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From the current Summer 2018 Issue

How a movie studio took a stand against the Nazi threat


By Walter Scannell


To audiences who watch them in the twenty-first century, films like Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk or Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York might seem like nothing more than crackling entertainment. To audiences of the time, however, these films and others like them from the late 1930s and early 1940s were wake-up calls.

As Europe made its way into war in the late-1930s, Hollywood’s movie studios responded in different ways. MGM, with its dreams of class and opulence, tiptoed around the issue by using villains from vague European countries speaking with beautiful British accents. By contrast, competing Warner Bros. used its platform to make people realize that the sooner we helped countries under attack, the more likely the world would be saved.

The studio’s campaign to make movies designed to warn audiences about the perils of ignoring the War in Europe was based in part on a family vendetta and in part on the friendship between Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Warner Bros. studio heads — and staunch Republicans — Harry and Jack Warner. The Warners’ parents had emigrated from Poland to escape waves of Jewish persecution. When their four sons (Harry, Jack, Samuel and Albert) ventured into moviemaking, they intended to make socially conscious films.

Those plans foundered when Albert — the financially minded brother — warned of trouble ahead; when it hit, only canine star Rin Tin Tin saved the brothers from bankruptcy. Sam obtained the technology that would allow the brothers to jump into the world of sound pictures, but he died before The Jazz Singer, their first “talkie,” could be released.

With Harry handling the broader business end of things, the work of choosing scripts and handling the talent went to Jack. The two brothers fell under the Roosevelt charm when they met the candidate during his 1932 presidential campaign. A little-known aspect of Roosevelt’s administration was that because of his limited mobility, he would often draw interesting people aside to engage in private chats and exchange favors.

Jack — who was not known for sticking to the truth — claimed that he was offered an overseas post for helping with FDR’s California campaign, but declined by saying, “I can do better for you with a good film about America now and then.”

In fact, the studio actually made a number of good films about America, ranging from the musicals of Busby Berkeley (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1935) to brutal tales of gangsters and crime (including Public Enemy, Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang). More than any other studio, Warner Bros. turned out tough films with themes taken straight out of the headlines. Then it set its sights on the worst gangsters of all — Nazis.

In a way, the first salvo was fired in 1934, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power, when Harry urged Jack to cancel all business dealings with Germany. The Brothers also found subtle ways to indicate their opposition to Hitler and his Third Reich by incorporating (sometimes very) indirect references into their films. Sheridan Gibley’s screenplay for the studio’s sprawling 1936 adventure Anthony Adverse (based on the novel by Hervey Allen) includes a character referring to Napoleon as a man who “has to enslave people before he ‘liberates’ them; that is the way with conquerors.”

The next year, 1937’s highly praised The Life of Emile Zola — principally about the disgraceful Dreyfus affair in France — avoided any direct mention of people of Jewish faith but made a case against oppressing any minority through discrimination, lies, and corruption. Overseas, Fire Over England saw the British allude to the German threat with an adventure about thwarting the Spanish Armada.

Obviously, England’s proximity to Europe meant they had more immediate concerns about the threat of a Hitler-driven invasion; even so, any approach would have to be handled carefully. Protestant-raised independent producer Darryl Zanuck had hoped audiences would respond to an anti-fascist subtext in The House of Rothschild, in which Jewish financier Nathan Rothschild saves Europe at a time of racial riots. But the effort backfired, with the Nazis actually pirating a scene for one of their anti-Semitic propaganda films.

As the threat of war in Europe inched closer to reality, Harry and Jack quickly put Confessions of a Nazi Spy into production, on the pretext that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had requested it as a public service. Filming had barely begun before hate mail started to arrive; even more alarming was the discovery of anti-Semitic graffiti on a men’s room that was accessible only to studio employees. German bund chapters were so militant that the studio assigned security guards to the entrances of Stage 2, where filming was taking place.

Even though Confessions was one of the studio’s “torn from the headlines” movies — in this case, based on a series of newspaper articles by an FBI agent who had investigated Nazi spy rings — the final product turned out to be rather ordinary. The film is about a fictional unemployed complainer (played by Austrian actor Francis Lederer), who gives minor information to Fifth Columnists until an FBI agent (played by Edward G. Robinson) tricks him into revealing everything by flattering his ego. The story ends with Robinson saying “God alone knows what peace-loving nation is next,” and we see the U.S. Capital Building. Hint, hint.

The film was released in May 1939, four months before the war in Europe began. The New York Times review said “the Warners… formally declared war on the Nazis at 8:15 am with the first showing of their Confessions of a Nazi Spy at the Strand.” Fritz Kuhn, leader of the German-American Bund, sued the studio for $5 million in damages; the suit was dropped when it was discovered that Kuhn had been charged with embezzling Bund funds.

Determined not to lose their momentum, Warner Bros. began filming Underground, a tale of treachery and poisonous ambition within Hitler’s European network. Film historian Leonard Maltin calls the film’s villain (played by Martin Kosleck) the “definitive Nazi swine.”

Confessions and Underground made it clear where the studio stood on Nazism; however, Warners hadn’t given up on the indirect approach, as when they dusted off the script for the Rafael Sabatini silent film The Sea Hawk and turned it into a successor to Captain Blood, giving star Errol Flynn another chance to swash his buckle and save a lady fair. The re-make jettisoned the tales of piracy in the original in favor of a tale in which an Englishman is asked by the Queen to thwart a Spanish invasion. At one point in the film, Spain’s King Philip II examines a huge depiction of Europe and proclaims that, “Some time after my death… this map on the wall… will come to be a map of the world. It will be a map of Spain!”

