Hollywood's deal with the Devil

By Edward Helmore

Hitlers' Nazi censors gave an easy run to films like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, made in 1939 for depicting democracy as inefficient.
Hitlers' Nazi censors gave an easy run to films like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, made in 1939 for depicting democracy as inefficient.

The big Hollywood studios collaborated with Nazi Germany in the run-up to World War II to protect their access to the valuable European market, a controversial book about the film industry claims.

Harvard scholar Ben Urwand, who spent a decade sifting through German and American archives, said: "I want to bring out a hidden episode in Hollywood history, an episode that has not been reported accurately."

Urwand's interpretation of the relationship is disputed by other scholars. He claims Hollywood studio chiefs, many of them recent eastern European Jewish refugees, enthusiastically worked with Hitler's censors to alter films or even cancel productions entirely in order to protect access to the German film market.

"In the 1930s the Hollywood studios not only collaborated by not making films that attacked the Nazis, they also did not defend the Jews or touch on Germany's persecution of the Jews," Urwand said.

The book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, out in November, claims the relationship was so enmeshed the biggest studio at the time, MGM, even invested in German rearmament to get around currency export restrictions.

"Collaboration: it's not my word or invention. I got it from materials from both sides. It's the word regularly used to describe their relationship." He said MGM's German head spoke to the German press of the "satisfying collaboration on both sides".

"It's collaboration in the sense that Hollywood movie executives and Nazi officials are actually collaborating and the Nazis are having the final say," said Urwand. "They didn't want to lose their business ... They also felt Hitler might win the war and they wanted to work with the Nazis to preserve their business."

About his research, Urwand said: "I wouldn't want what I write to be generalisable about Jews, but specific Jews in the movie business made decisions to work with Nazi leaders."

Urwand uncovered evidence that as late as January 1938, the German office of 20th-Century Fox requested Hitler's views on American movies. The letter was signed "Heil Hitler".

Three studios, MGM, Paramount and 20th-Century Fox, didn't pull out of Germany until mid-1940. But even after Hollywood was making anti-Nazi films, Urwand says, it continued to erase reference to the Jews because studio chiefs (with the support of Jewish groups) wanted to "avoid special pleading on their behalf".

The author dates Nazi meddling back to the premiere of All Quiet On the Western Front in 1930 when, encouraged by Joseph Goebbels, stink bombs were set off and white mice loosed in the theatre. Carl Laemmle, the Jewish German-American head of Universal, agreed to cuts.

Hitler liked films depicting strong leadership, like Gary Cooper's Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mutiny on the Bounty and Greta Garbo's Queen Christina, or films in which democracy was shown as inefficient, like Mr Smith Goes to Washington. He detested Charlie Chaplin and his thinly veiled portrayal in The Great Dictator.

By 1932, Urwand writes, Nazi-inspired rules allowed for studios' permits to be revoked if films considered damaging to German prestige were shown not only in Germany but anywhere in the world. Hollywood enthusiastically acquiesced to Hitler's demands to shape movie content to meet Nazi propaganda goals.

"Hollywood executives knew exactly what was going on in Germany, not only because it had been forced to fire its own Jewish salesmen but because the persecution of the Jews was well known at the time."

Hitler's Hollywood consul, Georg Gyssling, made regular studio visits, often requesting edits to scenes that ran counter to Nazi interests or, for films like The Mad Dog of Europe (1933) asking for them to be abandoned entirely. In 1936, after being tipped off by US censors that It Can't Happen Here, a film showing the advantages of democracy over fascism, would cause problems with "certain foreign governments", MGM head Louis B Mayer called off production.

"Hollywood is collaborating and the Nazis have the final say on several important movies that would have exposed what was going on in Germany," said Urwand. The historian found documents showing that to get around currency export restrictions, MGM bought German bonds that financed rearmament factories in the Sudetenland. "You can't get more extreme than the biggest movie studio in America funding armaments a month after Kristallnacht."

But other historians explain it differently. Tom Doherty, of Brandeis University, who recently published Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, found US commerce department documents advising MGM to get blocked currency out of Germany by investing in armaments.

"In 1936 Germany was a friendly nation and America was not a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles. I don't see sinister, greedy monsters. I see people [coping] with a bizarre anomaly to negotiate in a way that made sense to them. Most people thought once Hitler achieved power he would moderate this crazy anti-Semitism"

- Observer

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