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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 61-89
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Hollywood, Nazism, and the Jews, 1933-41*
The greatest single Jewish phenomenon in our country in the last twenty years has been the almost complete disappearance of the Jew from American fiction, stage, radio and movies.
screenwriter and novelist Ben Hecht, 1944 1
Historians who have studied the image of Jews in American film generally have perceived the decade leading up to World War II as one of cowardice and avarice in the American film industry. Lester Friedman, for example, has labeled the 1930s the "timid thirties...a lost decade" when the Jewish men who ran most of the Hollywood studios "placed their pocketbooks above their principles or even their personal convictions" and chose not to make films about the increasingly dire situation of European Jewry. 2 Neal Gabler, in his history of those same Jewish studio executives, emphasizes their political conservatism and their assimilationist drive, arguing as well that their fear of losing overseas markets for their product was the primary reason that they failed to make strongly anti-Nazi films. 3 As Stephen J. Whitfield puts it, "[a]t the very moment in Western history when an entire minority people was being designated for destruction, was being singled out as a fantastically powerful incarnation of evil, Jews were disappearing from the screen, [End Page 61] their vulnerability unnoticed, their victimization unrecognized, their pain and grief unassuaged." 4
This essay will examine the assertion that the films of the 1930s were "Judenrein," as entertainment lawyer and Jewish communal leader Martin Gang put it, as well as the notion that it was the timidity of Jewish producers that led to Hollywood's apparent failure to confront Nazism on-screen. 5 Two main themes guide the essay. First, while the Hollywood moguls certainly were timid, a host of other pressures acted upon the industry and mitigated against the production of explicitly anti-Nazi films in the 1930s--most importantly, pressure from American Jewish organizations who did not want to see either overt condemnations of Nazism or overt defenses of Jewry on American film screens. Second, some filmmakers managed to work within the limitations imposed by the various pressures on the industry and produced several films with subtextual anti-Nazi messages that Jewish organizations and both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences welcomed. Three coded anti-Nazi films in particular attracted a great deal of Jewish attention: Darryl Zanuck's The House of Rothschild (1934) and two Warner Bros. films, The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and the short film Sons of Liberty (1939). Although these films have either been dismissed or ignored by recent historians, the role that Jewish organizations played in their production and the reception they met with in the Jewish and mainstream press suggest that these films be considered squarely within the canon of anti-Nazi films.
Understanding the relationship between the American Jewish community and the film industry in the 1930s offers a new perspective on the American Jewish response to Nazism. Such an approach reveals the extreme caution which characterized and constrained the efforts of the Jewish organizations closest to the film industry. Fears of exacerbating [End Page 62] American antisemitism and of lending credence to the claim that Jews were warmongers led several Jewish organizations to try to police the public image of Jews by attempting to exert control over cinematic representations of Jews and Jewish issues.
Jewish Organizations, Antisemitism, and the Film Industry
The American Jewish organizational response to Nazism was conditioned by Jewish leaders' fear of rising American antisemitism--the fear that America would "go antisemite." 6 Leonard Dinnerstein has concluded that after 1933, the United States experienced "an explosion of unprecedented antisemitic fervor": Jews were blamed for the worldwide economic crisis and were accused of exercising undue influence in the Roosevelt administration, employment and housing discrimination against Jews were commonplace, quotas limited the number of Jews who could attend many colleges and universities, and demagogues like William Dudley Pelley and Father Charles Coughlin denounced Jews before increasingly large audiences of disaffected Americans seeking scapegoats for...