In 1937, Warner Bros, departed from its usual fare of jittery urban dramas and emotionally saturated women’s pictures. In a burst of ambition, it mounted a historical spectacle set in late-nineteenth-century Paris, ‘The Life of Emile Zola,” starring Paul Muni. “Zola” is meant to be a stirring man-of-conscience movie: after early struggles, followed by huge success, the writer, in self-satisfied middle age, gets drawn, with increasing fury, into the Dreyfus affair. “Zola,” which was directed by the German emigre William Dieterle, includes episodes that were interpreted at the time as indirect attacks on Nazi Germany: scenes of state-inspired mob agitation launched first against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French Army who is falsely accused of treason; and then against Zola for defending him—his books are publicly burned. At the end, in an outpouring of the progressive rhetoric that was typical of the thirties, Zola makes a grandiloquent speech on behalf of justice and truth and against nationalist war frenzy. ‘The Life of Emile Zola” was a big hit for Warners. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards—Muni, formerly a star of the Yiddish theatre in New York (he was born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund), was nominated for best actor—and it won three, including best picture. But there is a pervasive oddity about the film: the word “Jew” is never spoken in it, and anti-Semitism is never mentioned. There were four instances of “Jew” in the original screenplay, but three were cut, leaving a single appearance of the word, on a printed page. As the French general staff scan a list of officers, the words “Religion: Jew” appear onscreen next to Dreyfus’s name. The shot lasts about a second and a half.Was the undeleted word an error? A solitary act of defiance? “The Life of Emile Zola” is a perfect example of the half-boldness, half-cowardice, and outright confusion that marked Hollywood’s response to Nazism and anti-Semitism in the nineteen-thirties. In that decade, the industry produced a generally good-hearted and liberal cinema that celebrated such democratic American virtues as easy manners, tolerance, heroic individualism, and loathing of mob violence—all of which can be seen as a de-facto rebuke to Nazism. At the same time, the studios cancelled several explicitly anti-Nazi films planned for production, and deleted from several other movies anything that could be construed as critical of the Nazis, along with anything that might be seen as favorable to the Jews—or even a simple acknowledgment that they existed. Except for Twentieth Century Fox, headed by Darryl Zanuck, a shrewd and tough Gentile from Nebraska, the studios were owned by Jews, who controlled many hectares of Los Angeles turf and worldwide distribution networks—an enormous power base that makes their timidity regarding Nazism a matter of psychological and cultural as well as political interest.
In recent years, a variety of scholars, including Neal Gabler, J. Hoberman, Jeffrey Shandler, Lester D. Friedman, Steven Carr, and Felicia Herman, have worked on different aspects of this complicated history. But the story has been charged up by the appearance of two new books: "The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” (Harvard), by Ben Urwand, a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard; and “Hollywoodand Hitler, 1933-1939” (Columbia), by Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis. Doherty’s book is much the better of the two. A witty writer familiar with Hollywood history and manners, Doherty places the studios’ craven behavior within a general account of the political culture of the movies in the thirties and forties. He finds both greed and fear in studio practice, but in a recent Times report on the controversy he strongly objects to Urwand’s use of the word “collaboration.” Urwand, an Australian, and the grandson of Hungarian Jews who spent the war years in hiding, flings many accusations. He speaks of Hitler’s victory “on the other side of the globe,” by which he means Hollywood, and he claims to see “the great mark that Hitler left on American culture.” Throughout the book, he gives the impression that the studios were merely doing the Nazis’ bidding. In that same Times article, he says that Hollywood was “collaborating with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being.”Urwand has established the existence of multiple contacts between the studios and German government officials, and, in an apparent coup, he makes central use of a figure whom Doherty summons only sparingly: the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, a former diplomat whose suavely threatening manner resembles the polite menace of Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser, in “Casablanca.” Urwand shows that the studios occasionally allowed Gyssling to read scripts, to see early cuts of movies, and to demand— sometimes successfully—deletions from finished films. But are Urwand’s extreme conclusions warranted by what he has discovered? And, intentionally or not, his accusations stir up an old, sore question: should the Jews have done more to fight the persecutions that eventually enveloped them?
