When movie studios needed to find a spine

Schickel is the author, most recently, of "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story."

Moguls, yes. Dictators, not so much. Which is the short way of saying that David Welky’s long and dutiful study of Hollywood’s relationship with the larger political world in the years prior to World War II is a lot less melodramatic than its title implies.

That’s because Welky has the academic’s tendency to get lost in the archives, stressing material only a professor can love. That’s too bad, because there is a powerful story buried in this mound of material.

“The Moguls and the Dictators” is a tale of the movie industry’s shedding its naivete and caution in order to speak belatedly, shyly, to a truly great issue in that period when the Great Depression imperiled everyone’s profits, a heightened censorship curtailed Hollywood’s creative freedom and the rise of Hitler’s Germany foreshadowed (for the relative handful who perceived the threat) the coming of an unimaginably vast war.

As of 1933, when both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hitler rose to power, Hollywood was largely concerned with the steadily increasing pressure to tone down the mild but valuable frankness of its films and with protecting its excellent German market, which the Nazis almost immediately began to threaten. (They knew an essentially Jewish business when they saw one.)


The official industry line -- promulgated by industry overseer Will Hays, and supported by Joseph E. Breen, chief censor -- was that the industry was the purveyor of “entertainment,” without an ideologi- cal thought in its pretty little head.

This was not entirely true, especially at Warner Bros., many of whose movies (“I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” “Wild Boys of the Road”) were critical of American life and not averse to downbeat conclusions.

But let’s not get ahead of the story. For all of Hollywood’s import-export wrangles with friends (Britain) and foes (Italy), the essence of its problems were with Germany and with the failure both inside and outside the industry to face up to the rancid anti-Semitism that so poisoned prewar American life.

Hitlerism was the easier of these issues to deal with -- at least for Harry Warner. Al- most immediately after tak- ing power, the Nazis ordered the American studios to fire their Jewish employees in Germany.

Most did so; Warner did not. He shut down his German operations and became the leading anti-fascist among the American moguls while his peers continued doing business in Berlin -- some even after the beginning of hostilities in 1939.

Warner was an unlikely, and rather unlikable, hero. A dour and moralistic man, he hated American labor unions (and his raffish brother, Jack, who headed production at the studio) almost as much as he loathed Nazism.

Still, his studio began to attack dictatorship in all sorts of movies -- Napoleon III stood in for Hitler in “Juarez,” as did the usurper Prince John in “Robin Hood” (even if Claude Rains slyly said he based his characterization on Bette Davis).

In the later prewar years, the studio also did a lot of preparedness movies (“The Fighting 69th,” “Sergeant York”), which devoted themselves to reluctant warriors becom- ing enthusiasts for freedom’s cause.

The studio probably reached the height of its courage with “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” in 1939. Based on the true story of a group arrested and prosecuted in New York, it showed not just espionage agents in action, but German American sympathizers in full regalia, stirring hatred (although, as usual, it stopped short of full-scale anti-Semitism).

This sent Breen into a tizzy. He administered, with extraordinary prissiness, a code that contained a clause prohibiting criticism of foreign nations. You must show all the good Hitler has done for Germany -- autobahns and Volkswagens -- he argued.

To their infinite credit, the Warners told him to stuff it, and off their preachy film went to market, and unprofitability.

Warner Bros.’ actions may seem little enough to modern eyes. But it was considerably more than their competitors did. All of this is mentioned in Welky’s droning pages.

“The Moguls and the Dictators,” however, does not sufficiently emphasize the elephant in the room -- the industry’s fear of the anti-Semitism that was close to endemic in Washington and everywhere else in the U.S.

Even after the United States entered the war, Office of War Information polling showed that at least 40% of Americans were openly anti-Semitic and judged that the rescue of European Jewry was not a war aim to be mentioned in the popular culture.

I can, in fact, think of only three wartime films that openly alluded to the topic: “None Shall Escape,” “Address Unknown” and “Mr. Skeffing- ton.”

Still, a lot of people knew what was going on. Ben Hecht mounted a pageant called “They Will Never Die” -- featuring famous movie stars playing venues such as the Hollywood Bowl -- which gave an accurate (for its moment) count of the Nazi death camp toll, then 2 1/2 million. Many prominent Jews urged both Hecht and Hollywood to keep silent.

This is not beyond Welky’s purview. He has a sketchy little chapter about what happened after America entered the war, but he prefers the story of the anti-communist crusades of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

To be sure, the congressional hearings and blacklisting of that era were extensions of the prewar furor against communism in movies and the increasingly interventionist sentiment expressed on screen.

But this is not a story that can be told only in terms of the movie industry.

It needs to account for the silences of FDR, the arrogance of the State Department, the temporizing of the rabbis and above all the vast indiffer- ence of the American popu- lace.

Welky offers a good deal of interesting information that will, one hopes, someday be useful to a writer who not only focuses on what was really significant in Hollywood’s confrontation with totalitarianism but also locates that struggle in the broader context of a shameful passage in American life.