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April 3rd, 2013 at 9:00 am

Interview with Thomas Doherty, Author of Hollywood and Hitler (part 2)

“The pictures of Nazism first projected by Hollywood between 1933 and 1939 will always be before our eyes.”—Thomas Doherty

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939In the second half of our interview, Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, discusses the role of newsreels in depicting Nazism to American audiences, Mussolini’s son’s trip to Hollywood, and films of the era. (For part one of the interview and to read an excerpt from the book):

Question: Another component of American awareness of Nazi Germany came through film newsreels. What balances or compromises did newsreel producers make? Did they provide a forthcoming, honest picture of Hitler?

Thomas Doherty: The newsreels are actually one of the most interesting and untold stories of the era. Our focus on Hollywood feature films sometimes makes us forget that the most powerful images of the Nazis came from the motion picture journalism of the day. The problem for the newsreels was that it was virtually impossible to obtain uncensored film of the Nazis in action. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels controlled all outgoing motion picture imagery, which meant that when the newsreels showed the Nazis on screen, it was in Nazi—shot and—approved footage. As a result—and because unruly moviegoers would sometimes hiss and jeer at the Nazis on screen—the commercial newsreel companies often refrained from featuring the Nazis in the newsreels. Even when the newsreel editors did include pictures of Hitler and the Nazis in the newsreel issues, local exhibitors were known to cut out the clips so as not to disturb patrons out for an enjoyable night at the movies. The full motion picture record of the rise of Nazism—so vivid to us today—was not before the eyes of Americans in the 1930s.

Q: Your book also includes the odd but telling stories of Mussolini’s son and Leni Riefensthal’s sojourns to Hollywood. What do their stories tell us about Hollywood’s evolving attitudes toward fascism and its growing political awareness.

TD: Yes—the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League used the visits of Vittorio Mussolini in 1937 (in town to work out a a co-production deal with producer Hal Roach) and Leni Riefensthal in 1938 (she hoped to arrange a stateside distribution deal for Olympia [1938], her epic documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics) to discourage Hollywood from doing any business with the Nazis. The efforts of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League made Mussolini and Riefenstahl social pariahs around town—and intimidating anyone else in the film industry from associating with them. The animus towards Riefenstahl— “Hitler’s honey,” they called her—was especially intense because she was perceived as a genius of the cinema who had turned her talents to a demonic cause.

Q: Which anti-Nazi movies do you find most compelling? Do they feel dated or do they still have resonance today?

I find MGM’s The Mortal Storm (1940) oddly affecting—ironically enough, because MGM was the Hollywood studio that had no qualms about doing business with the Nazis throughout the 1930s. Director Frank Borzage shows how the Nazis destroy a culture through the disintegration of a once-happy family, with the warm conviviality of the opening scenes turning to emptiness and death in the end reel. Ernest Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) is go-for-the-jugular satire at its best, though I can see why American audiences in 1942 were not amused. Of course, Casablanca (1942) still packs an anti-Nazi punch, especially during the scene where everybody in Rick’s Cafe sings “La Marseilles” and drowns out the Germans.

Q: What is the continuing legacy of Nazism and Hitler on Hollywood either thematically or visually?

TD: Check out Quentin Tarantino’s Inglouriuos Basterds. Hitler, Goebbels, the SS, the Nuremberg rallies, swastikas, and all the other images of the twelve year Reich remain the most visually striking manifestations of political evil in motion picture history. The pictures of Nazism first projected by Hollywood between 1933 and 1939 will always be before our eyes.

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