Hollywood: Swastika & Sickle

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

A Harvard scholar has unearthed archival evidence of the relationship of Hollywood producers to the Nazi government in the 1930s but most scholars stop short of implicating Left-wing icons in chronicling the run-up to World War II.

This Fall, Harvard University Press will release The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, by the 35-year-old historian Ben Urwand. Alexander Kafka previewed the book in The Chronicle Review.

“Urwand found that Nazi officials considered some American films ideologically useful—among them Gabriel Over the White House (1933), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Our Daily Bread (1934), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)—and that the studios expressly marketed certain titles in that vein,” Kafka writes. “ For instance, Gabriel Over the White House, an American fascist fantasia about a fed-up, divinely inspired president dissolving a chaotic Congress and whipping the United States into totalitarian shape, was touted by Frits Strengholt, an MGM executive in Germany, as resonating with Nazi work-mobilization, anticrime, and other efforts.”

“True, the 1934 picture was outperformed in Germany by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, and Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. But when the Prussian justice minister, the president of the German Film Chamber, and several higher-ups in the Foreign Office attend a special screening, and when Nazi critics applaud a movie for its appreciation of the ‘leader principle,’ clearly there are factors involved beyond box-office sizzle.”

Conversely, Gabriel was a commercial success in America. “Ironically, Gabriel Over the White House turned out to be one of the biggest box office hits of 1933; its topical subject matter obviously spoke to audiences who felt the need for strong leadership after the economic chaos of the Great Depression,” Jeff Stafford wrote on the Turner Classic Movies web site. And, arguably, the afficianadoes of the flick in the Nazi government were nowhere near as enthusiastic about it as our own commander-in-chief—FDR.

Stafford notes that the star of the film, Walter Huston (grandfather of Angelica) “was always partial to Gabriel Over the White House since it ended up securing him an invitation to the White House for drinks with President Roosevelt, who was a big fan of the film.”

Moreover, even if, as Kafka notes, “anti-Nazi pictures didn’t start appearing until 1939,” they never stopped. Indeed, more than half a century since the defeat of the Third Reich, they are still coming out. Films exposing the brutality of communist dictatorships, particularly the main one presided over by Hitler’s one-time ally, Joseph Stalin, remain few in number.

In Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley notes that “not a single Hollywood film has ever shown Communists committing atrocities.”  Clearly, as communist regimes killed more people than any other in history—at least 100 million—this is a glaring omission.


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.