The Chilling History of How Hollywood Helped Hitler (Exclusive)
In devastating detail, an excerpt from a controversial new book reveals how the big studios, desperate to protect German business, let Nazis censor scripts, remove credits from Jews, get movies stopped and even force one MGM executive to divorce his Jewish wife.
The Mad Dog of Europe
In May 1933, a Hollywood screenwriter named Herman J. Mankiewicz‚ the man who would later write Citizen Kane, had a promising idea. He was aware of the treatment of the Jews in Germany and he thought, "Why not put it on the screen?" Very quickly, he penned a play entitled The Mad Dog of Europe, which he sent to his friend Sam Jaffe, a producer at RKO. Jaffe was so taken with the idea that he bought the rights and quit his job. Jaffe, who, like Mankiewicz, was Jewish, planned to assemble a great Hollywood cast and devote all his energies to a picture that would shake the entire world.
Of course, various forces had been put in place to prevent a picture like this from ever being made. First and foremost was Gyssling. Up to this point, he had only invoked Article 15 against pictures that disparaged the German army during the World War. The Mad Dog of Europe was infinitely more threatening: It attacked the present German regime.
Gyssling was unable to use Article 15 against The Mad Dog of Europe for the simple reason that the independent company producing the picture did not do business in Germany. He was left with only one option: Inform the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America (popularly known as the Hays Office), which regulated movie sex and violence for Hollywood, that if the movie were made then the Nazis might ban all American movies in Germany.
The Hays Office reacted quickly. Will Hays, the organization's president, met with Jaffe and Mankiewicz. He accused them of selecting a "scarehead" situation for the picture, which, if made, might return them a tremendous profit while creating heavy losses for the industry. Jaffe and Mankiewicz said they would proceed despite any ban that Hays might attempt.
Hays needed to adopt a different approach. He asked his representative, Joseph Breen, to reach out to the advisory council for the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles. The advisory council read the script and felt that the direct references to Hitler and Nazi Germany might provoke an anti-Semitic reaction in the United States. But "if modified so as to apparently have reference to a fictitious country, and if the propaganda elements … were made more subtle … the film would be a most effective means of arousing the general public to the major implications of Hitlerism."
Even if the script were toned down, the Anti-Defamation League suspected that the Hays Office would object to the film because the major Hollywood studios were still doing business in Germany. Nobody in the ADL group knew exactly how much business was being done. Some imagined that Germany was banning films starring Jewish actors; others thought that Germany was banning entire "companies supposed to be controlled by Jews." Nobody had the slightest idea that the Nazis were actually facilitating the distribution of American movies in Germany.
The Anti-Defamation League decided to carry out a test: It asked a well-known screenwriter to prepare an outline of The Mad Dog of Europe that contained none of the obvious objections. This scriptwriter then submitted the outline to three different agents, and without any hesitation, they all told him the same thing: "It was no use submitting any story along this line as the major studios had put 'thumbs down' on any films of this kind."
Eventually, Jaffe gave up his plans and sold the rights to The Mad Dog of Europe to well-known agent Al Rosen. And when the Hays Office urged Rosen to abandon the picture, Rosen accused the Hays Office of malicious interference and issued a remarkable statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency claiming "on good authority" that Nazi officials were trying to stop the picture. He scoffed at the idea that the picture would provoke further anti-Semitism.
Over the next seven months -- from November 1933 to June 1934 -- Rosen continued to work on the film, but he failed to convince Hollywood executives to pour money into the project. Louis B. Mayer told him that no picture would be made: "We have interests in Germany; I represent the picture industry here in Hollywood; we have exchanges there; we have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made."
And so The Mad Dog of Europe was never turned into a motion picture. The episode turned out to be the most important moment in all of Hollywood's dealings with Nazi Germany. It occurred in the first year of Hitler's rise to power, and it defined the limits of American movies for the remainder of the decade.
In 1936, the studios started to encounter major censorship difficulties in Germany. Nazi censors rejected dozens of American films, sometimes giving vague reasons, sometimes giving no reasons at all. The smaller companies had all left Germany by this point, and only the three largest companies -- MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox -- remained. By the middle of the year, these three companies had managed to have a combined total of only eight pictures accepted by the censors, when they really needed 10 or 12 each just to break even.
The studios were faced with a difficult decision: continue doing business in Germany under unfavorable conditions or leave Germany and turn the Nazis into the greatest screen villains of all time. On July 22, MGM announced that it would bow out of Germany if the other two remaining companies, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, would do the same.
Paramount and Fox said no. Even though they were not making any money in Germany (Paramount announced a net loss of $580 for 1936), they still considered the German market to be a valuable investment. They had been there for years. Despite the difficult business conditions, their movies were still extremely popular. If they remained in Germany a while longer, their investment might once again yield excellent profits. If they left they might never be permitted to return.
Over the next few years, the studios actively cultivated personal contacts with prominent Nazis. In 1937, Paramount chose a new manager for its German branch: Paul Thiefes, a member of the Nazi Party. The head of MGM in Germany, Frits Strengholt, divorced his Jewish wife at the request of the Propaganda Ministry. She ended up in a concentration camp.
The studios also adopted new tactics. When Give Us This Night and The General Died at Dawn were banned, Paramount wrote to the Propaganda Ministry and speculated on what was objectionable in each case. Give Us This Night was scored by a Jewish composer, so the studio offered to dub in music by a German composer instead. The General Died at Dawn had been directed by Lewis Milestone, who had also directed All Quiet on the Western Front, so the studio offered to slash his name from the credits.
In January 1938, the Berlin branch of 20th Century Fox sent a letter directly to Hitler's office: "We would be very grateful if you could provide us with a note from the Führer in which he expresses his opinion of the value and effect of American films in Germany. We ask you for your kind support in this matter, and we would be grateful if you could just send us a brief notification of whether our request will be granted by the Führer. Heil Hitler!" Four days later, 20th Century Fox received a reply: "The Führer has heretofore refused in principle to provide these kinds of judgments."