Competition over Collaboration: On Ben Urwand




Competition over Collaboration: On Ben Urwand by Jerome Christensen

October 8th, 2013 reset - +

MY REVIEW COPY of Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (published this September by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) came armed with a marketer’s insert that promoted the book by challenging another: Thomas Doherty’s recently published Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013). “Urwand,” the insert claims,

proves that Hollywood’s relationship with Nazi Germany was […] an active collaboration — and not a case of passive indifference or self-censorship. Whereas Doherty relied on flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers, Urwand discovered a vast array of primary source materials, including Hitler’s own notes on American movies; scripts of movies that were abandoned or severely cut because of the Nazi interventions; and evidence that Fox and Paramount produced pro-Nazi newsreels and that MGM invested in German armaments.

It didn’t take long to find Doherty’s response to Urwand’s book (and perhaps the marketer’s remarks), which was prominently featured in The Hollywood Reporter, one of those domestic trade papers that the marketer dismisses. Doherty briskly boils his objections down to an angry indictment: “I consider Urwand’s charges slanderous and ahistorical — slanderous because they smear an industry that struggled to alert America to the menace brewing in Germany and ahistorical because they read the past through the eyes of the present.” Strong stuff. Thanks to Urwand’s marketers it became clear that I couldn’t review his book without engaging his competitor’s. 

For Doherty the title says all we need to know about Urwand’s angle. Urwand aims to prosecute Hollywood for Collaboration by anachronistically milking the invidious connotations of the term (I will use a capital C to indicate that anachronistic usage), which were nowhere in use until the establishment of the Vichy government in France in 1940, and by invoking a pact — think Munich, 1938, or the Nazi-Soviet Mutual Non-Aggression Pact in 1939 — that did not formally exist. It’s hard not to agree with Doherty here. Germany occupied the northern zone of France from 1940-42. The Vichy officials who governed the “free zone” in the south complied with every repressive policy issued from Berlin, including the round-up and deportation of French Jews. There is simply nothing comparable in the pre-war records of the Hollywood studios. Urwand nonetheless backdates the term to make collaboration itself seem criminal and shapes the evidence to support his verdict that “Hollywood” was a Collaborator with the Nazis.  It’s not Urwand’s facts that are the problem. Many are fresh and striking. It’s the conclusions he forces.

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In the early 1930s, executives at MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Fox, RKO, Columbia, Universal, and United Artists had undoubtedly acquired some knowledge from news reports and their own trade representatives of the rising menace of Nazism to European peace and to the security of European Jews. So, of course, had the United States government. The studios were buffeted by the Depression and keen to retain their distribution deals in Germany. Hoover, then Roosevelt had to confront widespread and influential isolationist agitation in Congress, the press, and the pulpit. Consequently, neither Hollywood nor Washington took a stand against the Nazi ideology of militarism and racial hatred or its brutal implementation against the German Jews until war broke out in Europe in 1939. 

Staggered by the decline in their audiences and beset by economic uncertainty, in 1930 the motion picture companies were stunned to learn the extent to which the Nazis would go to suppress any motion picture deemed anti-German when a contingent of party members under the personal leadership of Joseph Goebbels, chief of Nazi propaganda, rioted at the Berlin opening in November of Universal Pictures’ widely respected anti-war film, All Quiet on the Western Front. Both Doherty and Urwand provide detailed accounts of the riots and the subsequent banning of the film one week later. Both describe Universal’s shocked reaction, which included a 1000 word protest of the decision written in German and published in German newspapers by Carl Laemmle, head and owner of Universal. The protest had no effect. Laemmle responded to increasing pressure from conservative states in Germany by making cuts in August 1931. Consequently, in November of that year, well before the Nazis came to power, All Quiet was doing excellent business in Germany. The episode may have established a pattern for subsequent censors, but it involved no collaboration with Hitler and does nothing to diminish Laemmle's stalwart anti-nazism. Indeed, as Urwand notes, in early 1932 — well before the Reichstag election in March 1933 that gave the Nazis control of the government, Laemmle was sounding the alarm about Hitler's "rise to power" in a letter to William Randolph Hearst. Hearst did not reply.

