Friday, 23 August 2019

The Collaboration by Ben Urwand

Something that has always bothered me within the humanities is the common idea that if you criticise someone it is only because you have a different interpretation, and that either we cannot know the truth or that there is no truth to know, all we have are just interpretations. While few, if any, are willing to persists in the belief that there are only interpretations if you push them on specific topics, it is still a frequent first response. Consider for example Ben Urwand and Harvard University Press's response when Urwand's book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler was criticised by a few reviewers and scholars, most explicitly perhaps by David Denby in The New Yorker. "Though not all reviewers agree with Urwand’s interpretation of the actions he describes, nearly 60 pages of notes and documentation enable readers to judge for themselves the strength and validity of his presentation." was the publisher's response.

But the criticism was not so much about Urwand's interpretations as about factual errors and unsubstantiated claims. Urwand himself does not treat his writing as interpretations but facts. The publisher's use of the word "interpretation" becomes a way of avoiding responsibility.

Although Urwand's book was published in the autumn of 2013 I had reason to return to it this summer. Since it continues to be taken seriously, is referenced in new books, and is getting published in translations around the world (last year a Portuguese version was published in Brazil), it seems there is still cause to critique it. Since I have now somewhat moved my research focus from the 1940s to the 1930s, the book also fits within that focus. And, finally, there are some interesting thing about it that were not mentioned in any of the reviews and articles I read at the time, so I might perhaps add something new myself. The book gets worse the more you study it.


There are many questionable assumptions and claims in The Collaboration and I will not be able to discuss them all. I will instead focus on two things: the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, as he is a key figure in the book, and Urwand's conception of Hollywood films in general of the 1930s. But first the Prologue, and page seven, on which the basic problem with the book reveals itself.

The prologue begins with several pages discussing Hitler's enthusiasm for films, and that he liked to watch films made in Hollywood. Urwand then says that the "Nazis' fascination with King Kong does not fit neatly into the accepted account of Hollywood in the 1930s. In the popular imagination, this was the 'golden age' of American cinema" (p. 7). There is no reason why the fact that Hitler liked Hollywood films would contradict any "accepted account" unless the "accepted account" was that Hitler hated Hollywood films. It is like saying that "Hitler being a vegetarian does not fit neatly into the accepted account of vegetarianism." And what does Urwand mean by "accepted account"? He is more specific at the end of the page: "it seemed to shatter a common idea about Hollywood, one that has been recycled in dozens of books - namely that Hollywood was synonymous with anti-fascism during its golden age." (p. 7)

This is not "a common idea" and I do not understand why Urwand would think so. For as long as I have been studying film history, it has always been a recurring criticism from lecturers, articles and books that Hollywood was not actively engaging with, or attacking, Nazis and fascists during the 1930s, the period Urwand is referring to. When Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak 1939) is mentioned, it is usually to emphasise that it was, to quote from Katz's Film Encyclopedia, "the first clear anti-Fascist stand in a film from a major studio." This is the "accepted account" and Urwand is wrong. Not doing a different interpretation but being wrong. He has an end-note where he lists several books that I assume he includes among the "dozens of books" that recycles "the common idea". I have read some of these books however and they all say that there was a lamentable lack of anti-fascist films in the 1930s. Besides, the titles of them, and the others too, show that they are not about the 1930s but the war years and the 1940s. It is possible that one of them might claim that 1930s Hollywood "was synonymous with anti-fascism" but that would make that book an outlier, as the consensus is the opposite, and the opposite of what Urwand claims it is. Even You Must Remember This - The Warner Bros. Story (2008), a glossy celebration of the history and legacy of Warner Bros., has this to say about the 1930s: "Even though Hollywood was largely founded and run by Jews, a blind eye was deliberately turned on events in Europe in the 1930s. Nazis and anti-Semitism were given no place in the cinema and Hitler was for the most part ignored." (p. 96) Something cannot reasonably be called a hidden secret if even the studios themselves bring it up in books meant to celebrate them.

Urwand also claims that his book "reveals for the first time the complex web of interactions between the American studios and the German government in the 1930s" (p. 7) It is unclear what he means by "for the first time" because Hollywood's relationship with Nazi Germany is well-documented. To take one 20-year old example, Mark Glancy's book When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939-1945 has a chapter called "Hollywood's foreign policy" which documents much of the same things Urwand does in his book, with several of the same examples and the same figures, including the presence of the German consul, Gyssling. (See quote at the end of this article.) Glancy's book is not mentioned in The Collaboration.

All those problematic quotes from The Collaboration were from page seven. That is a lot of misleading information on one page. It does not improve from there. But before we go further, here is a notice from Hollywood Reporter, 14 November 1935, which clearly lay out the issue that Urwand claims to have discovered, yet in a more nuanced way than he does:
It is admitted that today, due to the political situation throughout Europe, censorship on pictures touching on topics considered dangerous to those in power is tougher than ever. The picture companies are through with their former stand, ‘We’ll make it anyway’. They will now listen to foreign departments whose business it is to keep closely in touch with problems confronting the sales departments abroad. 

Now I will focus on the activities of Gyssling, the German consul, and what Urwand has to say about him. He is a key figure in the book.

Gyssling makes his first appearance on page 55. He is sent to Los Angeles in 1933 to be the Nazis' official representative in Hollywood and try to ensure that films that are critical of Germany were not made. Germany could deny the screening, in Germany and German-controlled territory, of any film they disapproved of, so they had influence.

The first meeting in which Gyssling appears, according to Urwand, was about Warner's film Captured! (Roy Del Ruth 1933) and Gyssling did not approve of it. The studio did not care and released it anyway. "It is uncertain what happened at this point, but in all likelihood Gyssling sent one of his warnings to Warner Brothers." (p. 56) Urwand speculates.

