Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 by Thomas Doherty

Edward G. Robinson and Francis Lederer in Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Film historian Thomas Doherty explores the era between the start of Hitler’s reign and a world at war in Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939.

Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 by Thomas Doherty
Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 by Thomas Doherty (Columbia University Press).

For history buffs, World War II can be a fascinating era to look at. WWII movies are still able to draw eyeballs to the screen, big and small. But in real life, this wasn’t always the case. If you look at America in the leadup to the war, there was a strong distance between both interventionists and isolationists. Even in our own Congress, there was an entire Senate subcommittee devoted to investigating Hollywood’s war-mongering. The subcommittee would never finish their investigation because of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Thomas Doherty is one of the best film historians working today. His work isn’t just limited to what’s showing on the screen. No, he also explores what’s going on off screen. No stone goes unturned and even though I’ve already read about some of it in Hitler in Los Angeles or Hollywood Hates Hitler!, one can never read too much about this era. If we don’t remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it! Warner Bros.–the only studio with guts–would be the first to pull out from Nazi Germany. But by the start of 1939, only MGM, Paramount, and 20th Century-Fox kept in business. The Mortal Storm would end up getting MGM banned from Germany. It is a much different scenario than with the Russian war on Ukraine. All the studios pulled out.

For the Hollywood moguls of the era, it wasn’t just a business decision. Many Berlin offices would get see their business movie elsewhere in Europe. For safety reasons, many studios would bring in non-Jewish employees to replace their Jewish employees. Any American film coming into Germany had to abide by their strict rules when it came to non-Aryans. For a studio like Warner Bros. it was a non-starter but after an employee was beaten up, they pulled out altogether. Other studios went with it for as long as they could, depending on their business situation. They might not be working out of Berlin offices but elsewhere like Paris for safety reasons. Joining Warner Bros. in pulling out were United Artists, Universal, RKO, and Columbia.

When it came to showing the European reality on screen, the Production Code took a hard stance. It wouldn’t be until the late 1930s when Joseph Breen’s office started approving films that treated Germany fairly. In the early on, he didn’t approve any film that could lead to bad relations with Germany. As Nazi Germany started showing their true colors, Breen had no choice but to say that the films treated Germany fairly. When you have a film like Confessions of a Nazi Spy drawn from an actual court case, it would be pure ignorance to not approve it. It was a huge risk for Warner Bros. but neither Harry or Jack Warner would back down from their fight against the Nazis. They took it to the screen in ways that other studios wouldn’t!

In this book, he takes a hard look at everything going on, including the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. One surprise to me is that many people within their ranks pledged their loyalties to the Communist Party and so they weren’t always loyal to America. Following the Hitler-Stalin Pact, many backed off of the Nazi threat, which led to others jumping ship in disgrace. Not just that but there were those that didn’t even want to help in the fight against the Nazis and wanted the U.S. to just be an isolationist country. Of course, everything would change once Hitler broke the pact and invaded Russia. But in reading this, it’s enough to make one sick. With everything they knew about the Nazis, they were willing to look the other way?!?

But even before the rise of Nazi Germany, there is the 1930 release of All Quiet on the Western Front. The premiere in Germany did not go well, what with the riots and all. From a Production Code standpoint, nobody wanted to see a repeat of that. Here in the U.S., German consul Georg Gyssling would always take the fight to the studios when he read about a film that could hurt Germany. He would even threaten actors working on a film. His threats became frequent that Breen started to only pass them onto the studios rather than dignify it with a response.

Doherty also covers the Vittorio Mussolini visit to America in addition to Leni Riefenstahl arriving around the same time as Kristallnacht. Most in Hollywood would not even give the German filmmaker the time of day. The only exceptions were former Fox head Winfield Sheehan and Walt Disney. Disney would take her around the animation studio and show her the Fantasia storyboards. Doherty describes their acts as “tone-deaf–or just plain ornery.”

Beyond this, the rise of Nazi Germany would have an impact with so many artists arriving as refugees in Hollywood. Artists, producers, writers, directors, composers, etc. would start making their mark following a purging by the German film industry. Behind the camera, the likes of Erich Pommer, Max Reinhardt, and Billy Wilder were making a big impression. Pommer relied on Franz Waxman to score Bride of Frankenstein and he was but one person to have a big impact on the development of film music during this era. Frederick Hollander and Erich Wolfgang Korngold were among others that arrived in Hollywood. Korngold went on to win two Oscars.

A simple review of Hollywood and Hitler is not going to do justice to Doherty’s book. This is because there is too much ground to cover. What I can say with 100% certainty is that Doherty’s book complements the work from Steven J. Ross and Chris Yogerst. Please consider reading the other two books if you have not done so already! What we see from Doherty’s book is that Hollywood did everything in their power to warn the nation of what was coming. Unfortunately, Breen’s office and censor boards had a big impact in what people were able to see on the screens. Before making it clear with Confessions, Warner Bros. did what they could with their allegorical films (Black Legion, The Life of Emile Zola, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Juarez) and patriotic shorts.

Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 is available in bookstores.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.