The Holocaust Historiography Project


Hollywood Goes to War

  • HOLLYWOOD GOES TO WAR: HOW POLITICS, PROFITS AND PROPAGANDA SHAPED WORLD WAR II MOVIES by Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black. New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1987, x + 374 pages, illustrated, $22.50, ISBN 0-02-903550-3.

Reviewed by Jack Wikoff

Propaganda may be defined as the attempt to manipulate public opinion for the purpose of helping or injuring a particular cause, individual or group. The propagandist seeks to control rather than to inform.

After reading Hollywood Goes to War, one cannot help but come away with the impression that the movie industry and various government agencies were very much in the propaganda business before and during World War II.

By the late 1930’s the “Big Eight” Hollywood studios dominated the domestic and foreign markets. These corporations had created a vertically integrated industry. As authors Koppes and Black tell us:

They controlled the entire process from casting and production through distribution (wholesaling) and exhibition (retailing). The Big Eight reaped 95 per cent of all motion picture rentals in the U.S. in the late 1930's. Their control over theater chains, particularly the all-important first-run urban houses which determined a pictures future, was critical.

Koppes and Black go on to explain briefly that:

The men who guided the industry in its transition to big business were mostly Jewish theater owners, who were uniquely suited to the task The playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht once observed that Hollywood constituted “a Semitic renaissance sans rabbis and Talmud.”

We are also informed that:

In 1940 five of the fifteen highest salaries in the country went to movie people. Atop the greasy pole was the quintessential mogul. Louis B. Mayer, whose princely $1.3 million in salary and bonuses in 1937 probably surpassed the compensation to any other American executive.

The content of motion pictures became avidly internationalist and anti-isolationist long before Pearl Harbor. In 1938 United Artists released Blockade, a pro-Loyalist tale of the Spanish Civil War starring Henry Fonda. Catholic organizations protested the showing of this picture because of the pro-Communist Republican armies' record of atrocities against priests and nuns. Joseph Breen, the conservative Catholic journalist and head of the Production Code Administration, accused Hollywood and in particular the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League of an attempt to “capture the screen of the United States for Communistic propaganda purposes.” He claimed the League was “conducted and financed almost entirely by Jews.”

In 1939 Warner Brothers premiered Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which claimed in melodramatic fashion that Germany sought to conquer the entire globe. “Using semi-documentary techniques and long periods of narration, the film identified the German-American Bund as an arm of the German government whose purpose was to destroy the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.” Fritz Kuhn, leader of the Bund, responded to this smear campaign with a libel suit for $5,000,000. After Kuhn was indicted and convicted for allegedly stealing German-American Bund funds, the suit was dropped. That these charges against Kuhn were politically motivated was indicated by the Bund’s continued support of him. [See Peter Peel, “The Great Brown Scare,” JHR, Vol. 7, no.4, Winter 1986-1987 — Ed.]

Also released in 1939 was Beasts of Berlin, capitalizing on the infamy of the 1917 film, The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin, which had sparked anti-German riots in many American cities during the First World War.

1940 and 1941 saw the appearance of such pro-war films as Charlie Chaplin’s burlesque of Hitler and Mussolini, The Great Dictator, as well as Man Hunt, directed by German emigré Fritz Lang, The Mortal Storm, A Yank in the R.A.F., Sergeant York, I Married a Nazi and a host of other titles. These pictures were an integral part of the vigorous campaign by various elements to get the United States into a war with Germany.

Interestingly, FDR’s son, James, the president of Globe Productions, got into the propaganda business by distributing a British film titled Pastor Hall. This was a glamorized account of the anti-Nazi activities of Martin Niemöller, the “World War I U-boat captain-turned-pacifist-preacher.” James added a prologue written by Robert Sherwood and read by none other than his dear old mom, Eleanor.

Intimate ties between Hollywood and the Roosevelt administration are further indicated by the following paragraph in Hollywood Goes to War:

In August [1940] FDR asked Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s (parent of MGM) to make a film on defense and foreign policy. By mid-October Eyes of the Navy, a two-reeler which a studio executive promised would win the president thousands of votes, graced neighborhood movie houses. Schenck’s interest may have been personal as well as patriotic. His brother Joseph, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, was convicted of income tax evasion. President Roosevelt asked Attorney General Robert Jackson to let the studio chief off with a fine, and so did Roosevelts son James, to whom Joseph had lent $50,000. But the upright Jackson insisted on a jail sentence. Schenck served four months before being paroled to the studio lot.

