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The PCA and the War in Europe

nazi breen american film

Warner Bros. broke through the dual barriers of studio timidity and PCA resistance with its early-1939 release CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY . PCA staffers labeled it “a portentous departure,” and it was indeed Hollywood’s first explicitly antifascist picture. CONFESSIONS recalled the feisty Warners of the early 1930s. The picture dealt with news as current as the morning’s headlines—Nazi spies who were caught and convicted in federal court in New York City. The film reflected the anti-Nazi convictions of its director, Anatole Litvak, and star Paul Lukas, who were German émigrés, and its writer, John Wexley, and other star Edward G. Robinson, who were active in Hollywood’s anti-Nazi movement. CONFESSIONS explained how Nazism worked and called for American vigilance against the German menace. Hitler still had some defenders in the PCA who argued that the film was unfair because it ignored “his unchallenged political and social achievements” and detailed his dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, matters they considered “extraneous.”

Breen had to concede that the evidence produced at the spy trial substantiated the charges against Germany—Warners’ reliance on judicial testimony gave the studio a strong defense. But Breen still wanted to stop the picture. As one PCA staffer put it, why should the industry abandon “the pleasant and profitable course of entertainment to engage in propaganda?” Some industry executives, such as Paramount’s Luigi Luraschi, doubted the movie was “smart showmanship.” Breen advised Jack Warner to scrap the project, warning that several countries, and possibly even some U.S. censor boards, would ban the film. Warners forged ahead, even though several countries obliged the German government by forbidding its exhibition. While CONFESSIONS now seems melodramatic and the spy threat inflated, many contemporary critics praised it as indeed a portentous breakthrough in moviemaking. Reflecting the desire of many directors and writers to make more serious films, Wexley termed it “the most exciting and exhilarating work I have ever done in Hollywood.”

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY cleared a path for other anti-Nazi films, though the PCA continued to set up roadblocks and detours. When Charles Chaplin decided to put his antifascist political convictions on film in 1938, the Hays Office passed the word that the project was inadvisable. Brooke Wilkinson, head of the British censor board, also indicated that such a film could not play in Britain because of the panel’s requirement that a living person could be shown on the screen only if he or she consented. By the time THE GREAT DICTATOR was ready for release in September 1940, Poland and France had been humiliated and the Battle of Britain raged. There was little the PCA could reasonably object to in a screenplay that turned Hitler and Mussolini into buffoons and concluded with a plea for universal brotherhood. Breen hailed it as “superb entertainment” and Chaplin as “our greatest artist.” The censor sheepishly insisted, however, that the forbidden word lousy be removed; Chaplin agreed, sparing all concerned what would have been an even more embarrassing row than that over Rhett Butler’s damn . Although anti-Nazi films still faced some opposition, Chaplin’s political statement made a handsome profit. THE GREAT DICTATOR suffered, however, because it bore the stamp of its origins in 1938, when satire was still a plausible tool to use against the Axis. By 1940, Hitler was scarcely a laughing matter, and Chaplin later acknowledged that he would not have made such a film if he had known of the horrors of the death camps.

The boldest anti-Nazi release before Pearl Harbor was the British production PASTOR HALL (1940), which portrayed the life of Martin Niemöller, a World War I U-boat captain who became a pacifist minister and was thrown into a Nazi concentration camp. Breen tried to stop American distribution of this “avowedly British propaganda” in June 1940—the very moment Germany overran France—for fear it would expose the industry to charges of “going out of our way to propagandize for the allies.” The notion that Page 268  exhibiting one such picture among the five hundred or so released annually represented an extraordinary propaganda effort suggested how drastically the PCA narrowed the intellectual scope of the screen. None of the major firms would release it. Breen relented only when James Roosevelt, the president’s son, arranged to exhibit it through his Globe Productions (and eventually through UA). The American release version boasted the added cachet of a prologue written by Robert Sherwood and read by Eleanor Roosevelt, although the PCA did cut some of the more violent scenes.

Hollywood’s products were more timid, owing particularly to Breen’s insistence that they continue to employ the Code formula of not offending any nationality by casting its members as uniformly evil; bad Nazis had to be balanced by some good Germans. Metro’s THE MORTAL STORM (1940) struck this balance in its essay on anti-Semitism, as did other 1940 releases such as FOUR SONS , ESCAPE , and I MARRIED A NAZI (1940). Fritz Lang, a German émigré, challenged this convention with his MAN HUNT (1941). Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, submitted to the PCA in March 1941, depicted all Nazis as “brutal and inhuman” and all British as sympathetic. Breen, backed by Hays, demanded that 20th Century-Fox tone down this “inflammatory propaganda” before issuing a seal.

Hollywood skirted the problem of explicit political statements but got its interventionist point across with pictures that glorified the British. In the 1941 releases A YANK IN THE RAF and INTERNATIONAL SQUADRON , Americans aroused by Britain’s peril went off to fly with the Royal Air Force. The parallel with American entry into World War I was exploited for all it was worth in SERGEANT YORK , centering on an instinctive pacifist (Gary Cooper as the marksman-hero Alvin York) who wrestles with his conscience, concludes that the Allied cause is just, and enlists. By implication, the United States should follow their examples.

Hollywood was moving to an interventionist beat by the summer of 1941, and the White House was delighted. As Lowell Mellett, one of FDR’s media aides, put it: “Practically everything being shown on the screen from newsreel to fiction that touches on our national purpose is of the right sort.” 21 Roosevelt sent a special message to the 1941 Oscar ceremony in which he praised the industry’s contribution to the defense effort. And months later, as seen in chapter 3, isolationist senators led by Gerald Nye openly attacked the industry for its interventionist propaganda—and were routed by the special counsel, Wendell Willkie, who vigorously defended Hollywood for taking an antifascist line. 22 Yet there was less to the screen’s interventionism than might have met the eye. Hays and Breen forced the studios to moderate some positions, and their opposition no doubt deterred some producers from making more antifascist films. Though some institutional restraints would have remained, without the Hays Office Hollywood would have taken a stronger, more frequent stand against the Axis and would have been more sympathetic to American intervention.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the debate about U.S. involvement in the war moot, and it radically affected both the propaganda function and the regulation of motion pictures as well. The wartime Office of Censorship screened all Hollywood products to determine whether to permit their export. The newly formed Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, headed by the youthful Nelson Rockefeller, worked with the MPPDA to improve the portrayal of Latin America. And the most direct and systematic government regulation ever attempted of a popular American medium occurred under the Office of War Information, the propaganda agency.

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