For those who missed the message, victorious Queen Elizabeth I hammers it home at the end: “When the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.” (After some hand-wringing, this speech was cut from the American release of the film, despite the protests of screenwriter Howard Koch; the speech has since been restored.)

No such message was needed for Warners’ 1941 adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf; just the sight of a brutal man trying to destroy an intellectual (Alexander Knox) was enough. Future Academy Award-winning writer Robert Rossen had turned Edward G. Robinson’s Capt. Larson into a symbol of fascism, so thoroughly that Warner Bros. had to cut some political hints from the bleak adventure film.

Once Warners made Nazis fair game, other studios followed. Republic Pictures (one of the “Poverty Row” studios which cranked out low-budget pictures) had John Wayne leading Austrian refugees to Oregon farmland in Three Faces West. He wins the girl only when she learns that her fiancé has joined the Nazis.

Twentieth Century Fox closed its European newsreel division when they found that scenes of parades and rallies had inadvertently encouraged Nazi support. Yet Fox left geographic details unclear in Man Hunt, the story of an English huntsman arrested by Nasty Military Men in an unnamed Alpine country. At the end, he is parachuted with a sniper rifle on his back to seek out a Very Bad Unnamed Man in his mountain hideaway.

Pussyfooting Paramount struck out every mention of “fascists” in their 1943 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (a tale of an American during the Spanish Civil War) and replaced them with “nationalists,” which referred to the same people but without the political tinge.

MGM — fearful of losing its world market — didn’t even go that far. In 1940’s Escape, Robert Taylor tries to smuggle his mother out of a concentration camp… somewhere. Things got even worse when MGM adapted Three Comrades, a novel by German writer Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front) and removed most of the political references. When the story had to refer to street thugs, the Nazis were turned into violent Communists — their opposites — at the insistence of the German consul in Los Angeles. Such compromises allowed MGM to continue distributing its movies in Germany and Austria into 1940, five years after Warner Brothers had taken its stand against the Hitler regime.

At the time MGM was making these concessions, Joseph Kennedy (father of future president John F. Kennedy) was urging studios to lay off anti-Nazi films to avoid causing further harm to Jews in Europe. Charlie Chaplin was well into filming his Hitler spoof, The Great Dictator, when he dropped the script because refugees kept bringing news of Nazi terror. When he did finish the film — the story of a Jewish barber who resembles fuhrer Adenoid Hinkle — he concluded it with an impassioned speech against the “brutes” and their promised new world order. “They do not fulfill that promise,” he declares. “They never will!”

Alfred Hitchcock and his writers portrayed world tensions in the continually entertaining espionage adventure Foreign Correspondent. The story features two of Hitch’s standbys, an everyman hero (Joel McCrea) and a suave villain (Herbert Marshall). The film makes no mention of Germany or Nazism, but 1940 audiences understood what the hero meant when he said “Hello, America” into a radio microphone — then added that he could not use his prepared script because the lights have gone out after a bombing. He concludes by telling everyone that America must “hang on to [its] lights; they’re the only lights left in the world.”

Understandably, most Americans wanted to be comforted by the thought that the horrors faced by the people of Europe and Asia would never touch their shores. So Warners smacked them with a pair of partly based-on-fact films about World War I: James Cagney in The Fighting 69th, playing a coward who dies a hero; and Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, the story of a country sharpshooter who became a war hero. Cooper was an excellent choice to play York, as both were lean, reflective men.

Ironically, the most realistic portion of the film, in which York slaves to earn enough money to marry, was made up. The incredible portions — such as his mountainside moment with a Bible to decide whether to take up arms, and his subsequent heroism — are factual. York received a Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a machine gun nest that killed at least twenty-eight Germans; then he went along the enemy trenches and — practically single-handedly — took 132 prisoners.

The public loved such films. One person who didn’t was Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota, the man who had pushed the 1935 Neutrality Act into law. Nye was outraged by what he regarded as strong-arm tactics designed to force the U.S. into the conflict. In September of 1941, he singled out Warner Bros. and opened subcommittee hearings on Hollywood’s “propaganda for war.”

By then, there was no shortage of pro-military films — even comedies. Abbott and Costello made a shambles of basic training in their 1941 hit Buck Privates. At the same time, Laurel and Hardy were in production for their own “service comedy,” Great Guns. The presence of lighthearted singing, girls, and friendships in such movies made even being drafted look like fun. Small wonder the studios behind these films enjoyed the co-operation of the U.S. military.

To give the pro-war movement another push in 1941, Warner Bros. flooded theaters with The Tanks Are Coming, an expensive Technicolor short about tank driver training. Audiences saw everything through the eyes of an average recruit, played by comic character actor George Tobias.

The film ends with one armored vehicle after another climbing a hill, and the overwrought narrator says “The tanks are coming! The tanks are coming!” At that moment, moviegoers across the country could not help but equate this line with the World War I cry of “The Yanks are coming! The Yanks are coming!” The hidden message was that although America was still neutral, the nation was ready.

Neutrality mongers like Senator Nye reversed themselves only when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. opened war on two fronts. Despite five years of big screen propaganda, our country was not really prepared for the reality of total war. But the fact that thousands of young men had enlisted even before the attack on December 7, 1941, was largely due to the war of the silver screen that the Warner brothers had declared back in 1935

Tune in to Those Were the Days on July 21 to hear the Lux Radio Theatre production of The Life of Emile Zola.


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