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.”


September 13, 2013


URWANDCOVERThis is an impression of Harvard Junior Fellow Ben Urwand’s new book, to be released in October.  I was initially appalled when I saw a puff-piece in TABLET. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/06/13/hollywoods-pact-with-hitler/. I had not yet read the book and expected some archival research that would establish the veracity of Urwand’s title.) In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined such a mendacious book published by one of the most prestigious academic presses. In this brief blog, I will mostly focus on the depths of antisemitism between the wars, and then suggest that calling the moguls “Jews” plays fast and loose with what it means to be a “Jew” in America, today or any other day. For a related blog that quotes from Urwand, see https://clarespark.com/2013/10/10/urwand-undoes-chaplins-dictator/.

I suggest that the interested reader look at both an article from History News Network from circa 2002 on Joseph P. Kennedy’s antisemitism, which may look “extreme” to the eyes of the reader, but was not different in intensity from that of his contemporaries, let alone from that of much of the Left today. See http://hnn.us/article/697  “Joseph Kennedy and the Jews.” Or, see Steven Alan Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism (Cambridge UP, 2001), that poses “the Jewish question” as “the Hollywood question” in a masterful review of antisemitica in America, and nullifying Urwand’s claim that there were lots of good Jews in the movies before the cowardly, money-mad moguls capitulated to Hitler’s German consul in Los Angeles. Carr also shows, through implication, that Urwand’s startling thesis is nothing new. Quoting The Nation, September 20, 1941: ” ‘Far from being too vigorously anti-Nazi’…the film industry ‘as long as they could, avoided making films that might endanger their markets in Germany and Italy. Business was their first consideration.’ ” (p.269)

Then read David Denby’s recent unfavorable review of Urwand’s book, that makes many points I would have made, namely that Urwand spends much time in speculation about why such and such a film was not made, but makes wild surmises that are not verified by his evidence. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/09/16/130916crbo_books_denby, also http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/09/how-could-harvard-have-published-ben-urwands-the-collaboration.html.  (Yet another unfavorable review says mostly that business is business, and Urwand is naïve to make so much of the censorship; see http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/09/did-hollywood-collaborate-with-hitler-a-new-book-makes-bold-claims.html. ) In yet another review (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/does-collaboration-overstate-hollywoods-cooperation-595678), Thomas Doherty’s competing book HOLLYWOOD AND HITLER, 1933-1939, is compared with Urwand’s nasty book, but the description of Doherty’s conclusions does not match what Doherty actually wrote: Doherty is said to praise Hollywood for resisting Nazism, but Doherty trotted out the Warner brothers as exceptional only to castigate them as caving to HUAC and the Martin Dies Committee by producing super-patriotic movies that hid controversies in U.S. history, such as labor unrest. And in his concluding sentences, he wonders what he, Doherty, would have done about coming out against the Third Reich were he in the shoes of the Hollywood moguls.

None of this should surprise us. Ben Urwand begins his acknowledgments with tributes to some of the New Left Berkeley faculty: Michael Rogin, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwack and Martin Jay (the latter a noted critical theorist and historian of the Frankfurt School  that blamed mass media for the corruption of the working class, hence the working-class failure to stop Hitler). And the book is getting support in high liberal venues: see http://chronicle.com/article/When-Hollywood-Held-Hands-With/140189/, in a long and informative article by Alexander C. Kafka.

The novelty of COLLABORATION exists in the claim that Jewish moguls allowed Hitler and his minions to control “Hollywood” not only throughout the 1930s, but on into the war years, and worse, inured to the Pact, Hollywood continued its baleful influence by suppressing the horrors of the Holocaust until decades after it became known. Urwand’s earlier work was on aboriginal rights in Australia, and his latest work wants to present America as a capitalist, hence fascist country, in cahoots with the Third Reich, and carrying on its mission. There are even suggestions that American movies “infused” Nazi culture, an innuendo comparable to Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/. I do not intend to blame Goldberg for his take on movies (not his target), but rather on the progressive nanny state and eugenics as inspiring fascist programs in Germany.)


I have only dipped into the vast literature on the history of film. As far as I could tell, Joseph P. Kennedy’s role in virtually inventing the complicated financing of the movie industry (as revealed in Cari Beauchamp’s book published in 2008 after crucial Joe Kennedy papers were unsealed in the Kennedy Library), was unknown to the various authors I have read: two by Thomas Doherty (1993, 2013); David Welky (2008); and one co-authored by Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black (1987).  Of these scholarly works, Welky’s seemed the least biased.

