Hollywood had a little appeasement issue early in the Second World War; namely, they avoided a certain four-letter word starting with “N” and ending in “I.”
It was no secret what the Nazis and their friends were up to. Everyone knew they were committing atrocities against the Jewish people and anyone else who went against them, but the rest of the world had a fine line to walk because no one wanted another war. America continued to sell raw materials to Japan after their invasion of Manchuria because Roosevelt didn’t want the Japanese to go after anyone else’s resources. And of course, Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact, supposedly guaranteeing Hitler would shelve his territorial ambitions.
However, there was way too much faith placed in these arrangements. The Munich Pact, Winston Churchill warned Neville Chamberlain, wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. There would be war anyway, and indeed, Hitler invaded Poland. The pact also allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland, which left the Czechs vulnerable. Japanese forces massacred thousands of Chinese and others in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.
Hollywood refrained from commenting outright on any of this or calling out the perpetrators, and most of it was due to Joseph Breen of the Production Code fame watchdogging them.
Even radio playwrights had to be very careful. After Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the League of Nations basically said “Shoo” to Haile Selassie, Norman Corwin wrote a play called “They Fly Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease,” about a bombing crew that blows up an apartment building for fun. He doesn’t mention anyone by name, but the narrator remarks offhand that the perpetrators are looking forward to their ravioli.
Why was the entertainment industry being so cautious? Well, there were a few reasons. First of all, it was from a business standpoint. Europe was a major market, and Hollywood didn’t want to take a chance on alienating a big chunk of its viewership. There was also the chance of alienating American audiences, who wanted to leave the troubles of the world behind when they went to the movies. The biggest reason, though, was, again, the Production Code, which specifically forbade the disparaging of any culture, race, or nation. Everything was to be presented fairly.
It was not, however, because Joseph Breen was an anti-Semite. In his 2013 book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, author Ben Urwand claimed that Hollywood censored itself because it was actively looking to prop up the Nazis and Breen was in collaboration with an actual Nazi living in Los Angeles. This preposterous idea has been roundly dismissed by historians and rightly so, but I only mention it because some news services such as CBS wax lyrical about Urwand’s book.
By the late thirties, the Nazis’ activities were too blatant to ignore, public opinion started to change, and studios were pulling their offices out of Germany. Film content was still reticent, but that all changed in May of 1939, when Warner Bros. released Confessions Of A Nazi Spy.
To say this movie hits the ground running is an understatement. It doesn’t even have opening credits except for a title. It lays everything out. It calls everyone out. It pulls no punches. And just so no one misses anything, it’s narrated like a documentary.
The story of a Nazi spy ring trying to inject propaganda into every American town, city, and village, Confessions portrays the German American Bund as anti-American charlatans who just want to be Hitler’s arm in the United States. They think nothing of kidnapping naturalized citizens and sending them back to Germany for daring to disagree with them.
There’s only one problem: The FBI knows exactly what they’re doing. They round up the suspects, take names, and close in on the ringleaders. Edward G. Robinson plays agent Edward Renard, a cunning fellow who beats the interlopers at their own game, tricking them into sharing more than that intend to and blowing their misplaced resolve all to pieces.
As if anticipating its detractors, Confessions talks directly to the audience:
There are some who will say we have nothing to fear, that we are immune, that we are separated by vast oceans from the bacteria of aggressive dictatorships and totalitarian states. But we know and have seen the mirror of history in Europe this last year…peaceful nations had their entire national structure eaten away by the boring of the enemies within, who by treachery, treason and corruption paved the way for the ruthless march of the Nazi iron boot…God only knows what peace-loving nation will be next…but ladies and gentlemen, America is not simply one of the remaining democracies. America IS democracy. A democracy that has the God-given inspiration of free men, determined to defend forever the liberty which we have inherited in our Bill of Rights, of the Constitution of the United States.
