LOADED ques­tion

U.S. his­to­rian looks at del­i­cate is­sue of Hol­ly­wood co-op­er­a­tion with Nazis

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Roger Cur­rie

DID the Hol­ly­wood stu­dios, most of which were run by Jews, col­lab­o­rate with Nazi Ger­many in the 1930s and know­ingly or in­ad­ver­tently con­trib­ute to the atroc­i­ties of the Holo­caust? That’s the highly loaded ques­tion that is ex­am­ined by Jewish-Amer­i­can aca­demic Ben Ur­wand, a Har­vard fel­low whose grand­par­ents lived in hiding in Hun­gary dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Ur­wand is by no means the first au­thor to tackle this dis­turb­ing is­sue. In the past 25 years six books have been writ­ten on var­i­ous as­pects of it, be­gin­ning with Neal Gabler’s An Em­pire of Their Own: How the Jews In­vented Hol­ly­wood in 1989. Also on the mar­ket right now is Hol­ly­wood and Hitler, 1933 to 1939 by Thomas Do­herty of Bran­deis Univer­sity. The short an­swer to the ques­tion as to why Hol­ly­wood would ever do any­thing to serve the in­ter­ests of such a mon­strous regime could be summed up with the sim­ple three word phrase made fa­mous dur­ing Water­gate: “fol­low the money.” When the stu­dio sys­tem be­came firmly en­trenched in the U.S. in the 1920s, Ger­many quickly be­came one of Hol­ly­wood’s most im­por­tant for­eign mar­kets. With great at­ten­tion to de­tail, Ur­wand de­scribes mul­ti­ple con­tacts be­tween the stu­dios and Ger­man of­fi­cials, and he ap­par­ently breaks some new ground with his de­scrip­tions of Ge­org Gyssling, who be­came a Hol­ly­wood fix­ture af­ter Hitler came to power in 1933. In an ef­fort to pro­tect their in­vest­ment in the Third Re­ich, the stu­dios al­lowed Gyssling to read se­lected scripts and sug­gest changes in the case of films that might dare to cast Ger­many mGer­many in a bad light. Hitler watched movies al­most ev­ery nnight, rec­og­niz­ing the power of the medium to shape pub­lic opin­ion both at home and else­where. Ur­wand says Hitler also learned much about pub­lic speak­ing and grand spec­ta­cle from im­im­ages on the screen. Know­ing that the Nazis were fa­mous for keep­ing records of ev­ery­thing, the au­thor uncovered records of what Hitler and oth­ers like Joseph Goebbels watched and what they thought of them. Be­sides movies with mil­i­tary themes like All Quiet on the Western Front, the Ger­mans had some con­cerns that seem truly bizarre in to­day’s con­text. He re­counts a men­tal-health ex­pert who wor­ried about the racial im­pli­ca­tions of King Kong, which did huge busi­ness in Ger­many, and Tarzan, which was banned by the pro­pa­ganda min­istry. The dan­ger to the Jews be­came ev­i­dent quite soon af­ter Hitler be­came the Ger­man chan­cel­lor. Af­ter 1934 they were for­bid­den to work in the film in­dus­try. Thus be­gan an ex­o­dus to Bri­tain and Amer­ica of many of Ger­many’s most ta­lented and cre­ative peo­ple, in­clud­ing writer-di­rec­tor Billy Wilder, who would be­come a trea­sured Hol­ly­wood leg­end. This also in­cluded hun­dreds of stu­dio em­ploy­ees who worked in sales and dis­tri­bu­tion in Ger­many. Warner Bros. stopped do­ing busi­ness in Ger­many in 1934, and they were seen by some as the bravest stu­dio when it came to sub­ject mat­ter on the screen that could be re­garded as crit­i­cal of the Nazi regime. In 1939, Warn­ers pro­duced Con­fes­sions of a Nazi Spy. Even then, though, punches were pulled. The movie, which was ba­si­cally a B pic­ture, de­picted the Nazis as thugs who had ef­fec­tively killed free­dom of speech. It also dealt at great length with the grow­ing le­gion of fol­low­ers that Hitler en­joyed in Amer­ica. But the per­se­cu­tion and in­car­cer­a­tion of the Jews re­ceived barely a men­tion. In ad­di­tion to de­scrib­ing the Hol­ly­wood ef­forts to avoid of­fend­ing the Nazis, Ur­wand also points a strong ac­cus­ing fin­ger at the Hays Of­fice which en­forced the Pro­duc­tion Code in those days. Aside from up­hold­ing the moral val­ues of the day, Ur­wand says Hays and his No. 1 en­forcer, Joseph Breen, were known to be anti-Semitic, and had lit­tle con­cern over what the Nazis were do­ing to Jews and other mi­nori­ties in Europe. Winnipeg writer and broad­caster Roger Cur­rie is a lover of clas­sic films and the his­tory be­hind them.

He is heard reg­u­larly on CJNU, 93.7 FM.


The Col­lab­o­ra­tion Hol­ly­wood’s Pact

with Hitler By Ben Ur­wand Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 318 pages,


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