During a panel discussion about Hollywood’s political and ethical stance in the run up to World War II, the speakers were asked whether major studios could have done more to warn the nation about Hitler and Nazi Germany.
“I think not,” said panelist Richard Schickel, a Time magazine film critic.
Ross and Schickel clashed often during the fifth annual Dr. Harold I. Lee Lecture, presented by the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.
Here’s an example:
“It is a pathetic chapter in American life,” Schickel said of the WWII era. “There was [the steamship] St. Louis wandering from port to port with its cargo of Jewish immigrants that wouldn’t be welcomed into this country. Those white-shoe WASP nitwits in the State Department kept them out. You can’t particularly single out Hollywood given that context for its attitudes.”
Ross bristled: “You can single out Hollywood because the producers, the studio heads — there was such a huge Jewish contingent. Could they have done something? Yes. But they would have had to be smart about it.”
The discussion, “Hollywood Left and Right: Anti-Fascism, Anti-Communism and Anti-Semitism before World War II,” was titled after Ross’ nearly finished book to be published by Oxford University Press. Ross’ parents are Holocaust survivors who met at a displaced persons camp in Dachau shortly after liberation.
The event also celebrated the Casden Institute’s annual volume recently published by Purdue University Press, The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Vol. 5. The volume begins with an excerpt from Ross' new book.
Leo Braudy, University Professor and Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, acted as the third panelist and moderator.
Braudy questioned whether only explicit propaganda films influence viewers. He wondered if films of the mid to late 1930s such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” or “Captain Blood,” about fighting for one’s principles against authority, were as effective in conveying an anti-Nazi message as the drama “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”
“How do hearts and minds get changed?” Braudy asked. “Do they get changed by films saying something explicit about anti-Semitism? Or do they get changed by films that say prejudice is bad?”
He said many now criticize the film “The Life of Emile Zola,” for its failure to discuss anti-Semitism. The 1937 film portrays Zola and painter Paul Cézanne, supporters of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongfully convicted of treason at the turn of the 20th century. The Dreyfus affair divided France because many believed the Army leadership was anti-Semitic and Dreyfus was singled out because he was a Jew.
But Braudy said that the film, which won an Oscar for best picture, didn’t have to depict every detail to deliver its message.
“The inexplicit films that are about prejudice in general, films that are anti-authoritarian, films that are about the individualist hero standing up and flying beneath the radar of the politicians,” he said, “those films I would argue affect people and change people’s minds more deeply.”
In the 1930s, when movie stars and producers fought fascism on and off the screen, the reputation of Hollywood as liberal was born, Ross said. But the reputation is only partly deserved, he said.
“What stands today as a seeming example of democratic courage against Nazism and fascism was at the time seen by many government leaders as [pro-communist] and so dangerous that it prompted investigations in both the House and Senate,” Ross said.
The infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in August 1938 investigated Hollywood and accused the Anti-Nazi League of being a communist front and its members of being the dupes of Red organizers, Ross said.
Ross noted that HUAC was originally created to investigate all brands of un-American activities. But right wing elements hijacked it to weed communists out of the government, Hollywood and the nation.
Ironically, Samuel Dickstein, a Jewish congressman from New York, created HUAC in the early 1930s to investigate all types of extremist political movements — Nazism, fascism, the Ku Klux Klan, as well as communism.
“He lobbied for a few years and when Congress finally approves HUAC, they dump Dickstein,” Ross said. “They put a Texas congressman in charge, Martin Dies, who’s a rabid anti-Semite and anti-communist, and he goes after the Reds in America.”
Schickel and Ross also disagreed about the reasons studios, usually Warner Brothers, presented films in the 1930s seemingly about the value of cultural assimilation. For example, in some gangster films, such as Warner Brothers’ “The Public Enemy,” characters who fail at assimilation — refusing to get along — meet tragic ends.
“They are all dead at the end of those movies and the reason for that is very simple,” Schickel said. “They have not learned to assimilate and play by the rules and be decent chaps.”
Ross insisted, however, that it was far simpler than that. The studios were not trying to send a grand message about assimilation. The studios had a simple rule: “Crime can’t pay.” So every script had to kill off the bad guys or the film would not be produced, he said.
“The bottom line is this — and I’ve been moving through a number of archives for a few years — the movie industry is in the profit-making business, not the consciousness-raising business,” Ross said. “When push comes to shove it’s almost always about business.”
“I disagree with that,” Schickel said.
“Well, I don’t,” Ross said.