When the US Government Went After Anti-Nazi Hollywood




LARB presents an excerpt from Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures (University Press of Mississippi, 2020).

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SENATOR GERALD P. NYE (R-North Dakota) was a primary orchestrator of the 1941 Senate Investigation into Motion Picture Propaganda. The anti-Hollywood sentiment would find expression in Senate Resolution 152, where Nye was the first to testify on September 9, 1941, in Washington, DC. The event would kick off two weeks of testimony from both Hollywood naysayers and industry defenders. At the end of his testimony, Nye turned to the specific films he felt were particularly problematic. The senator named Convoy, Flight Command, Escape, I Married a Nazi, That Hamilton Woman, Man Hunt, The Great Dictator, and Sergeant York. Each of these films features a war theme with varying focal points. For example, I Married a Nazi and Escape are stories dealing directly with Nazis in Europe. That Hamilton Woman is a British love story that takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, something anti-British isolationists might see as propaganda in 1941. The Great Dictator is a satire of dictators in the 20th century and a passionate call for equality among people of various backgrounds. Nye equated all of these films, without providing specifics as to why they were guilty of warmongering.

After promising additional films would be brought up as the testimonies continued, Nye admitted to not having seen most of these films that he listed as dangerous propaganda. Undeterred by his own ignorance, Nye reaffirmed to the committee that he received his information from unnamed but trusted sources. Nye suggested the committee watch all of the films mentioned. Wendell Willkie agreed by offering screenings of any or all films in question. “I think that as time goes on possibly we can have a moving-picture show here in the committee room,” interjected Senator Clark (D-Idaho). “I guarantee it will be a good one, senator,” promised Willkie.

After the noon recess, Nye opened the afternoon session charging that it was time to “ascertain what perhaps [is] going on to destroy straight thinking, honest thinking, American thinking?” Summarizing his previous arguments, Nye drew attention to the massive profits reaped by Hollywood studios and their reliance on European sales to boost profits. Nye shared a report prepared by New York financial firm Goodbody & Co. that featured a specific section on the motion-picture industry. Reading directly from the report, Nye explained how studios often broke even with domestic sales, meaning their foreign sales constitute almost all of the profits.

Senator Ernest McFarland (D-Arizona) questioned Nye’s claim about financial influence, wondering whether foreign interest drove studio investment decisions. Nye agreed, but predictably described war propaganda as coming from anyone with a “direct interest” in the European conflict. McFarland needed more clarification. “What do you call ‘direct interest?’”

Senator Nye: “I think the moving-picture industry has a very direct interest at the moment.”

McFarland: “Do you think that protection of American life is a direct interest?”

Nye: “Is of direct interest?

McFarland: “Yes.”

Nye: “Certainly it is.”

McFarland: “Then those that believe if England fails the lives of the people of the United States are in danger entertain a view that is in conflict with yours on this subject?”

Nye answered by sticking to his previous talking point about sympathizing with concern for Great Britain but animosity toward anyone who pushes intervention. McFarland allowed Nye to express his opinion and continue his analysis of the Goodbody & Co. report. Nye conjectured that theater owners complain because propaganda films do not make any money, which clearly clashes with box-office demand. Questions were raised about fictitious allocation costs reported by the studios. Nye cited an expert who he refused to name, while Willkie assured the chamber that cost sheets would be provided. Both Willkie and McFarland pressed Nye to cite his expert so that the previous claims could be founded. Nye continuously dodged by vaguely assuring the reliability of his trusted contact. Senator Clark moved the proceedings along, affirming that the unnamed person would be called to the stand in due time.

The discussion moved on to the recent rallies at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Charles Lindbergh, along with Senator D. Worth Clark, led a noninterventionist rally with the America First Committee, which filled the Hollywood Bowl to capacity. Nye may not have been aware of, or was turning a blind eye to, the large population of antisemites in the area who would have been excited to get a glimpse of the prejudiced aviator. In comparison to the America First rally, Nye overstated the smaller attendance for Willkie and the Hollywood entourage to argue that there was less support for intervention. Even though studios like Twentieth Century Fox let their employees out early to attend the event, the turnout was only slightly less for Willkie than for Lindbergh. Harry Warner made a bold comment of his own: “We’d rather march to hear Willkie on National Unity than be marched to a concentration camp.” Nye claimed to have confirmed that over half of the attendance for the Willkie event was mandated by the studio, inciting laughter in the chamber. However, such accusations were also made by Wheeler, who received a letter from a Samuel Goldwyn employee who claimed that nobody in the industry was forced to attend Willkie’s talk. [1]