For one thing, Welky gave several paragraphs to Joe Kennedy’s speech to fifty Hollywood “moguls” in late 1940, which I quote here: “…Recalled to the United States during the British negotiations [regarding the import of US films], the ambassador accepted Jack and Harry Warner’s invitation to speak to movie executives. His talk during the three hour lunch on the Warner Bros. lot left the gathering of fifty industry leaders speechless. Kennedy told them the United States should limit aid to Britain in case the Nazis won the war, an event he thought likely. More important, he asked producers to “stop making anti-Nazi pictures or using the film medium to promote or show sympathy to the cause of the ‘democracies’ versus the ‘dictators.’” Pictures like The Mortal Storm, Escape, and Arise, My Love, an anti-Nazi comedy released by Paramount a few weeks before Kennedy’s visit, did more harm than good because they highlighted Jewish control of the movies. Many Anglos blamed the war on the Jews, Kennedy warned, and anti-Semitism was on the rise in Britain. He advised producers to “get those Jewish names off the screen.” After Kennedy’s lecture, screenwriter Ben Hecht remembered, “all  of Hollywood’s top Jews went around with their grief hidden like a Jewish fox under their Gentile vests.” MGM and Paramount canceled several anti-Nazi projects, including Heil America, Heroes, I Had a Comrade, and Invasion.

[Welky, cont., quoting Kennedy] …The “Jewish boys…are quite nervous about the conditions and they have reason to be…Smart British interests have already taken over the Jewish boys…and have sold them an idea they already had, that they must work for England, even if it means getting us into war.” (pp.244-45, THE MOGULS AND THE DICTATORS) Compare these quotes to Urwand’s brief reference to the Kennedy speech, referring to Ben Hecht’s warning to the movie heads: “Hecht told the studio heads not to buy into Kennedy’s arguments that such pictures would lead to an increase in anti-Semitism in the United States. He said that such thinking had been designed merely to play on their fears.” (p.234) (Which contradicts Urwand’s earlier axiom that profits were primary and fears of increased antisemitism were either minor or submerged in the lust for shekels.)

Ben Hecht is the only good Jew in Urwand’s book; indeed his departure from his early Zionism seems to have inspired Urwand. But Urwand hasn’t cited  PERFIDY (by Hecht) that displayed Hecht’s own social climbing and insult at the home of an antisemitic New York socialite, while Hecht went on to blame Rudolf Kastner,  a Hungarian Jew,  for collaboration with the Nazis.  (See http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Power-and-Politics-Perfidy-revisited. This is a big and apparently unresolved fight.) Urwand is following longstanding trends among left-wing Jews: apparently to condemn anti-Semitism (thus distinguishing themselves from contemptible commercial Jews), while separating antisemitism from anti-Zionism. The remainder of this blog considers the distinction between “intellectual Jews” (like Urwand and his mentors at UC Berkeley) and “commercial Jews” (like the moguls). [Update: since writing this blog, I have read Hecht’s autobiography, and Urwand utterly misunderstood Hecht’s objection to “Zionists.” Hecht supported the Irgun and called the Anglophile Jewish Agency members “Zionists.” Could Urwand have even read the final section of A CHILD OF THE CENTURY? See my blog on that subject https://clarespark.com/2013/12/07/ben-hecht-v-ben-urwand-the-un-jewish-left-and-assimilated-jews/.)

The money-grubbing commercial Jews. I write these thoughts on Yom Kippur eve, September 13, 2013. I have asked the question, “What is a Jew”? Urwand and multiculturalists in general, take ruling definitions of Jewishness for granted.  As readers of my blogs know by now, the multiculturalists in the dominant culture define Jewish identity by race. It is not only a practice and belief system, much of which I share as a secular Jew.  Rather, the “intellectual Jews” [liberals and leftists] are put in a different box from the lower-class and unseemly “commercial Jews.”

I first heard this distinction in 1959, at a party hosted by the Harvard Law Review. It might have been a prominent professor who made that statement, and being twenty one years old and a babe in the woods, I had no comeback, and it would have been impolite to embarrass my fiancé, whom I married shortly afterward. His name was Ron Loeb, and he told me at the time how recruiters from the big NYC and Washington law firms would come to Harvard, warning that “our clients don’t want Jewish lawyers in our firms.” Ron (who made Law Review) told them that was really too bad, because 18 out of the 25 Harvard Law Review third year crop were Jewish. Note the date.  It is 1959.

Reading Urwand’s  book gave me anxiety attacks. It was not only horribly written from a historian’s point of view, for it was based almost entirely on speculation and innuendo, not to speak of its subtextual identification of Jews with Nazis.  Yet, in today’s ideological atmosphere, so toxic to “the Jews” (all of whom may be imagined exactly like the immigrant Jews who were prominent in founding the international business of cinema, unless as acceptable, assimilated Jews they are antisemitic themselves). Though Urwand’s book will find even more kvetchy reviewers, the fundamental questions will remain unanswered: “What is a Jew” and what institutional constraints have figured in the censorship of movies?

So far, besides the constraints of an international market, I have found through reading, the Will Hays Office (supported by Joe Kennedy), Joseph Breen and the Legion of Decency, and the Office of War Information (described in detail in Koppes and Black). But more than these censors, like other immigrants, the early movie moguls adapted to the regnant populism that appealed to the mass market, inhabited as it was by other immigrants. (Upper and middle class WASPs were mostly off elsewhere uplifting urban folk.)  And the movies remain populistic, with the support of movie critics and other journalists who partake of the general  sadism and masochism we see all around us.

The following photo and caption was used in David Denby’s New Yorker review (linked above), but not in the Urwand book.

"Breen (center) had power to censor anti-Nazi films"

“Breen (center) had power to censor anti-Nazi films”

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