In January 1934 Warner Brothers held another screening before what, I assume, would be the international release of Captured! and this time they had made some cuts. Another German, Gustav Müller, saw this version and approved it. But Warner Bros. would still leave Germany in 1934. It is unclear why exactly and Urwand does not say. (As far as I know, Warner Bros. had already decided to leave although they were contractually required to remain until early 1934. Then they were free of Germany.)

Urwand does however say this in an end-note: "Warner Brothers went even further in order not to get into trouble. In late 1933, the company released a picture entitled Ever in My Heart, which told the story of a German immigrant who experienced discrimination in America during the World War /.../ In other words, when the persecutions of the Jews was beginning in Germany, Warner Brothers released a picture about the persecution of the German minority in the United States." (p. 267-268n64) Urwand is suggesting that Warner Bros. made a film to endear themselves with the Germans, but it must have been made before they even knew they would be in trouble, and Urwand does not tell the entire plot and what he leaves out is rather important. When the war begins the man, the German immigrant, returns to Europe, enlists in Germany and becomes a spy against the Americans. As he becomes a threat to the United States he is killed by his former wife. Why does Urwand think that such a story would please the Germans?

Urwand says that this event with Captured! marked the beginning of Hollywood's pact and collaboration: "Every time they embarked on a potentially threatening production, they received one of [Gyssling's] letters /.../ In response /.../ they did not make the same mistake as Warner Brothers. They simply invited Gyssling to the studio lot to preview the film in question, and they made all the cuts that he suggested." (p. 58) As we shall see, Urwand is not able to substantiate this claim.

The next time Gyssling appears is in relation to a film project of 1935, The Mad Dog of Europe. The film was never made and Urwand blames Gyssling for this; saying that Gyssling's only chance to stop the film was to threaten the Hays Office (the censor board, of which an important part was The Production Code Administration) with a complete ban on all American films in Germany if The Mad Dog of Europe was released. Then Urwand somewhat unexpectedly says "It is uncertain whether Gyssling actually did this at this particular point in time - the evidence in inconclusive - but he probably did" (p. 68) Or maybe not.

A couple of months later Gyssling did contact the Hays office about The Mad Dog of Europe, Urwand has conclusive evidence this time. But judging by his book, almost everybody, except a couple of producers, thought it was a bad idea to make the film. That included Jewish organisations and the Anti-Defamation League. It seems unfair to blame any one individual for the cancelling of the film when hardly anybody seemed to have liked the idea of making it.

Next time Gyssling appears is when Darryl F. Zanuck is told to send him the script for Zanuck's upcoming production The House of Rothschild. According to Urwand, Zanuck declined. (p. 78)

Then there is a discussion about the cancelled adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's anti-fascist novel It Can't Happen Here. About this Urwand says that "there is no evidence to suggest that Gyssling issued any complaint about" it (p. 178) and adds "[w]ether Gyssling was involved in the cancellation of It Can't Happen Here will probably never be known." (p. 179)

The next film discussed is Warner Bros The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle 1937). Gyssling called the studio on several occasions during the making of it and finally talked with Henry Blanke, an associated producer. He apparently told Gyssling that he need not worry about the film, saying "that the Dreyfus case plays a very small part". (p. 179) Since the Dreyfus case take up most of the film this was obviously a lie to get rid of Gyssling. That however is not Urwand's interpretation of it. He mentioned how Jack Warner asked that the film should not emphasise in dialogue that Dreyfus was a Jew, and says this "unfortunate episode revealed what an aggressive figure Georg Gyssling had become." (p. 180). That Gyssling was aggressive is obvious but this example does not reveal anything about his influence. What it does reveal is that the studios continued to be sensitive about being seen as advocating explicitly on behalf of the Jews. (More on this later.) But at the same time, The Life of Emile Zola does show that Dreyfus is a Jew and that this is the reason for why he is mistreated; that he was innocent and a victim of antisemitism.

Further, The Private Lives of Emile Zola dealt with a subject matter that was delicate in France, and they would also have been keeping an eye on the production of the film. It is more probable that Warner Bros. would listen to French concerns than German concerns in this case and it is possible that the French asked for the removal of the word "Jew" or other concessions. I do not know if they did, but it is a possibility that Urwand has not considered at all.

Then Gyssling is mentioned in relation to the film The Road Back (James Whale 1937), where he was so aggressive against the cast and crew that it became a general scandal and led to a reprimand from the U.S. State Department in Washington. The film was released, and, according to Urwand, its release led to Universal Pictures not being allowed to continue operations in Germany (p. 184). I would like to suggest that the reason Gyssling threatened the cast and crew was that Universal ignored him, as they were no longer working in Germany. There were cuts in the film, and the reasons for this has been explored and discussed at great length in James Curtis's book James Whale - A New World of Gods and Monsters (1998), especially on pages 292-309. Suffice to say it is a lot more complex than Urwand suggests.

The same year, the release of Twentieth Century-Fox's Lancer Spy (Gregory Ratoff 1937) also met with Gyssling's disapproval but it did not lead to Fox being banned. (p. 185)

The production of Three Comrades (Frank Borzage 1937) was one where Gyssling was involved by way of letters written early in the production. There is a quote in the book from Budd Schulberg, which Urwand treats like a revelation. "Mayer read the paper from Breen and understood the problem immediately. According to Budd Schulberg, here is what happened next: 'When they tried to make some, I think there was Three Comrades, there were some films that Louis B. Mayer of MGM would actually run those films with the Nazi German consul and was willing to take out things that the consul, that the Nazis, objected to.'" (p. 189) According to Urwand's interpretation, Mayer held a screening for Gyssling and then made a list of changes that he gave to Breen who then gave it to the film's producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. That quote from Schulberg is one reason Urwand has given (here for example) for why he wrote the book, and what made him learn German and research the archives. He wanted to know if Schulberg's quote was correct.

