Ben Urwand's Book About Hollywood Execs Letting Hitler Off the Hook Is Interesting, But He Oversells It
It's not news that Hollywood waited too long to confront Nazi Germany. It fell to the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin, to fire the first major broadside in 1940 with his hilarious satire The Great Dictator. By that time Paris had already fallen, and two years had passed since Kristallnacht, when the world became aware that Adolf Hitler was targeting Jews on a mass scale.
What's not so well known is why Hollywood waited so long.
Ben Urwand has a complex, frequently fascinating story to tell in his first book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler. Since Hollywood was founded and run by Jews, the idea that those same Jews — Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, Carl Laemmle and Harry Cohn — would enter into a sinister pact with the ultimate anti-Semite is a promising premise.
But the book doesn't deliver. Instead, it reads like a graduate-school dissertation that has been padded out with too-long screenplay summaries and slapped with an incendiary title in order to spur sales.
A far more accurate title would have been Greed, Confusion and Willful Ignorance: How Hollywood's moguls failed to predict the Holocaust and sold out European Jews to keep the German market open. But would you read that?
Especially in Hollywood, "collaboration" long has had a positive connotation. A great film requires many elements — writing, directing, acting — working together to make a whole greater than its parts.
But around the time of World War II, collaboration came to have a more sinister meaning: working with the occupying Nazis. After France was liberated in 1944, women who had hooked up with Nazis to maintain a better lifestyle were stripped naked, their heads shaved, and then they were chased through the streets.
Urwand, who spent nine years digging through German and Hollywood archives, first for his graduate dissertation at UC Berkeley and later in his capacity as a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, says he settled on his title because he found the German word for "collaboration," zusammenarbeit, in several early-1930s communications between German officials and Hollywood.
But the word was used in the sense of working together to deal with sensitivities in foreign markets, something the studios had a long history of doing. It also was used in these documents long before anyone had an inkling of the Holocaust and well before Germany occupied any countries.
Still, Urwand insists his use is appropriate. "That's the word I found in the documents, so that's the word I used," he tells the Weekly.
In the book, MGM's Louis Mayer, in particular, comes in for rough treatment, with the author claiming that Mayer personally killed two scripts — The Mad Dog of Europe (1933) and It Can't Happen Here (1936) — that would have exposed, respectively, Hitler's persecution of Jews and the evils of fascism.
Asked if Mayer was the top collaborator in Hollywood, though, Urwand backs away from the implication. "I wouldn't say Mayer was the No. 1 collaborator. I would say he's at the center of my book more than any other studio executive."
And there was no pact, Urwand acknowledges, in the sense of a formal agreement made by two parties. Instead, there was Article 15, a 1932 German law, which threatened to bar any Hollywood studio from Germany if it produced any film "detrimental to German prestige." Germany then sent an aggressive enforcer, Georg Gyssling, to L.A. to protect its image.
The pressure worked: Hollywood did not produce an overtly anti-Nazi film until Warner Bros. made Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939. "That in my mind is a pact," Urwand says.
But if that's overselling it, Urwand's bigger sin is that he fails to put his story into historical context. Not only does the book invite the reader to take the moral high road with 20/20 hindsight — "Surely I would have seen what Hitler had planned much sooner than Mayer and those other greedy fools" — but it also fails to give the 5,000-member Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, founded in 1936, more than a passing mention.
Urwand defends the omission: "The story I'm telling is not the story of a group of screenwriters and their activities," he explains. "This is a story about studio executives and what they did." But the group's board members included Jack Warner and Carl Laemmle.
There is an intriguing story here of Hollywood's desperate attempts to keep its films flowing into Germany and the profits flowing out. And Urwand turns up some nasty facts: MGM was unable to get its profits out of Germany without buying German bonds, which eventually were invested in German armaments, and Paramount and Fox made what he calls "pro-Nazi" newsreels in Germany.
But if you're looking for proof of "collaboration" in the WWII sense, or a pact with Hitler? Save your money.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter:
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.