Should Hollywood Lie Low or Sound the Alarm? 'Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939'

by Thomas Doherty

2 May 2013


The Focus, Sharpened

The idea for a motion picture version of All Quiet on the Western Front was the brainchild of his son, Carl Laemmle Jr., known as “Junior Laemmle” around town, whom Laemmle Senior appointed as head of production for Universal in 1929 when his son was just twenty-one years old. Both Laemmles visited Germany that year to negotiate the film rights with Remarque and to reassure the wary author that the Hollywood version would remain true to the spirit of the book. On the centrality of the antiwar theme, father, son, and author were all on the same page. “The picture will bring home the useless wastefulness of war,” declared Laemmle Senior, pledging to infuse the film with “the spirit that moved so many to read the volume.”

Laemmle Jr. was even more emphatic. Having botched his first big assignment as executive producer, a film version of the hit play Broadway (1929), by meddling with the original formula, he resolved not to make the same mistake with the more valuable screen property. “It gave me the courage to okay All Quiet exactly as written, when that seemed an utterly foolhardy and iconoclastic thing to do,” he recalled in 1932. “There was no love story in All Quiet, and none was added. Its success shattered the legend that no picture can succeed without love interest. At least that’s one less picture taboo.” To the Laemmles, the project was more than a commercial investment. “If there is anything in my life I am proud of, it is this picture,” the elder Laemmle told his associates at the Universal Sales Convention in 1930. “It is, to my mind, a picture that will live forever.”

“Uncle Carl”: Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle in 1927, visiting a child with polio, the first patient convalescing in a room donated to the Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital by the employees of Universal in Laemmle’s honor. Laemmle brought along a ra

“Uncle Carl”: Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle in 1927,
visiting a child with polio, the first patient convalescing in a room
donated to the Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital by the
employees of Universal in Laemmle’s honor.
Laemmle brought along a radio set for the boy.

Genuinely shocked by the uproar in Germany, Laemmle responded from Hollywood with a 1,000-word cable published as a paid advertisement in the German newspapers. Still eloquent in his native tongue, he asserted that the film, like the book, in no way insulted Germany. “The real heart and soul of Germany has never been shown to the world in all its fineness and honor as it is shown in this picture,” Laemmle wrote. “The civilized world, outside of Germany, has seen [All Quiet on the Western Front] and accepted it as anything but anti-German. If you, the German people say it is not all I claim for it, I shall withdraw it from exhibition in Germany. I yield to no one in my love for the Fatherland. The fact that I came to America as a boy and built my future in America has never for a moment caused any cessation of my love for the land of my birth.” He expressed amazement “that a film which has done more to create friendship for Germany than any other single agency since the War, should receive an adverse reception in Berlin.”

In truth, the adverse reception was not confined to Berlin. In Vienna, the training ground for the man spearheading the movement, the Nazis incited an even more tumultuous scene when All Quiet on the Western Front premiered at the Apollo Theater. A cordon of 1,500 police surrounded the theater to beat back a mob of several thousand Nazis determined to halt the screening. Here too stink bombs—concealed in seat cushions—forced an evacuation of the house. After the air was cleared, the show went on, but outside in the streets the mob wreaked havoc, torching streetcars, smashing shop windows, and scuffling with mounted policemen.

Shaken by the civic disorder and terrified of the brownshirts, the Supreme Board of Censors in Germany reversed its original decision and banned All Quiet on the Western Front on the grounds that it was “endangering Germany’s reputation.” Besides, the Germans were reportedly “so depressed by economic adversity and so excited by Nationalistic agitation that further provocation must be avoided.”

