Saturday, April 20, 2013

Thomas Doherty's "Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939"

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. His books include Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture, and Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, and reported the following:
Damned if Ford Madox Ford ain't right: page 99 of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 is a fair sampling of the other 428 pages. The book is about the ways Hollywood mediated Nazism in the 1930s, both as an ideology and a business-- how the motion picture industry depicted Nazism on screen (or more usually avoided doing so) and how the studios reacted to a once reliable overseas business partner suddenly gone pathological. It ends where most books on Hollywood and Nazism begin, with World War II.

The page in question comes from a chapter on the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League of the Motion Picture Industry (HANL), the white-hot center for Popular Front activism in the company town during the Great Depression. Here's a representative passage:
Not least, [the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League] pioneered the celebrity-centric, pseudo-eventful tactics that have since become commonplace for progressive causes that grip the social conscience of famous entertainers: the deployment of star power to publicize and validate a political agenda, with the body of the celebrity dangled as bait. While flashbulbs popped and cameras whirred, HANL stage-managed events where stars presided over rallies, orated from the podium, pled for donations, and signed petitions. If near enough to a famous face, a placard or slogan might avoid being cropped from a syndicated wire photo.
HANL was the group that set the agenda for the cadre who would later ruefully dub themselves "premature anti-Fascists." The outfit was co-founded in 1936 by MGM screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, a secret member of the Communist Party USA, and Dorothy Parker, the famed wit and screenwriter, but it was in many ways the brainchild of a mysterious former member of the German Communist Party named Otto Katz. Many of the directors, screenwriters, and actors who later ran afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1940s and early 1950s were involved with HANL, including the Hollywood Ten.

Conservative historians would later label HANL a "communist front group" and, to be sure, communists were animating founders and active members. Yet HANL attracted a remarkably broad spectrum of support from standard-issue liberals, conservative Catholics, and hard-nosed moguls, all of whom had good reason to oppose Nazism.

However, at the height of its influence and prestige, the local arm of the Popular Front suddenly become far less popular after the announcement on August 23, 1939 of the Soviet-German Non Aggression Pact, the accommodation that gave the green light for World War II. The news hit the stateside Popular Front like a lightning bolt-- forever shattering the alliance of convenience between men and women of the Left. The party liners hastily fell in line with the new party line: the committed interventionists became anti-interventionists, the ardent warriors ardent pacifists, and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League re-branded itself as the Hollywood League for Democratic Action.

Shocked by the sudden switch in loyalties, the authentic liberals bolted from HANL. Membership dwindled and soon the group fizzled out. (Predictably, in June 1941, when the Nazis invaded Russia, the Hollywood party liners reversed themselves again and called anew for the policies they had opposed in the 1939-1941 interim.)
Learn more about Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue