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Tarnishing Tinseltown: Hollywood’s Responses to Nazi Germany

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 7, Number 2, July 2014
pp. 59-78 | 10.1353/jji.2014.0018

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Not since the publication of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners has a scholarly monograph generated so much controversy within and outside of academia as Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration. He indignantly indicts Hollywood for colluding with Nazi Germany’s censorship demands to purge Jewish characters and anti-Nazi themes from American movies during the 1930s. Urwand’s sweeping condemnation of Hollywood’s complicity contrasts sharply with Thomas Doherty’s more balanced assessment of how the American film industry responded to Hitler’s incremental escalation of anti-Semitic, expansionist, and repressive policies before the outbreak of World War II.

The initial trigger for the debate over the conflicting interpretations proffered by the two authors was the publicity campaign for The Collaboration. Harvard University Press hired Goldberg McDuffie Communications to promote Urwand’s book, scheduled for release in October 2013, seven months after Doherty’s hit the shelves in April. In what appears to have been an attempt to counteract the positive reviews Hollywood and Hitler had begun to receive, the marketing firm provided advance copies of The Collaboration to prospective reviewers in June. The cover letter accompanying the review copies denigrated the depth of Doherty’s research and touted that of Urwand’s: “Whereas Doherty relied on flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers, Urwand discovered a vast array of primary resource materials.”1 While Urwand does not specifically mention Hollywood and Hitler (which he presumably had not read when he was writing The Collaboration) in the text of his book, he curtly dismisses it in a footnote as “a lively account, but one that is limited to reports that appeared in American trade papers.” (256) To be sure, Urwand delved into the German archives to unearth reports about the hectoring of the film industry by Georg Gyssling, Nazi Germany’s consul in Los Angeles, but Doherty also draws on a “rich repository of archival sources” beyond the trade press, including the files of the Production Code Administration (PCA), the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and memos from federal officials. (375)

Both books reveal how the major studios avoided direct criticism of Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies, abandoned or altered scripts that might antagonize Nazi Germany, and eliminated Jewish characters from their movies in the 1930s. They similarly attribute these concessions to the film industry’s commercial stakes in the German market. A main point of contention between the two scholars is whether this self-censorship constituted “collaboration,” exacted primarily by Germany’s threat to deny distribution licenses to the films of studios that did not abide by the content parameters it established, as Urwand claims, or a continuation of Hollywood’s standard practice of editing films and scripts to gain the approval of the PCA and local and state censorship boards in the United States and to placate domestic interest groups and foreign governments, as Doherty posits.

The first reviewers of Urwand’s book seized upon the incendiary charge he leveled at the movie moguls by giving their pieces sensationalist titles such as, “Hollywood’s Creepy Love Affair with Adolf Hitler,” “Scholar Asserts That Hollywood Avidly Aided Nazis,” “When Hollywood Held Hands With Hitler,” and “Hollywood’s Deal with The Devil (Hitler).”2 Yet these titles only slightly exaggerated Urwand’s censure of Hollywood’s kowtowing to Nazi demands. In the prologue to his book, he unambiguously declares, “Over the course of the investigation, one word kept reappearing in both the German and American records: ‘collaboration’ (Zusammenarbeit). And gradually it became clear that this word accurately described the particular arrangement between the Hollywood studios and the German government in the 1930s.”(8) Amplifying his thesis, he argues, “The studio heads, who were mostly immigrant Jews, went to dramatic lengths to hold on to their investment in Germany. Although few remarked on it at the time, these men followed the instructions of the German consul in Los Angeles, abandoning or changing a whole series of pictures that would have exposed the brutality of the Nazi regime.” (9) Urwand concludes his prologue by maintaining that “at the center of the collaboration was Hitler himself” because he appreciated the propagandistic influence exerted by American feature films and...



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