German policy on suitable content in foreign motion pictures was formalized by Article 15 of the quota law promulgated in the summer of 1932:

The allocation of permits may be refused for films, the producers of which, in spite of warnings issued by the competent German authorities, continue to distribute on the world market films, the tendency or effect of which is detrimental to German prestige.

Although not a “pact,” as Urwand’s title implies, Article 15 was a rule that required cooperation, much like “Application X. National Feelings” in the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 — a parallel that Urwand does not mention. The Code had been adopted by the industry to “govern the production of talking pictures” and was administered by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) under the leadership of Will Hays. Application X stipulated that “the history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.”

Like the Production Code’s more notorious applications regarding sex, the use of firearms, vulgarity and even obscenity, the mildly worded Application X was laxly enforced until agitation by the Catholic Church in 1933 convinced the studios to displace Will Hays by hiring the tough-minded Joseph Breen as chief censor to run the new, more professionalized Production Code Administration (PCA), which would be established in early 1934. Perhaps earlier enforcement of Application X by the Hays Office could have preempted Nazi interference, although “fairness” was likely to have been spun somewhat differently in Germany, where the Foreign Office was acutely sensitive to the power of images to shape beliefs, than in Hollywood, where official doctrine denied that motion pictures had any other purpose than harmless entertainment. On the other hand, the prior existence of Application X may have disposed the MPPDA to readily accept the German statute in 1932, which, one could persuade oneself, was pretty much the same thing. The crucial difference, of course, was that Article 15 was issued by the state, not a committee of movie executives and representatives of the Catholic Church, and it gave the “competent German authorities” the power to ban a film from entering Germany — a power that neither the MPPDA or the PCA would ever have because no one in Hollywood wanted any religious, government, or business agency to have it. The point of the code was to institute a framework for collaboration in the dictionary sense of the term so that the state would not intervene. Hitler did not play by the same rules.

The chances for such intervention, few in 1930, became increasingly likely for American motion picture companies in 1933 after the passage of the National Industrial Relations Act (NIRA), which authorized the promulgation of industrial codes of fair competition.  In 1934 the National Recovery Administration (NRA) scheduled hearings into the film industry focused on business practices, which in the case of the cartelized MPPDA meant anti-competitive practices. Such hearings were regarded as doubly dangerous: the same populist fervor that opposed the combination of Jewish-owned companies to restrain competition under the Sherman Antitrust Act also fueled suspicion of the Hollywood Jews who were under assault for promoting lust and promiscuity on the screen. By establishing the PCA with the aggressive Breen at the top to enforce a revised Production Code, the industry demonstrated a willingness to collaborate with the New Deal code writers and averted intervention by either the NRA or, for a time, the antitrust attorneys in the Justice Department.  

The New Deal’s set of alphabet agencies was not the only Washington stronghold from which reformers attempted to mount attacks on Hollywood, however. In 1933 Congressman William Irving Sirovich called for an investigation of the “financial, operative, and business irregularities and illegal actions by interests inside and outside the motion and sonant pictures industry.”  Although almost comically inept, the ballyhooed investigation of the movie industry by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 did forcefully prove that the Jewish moguls had considerably more to fear from rancorous congressional committees than did executives at U.S. Steel or Dupont. In a nation where even in 1940 only 56% of the population believed that the Nazis’ attempt to drive the Jews out of Germany was a bad idea and 79% opposed going to war, efforts to avoid triggering the anti-Semitic link between antitrust activity and censorship were a matter of survival; not only for the Jewish Louis B. Mayer and the gentile Darryl F. Zanuck personally but for the companies that both studio heads were obliged to preserve.  Constrained by his Germanic perspective, Urwand shows little interest in the coordination between Hollywood’s production and Washington’s regulatory activities, or in the connection between antitrust and censorship politics. He discounts fears of domestic anti-Semitism as a motive for the studios’ reluctance to represent Jewish victims of Nazi terror, even though he admits what every scholar of the period knows: anti-Semitism was a force in 1932 and one that grew stronger through the 1930s, despite the studios’ caution, or cowardice, if you will. Doherty tells that story with considerable insight and tact. 

