Hitler & the Hits

In “Hitler and the Hits”, Frederic Raphael reviews Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler.

Raphael doesn’t accept the false analogy of a Jewish Hollywood appeasing the Nazis:

The title of Urwand’s book is calculated to excite horrified attention: the notion that Hollywood production companies collaborated with the Nazis taints them with the rancid flavour of the Vichy French who dispensed with long spoons when supping with the devil.

Of Urwand’s book:

The question is put, but not answered, “Why did these powerful executives choose to do business with the most anti-Semitic regime in history?” The likeliest excuse is encapsulated in an old Jewish joke which ends with the tag-line “Please, do you have another globe?” Jews had been negotiating for survival, against enemies of overwhelming power, ever since the several falls of Jerusalem. The Nazis in the 1930s seemed hardly more virulent than Ferdinand and Isabella whose eviction of Sephardic Jews (and Moors) was as cruel as it was Christian, but not exterminatory. The destitute refugees of 1492 did at least have somewhere to go, and ships to take them there. The New World supplied hope of some land not already promised to other tenants. In the 1930s and 40s, no ships were available to Europe’s marooned Jews, nor was there any prospect of a welcome elsewhere. At the 1938 Evian Conference, only the Dominican Republic made them an offer, at a very high price per head.

In stigmatizing Hollywood’s Judenrate, as it were, Urwand discounts the marginal status even of seemingly well-placed American Jews. When Joseph Schenck and Darryl Zanuck went into partnership, one of their first projects, in 1933, was The House of Rothschild with George Arliss. Although Schenck was in the habit of putting his hand on Zanuck’s shoulder and saying, “We Jews should stick together”, Darryl was actually German-Swiss and not a Jew, but he did have more overtly pro-Semitic nerve than most of Hollywood’s head honchos. He produced The Jazz Singer (1927) and twenty years later, Gentleman’s Agreement, with Gregory Peck, in which, as in Arthur Miller’s Focus, a Gentile is taken for a Jew and discovers anti-Semitism.

Urwand recalls that when Joe Schenck read the Rothschild script, he winced at the villain’s anti-Jewish rant. “When Zanuck told him not to worry – the film would not be interpreted as a plea on behalf of the Jewish people – Schenck just laughed. ‘Oh no, it’s not like that . . . . I’m afraid people will cheer.’”

There’s this apocryphyal story of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht’s avowed zionism:

Ben Hecht, who won the first Oscar for screenwriting, for Underworld in 1927, was the wittiest and the quickest on the draw of all the scribes in the West. Before “the Shakespeare of Hollywood” would do an urgently needed rewrite for one of the slow-to-pay studios, he insisted that $1,000 in cash be put on his desk first thing every morning; and it was. Here, he emerges, late in a dry narrative, as a full-blooded Mensch.

After the British and American governments had chosen to do practically nothing to halt the “crime without a name”, Hecht dared to come out with: “The Roosevelt–Churchill attitude toward the Jews will go down in history as part of [the Nazis] extermination plan”. Hecht paid for ads, on behalf of the Committee for a Jewish Army, in the editorially diplomatic New York Times, which were addressed to “the conscience of America”. His hectic tone was deplored by official Jewish organizations, but the effect was immediate and irreversible: “We were creating a new school of Jews in the U.S. – one which refused to believe blindly in the virtues of their enemies in Democracy’s clothing”.

It falls outside Urwand’s remit to mention that, when the post-war Attlee government endorsed the policies of Anthony Eden, by blocking Europe’s Jews from entering Palestine, Hecht dared to applaud the militant Zionist response: “Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts”. Hecht’s films were banned in the United Kingdom and his name deleted from the credits of those already released. Certain people have an unfortunate habit of forgetting that they have only themselves to blame.

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