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“We’d rather march to hear Willkie on national unity than be marched into a concentration camp,” Harry Warner firmly stated in the summer of 1941. The mogul was responding to criticism for his encouraging studio employees to attend a rally at the Hollywood Bowl featuring 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, a strong advocate for U.S. intervention in World War II. That same summer, a competing rally was held at the Hollywood Bowl on behalf of the America First movement. The keynote speaker was famed aviator and eugenics enthusiast Charles Lindbergh. The same aviator who, at an America First rally in Des Moines on Sept. 11, 1941, argued that one of the biggest threats to the United States was the Jewish-controlled media. Lindbergh’s hate-fueled rhetoric is covered at length in the new PBS docuseries, The U.S. and the Holocaust, directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. However, the series overlooked another event that launched days prior to Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech — the U.S. Senate Investigation into “motion picture propaganda.”
A missed opportunity in an otherwise commendable docuseries, the Senate investigation operated on the same seeds of hatred explored in The U.S. and the Holocaust. Isolationist fever, fueled by the likes of Lindbergh and radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin, coupled with the America First movement, built toward a crescendo of anti-Hollywood sentiment that walked hand in hand with America’s antisemitism. Senators Gerald Nye (R-N.D.) and D. Worth Clark (D-Idaho) were friends of America First and respected by Nazi front groups like the Silver Shirts and the German American Bund. Nye publicly attacked Hollywood studios as “gigantic engines of propaganda,” before introducing Senate Resolution 152 — the subject of my latest book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation Into Motion Picture Propaganda.
Toward the end of the first episode of The U.S. and the Holocaust, Burns declares that “all but one Hollywood studio went along with the Nazis.” This overgeneralization has been part of a larger conversation over the last decade following the publication of Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler in 2013. What the documentary does not note is that the primary reason Hollywood didn’t make anti-Nazi films earlier was because the self-governing Production Code had rules against ridiculing other nations. It was not out of some fear or alliance with the German Consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling. The German consul had say in what went to the German market, which was a lucrative one, but he had no authority in what was released domestically in the United States. Burns correctly stated that Warner Bros. was the first Hollywood studio to pull product from Germany, but that does not mean the others were in some way goose-stepping along with Hitler.
The American film industry was a hotbed of anti-Nazi activity after Hitler took power in 1933. Attorneys Leon Lewis and Mendel Silberberg organized a spy ring that regularly exposed and thwarted nefarious Nazi activity. The entire operation was secretly funded by the Hollywood moguls and was the subject of two excellent books: Hitler in Los Angeles by Steven Ross and Hollywood’s Spies by Laura Rosenzweig. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League began operation in 1936, held many well-attended events, and ran Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl out of town when she came to visit in 1938, as chronicled by Thomas Doherty in Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939.
In addition, Harry Warner held a meeting of the minds at his home to discuss ways to build bridges between Christians and Jews to fight fascism at home and abroad. Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle spent the last years of his life bringing refugees over from Europe and supporting them with employment. When the government informed Laemmle that he had reached his quota, he sent letters to friends pleading for them to sponsor families from war-torn Europe, promising to foot the bill for these as well. All of this is hardly evidence of Hollywood going along with the Nazis, as The U.S. and the Holocaust would have you believe.
Burns rightly points out that the 1939 Warner Bros. production of Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the first major film to bust the door open on the Nazis, but Warner Bros. had been making anti-fascist films for years. Black Legion (1937) and They Won’t Forget (1937) are both staunchly anti-Nazi allegories. By 1939, making a film about a nationally covered FBI investigation into Nazi espionage and the subsequent trial was impossible to ignore.
Other studios quickly followed suit. MGM’s The Mortal Storm (1940) and Escape (1940), 20th Century Fox’s The Man I Married (1940) and Man Hunt (1941), as well as UA’s The Great Dictator (1940) were among many passionately produced anti-Nazi movies prior to the U.S. joining the war. After Warner Bros. broke the dam, Hollywood realized they could (and should) break the industry’s self-regulating rule about attacking other nations. This influx of anti-Nazi movies, a small fraction of Hollywood’s output, raised the ire of the isolationist movement, became evidence for xenophobes that Lindbergh was right about Hollywood, and propelled the U.S. Senate to approve an investigation into Hollywood propaganda.
Sanctioned by Sen. Burton K. Wheeler’s (D-Mont.) Interstate Commerce Commission and led by senators Nye and Clark, the investigation gaveled in on Sept. 9, 1941. While much of the national press criticized the efforts of the isolationist senators, many letters of support were received during the days leading up to the hearings. Wheeler’s files at the National Archives contain missives from Jew haters around the country, praising him for finally doing something about America’s “Jewish problem.” One letter from Helen Connell in Chicago cited a made-up prophecy circulated by the Silver Shirts claiming that Benjamín Franklin wanted the “vampire Jews” written out of the constitution. Dozens of like-minded letters are saved in Wheeler’s files, a reminder that such anti-Hollywood sentiment was partly fueled by antisemitism.
