Tuesday’s Sunday Random Roundup, October 1, 2013

The zombies made me miss the Roundup last week. But now we have an actual developing story…perhaps even a scandal of sorts. So there’s no actual Roundup here, unless you think of it as a Roundup of one thing. I should make it clear that I have not yet read either Doherty’s or Urwand’s books…though after reading so much about them, I hope to find the time to do so.

In my very first Roundup, I mentioned the recently published and controversial The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand. The Hollywood Reporter published an excerpt, along with a response by film scholar Thomas Doherty, who published a book on the same subject earlier this year, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933 – 1939. Now, the Self-Styled Siren has weighed in, agreeing with Doherty (and a passel of other reliable sources) that Urwand is, based on the available evidence, wildly overstating Hollywood’s “collaboration” with Nazis.

It would seem that a lot of the problem is that there simply isn’t the evidence Urwand wants there to be. The Siren quotes from the text, demonstrating Urwand’s slippery rhetoric:

With regard to “It Can’t Happen Here,” a proposed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a fictitious American dictator, it can’t be corroborated that Gyssling [Georg Gyssling, the German consul] even contacted [Production Code Administration “censor-in-chief”*] Joe Breen about it. Urwand is undeterred: “His presence in Los Angeles undoubtedly affected MGM’s decision” to scuttle the film.

“Undoubtedly.”

David Denby, in his review of both Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler and Urwand’s book, makes a similar criticism about the dropped Lewis adaptation: Urwand “says that a threatening Gyssling letter to Warners [about the adaptation] has been lost, but he then reconstructs what the letter ‘would’ have said, based on the single letter he cites (without ever quoting it). It’s hard to imagine how authoritative scholarship and furious accusations can be based on missing documents, the conditional mood, and conjecture.” Denby has since published a follow-up on the New Yorker‘s blog, on which more below (including a link).

Ermph. Furthermore, as the Siren reveals, Urwand is either unfamiliar with pre-Code films or so invested in his argument that he can’t see the trees for the forest. Not only did “Hollywood” collaborate with the Nazis, but, Urwand insists, “Hollywood had avoided making movies that drew attention to the economic depression and the horrendous conditions under which people were living” (quoted by the Siren).

As the Siren clarifies:

This strikes me, and anyone who’s ever spent a hot summer day at a Film Forum Pre-Code triple feature, as spectacularly wrong. Thomas Doherty points out in his Pre-Code Hollywood that in an 18-month period from 1931 to 1933, one director—Roy Del Ruth—made ten films that bring up those subjects. Not to mention Mervyn LeRoy’s “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “Little Caesar,” Frank Capra’s “American Madness,” or even “Scarface,” which Urwand must have seen, because he says the Nazis found that one unacceptable —I mean, how many does it take?

Indeed. One of the great glories of pre-code film is precisely how much apparently unfiltered content made to the screen–sex, politics, class, crime, misery, you name it–before the Hays office and Joseph Breen, a documented anti-Semite, started tidying up.

Here are two of Roy Del Ruth’s films, the trailer for Employees’ Entrance (1933) and James Cagney helping out the Irish cop with a little Yiddish in Taxi! (1932) (which also stars the delightful Loretta Young). Both are films about labor relations (and romance, of course).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlMFUuniuGw&w=420&h=315]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynpOEcPdjdk&w=420&h=315]

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a particularly good clip for Del Ruth’s 1933 Captured!, starring Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and which takes place in a German POW camp.

And then there’s the title of Urwand’s book, The Collaboration. No one who reads that title will think it is merely a term describing what moguls and German officials were doing, a word like, say “conference” or even “agreement.” The word “collaboration” in regards to fascism has come to mean something very specific, and the Siren quotes Doherty from his HR rebuttal: “To call a Hollywood mogul a collaborator is to assert that he worked consciously and purposefully, out of cowardice or greed, under the guidance of Nazi overlords.” At least one Holocaust scholar has also pointed out that Urwand’s use of the term is inaccurate. Urwand’s rush to label Jewish studio heads collaborators smacks of the contemporary vogue of likening anyone we disagree with to Hitler–a practice that simply trivializes the atrocities for which Hitler was actually responsible.

The Siren also has trouble with Urwand’s inclusion of King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) as evidence of “Hollywood’s” collaboration, despite the fact that Vidor mortgaged his house to finance the film. “Put aside, if possible, the infuriating slant on Vidor’s motives and his film,” the Siren argues. “What is this movie doing in this book? It illustrates nothing about the studios because it was made outside them.” Ah, details, details.

This is a longish scene from Our Daily Bread, accused of being “pinko” on its release:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaW_uuwIO3o&w=420&h=315]

Perhaps the most damning criticism I’ve come across, for a historian, is Denby’s, in his description of the way in which Urwand discusses actual films themselves: “In his own way, Urwand thinks like an ideologue—or a censor.” According to the book’s critics, Urwand considers a movie’s plot and whether or not the Nazis gave it a thumbs up; nothing else about the film appears to be relevant. Any academic worth his (or her) salt knows that reception does not prove intent.

