Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939

Thomas Doherty


By Nathan Abrams, May 17, 2013
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The 1930s are fondly remembered as the beginning of a golden age for Hollywood. The studios were dominated by Jews who operated a highly sophisticated oligopoly - the "dream factory"- and churned out as many as a film a day.

Surprisingly then, little has been written about the specific reaction of Hollywood to Hitler and Nazi Germany. Into this breach, steps Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis University professor. He charts how film-makers and audiences responded to Nazism as a business, ideology and ultimately a threat.

It took until 1939 for the word "Nazi" to appear in a film title: Warner Brothers' Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Why? The movie moguls - Jewish and gentile - largely took a realpolitik stance. Not wishing to lose out on a lucrative market, they took a long view. Variety reported in late 1933: "Thus far no one's been able to sell a Hitler item as entertainment." Lack of commercial incentive and plenty of official disincentive meant Hitler was ignored by the big studios even as he redrew the map of Europe. Anti-Nazi pictures were quashed, unmade or made poorly so they would bomb. Instead, the fight was taken up by - offbeat documentaries, low-budget indies and subtitled imports. And just as Hitler failed to appear on the American big screen, so did Jews, who simply disappeared. Why bother foreground an ethnicity that comprised only three per cent of the potential market and which would surely get the film banned from German import. As Doherty notes, "Commerce and censorship colluded to erase Hollywood's most prominent ethnic group."

Many Jews in the industry felt boycotts of German products would be detrimental to their co-religionists in Europe. Nevertheless, Jewish areas typically boycotted the exhibition of German films. Others deliberately showcased them, appealing to pro-Nazi opinion. The Yorkville cinema in Manhattan, showed Nazi-themed films until anti-Nazi protestors pointed out that the cinema was owned by Jews.

The Nazis tried to cloak their films by removing distinguishing signs and logos. Hitler, eagles, swastikas and even German were removed. But having purged its industry of its talent, German films tanked - Americans generally stayed away as a matter of taste rather than ideology. Yet, there was a good chance that those that did slip through were distributed by Jews, an irony that wasn't missed at the time. In a further irony the trademark product of American Jews remained up on marquees throughout Germany, even as anti-Jewish violence and other Nazi measures escalated.

One company that took a principled stance was Warners, which severed relations with Nazi Germany in 1933, and later produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

The book ends where most studies begin, with the outbreak of war. In so doing, it fills a gap, discussing little-known and long-forgotten films in a scholarly yet readable fashion.

Columbia University Press, £24

    Last updated: 9:45am, May 17 2013