What do Laurence Olivier, Liza Minnelli and Zero Mostel have in common? They were all in movies that involved Nazis. Hollywood has loved Nazi villains ever since World War II. But according to “The Collaboration,” by Ben Urwand, Hollywood may have loved real Nazis a little too much in the years leading up to the war.
Unearthing multiple archives on two continents, Urwand chronicles the birth and growth of the major film studios’ craven accommodation toward Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. Some projects that did not meet with German approval were canceled, others nitpicked into irrelevance. The road to the triumph of the German will led from Berlin to a consulate in Los Angeles, to the Hays Office (better known for censoring sex in films), to the studio chiefs, to the minions who did their bidding.
The studios’ reason for succumbing to pressure was simple: money. Germany was their second largest international market, and executives were eager to protect the box office for films like the hugely successful “Broadway Melody of 1936” and Mickey Mouse cartoons, a personal favorite of Hitler’s.
At first, the German foreign office complained that warlike images in Hollywood movies offended national honor and hindered its people from rejoining the community of nations. Then it asked for protection of Germany’s “healthy racial feelings.” Finally, it sought a prohibition on the rendering of sympathetic Jewish characters. Or any Jewish characters.
The irony of the hypocrisy rises to additional heights — or sinks to greater depths — because the majority of the executives who acceded to the Germans’ ever-increasing demands for control were themselves Jewish, in many cases refugees from Europe. Abetted in their cowardice by various Hollywood rabbis as well as the Anti-Defamation League, these Jewish producers convinced themselves that too great a focus on Jewish suffering in a still-isolationist America might lead to anti-Semitic backlash.
Urwand tracks German intervention in several movies, including “Hells Angels,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Sinclair Lewis’s fable of fascism in America, “It Can’t Happen Here.” Although Germany never paid directly for these favors, as companies now do in having their latest superhero glance at a Rolex, its aim was propagandistic product placement.
Moviemakers concerned with the bottom line? The main problem with Urwand’s thesis is the unspoken assumption that Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, the Warner brothers and others ought to have acted in accord with a higher standard when they were neither elected representatives nor moral philosophers. They were moviemakers, and all they wanted was to amass fortunes and sit at the best table in the Brown Derby and play their mogul games and sing their mogul songs. If they prostituted themselves, they may have been shameful, but they were true to their nature.
But if Urwand labors to turn a scholarly molehill into a mountain, he does the opposite in narrative moments throughout “The Collaboration.” One such instance occurs on the first page of the prologue, a description of a private viewing of “King Kong.” “They saw an enormous gorilla . . . fall off the Empire State Building,” Urwand writes. “One of the characters muttered something about beauty and the beast.” One of the characters? Muttered? Something? In fact, the speaker is Carl Denham (not so incidentally a movie director, who sets the entire plot in motion), and he clearly declares, “It was beauty killed the beast.” One of the most famous lines in movie history, this is hardly a random aside; it’s the take-away. Not to belabor a single sentence, but Urwand misrepresents the speaker, the statement and the tone. On the one hand, he seeks shock value in the vision of a flesh-and-blood monster watching a celluloid monster; on the other, he turns a potentially vivid scene into a dry sidelight.
Urwand is too eager to find scandal. Revealing Hollywood’s concessions as if they were breaking news, he plays down the fact that Variety reported on this tendency in 1934. He implies that “Lives of a Bengal Lancer” delivered a National Socialist message,” but since the film stars Gary Cooper as a British soldier in India, this seems far-fetched. And when MGM was no longer permitted to remove money from Germany, the company’s accountants engaged in what was essentially a laundering scheme involving the purchase of German industrial bonds that were sold at a loss to salvage 60 cents on the dollar. Yet Urwand magnifies this maneuver into the claim that MGM “helped to finance the German war machine.”
As a film, “The Collaboration” might make a fascinating short about a shabby sidelight to a terrible history, but not a feature presentation. We’re left with two-dimensional pictures of minorly venal minor men. They’re certainly not heroes, but neither are they villains. They’re merely humans.
Bukiet is the author of eight books of fiction and a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.
Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler
By Ben Urwand
Belknap/Harvard Univ. 327 pp. $26.95