In September of 1941 a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce began hearings on “war propaganda disseminated by the motion picture industry and of any monopoly in the production, distribution, or exhibition of motion pictures.” This investigation was instigated by the isolationist Senator from North Dakota, Gerald P. Nye. Chief counsel for Hollywood was Wendell Willkie, the internationalist and 1940 Republican presidential nominee. This last-ditch effort by the isolationists was too little and too late. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor three months later ended any question of more hearings.

Once the United States was at war with Germany, the studios churned out one anti-Nazi potboiler after another. An audience today is likely to snicker at such “classics” as Hillbilly Blitzkrieg, Women in Bondage, The Devil with Hitler, I Escaped from the Gestapo, Hitler’s Children, That Nazty Nuisance, Strange Death of Adolf Hitler, Enemy of Women, Hitler’s Madman, The Master Race, The Hitler Gang, Hotel Berlin and Tarzan Triumphs. Koppes and Black summarize the plot of Tarzan Triumphs as follows:

Nazi agents parachute into Tarzan’s peaceful kingdom and occupy a fortress, hoping to exploit oil and tin. Johnny Weissmuller, a slightly flabby but still commanding noble savage, rallies his natives (all of whom are white) against the Axis. “Kill Nadzies!” Tarzan commands the natives. They nod eagerly. The Germans are so despicable even the animals turn against them. Tarzan chases the head of the Nazi troops into the jungle, and, just as the fear-crazed German officer frantically signals Berlin on his shortwave radio, Tarzan kills him. In Berlin the radio operator recognizes the distress signal and rushes out to summon the general in charge of the African operation. While Tarzan, Boy, and Jungle Priestess laughingly look on, Cheetah the chimp chatters into the transmitter. Ignorant of the fatal struggle in the jungle depths, the general hears the chimp on the radio, jumps to his feet, salutes, and yells to his subordinates that they are listening not to Africa but to Der Führer.

The roles of the sadistic, sex-crazed, bullet-headed, Nazi “Krauts” in these pictures were played by such Hollywood “heavies” as George Siegman, Erich von Stroheim, Walter Long and Hobart Bosworth. Actor Bobby Watson was kept busy playing the part of Adolf Hitler throughout the war.

To be fair, Hollywood did make some quality pictures out of the 2400 made from 1939 to 1945. Some of the few that come to this reviewer’s mind are Casablanca (Warner Brothers, 1943), The Story of G.I. Joe (United Artists, 1945), and Lifeboat (Twentieth Century- Fox,1944). It has often been said that the best war movies are usually made long after the war is over.

The Japanese fared no better at the hands of Hollywood’s myth makers. In Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1942) all people of Japanese descent were portrayed as loyal to the Emperor and capable of sabotage and treason. This film wholeheartedly advocated the internment of all Japanese-Americans. At the end of the film, when an “all-American Los Angeles police detective” named Mike Steele has broken the Japanese spy ring, he does what every red-blooded American supposedly wanted to do, namely to punch out the Japanese villain, proclaiming “That’s for Pearl Harbor, you slant-eyed … “

Coldblooded Japanese militarism was portrayed in The Purple Heart, Guadalcanal Diary, Wake Island, Menace of the Rising Sun, Remember Pearl Harbor, Danger in the Pacific and others. Koppes and Black remind us “It is a rare film that did not employ such terms as 'Japs,' 'beasts,' 'yellow monkeys,' snips,' or 'slant-eyed rats.'” Japanese soldiers were frequently shown about to rape white women, usually buxom blonds. Another frequent cinematic image was that of a Japanese fighter-pilot with buckteeth taking several machine-gun hits to the body, blood splattering his windshield, and screaming in agony as his plane plunged into the Pacific.

The height of absurdity in race-crossed casting appears in Dragon Seed (MGM, 1944) in which heavily made-up Caucasians, including a “slant-eyed” Katherine Hepburn, play Chinese, while real Chinese extras play the Japanese hordes.

In 1943 Warner Brothers premiered Mission to Moscow, based on the book of the same name by Joseph E. Davies, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. The authors of Hollywood Goes to War characterize this picture as the “most notorious example of propaganda in the guise of entertainment ever produced by Hollywood.” Mission to Moscow traces in pseudo-documentary style Davies' career as ambassador and the events taking place in the Soviet Union and worldwide from the mid-1930’s through 1941.