The industry’s collaborative approach to the agencies of the New Deal effectively restrained Justice Department lawyers in 1934, but back in 1932 there had been nothing the Hays Office could do to appease the German Foreign Office when it denied United Artists, the distributor, an import permit for Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes’ spectacular World War I aerial epic. As Urwand reports, the rejection was based on the objections of the German director E.A. Dupont that “every German is the caricature of a military type” and that the spoken German “is a mixture of broken German and English.” A few months later, according to Urwand, United Artists’ foreign manager, Arthur Kelly, nonchalantly told an interviewer in Berlin that United Artists pictures were “too attached to the American mentality to do worthwhile business in Germany.” And then with a characteristic insinuation of bad faith, Urwand adds, “If he really meant that, he changed his mind very quickly, for the following year he submitted a whole series of films to German censors. Almost all were rejected instantly.” Even if Kelly did change his mind, the sexually suggestive films that Urwand lists in his notes as banned UA product — The Affairs of Cellini, Moulin Rouge, Roman Scandals, and Nana, along with the politically and sexually perverse Scarface — were, on the face of it, such preposterous candidates for approval that Kelly’s gesture looks more like an act of defiance than an attempt at “Collaboration.” At any rate, the action effectively ended United Artists dealings with the Nazis in 1934.

In the summer of 1933, as part of the consolidation of the Nazi cultural agenda under Goebbels, Georg Gyssling was appointed German consul to Los Angeles. Gyssling brought a new, steely imperiousness to the relationship between Berlin and Hollywood. He first flexed his whip after reviewing Captured, a prisoner of war film that Warner Bros. produced. According to Urwand, Gyssling insisted on numerous cuts. Warner Bros. agreed to make them but then released the movie in the US with many of the specified scenes untouched. A furious Gyssling threatened not to allocate a permit to distribute the film. Despite an agreement reached between Warner Bros. and his superior to make a few more cuts, Gyssling made good on his threat by convincing Berlin to block the exhibition of Captured and, for good measure, 42nd Street. Frustrated by the rejection of its motion pictures and the harassment of its Jewish personnel, Warner Bros. completely closed its dormant operations in Germany in the summer of 1934. 

As is typical of his prosecutorial mode, Urwand concludes his account of this episode by observing that the remaining motion picture companies “did not make the same mistake as Warner Brothers” and henceforth submissively arranged previews for Gyssling. Gyssling’s role in the suppression of Captured is a well-known fact; that Warner Bros. left Germany is a well-known fact; that the studios perceived Warner Bros.’ response to the Nazis as a “mistake” is Urwand’s singular interpretation. Intent on bolstering his Collaboration thesis, Urwand does not entertain the notion that Warner Bros. might have been deliberately pursuing a Fabian strategy of resistance to the demands of the German consul. Instead, he chooses to invent a moment of consensus among the other studios that Warner Bros. made a bad decision, and even insinuates that Warner Bros. regarded it as one.

Universal, Columbia, RKO, and Warner Bros. had departed Germany by mid-1934 and left the market, to the more compliant Fox, Paramount, and MGM. Those residual studios are what Urwand subsequently signifies as “Hollywood.” He shrinks the collective noun to match the scope of his archive, which affords him the pretext to ignore what else was going on in the states until 1939 and, most importantly, to enable him to answer more readily the central question that he poses for himself: “Why did these powerful executives … choose to do business with the most anti-Semitic regime in history?”

