How Jewish Movie Moguls Quietly Helped To Fight The Nazis
Open Culture has published an article praising the Warner Brothers loud dissent against Nazis and censors in the 1930s by producing such films as “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and the Hitler-lampooning cartoon, “Bosko’s Picture Show.” The Warners, children of Polish immigrants, were certainly outspoken among the cadre of Jewish studio heads at the time, but they weren’t the only ones who resisted.
The Los Angeles of the 1930s, as is colorfully recounted in Steven J. Ross’s 2017 book, “Hitler in Los Angeles” was teeming with Nazi activity. Goebbels knew Hollywood’s importance in the war to win American hearts and minds and delay their involvement in a real war to come. The efforts of the Reich’s emissaries in the town were felt strongly in screening rooms. The Nazi Consul to Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, was charged with giving final approval for any film that featured the fatherland and was aided by a sympathetic head of the Production Code Association, Joseph Breen. Without their imprimatur, the studios’ films would be embargoed for the large German market. This policy effectively kneecapped the Jewish moguls, who had to answer to their investors — but that didn’t mean they failed at other forms of response.
As Ross’s book recounts, the Nazi threat to Los Angeles involved more than films. Plans were made to assassinate Louis B. Mayer, to explode munitions factories and even, through some affiliated groups, to launch a coup from the Hollywood Hills. Leon Lewis, a lawyer and amateur spymaster, infiltrated Nazi and fascist groups in the area, thwarting lynchings and larger plots. But as Lewis’s operations grew, he was in desperate need of funds.
In March 1934, Lewis appealed to Jewish studio heads at the Hillcrest Country Club in the tony neighborhood of Chevriot Hills. In attendance were MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg and his boss, Louis B. Mayer, Paramount’s Emanuel Cohen and, from the Brothers Warner, Jack. Lewis confronted the men with his intelligence and, to put a finer point on it, hinted that their sets were swarming with bigoted Silver Shirts and members of the Friends of New Germany who were ousting Jews at record rates. Paramount’s studio managers whittled their staff down so that, Lewis said, “the number of Jews could be counted on one hand.” Other studios fared worse, with Lewis reporting they’d “reached a condition of 100% [Aryan] purity.”
Spooked, the producers immediately convened a committee with a representative from each studio. Thalberg, who infamously told political writer Kyle Crichton that “Hitler and Hitlerism will pass,” volunteered to chair it and together they furnished a war chest of $24,000 (about half a million in today’s dollars) for Lewis’s use.
“The normally loquacious moguls managed to keep the proceedings relatively quiet,” Ross writes. Joe Roos, Lewis’s cousin and assistant wrote that it “was known to the inner circles of the Jewish community and film industry but escaped public notice entirely.” Proof, it seems, that a public-facing persona — the metric by which history has judged Jewish movie magnates, often harshly — may belie real concerns.
Sadly, this episode is forgotten, and sadder still, the inflow of cash soon disappeared. Later in the year, the moguls directed most of their money to fighting journalist and author Upton Sinclair’s socialist platform in the California’s gubernatorial race. They might have done much more — as the Warner’s example proves. But it still behooves us to recall their contributions. Even if they didn’t make their fears known onscreen, they still played a part behind the scenes.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern.