Interview with Thomas Doherty, Author of "Hollywood & Hitler, 1933-1939" (part 1)

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and HitlerOur featured book this week is Hollywood in Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty. In the following interview (we will post the second half tomorrow), Doherty discusses Hollywood’s reaction to Nazism:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.

Q: Likewise, what impact did anti-Nazi films have on America’s perception on Nazism?

TD: Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America discouraged overt political advocacy of any kind on screen. There were occasional exceptions such as Warner Bros.’ Black Legion (1937), a social problem film condemning a KKK-like group of domestic vigilantes, and Walter Wanger’s Blockade (1938), a veiled treatment of the Spanish Civil War, but not until Warner Bros. broke the embargo with Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) did Hollywood put identifiable Nazi villains on screen. For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.

Q: In addition to individual film stars, Hollywood executives, most of them Jewish, also played a role in anti-Hitler activism. What were some of the issues they confronted in balancing political beliefs with economic interests?

TD: The moguls—notably Jack and Harry Warner—always had to protect their right flank if they moved too far left. So at the same time Warner Bros. was the most outspokenly anti-Nazi of the major studios on and off screen, it was also the studio that most fervently embraced an unassailable red, white, and blue patriotism in its short subjects, feature films, and public pronouncements. When the American Legion held its annual convention in Los Angeles in 1938, Warner Bros. gave the veterans the run of its soundstages and backlots.

Q: What role did German emigres, many of whom fled Nazi Germany, play in informing Hollywood about what was happening in Germany and in shaping the content of particular films?

TD: The emigre community—the motion picture workers who established a veritable “Weimar on the Pacific” in Hollywood in the 1930s—were daily reminders of the racial and political persecutions in Germany. Most refugees were were so happy to be in sunny California that they didn’t want to jeopardize their status by leaping into controversial political activism: by and large, native born Americans—secure in their citizenship status—took the lead there. The emigre spirit certainly informed Hollywood feature films in all kinds of way—for example, in Fritz Lang’s social problem film Fury (1935), a preachment against mob violence and lynching. Of course, the influence would really erupt in the postwar era in the murky tones and paranoid atmospherics of the film noir genre.

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