Another frustration for Nye was that Harry Warner, as president of Warner Bros., sent around a petition urging Congress to give Great Britain aid in the form of a large number of battleships. An irritated Nye asked, “[If] there is individual spirit like this dictating moving-picture policy, is it unfair to assume that such spirit might enter into the production of motion pictures with propaganda to be flashed upon an unsuspecting audience gathering at theaters to be entertained?” Answering his own question, Nye spoke of the “prejudicial influence” of producers like Warner, who “entertain hatreds” from the old world that did not line up with those of, presumably, real Americans. The constant reference to immigrants versus Americans continued to showcase Nye’s xenophobia. Going further, Nye accused Hollywood of aiding America’s enemies by billing the industry as “the most potent and dangerous ‘fifth column’ in our country.” Nye explained differing opinions on Hollywood war films through a series of articles that he read to the committee. One article from a Washington reporter quoted Jack Warner’s and Darryl Zanuck’s impartial attitudes toward war films. Meanwhile, former Production Code enforcer and current RKO studio boss Joseph Breen and director Cecil B. DeMille were cited to support the idea that tragic stories should be watered down to improve potential box office results.

Nye continued to attack Harry Warner for rallying against a possible replacement for Joseph Breen because the candidate was in the House of Representatives and voted against the Warner-supported Lend-Lease bill. Nye also reported that Warner had recently told his employees that leaders overseas were overly optimistic about the possibility of invasion across Europe. Nye’s reference was, of course, to Warner’s “United We Survive, Divided We Fall” speech that was distributed around Los Angeles. To counter Warner and show a Hollywood divided, Nye cited a letter from the president of Cathedral Pictures, a largely unknown Christian production company, who emphatically agreed with Nye’s criticisms of movie propaganda. Comparing Warner Bros., one of the industry’s largest studios, to Cathedral Pictures, a newly established small production facility, shows Nye’s inability to differentiate between major and minor studios. Cathedral’s largest claim to fame was a film titled The Great Commandment (1939), which was purchased by Twentieth Century Fox but given a near nonexistent theatrical run.

Nye pointed his finger at Victor Saville, who Nye argued was a British propagandist now working in Hollywood. Saville had worked during the silent era and directed several films before eventually landing a position with the prestigious Alexander Korda production company in 1936. Nye explained that Saville was in Hollywood, working for MGM, and had a major influence on The Mortal Storm directed by Frank Borzage. According to Nye, “Borzage was not satisfactory, or sufficiently brutal in directing the production, it seems, and Saville took over the task.” Saville did work on the film in an unofficial capacity, but his control over Borzage’s direction is unlikely. Borzage would reply to Nye’s claim in a wire sent to Willkie, “Senator Nye’s statement is incorrect, as I started and finished direction of The Mortal Storm, and at no time was I ever removed from my directorial duties.” [2] Nye continued, “There is a rumor, and it is persistent in the colony [Hollywood], that Saville is a British agent operating here on motion-picture lots.” Nye’s claims regarding Saville went unquestioned as Nye moved on to provide additional anecdotes about the dangers of propaganda. 

The Mortal Storm remained on the subcommittee’s list of propaganda films for the duration of the hearings. If anything solidified the film’s place in the eyes of the subcommittee, it was a letter from film critic Ada Hanifin, whose less-than-enthusiastic review of the film was allegedly pulled from the San Francisco Examiner. Hanifin’s letter came in during the first day of the investigation and included a copy of her blacklisted review from June 1940. According to Hanifin, the review ran in the early editions and was pulled before the remaining papers were printed. The repercussions were as follows. Hanifin was berated by the editor and was warned against writing anything else that would lean toward the isolationists. Over the next few months, Hanifin regularly got her work excluded from the paper, her byline was removed, and she was fired in January 1941. Her husband was simultaneously canned from his job at an advertising agency owned by the same company. Hanifin concluded her lengthy letter by saying, “We hope this evidence will provide the bombshell you need.” [3]

However wrongful her firing may have been, Hanifin’s review was not much of a review at all. The piece was more of an isolationist rant with a brief mention of The Mortal Storm and Four Sons. Hanifin used her post as a film critic to dive into a political lecture, something that became more common in future generations of film critics but was a minority of criticism in 1941. “America’s viewpoint and Europe’s don’t meet on the same ground,” wrote Hanifin. “The two continents don’t speak with the same accent. To force European Fascism, Communism, despotism, or any ism but AMERICANISM on the consciousness of the American People in negative or in positive form through any channel whatsoever, is contributing to UNAMERICANISM,” she wrote before briefly mentioning that The Mortal Storm “leaves nothing to be desired.” Though most reviews of the day provided an overview of the film, brief mention of any merits or faults, and a recommendation as to which audiences would like the film, the isolationists senators would only see Hanafin’s blacklisting as another example of interventionist overreach.

