Book Review: Collaboration Without Corroboration Is Tyranny – A Tale of Two Takes on Hollywood’s Dealings with Nazi Germany

“Even the news needs a little showmanship,” the television producer in the movie Network proclaims. And, within bounds, the same opportunistic dictum applies to historical writing—no more so, perhaps, than in our publishing-challenged times. Ben Urwand thus can partly be forgiven for the sensationalism of the title, and thesis, of his new book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. Partly forgiven, that is—not completely. Thomas Doherty’s similarly themed Hollywood and Hitler: 1933 – 1939, meanwhile, by channeling showmanship into style rather than content, fares much the better for it. Both books are well worth reading, however, for the gaps in one that the other fills, and for the cautionary tale each provides—on confronting fascism and rewriting history.

The territory the two books cover is hardly virginal. Film historians, especially Jewish-oriented ones, have long noted the troubling timidity of the Hollywood majors in the 1930s in confronting the Nazi threat—doubly troubling given the disproportionately Jewish make-up of studio personnel and Jewish nature of the threat. More recent scholarship by Steven Carr, Neal Gabler, Felicia Herman, Jeffrey Shandler, and others has returned, if more peripherally than Urwand or Doherty, to the subject. Less peripherally, USC’s Fisher Gallery, in 2004, mounted an exhibit (with accompanying anthology) devoted exclusively to contrasting Warner Bros.’ singularly courageous anti-Nazi stand with most other studios’ general passivity or outright accommodation.

Urwand’s and Doherty’s extensive, detailed analyses of the Hollywood/Hitler phenomenon, however, are unprecedented. For this, and for their exhaustive plumbing of primary sources—foreign and domestic archives by Urwand, the trade press by Doherty—both are to be applauded. Where the two books veer, decidedly in Doherty’s favor, is in the conclusions each has drawn from the material and the larger context into which it fits.

Hollywood and Hitler is not a thesis-driven piece but rather a nuanced overview of Hollywood-Third Reich interaction. Collaboration wears its dueling swastika and Star of David on its sleeve—not an inferior approach, necessarily, except when stubborn clinging to a tendentious premise clouds the overall vision. Doherty doesn’t shy away from casting blame on overly compliant studio heads where he finds it, or from withholding harsh judgment where a plethora of impinging factors comes into play. Urwand has no truck with half-steps: Hollywood is guilty, period, of crimes not only of omission—a dearth of anti-Nazi films, aversion to depicting Jews or even mentioning the J-word—but of commission as well—craven complicity with the Nazi high command on film content, actual production of “one pro-Fascist film after another.”

That Urwand overreaches—supplying insufficient, even contradictory evidence—is only part of the problem. The other is that he himself commits flagrant errors of omission and commission. Unlike Doherty, who takes pains to separate wheat from chafe in describing individual studios’ actions, for Urwand, Hollywood is all of a rotten piece. Rather than credit Warner Bros., for example, with backbone for closing its German operations in 1934 after the Nazi edict that it (along with other U.S. studios) remove its Jewish personnel from Germany, Urwand instead, sans substantiation, claims that Georg Gyssling, German consul in Los Angeles and Hollywood go-between extraordinaire, “personally expelled” Warners from the German market. Although he mentions in passing the influential Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL, founded in 1936), he fails to point out, again contra Doherty, that Warner Bros. offered its KFWB radio station for airing HANL’s “ideologically laced satire and strident exhortation.”

When Urwand finally disaggregates the studios toward the end of the book, this is not to let any one of them off the hook but rather to single out a few for special opprobrium. Topping the Most Wanted list are “the three biggest studios,” MGM, Paramount, and Twentieth Century Fox (the latter run by non-Jew Darryl F. Zanuck), the only U.S. companies doing business in Germany from the mid-1930s on. The winnowing leads to the book’s two major “coups”— at least according to reviewers, who have labeled as “game-changers” items that Urwand curiously treats as throwaways. The revelations relate to how the Big Three studios finessed the Nazis’ freezing of their assets inside Germany. Paramount and Fox used their Deutschmarks to make newsreels, some of Nazi festivities, which they then peddled abroad. Sight unseen and with no record of audience response, Urwand implies that the newsreels amounted to Nazi propaganda—a charge that would hardly hold up in court if only because, as reviewer David Denby rightly suggests, the ideology of the image lies in the eye of the beholder.

MGM, which lacked a German newsreel team, chose a more controversial way around the Reich’s interdiction: lending money to German companies, for which they received bonds and then sold these abroad. That some of the German companies were arms manufacturers leads Urwand to his gravest indictment: “In other words—the largest American motion picture company helped to finance the German war machine.” Troubling, certainly, as was the intra-German finagling of GM, IBM, DuPont, and Ford.  Even here, however, Urwand seems to sense he’s on shaky ground, partly because, again per Denby, “the studios could hardly have known in the mid-thirties that another war was coming.” But also because he waits until page 147 to drop his single-sentence bombshell, then leaves it dangling—with no immediate elaboration or return engagement.

Urwand’s most bizarre notion concerns the above-noted “pro-Fascist” Hollywood films. These are not the Paramount or Fox newsreels produced in Germany, but fifth-column productions made in the U.S. that purportedly questioned the efficacy of democracy and endorsed “the leader principle.” In other words, films such as Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel Over the White House, King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, and Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I kid you not! For Urwand, and the Nazi commentators he cites, these political satires, collectivist odes, and Capra-corn fables were not the American-as-apple-pie classics most critics and audiences, then and now, have taken them to be, but rather—“the truly shameful thing,” movies that “seemed to have been made under the direct instructions of the Propaganda Ministry.”

Lapses of judgment aside, Urwand is too able an historian not to consider causes other than bottom-line feeding for the studios’ (in)actions. Indeed, here his and Doherty’s accounts are complementary. Though both take the Breen Office, Hollywood’s in-house censorship bureau, into account and to task, only Doherty also probes the role of the myriad, often obstreperous state and local censorship boards, as well those of sundry foreign countries other than Germany. And though both acknowledge the defensiveness of immigrant Jewish studio executives, in particular, toward domestic perception of a Jewish-controlled industry, only Urwand highlights how the problem was compounded by organized Jewry’s concerns, for all U.S. Jews, about rocking the boat in an increasingly anti-Semitic America.

Yet what might have mitigated Urwand’s monocausal approach, ultimately reinforces it. The various non-fiduciary factors that Doherty sees as part of a mosaic of influences on the moguls’ handling of the Nazi, and Jewish, Question, Urwand sees as the tip of the iceberg, not only subsidiary to but as cover for “the most important reason”—“a collaborationist system . . . derived from [the studios’] years of collaboration with Nazi Germany.”

Urwand’s vengeful spirit (possibly fueled by the wartime suffering of his Hungarian Jewish grandparents) extends to the epilogue, and the postwar period. Here he accuses the moguls of descending like vultures on the war-ravaged German film industry in hopes of taking it over completely. Yet the studio heads’ exploratory trip was initiated not by them but by the U.S. military, which welcomed Hollywood’s assistance but planned to keep a tight grip on the German industry’s reconstruction. Billy Wilder was hired to oversee de-Nazification of film personnel, during which time he made among the first documentaries on the Holocaust.

One piece of the puzzle for which neither Urwand nor Doherty can be blamed for overlooking, nevertheless renders each of their accounts incomplete—in a manner, however, that further undermines Urwand’s case. Archival material at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), recently mined by scholars Laura Rosenzweig for her doctoral dissertation and Steven J. Ross for a forthcoming book, adds a twist to the Hollywood/Hitler affair that Alexander C. Kafka likens to “a cross between a James Ellroy LA-noir and an Allen Furst international spy thriller.”

Around the time that Georg Gyssling was figuratively twisting the arms of the Hollywood bigwigs, the CSUN material discloses, a Nazi terrorist ring in Los Angeles, run by local Bundists and Silver Shirts, was planning “bombings, lynchings, and assassinations of Jewish business and civic leaders (including the studio heads) as well as their non-Jewish allies, like Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney.” Other plots included “recruiting American soldiers, acquiring military secrets, blowing up aviation, munitions, and port facilities,” with an ultimate goal, according to Jewish lawyer and Hollywood insider Leon Lewis—whose ad hoc spy network  infiltrated the ring (with no help from the FBI)—of establishing a Nazi government in the United States. The upshot—or downshot—for Urwand, is that Lewis’s counter-terrorist group was funded by the Jewish moguls.

The collaboration, it seems, cut both ways. And the legacy of Jewish-headed studios during the Nazi era, from the comparative boldness of Warner Bros. to the Machiavellianism of MGM, must be deemed, in historian David N. Myers’ words, “neither heroic nor demonic,” but a verkakte mishigas somewhere in between.

The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand is published by Harvard University Press. Hollywood and Hitler: 1933 – 1939 by Thomas Doherty is published by Columbia University Press.

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Author bio:

VincentBrook teaches at USC and UCLA and is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir and Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles. His co-edited anthology on the films and plays of Woody Allen is due out in December.

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