The story of how Hollywood film studios dealt with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s is perhaps too nuanced for most Hollywood movies. But in general and for various reasons, the studios were afraid even to mention, let alone confront Nazism. Yet there was one exception: the Warner Brothers studio. And if there was a film about Hollywood and the Nazis, perhaps its hero would be Jack Warner, the only mogul to take it to Hitler.
Between the time Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1939, there was almost no representation of Nazism in Hollywood films. Had films depicted the barbarity of Nazism during this crucial period, it might perhaps have served a purpose. But they didn’t. Primarily due to financial concerns Hollywood studios were scared of mentioning Germany and Nazism.
Germany was a major market for the studios, one they didn’t want to risk by running afoul of the Nazis’ strict censorship, which was controlled by the Ministry of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda, headed by Joseph Goebbels. For if any film affronted the Nazi authorities in any way, it would not be shown in Germany and an important revenue steam would be cut off. Indeed Louis B. Mayer would meet with the Nazi German consul in Los Angeles, screen the official films and ask what material he thought ought to be removed for the German market.
But the studios’ cravenness in dealing with Nazism did not stop at content. They also acquiesced to Nazi demands that studio offices in Germany not have any Jewish staff. While many moved their Jewish employees from Germany, some studios moved their offices from Nazi Germany yet still dealt with the country from their London or Paris offices. Warner Brothers was the only one to refuse to have any relations with Germany. Perhaps this was due to an attack on the head of the studio’s Berlin office, a British Jew named Phil Kaufman.
When fascist brownshirts beat up Kaufman and the Nazi authorities ordered him to leave Germany, Kaufman went to Sweden, where a few months later he collapsed and died. It is unclear if his death was caused by the injuries from his assault in Germany, but it seems likely to have been related, and afterwards Jack Warner ordered the closing of all Warner Brothers operations in Germany. But Warner did not just refuse to accommodate Nazi demands; he took on Hitler and eventually brought the rest of Hollywood with him.
After pulling out of Germany, Jack Warner and his brother Harry used their studio to rally the anti-Nazi cause via broadcasts on their radio station KFWB, donations to the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and by producing films that alluded to Nazism through depictions of democracies and religious tolerance opposing totalitarianism. Although these were allegories, their message was fairly clear. In 1937, “Black Legion” preached against domestic fascism and “The Life of Emile Zola” paid tribute to the French author’s defense of the falsely maligned Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus, while 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” could be seen as a broadside against tyranny.
And in 1939 the gloves came off. Warner Brothers explicitly attacked Nazism in the movie “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” Based on articles by a former FBI agent, the film was a spy thriller and the first openly anti-Nazi film by a major Hollywood studio. Released a few months before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, it was a major box office hit despite being banned in many Latin American and Europeans countries (and of course Japan and Germany). Although perhaps Warner’s bravery was somewhat easier in 1939, for as Thomas Doherty notes in “Hollywood and Hitler,” by the time the film came out it did appear clear that Nazi Germany would become an increasingly unviable market for American films.
Nevertheless, many critics came out strongly against “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” including one who claimed, “The Warner brothers have declared war on Germany with this one.” Hitler himself watched the film and was furious, while the German ambassador protested to the US Secretary of State and a Texan congressman named Martin Dies lambasted the studio for its portrayal of what he declared a “friendly country.”
But of course those who opposed Nazism were delighted with the film. And beyond the studio executives, many in Hollywood were openly against Hitler. For years, screenwriters like Ben Hecht and Hermann Mankiewicz were screaming out against Nazism, asking studio heads why they weren’t making movies depicting its monstrousness, while other screenwriters Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker were among the founders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. From its founding in 1936, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League tried to discourage studios from doing business with Nazi Germany and helped to make Vittorio Mussolini, son of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker, personae non gratae when they visited LA.
So once Warner Brothers released “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” at a meeting of anti-Nazi activists at Edward G. Robinson’s house, Groucho Marx—in one of his few recorded earnest comments—raised a glass to “the only studio with any guts.” But while Jack Warner and his brothers were becoming popular with anti-Nazis in Hollywood and beyond, they had to make sure that they were not accused of being overly leftist or anti-American. So while Warner Brothers released anti-Nazi output, it also produced jingoistic American films and pronouncements saturated in red, white and blue. The last thing these Jewish studio heads wanted was to be accused of putting Jewish causes ahead of American. So Jack and Harry Warner tied anti-Nazism to American patriotism.
There was still a risk for Warner Brothers though—at the time “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” came out in 1939 it was by no means certain that Germany would lose the recently started war. And had Nazism conquered all of Europe, the studios’ films would have been verboten across the continent. But as Quentin Tarantino told The Jewish Journal, “The movie was made to expose Nazism to the American public. [Warner] made that movie, he wasn’t making it for Europe—Europe knew exactly who the Nazis were—he was making it for Americans. And it’s about Nazism in America. And it’s done completely as an expose. It’s a dramatized, documentary expose. It’s propaganda in every way, shape and form. Even though it’s pretty interesting, it’s a good movie. It has a purpose. And he called it by name: Germany. Nazis. Germany. Nazis. Goebbels. Hitler.”
Thus Jack Warner and his studio took on Nazism. And one month after Nazi Germany surrendered, Warner was among the Hollywood studio heads the allied forces invited to tour Europe so they could understand firsthand the effects of the war in Europe. But unlike Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox, Harry Cohn of Columbia, Clifford Work of Universal, Barney Balaban of Paramount, MGM’s Eddie Mannix and Hays Office employee Francis Harmon, Jack Warner alone had showed that he understood the perils of Nazism early on, and had used his studio to rail against its danger.