With the cancellation of All Quiet on the Western Front, the Nazis had won victories real and symbolic—over the Weimar Republic, exposed as a paper tiger cowed by street violence; over the cultural memory of the Great War, redefined as a patriotic cause sabotaged by enemies within; and over American cinema, branded as an infection spread by Hollywood Jews. “All of this indicates that films are now in politics for good as far as Germany is concerned,” read a postmortem filed by the Foreign Department of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). (The edited version of All Quiet on the Western Front was quietly rereleased in Germany in 1931. By then, the film had served its purpose for the Nazis. In 1933, however, the Nazis took special delight in an act of cinematic suppression that was also sweet payback. The single print of All Quiet on the Western Front, still circulating in Germany three years after its historic Berlin premiere, was confiscated by party zealots in Prussia. After protests on behalf of Universal by the U.S. Embassy, the print was deported to Paris.) “The trouble over All Quiet had a tremendous effect in Germany. This of course has little to do with the nature of the film itself. It is simply that the film is the thing that precipitated a fundamental internal conflict within Germany.”

At the production site, the violence in Germany was monitored with mounting anxiety. “This adverse decision has been hailed as a great victory by the National Socialists and their supporters, and has led to a series of other demonstrations against theatrical and film productions to which they take exception,” read a confidential U.S. government report filed in Berlin and passed on to the MPPDA office in New York. In Munich, emboldened Nazis turned to another subversive import from Hollywood, King Vidor’s all-black musical Hallelujah (1929). “The National Socialists claim this is a blow at Germanic civilization,” explained the dispatch, “because it was in the English language and portrayed Negro culture.” More bad news was on the horizon. “There is no doubt that this wave of intense national prejudice, which is now going on, will continue and that any pictures, particularly foreign pictures, which offend the sensibilities of the National Socialists will be a signal for riots and demonstrations.”

In America, Hollywood cinema may have appalled Victorian matrons and bluenose clerics, but it did not incite riots by armed militias. Whether in the cathedral-like expanse of a grand motion picture palace or a cozy seat at the neighborhood Bijou, the movie theater was a privileged zone of safety and fantasy—a place to escape, to dream, to float free from the worries of the world beyond the Art Deco lobby, a world that, in the first cold winter of the Great Depression, was harder and harder to keep at bay. All the more reason to view the Nazi-instigated violence as the desecration of a sacred space.

A few in Hollywood tried to shrug off the vandalism. Hearing that Germany had banned “that splendid film, All Quiet on the Western Front, on account of it showing Germany losing the war,” the cowboy philosopher and motion picture star Will Rogers joshed that the Germans should just tack on a different ending for domestic consumption. “Well, they can show us losing it and they won’t be far wrong, and I am sure there will be no kick,” he drawled.

Unlike the good-humored Rogers, W. R. “Billy” Wilkerson, editor-publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, found nothing funny in the news from Berlin. Introducing a new word to his motion picture-wise but foreign affairs–deficient readership, he fretted over the omens. “Certainly the Nazis—as the National Socialists are called—and their leaders would not create and foster so much dissatisfaction for so puerile a reason,” he pointed out, scoffing at Nazi claims that the film had been maliciously doctored solely for German release. “The real force back of these demonstrations apparently is the revived military spirit of a large part of the German people.” Wilkerson was old enough to remember where German militarism had once led, and he feared it might lead there again. “People cannot be spurred to another war if they see on the screens of the country representations of their armies retreating, of their soldiers going hungry, becoming discouraged, losing their courage at the sight of battle or the imminence of death. Such depictions bring things too close to home.”

Wilkerson, who usually devoted his columns to studio intrigues and box office tallies, concluded his diagnosis of the German psyche with a gloomy prediction:

The military spirit of the German people, created through years of training, is only dormant, not dead. Such a spirit, with centuries of growth behind it, cannot be killed even through such a lesson as the Great War. It is comparatively easy to revive—much easier than one would imagine. But—to revive it successfully, to fan it again into flame, cannot be done if the horrors of war are to be spread before the eyes of the people so dramatically and realistically as in All Quiet.

The Nazis were well off the beat covered by the Film Daily, the Hollywood Reporter, and the rest of the motion picture trade press, but stink bombs, street violence, and death threats incited by American movies were hard to ignore. At first irregularly and glibly, and then more avidly and grimly as the brutality of the regime hit home, Nazism and its featured players garnered banner headlines and copious ink in the pages of Hollywood’s required reading. After January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor of Germany and began his reign as omnipotent führer (another word soon to enter the American vocabulary), geopolitical concerns and moral calculations vied with commercial considerations in Hollywood’s relations with Germany.