Don’t expect a smoking gun. Or even a loaded pistol. Urwand’s answer is “greed.” He rejects any other. For example, in his detailed account of the failed attempts in 1933-34 by Sam Jaffe and, later, Al Rosen to produce The Mad Dog of Europe, an anti-Nazi movie that included a scene in which a Jewish professor’s son is murdered and branded with swastikas, Urwand dismisses the fact that the Anti-Defamation League organized resistance to the film’s production as part of its policy of discouraging films that might abet the “dramatic rise” of anti-Semitism in the U.S. Despite admitting that anti-Semitism was on the rise in the early 1930s, despite the studios’ acquiescence to the policy of one of the major national Jewish organizations, despite the fact that almost everyone who reviewed the script thought it would make a lousy picture, and despite the fact that the Jewish moguls were under focused assault as corrupt businessmen with sinister agendas, Urwand refuses to accept what he sarcastically calls the “perfect justification” offered by Anti-Defamation League for shutting down The Mad Dog of Europe as any justification at all. One might have concluded that although the Anti-Defamation League’s objections may not have been the cause of the studio changing its mind about The Mad Dog of Europe, they provided a good reason to do so. Whatever mercenary motives the studio heads reserved for their private conversations, they were, in fact, collaborating with the Anti-Defamation League as much as they were collaborating with the German censors — unless, as Urwand continually implies, collaboration can only be rendered as culpably self-interested behavior. 

The question of the representation of Jews receives ham-handed treatment by Urwand, who blames the steep decline in references to or images of Jews in Hollywood motion pictures after 1933 on Hollywood’s eagerness to appease the German government. The restriction of the context to Germany once again narrows our perspective on this matter, for, as Doherty observes, the sudden absence of Jews from motion pictures from 1933-34 (with the obvious exceptions of Jewish entertainers such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson) coincided with the wholesale decline of representations of ethnics in feature films, as such markers were almost invariably stereotypes. With the limited exception of Warner Bros., studio product in the 1930s was not distinguished by its naturalism. The removal of ethnic stereotypes that might be considered offensive to Semites and anti-Semites or the Italians or the Irish alike meant the near elimination of ethnic references or images altogether. The point that Urwand misses and that Doherty continually keeps before him is that the executives were not invested in sorting out the varying pressures from governments, censorship boards, and audiences that were rural or urban, Catholic or Protestant. They hired people to do it for them. And it was easier for everyone concerned to proscribe all ethnic stereotypes (or in the case of Disney, barnyard stereotypes) than to risk offending any constituent minority of their audience.

When that proscription was ignored as it was in the famous instance of Fox’s House of Rothschild, a prestige presentation of the origins and growth of the Jewish banking empire starring the prestige gentile actor George Arliss, it had strange, unforeseen consequences. Urwand gives an excellent account of the dispute between Darryl F. Zanuck, studio head at Fox, and the Anti-Defamation League over the representation of Amschel Rothschild (conspicuously called “Mayer” by his wife), a “Money Changer and Dealer in Coins” and the paterfamilias of the Rothschild family. He is introduced in a skull cap with dangling forelocks and portrayed as a scheming, grasping, suspicious, conspiratorial, double-dealing, coin-biting usurer. That characterization sounds like an anti-Semitic stereotype as I write, and it looked like an anti-Semitic stereotype when I recently viewed the movie for the first time. In 1934, the Anti-Defamation League adopted that point of view and lobbied heavily against the production of the film, which was, nevertheless, released to excellent reviews and good box office reception. The reviewers noticed the stereotypes but generally treated them as mere stereotypes, not anti-Semitic slander. Doherty is of the same mind. In his discussion of a quartet of motion pictures, one produced in Hollywood, two British, and one Yiddish, he mentions the vetting of the “Pro-Jewish” House of Rothschild to Jewish groups by Zanuck but does not make nearly as much of the potentially anti-Semitic elements as Urwand does or as the Anti-Defamation League did. 

Urwand, however, adheres to his mono-causal narrative and concludes that “more than any other single factor, The House of Rothschild was responsible for” what Ben Hecht would later hyperbolically call “the almost complete disappearance of the Jew from American fiction, stage, radio, and movies.” It is likelier that there was no single factor. That’s certainly the point of view of Doherty, who attributes the sudden disappearance of the Jew to the convergence of studio interests in retaining the German market and to the increased enforcement of the Production Code, which resulted in a drastic decline in ethnic stereotyping across the board. To side with Doherty on this matter is not to discredit Urwand’s more thorough and persuasive reading of the film, only to suggest that the existence of multiple readings indicates that the instability of Jewish stereotypes in the mid-1930s was real and sufficiently politically charged that the studios had good reason to take the easy way out.