In response Hitler banned all Warner Bros. movies from exhibition in Germany and the Warners were accused of warmongering. However, at a congressional hearing two months before Pearl Harbor, Harry Warner reminded the committee that a similiar Nazi spy ring had been broken up in the United States.
Another firebrand of a movie was 1940’s The Great Dictator, starring Charlie Chaplain and Paulette Goddard, which tells the story of a Jewish barber who’s a dead ringer for dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Hynkel is a bang-on impression of Hitler who wants the Jews wiped out for being an inferior race. He also babbles in his speeches about sauerkraut and bounces the world around on his fingertips like a beachball.
In a twist of fate, the barber manages to switch places with Hynkel, and to the shock of everyone around him, the barber goes against everything Hynkel stood for. In the documentary, “Warner At War,” Steven Spielberg said the film made its less than subtle point. Danged right it did. In the final speech of the film, Chaplin tears Hitler a new one:
The film is rollickingly funny, but not everyone was amused in 1940. Chaplin himself later regretted the flippancy with which the movie portrayed Jewish persecution. Naturally, Hitler banned The Great Dictator from Germany, but curiousity got the better of him and he had a print smuggled in. Although his reaction is lost to history, he is known to have watched it twice.
1940’s The Mortal Storm was yet another, albeit much less forceful calling-out of the Nazis. Starring Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Stack, Dan Daly and Robert Young, the film is set in Germany in 1933, when Hitler comes to power.
Professor Viktor Roth is beloved by his students, but since he is non-Aryan, he is phased out from his job and eventually put in a concentration camp. His sons join the Nazis. His daughter chooses to quit hanging out with friends she’s known all her life because they’re suddenly foreign to her, and falls in love with another childhood friend, Martin.
While the film takes a softer approach to calling out the Nazis (it doesn’t even mention them by name until about a third of the way through), it does emphasize the tragedy of losing one’s freedom and families being separated. There’s also a book burning scene in which the Nazis announce whose books they’re burning and why.
Unfortunately, audiences thought the film was a downer, so it ultimately didn’t do well. Goebbels hated The Mortal Storm so much that he banned MGM from Germany and Hitler banned all MGM films from occupied Europe.
Even though the gloves were off in Hollywood, there was still one aspect of the war that had to be carefully navigated, but that’s another story for another time.
A special announcement is on the way tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you then…
Confessions Of A Nazi Spy (DVD only), The Great Dictator (Blu-ray and DVD), and The Mortal Storm (DVD only) are available to own from Amazon.
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“Warner At War.” Dir. Constantine Nasr. Narrated by Steven Spielberg. New Wave Entertainment, 2008. (documentary)
6 thoughts on “During World War Two: The “N” Word (No, Not THAT One)”
The Three Stooges were actually the first to mock Hitler (about 9 months before Chaplin). I’ve never seen the Edward G. Robinson film, but am going to look for it.
Here is a link to the Stooges story: https://www.neatorama.com/2012/05/09/the-three-stooges-take-on-hitler/
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Cool, hope you like it. I didn’t say Chaplin was the first, though, just that “Dictator” was another film that lit a fire under the Nazis. This wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list–it was already too long, lol. Thanks, though–this article looks interesting! 🙂
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I loved this piece. I wasn’t trying to “one up” you. I just always found it fascinating that the Stooges were first to “throw the punch at Hitler.” Chaplin is brilliant in The Great Dictator. His final speech is simply amazing. Thanks for the write up!
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Oh, it’s fine, and thanks very much, glad you enjoyed it. And don’t worry–it’s all good. I just had to read the Chaplin bit over again because I couldn’t remember if I said he was “first” or not, haha. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so if I came off as terse I apologize–it wasn’t my intent. Sorry. The Stooges film looks cool. I hope it’s on YouTube or something. 🙂
Excellent installment in the series. I enjoyed this very much, Rebecca! Now to track down Confessions…
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Thanks so much, Ari! Hope you like it. I don’t know how I missed your comment, but oh well.
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