It is here that we start Ben Urwand’s study of Hollywood’s relationship with Nazi Germany.
Control of the film industry was a central part of Hitler’s and Goebbels’ plan for propaganda in the Third Reich. Article 15 of a law regulating film imports made it clear that Berlin could censor American films or ban foreign film companies from working in Germany, if they produced a film that was offensive to German sensibilities. This gave the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, considerable influence. His job was to vet, cut, change or veto if necessary, any film coming out of Hollywood that might be detrimental to German prestige. Apparently this was whether the films were to be shown only in Germany or shown internationally.
Instead of kicking Gyssling out, Hollywood went out of its way to work with him. Urwand chronicles several occasions in which he was listened to intently. In fact some projects did not happen because of fear of his disapproval. A Paramount film about the sinking of the Lusitania was dropped. A more aggressively anti-Hitler film called The Mad Dog of Europe was scrapped because of fears that it would harm US business interests in Germany. When American films were banned in Germany, such as The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) because it starred the Jewish actor Max Baer, the studios continued to do business with Germany.
After Kristallnacht, Goebbels produced a blacklist of 60 Hollywood figures whose work would not be allowed in Germany. The studios simply removed their credits from German versions and continued to distribute there up to the time when America entered the war.
Ben Urwand's book, The Collaboration
The whole story of how Hollywood made an accommodation with Nazi anti-Semitism seems even more bizarre because many of the studio bosses were themselves Jewish immigrants.
So this is a story about German censorship and the more frequent, sinister self-censorship by Hollywood. The notorious Hays Office put pressure on studio chiefs like Louis B. Mayer of MGM not to make certain films such as the anti-fascist It Can’t Happen Here, to avoid offending the German government. The word used at the time to describe the relationship between Hollywood film studios and Nazi Germany was "collaboration". By calling his book The Collaboration and implying that Hollywood collaborated with Hitler, Urwand has certainly created a storm in America.
Downing said Urwand’s book was well researched but was rather rambling, repetitious and made some strange statements eg it was daft for Urwand to say that Hitler controlled the German news reel industry, simply because the regime made a few corrections of newsreel scripts. And there was no mention of March of Time, which consistently warned cinema audiences of the evils of the Nazi state. Still, the story should be read by anyone interested in going behind the glamour of 1930s cinema, to study the shady politics of Hollywood.
I believe Urwand's writing is important because the Hollywood film executives could have stood up Breen and Gyssling, had they been prepared to risk their businesses. And they could have helped their own film-makers show honestly what was happening in Germany and in the occupied countries. Alas they did not. Three studios, Fox, Paramount and MGM, maintained a resolute commitment to the German market. Only Warner Brothers and Universal could hold their heads up with pride. Eventually.
Goebbels ordered Germans to disrupt screenings of All Quiet on the Western Front
photo credit: Daily Mail
The second is an issue raised by American academics, discussing an era of American history that is not at all familiar to me. Widespread anti-Semitism in the USA, right wing politics and strict censorship laws meant that film writers, directors and producers had very little freedom in their decision-making. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, headed by the above-mentioned and very fearsome Will H Hays, was created way back in the 1920s to ensure all new films would be acceptable to the religious right. The Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph I Breen was even worse. In the 1930s, motion pictures possessed no First Amendment rights.
And if thinly veiled or explicit anti-Semitism was going to be directed at any single industry in the USA, it was going to be most directed at the media and entertainment industry. Ben Urwand’s Hollywood should have been analysed within this very difficult historical context in the USA.
Urwand's book has become a very controversial area for debate. I recommend interested readers should read these blog discussions: Hollywood and Hitler, Hitler in Hollywood and
Hollywood’s Creepy Love Affair With Adolf Hitler.
Prof Thomas Doherty's book Hollywood and Hitler (Columbia UP) came out in 2013. As Europe became deeply enmeshed in war, a proxy battle waged in Hollywood. The issues were how to conduct business with the Nazis, how to cover Hitler and his victims in the newsreels, and whether to support, ignore or bitterly oppose Nazism in Hollywood feature films.
Hollywood’s Creepy Love Affair With Adolf Hitler.
Hollywood and Hitler, by Thomas Doherty