After many hours of lecturing from Nye, the formal questioning began with McFarland setting up a series of inquiries about the films Nye had seen in preparation for the day. Nye affirmed that he had viewed some of the films in question, to which McFarland asked, “Which of those pictures was the most objectionable that you saw, from your point of view?” Nye stumbled through a response claiming he can never remember the titles of films he watches and mentioned I Married a Nazi, again not knowing the film was released as The Man I Married. When asked to provide an example from the film that represented the propaganda in question, Nye gave a vague reply, “Why, primarily it was the injection of scenes that could only have the effect of making us hate not only a fictional individual but an entire race of people.” When pressed for more specifics, Nye claimed it has been too long since he saw the film and suggested the committee view all of the films in question, to which Senator Tobey jokingly replied, “I am afraid that the committee would become punch drunk.”

McFarland continued to push Nye, hoping to get some factual detail out of him. Nye diverted to what other people had told him as well as the reviews he had read in the newspaper, claiming the films he had heard about had a “spirit of hate that was engendered toward a race of people.” A frustrated McFarland sought more evidence beyond Nye’s generalities. “But that is a conclusion. How was that spirit of hate shown? What was it in the picture that showed this spirit of hate? Pardon me if I try to apply the rule of evidence so that it would be admissible in a court.” Growing increasingly annoyed by Nye’s inability to support his claims, the subsequent conversation followed.

McFarland: “What is another picture that you think of that you saw, that was objectionable to you?”

Nye: “Oh, Senator, I have seen three or four or five of them.”

[…]

McFarland: “Let me see if I can help you a little bit. Did you see Escape?”

Nye: “Perhaps if you can tell me part of the story I could tell you better whether I had seen Escape or not.”

McFarland had previously stated he was not an avid moviegoer, so he was relying on Nye, the one backing the investigation of Hollywood most emphatically, to be prepared with evidence to support his history of accusations. McFarland called attention to the fact that only about 20 out of several hundred films produced in the previous years had any war-related theme. Their conversation continued:

McFarland: “Senator, I might pick some of the names that you enumerated in your speech at St. Louis: Convoy. Did you see that picture?

Nye: “I think I did, Senator.”

McFarland: “Do you remember anything in that picture that was particularly objectionable?”

Nye: “No; I am at a loss to call to my mind any particular feature about it that led me to draw the conclusion which I have drawn.”

McFarland: “I see Escape here. We just discussed that. Flight Command?”

Nye: “I do not believe I did, Senator.”

McFarland: “That Hamilton Woman?”

Nye: “I did not see that.”

McFarland: “Man Hunt?”

Nye: “I think not.”

McFarland: “Sergeant York?”

Nye: “I think not.”

McFarland: “You mean, you have not seen it?”

Nye: “I did not.”

McFarland then went back through them all again to get a definitive answer, which showed Nye had not seen any of the films he claimed were dangerous. When asked about The Great Dictator, Nye finally answered affirmatively. McFarland asked Nye to detail the problems with that film, to which Nye called the film a “portrayal by a great artist” but could not avoid pointing out that the film’s star was “not a citizen of our country, though he has resided here a long, long while.” Willkie pointed out to the senators that the man in question was Charlie Chaplin. Regarding Nye’s concern over an unfair depiction of the war, Willkie would later quip to the press, “This, I presume, means that since Chaplin made a laughable caricature of Hitler, the industry should be forced to employ Charles Laughton to do the same on Winston Churchill.” [4]

McFarland brought up Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and once again, Nye could not tell it apart from The Man I Married. “I take it, then, Senator,” McFarland concluded, “that you base most of your objections to those pictures upon what others told you?” While the investigation would continue, Nye’s ignorance and lack of research of his claims would be the death knell for many in the press.

