Film historian chronicles tinseltown’s reactions to rise of Hitler

Film historian chronicles tinseltown’s reactions to rise of Hitler

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Thomas Doherty, a film historian and professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, has written a compelling book, “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,” (Columbia University Press, $35, 429 pages). It brings to light the story of how Hollywood handled Nazism during Hitler’s rise to full power. 

Despite the ominous political developments in Germany in the early 1930s, American movie studios deliberately failed to make any mention of deteriorating political conditions in Germany until well into 1939. The reason was obvious—the Hollywood moguls could ill afford to lose a major market of American films.  American studios were well aware of the turmoil the Nazis could cause when Joseph Goebbels, not yet appointed Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, led a squad of brown shirts to disrupt the Berlin premiere of Erich Remarque’s anti-war novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Amidst stink bombs, sneezing powder and cries of “Judenfilm!” the weak Weimar government and its Supreme Board of Censors, declared that the film was “endangering Germany’s reputation,” and rescinded the film’s exhibition license, giving Goebbels his first major propaganda victory.

The studios, not wishing to also risk the displeasure of German officials, avoided any mention of German politics in their films.  They justified this action by citing the Enforcement Code, a set of loosely imposed moral guidelines established in 1930.  Four years later, this code was strengthened with the creation of the Production Code Administration under the direction of Joseph L. Breen.  Breen’s office applied a vague provision in the code, which stated, “the history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly.”  

Two forces ultimately broke the silence regarding Hitler’s power in Germany and its accompanying fascism and anti- Semitism.  One was the newsreel series “The March of Time,” a monthly story produced in New York by Time Inc., which focused on reporting political news.  Early in 1938 it released a special edition entitled “Inside Nazi Germany” which denounced Hitler’s brand of totalitarianism.  In the 18-minute film, narrator Westbrook Van Voorhees, declared that Hitler’s “fanatic little propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, has created “a nation with one mind, one will, and one objective: expansion.”  The film talked bluntly about the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews and maintained that Nazism represented a growing menace in the United States.   


The second force was Jack Warner, chief executive of Warner Brothers Studio, the only studio to pull out of Germany in 1933.  Warner brought the rest of Hollywood on board.  In 1939 he employed the techniques of “The March of Time” to produce a major movie—“Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”  It was the first movie to break the embargo against anti-Nazi cinema, and also the first that openly condemned Hitler’s dictatorship.  

The movie was released in the spring of 1939 only a few months prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.  According to Doherty, by this time the Hollywood moguls and other businessmen were finally convinced that Nazi Germany was no longer a feasible outlet for American movies.

Doherty masterfully describes how the movie industry, mostly headed by Jews, ultimately came together at a time when the nation needed unity.  He also shows how the movie industry found ways during the early 1930s to adjust to the onset of World War II, while at the same time, preparing for the ultimate and eventual loss of business. 

The book is crisply written, well documented, (even though it lacks a bibliography) and unlike most books dealing with the rise of Nazism, ends where most studies begin, with the outbreak of the war. Movie buffs will also enjoy this book, as Doherty revisits many forgotten films of the early 1930s.