But the chronology in his telling of the event is off. How could Mayer arrange a screening for the film when it only existed on paper yet? And if Mayer had the screening why would he give a list to Breen instead of directly to his producer Mankiewicz? This is too muddled to make sense. Then Urwand speaks of "a second screening" for which he has evidence. But it is unclear why make that the second screening when it is more plausibly the first, and the only one. Why cannot this be the screening that Schulberg spoke of? When the film's script was published in 1978 it is stated in the afterword to the script that "a private screening was arranged for the German consul in Los Angeles" (p. 265) so it clearly happened, but probably only once. The case is also discussed in depth in Hervé Dumont's book Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, first published in France in 1993 and then in an English translation in 2006. There too only one screening for Gyssling is mentioned. In Scott Eyman's book about Louis B. Mayer Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (2005), there is also only one screening mentioned.

As we have seen, many previous scholars have addressed the very thing Urwand claims he has discovered, and the only new thing Urwand brings up is that there were two screenings instead of one, but it seems he is wrong about that too. It is worth reflecting over the fact that Urwand claims he learned German and spent ten years in archives to find out about something that any book about the subject could have told him immediately, if he had bothered to look.

After Three Comrades, Gyssling is mentioned in reference to Four Sons (Archie Mayo 1940). According to Urwand, it "greatly annoyed Georg Gyssling" (p. 212). The significance of this anecdote is unclear since the film was made and released, on 14 June, 1940, and Gyssling's annoyance had no effect. Urwand dismisses it as "a relatively minor film set in Czechoslovakia that ignored the specific dangers of Nazism." (p. 212). That is not true. The film is about a family in Czechoslovakia that is destroyed when the Nazis take over their country. The Nazis are portrayed, in no uncertain terms, as the enemy of democracy, decency, and humanity as a whole. They kill innocent civilians, they deport people, they send people to camps, they teach young children to kill. In the end the main character, the old woman who once had four sons, escapes to the United States with her grandson. For a film of 1940 it is remarkably explicit about what the Nazis were doing. It is puzzling that when a film finally comes along that is doing what Urwand has repeatedly asked for, he dismisses it and deliberately misrepresents its content.

Four Sons, although the film is in black and white.


Towards the end of the 1930s Gyssling was no longer in the same position he once was. He was considered a threat by the FBI, at least since 1937, and according to Urwand, by 1939 the Hays Office had "ceased all communication with him." (p. 198) By now explicitly anti-Nazi films were being made by the major studios, even MGM.

It is clearly the case, and this has been known and documented by film historians for decades, that Gyssling for a few years was a powerful man in Hollywood by his position as a representative of Nazi Germany. But there were hundreds of films made each year and Urwand mentions few, and even those few he mentions it is often unclear what, if any, Gyssling's involvement was. And if there was a pact and a collaboration, why did Hollywood repeatedly try to make films that would upset the Germans? You could read Urwand's book and come away with the feeling that rather than a collaboration there was a constant battle.

But why deal with the Nazis at all, in the form of Gyssling? Because it was standard procedure to do so with many nations. Hollywood was in general conscious about the reactions of other countries and engaged with them, whether friends or enemies. Italy, France, Spain, Britain, Japan were among other countries that demanded cuts and changes, and got them. This wider context is only briefly mentioned by Urwand in an end-note (p. 257n26), but without this context the book becomes lopsided. The most influential country was Britain, to which Breen and the Hays Office often aligned themselves. But most countries to which American films were exported were consulted. MGM's convoluted efforts to make Idiot's Delight (Clarence Brown 1939) against the wishes of the Italian consul is an interesting tale, but it is not mentioned in Urwand's book.

Something else Urwand does not mention is that after Hollywood, Gyssling appeared in Sweden during the war, pestering the Foreign Office about film issues. That is perhaps not relevant for Urwand's purposes, but what is relevant is that, unknown to Urwand apparently, Gyssling was not a loyal Nazi but instead provided secret information about Germany to a Jewish friend in the United States, who then passed it on to higher American authorities. This gives a new meaning to his role in Hollywood, and was brought to light a few years ago by Stephen J. Ross at University of Southern California. See here.)

In short, Urwand mentions nine films in relation with Gyssling. On some of them Gyssling's involvement is unclear, on some he had no impact at all, on others Urwand speculates. Only for two of the films, Three Comrades and The Road Back, has Urwand established an active engagement between Gyssling and a studio, which resulted in changes. And these were already known cases.

Urwand also insists that the only reason that the studios acted like they did was because of their greed and business concerns, even though his book is filled with examples of other concerns. One such concern that was very real for the studios' bosses and many of the cast and crew members was the rampant antisemitism in the United States, and the real threat from local Nazis. This is something, on what might be the most outrageous page in the book, Urwand completely brush off as insignificant and probably not even true. "There is no evidence, at this point or later on, that they were actually afraid of the potential anti-Semitic reaction that an anti-Nazi film might provoke." (p. 75) How can he be so tone-deaf? If he wanted proof, and there is a lot of that, he would not have to look far. Maybe turn to page 208 of his own book where he describes what happened when Confessions of a Nazi Spy was released: "Theaters were vandalized, critics in the Midwest were urged to write negative reviews, and Hollywood was denounced as a Jewish conspiracy." (For more information about the genuine threat from local Nazis, and the fears among the Jews in Hollywood, see this article.)


In order for Urwand to strengthen his argument, he also talks in more general terms about Hollywood films of the 1930s, but here he is also misguided and wrong.

"For three years, Hollywood had avoided making movies that draw attention to the economic depression and the horrendous conditions under which people lived." (p. 107) Urwand writes, and the three years are 1930 to 1932. But one thing those years are famous for is films dealing with the depression and the "horrendous conditions" of the time. Urwand himself has mentioned one, I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy 1932), so he must be aware that they exist. Five other examples he could have mentioned had he known about them are City Girl (F.W. Murnau 1930), The Cabin in the Cotton (Michael Curtiz 1932), American Madness (Frank Capra 1932), Faithless (Harry Beaumont 1932) and Employees' Entrance (Roy Del Ruth 1933).