Unimpressed with Nye’s day on the floor, Variety called out the senator for his “foggy memory” and for asserting “a great amount of hearsay information and suspicion.” [5] Additional coverage in Variety questioned Nye’s emphasis on the foreign-born, forgetting that most of those immigrants mentioned were US citizens and had been for some time. Within hours of the session’s closing, Variety featured the headline, “NYE BRANDS FILMS 5TH COLUMN.” The article stated that Nye declared Hollywood a place “where selfish, scheming, foreign-born Nazi-haters are doing their utmost to plunge the United States into the European war to protect their pocketbooks.”

McFarland’s tough questioning was the highlight of the day, as Variety staff correspondent Herb Golden wrote that the Arizona senator was the “answer to the film industry’s prayer” and a “knight in Hollywood armor.” [6] McFarland had shown he would not sit by idly as a muzzled junior senator. Instead, McFarland asserted himself, asked difficult questions without backing down. At the day’s close, it was clear that not only would this investigation provide plenty of drama for the media, but it would make sport out of reading the audience. As Variety reported, the packed caucus room saw a range of responses, “applause and hisses, both sides.” [7] As the investigation continued, the gallery would become increasingly pro-Hollywood.

Other members of the industry press panned the investigation right out of the gate. Jack Moffitt of the Hollywood Reporter wrote under the headline “SENATE INVESTIGATION A JOKE: Nye Holds Floor All Day — Talks Lot, Proves Nothing; Can’t Point Out Propaganda.” [8] Moffitt also chastised the Senate committee for gagging Willkie and other industry attorneys but praised McFarland’s challenges to Nye.

Shortly after the session closed, Willkie dismissed Nye by claiming that his “long and tedious statement gives not one valid reason for investigation of industry. He does, however, give every reason why no investigation should be held.” [9] Clearly aggravated over the lack of substantial findings from the long session, Willkie called Nye “a star witness for the film industry” who “demonstrates without a doubt why this foolish show should be ended. Even he is convinced there is no necessity for censorship or Government control of the industry.” After all of the aggressive confidence from Nye over the previous months, it was clear that the senator opened the proceedings by quickly working himself into a corner.

Before Wednesday’s hearings, Willkie would get in one more statement digging at the Senate investigation. “I am extremely reluctant to dignify further the reckless and unsupported charges made by Senator Gerald Nye,” said Willkie. “The hearings hour by hour are proving my point that there is no justification for an inquiry into the motion picture industry.” [10] Attendees on Wednesday would find another lengthy testimony, one that would not only rehash the same arguments heard on the first day but also showcase grand envy for the motion-picture audiences.

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Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication in the department of arts and humanities at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His next book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into War Mongering in Motion Pictures, will be published in September 2020 by the University Press of Mississippi.

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[1] Letter to Burton K. Wheeler on August 1, 1941, from John P. Hutchings of Samuel Goldwyn, Inc., National Archives, Washington, DC, RG 46, box 2 of 2. The full letter read, “I resent your statement that studio employees were forced to attend the Wendell Willkie Unity Rally at the Hollywood Bowl recently. None of us at this studio were forced to attend and many did not attend. If this is your idea of promoting publicity, then I think it’s damanably [sic] cheap!”

[2] “Borzage Denies Nye Charge of Ouster from ‘Storm,’” Variety, September 15, 1941.

[3] Letter from Ada Hanifin to Senator Clark dated September 9, 1941, National Archives, Washington, DC, RG 46, box 1 of 1.

[4] Wendell Willkie statement to the press, September 10, 1941, 1941 War Film Hearings, File 52, Wendell L. Willkie Statements, Margaret Herrick Library.

[5] “NYE BRANDS FILIMS 5th COLUMN,” Variety, September 9, 1941.

[6] Herb Golden, “Arizona Senator Takes Nye for Count in Word Dueling,” Variety, September 10, 1941.

[7] “Applause and Hisses, Both Sides,” Variety, September 10, 1941.

[8] Jack Moffitt, “Nye Holds Floor All Day — Talks Lots, Proves Nothing; Can’t Point Out Propaganda,” Hollywood Reporter, September 10, 1941.

[9] “MUD-SLINGING THE PIX BIZ,” Variety, September 10, 1941.

[10] Wendell Willkie, “Text of Willkie Statements in Defense of the Industry,” Motion Picture Herald, September 13, 1941, 18.

 

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