For Urwand, the easy way out for the studios is necessarily the Collaborator’s preferred path. He proffers this secret rationale for the moguls’ Collaboration with the Germans to keep Mad Dog and other anti-Nazi scripts off the screen: “Privately, the studio heads had admitted that they were not making these movies because they wanted to preserve their business interests in Germany.” That private conversation goes undocumented, unless it is the same one that Urwand subsequently quotes, as his footnote indicates, from the 1947 judgment rendered by Judge Learned Hand, chief of the Second Circuit, in Rosen v. Loew’s, Inc. Rosen sued Loew’s, the company that owned MGM and employed Louis B. Mayer, on the grounds that the studio plagiarized the still unmade Mad Dog of Europe in the script of The Mortal Storm, MGM’s first anti-Nazi movie, which appeared in 1940 to considerable acclaim. Rosen, the plaintiff and rights-holder, testified that when, during a private meeting, he asked Mayer why he had worked to suppress the film, the executive answered “because we have interests in Germany; I represent the picture industry here in Hollywood; we have exchanges there; we have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made.”  

It’s worth consulting Hand’s full opinion. In the course of dismissing Rosen’s suit as “without a shadow of merit” (which echoes the verdicts of those who had read Rosen’s screenplay), Judge Hand does not dispute the accuracy of Rosen’s account. He comments simply, “It was natural — whether or not it was commendable — for the defendant [Loew’s, Inc.], because of its German business, not to wish to use the scenario in 1933.” Rosen notwithstanding, Hand, writing in 1947 and in possession of far more knowledge about the Nazis and the Holocaust than Mayer could possibly have acquired in 1934, seems to me to capture the equipoise to which commentators ought to aspire — natural, not commendable. And natural because Mayer was first and foremost a businessman, not because he was born a Jew and therefore owed something (what thing?) to the Jews. If he were not foremost a businessman, how could he possibly have earned the highest income in America, successfully managed the only studio to show a profit every year through the Depression, and been acknowledged by everyone except the Warner brothers as the leader of one of the nation’s most important industries? All of that success, which is commendable, followed from a nature brutally and amorally focused on increasing the profitability of the studio — amoral, not necessarily immoral. Mayer followed the rules that he and his fellow businessmen had approved. In hindsight no doubt he, like Urwand, might have performed differently. We’ll never know. What we do know is that by 1933, the uncertainty of the economic depression had produced answerable dictatorships that were both feared as menaces to the peace and admired as strong correctives to the demoralization that had paralyzed governments and citizens in Japan, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Italy.  

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Among the motion pictures that Urwand adduces, the one that gets us closest to the look and feel of the peculiar web of collaborations that reconfigured the practice of the motion picture companies in the 1930s, is the political fable Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Produced by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Studios and distributed by MGM, Gabriel is the story of a feckless and corrupt presidential candidate who, after his inauguration, is transformed by a combination of accident and divine intervention into a commanding leader. He fires his cabinet, announces to Congress that he is assuming dictatorial powers, recruits the “Army of the Unemployed” into government service, threatens the world’s nations with a display of military power that convinces them to make good on their war debt, and goes to war with the bootlegging Italian immigrant gang boss, who, when defeated, is neatly exterminated along with his henchmen after a mock trial conducted by the president’s hand-picked military tribunal. Having signed the treaty resolving war debts with the quill pen that Lincoln used on the Emancipation Proclamation, the president soon expires. 

