The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand

Philip Kemp on the cooperation and acquiescence demonstrated by LA film studios to the Nazis

October 24, 2013

Of Hollywood and of Hitler, both fascinating subjects, it seems we can never get enough. So the two together are just irresistible. A few months ago in these pages I reviewed Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939. And here we are again, back in the same fertile territory.

As his title suggests, Ben Urwand is rather more hard-hitting than Doherty: less inclined to comment, more inclined to denounce. In doing so, though, he risks overstating his case. His introduction mocks “a common idea about Hollywood, one that has been recycled in dozens of books – namely that Hollywood was synonymous with anti-fascism during its golden age”. This “golden age” he identifies (as do most writers on Hollywood) as the 1930s. So which are these “dozens of books” that peddled the myth? A footnote provides a list, starting with Colin Shindler’s Hollywood Goes to War: Films and American Society, 1939-1952. Eight more titles follow, all likewise dealing with…the wartime period. This “common idea” about 1930s Hollywood is proving a touch elusive.

Which is a pity, as Urwand has dug deeper than Doherty and come up with some genuine revelations. It’s well known that MGM was still distributing its films in Germany as late as August 1940, and would have happily continued to do so had it not been expelled by the German Propaganda Ministry. Less often mentioned is that a month after the outbreak of war in Europe, the studio helpfully donated 11 of its most popular films (including Viva Villa! and After the Thin Man) to the German government to help with the country’s war relief effort. By then, MGM had already found a convenient outlet for its Reichsmark earnings, which it wasn’t allowed to export. Instead, in December 1938, the funds were invested in the German armaments industry.

MGM, along with Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox (which all distributed their films in Germany well into 1940), had proved among the most cooperative of the studios in tailoring their product to avoid offending Nazi susceptibilities. Chief agent in this process was the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, who kept tabs on all the upcoming movies in Hollywood. Obtaining advance copies of the scripts, he protested vigorously to the studio heads, and even to the US federal government, when he detected the slightest aspersions being cast on Germany or the tenets of National Socialism.

One result of this, as Urwand points out, is that not only was there virtually no mention, in Hollywood films of this period, of the Nazi treatment of the Jews; there was no mention of Jews at all. In the 1920s, Jewish characters had been common in American films; in the following decade they were all but expunged from the screen. Hollywood, as the screenwriter Ben Hecht noted, “is a town…invented by Jews, dominated by Jews”. The heads of all the major studios, apart from Walt Disney and Darryl Zanuck, were Jewish. Yet the 1940 film The Mortal Storm, for example, which was adapted from a novel about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany, somehow managed to avoid stating just who was being persecuted.

Urwand cites numerous other films similarly neutered by the timidity of the studios: The Life of Emile Zola (1937, about the Dreyfus case), Three Comrades (1938) and even Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), which started life as a drama set in Hitler’s Germany and entitled Personal History. He occasionally slips into melodramatic phraseology: “there suddenly emerged a new kind of voice…”; “something happened that stopped Hecht in his tracks”. But he hardly needs to. The story is quite dramatic, and shameful, enough in itself.

The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler

By Ben Urwand
Harvard University Press, 336pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780674724747
Published 16 October 2013

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