The Roosevelt administration was intimately involved in the making of this picture, which represented FDR as a great internationalist and anti-fascist. Davies had power of script approval and was ultimately responsible for Mission to Moscow's glossing over of Stalinist crimes. Davies insisted that the Soviet invasion of Finland be portrayed as happening at the “invitation” of Finland to the Soviets to occupy strategic positions against Germany. Likewise, other Soviet crimes of the 1930’s are ignored or passed over: the invasion of the eastern portion of Poland in 1939, the aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the forced collectivization of the kulaks (small farmers) in the Ukraine with the resulting starvation of millions of peasants. The film represented the Moscow purge trials as the result of attempts by Trotsky, Bukharin, Krestinsky and other “Old Bolsheviks” to sell out the Soviet Union to Germany and Japan. Mission to Moscow used documentary film footage to add verisimilitude to this vintage “docudrama,” which depicted the American isolationists as a small cabal plotting to thwart the people’s will to “collective security.” The Soviet Union was depicted as a land of plenty in contrast to National Socialist Germany’s alleged chronic lack of food and consumer goods. The public was led to believe the Soviet Union was a “democracy” and the Russian people were “just like Americans.”

Most of the major studios produced pro-Soviet films in the last years of the war, including Song of Russia (MGM, 1943), Three Russian Girls (United Artists, 1943), North Star (MGM, 1943), Boy from Stalingrad (Columbia, 1943), Days of Glory (RKO, 1944) and Counterattack (Columbia, 1945).

While the United States was at war, several overlapping and competing government bureaucracies sought to influence the content of motion pictures. Most influential was the Office of War Information, set up in 1942. Much of Hollywood Goes to War deals, in Koppes and Black’s rather plodding style, with the relationship between the movie industry and the OWI. The Bureau of Motion Pictures played a role as well. The Office of Censorship, created by the Roosevelt administration to oversee the wartime censorship of mail, films, maps and other materials, could deny an export license for a movie. With forty per cent of an average picture’s revenue coming from the foreign market, the Office of Censorship had considerable power over motion picture content, from script approval to final cut.

Hollywood Goes to War deals strictly with feature films made by the major studios and the bureaucracies involved in the motion picture production process. Koppes and Black do not cover training films and documentaries made by the Army and Navy with enlisted Hollywood personnel studio-made short films, newsreels or animation. Nor is any mention made of the Field Photographic branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA. created by William “Wild Bill” Donovan. Utilizing the talents of such Hollywood directors as Budd Schulberg and John Ford, the Field Photographic branch collected “evidence” of alleged atrocities in German concentration camps captured at the war’s end. This footage was used by the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials and in denazification films shown during the forced “re-education” of German citizens.

Without a doubt, the Hollywood studios wanted to contribute to the war effort and defeat of the Axis, yet at the same time the movie moguls did not want to be told how to run their monopolistic corporations. Most important to these film executives was the profit motive. In the early and mid-l930’s the studios had altered the content of films to allow them to play in the lucrative German, Italian, Spanish and Latin American markets.5,000 theaters in Latin America showed American films, 6,000 in Asia, and an astounding 35,000 in Europe. In 1935, when the National Socialist government demanded that foreign companies with offices in Germany hire only Aryan employees, the major studios complied.

The foreign market for Hollywood pictures diminished as National Socialist and Fascist political movements became more influential. The Nuremberg Laws banned German films with Jewish actors and actresses and limited the number of Hollywood films to 20% of the German market. The onset of World War II reduced the market for Hollywood’s product even more. The market began to expand as soon as Allied armies secured territory in the latter years of the war, and American movies were again shown in the newly “liberated” theaters. After the war’s end the great studio system which had flourished in Germany from 1919 to 1945 was unable to rebuild in West Germany, and the internationalist film industry gained a virtually open market In contrast, the Communist government of East Germany rebuilt a studio system that was now totally state-owned and-operated.

The authors of Hollywood Goes to War make it very clear that the power to shape the content of entertainment and information was extraordinary during World War II, when dissenting opinion was likely to be stifled and censored in the name of the “war effort". Unfortunately authors Koppes and Black do not question the motives which got the United States into World War II in the first place. They are also unduly critical of the motivations of the isolationists and tend to play down the influence of leftwing and Marxist elements in prewar Hollywood, especially among the screenwriters. Nevertheless, Hollywood Goes to War provides a strong picture of what happens when a powerful industry and government attempt to control public opinion. As expressed on the closing page:

Hollywood had always claimed that it only gave the public what it wanted, and cited the movies' popularity as proof. But since the cartel controlled the range of choice, Hollywood was saying only that the public bought what it was given.