The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II

David Welky,
The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0801890444
US$45.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by John Hopkins University Press)

This is a superb book, smoothly written, skillfully designed and researched, and is easily the text on the subject of the Hollywood studios’ reaction in the 30s and 40s to the oncoming threats of fascism, global war, and the Nazi party. Welky is at the start of his career, and this is a stunning accomplishment, and deserves all the recognition it can get. In twenty concise chapters, Welky charts the run up to the war, the isolationist movement in the United States, the studios’ disinclination to get involved in the coming conflict until the attack on Pearl Harbor made US involvement inevitable, and the political forces that were brought to bear on those who opposed isolationism.

While the studio executives, in particular MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, wanted nothing more than to keep doing business as usual despite the looming threat of Nazism, others, such as actor Melvyn Douglas, knew as early as the late 1930s that war with the Axis powers was just a matter of time. Welky is a historian, not just a film historian, although his grasp of cinema technique and style is exemplary. Thus, this book not only covers Hollywood’s response, or lack thereof, to the coming crisis, but also deals with the HUAC hearings in the aftermath of the war, and the national political climate as a whole during the 1930s and 40s.

In particular, the author singles out the presidential battle of 1940 between Wendell Willkie and Franklin D. Roosevelt for detailed examination, and demonstrates how the studio bosses to a man supported Willkie’s candidacy, with the arguable exception of 20th Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, who supported the war effort long before the conflict began, and opposed the HUAC hearings but kept quiet about it, because he didn’t want to jeopardize Fox’s bottom line. Columbia’s president Harry Cohn was an open admirer of Mussolini, and even produced a short film to celebrate the dictator’s regime. The other interesting element that Welky teases out of the raw material here is the surprising fact that despite their Jewish origins, the studio bosses did little or nothing to stop Hitler’s rise to power, with the exception, again, of Zanuck, who as Welky points out, was a gentile. Charlie Chaplin was another prescient figure, with his film The Great Dictator (USA 1940), and the first major Hollywood film to directly target the anti-Semitism inherent in the Nazi regime.

Looking back on World War II from the comfortable vantage point of more than sixty years, it seems to many today as if the outcome of the conflict was predestined from the outset. Welky makes it clear that in the midst of the war – which, for the United States, lasted only four years, but in Europe from 1939 to 1945 – there was considerable doubt as to which side would prevail. For some time, many US citizens hoped that the conflict would be confined to Europe, and not spill over into all out global warfare. Reflecting this, Hollywood took a long time to recognize the threat of the Nazi regime. The first anti-Nazi film from a major studio, Warner’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, directed by Anatole Litvak, didn’t come out until 1939, as Hollywood reluctantly dipped its toes into the war effort.

Welky points out several cases of direct threats from the German government to stop the production of anti-Nazi films, such as Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm (USA 1940), by not so subtly suggesting that when the war ended with a Nazi victory, the German hierarchy would “remember” the production of the film, and punish those involved accordingly. “I don’t give a goddamn about what they were going to remember” exploded rising actor Robert Stack on the set, while the star Robert Young felt differently, “wandering around the set mumbling, ‘What about my children? What about my kids?’” (p. 202). This is just one of the almost innumerable examples of the way in which Welky makes the conflict come alive for even the most knowledgeable contemporary reader, as he mines through vast quantities of materials in the course of writing the book, all of it meticulously documented. At the same time, Welky is acutely conscious of the enormous power of Hollywood’s global reach in terms of shaping public opinion, both in the United States and overseas, and of its unceasing desire to entertain at all costs.

But the sad truth of the matter is that, for the most part, Hollywood was so absorbed in its own self interests to really care about the possibility of war, or even its outcome – for the moguls, the entire affair was simply a disruption of their normal business practices, which led to their support of the isolationist Willkie over the interventionist Roosevelt, who rightly sensed that this was one war that would be coming to the United States whether we liked it or not. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and the actors Harpo Marx and Al Jolson were golfing when “two men burst from the pro shop” with the news. Warner’s immediate reaction was disbelief. “Pearl Harbor?” he asked. “Where the hell is that?” (p. 325).

Once the war was upon the United States, as Welky ably documents, Hollywood rapidly switched from escapist entertainment to gung ho war films and patriotic comedy/musicals, as well as cooperating to churn out the “Why We Fight” series to belatedly educate the public as to the reasons for the war. But, at the same time, Welky also notes how almost immediately after the war, the studios turned their back on the entire episode and wanted only to return to business as usual, and supported the HUAC anti-communist witch-hunt, which ironically used as one of its principal lynch-pins Hollywood films made during the war at the behest of the Roosevelt administration, which extolled the virtues of US/Soviet cooperation to defeat the Axis powers. All of this is told in rich detail, with telling anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text to bring home the import of the material.

The final pages of The Moguls and the Dictators contains a detailed list of all the archives consulted, as well as some notes on the author’s research design, and a detailed index. There is also a generous sampling of stills from films of the era, as well as photographs of the people who made them. In sum, this is an essential book, written in an accessible style, both for the general reader, as well as for a course on the history of World War II and Hollywood’s role in the hostilities, and is thus highly recommended.

Wheeler Winston Dixon,
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press, 2009).View all posts by Wheeler Winston Dixon →