It is certainly true that Hollywood, taken to mean the studios, did not do all we might in hindsight have wished when the specter of Nazism materialized. (Hardly anyone in a position of influence in this country did.) Some of this failure is due to perfectly predictable, if not laudable, business concerns. Some of it is similarly due to the largely Jewish industry worrying that being seen as openly hostile to Hitler and/or Germany would hurt their profits and/or reputation…but also, intriguingly, to what now seem counter-intuitive circumstances like the Anti-Defamation League’s concern that such open hostility, or even positive representations of Jewish characters would make things worse for Jews in America.

Warner Brothers’ 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola is a fascinating case in point. Directed by the emigré William (Wilhelm) Dieterle and starring Paul Muni, neé Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in Austria-Hungary, Zola focuses on the writer’s involvement in the case surrounding the false accusations against Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French artillery. Denby reports that the film’s central subject is something its producer, Henry Blanke, told a concerned Gyssling would “play only a small role” in the film (Denby’s words). And yet the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film (though it is visible on a document for about a second and a half). How could this have happened? Well, in 1937, a number of studios agreed “to avoid using the words ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews’ in order to prevent a domestic anti-Semitic backlash to their films,” according to film historian and journalist Mike Greco, in his review of Urwand’s book published on the American Film Institute’s web site.

Zola won the Oscar for Best Picture that year, among other awards, and anyone who knew anything about world politics could see the analogy with contemporary Germany. (The Dreyfus case is referred to as “infamous” in one of the original trailers for the film, below.) Turner Classic Movies’ entry on the film notes that The Life of Emile Zola “was not shown in France until the fiftieth anniversary of Zola’s death in 1952 and even then it required the consent of four French ministries before it could be shown.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcSWl5DaL4s&w=420&h=315]

The Jewish Chronicle web site notes that the 1940 film The Mortal Storm, another anti-Nazi effort, also “never used the word ‘Jew’. And the same is true for more recent films like Dirty Dancing, in 1987, and Avalon, in 1990, despite their respective Jewish milieus.”

The oddly coy trailer for Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP0LmTA2fXM&w=420&h=315]

At any rate, the fact of studios cutting films to appease foreign markets, including Germany, is not news. As film historian Jeanine Basinger points out in her review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, “In other words, there’s no news here. Mr. Urwand’s outrage seems to be a bit like that of Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca,’ when he is ‘shocked, shocked’ to find gambling going on at Rick’s Café Americain.” Basinger offers a series of examples of studios altering films for both foreign and domestic audiences: “In 1915, the villain of ‘The Cheat’ (played by the Japanese Sessue Hayakawa) was ‘a rich Oriental.’ In the 1923 remake, he had become ‘a fake Hindu prince.’ By the 1931 version, he was ‘a man who had just returned from the Orient.’ In the 1940s and ’50s, Lena Horne’s musical numbers were cut from films released in the South, and Frank Capra was warned that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ should delete the use of the Lord’s Prayer. (‘Obtain a suitable prayer or it will be necessary to shoot an alternate scene for Great Britain.’)” This doesn’t fill me with pride, particularly that bit about Lena Horne, but none of Urwand’s supportable claims appear to offer any new discoveries.

All of this raises the question…what prompted Harvard University Press to publish the book? Or at least, to publish it without significant revisions, a question Denby himself ponders in a September 23 New Yorker blog post. He also revisits his original review, in which he had granted one of Urwand’s claims about studios distributing Nazi propaganda in non-US markets. Denby points to Urwand’s September 6 “On the Media” interview, aired on NPR, in which he explains that the “propaganda” shot in Germany was re-edited and made, in Urwand’s own words, “neutral in tone,” rather undermining his own case. Denby approvingly quotes the Siren’s “powerful attack” on the book and ends with the following:

Something broke down here in the vetting process, and that likely includes the expert academic reader reports that Harvard University Press surely commissioned, which are meant to protect the author, the press, and the facts.

Denby goes on to quote Lionel Trilling: “‘Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect,’ Trilling wrote in 1945, a good year for blaming.” Trilling’s point is well-taken, and not just in reference to 1945.

In a New York Times blog post on September 26, Urwand responds to the criticism: “There’s not a single statement in either piece by Denby that makes me question any of my findings.”

Harvard University Press has also issued a statement, defending its review process, which concludes, “Via his agent Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker, but as yet we have no indication that his response has been published,” which is no longer true, of course.

Kudos to the Siren for her as-always delightful and instructive post, and extra points for referring to Breen as “the beady-eyed enforcer” of the Hays office and its Production Code. The “censor-in-chief” epithet is Denby’s.

Interested in reading more?

Here is the first report on the book, in June, at the New York Times.

Here is recent coverage of the dispute on The Atlantic Wire by Allie Jones.

