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American Jewish History 89.3 (2001) 310-313
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Michael E. Birdwell's Celluloid Soldiers is a welcome addition to the literature on both American Jewish responses to Nazism and the history of Jews in the motion picture industry. It addresses one of the most upsetting intersections of these two historical narratives—the apparent unwillingness of the Jewish men who ran most of the Hollywood studios in the 1930s to use the screen for anti-Nazi protest—by discussing the anomalous situation of Warner Bros., which produced several anti-Nazi and antifascist films in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Many factors can explain the industry's general unwillingness to make anti-Nazi films before America's entry into the war. The Production Code, which regulated film content, prohibited "unfair" depictions of any nation, its leaders, or its citizens, and even factual anti-Nazi stories [End Page 310] were subject to the industry's fear of jeopardizing the market for American films in Europe. Most American studios continued operating in Germany until the late 1930s, tailoring their films to avoid antagonizing the Nazi leadership. Anti-Nazi films could potentially antagonize American audiences as well: augmenting the small number of Nazi sympathizers around the country were the large numbers of Americans with isolationist tendencies (83 percent in March 1939, 88 percent in January 1941), people whom producers feared would reject films which seemed to be drawing America into the deteriorating European situation. In addition, with antisemitism on the rise worldwide, studio executives, with advice from a handful of prominent Jewish leaders, carefully avoided films which seemed to bolster the claim that "the Jews" controlled Hollywood and were using films as a vehicle for Jewish propaganda.
Yet, as Birdwell demonstrates, Harry and Jack Warner boldly and repeatedly broke with their fellow moguls' reluctance to produce anti-Nazi films. Their desire to do this came from a passionate antifascism that the brothers shared with many of the directors, producers, writers, and actors under contract to the studio (especially a large number of German émigrés). And their ability to do it arose from the studio's decision to halt all business with Nazi Germany in April 1933. (The much-circulated story that they did so after a Warner Bros. employee in Germany was murdered by the Nazis is probably apocryphal.)
Having already built a reputation for making films dealing with contemporary social problems, Warner Bros. continued this trend with films exposing fascist and pro-Nazi groups in the United States (Black Legion  and Confessions of a Nazi Spy ); condemning bigotry and government-sponsored discrimination (They Won't Forget , based on the Leo Frank lynching, and The Life of Emile Zola , about the Dreyfus Affair); and critiquing totalitarianism (Juarez ). In addition, the studio produced several patriotic films that focused on episodes from American history (the Old Glory series of shorts, including Sons of Liberty , about Revolutionary War-era financier Haym Salomon), and tales of wartime heroism (Sergeant York ). In fact, Sergeant York, the true story of the conversion of Tennessee mountainman Alvin C. York from pacifist to World War I hero, occupies almost half of the book—which is not surprising, given that Birdwell is now the curator of York's papers. Through examining the production histories of each of these films and, less so, their reception, Birdwell argues convincingly that Warner Bros. used these and other films to critique fascism, racism, and antisemitism and to promote "Americanism." [End Page 311]
Birdwell's focus on Harry Warner's role in this story is particularly welcome. If Warner Bros. was anomalous among the Hollywood studios, Harry Warner was anomalous among his fellow Jewish moguls. Long overshadowed by his flamboyant brother Jack, Harry was a moralist who believed in the educational power of the screen. He was also a relatively observant Jew who never divorced his first, Jewish wife—although Birdwell's description of him as "a devout Jew"...