YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 23, 2013

The pitfalls in writing histories of the movies

Ben UrwandThere is a sprawling bibliography of both trade books and academic studies of the movie industry.  Into this minefield, strides Ben Urwand, whose book has been received with fury or, in some cases, approbation.

For Ben Urwand’s recent Harvard published book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, “Hollywood”, “Jewish” moguls, “capitalism,” and the ostensibly Nazified/anticommunist/bigoted  American movie industry are conflated and held in contempt. (The “collaboration” that Urwand and the many critics of mass culture and mass media may have in mind is the bond between image and audience. Like other critics of technology and its assistance to demagogues, Urwand turns out to be an antimodern, even a sort of Tory, though he appears to be writing from the left. For instance, writing in the voice of “Doremus Jessup,” Sinclair Lewis wrote, “‘Is it just possible,’ [Doremus Jessup] sighed, ‘that the most vigorous and boldest idealists have been the worst enemies of human progress instead of its greatest creators? Possible that plain men with the humble trait of minding their own business will rank higher in the heavenly hierarchy than all the plumed souls who have shoved their way in among the masses and insisted on saving them?'” So modern mass media enable demagoguery of the kind that Lewis fears. Odd that Lewis doesn’t pin this on FDR in his It Can’t Happen Here  (1935), a book that Urwand admired and wished that it had been turned into a movie. (For a blog on the “cultural Marxists” see https://clarespark.com/2013/07/31/the-nefarious-cultural-marxists/.)

With respect to the Urwand book, the questions for an academic reviewer are easily summarized: Given the magnitude of the claim of the book, that from 1930 onward, “Hollywood” dismissed Jews from the screens it controlled, and worse, allowed Germans in both Weimar and in the Third Reich to censor movies, to the point where even the Holocaust was off limits for filmic presentation after WW2 until the 1960s, by what criteria should Urwand’s thesis be either defended or criticized?

Since Urwand cites German archives in his footnotes, one would expect the author to be fluent in the German language (he is self-taught in the language); to fully understand the culture of Nazi Germany (looking for continuities and discontinuities with the modern German past); and most importantly, to have reviewed the responses of Western Europe and America to the New World Order proposed by the various fascisms, putting up with Hitler and Mussolini until 1939, and keeping their distance from the Spanish Civil War. Urwand seems to know little about the history of anti-Semitism and isolationist suspicions of war-mongering “Jews” who were trying to snare American Christians into their nefarious “collaborationist” schemes. And since Urwand shows no reluctance in declaring (but not proving) why certain “anti-fascist” movie scripts were dropped by such famously conservative, pro-American moguls as Louis B. Mayer and other producers, we would expect the author to understand the intricacies of the movie business and the often chaotic or unrecorded decision-making, including the various forces that pre-censored and post-censored movies, especially after 1934 when the Production Code was established and controlled by Joseph Breen and the Catholic Legion of Decency. But we must not neglect the power that New York financiers exerted over the studios located in California–a matter explored by Cary Beauchamp in her recent biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, drawing upon previously restricted papers in the Kennedy Library (publ. 2008).

Ben Hecht as depicted on anti-Zionist website

Ben Hecht as depicted on anti-Zionist website

Urwand’s book is easily dismissed as the unsupported speculations of an ideologue bent on imitating Ben Hecht by separating antisemitism (‘bad’) and anti-Zionism (‘good’),* but not so an entire genre of movie history written from the academic Left and published by the most prestigious university presses. These authors include Thomas Doherty, Gregory D. Black, Clayton R. Koppes, and Steven Alan Carr. While a few of these academics criticize antisemitism in books depicting “Hollywood” as generically Jewish [Carr],  or note Joseph Breen’s open hostility to the scummy and omnipotent Jews who ran Hollywood [Black], in the end many resent the “Hollywood” representations of a phony melting pot, and idealizations of heterosexual romance, happy families, escapism, spectacle, glamour, happy endings, the suppression of labor vs. capital conflict, racism, and more, but most of all, they are dead set against the Dies Committee and “McCarthyism” as evidenced in the postwar blacklist after the Cold War was begun. Since many of their books were published after the Soviet archives were opened and books published verifying many of HUAC’s or McCarthy’s suspicions and accusations, one might conclude that capitalism and the profit-motive are the real targets of academic interest in the movies. (The authors who have written about the revelations in the Soviet archives include Mark Kramer, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev.)

For prior blogs on Ben  Urwand’s book, see https://clarespark.com/2013/10/10/urwand-undoes-chaplins-dictator/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/09/13/urwands-collaboration-hollywoods-pact-with-hitler/. No reviews, even those dismissive of Urwand’s peculiar view of “collaboration”, have sketched in the appropriate historical context for evaluating this academic book’s claims. It was published by Harvard University Press, but those academic readers who supported it are anonymous. But in insisting that Hollywood profits supported the Nazi war machine, Urwand’s thesis reminds me of Edwin Black’s sensationalized work. That Urwand’s book has received some good reviews suggests that many movie journalists are unequipped to evaluate histories of the movie business.

*I am reading Hecht’s Child of the Century (1954) now, and Hecht is a waverer on the subject of Israel. More when I finish this autobiography. Urwand may have misunderstood the extent to which Irgun-admiring Hecht distanced himself from “Zionism.”

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3 Comments »

  1. There’s an entire goldmine of history from this era waiting for some talented person to accurately write about it.

    Comment by redeemingthepast — November 28, 2013 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

    • As I claimed in the blog, the history of decision-making in the movies is often so unrecorded and hence unknowable, that I doubt that anyone could write an entirely reliable history of even one film.

      Comment by clarelspark — February 28, 2014 @ 7:57 pm | Reply


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