“I’m always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past.”—Thomas Doherty
Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 has recently been involved in a well-covered and somewhat contentious scholarly debate. As reported in The Chronicle Review, the New York Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere, Doherty has taken issue with some of the conclusions made by Ben Urwand in his forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. *(Thomas Doherty will also be appearing on WFMU’s Too Much Information today at 6:00 pm)
Specifically, Doherty counters Urwand’s contention that Hollywood executives collaborated with Nazi officials over the content of Hollywood films. As Doherty argues in Hollywood and Hitler, Hollywood executives, particularly in the 1930s were acutely aware of the German market and did alter films but their motivation was profits and did not rise to the level of collaboration. In the article in The Chronicle, Doherty explains, “You use [collaboration] to describe the Vichy government. Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling.”
While Doherty praises Urwand’s archival research, he cautions against making moral claims about the actions of historical figures without understanding the contexts surrounding their decisions. Hollywood executives were grappling with a range of moral and practical issues when confronting how to depict Nazism and how to appeal to the German market. Doherty explains:
I’m always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past. I would have been so much more farsighted … scrupulous … I would have seen what was on the horizon…. We filter the 30s through the vision of what the Nazis were in the Second World War.”
Doherty and Urwand also disagree about how audience members of the time might have viewed films that might have offered critiques of Nazism and antisemitism. While Doherty concedes that Hollywood did not produce many straight-forward films that criticized Nazis—they did not make money— he does argue that several films offered more subtle critiques of Hitler that would have been understood by contemporary audiences. Again from The Chronicle article:
Doherty details the lackluster revenue of most of the serious political films that were made. They didn’t do well compared with musicals, westerns, and other escapist fare. “If you want to send a message,” Samuel Goldwyn reportedly quipped, “use Western Union.”
Even if the Jewish presence is vastly, consciously underplayed in a film like Zola, Doherty says audiences knew how to decode it the same way viewers of M*A*S*H knew that it was a commentary on the Vietnam War, not Korea. “Everyone, and any critic with a brain, commented on the allegory of tolerance and anti-Semitism,” he says. Newspaper, radio, and newsreel coverage contextualized such films. And publicity campaigns accompanied them.