The Americans are so natural. Far superior to us,” Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, confided to his diary in 1935, after seeing “It Happened One Night.” American films, including musicals, were popular in Germany, they had a relaxed, colloquial way about them that German filmmakers, who tended toward agonized expressionism in the nineteen-twenties and rigid didacticism during the Nazi period, couldn’t match. Goebbels’s wistful appreciation of American ease is one of the bizarre ironies of the story, since he was intent on purging the cinema of anything that didn’t comport with Nazi ideology. Among other things, he removed Jewish artists and workers from the German film industry and pushed out Jews who worked for the distribution arms of American studios.The Nazis saw every movie as a potential threat to their immaculacy. Urwand quotes some solemn colloquies among Nazi officials, including a mental-health expert. Would “King Kong” (giant ape with Nordic-looking blonde) offend the “healthy racial feelings” of the German people? How about “Tarzan” (shirtless jungle man with white woman)? “King Kong” was released, ”Tarzan” banned. So was the violent “Scarface,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” and all the later films of Marlene Dietrich, an outspoken critic of the Nazis. Goebbels’s ministry also found out which American actors and crew members were Jewish or anti-Nazi, and refused to import films on which they had worked.
All this censoring and interdiction came at the German end of the distribution chain. Georg Gyssling was installed at the production end. After arriving in Los Angeles, in 1933, he began scouring the trade press. If he thought that a movie announced for production might contain elements “detrimental to German prestige,” or if he went to a screening (at the studio’s invitation) of such a movie when it was finished, he would write a letter detailing cuts that he wanted made. For instance, after seeing “The Lancer Spy,” a 1937 Fox picture set after the First World War, he objected to the way German officials were portrayed, and sent a list of changes, which, according to Urwand, were made before the film was released. The list was sent not to Fox but to the Hays Office, which administered the Production Code. The production of a film of such a character will arouse very bad feeling in Germany against the producing company and may lead to serious difficulties which should be avoided in mutual interests,” he wrote, by which he meant that the film, at his suggestion, could be banned in Germany.Gyssling protested other films about the First World War period — “Captured!,” set in a German prison camp, and "The Road Back,” based on Erich Maria Remarque’s sequel to “All Quiet onthe Western Front” (a pacifist novel and movie that the Nazis hated). Urwand speculates that Gyssling, by harping on the past, was trying to forestall even more negative images of Germany set in the Nazi present. Gyssling played both the short game and the long, and, occasionally, he overplayed. In 1937, when Universal ignored his remonstrations and began adapting The Road Back,” he sent letters to the cast and crew warning that any movies they worked on in the future might be banned in Germany. The impudent letter got into the press, an uproar ensued, and the German Foreign Office had to assure the State Department that no further threats would be made against American citizens. Yet Gyssling brazened it out and remained in place.
Why did the studio bosses listen to him at all? They were not thoughtful men who revealed themselves in diaries and letters; they ruled by meetings and telephone calls, so we know virtually nothing about their thinking on such sensitive matters. An obvious reason, which both Doherty and Urwand give, is that the studios wanted to hold on to the German market. Neither author, however, gives many figures, though Urwand notes that Paramount actually lost a little money in Germany in 1936. Tino Balio, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on the American film industry, says that the German market was much smaller than that of Great Britain, and that it got smaller still as the decade went on. Warners left Germany in 1934, the year Nazi thugs assaulted its representative there (an English Jew), and, as Urwand admits, by 1936 only Paramount, M-G-M, and Fox were still distributing films in the country. In any case, the studios did not have immediate access to their returns, which were frozen in German banks—something that Urwand waits until the middle of his book to tell us.No doubt the studio bosses accommodated the Nazis because they hoped for a more amenable regime in the future; they were businessmen, and acted as businessmen. Fox and Paramount, eager to claim some part of the frozen assets, made newsreels, with Nazi cooperation, chronicling Party activities, and sold them to overseas markets. Urwand scores a point here: these were propaganda films, though we don’t know if audiences reacted to them with pleasure or with loathing. A second attempt to get at the frozen assets: at the suggestion of an American trade commissioner, M-G-M loaned money to German companies in return for the companies’ bonds, which it sold at a discount. Some of those companies made arms, and Urwand concludes that the studio “helped to finance the German war machine.” Yet the studio executives could hardly have known in the mid-thirties that another war was coming.
