The Chilling History of How Hollywood Helped Hitler (Exclusive)

8:40 AM PST 07/31/2013 by Ben Urwand
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Paul Rogers

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 Final Cut

In April 1936, Laemmle lost control of Universal Pictures to the American financier and sportsman John Cheever Cowdin, who revived All Quiet on the Western Front sequel The Road Back. "When this story originally came in four or five years ago," a Universal employee explained to the Hays Office, "we were loath to produce … solely due to the jeopardy in which its production would have placed our German business. … [S]ince then the situation with regard to the American Film Industry has completely changed and we are now ready and anxious to produce this story."

Despite this proclamation, Universal had not lost interest in Germany. In February 1937, Cowdin traveled to Berlin, and according to U.S. ambassador William E. Dodd, he made an "unusual offer" to the Nazis. "The company in question was previously controlled by Jewish interests but after recent reorganization, it is understood that it is now non-Jewish," wrote Dodd, "[and after] discussions with government officials … a plan was considered whereby, probably in collaboration with German interests, his company might re-enter the German market."

On April 1, 1937, Gyssling made his boldest move yet. He sent letters to about 60 people involved in The Road Back -- the director, the cast, even the wardrobe man -- and he warned them that any films in which they participated in the future might be banned in Germany. The move created an uproar. Gyssling had directly threatened American film workers for their activities on home soil. He had used the U.S. Postal Service to frighten and intimidate individuals. Universal told everyone to keep the matter a secret, but the news leaked out. Several actors sought out legal advice; complaints were lodged with the State Department. One member of the Hays Office hoped that Gyssling would finally be expelled "on account of his viciousness."

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The matter was considered at the highest level. A representative of the secretary of state met with the counselor of the German embassy and pointed out that such actions did not fall within the proper functions of a consular officer. He did not want to lodge an official complaint; he simply asked the counselor to bring the matter up with the German government.

In the meantime, Universal Pictures made 21 cuts to The Road Back. By this stage, there was hardly anything in the film to which the ambassador could object. So many scenes had been cut out that the plot barely made any sense. The ending, which had criticized the rise of militarism in Germany, now criticized the rise of militarism all around the world. But the Nazis would not allow the company back into Germany.

For Gyssling, the news was less bleak. The German Foreign Office sent a brief, unapologetic letter to the State Department to explain that the consul in Los Angeles had been instructed not to issue future warnings to American citizens. As a result, the State Department considered the matter closed.

In all of these dealings with the Hollywood studios, Gyssling was doing something very strategic. He was objecting to a series of films about the World War when his real target lay elsewhere. Ever since he had heard about The Mad Dog of Europe, he had understood that Hollywood was capable of producing a much more damaging type of film from his perspective: a film that attacked Nazi Germany. His reaction to The Road Back was carefully calculated. He was focusing his energies on the films set in the past in an attempt to prevent the studios from moving into the present.

In April 1937, the final volume of Erich Maria Remarque's trilogy, Three Comrades, which was prime Hollywood material, was published in the United States. Whereas All Quiet on the Western Front had been about the World War and The Road Back had been about its aftermath, Three Comrades was set in the late 1920s, when the Nazis were emerging as a significant political force. The MGM producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (brother of Herman) hired none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote a script that mounted a powerful attack on the rise of Nazism in Germany.

When the Hays Office's Breen read the new script, he panicked. He had just received a fourth warning from Gyssling about Three Comrades, and he knew exactly what the German consul was capable of. He wrote to Mayer in the strongest possible terms: "This screen adaptation suggests to us enormous difficulty from the standpoint of your company's distribution business in Germany. … [and] may result in considerable difficulty in Europe for other American producing organizations."

Despite Breen's concerns, the shooting of Three Comrades went ahead. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg recalled MGM screened the movie for Gyssling: "There was some films that Louis B. Mayer of MGM would actually run … with the Nazi German consul and was willing to take out the things that the consul, that the Nazi, objected to." Although Breen did not keep a record of the meeting between Mayer and Gyssling, he was soon in possession of something else: a list of changes that needed to be made to the film. It is very unlikely that Breen came up with the list himself, for he had his own separate set of suggestions (relating to sex, foul language, etc.). In all likelihood this secret document, which contained 10 unusual changes, was the list that Mayer compiled with Gyssling at the end of their screening of Three Comrades.

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Breen went through the list in a meeting with several MGM executives. The film needed to be set somewhat earlier, in the two-year period immediately following the end of the World War. "Thus, we will get away from any possible suggestion that we are dealing with Nazi violence or terrorism." He read out the scenes that needed to be cut, and he pointed out that these cuts could be made without interfering with the romantic plot at the center of the picture. The MGM executives agreed. After all the changes had been made, Three Comrades neither attacked the Nazis nor mentioned the Jews. The picture had been completely sanitized.

From Gyssling's perspective, the removal of all the offensive elements of Three Comrades was the true benefit of his behavior from the previous year. He had reacted so dramatically to the second film in the trilogy that he had now managed to get his way on the third. And this was no small feat, for Three Comrades would have been the first explicitly anti-Nazi film by an American studio. At this critical historical moment, when a major Hollywood production could have alerted the world to what was going on in Germany, the director did not have the final cut; the Nazis did.

'Throw Us Out'

The collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis lasted well into 1940. Though Warner Bros. released Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, this B-picture had no effect on the studios still operating in Germany. MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox kept doing business with the Nazis, and MGM even donated 11 of its films to help with the German war relief effort after the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

As the war continued, the studios found it virtually impossible to distribute their pictures in England and France, two of their largest sources of foreign revenue. In this context, they were less concerned with the relatively minor German market. MGM soon embarked on its first anti-Nazi picture The Mortal Storm, and 20th Century Fox began work on Four Sons. The Nazis responded by invoking Article 15 and by September 1940, both had been expelled from German-occupied territory.

In the year that followed, the studios released only a handful of anti-Nazi movies because of another, very different political force: the American isolationists. The isolationists accused Hollywood of making propaganda designed to draw the United States into the European war, and in the fall of 1941, Congress investigated this charge in a series of hearings. The most dramatic moment came when the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, gave a rousing defense of Hollywood: "I look back and recall pictures so strong and powerful that they sold the American way of life, not only to America but to the entire world. They sold it so strongly that when dictators took over Italy and Germany, what did Hitler and his flunky, Mussolini, do? The first thing they did was to ban our pictures, throw us out. They wanted no part of the American way of life."

In the thunderous applause that followed, no one pointed out that Zanuck's own studio had been doing business with the Nazis just the previous year.

Excerpted from The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand (Harvard University Press, on sale Sept. 9). Copyright Ben Urwand.

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