The Moguls and the Dictators
Hollywood and the Coming of World War II
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2008. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-8018-9044-4. 416 pp.
Reviewed by André Kaenel
Université de Nancy-II
As David Welky puts it in the bibliographical essay that caps his lively study, there is “no shortage of notable writings on Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s” . The field has indeed been well ploughed by the likes of Bernard F. Dick, Thomas Doherty, Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Michael E. Birdwell, Colin Shindler, Neal Gabler and a host of other film historians to whom he gives proper credit. But what he attempts in The Moguls and the Dictators is nothing less than a complete and comprehensive narrative of the many issues that agitated Hollywood and Washington from the early 1930s to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which precipitated the US entry into the conflict. In his words, his book “seeks to explain how and why Hollywood shifted from public apathy regarding fascism and the threat of war to publicly condemning the dictators and calling for the United States to oppose them” .
This he achieves by interweaving four main themes in twenty crisp, synthetic chapters: Hollywood’s often uneasy relations with the federal government and the Roosevelt administration; the difficulties faced by studio executives in marketing their products for a fractious and often elusive international market whose European profits would shrink after 1939; the growth of antifascist voices and organizations within the film community and, more broadly, within the public sphere; an examination of key movies of the period which enables David Welky to chart the gradual though contentious shift from “political apathy to antifascism and pro-democracy” .
The salient moments in Hollywood’s political coming of age covered in this book are numerous, with a perceptible shift towards greater engagement after 1937: the affinity for Mussolini of several producers in the early 1930s, notably Walter Wanger, who tried to establish a production unit in Italy; various efforts at appeasement towards Hitler; the “deep psychological conflict”  within the industry over the issue of anti-Semitism; the creation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936 and the proliferation of other anti-fascist organizations; the central role of the Production Code Administration in regulating the political content of movies; the uneasy relations between the MPPDA head, the Republican Will Hays, and President Roosevelt; the federal government’s anti-trust efforts after 1938; the contrast between the active engagement of the Warners, Zanucks and Wangers in the unfolding European drama (The Life of Emile Zola, Blockade, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Sergeant York) and the tepid, conservative attitude of MGM’s boss, Louis B. Mayer; the production of films addressing current concerns, namely pro-British, combat and pro-military films, together with others celebrating highlights of American history; Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy towards Latin America and its diplomatic translation by the Warner brothers, Juarez (in Welky’s apt metaphor, “Warner Bros. was Hollywood’s Maginot Line of anti-Nazism” ); the 1939-1940 anti-communist witch hunts under the impetus of Martin Dies and HUAC; the consolidation of the partnership between Hollywood and Washington in 1940; Hollywood’s “near-total failure to specifically associate World War II with anti-Semitism” ; the impact of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 on Hollywood’s anti-fascists and communists; the fiasco of the Nye/Clark congressional investigation on propaganda in movies. Underwriting these events and moments is one of Hollywood’s familiar quandaries, particularly in times of crisis or war: how to reconcile a sense of patriotic duty with the financial imperatives of a cultural enterprise which is above all a business or, in Welky’s words, how, for Hollywood executives, to balance their “hearts and their wallets” .
What makes The Moguls and the Dictators engrossing is its ability to bring the period, its events and its main protagonists vividly to life. Welky’s reliance on numerous primary documents and papers from movie actors and producers as well as from diplomatic sources enables him to foreground the many human dramas played out within the wider geopolitical and diplomatic upheavals of the 1930s and early 1940s. Moved by Jack Warner’s anger at Mussolini and his Nazi allies after the Duce canceled a screening of Warner’s The Life of Emile Zola at the 1937 Venice Film festival, famous mobster Bugsy Siegel thus offered him to “bump off” Joseph Goebbels and other top Nazis . As for his brother Harry, in July 1941, he interrupted an MGM luncheon honoring the British Ambassador to Washington with a speech urging the United States to occupy Great Britain, a move that would free the British Army from defending the country and enable it to liberate France .
Whenever Welky ventures into his fourth main theme, the discussion of the movies themselves, the book feels less assured, however. His commentaries on the famous and less famous films he musters to make his case about how Hollywood gradually, though in many cases reluctantly, abandoned its political discretion in the 1930s, too often take the form of plot summaries. Movies are rarely envisaged as cultural and political texts, and their visual, musical, stylistic, or generic characteristics are only mentioned in passing, if at all. A brief comment late in his book about how, in the opening scene of Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York, the “camera drifts down” the river , thus comes as a shock, a rare acknowledgment of the cinematographic (as opposed to the scenaristic or ideological) dimensions of the films under study. Equally puzzling are a couple of unusual value judgments: what makes Three Comrades “mediocre” ? Or The Long Voyage Home “a terrific film” ? As for The Mortal Storm, it is “still a difficult film to watch today”, Welky claims, one that “it is easier to appreciate than to love” and it is
hard to believe the same studio released Andy Hardy Meets Debutante the same year. This thematic disjuncture is what ultimately made The Mortal Storm so shocking. It was so unlike any contemporary picture, so different from MGM’s typical glamor-queen-and-wholesome-families fare, so unflinching in its attacks that it could not help but surprise moviegoers .
But this “disjuncture”, which is not merely “thematic”, is the very stuff that Hollywood movies were made of in the mass production system of the studio era, although it is no doubt more noticeable at a critical time like the late 1930s. For more informed discussions of the films themselves, readers can turn to some of the titles in Welky’s bibliography, as well as to the early chapters of Lary May’s The Big Tomorrow (which Welky cites but appears not to have used much), or to two important titles he does not mention, Nick Roddick’s book on Warner Brothers in the 1930s, A New Deal in Entertainment, and Dana Polan’s study of forties films, Power and Paranoia, among several others. Readers of French can also turn to the works of many film scholars (Jean-Loup Bourget’s Hollywood, la norme et la marge would be an excellent place to start) to complement Welky’s predominantly historical approach.
Despite the absence of a recognizable, original thesis, the reader of Welky’s synthesis should find ample reward in being made to understand the impact of the multilayered unfolding of dramatic domestic and foreign events on a film industry which could be alternatively courted and targeted by the federal government. Until, that is, the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941 consolidated an alliance that would soon unravel in the Cold War, turning Hollywood into a popular target of anti-communist persecutions. And Welky’s narrative concludes on a tantalizing suggestion about the lasting transformations brought about by the world events of the late 1930s and early 1940s:
These years not only saw Hollywood at its peak of popularity and respectability but also witnessed the disintegration of the Hollywood that existed in December 1941. Its mutually beneficial relationship with Washington, dominance of American theaters, and ability to control messages that appeared on the world’s screens all proved fleeting .
In brief, the period prefigured the collapse of the studio system and the end of the moguls’ oligopoly, whose coffin would be nailed by the 1948 anti-trust Paramount decree. At the same time, in one of several paradoxes highlighted in this book, Hollywood emerged in the years leading up to WWII as a “mature cultural identity [….], an industry that—not without some trepidation—viewed itself as an important player in contemporary policy discussions” , a role it has not relinquished since, as some of its post 9/11 movies show.
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