Sweeping away a long-standing and mutually profitable bilateral relationship, the Third Reich forced Hollywood to face an unwelcome set of economic, cinematic, and moral problems. As Hollywood films were banned from German screens and Hollywood employees run out of the country, studio executives had to decide whether to cut their losses or bargain with the devil. Inevitably, the behind-the-scenes negotiations with Nazism bled into more public spaces. The terrain of the Hollywood feature film, by long reputation and official billing a fantasyland for the weary masses, a leisure product devoted to “mere entertainment,” became a battleground for fierce political fights. Some Americans wanted Hollywood to indict the Nazis and sound the alarm; others counseled neutrality and aloofness. Even the newsreels, the ostensible screen journalism of the day, were uncertain about whether the Nazis were fit subjects for the news of the day or best left on the cutting-room floor so as not to upset fragile moviegoers.

The first day of the Third Reich: Hitler reviews his brownshirted Sturmabteilung (“storm troopers”) on January 30, 1933. S.A. Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm marches directly behind him.

The first day of the Third Reich: Hitler reviews his brownshirted
Sturmabteilung (“storm troopers”) on January 30, 1933.
S.A. Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm marches directly behind him.

Percolating not too far under the surface of the controversies over trade relations and film content was the issue that for the Nazis over-rode all others. During the trashing of All Quiet on the Western Front, after all, Goebbels and his henchmen had screamed “Judenfilm!” not “Amerikanfilm!” In the streets of Berlin, Jews were Hitler’s preferred victims. In Hollywood, Jews were titans of industry, respected artists, and adored stars. The disproportionately Jewish backgrounds of the executives of the studios and the workers on the payroll shaded reactions to what was never simply a business decision. The term that in the 1920s came to describe the Hollywood studio heads—moguls—had an echo that cut two ways for the strangers in the land of plenty: powerful but alien, exotic transplants not yet firmly rooted in the American soil. A decade of unparalleled prosperity, influence, and visibility for American Jews, the 1930s was also, not coincidentally, a decade of festering antisemitism. On radio, domestic demagogues snarled the medieval slurs and spat out newly coined insults: that Jews were a fifth column in league with godless Bolsheviks, that the reformist New Deal was in fact a nefarious Jew Deal, and that Hollywood was a nest of smut merchants bent on corrupting Christian America with a foul product line. Pro-Nazi outfits like the German American Bund and the Silver Shirts agitated openly for an American-style Reich. Might the virus in Germany jump to America? Should Hollywood’s Jews lie low—or stand tall and denounce their sworn enemy?

Popular histories of the American motion picture industry rhapsodize over the 1930s as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the decade that saw the well-oiled studio system firing on all cylinders, a glitzy machineworks delivering reel after reel of graceful, cheek-to-cheek musicals, sleek screwball comedies, and lavish Technicolor pageants. It is a storied epoch capped by the mother lode struck in the most glittering of all movie years, 1939: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, and on and on.

The list of greatest hits from that vintage year usually omits Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Hollywood’s first marquee posting of a four-letter word that had blackened newspaper headlines since 1933. The story of Hollywood and Nazism—the behind-the-scenes business deals and the images shown and shunned on the screen—is more apt to tarnish than polish the luster of the Golden Age mythos. Yet the motion picture industry was no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination, and often a good deal better in the exercise of both. In the nearly seven years between Hitler’s seizure of power and the outbreak of war in Europe, the meaning of Nazism came slowly to Hollywood, like a picture just out of focus—fuzzy and dimly lit at first, sharp and fully outlined only at the end.

Photo by Sandra Doherty

Photo by Sandra Doherty

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. His previous books include Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture, and Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. He lives with his wife Sandra in Salem, Massachusetts.

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