In the Age of Trump, A Look Back at How Hollywood Has Welcomed Immigrants (Guest Column)

"In Hollywood, professional relationships, tribal kinships and human decency caused many in the community to rally to the refugee cause" during the reign of the Nazis, writes Brandeis University professor and film historian Thomas Doherty.
From the estate of Charles W. Brackett
Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett writing 'The Lost Weekend' in 1945

Notwithstanding the welcome mat rolled out by Emma Lazarus, the doors to America have been as likely to slam shut as to open wide for immigrants, refugees and assorted huddled masses yearning to breathe free — or at least continue breathing. The recent move by the Trump administration to "extremely vet" human cargo from seven Muslim-majority nations is but the latest in a series of Keep Out signs posted by our designated gatekeepers, a reminder that the nation of immigrants has often been a nation of immigrant restrictions, with the second, and sometimes the first, generation of arrivals all too willing to block admission to the folks who were just a few steps behind them at the port of entry.   

For Hollywood, the recent exclusionary acts have inevitably unspooled a flashback to the 1930s, when a wave of German (and Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, et al.) refugees, mainly Jews, fled Nazi persecution and flooded into the motion picture industry. The parallels are not exact, but the response of the locals is instructive.

Unlike the original, this exodus of Jews and others from their homelands was not voluntary. When Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, the Nazis immediately set about purging Jewish and politically incompatible talent from the payrolls at Ufa, the nation's flagship studio — and thus demolished the only motion picture factory on the planet that threatened Hollywood's global hegemony. The process of "Aryanization" proceeded with soon-to-be legendary efficiency. By June 1934, Variety's in-country correspondent Wolfe Kaufman reported that, "The last German Jew is out of the film business in Berlin." Kaufman included himself: Henceforth, he would track the German beat from the safety of New York.      

For the sacked filmmakers, the Nazi obsession with the motion picture medium, and the desire of Propaganda Reichsminister Joseph Goebbels to orchestrate same, had a fortuitous consequence.  Among the first to be purged and persecuted, motion picture artists got out of Germany early, when Nazi policy was still expulsion, not annihilation. Carrying a single suitcase and whatever money and jewels they could conceal on their person, they departed, schnell, to Paris, Vienna, London and, for the lucky ones, onward to the logical setting to practice their craft, Hollywood.

To reach the promised land, the bureaucratic obstacles were as daunting as the geographical ones. The U.S. State Department, a gentleman's club of WASP privilege and rank anti-Semitism, conspired to exclude Jewish refugees from the already strict immigration quotas established under the Immigration Act of 1924. Economic insecurity, not national security, added to the inhospitable attitude to outsiders. Beset by 25 percent unemployment, Americans of the Great Depression were understandably unwilling to import competition for scarce jobs.

Still, an estimated 800 motion picture artists squeezed through the narrow slots — assisted by friends, family and total strangers who signed affidavits guaranteeing financial support, wrote letters of reference and pleaded with politicians to intervene. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote hundreds of letters to her friend, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, vouching for basically anyone who asked her for help.  

In Hollywood, professional relationships, tribal kinships and human decency caused many in the community to rally to the refugee cause. (The story is vividly told in Karen Thomas' 2009 documentary Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood.) Top-billed performers, Christian and Jew alike, staged benefits that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugee relief. Marlene Dietrich paid travel expenses and lent her home out as a plush crash pad. Eddie Cantor worked tirelessly, devoting stage performances and episodes of his radio show to raise awareness and money. In 1939, for a refugee benefit at the Winter Garden in New York, Tallulah Bankhead (in what must have been a hot ticket) performed a striptease to a packed house. 

Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, agent Paul Kohner and director Ernst Lubitsch were especially active and generous. All were Jewish immigrants who had come to America without Gestapo motivation — in 1884, 1920 and 1922, respectively — but all remembered the dislocation of being in a new world, all understood that the new arrivals were not just seeking career opportunities but running for their lives. In 1938, the men organized the European Film Fund; members donated 1 percent of their salaries to support out-of-work refugees.    

As always with strangers in strange lands, some of the exiles fared better than others due to luck, adaptability or possession of a desired skill set. Fluent in the universal language of image and sound, directors and composers might glide smoothly into the Hollywood studio system. Ace director Joe May floundered in Hollywood, but Henry Koster hit paydirt with Three Smart Girls (1936), which made Deanna Durbin a star. Fritz Lang took time to adjust his autocratic ways to the studio workplace, but he eventually exchanged his monocle for a pair of eyeglasses. Composers Franz Waxman and Eric Wolfgang Korngold didn't miss a beat, lending a lush, operatic wraparound to soundtracks that seeped into the ear below the level of consciousness.

