How Warner Brothers Resisted a Hollywood Ban on Anti-Nazi Films in the 1930s and Warned Americans of the Dangers of Fascism

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

20,000 Amer­i­cans Hold a Pro-Nazi Ral­ly in Madi­son Square Gar­den in 1939: Chill­ing Video Re-Cap­tures a Lost Chap­ter in US His­to­ry

Fritz Lang Tells the Riv­et­ing Sto­ry of the Day He Met Joseph Goebbels and Then High-Tailed It Out of Ger­many

The 16,000 Art­works the Nazis Cen­sored and Labeled “Degen­er­ate Art”: The Com­plete His­toric Inven­to­ry Is Now Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Jay Manning says:

    One cor­rec­tion, that’s Ed Wynn, in the first clip. I remem­ber watch­ing the Bog­a­rt film, in the 50s or 60s, on TV. It was a very effec­tive film. It made me uncom­fort­able, even as a child, that there were peo­ple that thought like him(Bogart), and bought in to the pro­pa­gan­da.

  • Michael Flores says:

    Before World War 2 cities Chica­go, Boston, NYC and oth­ers refused to show news­reels with mis­treat­ment of Jews or Nazi actions. Hol­ly­wood was told not to make anti- Nazi films.

    Lind­berg was not a nazi. He served his coun­try in World War 2. He helped devel­op the Cor­sair jet and vol­un­teered to go to the Pacif­ic The­ater of Oper­a­tions as a Cor­sair tech­ni­cal rep. “On May 22, 1944, Lind­bergh flew his first com­bat mis­sion, escort­ing TBFs to Rabaul with a Marine Cor­sair squadron and straf­ing assigned ground tar­gets before start­ing home. Before return­ing to Guadal­canal on June 10 he had flown 13 mis­sions to North­ern Solomon and Rabaul tar­gets from Green and Emi­rau islands.” —

  • pierre says:

    though one has to be cau­tious or sus­pi­cious these days of any his­to­ry… try Lestrade’s Pacif­ic The­atre inves­ti­ga­tions at
    ie no great pacif­ic war. so even Lind­burgh as a movie man must have been lying to us.. they all did. name one that did not.…
    mileswmathis[dot]com/updates.html 17 parts there around 50 pages each. now I just look for real dead japs or major dam­age or any­thing with any of those WWII reels.

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