Alexander C. Kafka writes: A debate is raging over Hollywood’s alleged collusion with the Nazis. At stake: the moral culpability of Jewish studio heads during cinema’s golden age.
The catalyst is a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, by the 35-year-old historian Ben Urwand. The book is still several months from publication, but emotions are running high after an early review in the online magazine Tablet, followed by an exchange of rhetorical fire in The New York Times between Urwand and Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University who this spring published his own account of the era, Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press). The clash comes during a period of heightened scholarly attention to Nazi infiltration and counterinfiltration in Depression-era Los Angeles, complicating the story of Hollywood’s stance toward fascism.
Urwand’s Hollywood-Hitler focus began in 2004, when, while pursuing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, he saw an interview with Budd Schulberg in which the screenwriter mentioned that in the 1930s, the head of MGM would show movies to a German consular official in LA and they’d agree on cuts. Urwand knew that anti-Nazi pictures didn’t start appearing until 1939, and he suspected that indifference or passivity couldn’t fully explain that. He smelled a dissertation topic. “It was the spark,” he says, and he spent the next nine years traveling to dozens of archives, piecing the story together.
At Sandrine’s Bistro, off Harvard Square, Urwand, a slender junior fellow in Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, sits down to lunch in short sleeves on a hot, humid day. The Sydney, Australia, native’s accent sounds as though it has been gently sanded by a decade and a half in the States. He is affably intense, no less so after a two-espresso appetizer to his gazpacho and lobster salad. The lunch is a break from sorting out his book’s index while navigating a steady stream of press calls and e-mails in English and German, although The Collaboration is not due out until October. (In response to the controversy, the press bumped up the release from mid- to early October.)
Urwand’s forthright, deadpan expression bursts intermittently into an engaging smile. Should you wish to see that smile vanish, mention Doherty. You’ll get a somber look, a mild shake of the head. Urwand won’t discuss Hollywood and Hitler specifically, only the more general “mythology,” as he puts it, of the studios’ staunch antifascism.
Yes, after the Anschluss, in March, 1938, the Munich Agreement, in September, and Kristallnacht, in November, Hollywood’s stance toward the Nazis changed, though even then, the films strangely ellipted explicitly Jewish characters. But why did it take so long for the studios to cross cinematic swords with the Führer?
For Urwand, the answer is in the archival evidence: bald complicity with the Nazis. [Continue reading…]