Here is David Denby’s original review of both Doherty’s and Urwand’s books in the New Yorker.

And here is Dave Kehr’s review of Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler in the New York Times.

Jeanine Basinger, chair of the Film Studies department at Wesleyan, has two articles at the Wall Street Journal, available only through subscription, or other paid databases. But that’s the WSJ for you.

And here is Christopher Brey’s article at The Daily Beast.

Published with Brey’s article is also a collection of clips of movies banned or altered in their German release by the Nazis. Brey is of the same mind as the Siren and Denby about Urwand’s modus operandi: “’Uncertain,’ ‘inconclusive,’ ‘probably’—one would be alarmed to read such nervous gossip in a hack showbiz biog. But to read them in a work by a historian who is a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University is shocking and shameful.” He also points out that the contemporary film industry often edits films for foreign release, particularly in China–the recent Skyfall being a case in point.

And here is the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article on the controversy, published in July.

The article disappointingly repeats rather than merely reports many of Urwand’s claims, including “The few obliquely anti-Nazi pictures that were produced in the 1930s were troubling in other ways.” It does, however, give both Urwand and Doherty air-time.

In a phone interview, Doherty is reluctant to hammer The Collaboration. He wryly refers to Fred MacMurray’s line from “Double Indemnity”: “I never knock the other fellow’s merchandise.” He praises Urwand’s archival finds but says he’s shocked that Urwand is shocked by what he found. (Insert your own impersonation of “Casablanca”‘s Captain Renault here.)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMIyDf3gBoY&w=420&h=315]

Also disappointing is Urwand’s apparent lack of respect for a fellow academic—”(Asked about Doherty’s interpretation [of The House of Rothschild], Urwand all but smacks his forehead in disbelief.)”—particularly given Doherty’s graciousness.

The Chronicle article mentions continuing research in the field, specifically academics and a documentary filmmaker uncovering a “highly effective spy ring funded by Jewish movie moguls,” a story the reporter, Alexander C. Kafka, says is “crying out for treatment as a cable-tv series.” The academic working on that story, Steven J. Ross of USC, wrote in to the New Yorker mentioning that story, and his brief letter taking issue with Urwand’s claims is printed in the October 7 issue of the magazine.

The AFI’s magazine, American Film, published a reader review of Urwand’s book in August, comparing it (unfavorably) with the satire The Producers (1967).

Melvin Jules Bukiet, a professor of Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence, criticized Urwand’s prose in his review in the Washington Post.

But if Urwand labors to turn a scholarly molehill into a mountain, he does the opposite in narrative moments throughout “The Collaboration.” One such instance occurs on the first page of the prologue, a description of a private viewing of “King Kong.” “They saw an enormous gorilla . . . fall off the Empire State Building,” Urwand writes. “One of the characters muttered something about beauty and the beast.” One of the characters? Muttered? Something? In fact, the speaker is Carl Denham (not so incidentally a movie director, who sets the entire plot in motion), and he clearly declares, “It was beauty killed the beast.” One of the most famous lines in movie history, this is hardly a random aside; it’s the take-away. Not to belabor a single sentence, but Urwand misrepresents the speaker, the statement and the tone. On the one hand, he seeks shock value in the vision of a flesh-and-blood monster watching a celluloid monster; on the other, he turns a potentially vivid scene into a dry sidelight.

Also a good read are the comments on the Siren’s blog post, including one from historian Benjamin Alpers, comments which are not only more interesting but more edifying than the comments on the Chronicle’s article. *Sigh* It will be very interesting to see what the reviews of Urwand’s (and Doherty’s) book in academic journals look like.

As Professor Eric A. Goldman, author of the recently published The American Jewish Story Through Cinema, noted in a recent article in The Israel Times, “One thing is certain,” Goldman agrees, concerning the worldwide coverage of the upcoming expose. “[Urwand’s] got one hell of a publicist!”

Films Mentioned in this Post

The title is linked to a trailer, if available (and not embedded above).

The House of Rothschild is available on YouTube.

The Life of Emile Zola is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime.

Employee’s Entrance is available for purchase on DVD as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 7.

Taxi! is available for purchase on DVD.

Captured! appears to be unavailable.

Our Daily Bread is available for rental from Amazon Prime and viewing on YouTube.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, also starring Paul Muni, is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime.

Little Caesar is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime and YouTube.

American Madness is available for purchase from Amazon Prime and there is an entry on it, with clips, at TCM.

Scarface (1932), also starring Paul Muni, is available on DVD from Netflix and rental from Amazon Prime

The Mortal Storm appears to be unavailable except for purchase on DVD.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first openly anti-Nazi film, produced by Warner Bros.,is available for purchase on YouTube and on DVD.

The Cheat (1915) is available on DVD from Netflix, for rental on Amazon Prime, and free on YouTube. The 1931 version is available from Netflix on DVD.