Given all the restrictions on studio operations in Germany, Gyssling’s threats could not have been very plausible by the middle of the decade. Isn’t it likely that the studios were responding to other pressures and fears as well?What many people don’t know about the Production Code is that the studios imposed it on themselves. In 1922, they realized that, as a new and increasingly scandalous industry, they needed an organization to represent them in Washington. They formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, under the direction of the former Postmaster General Will H. Hays, an Indiana Republican and a Presbyterian. (It still represents the studios, under the title Motion Picture Association of America.) It also set up a moral guide, which was intended to ward off both national and local censorship. The Code was toothless until 1934, when the Legion of Decency—a conservative Catholic organization—claimed that Hollywood, with its racy productions, was polluting the nation’s youth. The organization threatened to get Catholics to boycott any films that it saw as unfit. From that point, a movie couldn’t get widespread distribution unless it received a Production Code seal, which certified that its morals and its politics had withstood scrutiny. Hays appointed as censor-in-chief Joseph I. Breen, a prominent Catholic layman and contributor to Catholic journals. He was also an anti-Semite. Two years before he was appointed, as Doherty reports, Breen wrote to a friend that “people whose daily morals would not be tolerated in the toilet of a pest house hold the good jobs out here and wax fat on it. Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”
Most of Breen’s rules centered on sex and language, but the code also included this stricture: “The history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly.” The statement was so loose in meaning that it could be used to ban any critical look at a foreign country. By 1934, then, 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. As J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler put it in their volume “Entertaining America” (2003), a history of Jews and the media, “Breen and his ecclesiastical supporters saw Hitler’s rise as instrumental in their campaign to reform Hollywood. Nazi politics and anti-Semitic agitation had made Jewish studio executives newly vulnerable.”At several points in the mid-nineteen-thirties, an agent named Al Roseneager to become a producer—attempted to raise money for a project called "The Mad Dog of Europe.” The screenplay, which had been bouncing around Hollywood since 1933, was about the destruction of a German-Jewish family during Hitler’s rise to power. No studio had attached itself to the project, but the script got to Breen’s office, and Breen took the matter seriously. In a long memo, he wrote:
Because of the large number of Jews active in the motion picture industry in this country, the charge is certain to be made that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler picture and using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes. The entire industry, because of this, is likely to be indicted for the action of a mere handful. This kind of reasoning, with its open threat, effectively killed the project and maimed many others.In 1936, M-G-M acquired Sinclair Lewis’s best-seller “It Can’t Happen Here,” a semi-satirical fantasia about American totalitarianism: a Huey Long-type demagogue takes over the Presidency, and rules by means of the secret police. When M-G-M geared up to shoot the movie, with prominent actors, including Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart, Breen wrote a letter to Will Hays, saying, “It is hardly more than a story portraying the Hilterization of the United States of America. It is an attempt to bring home to American citizens, through the instrumentality of the screen, that which is transpiring in Germany today.” (That it certainly was.) Breen also wrote Louis B. Mayer, the president of M-G-M, a seven-page letter proposing sixty cuts in the screenplay—in effect, making a Production Code seal hostage to impossible demands. Even if the cuts were made, he wrote to Mayer, the movie would be subject “to the most minute criticism on all sides,” which “may result in enormous difficulty to your studio.” Mayer cancelled the project.
