There have been two recent books written on how the film industry reacted to the rise of Hitler, both concluding that Hollywood has nothing to be proud of. The books (neither of which I have read yet) are Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration”, and Thomas Doherty’s “Hollywood and Hitler.” These books were the subject of a presentation I heard this morning at my Thursday breakfast meeting, and worth thinking about.
The situation can be summarized as follows:
The early film industry was relatively unregulated, but scantily clad girls and violent situations created concern among some in Congress, the suggestion being that America needed a censorship board, such as existed in most other countries and within institutions like the Catholic Church. In order to forestall governmental regulations, the film industry proposed to, and agreed to, police itself.
The film moguls created the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and hired Will Hays, Postmaster General of the United States under Warren Harding, to lead the organization in 1922. The MPPDA adopted a Production Code for Hollywood that prohibited certain actions and words in American films, including nudity or suggestive dances, ridiculing of religion, vulgarity, etc. (See “United States Motion Picture Production Code of 1930” in Wikipedia for more details.)
But the MPPDA did more than adopt a code; it acted as a censor, or at least advised the Hollywood production companies when changes to a script were deemed advisable. But in addition, under the auspices of Hays’ deputy Joseph Breen, the MPPDA also took on the task of advising production companies not only about domestic standards, but about the standards adopted by the censorship boards of various foreign countries important to the industry. Of these countries, Germany was one of the most important markets for American movies.
I learned this morning that, in the 1930s, foreign distribution of films accounted for up to 40% of film industry profits. These profits came both from the sales and distribution of American films, but also (for at least some of the production companies) from the right to make newsreel films within the country.
At the time Hitler came to power, all eight of the major American film producers had offices in Germany. Within a few years, that number was down to three, and eventually there were none. Two of the three that remained were those which relied on newsreel production for a part of their profits.
It is also important to note that all eight of the major production companies were founded by Jews, or by groups which included Jews, although some, like Twentieth Century Fox were no longer run by Jews. It was estimated that, in the early 1930s, about 60% of the most important people in the American film industry were Jewish. It was also true that the production companies employed a significant number of Jews in Germany, and that the Germany film industry also had a large Jewish presence.
One of the tenets of the MPPDA was that nothing should be contained in any film that would be critical of any country in which the film is to be shown. This apparently was the result of the filming of “All Quiet on the Western Front” in the 1920s, which had a number of characters very critical of German participation in the First World War, and critical of the Kaiser. Obviously, this predated Hitler, and the MPPDA rule was not exclusive to Germany, but it became most notable after the Nazi takeover of the country.
Joseph Breen himself was quite an anti-Semite. Again, to quote Wikipedia: “In a letter to a Catholic priest, Breen wrote that Hollywood consisted of a ‘rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money. Here we have Paganism rampant and in its most virulent form. Drunkenness and debauchery are commonplace. Sexual perversion is rampant….any number of our directors and stars are perverts. Ninety five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth.’ ”
Between 1933 and 1939, there were apparently no films made in America which were critical of the Nazi government or anti-Semitism. Films did not have Jewish characters. Jewish actors under contract to the studios were not permitted to join organizations which took positions against Germany or Germany’s prosecution of the Jews. Actors with Jewish sounding names had to change them. These barriers broke down only after September 1939 and the beginning of the Second World War.
But what about the Jews who ran the studios? Did they complain or stage any protests? If so, certainly not major ones. It must be remembered that there were two issues here. First, of course, the studios were determined to continue to make profits. But second, there was quite a bit of anti-Semitism in the United States at this time, and support for the new Germany, and it was feared by many that bringing the Jewish question to the fore would only open the way for more anti-Semitism, and backfire. Even the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the organization representing the Reform rabbinate) took the position that certain types of incidences should not be reflected in film.
Yes, times have really changed but be on guard…..what goes up can come down. And vice versa.