The film he erroneously claims was the first one to address the economic conditions of the time is Gabriel Over the White House (Gregory La Cava 1933). A notorious film which has, since it came out, usually been considered a fascist film, as it seems to be in favour of rule by a strong leader with dictatorial power. Although there are other interpretations to be done, Urwand agrees with those who says it is fascist, but he goes further than that and says that "ever since MGM's Gabriel over the White House, the Hollywood studios had themselves released 'one pro-Fascist film after another'" (p. 175) and that "a film advocating liberal democracy over fascism - could not have been made in the United States at this time" (p. 175) That is not true.

Which are these "pro-Fascist" films Urwand talks about? "In a sense, the most successful Nazi propaganda film of the 1930s was not Triumph of the Will /.../ but The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" (p. 116) he declares. "The next Hollywood movie that delivered a National Socialist message /.../ would set a new standard for future German production. The film was called Our Daily Bread." (p. 121) But Our Daily Bread (1934) was not a Hollywood production but an independent production by King Vidor and made the year before The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, not the year afterOur Daily Bread is usually considered a working class, left-wing film, and if you watch it you will understand why. It is also a cheaply made, naturalistic film with no stars. Exactly which German productions are Urwand thinking of as following that standard? I do not know much about German filmmaking from the Nazi era, but what I have seen does not give the impression that they were keen on producing films about poverty and rural depravation. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Henry Hathaway 1935) is a pro-British film and a hymn to its rule over India, in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling. (It was banned in Italy for its pro-British sentiments.) This one might find distasteful, but it does not make it Nazi propaganda. But for Urwand it is and, he says, there was "a whole series of American films just like it." (p. 125) He mentions the following titles:

Looking Forward (Clarence Brown 1933)
Night Flight (Clarence Brown 1933)
Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian 1933)
Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd 1935)
West Point of the Air (Richard Rosson 1935)
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra 1936)
Souls at Sea (Henry Hathaway 1937)
Captains Courageous (Victor Fleming 1937)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra 1939)

"This list went on. This was the high point in Hollywood's relationship with Nazi Germany." (p. 127)

I do not know Looking Forward or West Point at the Air but the others I have seen. There is not space enough here to discuss each of them in depth and explain why it is strange, not to say incomprehensible, to talk about them as being some kind of Nazi propaganda, but you have probably seen some of them and can vouch for yourself. It is possible there were some random films made in Hollywood that could be considered Nazi propaganda in some way, but those films are not among them. Urwand provides a quote regarding Mutiny on the Bounty, it "showed how an ordinary man could rise up against the tyranny of a corrupt power" (p. 126). If this is his idea of Nazi propaganda then that might explain why he thinks there was so much of it in Hollywood cinema.

Souls at Sea, about the fight to end the transatlantic slave trade.

When Urwand discusses The Mad Dog of Europe, he claims that the fact that it was not made led to the complete erasure of Jewish characters in Hollywood films. After describing their vivid presence in previous Hollywood films he says, "The decision not to make The Mad Dog of Europe changed all this." (p. 76) However, a few pages later, at the end of his discussion about The House of Rothschild, Urwand says that "the Jew, once so prominent in American culture, was suddenly nowhere to be found /.../ More than any other single factor, The House of Rothschild was responsible for this disappearance." (p. 90) How can The House of Rothschild be the single most important factor if two years earlier The Mad Dog of Europe had already "changed all this"? Either way, this change was not because of any one film but a wide-reaching reform which did not just involve Jewish characters but many kinds of ethnicities, sexualities, languages and other things that could cause offence among some part of society. It also involved dress codes, level of violence and so on. It was the tightening of the Production Code, and its enforcement is well-known. It was this (gradual) change that has given us the term "pre-Code cinema" today to refer to the films between, roughly, 1930 and 1934. Urwand seems to be unaware of this. Jews where still to be found though, and other minorities too, albeit less frequent and often in coded form.

Another issue is what is missing from the book, such as all those films that, on terms acceptable by the Production Code, did try to address problems with fascism and/or racism, at home and abroad. "What's better work for an American than helping to fight for democracy?" O'Hara (played by Gary Cooper), rhetorically asks in The General Died at Dawn (Lewis Milestone 1936 Paramount), one such film. Other films one could mention are Fury (Fritz Lang 1936, MGM)They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy 1937, Warner Bros.), Black Legion (Archie Mayo, Michael Curtiz 1937 Warner Bros.), The Last Train from Madrid (James P. Hogan 1937 Paramount), Blockade (William Dieterle 1938 Walter Wanger), The Adventures of Robin Hood (William Keighley Michael Curtiz 1938 Warner Bros.), Juarez (William Dieterle 1939 Warner Bros.). Then there are B-movies, including Westerns such as those about the Three Mesquiteers, in which anti-fascist messages sometimes appear and other political issues are brought to attention. Since their existence would undermine Urwand's argument it is understandable that he does not mention any of this. For those who want to get an idea of the tremendous difficulties Hollywood filmmakers had to deal with when making a film with a political subject, I suggest the introduction to the published (1983) script of Juarez. It was difficult to make these films, yet many tried.

Another factor that adds context is the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL), for a while one of America's most prominent organisations for opposing Nazis and Fascists. Many members of the Hollywood community were members, including some that Urwand talks about, but while he mentions the organisation briefly he does not describe their importance or their members. He does say that "it had avoided all criticism of the Hollywood executives' dealings with Georg Gyssling." (p. 199) but since he does not provide any reference or source for this claim it is relevant to ask how he would know this. Maybe it was raised in several meetings at the time. Or maybe the League knew that Gyssling was not the real problem.