After his lengthy account of this remarkable film, Urwand comes to the conclusion that has been reached by critics past and present: Gabriel Over the White House is the best example of a fascist Hollywood motion picture during the Depression era. He also introduces fascinating documents that prove Hitler reveled in the movie when it premiered in Germany in 1934, and that Goebbels’s designated film reviewer was attuned to the propaganda potential in the parallels between Hammond and Hitler. But for Urwand to say that, “As the Nazis and MGM agreed, each of the film’s main reforms — ending the unemployment, solving the gangster problem, and bringing about world peace — ultimately served to validate the supremacy of Adolf Hitler” is preposterous, unless “ultimately” can be seen as justifying the transformation of a wayward effect into a substantive cause. Each of Gabriel’s “reforms” could be found adumbrated in a Hearst editorial prior to Hitler’s accession to power. The “Army of the Unemployed” had nothing to do with Nazi plans to conscript workers. It was meant to evoke both the recent activities of the Bonus Army that had marched on Washington in the spring of 1932 and FDR’s echoing invocation of “the forgotten man at the base of the economic pyramid” and the “infantry of our forgotten army” on the campaign trail in April of that year. Gabriel Over the White House was the product of a complex of collaborators who were operating in the power vacuum at MGM and during a transfer of power in Washington: William Randolph Hearst, who personally edited the screenplay and produced the film; Louis B. Mayer, who insisted on changes before MGM would agree to distribute it; Will Hayes, who contributed the quasi-supernatural frame; and, most conspicuously, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Elect, who reviewed the script with his press spokesman and wrote a laudatory note to Mayer. 

All of Hollywood went into the making of Gabriel Over the White House, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. But it wasn’t just Hollywood that was primed to imagine radically undemocratic measures.  As Ira Katznelson has documented in Fear Itself, his compelling, revisionist history of the New Deal, influential, otherwise left-leaning and liberal-minded commentators such as Stuart Chase, writing in The New Republic during the interregnum, advocated a third road, a temporary dictatorship that would avoid the extremes of fascism on one side and a business dictatorship on the other. Walter Lippmann, whose syndicated column in The New York Herald Tribune was called “the one truly national voice that had emerged since the war,” wrote a series of columns in January and February of 1933 urging Roosevelt to apply “strong medicine” to the emergency facing the country. Roosevelt, he advised, should prepare to seize temporary dictatorial powers that would enable the nation to put its house in order, and to compete with the fascist leaders who could persuasively claim to have seized the reins of history and were preparing to advance. The plot, the rhetoric, and the imagery of Gabriel owed more to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and use of military tribunals to prosecute civilians than it did to Hitler’s confrontations with the various competing parties in the Reichstag. Indeed, the near perfect synchrony between the opening of the movie on March 31, 1933 and Hitler’s own dictatorial takeover the week before may make a prima facie case for the uncanny operation of the zeitgeist, but it wrecks any attempt to impute a causal relation one way or the other. 

It is no surprise that when Gabriel opened in Berlin a year later, the Nazis were eager to exploit it. But perhaps it is more to the point that there was no follow-up fascist cycle in the wake of Gabriel. (The movie made money. Why not turn out another one? Say, Raphael Over Hollywood?) The other movies that Urwand assesses in light of the records of the Fuhrer’s enthusiastic response, Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Paramount, 1935) and Our Daily Bread (King King W. Vidor Productions; distributed by Paramount, 1934), are even weaker examples of collaborative intent. The former is a British imperial fantasy produced as a star vehicle for Gary Cooper that Hitler may have loved, but whose advocacy of childlike fidelity to a leader aspires to drench the viewer in Kiplingesque sentimentality, not to stoke Hitlerian ruthlessness. Its embrace of authoritarian paternalism is hardly surprising in an industry attracted to the effectiveness and versatility of organizations overseen by strong leaders and notoriously partial to nepotism as a path to promotion. Our Daily Bread was an outlier, a film produced and directed by the quirkily independent King Vidor in which a cooperative farm is organized more like a film crew, one with a visionary director at the top, than an army with a fanatical dictator. It flaunts a style that mixes Soviet montage with German expressionist mise en scène, collectivism with bossism, and is as blissfully ignorant of political economy as Vidor himself. Charismatic authoritarian personalities have found their zealous, self-sacrificing places in the British army, American corporations, and Hollywood motion pictures well before Hitler and have persisted long afterward.