Breen continued to pressure the studios not to mention Nazism right up to the outbreak of war. In 1938, when M-G-M wanted to adapt “Three Comrades,” an explicitly anti-Nazi novel by Remarque, Breen insisted that the movie be set earlier in time. Thus we will get away from any possible suggestion that we are dealing with Nazi violence or terrorism.” The pattern was clear: no matter how vicious Nazi conduct was, any representation of it could be deemed a violation of the code’s demand that foreign countries be treated “fairly.” In practice, the more cruel and irrational the Nazis got, the safer they were from any Hollywood dramatization of their actions. Breen warned the studios of the danger to their German earnings, but his real intent was probably to remind the men running Hollywood that they should never feel safe.At times, Gyssling alerted Breen that something was amiss, and they worked together. At other times, Breen worked alone, and he was definitely the more powerful of the two; withholding a Production Code seal could severely restrict a movie’s commercial chances in the American market. You can discover the truth of Breen’s greater power from Urwand’s book, but only by patient deduction. Urwand accounts for Breen’s activities (without quoting his anti-Semitic letter), but he pumps up Gyssling’s role even when he’s not sure that Gyssling deserves the credit. For instance, Urwand writes that Gyssling, in 1934, “probably” intervened to get “Mad Dog” killed, though “the evidence is inconclusive.” And, after admitting that he has no proof that Gyssling caused M-G-M to abandon “It Can’t Happen Here,” he nevertheless insists that Gyssling’s “presence in Los Angeles undoubtedly affected M-G-M’s decision.” His account of what happened with “The Life of Emile Zola” is even shakier. When Gyssling heard, in 1937, that the movie was in the works, he called the producer, Henry Blanke, who, as he later wrote, placated Gyssling with a lie. Blanke told Gyssling that the Dreyfus affair would play only a small role in “Zola.” Urwand writes, “Just a few days after this phone call took place, Jack Warner dictated some important changes to the Dreyfus picture”—the three infamous deletions. But, as Felicia Herman notes, in a 2001 article in American Jewish History, citing a letter from Breen to Warner, it was the Production Code chief who persuaded the studio to make the cuts. Urwand quotes numerous letters from Gyssling to Breen but explicitly cites only one letter from Gyssling to a studio. At one point, he says that a threatening Gyssling letter to Warners has been lost, but he then reconstructs what the letter “would” have said, based on the single letter he cites (without ever quoting it). It’s hard to imagine how authoritative scholarship and furious accusations can be based on missing documents, the conditional mood, and conjecture.
Gyssling continued operating in Hollywood until June, 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and the Nazi consul, regretting his separation from his “thousands of friends” in Los Angeles, abruptly left town. He made a lot of mischief in his eight years, but neither he nor even Breen was as significant a force as the studio bosses’ own fears.The future moguls came from the backwaters of Eastern Europe and arrived in the United States with nothing, not even fathers (who were mostly feckless or missing). Desperate for respectability and for cash, they worked at whatever trade lay at hand: peddling scrap metal, furs, gloves. Then, soon after the emergence of storefront nickelodeons, in 1905, they threw in their lot with a new, primitive art form that many regarded as a passing fad. Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, Jesse Lasky, and the four Warner brothers built their enterprises with a speed that even now, in the age of venture capital and mobile-app entrepreneurs, seems remarkable. And yet, outside their domain, as Neal Gabler has chronicled in his 1988 history, “An Empire of Their Own,” they were silent or utterly conventional. They acted as if all their power and their personal wealth could be taken away if they made a mistake.
Their fears were not entirely irrational, since anti-Semitism was widespread in America in the twenties and thirties. It could be found in the radio broadcasts of demagogues like Father Coughlin, in the street rallies of Nazi and pro-German groups in New York and other cities. The Jews were blamed in some quarters for the worldwide economic crisis. Henry Ford, Theodore Dreiser, and Charles Lindbergh, along with a variety of outraged organizations, fulminated over Jewish control of the movie business, whose leaders were variously excoriated as “Asiatics,” greedy buffoons, sexual predators, and Bolsheviks.In response, the studio bosses wrapped themselves in Americanism, generating in their movies, as Gabler points out, an ideal country: “It would be an America where fathers were strong, families stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful, and decent.” In that America, there was no room for the kind of Jewish characters and actors who had appeared in the silent and early-sound-period movies—the ghetto dwellers, the Yiddish dialogue comics, the Jewish boy in the first sound film (from 1927), “The Jazz Singer,” who turns his back on the Lower East Side and assimilates into American society.