That was an overview of some key aspects of the book. It is time to sum it up. As the full title of the book is The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, and because Urwand has persistently said, in the book and in interviews, that he has uncovered completely new information, one way of evaluating the book should therefore be by asking three questions:

Has Urwand shown that there was a pact?
Has Urwand shown that there was a collaboration?
Is there any new information in the book?

The answer to all three questions is unfortunately no, at least based on Urwand's book. He has not provided any examples of any written agreements between Hollywood and Hitler, although this is not surprising for how would such agreement have been possible? Hollywood is not a unity or corporate entity with the capacity to engage in such pacts with anyone. Of all of Hollywood's studios only three were actively working in Germany up until the war, the others left or were kicked out in the early days of the Nazis, so it was not the case that the whole of Hollywood was in on it. Urwand instead focuses only on Twentieth Century-Fox and MGM, and he has provided examples of local agreements in Germany between the studios and the local authorities. But that is not the same as a pact, and definitely not a pact between Hollywood and Hitler, and Urwand has not shown that there was any.

Was there a collaboration? Urwand claims that he used that word because, he says, that is the word that was used in written correspondence between the Germans, but they did not. They wrote in German and not English, and there is a German word for collaboration, Kollaboration. This is not the word they used in their correspondence. The word they used was Zusammenarbeit. Urwand has instead made a conscious decision to translate Zusammenarbeit into collaboration. I am not saying that it is necessarily a false translation, but I am saying that he cannot hide behind the Germans. He made that choice, not them. He could have chosen cooperation for example, or liaisons. (The word in effect means together-work.) But is it accurate to describe what happened between some of the studios and Germany as collaboration? It depends on your own definition of collaboration. If by collaboration you mean two, or more, parties with sinister motives working together for a common cause, then there was no collaboration and Urwand has not shown any proof of such an arrangement. The case of The Road Back is a good example of the reality. If there had been a pact or collaboration, the film would not even have been planned. Instead Gyssling had to threaten and bully the cast and crew to get his way. Is there not something unpleasant about telling these poor people that they were collaborating with Hitler?

Finally, is there anything new? If by "new" we mean relevant information that we did not have before about the historical situation being discussed, then the answer would be no. Over the last decades there have been several books and articles making the same arguments and telling the same story. It is perhaps the case that Urwand has looked at more materials in the German archives than previous English-speaking scholars have done, but even so he has not brought forward any new information.

There is one thing that some commentators of the book have mentioned as being new and shocking information. It is Urwand's claim that "the largest American motion picture company [MGM] helped to finance the German war machine." (p. 147) Is this true? I do not know. Urwand's reference is to "Stephenson, 'Special Report 53,' December 30, 1938." so I cannot double-check it. In Urwand's summary of Stephenson's report he says that Stephenson "explained the process" (p. 147). What is unclear is to whom he described it. If he described it to MGM, then it does not follow that they did as he suggested. But it could be the case that Stephenson explained to someone else what MGM had done. Considering the importance of the issue it is a pity that Urwand is unclear. But MGM's affairs have been discussed before, it is for example mentioned in Dumont's earlier book about Borzage, and in slightly different terms. Dumont says MGM had money in Germany that had been frozen by the Nazis. They could not remove it and instead invested that money and then sold their shares to American banks, with the approval of the US State Department. (p. 260) I do not know what this means, what the ethics involved were or whether it is fair to say MGM helped "finance the German war machine" as Urwand claims. But he has shown that he is not reliable.

Whatever the case is with MGM and its money, based on the evidence that Urwand provides in his book, a more accurate title for The Collaboration would be, for example, Dealing with the Enemy: How Some Hollywood Studios Negotiated with Nazi Germany. And that was already the "accepted account" of the period. The only things Urwand adds are inventions, hyperbole and confused interpretations.

The final page of The Collaboration briefly touches upon films made after the war, and Urwand writes "Decades would pass before any reference to [the Holocaust] appeared in American feature films." (p. 253) This is not true. It was mentioned in several films during the war, and it took barely a year after the war until it was referenced again. It features for example in Orson Welles's The Stranger (1946), where newsreel footage is included. Sword in the Desert (George Sherman 1949) and The Juggler (Edward Dmytryk 1953) are explicitly about Holocaust survivors. Hedy Lamarr plays a survivor from Buchenwald in A Lady Without Passport (Joseph H. Lewis 1950).

It is fitting for The Collaboration that even the penultimate paragraph gets the basic facts wrong.

Selected bibliography:

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Screenplay for Three Comrades (1978)

Jan Olsson Svensk spelfilm under andra världskriget (1979)

Colin Shindler Hollywood Goes to War: Films and American Society, 1939-1952 (1979)

Juarez - Edited and With an Introduction by Paul J. Vanderwood (1983)

Gregory D. Black, Clayton R. Koppes Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profit and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (1987)

Ephraim Katz The Film Encyclopedia (1994)

James Curtis James Whale - A New World of Gods and Monsters (1998)

Mark Glancy When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' film 1939-45 (1999)

Michael E. Birdwell Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign Against Nazism (1999)

Scott Eyman Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (2005)

Hervé Dumont Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic (2006)

George C. Perry, Richard Schickel You Must Remember This - The Warner Bros. Story (2008)

Thomas Doherty Hitler and Hollywood 1933-1939 (2013)

Here is a relevant quote from Glancy's book:
Gyssling was determined to prevent films which cast a negative light on Germany, whether related to Nazi Germany or to Germany's past, and he was well versed in the means with which to deal with the industry. For example, even before Twentieth Century-Fox began filming the First World War spy drama Lancer Spy (1937), which centres on a British double agent, Gyssling informed Breen that he heard that there would be 'several scenes apparently objectionable from the German standpoint'" He also reminded Breen that 'many Fox films are being shown in Germany at this time'. This was only one of many references made to the link between film content and the studios' ability to operate in Germany. There were also numerous references to the 'National Feelings' clause. Gyssling apparently had read the Production Code, and was determined to see that this clause was applied to Germany. (p. 44) 
If you want to get a coherent and accurate overview of the topic of Urwand's book, I suggest you just read the chapter from which the above quote comes instead of reading The Collaboration.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Muriel Box

