The debate continues. Writing for The New Yorker, David Denby weighs in on the competing interpretations of Hollywood’s complicity with Nazism advanced in two new books: Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty and The Collaboration Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand.
As Denby writes, both books argue that Hollywood studios were hesitant to produce films that criticized, either explicitly or implicitly, Nazism for fear of losing the German market. However, the studios were also restricted in what kinds of movies they could make by the Hays Production Code, which at that time was led by “censor-in-chief,” Joseph Breen. Breen, who is also the subject of Thomas Doherty’s book Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration pressured the studios not to mention Nazism and follow the Code’s ambiguous guidelines to treat other countries fairly. Denby writes, “The pattern was clear: no matter how vicious Nazi conduct was, any representation of it could be deemed a violation of the code’s demand that foreign countries be treated ‘fairly.'”
Given the pressures from Breen as well as the studio heads’ desire to appear as American as possible, Louis B. Mayer, Warner Brothers and others were extremely wary of producing films that called attention to issues relating to Nazism, Judaism, or anti-Semitism. As Denby explains:
By acting as they did, the studio bosses fell into the trap that they had allowed men like … Breen to set for them. Because they were Jews, they believed, they couldn’t make anti-Nazi movies or movies about Jews, for this would be seen as special pleading or warmongering. Breen tormented them with the spectre of what anti-Semites might do as a way of stifling their response to what anti-Semitism was already doing—and would do, in Europe, with annihilating violence. It’s as if the Hollywood Jews had become responsible for anti-Semitism. Of all the filmmakers in the world, they became the last who could criticize the Nazis. Their situation was both tragic and absurd.
Doherty and Urwand’s differing interpretations center around the extent to which studio heads ignored, abided, or collaborated with Nazis. As the title of his book suggests, Urwand views the studio heads as collaborating with and supporting some of the aims of the Nazis. Doherty argues, and Denby seems to agree, that “the studios didn’t advance Nazism; they failed to oppose it.”