In their book “Hollywood Goes to War,” published this month by the Free Press in New York City, Oberlin College Prof. Clayton Koppes and University of Missouri history Prof. Gregory Black explore a little-known and dark chapter in the history of the American film industry: Hollywood’s appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini and its propaganda liaison with the Roosevelt Administration.
Koppes and Black detail the motion picture studios’ unwillingness to speak out against anti-Semitism and fascism in the 1930’s, their accession to the demands of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and their alliance with the Roosevelt Administration’s propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), which succeeded in distorting Hollywood portrayals of American Blacks and the Allied and Axis powers during World War II.
Among the many revelations in the book are the following:
In the mid-1930’s, when the Nazis demanded of the American motion picture studios that all “non-Aryan” studio employes in Germany be terminated. the studios, almost all of them run by Jewish executives in Hollywood, complied and fired Jewish workers on their business staffs and offices in Germany. The studios did this even though Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws banned all films with Jewish actors and actresses, cutting the number of American films shown in Germany to just 20 per year.
In an effort to appease Mussolini, MGM changed the locale of Robert Sherwood’s anti-war, anti-fascist “Idiot’s Delight” (1939) with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer from Italy to an unnamed Esperanto-speaking Alpine nation.
The film industry’s self-censorship bureau, the Hays Office, then had the chief of its Production Code Administration, Joseph Breen, carry a severely altered version of the script to Italy in order to obtain the official approval of Mussolini’s government, which he succeeded in doing. By the time the film was completed however, new commercial restrictions made it unprofitable for Hollywood to distribute movies in Italy.
CENSORSHIP BAKED BY ECONOMIC CLOUT
Breen, who exercised great power in his censorship role, was virulently anti-Semitic as well as anti-Communist. In the 1930’s, he pressured MGM into dropping its plan to film Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” even though the studio had already bought the rights from Lewis and had invested heavily in the production.
He also prevented the filming of Vincent Sheean’s “Personal History,” an indictment of Hitler, because it would arouse “audience feeling against the present German regime, in the matter of its treatment of the Jews.” Breen’s censorship was backed by economic clout: banks usually insisted upon his office’s approval before lending money for productions, and most films relied on bank financing.
OWI, the Roosevelt Administration’s propaganda arm charged with furthering the American war effort through a liaison with the Hollywood studios, had hoped to work with Black leaders in order to improve Hollywood’s portrayal of people of color. By war’s end it became clear that the government’s objectives and those of Black leaders were incompatible. The government was intent on depicting a unified America without internal dissension; the Blacks wanted a realistic, non-stereotyped portrayal of themselves and their unequal treatment at home. Of 100 Black appearances in wartime films, 75 perpetuated old stereotypes, 13 were neutral, and only 12 were positive, among them symbolic portrayals that were untrue: in “Bataan,” for instance, Kenneth Spencer is part of an integrated battle group, and there were no integrated battle groups at this time.
“Repeatedly in the 1930’s, Hollywood altered the kind of pictures it would make because of economic considerations,” Koppes says. “It didn’t make any explicitly anti-Nazi pictures until 1939, in large measure because it didn’t want to lose its markets in Germany and Italy. Because there was no American movie market in the Soviet Union there were very few pictures about Russia, and those that were made could afford to be unfavorable. The studios didn’t make films Breen disapproved of for fear of losing bank financing.
Another disturbing byproduct of the American film industry’s involvement with propaganda was “the way in which images in movies changed very abruptly, depending on the political needs of the administration or on Hollywood’s perception of its audience and its market,” Koppes says. “There were wild swings in the portrayal of certain subjects, even though the reality of those subjects hadn’t changed at all.”
A prime example, according to Koppes, was Hollywood’s treatment of the Soviet Union. Before 1941, American films were uniformly negative in their portrayal of the Soviets if they were portrayed at all. From 1942 to 1945 almost all movies concerning the Soviet Union were “positive, glowing accounts, the most notorious being ‘Mission to Moscow,’ in which Stalin’s version of the purge trials are bought hook, line, and sinker, and Stalin emerges as an avuncular figure who is one step from being a democrat,” Koppes says. After the war, Hollywood’s treatment of the Soviets was, as it was before the war, almost uniformly negative until well into the 1950’s.
The government, Koppes and Black conclude, allied itself with an oligopoly and reinforced that industry’s concentration of power in molding images for the public — images that served the short-term political goals of an administration in wartime, but not the long-term goals of a nation facing a changed world.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.