British cinema of the 1950s is a lot more varied and interesting than it is given credit for, and among those doing good and steady work during the decade was Muriel Box. She was at the time the only woman who regularly directed films in Britain, and she was a successful writer as well. She even won an Oscar for the script for The Seventh Veil (Compton Bennett 1945), which she wrote with her husband Sydney. The two worked together for many years, and during the 1950s she directed at least one film every year. She was the only woman in British cinema before the 1980s who was able to do this. Wendy Toye directed feature films too, but only three during the 1950s and one in 1962.

Box was born in 1905 and her film career began as a continuity girl for British International Pictures. But her career as a writer was at first primarily for the theatre, even if she and Sydney wrote a script in 1935 for the film Alibi Inn, directed by Walter Tennyson. In 1941 she directed a short propaganda film, The English Inn, but it was not until after the war that the film career took off. She became the head of the script department at the studio Gainsborough Pictures, famous for melodramas and female-centred films, and for making a star of James Mason, usually playing the villain. She and Sydney wrote together and he produced, and after a few years she also began directing, after Gainsborough had been closed down.

If we include The Lost People (1949), on which she was co-director with Bernard Knowles, Box directed 14 feature films, with the last being Rattle of a Simple Man (1964). Most were produced by her husband and several were written by them, but she also directed other people's scripts. She did comedies, dramas and thrillers. In To Dorothy, a Son (1954), Shelley Winters plays the lead as an American woman going to Britain to protect her inheritance. Street Corner (1953) is a variation of the then popular British genre of police procedures but with the focus on women police officers.

After she retired from filmmaking, Box wrote novels and co-founded Britain's first feminist publishing house, Femina.


The two films I want to focus on now are Simon and Laura (1955) and The Passionate Stranger (1957). The two films share the same basic premise, a fake re-enactment of reality with the fake and the real differentiated by one being in colour and the other in black and white. But the angles from which this is pursued differ.

Simon and Laura is about a married couple who both are actors, no longer popular, and instead fighting all the time. A young upstart at BBC comes up with the idea of a daily reality show about a happily married couple and, after briefly considering "the Oliviers", decides to ask Simon and Laura. They say yes and have to fake being happy while the cameras are rolling. Their real life is in colour whereas the TV-version of their lives is in black and white.

The Passionate Stranger is about a well-to-do couple who hire an Italian man as their driver. The wife of the couple is a writer and, inspired by the Italian man in the household, her new novel becomes a story about a well-to-do couple who hire an Italian man as their driver. Passion, jealously and murder ensues. This melodramatic version of the not particularly exciting real life is then shown, the middle section of the film, with the same actors but in vivid colour whereas the framing story is in black and white. In Simon and Laura, the fantasy is black and white and reality is in colour. In The Passionate Stranger it is the other way around.

They are both satires, the first of television and the other of melodramatic novels (or storytelling in general), but they are also about fame and how easy it is to get confused about what is real and what is fiction, even when you are yourself a part of it.

Simon and Laura, which is the better film, was based on a hit play by Alan Melville and The Passionate Stranger was one of Muriel and Sydney's original scripts. The reason Simon and Laura is better is that it is quicker, wittier and more energetically played. Not just Peter Finch and Kay Kendall in the leads but the entire cast, including an obnoxious child actor played by Clive Parritt. (When Laura is asked about playing with a kid she is convinced it will be fine: "I have acted with octogenarians, dipsomaniacs, dope-fiends, amnesiacs, and veteran cars.")

For a film scholar it would be interesting to watch all of Box's films, as writer as well as director, and there is definitely a need for a book about her whole career and position within British cinema and the feminist movement. Judging by the films I have seen, she did not have a strong or imaginative visual style, but she had interesting ideas. And while you may not want to hunt down everything Box ever did, I definitely recommend Simon and Laura. It is delightful.

Sydney Box's first film as producer was Raoul Walsh's (unfortunate) English excursion O.H.M.S. (1937).

Friday, 26 July 2019

Summer break

It is late July and I am on vacation. You will have to wait for something new to read here for two more weeks, Friday, August 9. See you later!

Claire's Camera (Hong Sang-soo 2017)

Friday, 12 July 2019

Test Pilot (1938)

One of the exciting things about 1930s cinema is that this was a time of aviation adventures. Flight records were constantly broken, pilots became national celebrities (or celebrated writers like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and there was a general sense of awe and wonder around the world of aviation. The beginning of Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) captures this well. Many leading filmmakers were also pilots, such as Clarence Brown, Henry King, William Wellman, Howard Hawks, Tay Garnett and Victor Fleming. When the Australian aviation pioneer Charles Kingsford Smith (Sydney's airport is named after him) happened to land in Hollywood in 1935, he not only met Fleming but bought Fleming's plane.

Several of these filmmakers also made films about flying, in particular Wellman, and most successfully Hawks. There were also a few writers that contributed to several of these films, in particular John Monk Saunders and Frank Wead (known as "Spig"), who both had been in aviation themselves. One of Hawks's films about flying, Ceiling Zero (1936), was based on a play by Wead and had been suggested to Wellman and Fleming and Garnett, but they all turned it down. When Hawks got his hands on the basic material he made it his own. John Ford also made one based on a script by Wead, Air Mail (1932), but it is unfortunately stiff and awkward. A fine early film, based on a novel by John Monk Saunders, and in the Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald mould of tales about "the lost generation", is The Last Flight (William Dieterle 1931).

