4 Unexpected Ways Hollywood Was Connected To The Nazis
It's easy to think of Hollywood as a firm opponent of all things Nazi, based on such icons as Indiana Jones, Captain America, and the Bear Jew. But in the years before World War II, things were a little less clear-cut. For instance, lots of prominent players in the film industry, while not necessarily being pro-Nazi, were still really eager to stay on Hitler's good side. That means there are a lot of stories from that era which Hollywood would prefer we forget. Like how ...
Hollywood Worked With The Third Reich To Censor Its Films
Hollywood was pretty big into censorship back in the 1930s. Starting in 1934, all productions had to adhere to the Hays Code, a list of standards that was most apparent in things like horror films. (In 1931, Dr. Frankenstein was allowed to compare himself to God. In 1935? Not so much.) The studios also had a policy of meeting with representatives from foreign markets to make sure nothing in their scripts appeared too objectionable. And these foreign markets included Germany -- which wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world, except for the small fact that Germany was being run by the Nazis.
The first famous film edited to appease Nazis was All Quiet On The Western Front. The Nazis said it was anti-German, and had banned and publicly burned the original novel. It wasn't really anti-German, but antiwar, but to a fascist eye, opposition to war is opposition to the state. Nazis rioted at an early screening, and Germany banned the film for a year pending a new cut that would make them frown less. Universal Pictures dutifully created one. Germany then agreed to play it, but only if that censored version was the only cut ever screened in the future anywhere, including the U.S. Universal complied.
Many of the other demands from Nazis concerned removing all Jewish references from movies. For example, Warner Bros. agreed to remove every instance of the word "Jew" from 1937's The Life Of Emile Zola ... which tells the true story of a famous controversy centered around a Jew. A couple of proposed pictures were scrapped altogether, including a 1936 satire called It Can't Happen Here and 1933's Mad Dog Of Europe, about a Jewish family suffering under Hitler. For a long time, the latter film's cancellation was thought to be due to concerns from Jewish groups fearing retaliation, but documents show that MGM had their German profits in mind when they made the call.
The researcher who made that discovery, Ben Urwand, has attracted some controversy for calling Hollywood's relationship with the Nazis "collaboration," because it makes it seem like executives of the time took part in the goose-stepping themselves. But what Hollywood did do was pretty shitty and greedy. And it went further than artistic choices ...
Related: Third Reich To Fortune 500: Five Popular Brands The Nazis Gave Us
Studios Pumped Money Into The Nazi War Machine
Hollywood cared a lot about the money they made in Naziland. Germany was a big market, and besides, there was always the possibility that they'd soon conquer the world, so it was best to plan accordingly. But the Nazis didn't exactly make it easy for studios to cash out after doing business there. The government put in currency controls, which meant that overseas companies couldn't take Reichsmarks out of Germany, and also couldn't convert them to dollars. This problem required a creative solution, and Hollywood was quick to find one.
One way out of this predicament was for studios to reinvest their profits into filmmaking in Germany itself, and then take that footage and turn that into even more money. This didn't come in the form of feature-length pictures, but newsreels. Only problem was, this being Nazi Germany, the Nazis controlled what sort of news footage anyone shot. So when Paramount and 20th Century Fox turned their cameras on, they shot exactly what the Nazis wanted them to, even if they then used it for politically "neutral" newsreels back home. The Nazis themselves used the footage in their own propaganda films.
MGM went a different route when it came to laundering their profits. They couldn't take currency out of Germany, sure. But they could buy bonds in Germany, take the bonds out of the country, and then convert those into dollars once they got back to the United States. Sounds like a less terrible way of doing things than fueling Nazi propaganda? Sure, until you learn that the company that issued those bonds was otherwise occupied with manufacturing Nazi armaments. Oops!
All of that ended in 1939, but that was well after it was clear to most reasonable people that Hitler was a monstrous piece of shit.
Related: 5 Of Hitler's Worst Ideas You Didn't Know Came From America
The First-Ever Oscar Winner Went On To Make Nothing But Nazi Propaganda
The very first Academy Award, for Best Actor, went to a guy named Emil Jannings, whom you've probably never heard of. Now, to be fair, it's also likely that you've not heard of anything from that particular 1929 ceremony, but the weird thing about Jannings is that despite winning that first Oscar, he went on to never act in a Hollywood film again.
That was because the first Oscars coincided with the rise of the talkies. And as soon as productions started recording actors' actual voices, German native Jannings' accent was revealed, and Hollywood figured that made him unusable, because audiences didn't like foreigners of any kind. So Jannings returned to Germany and acted in films there instead. It was then only a matter of time before he was taking orders directly from Nazi leadership, who were thrilled about landing such a "star."
Jannings led a bunch of Nazi films designed to make the German public love authority and the fatherland. There was historical stuff like Der Herrscher (which translates, very subtly, to "The Ruler"), and then there was Der Zerbrochene Krug, which Hitler treated like it was the only movie that mattered. And Jannings didn't exactly appear to be a reluctant participant in all this. "He works as though possessed," said Joseph Goebbels, citing him for enthusiasm to the cause. "Jannings outdoes himself."
Goebbels named Jannings Artist of the State and rewarded him with his own production company. Hitler gave him medals for his commitment to the Nazis. As for his Academy-honored role, it's in The Way Of All Flesh, a film that is now lost. There are no known copies remaining, making his the only Oscar-winning performance that's impossible to see today. Jannings stopped acting after the Nazis were defeated (there are some things you really can't come back from, PR-wise), though he still has a star on the Walk of Fame.
Related: How A Pop Band Tricked 9 Million Americans Into Being Nazis
A Nazi Spy Cozied Up To A Famous Actor To Identify German Traitors
Dr. Hermann Erben was a comically shitty Nazi spy, like the Mr. Magoo of fascist assholes. If you're looking to work undercover for the Nazis, it's probably best to avoid suddenly standing at attention and giving the Nazi salute to passing German ships. Telling strangers, unprompted, that you plan to "blow up some people for the Nazis" is another temptation to be avoided. Erben's many lapses ended with him getting expelled from America. But the first attempt to investigate him and revoke his American passport was halted due to a special request from Hollywood icon Errol Flynn, his close friend.
Flynn was a popular action star of the time, and he called Erben "the greatest influence on my life." Thanks to Flynn, Erben made several trips to Hollywood, and in 1937, the two traveled together to Barcelona and Paris on a "goodwill" visit for Warner Bros. A story came out that Flynn had pledged a million dollars from American backers to the Republican cause (the good guys) in the Spanish Civil War. This was actually a lie spread by Erben so the pair could get to the front lines and Erben could photograph Germans fighting for the Republicans and send this info to the Nazis (who supported the Republicans' fascist opponents, the Nationalists).
Flynn himself was not a Nazi spy, as far as we've been able to determine. But he was so close to Erben and dropped so many casual Nazi-like sentiments that some suspected him of it, and a famous biographer outright claimed that he was. Flynn once wrote to Erben, "A slimy Jew is trying to cheat me ... I do wish we could bring Hitler over here to teach these Isaacs a thing or two." The most likely story is that Erben, despite being Slapstick Hitler, was just using Flynn for his connections, and probably some nice airplane seats.
And if Flynn ever was to be investigated heavily by the FBI, it probably wouldn't be because of Nazi ties. It would probably be because of his multiple counts of (alleged) statutory rape. Because you can't even count on the guy who played Robin Hood to be a decent person.
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