Fascism out of focus

Philip Kemp on how the US movie industry mostly ignored the rise of Fascism in Germany

May 16, 2013

Right up to, and even for a while after, the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the predominant attitude in Hollywood towards fascism was classic three-wise-monkeys strategy - pretend it’s not there and perhaps it’ll go away. Partly this was due to the belief that movie-going audiences would be turned off by politics: that “the purpose of the screen, primarily”, as Joseph I. Breen, the industry’s all-powerful censor, maintained, “is to entertain and not to propagandize”. (His italics.) No less influential was the fear that any films that offended the Nazi government might entail the loss of the German market to the studio involved. There was little risk of anyone overlooking this last consideration: the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, kept himself closely informed on all forthcoming movie projects and was quick to complain to Breen, to the relevant studio heads or even to Washington about anything he believed might impugn the honour of the Führer or the Reich.

Even when their Jewish agents in Germany were harassed or beaten up, the studios didn’t protest but merely replaced them with non-Jewish substitutes. Similarly, the studio-produced newsreels fought shy of what Variety termed “the Hitler anti-Jew thing”, the sole exception being the Time-Life March of Time newsreel, distributed by RKO. A few anti-Nazi films did get made, among them the documentaries Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934), funded by its wealthy director, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr, and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (1936), about a US student jailed on suspicion of espionage. But these were low-budget independent productions that secured only very limited release. Not until 1938 did one of the majors bite the bullet with Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released by Warner Brothers early in 1939. Warner, which Groucho Marx described as “the only studio with any guts”, ceased business in Germany in 1933 - unlike its competitors, which hung in there until diplomatic relations between the two nations were severed in 1941.

Thomas Doherty’s book covers more than its title implies, also taking in Hollywood’s treatment of the Spanish Civil War - timidly minimal, again - and of Fascist Italy. He recounts a farcical episode in which Hal Roach, best known for having launched Harold Lloyd’s career and for teaming Laurel with Hardy, headed to Rome in 1937 and returned with Vittorio Mussolini, son of Il Duce, with whom he proposed setting up a production company. The movie colony’s unenthused response caused an embarrassed Roach to retract his proposal, and Mussolini departed in high dudgeon.

Many Hollywood actors and directors, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were far more radical than their bosses. They set up the Anti-Nazi League and campaigned so vigorously against the Fascist powers that the alarmed studio heads threatened to insert “political clauses” into their contracts forbidding such activity. The ANL was not deterred, and when Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite film-maker, arrived in Hollywood in November 1938, the activists made her no more welcome than they had young Mussolini.

Doherty never risks overestimating his readers’ prior knowledge: we get a capsule summary of the what, how and when of the Spanish Civil War, and he even provides helpful glosses on tough words (among them “tovarich” and “sibilation”). Occasionally, his assiduous scanning of sources such as Variety seems to infect his prose (“a gabfest tailor-made for the group” is his term for a meeting of the Western Writers’ Congress). But this is a lively, detailed account and a worthy successor to his books Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 and Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration.

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