have several lengthy conversations with Luther Davis centered on his personal relationship with Fredric Wakeman and the adaptations to film and theatre of Shore Leave and The Hucksters. In The Hucksters, novel, Victor Norman, Clark Gable's character, badgers a Jewish talent agent into caving on a deal and uses as his negotiating tool the man's Jewishness. In the film, this was changed for Clrk who refused to ;ay it as written though he felt, from a dramatic point of view that it was superior. Luther quoted Gable: "They'll think Gable's an anti-semite. I'm not, and with the war and everything, I just wont play it. Find another way." I think things like this go clearly to the specious analysis we've all been talking about. Yes...?

dlarsson said...

Two thoughts:
1. To what extent, if any, does Urwand dig into the corporate entities that were the powers behind the major Hollywood studios? For example, RKO was created through the efforts of RCA's David Sarnoff and (once again!) Joseph Kennedy. MGM was a subsidiary of the theater chain Loew's. These corporations were part of the vertical integration of the film industry (production, distribution and exhibition all under one corporate control per studeo) that would not be broken up until 1948. If there was any "collaboration" involved, the research would need to go much deeper than citing what Louis Mayer was chatting about with the odd German consul.

2. Discerning pro- or anti-fascist stands in Hollywood films of the period is complicated by several factors, including the leftist symphathies (or more) of notable screenwriters. A quick glance at Urwand's index doesn't suggest much consideration of their contributions or frustrations, Ben Hecht aside. In addition, Hitler's personal taste for certain American films seems very much in tune with the critique of the "culture industry" by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. See Adorno's later criticism of Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," for example. It is something of an ideological rant, but it raises a point worthy of discussion--Can a work (including film) that seems overtly "anti-Fascist" in some senses actually be in tune with certain Fascist themes? That point, however, seems too subtle for Urwand's book, which does not list Adorno in its index.

The Siren said...

Thanks to everybody who's commented over the past few days. Barrylane, that is a fascinating bit of information about The Hucksters, a movie I thought was a little toothless at times. Luther Davis was right that a scene of Gable berating a Jewish agent would have made the movie more scalding; yet Gable is also right that it would have made him look bad, considering how identified he was with his screen persona, and how close the time period was to the slaughter.

Donald, no, there really isn't much connection to the corporate entities that owned the studios. It is a shallow book. I have to admit to not having read Adorno; if Urwand had tied his own critique of The Great Dictator to those ideas, it might have been more resonant. But he confines himself to saying the last speech doesn't work. I love The Great Dictator and think that the final speech ties in well to Chaplin's humanist views, but that's another post.

Kirk and Gmoke, I did recently view You Nazty Spy! on Youtube, and it's a pip. Although I have read some Stooge aficionados say it's not as funny as they usually were in this period. How much of that is due to our knowing the future is impossible to say at this point, I guess.

The Siren said...

UPDATE: There have been some other developments this week concerning this book and its reception, including of course David Denby's scalding re-assessment at The New Yorker's website, for which I commend him. Harvard Press issued a statement standing by their publication procedures, and the New York Times, which got the ball rolling with a complimentary article back in June, covered it and gave Urwand's response. Unfortunately Urwand's response was a simple statement that nothing Denby has said has caused him to reassess his findings.

It's frustrating, because Urwand and HUP persist in portraying the objections to this book as matters of interpretation, when I think my review, and Denby's, and Jeanine Basinger at the WSJ, and Mike Greco's at the American Film Institute site, make clear that there are straight-up errors here. Wading back into the book this week, for example, I realized that at one point the author claims Louis B. Mayer screened Three Comrades with Nazi consul Gyssling, whereupon Gyssling came up with a list of changes. There's just one problem: according to Urwand's own endnotes, that could not have happened, because Three Comrades wasn't shooting yet.

No amount of pointing to archival sources makes up for this sort of thing, as far as I'm concerned.
I guess we must wait and see what happens after further reviews and responses. I find it significant that when this book is handed to someone who knows this period's films, it tends to do very badly indeed.

Steven Elworth said...

You get it. As I thought from the first article in the times, this is a book for people who know nothing and are proud of it. That the fans of this book and it's author live to attack the rigorous scholarship of Tom Doherty's nuanced approach makes HUP look terrible

Happy Miser said...

Here's something from DVD Savant:
More radio shows today, courtesy of Dick Dinman. This time around he finds two ways to look at Hollywood's Pact with Hitler. Dick interviews Ben Urwand, the author of a book about the relationship between the Hollywood studios and the Third Reich, THE COLLABORATION: HOLLYWOOD'S PACT WITH HITLER. The discussion carries across two separate shows.

Robert Avrech said...
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