I do not know whether Dorothy Arzner was a pilot but she made Christopher Strong (1933), with Katherine Hepburn as the pilot, inspired by the life of the British aviator Amy Johnson. Somewhat later Jean Grémillon made Le Ciel est à vous (1944) which was also about a woman aviator, played by Madeleine Renaud.

Two images from Night Flight (Clarence Brown 1933)
uneven but beautiful and based on a novel by Saint-Exupéry. 

Since I have been infatuated with flying since I was young, before I got interested in films, and for a long time wanted to be a pilot, I have always been interested in these films. One of the best is Test Pilot (Victor Fleming 1938), based on a story by Wead. I seem to be in a minority there because I do not think I have ever heard anyone speak of it, and not seen it praised anywhere. (Andrew Sarris dismissed it in The American Cinema (1968).)

In 1938, Fleming was one of Hollywood's most successful and revered filmmakers. His previous film was the fine Captains Courageous (1937), beautifully made, which had been a box office hit. Test Pilot, a personal project for Fleming, had all his favourite cast and crew members, and it was he who talked them all into doing it. It is an astonishingly solid piece of filmmaking, impeccable craft, with a vivid sense of time and place. Each space that the characters inhabit feels real and lived. The aerial photography is flawless too, among the best I have ever seen. The film is so good that Hawks (Fleming's best friend) afterwards claimed he wrote part of it. John Lee Mahin, Fleming's favourite writer, who did co-write Test Pilot, said much later when he heard about Hawks's boast: "Did Howard say that? Jesus! He's a complete liar! A complete liar, bless his heart." But it is not unreasonable to think that Hawks might have contributed something, since he and Fleming were close and both were in to flying. But that is not all that interesting.

The story of Test Pilot is focused on three characters. The pilot, played by Clark Gable, his mechanic played by Spencer Tracy, and a woman whom the pilot meets early on and get engaged with, played by Myrna Loy. They are all in love, or at least both the mechanic and the woman are in love with the pilot. It is very well-played by all three, capturing all the nuances in the trio's complex relationship.

The connections between Test Pilot and Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939) are many and obvious. But so are the differences. Even though Hawks and Fleming were close, they were also different in their views on life and characters. Fleming's narrative style is much more functional (or "classical") than Hawks's and the way the story plays itself out and how it ends also highlights their definitive differences. Whereas I have earlier linked Only Angels Have Wings with poetic realism, there is nothing of that in Test Pilot.

1939 was Fleming's most famous year, when he made both (the most of) The Wizard of Oz and (most of) Gone with the Wind, considerably more hamstrung than he had been before. Whatever those famous films' strengths and weaknesses might be, Test Pilot is for me Fleming's best film of the dozen or so I have seen. It is one of the highlights of 1930s cinema.

I love this scene so much.

The quote from John Lee Mahin is from an interview in Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age (1986), edited by Patrick McGilligan

Some facts and figures from:

Todd McCarthy Howard HawksThe Grey Fox of Hollywood (1997)
Michael Sragow Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (2008)
Ann Blainey King of the Air: The Turbulent Life of Charles Kingsford Smith (2018)

It was dangerous to be an aviator. Charles Kingsford Smith crashed and died in 1935, Amy Johnson in 1941, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1944. Amelia Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

"Spig" Wead's life was the basis for John Ford's film The Wings of Eagles (1957).

William Faulkner wrote his novel Pylon in 1935, which was adapted by Douglas Sirk in 1957 as The Tarnished Angels, so it is a late edition to this tradition.

Charlie Chaplin's brother Sydney started the first domestic airline in the United States, The Syd Chaplin Air Line Co., in 1919.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Tay Garnett

The previous post, about poetic realism, mentioned Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg, and Jules Furthman as contributing to an American poetic realism. There are many connections between those three, and they were part of a creative circle for a while. There are several other names that could be added to that group, such as the writer John Lee Mahin and the director Victor Fleming, the latter who in some ways was the centre and inspiration for them all. Another, more tangential member, was Tay Garnett. (He did not make any films I would call poetic realism though.)

The period I am thinking of is primarily the 1930s. Both von Sternberg and Fleming struggled in the 1940s (Fleming died in 1949), and while Garnett made his most famous film in 1946, The Postman Always Rings Twice, the kind of films he was making then were different. Of the directors, only Hawks continued to blossom, and stay true to his style. Furthman wrote fewer scripts, and the best ones were with Hawks. John Lee Mahin, like Hawks, showed no sign of slowing down though. But in the 1930s there were a lot of things that connected these people. Styles, themes, ideas and personal history. Hawks and Fleming were best friends, both Garnett and Lee Mahin were married to the actress Patsy Ruth Miller (not at the same time...) and Furthman and Lee Mahin co-wrote many of these directors' best films, except for Garnett's for whom Furthman wrote only one.

Fleming, Hawks and Garnett, together with King Vidor, were at one point thinking of starting a company to produce their films together but nothing came of it. According to Michael Sragow in his fine book Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (2008) "Hawks thought he could do more movies on his own, and Garnett's story choices flummoxed Vidor." (p. 443)

One thing these men had in common, besides being filmmakers, was that they were adventurers; interested in flying, hunting, travelling and boating, and this was reflected in their films. I am not sure about the two writers, but Hawks, Fleming and Garnett had all been pilots, and this too was reflected in their films, not least with Hawks who made six films about pilots. But even though there are similarities, there are also major differences.


Garnett is the least known of these and that is appropriate as he is not comparable to either Fleming or Hawks in terms of craft or vision, not even close. While there is a big, comprehensive book about Fleming and several about Hawks, there is little to be found about Garnett. But some information is out there. He was born in Los Angeles and went to university there. He was in the Naval Air Corps during World War 1, and was discharged in 1918. A plane crash left him with a life-long limp and he used a walking stick. He had already made a name for himself as a comic writer and he worked on that in the Navy after the crash. He also did flying stunts.