By acting as they did, the studio bosses fell into the trap that they had allowed men like Gyssling and Breen to set for them. Because they were Jews, they believed, they couldn’t make anti-Nazi movies or movies about Jews, for this would be seen as special pleading or warmongering. (The Nazi appeaser Joseph P. Kennedy, the Ambassador to Great Britain, said as much to the studio heads as late as 1940, when the Wehrmacht was all over Europe.) Breen tormented them with the spectre of what anti-Semites might do as a way of stifling their response to what anti-Semitism was already doing—and would do, in Europe, with annihilating violence. It’s as if the Hollywood Jews had become responsible for anti-Semitism. Of all the filmmakers in the world, they became the last who could criticize the Nazis. Their situation was both tragic and absurd.In their hesitations and their timidity, they were supported, as both Doherty and Urwand demonstrate, by such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee, both of which took the line that the Jews had to be careful about thrusting themselves before the public. They will get tired of us,” Cyrus Adler, the head of the A.J.C., said. “What I want them to do is to get tired of Hitler”—a line that is too sad for tears. These organizations, adding to Breen’s efforts, lobbied successfully against the making of The Mad Dog of Europe” and “It Can’t Happen Here.” But were they overestimating the dangers of domestic anti-Semitism? In 1934, they did everything possible to get Fox to halt its production of “The House of Rothschild,” a historical account of the rise of the Rothschild banking family. What troubled them most was the early scenes, set in the eighteenth century, in which Mayer Rothschild (George Arliss) attempts to hide some taxable money from a collector. Later, Mayer instincts his sons to set up banks in multiple European cities as a way of attaining power and dignity, which the movie, in its second half, shows them achieving. The film is a celebration, and, when it opened, it was widely admired by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. The feared anti-Semitic reaction in the United States never materialized, though the Anti-Defamation League remained unhappy. Apparently, no Jew should be shown as greedy and power-seeking. Urwand quotes a representative of the A.D.L. saying of the film, “It’s too bad that it was made at this time, for it corroborates the basic Nazi propaganda, and this corroboration is furnished by Jews.” The A.D.L. quickly remedied the situation, in 1934, by holding a meeting with a group of studio bosses and production heads, the result of which was that Jewish characters were banned altogether.
Oddly, Urwand seems to think that “The House of Rothschild” was a disaster for the Jews, and he cites the fact that the Nazis used passages of it for their own propaganda as an example of the harm it did. But the Nazis would use anything for their own purposes. In 1935, they loved Henry Hathaway’s paean to British imperialism in India, “TheLives of a Bengal Lancer,” with Gary Cooper enduring torture rather than betray his friends. The film’s endorsement of “the leader principle,” Urwand says, “enforced this central aspect of Nazi ideology,” and he calls “Lives,” a likably silly adventure film, Nazi propaganda. In his own way, Urwand thinks like an ideologue—or a censor. For instance, he writes of a movie as if its entire emotional effect could be summarized by recounting its story—as if acting, directing, cinematography, and innumerable details of emphasis and atmosphere didn’t shape our responses as much as plot does. Even Goebbels seemed to realize that American entertainment breathed freedom in a great many ways.That a man like Georg Gyssling was allowed past the front gate of an American film studio is a disgrace, and Urwand deserves credit for bringing his role out of obscurity. But the charge of “collaboration” is inaccurate and unfair—a case of scholarly sensationalism. The studios didn’t advance Nazism; they failed to oppose it. In that failure, they were joined, and even surpassed, by other American businesses, including General Motors, DuPont, I.B.M., and Ford, which operated in Nazi Germany and, in some cases, continued to operate there after the war began. None of this makes Hollywood any less cowardly, but Urwand, writing in the shadow of the Holocaust, which few people in the mid-thirties could have imagined, recasts every act of evasion as the darkest complicity. And he is too enraged to pose the obvious practical questions: What if the studios had made a slew of anti-Nazi movies? Would many people have gone to them? Could the studios have alerted the world to the threat of Nazism? It’s hard to say. Still, it would have been nice if they had tried.
New Yorker magazine, 16 Sept 2013