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Book Review: Hollywood & Hitler 1933-1939 – Thomas Doherty

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About Hollywood and Hitler
Hollywood and HitlerBetween 1933 and 1939, representations of the Nazis and the full meaning of Nazism came slowly to Hollywood, growing more ominous and distinct only as the decade wore on. Recapturing what ordinary Americans saw on the screen during the emerging Nazi threat, Thomas Doherty reclaims forgotten films, such as “Hitler’s Reign of Terror” (1934), a pioneering anti-Nazi docudrama by Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.; “I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany” (1936), a sensational true tale of “a Hollywood girl in Naziland!”; and “Professor Mamlock” (1938), an anti-Nazi film made by German refugees living in the Soviet Union.

Doherty also recounts how the disproportionately Jewish backgrounds of the executives of the studios and the workers on the payroll shaded reactions to what was never simply a business decision. As Europe hurtled toward war, a proxy battle waged in Hollywood over how to conduct business with the Nazis, how to cover Hitler and his victims in the newsreels, and whether to address or ignore Nazism in Hollywood feature films. Should Hollywood lie low, or stand tall and sound the alarm?

Doherty’s history features a cast of charismatic personalities: Carl Laemmle, the German Jewish founder of Universal Pictures, whose production of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) enraged the nascent Nazi movement; Georg Gyssling, the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, who read the Hollywood trade press as avidly as any studio mogul; Vittorio Mussolini, son of the fascist dictator and aspiring motion picture impresario; Leni Riefenstahl, the Valkyrie goddess of the Third Reich who came to America to peddle distribution rights for “Olympia” (1938); screenwriters Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker, founders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League; and Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Bros., who yoked anti-Nazism to patriotic Americanism and finally broke the embargo against anti-Nazi cinema with “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939).

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Review: Hollywood & Hitler 1933-1939

I’ve read a lot of books about Hitler and WWII this last couple of years, from the fictional (City of Women, The Patient Ecstacy of Fraulein Braun) to non-fiction (Dinner with Churchill, Useful Enemies), so to approach the subject from the angle of entertainment/culture was very interesting. I must admit, there were several things I was completely unaware of, so it certainly enhanced my knowledge.

As a general interest read – rather than for academic reasons – I did find my attention wavering a little at times, so I’ll admit it wasn’t the easiest of reads, but as an academic source, I can see that this would provide a wealth of information and add additional context to the social events of the time. The title – Hollywood & Hitler – sums up the twin aspects of the book perfectly. This is a look at film within the Third Reich itself, as both propaganda and entertainment, but also a look at the effects across the Atlantic.

From restrictions on imports/exports of films, to being unsure whether to show Hitler on screen (and risk giving him a voice) or boycott his appearances (and risk keeping viewers uninformed), to the propaganda value of various films, this really is an excellent look at the issues affecting the film industry at the height of the Third Reich’s journey to first power and then war.

This offers something of interest to film buffs, those with an interest in culture and entertainment and, of course, those with an interest in 20th century history. Don’t be put off by the academic approach. This is a highly informative and worthwhile read, whether it be for general interest or for more serious review.

Verdict: 4/5

Source: Netgalley

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Donna Brown
Avid reader/audiobook listener, fan of podcasts, prone to the odd Netflix binge. Mum to six crazy and incredible rescue cats. Occasional writer of short stories and poetry.

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