Anyone who lived through World War II or its televised aftermath is familiar with Hollywood’s contribution to the cause. David Welky’s well-written and absorbing new history The Moguls and the Dictators focuses on the run-up—the anti-fascist movies the studios produced from the mid-Thirties through Pearl Harbor as arguments for intervention in Europe’s war.
Hitler presented an obvious problem for the immigrant and first-generation Jews, who largely founded and ran Hollywood. Upon taking power, the Nazis purged Jews from the German film industry while demanding the removal of those employed by American firms in Germany. The moguls protested but complied because, as Welky notes, Germany had more theaters than any other country in Europe.
There were also difficulties at home. Joseph Breen—the new head of the Production Code Administration—saw Hitler’s rise as a useful tool to reform Hollywood. Anti-Semitic agitation made the moguls vulnerable. When a few filmmakers attempted to make movies attacking the Nazi regime, Breen warned that they were opening themselves up to the charge that Jews “as a class” were “using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes.”
Grassroots anti-fascism was mainly organized by Communist writers from back East. Most important was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which, within a few months of its creation in 1936, had enrolled several thousand members, not all of them Jewish. Breen did not openly disapprove, but HANL’s support for the Spanish Republic raised his suspicions—particularly when two years later Walter Wanger produced Blockade, an anti Franco romance starring Henry Fonda as a heroic Spanish peasant and written by a prominent Hollywood communist, John Howard Lawson.
The lone studio heads to support HANL were Jack and Harry Warner. As early as September 1933, one of their Looney Tunes satirized Hitler. Still, it was nearly six years until the Warners launched a frontal attack and, as Delky writes, their “determination to produce Confessions of a Nazi Spy surpassed the Breen Office’s and State Department’s desire to stop it.” Warner Bros. continued to make anti-Nazi pictures, mostly spy stories, and had the satisfaction of hearing FDR issue a warning against Nazi fifth columnists that could have been lifted from Confessions.
As the most pro-Roosevelt studio, Warner Bros. also took the lead in supporting FDR’s Good Neighbor policy, making movies for the Latin American market and taking a particular risk with the prestige pic Juarez. (Welky notes, the Latin American audience proved difficult to woo.) More successful were the cycle of patriotic historical pageants that appeared on the eve of war: Allegheny Uprising, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, Gone with the Wind, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Northwest Passage. The Westerns Stagecoach, Dodge City, and Union Pacific were analogous as was the contemporary Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
By the end of 1940, according to Welky, 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck joined his archrival Harry Warner as a Hollywood’s greatest flag waver. Fox not only produced anti-fascist movies like Four Sons (scripted by Lawson), The Man I Married, and Man Hunt but, like Warners, gave American history an anti-fascist spin. Zanuck regarded America’s prejudice against Mormons in his 1940 biopic Brigham Young as a way of addressing Hitler’s persecution of Jews. That year, MGM released The Mortal Storm and even Louis B. Mayer gingerly enlisted in Hollywood’s anti-fascist brigade.
Foreign Correspondent would be hailed as “a masterpiece of propaganda” by no less an authority than Josef Goebbels, but most Hollywood anti-fascist films have not aged well, at least as art. Some, however, were extremely popular—notably The Great Dictator, Buck Privates, and Sergeant York. FDR declared himself “thrilled” with the latter and threw Hollywood into a tizzy when he agreed to address the Academy on Oscar night. But while many studio employees supported the president, their bosses skewed Republican and even some prominent Democrats were isolationists. U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, a former RKO executive, privately warned the moguls to cease making anti-Nazi pictures, lest the war against Hitler be blamed on Jews.
Kennedy’s position was given public voice by aviation hero Charles Lindbergh who maintained that Jewish “ownership and influence in our motion pictures” was the greatest danger America faced. During the summer of 1941, Senator Gerald Nye charged with Hollywood agitating for war. A month later, the Senate opened hearings. As the first witness, Nye cited 17 “war mongering” pictures, pointed out that many of their producers were born abroad, and added that “if anti-Semitism exists in America, the Jews have themselves to blame.”
The studios enlisted Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential nominee in 1940, as their spokesman. The isolationists insisted on the primacy of apolitical entertainment; Willkie accused them of attempting to suppress “factual pictures on Nazism.” The hearings petered out in October. On December 7, the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbor and the next day the United States entered the war. The Japanese attack panicked Los Angeles but Hollywood’s pro-Roosevelt stance paid off—not just with government contracts but by delaying the Justice Department anti-trust procedure against the industry.
Welky maintains that the 1941 hearings were never as dangerous as Hollywood believed yet faults the industry for its failure to associate World War II with anti-Semitism. But this is precisely what the studios could not do. As astute as he is, Welky underestimates the degree to which Hollywood was a cultural battleground, with immigrant Jews representing values supposedly inimical to the “native” Christian majority. Breen himself privately referred to his Jewish employers as “the scum of the earth,” the Legion of Decency attacked Confessions of a Nazi Spy as pro-Communist, while the radio priest Father Coughlin identified the Warners and their star, Edward G. Robinson, as Jews whose “patriotism [was] only as deep as their hatred of Hitler.” The moguls didn’t have to associate the war with anti-Semitism; their enemies did it for them.