‘Hollywood and Hitler’ Professor Presents on Films

Thomas Doherty discussed his recently released book, “Hollywood and Hitler,” an analysis of the absence and presence of Jewish people in Hollywood motion pictures before, after and during World War II, with Ramapo students and faculty on Tuesday.

The main focus of Doherty’s presentation, entitled “Hollywood’s Relationship with Nazi Germany,” was the discussion of the movie production business in the 1930s, as well as the analysis of the image of Nazism portrayed through the motion picture industry.

“We view everything in the 1930s, related to Jews, through the filter of the Holocaust and World War II,” Doherty said. “It colors everything.”

Doherty, a professor at Brandeis University, discussed the progression of the presence of Jewish people in Hollywood motion pictures in relation to the involvement of the United States in the war.

Looking through movies of the 1930s, it’s rare to encounter even a mention of Jewish people. Doherty explained this disappearance with the harsh censorship of movies at the time-they weren’t allowed to show anything that may offend any certain group of people.

Film wasn’t considered an art form. It was a product and was regulated as such. Being that the United States was neutral until 1939, they did not want to lose business in Germany during World War II by including Jewish people in movies. The representation of Jewish people would be a blatant step against Nazism, and away from neutrality.   

“It was a really difficult obstacle course for Hollywood to negotiate,” Doherty said while discussing the political, economic and moral complications of Hollywood movies during a period of war.

Doherty emphasized his points with various movie clips. His first clip was from the movie “Manhattan Melodrama” created in 1934, with World War II around the corner. The clip included a reference to Judaism:

“Catholic, Protestant, Jew-what does it matter now?” a Jewish character said.

When the war in Germany began, it became nearly impossible to find any mention of Jews in Hollywood movies for several years. However, allegorical references-little hints to the Nazi war taking place in Europe-can be found in numerous films such as the book burning in “The Life of Emile Zola,” created in 1937.

“What you do see in the 1930s are elliptical and allegorical references to Judaism and tolerance,” Doherty said. “So when you look at films in the 1930s for Nazi ideology you’re not going to see a guy wandering around with a swastika on his arm, you’re going to have to look for allegorical addresses of what’s going on.”

As the United States moved closer to entering the war, this effect reversed: Jewish people were again featured in film.

The 1938 movie, “Boy’s Town,” starring Mickey Rooney, shows a young man wearing a yamaka and saying a prayer in Hebrew before eating.

Once the United States enters the war in 1939, according to Doherty, “patriotic shorts” are released as a “celebration of the Jewish role in the American pageant.”

Students seemed to appreciate Doherty’s neutrality on the subject.

“I liked how the program looked at movies during the time period they happened, and didn’t condemn or condone it,” Nicole D’Andria, a freshman, said.

When asked by an audience member, Doherty explained that the purpose of the book was to report on the motion picture’s actions-not condemn them.

“One thing I wanted to do with this project was not retrospectively judge the past, but to trace what Nazism was like in film as a business and as an ideology.”