Eventually he began working as a gag writer at Hal Roach studios, and then for Mack Sennett. At Sennett he sometimes wrote with Frank Capra for several famous comedians, such as Harry Langdon. He also directed a couple of short films before he got going as a feature-film director in 1928. (The third feature, The Flying Fool (1929), was about a pilot.) The first of his films that has a claim to fame is Her Man (1930). It was for a long time considered a lost masterpiece, although it has now been found and, well, masterpiece is perhaps not the right word to describe it. But it has three things that are typical of Garnett of the 1930s and early 1940s: an exotic location (Havana), a haphazard narrative based on gag routines, and a highly mobile camera. Unfortunately many of the gag routines in Her Man, particularly those about hats, are to me not funny but intolerable. But otherwise it is a fine film.

Garnett kept himself busy during the 1930s, making several films each year. He was never attached to any studio for a longer time, he moved around, sometimes producing himself, and even abroad. He had his own boat and in 1935/1936 he sailed it across the world, and he used his film camera to capture the Pacific locations he encountered. They would later form the backdrop for Trade Winds (1938), another typical Garnett adventure and my favourite of his films. Other rambunctious films in the Far East are China Seas (1935) and Seven Sinners (1940), the latter with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne and almost a remake of Her Man. I prefer Seven SinnersOne Way Passage (1932), set on a boat going from Hong Kong to San Francisco, has a more serious tone, and some think it is Garnett's best work (himself included). William Powell and Kay Francis play the leads, as two passengers who fall in love during the cruise. It is quite lovely, and here a running gag turns increasingly poignant until the very end. Garnett is good at capturing moments of love at first sight, and One Way Passage is an example of that. The highlight for me of such a moment is the first meeting between Fredric March and Joan Bennett's characters in Trade Winds. You can almost see that something shifted in March's soul.

March and Bennett

Stand-In (1937) is a comedy with Leslie Howard as a New York accountant or efficiency expert sent to evaluate and improve a rundown Hollywood studio. This suits Garnett's tone. The same year's Slave Ship on the other hand is a mess and shows that Garnett's kind of filmmaking is not at all suitable for a subject such as the slave trade. To call it insensitive would be an understatement.

Garnett's films in the 1940s and later are varied and not necessarily that exiting. (Maybe that is what Raymond Durgnat referred to when he wrote "Often, film auteurs, like novelists and poets, die before their death – like Tay Garnett, Stanley Donen, Edward Dmytryk, Robert Siodmak.") He made a couple of war films that James Agee liked (Bataan (1943) and The Cross of Lorraine (1943)), some sentimental dramas, the aforementioned noir The Postman Only Rings Twice, and the eccentric thriller Cause for Alarm! (1951), with a fine performance by Loretta Young. One Minute to Zero (1952) is a lacklustre war film about the Korean war, with Robert Mitchum. More propaganda than poetry, and too impersonal. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949) is a lot of fun though. A campy, occasionally hilarious, version of Mark Twain's novel. Mel Brooks might have been a fan when it came out.

Bing Crosby and William Bendix in Camelot.

In the mid-1950s Garnett almost stopped making feature films and instead focused on TV. There he directed episodes for various series, primarily detective shows and Western series including such famous ones as Rawhide and Bonanza. Despite his early work as a comic writer, he did little of that in the second half of his career. But Cause for Alarm! has a comic relief in the form of a small boy who appears several times and is almost the best thing about the film.


Garnett never made much of a splash, and few mentions him now, although Andrew Sarris put him in the category "Expressive Esoterica" (in some ways the most interesting category). In American Directors, Jean-Pierre Coursodon says that Garnett was perhaps "an auteur of sorts, albeit a very minor one." and adds that "Garnett's speciality was exotic adventures generously spiced with comedy, a seasoning so rich that it often overpowered the straight action. /.../ Running gags are his trademark; it apparently doesn't matter to him how lame they are so long as they keep running." (p. 139)

I feel no need to track down and watch all of Garnett's films, but I have a weakness for his idiosyncratic comedies in exotic locations, some of which are photographed by masters and are therefore also pleasing to look at. He is interesting to study in order to highlight the various ways in which filmmakers functioned in Hollywood, in particular the lesser known or unknown, those whose weaknesses are perhaps more pronounced than their strengths yet who managed to carve out a niche and a career on their own terms.

Maybe Garnett's most important contribution to film history was a book. In the 1960s Garnett sent out questionnaires to filmmakers, young and old, all over the world and then collected their answers. It was published in French in 1981 (I believe) with the title Un siècle de cinéma and then in English in 1996 with the title Directing: Learn from the Masters. François Truffaut wrote the foreword: "He was thin, laughing, rugged-featured. /.../ As nearly all his colleagues of the Silents, he was athletic, a flyer, an adventurer; like them, he was an intellectual without wanting to be. /.../ Tay Garnett was the only filmmaker who was poor - he spent his money on friends and women."

One Way Passage


James Agee's reviews are to be found in any of the collections of his film criticism.

Raymond Durgnat, "Who Really Makes the Movies" in Films and Filming April 1965

Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage, American directors - Volume 1 (1983)

World Film Directors: Volume One 1890-1945, editor John Wakeman (1987)

Directing: Learn from the Masters, editor Tay Garnett (1996)

Michael Sragow, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (2008)

You may like Farran Smith Nehme's article in Film Comment (2016) about Her Man.

Another filmmaker that one could include in this group of men from a certain generation, with a taste for adventure and influenced by Victor Fleming, is Henry Hathaway. But he feels different. For one thing he was more serious, and hardly made any comedies. While Garnett's Slave Ship is embarrassing, Hathaway's Souls at Sea (1937), which is also about the slave trade, is a great film. (I wrote about it here.)