What do Casablanca, To Be or Not to Be, Sunset Blvd., Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, and Harvey have in common? Yes, all are classic movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. But beyond that, all were made by filmmakers (with names like Michael Curtiz, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Henry Koster) who’d fled Europe when the Nazis came to power. The legacy of these filmmakers is explored in a fascinating exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A.’s Sepulveda Pass (through March 1). It’s called Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950.
It wasn’t just movie directors who made their way to Hollywood from Berlin and Budapest and Vienna. As the exhibit points out, Hollywood also became a new home for European producers, screenwriters, composers (like Max Steiner and Miklos Rózsa), and technicians, along with countless actors. Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, takes advantage of such new arrivals as Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, and S.Z. Sakall, whose varied accents give the film a genuinely international flavor. One irony: actors who had fled from Nazism often found themselves impersonating Nazis on the screen.
The point of the exhibit’s title is that the newcomers made their mark both in lightweight comedies and in dark film noir thrillers. The latter, often marked by shadows and striking camera angles, owed a strong debt to the German expressionist tradition. But the curators point out that there’s surprising overlap between sparkling trifles like The Major and the Minor and the era’s film noir masterpieces. In all of them there tends to be an emphasis on deceptions, stolen identities, and masquerades: a way of life that most refugees knew all too well.
Many of the anti-Nazi newcomers were Jewish. It’s shocking to realize that Hollywood, before the U.S. entered World War II, was still kowtowing to the German market, avoiding film subjects that would not meet with official German approval. In this era, the anti-Semitism running rampant in Deutschland also reared its ugly head on the local scene. Vicious flyers, which apparently rained down on Hollywood Blvd. from the roof of a nearby office tower, demanded, “Boycott the Movies! Hollywood is the Sodom and Gomorrah where international Jewry controls vice – dope – gambling, where young gentile girls are raped by Jewish producers, directors, casting directors, who go unpunished.” Such hideous rhetoric largely disappeared when the U.S. went to war against the Axis powers, at which time studios belatedly began grinding out agitprop movies with titles like Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
One of the most determined anti-Nazis in Hollywood was émigré Marlene Dietrich. So committed was she to broadcasting her opposition to the Nazi regime that she tried to bow out of a post-war Billy Wilder comedy called A Foreign Affair. Her role was to be that of a German café singer whose former lover was a Nazi war criminal. It apparently took great powers of persuasion to convince her that her character was not a Nazi sympathizer, but rather a cagey woman desperate for her own survival.
Survival in fact became a major concern for several in the Hollywood émigré community. Though they’d been warmly welcomed to Hollywood, they discovered another side of American life in the post-war years, when they suddenly suspected of Communist sympathies. Sadly, not a few who had proudly taken up U.S. citizenship were later hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the aftermath, they sailed back to Europe, never to return.