The first two days of hearings saw Nye and Clark embarrass themselves on the national stage. Nye admitted to having not actually watched any of the films he fingered as dangerous. Clark complained that Hollywood’s copious press coverage should be reserved for elected officials. The press had a field day. On Sept. 10, 1941, The Outne Reporter hammered the senator on the front page: “SENATE INVESTIGATION A JOKE: Nye Holds Floor All Day — Talks Lot, Proves Nothing; Can’t Point Out Propaganda.” Los Angeles Times columnist Ed Ainsworth also took aim at Nye: “The seething senator says the films are propagating us into war, he probably thinks those United States ships [admittedly attacked by German subs] were sunk by a director from Warner Bros.” Journalist Westbrook Pegler argued that “the most powerful propaganda against Nazi Germany is to be found in the daily record of events in Germany since Hitler began to rise.”
Following Nye and Clark, America Firster John T. Flynn spun tales of propaganda and submitted a list of offensive films. Syndicated columnist and professional Hollywood hater Jimmie Fidler testified that he wished The Great Dictator were never made, while the isolationist senators were quick to point out the film’s writer, director and star was a suspicious foreigner, Charlie Chaplin. A few others testified, but the expected fireworks of the first session never materialized.
The press went wild during the first recess. California Gov. Culbert Olson published an open letter questioning why the Senate was opining about his state’s largest industry. President Franklin D. Roosevelt laughed off the Senate investigation when asked about it during a press conference. But much of the investigation’s undoing was thanks to junior Senator Ernest McFarland (D-Ariz.), whose honest questions about Hollywood unearthed the ignorance of the angriest voices. Willkie, who’d been tapped by the studios to plead their case in front of the subcommittee, was muzzled in the hearings, but unloaded daily to the national press, calling Nye “a star witness for the film industry.” The San Francisco Chronicle questioned the legality of the investigation. Even more confusing, the subcommittee did not subpoena industry censors Will Hays or Joseph Breen, two people who had real power over Hollywood content.
The film industry had the opportunity to defend itself during the second session, which opened with Loew’s president Nicholas Schenck. His testimony bled into the next day, and was made up primarily of responding to ignorant queries from senators unclear about Hollywood’s hierarchy of operations. The Hollywood Production Code rule about ridiculing other nations was brought up in an attempt to trip up Schenck, who was asked if a film like The Mortal Storm, about a family torn apart by fascism, was fair to Germany. Without missing a beat, Schenck replied, “I don’t think you want unity with Hitler.” That same day, the Film Daily published a poll that asked over 200 American film critics what they thought of the Senate investigation. 113 responded, every one of them opposing the Senate’s agenda.
The real bombshells landed when Warner Bros. president Harry Warner addressed the committee. “The only sin of which Warner Bros. is guilty is that of accurately recording on the screen the world as it is or as it has been,” the mogul sternly stated. Warner detailed his studio’s history of making topical films about the world, a history of which he was exceedingly proud and unapologetic. Warner listed numerous productions that usefully engaged with world affairs before reading a letter he received after the release of Confessions of a Nazi Spy. The letter read, in part, “The picture is exceedingly good. … Anyone who truly appreciates our democracy upon this earth will appreciate this picture and feel a new allegiance to the democratic cause.” The letter was written by Senator Nye.
The press reported that both Nye and Clark “went turkey red” as Warner shared the letter. Warner continued musing on how movies promote national unity and by the end, he had the committee in the palm of his hand. The confident and charismatic Warner took complete control of the room and left nothing for the isolationists to cling to.
The investigation should have ended after Warner nailed its coffin shut, but the committee persisted, next calling Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck. By this point, everyone was aware of the isolationists’ xenophobia, so Zanuck opened by telling the senators they need not fear him, since he was born in Nebraska. At one point, Senator McFarland stormed out of the hearing room and refused to return unless the committee watched the films in question to see if there was any purpose to the charade in the first place.
Hollywood was on the right side of history throughout the rise of Nazism. The entire episode with the U.S. Senate represented a perfect combination of prewar prejudice and paranoia coupled with the anti-Hollywood brand of Jew-hating. Largely overshadowed by the U.S. entry into World War II, the Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda remains a relevant warning as to how the seeds of hatred manifest through national movements. The “America First” slogan has been reignited in recent years, either by those ignorant of its history or by those hoping to slip its racist history back into the mainstream. History shows us that seeds of hatred are always looking for justification in a national movement, something The U.S. and the Holocaust also warns of. Eternally relevant, the Senate investigation is even a key piece of Anthony Marra’s new historical fiction novel, Mercury Pictures Presents. The events surrounding the U.S. Senate’s attacks on Hollywood are a relevant reminder of how such activity is always bubbling under the surface.
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