Chris Yogerst’s book, Hollywood Hates Hitler!, is a must-read book about the 1941 Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda.
The full name is as follows: Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures. It’s a long title but there’s no better way to describe this book.
If you haven’t studied up on film history, chances are likely that you never heard of the investigation. If you have, you’re one of the lucky ones. But if you haven’t, it’s because history forgot about it in large part due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I read a bit about the investigation in other books. during the pandemic. However, I’m so glad that a book exists on it. It is LONG OVERDUE. Anyway, the Senate investigation came about because of Sen. Gerald Nye (R-ND). He was an isolationist and wanted into investigate Motion Picture War Propaganda. A sham investigation, really.
Wendell Wilkie, a pro-interventionist Republican and fresh off his 1940 defeat to President Roosevelt, was brought onto defend the industry. Unfortunately, he was essentially gagged. Not only that but he couldn’t cross-examine witnesses. A bummer, indeed. Wilkie would end up making more press statements about the investigation. Representing the studios: Nicholas Schenck, Howard Dietz, Harry Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Barney Balaban. Unbeknownst to any of the committee, Zanuck was an American-born Methodist. The studio heads, as we know, were mostly Jewish at the time. Not just that but most came from Eastern Europe.
Let me paint a picture for you. Warner Bros. was acutely aware of what was happening in Germany. They had pulled out when one of their employees was left for dead. Kristallnacht. The Reichstag burning. Conditions were getting worse across the board in Europe. The Production Code had strict rules when it came to depicting foreign countries. And yet, it’s not like the Senate was going after books or newspapers themselves! I mean, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was a title that was ripped from the headlines. The script would also directly quote the actual investigation. It took some work in getting Alvin York to sign off on the rights before Sergeant York could go into production. Make no mistake that the screenplay embellished the truth because of the war.
One surprise to me was that a newly elected senator, Ernest McFarland (D-AZ), would not be a stooge for the investigation. He certainly doesn’t come off like an isolationist. The others definitely were and some even spoke at America First rallies. Not exactly a good luck for them, right? McFarland comes off as someone with principles. If a witness said something about a film, he wanted to know if they actually saw it. McFarland would become Majority Leader before leaving the Senate in 1953. Not only that but the senator would also become one of the Fathers of the G.I. Bill. McFarland would join the committee at the recommendation of Sen. Burton Wheeler (D-MT). Wheeler certainly fooled himself because he thought McFarland would stay quiet.
The isolationist senators certainly got what was coming to them. I don’t mean the US being attacked in as much as they lost their reelection bids a few years later. They had it coming not just because of their antisemitism but because they were also perfectly fine with Hitler and the Nazis just taking over Europe. When asked by Senator Charles Tobey (R-NH) if The Mortal Storm was fair to Germany, then-Loew’s Inc. president Nicholas Schenck responded “in the affirmative” while also adding “I don’t think you want unity with Hitler.” This isn’t the only money quote. There are so many more in the book!
Another takeaway from this investigation is how the trade outlets were largely against the investigation from the get go. After the war, they would do a complete turn. A few years later, they would take a strong stand in favor of blacklisting. It’s enough The Hollywood Reporter would have to apologize for their actions within the past decade. Absurd, right?
Chris Yogerst goes above and beyond in bringing this Senate investigation–one that had roots in antisemitism–out of the forgotten pages of the history books. During his closing pages, Yogerst reminds us that antisemitism still exists today. It’s unfortunate. I must inform you right now that it certainly doesn’t appear to be going away. Because of the book’s content, it’s also a complimentary companion to Hitler in Los Angeles, which tells an incredibly true story of a spy ring that worked to take down Nazis in the USA. Charles Lindbergh, the German-American Bund, and America First also come up in this book. Hollywood Hates Hitler! is a short read at under 200 pages before getting into the notes and bibliography. It reads academically in some ways but any film buff or political buff should be interested.
Hollywood Hates Hitler! is a reminder of an investigation that many forgot about but it’s one that film historians need to know.