“In the century spanning the years 1820 to 1924,” writes the Library of Congress, “an increasingly steady flow of Jews made their way to America, culminating in a massive surge of immigrants towards the beginnings of the twentieth century.” Impelled by economic hardship and brutal persecution, the migrants came from Russia and Eastern Europe and settled all over the country. One family, originally named Wonsal, or Wonskolaser, came from the village of Krasnosielc in Poland, first settling in Baltimore, then, after two years in Canada, in Youngstown, Ohio. It was there that four brothers Harry, Abe, Sam, and Jack began exhibiting films, in small mining towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Soon, they began producing their own movies. The enterprise would become an empire when Warner Brothers Studio opened in 1918 in Hollywood.
The history of Warner Brothers Pictures sounds like a glittery immigrant success story, but it also includes a significant episode of resistance to the same kind of persecution that the family had once fled, as the anti-Semitism of fascist Europe established a foothold in the U.S. and Hollywood censors started to answer to Joseph Goebbels. “Driven by a personal knowledge of anti-Semitism,” Jack and Harry Warner became “deeply concerned about the rise of Nazism” in the 1930s, as PBS’s History Detectives notes, “and they used their studio to speak out against fascism.” Theirs was not a popular position. Anti-Jewish, pro-fascist sentiments were common in the U.S., stoked by famous figures like Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin, and Henry Ford.
“The influence of Nazism was felt across the U.S.,” writes Peter Monaghan at Moving Image Archive News. “The infatuation was sufficient that, for example, swastikas could unabashedly be displayed on the streets of Los Angeles.” An overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the resettling of Jewish refugees; hundreds of thousands of people were turned away in the 1930s. In 1932, Joseph Breen, soon to become head of the Production Code Administration (PCA), censorship arm of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, wrote a letter to a Jesuit priest in which he called Jews “the scum of the scum of the earth and “dirty lice.” Breen would soon be charged by his boss Will Hays with enforcing a ban on anti-Nazi films in Hollywood between 1934 and 1941, at the behest of Joseph Goebbels, by way of the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling.
“By shaping the content of American films,” writes historian Stephen Ross in Hitler in Los Angeles, “Goebbels hoped to shape the ways in which Americans thought about Hitler and his policies.” While most of the studio heads complied with the ban, which also strongly dissuaded the production of films about Jewish subjects or featuring Jewish actors, the Warner brothers did their best to fight back. As History Detectives writes,
The Warners demonstrated their commitment to fighting fascism by donating two Spitfire planes to the British. They also offered the use of the studio to the [US] government, an offer the government wouldn’t accept until a few years later.
It was Harry, the quieter, more religious brother, who saw the threat Nazism posed early on. He reacted by canceling a possible buy of the German studio, Universum. He also pushed his brother Jack to end all relations with Germany, which Warner Brothers did in 1934. They were the first studio to create anti-Hitler content, as well. In 1933, the animated Bosko’s Picture Show portrayed Hitler as an incompetent ruler.
The pre-ban Bosko’s Picture Show incensed the Nazi censors (see an excerpt at the top with Hitler chasing comedian Jimmy Durante), but the Warners would not be deterred even after the PCA cracked down; they were the only studio heads to support the 1936-created Hollywood Anti-Nazi-League. “Two further films, Black Legion and Confessions of a Nazi Spy” followed Bosko’s Picture Show, the first a 1937 “documentary style” production that “shed light on a fascist movement within the U.S.” (see the trailer further up). 1939’s Edward G. Robinson-starring Confessions of a Nazi Spy, whose trailer you can see below, is widely “considered the first film to feature Nazis as the enemy,” preceding other PCA-defiant films like Three Stooges’ short You Nazty Spy! and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, both released in 1940.
“Based on the true story of a Nazi spy ring in the United States,” notes the National WWII Museum, “it was, remarkably, the first film by a major US studio to directly address the situation in Germany and to emphatically warn Americans against a stark isolationist position.” The film openly challenged Nazism in the U.S., portraying “the German American Bund and its leader, an American Hitler played by Paul Lukas, as an arm of the German government.” In the year of the film’s release, 20,000 American Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden. Mixing “segments of news and scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will” with fictionalized accounts of true events, the film pulled no punches in characterizing Nazi sympathies as a direct threat to national security, despite claims by isolationists like Senator Gerald Nye that “Hollywood Jews [were] more of a problem than Hitler,” as PBS puts it.
The strictures against anti-Nazi films weakened after Confessions of a Nazi Spy and the events it depicted sufficiently alarmed viewers. The ban officially ended in 1941 when the U.S. entered the war. Thereafter, “the president was quick to state the importance of the film industry to America’s success in the war,” and Warner Brothers produced patriotic propaganda films for the duration of World War II.