Screenwriters had a harder time, struggling with the odd accents and vocabulary of American vernacular, literally lost in translation. Few were as verbally agile as Billy Wilder, whose second language ear for the indigenous patois informed all his films, though even Wilder paired up with a native-speaker collaborator.  

The lot of actors was hit or miss. Even above-the-title players in Europe tended to be relegated to B-movies and character roles, like Peter Lorre, who somehow passed as Japanese in a popular series of Mr. Moto films. As war loomed, and then broke out, many refugee actors found steady employment playing hissable Nazi villains — a kind of payback and poetic justice. They had often confronted the real thing up close: unctuous sadists whose aristocratic manners never masked a brutish cruelty. How odd it must have been for Alexander Granach, chased out of Germany by the Gestapo in 1933, to don a Gestapo uniform for Lang's Hangmen Also Die (1943), based on a story by an exiled Weimar playwright who billed himself as "Bert" Brecht. Or for Martin Kosleck, a German-Jewish leftist who also fled Germany in 1933, to be typecast not just as a Nazi but as the face of Nazi propaganda himself, appearing as Goebbels in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), the first of five such impersonations.   

When not working or hustling for work, the German exiles met in cafes, salons and beach houses to schmooze, network and reminisce. Wags dubbed Hollywood "Weimar on the Pacific," and for a time it seemed as if German had supplanted Yiddish as the backup lingua franca around town. Refugees and their friends took over Hollywood theaters to stage variety shows that might have been mounted in a Berlin cafe in 1927. At the famed Sunday afternoon tea parties at the Santa Monica home of screenwriters Berthold and Salka Viertel, they recaptured the vibrant mix of politics and arts that had made life sparkle in Weimar Germany, though any nostalgia for the past was tempered by knowledge of the present. The Germany some of them pined for — the land of high culture, modernist experimentation, and decadent cabaret — no longer existed.

As the exiles were absorbed into the studio system, they infused Hollywood with the style and sensibility of their training ground, the glory days of German Expressionist cinema. The symbiosis generated that most counter-American of Hollywood genres, film noir. Fear, pursuit and abrupt twists of fate haunt the low-lit netherworlds and blind alleys of, to name just a few, Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), Lang's sordid twinpack The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) and Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946). 

Yet not all was soupy fog and gloomy interiors. The hybrid of German-Jewish angst and American grit informed the most beloved of all Hollywood films — Casablanca, of course. The film showcases a Central Casting facebook of refugee artists packing the interior of Rick's Café Americain, the gin joint that everybody comes to. Among the staff and customers: Paul Henreid as the heroic Victor Laszlo; Lorre as the sniveling thief, Ugarte; S. Z. Sakall as the sentimental headwaiter Carl; Leonid Kinskey as Sascha the bartender; Madeleine Lebeau as the jilted Yvonne, and, indelibly, Conrad Veidt, not a Jewish but a political exile, playing the definitive menacing Nazi, Major Strasser. In his absorbing account of the afterlife of the film, We'll Always Have Casablanca, Noah Isenberg observes that despite "the Hollywood gloss," it "still somehow speaks with uncommon poignancy to the exile condition, not only during the war years of the 1940s, but in later historical moments and in different settings." No wonder: The plot hinges on the acquisition of letters of transit, the tickets to a new life in a new country, something that most of the original cast would not have looked upon as a mere McGuffin. 

The high-tension drama of having your fate decided by a chop on your passport from a poor, (possibly) corrupt official was a moment of decision Wilder never forgot. In 1988, at the podium to receive the Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the great writer-director recalled his interview with a U.S. consul at the American embassy in Mexico City in 1934. His visa had expired; he needed a new one to get back into the United States. His papers were in order, but one never knows.

"What do you do, Mr. Wilder?" asked the consul.

"I make pictures," said Wilder, praying the man was a fan.

The consul paused for what seemed an eternity, sizing Wilder up.  

"OK," he said, as he stamped Wilder's passport. "Make some good ones."

Wilder did, of course, as did his fellow refugees, contributing immeasurably to the richness of America culture, which is pretty much what refugees always do once they're let in the door.

Thomas P. Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books on American film and culture, most recently Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, published in 2013 by Columbia University Press.