Vidor was not a collaborator in any sense of the word. Nor was William Randolph Hearst when he was in his element, which was thumping his drum on the editorial page of his newspapers.  When plugging MGM pictures in his papers, when producing and promoting Marion Davies pictures for Cosmopolitan, when drafting a script for Gabriel Over the White House, when dealing with Mayer and Hays, and when addressing the real White House, however, Hearst was, despite his wealth and power, enmeshed in the shifting nexus of studios, theaters, promoters, the MPPDA, the PCA, the press, the Legion of Decency, the HANL, the Anti-Defamation League, The March of Time, the Bank of America, the NRA, and the White House itself that constellated Hollywood in the 1930s.

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The negotiations, demands, and private conversations that Urwand has retrieved from the German archives are fascinating. Would their inclusion have strengthened Doherty’s book? Of course. Would it have fundamentally changed its bearings and altered its judgments? I think not. Their addition would have been a matter of folding this material into the larger context to show how, for example, at this time, the same moral insensitivity that always characterized the sanctimonious Mayer, who was constantly fighting to maintain the preeminence of MGM, cast a much larger shadow than it did in 1929. As Judge Hand observed from his bench in 1947, the behavior that was natural to a cautious and blinkered businessman was not commendable when it involved brushing off evangelical mavericks for fear of offending a criminal regime that was shockingly brutal to its Jewish population and a plausible threat to European peace. The Nazi regime was everything that a Jewish motion picture executive — that any motion picture executive — might be expected to hate. And no reader of Doherty or Urwand is likely to be inclined to hand out commendations to Louis B. Mayer or Darryl F. Zanuck for courage or moral perspicacity. Nevertheless, Nazi Germany was not yet a declared enemy of the nation to which Mayer owed an allegiance greater than that he owed to his company. Only Warner Bros., family owned and managed, always ready to take the financial risks from which MGM timorously withdrew, had the kind of convictions that prompted their courage, and, as Doherty documents, exercised it by taking a highly public stand against the Nazi regime before Joseph Kennedy or even FDR. Urwand should have recognized that all studios were not driven by the single motive of greed. He should have commended Warner Bros., Universal, and UA for the risks they did take and acknowledged that Hollywood was no monolith, standing as a single moral or immoral agent in all places and weathers.

Doherty is right that for Urwand to read back from 1940 in order to stigmatize an entire industry according to the morally suspect behavior of a few studios, who understood themselves to be aligned with the foreign policy of the U.S. government and a major Jewish organization, is to exceed the mark that Urwand’s research warrants. No single organization in the political stew of the early 1930s was especially percipient, none uncompromised on the right or on the left. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy, the Hollywood organization that in both Doherty’s and Urwand’s accounts prodded the studios to take action, was the most compromised of all. It became shamefully obvious when, as Doherty writes,

on December 15, 1939 [when the Nazi-Soviet Mutual Non-Aggression Pact was signed] the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League dropped the ‘anti-Nazi’ from its masthead, officially changed its name to the Hollywood League for Democratic Action” and embraced a policy advocating “isolationist paralysis.

At a stroke of Stalin’s pen, the organization’s democratic ideals evaporated. Not even a collaborator with the Kremlin, the former scourge of the monstrous Hitler and the pusillanimous studios revealed that it had no agency at all except that which was doled out by the Communist Party, itself slavishly answerable to any policy shift that Stalin dictated. Ben Hecht, the leading screenwriter in Hollywood, earned his position as Urwand’s principled hero by his bold willingness to carry the standard for the Jews as a people, as citizens, and as victims in a remarkable campaign against the Nazi’s mounting anti-Semitic violence. But even he didn’t make “his first contribution to the Jewish cause” until June 1939, only months before the outbreak of the war in Europe, an event that prompted even MGM to begin production on an anti-Nazi movie, The Mortal Storm

For the Hollywood studios, collaboration occurred at the blurry boundary between piratical competition and conspiratorial collusion. The studios drew that line for themselves in the eyes of the public and the Justice Department by establishing a structure of self-regulation through the MPPDA with its codes and quasi-autonomous overseers. That regulatory structure, however ill-enforced until the creation of the PCA, fortuitously anticipated the New Deal’s remarkably similar but much shorter-lived National Recovery Administration, which, under Hugh Johnson, one of many admirers of Mussolini’s corporate state, encouraged voluntary collaboration between business and government. After FDR’s initiative, “collaboration” became an international buzzword, a hopeful indicator that there would be a practical, if not exactly programmatic liberal mode of adjustment to the deep economic and political uncertainty that bred what FDR called “fear itself.” But as the fascist intellectual, Giuseppe Botttai, writing in Foreign Affairs in 1935, politely suggested, any notions that government persuasion and business collaboration were likely to be efficacious were illusory. For Bottai, collaboration to repair a discredited liberal democracy could only be a mild propaedeutic to Il Duce’s stronger medicine to make it new: 

For over two years the people of the United States have been collaborating with President Roosevelt in his effort to solve American economic and social difficulties. They are aware that the President is concerned not with immediate economic reconstruction only, but with lasting social and economic reform as well. This is why I believe American people are in a particularly favorable position to understand the efforts of Premier Mussolini to solve urgent economic problems in Italy and to establish at the same time a new and improved social and economic system. 

Bottai’s views were not far-fetched. Hitler frightened just about everyone, but Mussolini was a star. Henry Luce’s Time Magazine had displayed Il Duce on its cover five times, and in July of 1934 Fortune devoted a lavish full color spread to an appreciation of fascist Italy. As Doherty reports, it was not until 1935 with the inauguration of The March of Time under the leadership of Louis de Rochemont, that the Luce empire got tough with Mussolini and Hitler, shaming the Nazi propaganda footage passed off as newsreels by Paramount and Fox. 

There weren’t many heroes abroad in New York, Washington, or Hollywood during those years prior to the horror of Kristallnacht in 1938. And nothing much worked out the way that anyone would have wished. As Ira Katznelson writes, the success and the tragedy of the New Deal were mutually implicated: moving the nation forward from a radical uncertainty about an unmapped future (both uncertainty about any possible means to succeed and uncertainty about what success could possibly mean) depended on compromises with repressive foreign dictators and southern racist congressmen and required shifting the register of expectation from the progressive ideal to the adaptational real, from the objective of social justice for all Americans — black and white,  Jews and Baptists, men and women — to the attainment of sufficient security to make the world once more predictable and invite the risk-taking on which the survival of capitalism depended.  As Katznelson distinguishes fearful, near paralyzing uncertainty about a future that bears no recognizable connection to the past from a society where probability rules and risk is calculable, so we can discriminate “greeds” as Peter Drucker once did: managerial ambition motivated by the all-consuming drive to increase profit versus the managerial aspiration to attain a profitability that will ensure the survival of the company. The greed of the moguls who stayed on in Germany past the point of moral decency was driven by the latter instinct. As Urwand attests, profits in the interwar period were unimpressive, and the studios could not expect more as the Depression persisted. But in the face of the radical uncertainty about political alliances and global markets, it was realistic to believe that every step taken to keep a market open represented a responsible policy of ensuring as much as possible that basis for future profitability without which survival would be dubious.  

In the eclipse of any grand narrative of progress, the studios’ compromises with the Catholic Church, the New Deal and the Third Reich, were all made on the basis of ensuring the survival of the companies and the industry, not increasing their revenue. Were these compromises necessary? Some probably were; some certainly were not. But like the New Deal’s compromises with Southern racists, they seemed exigent under conditions where there was no good reason to gamble because the rules of probability by which politics and business had been conducted appeared to have been suspended. Profits could be sacrificed. But profitability could not without endangering the survival of the company. No studio understood that better than MGM. No company, except Fox and Paramount, sacrificed more integrity in order to ensure its survival.  Unnecessarily, as it turned out. The mutually implicating systems of regulation and collaboration fabricated by the projectors of the New Deal did not end the Depression. The compromises and collaborations executed by the morally obtuse executives at MGM, Paramount, and Fox did not protect their international markets. Fortunately, the President survived to lead the nation into a necessary war. Fortunately, the studios collaborated fully to help him win it.  

¤

 Jerome Christensen is a Professor of English at the University of California Irvine.

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