HOLLYWOOD The Industry Has Been Here Before – The Hollywood...

The Industry Has Been Here Before – The Hollywood Reporter

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Hollywood, with its lengthy list of Jewish founders, flourished during an era of rampant antisemitism. In recent years, the Anti-Defamation League has said anti-Jewish sentiment has hit levels unseen since after the Great Depression, a time when Jewish studio moguls had difficulty securing bank loans as many lenders would not work with Jews. Now, in Los Angeles specifically, an ADL report (released months before the Israel-Hamas conflict) found harassment and vandalism increasing to highs.

On Nov. 8, the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance hosted a screening of footage produced by Hamas to brag about murdering Jews. During the screening, the head of the Museum of Tolerance, Rabbi Marvin Hier, reminded viewers that if not for atrocities like the one on Oct. 7, the Jewish global population should be 200 million today, but “there are only 14 million because we are the leftovers of pogroms.” The screening, organized in part by Gal Gadot, saw protestors and added security that included bomb sniffing dogs.

One of the many issues surrounding the controversy at the Museum of Tolerance as well as the terrifying uptick in anti-Jewish prejudice in recent years is that Hollywood already has been here before. Past atrocities are why we have such museums in the first place. Prior to the screening, Hier argued that Hamas are the Nazis of the 21st century.

Of course, the entertainment industry has a history of being ahead of the curve when it came to fighting Nazis. In the 1930s, Hollywood moguls quietly funded anti-Nazi espionage, celebrities organized the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, leaders like Harry Warner regularly spoke out against intolerance, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle spent the last years of his life (he died in 1939) saving families from Europe, and by the late 1930s, studios began to make explicitly anti-Nazi films. For the industry’s founders, they only knew how to operate by expecting antisemitism as a reality of daily life.

A Hollywood Anti-Nazi League ad in the Sept. 24, 1937 issue of THR.

When Italian fascist Vittorio Mussolini was on his way to Hollywood on September 24, 1937, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) ran an advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter that read “Today Benito Mussolini confers with Hitler…Tomorrow Vittorio Mussolini arrives in Hollywood…Tonight we call attention to the presence in democratic America of this protagonist of fascism and Nazism.” By October 1939, THR noted that HANL claimed that the KKK made inroads in Hollywood that had an industry membership in the hate group of about 400. HANL had many above the line supporters, including Edward G. Robinson who hosted at least one HANL event at his home on December 8, 1938. Robinson, of course, would star in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), a film he felt a personal motivation to honor his relatives who were facing Hitler’s brownshirts across the pond.

By the time famed German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl came to town in 1938, the industry sent her packing upon arrival. After Mussolini received a too-warm welcome a year prior, the HANL took out ads in the trade press that said, “there is no room in Hollywood for Leni Riefenstahl.” The pushback was reported in the New York Times on November 30, 1938, as well as that the filmmaker felt unfairly attacked and despite her ardent support for Hitler she identified as an “independent artist.” True colors came out, as Thomas Doherty noted in Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939, when Riefenstahl was back in Germany she stated, “I was welcomed everywhere in the United States but in Hollywood – where the film industry is controlled by Jews and anti-Nazi leagues.”

One influential, antisemitic voice during this period in Hollywood was radio broadcaster G. Allison Phelps. A popular personality known on the air as a “radio philosopher,” Phelps was born in New Hampshire in 1893 and moved to Los Angeles as a kid where he became interested in vaudeville and radio. By the 1920s, he was a daily fixture on local Los Angeles radio. His brand was largely inspirational in tone. Phelps made regular appearances at the Los Angeles Breakfast Club (which had many Jewish members). In fact, Phelps billed himself as “The Breakfast Club Philosopher” and promoted a pamphlet on the importance of turning the world into a “shrine of friendship.” That is, of course, unless you were a Hollywood Jew, as it turned out. Phelps went on to publish hateful pamphlets such as America for Americans, America’s Mother Country, and in 1940 An American’s History of Hollywood: The Tower of Babel. Writing in the Chicago Daily Tribune in November 1940, John Chapman referred to the Phelps pamphlet as “comparable in a way to Henry Ford’s ill-famed old Dearborn Independent.” (Ford’s magazine was known for its rabid antisemitism and, prior to being shut down for libel, equated Hollywood’s Jews with the conspiracy theories of Jewish world domination from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)

In September 1941, THR’s political correspondent Drew Pearson referred to Phelps as “the radio commentator who doesn’t criticize the Nazis.” For Pearson, it was clear that the Phelps “smear book” was “the Bible of the Senate Committee.” Wendell Willkie, counsel for Hollywood during the Senate Investigation, determined that the origins of the inquiry where certainly pro-Nazi. According to Drew Pearson in September 1941, Willkie discovered that Phelps was meeting with the antisemitic, xenophobic, and isolationist senators. Phelps had been in Washington and when he got back on the air in Los Angeles, he “boasted over the radio of the poison he had planted in Washington and the dire fate which awaited Hollywood.” Pearson informed readers that Phelps always “condemns everything British, castigates the Roosevelt foreign policy, but never gets around to saying anything against the Axis.”

In An American’s History of Hollywood, Phelps wrote that Hollywood immigrants were all from Russia and surrounding countries (i.e. Jewish) and “of degraded character” and are the “shiftiest…of industrialists in America.” He also claims that nepotism had rid real Americans of jobs in Hollywood due to a “Mountain of Mammon,” connecting Hollywood Jews to a New Testament lesson on evil greed. Phelps also accused Hollywood moguls of propaganda mongering, calling the founder of THR, Billy Wilkerson, a “purveyor of propaganda” and that “it would not be amiss to liken him to Doctor Goebbels of Germany.” A strange accusation, seeing that Phelps has been operating out of the Goebbels divide and dehumanize playbook. For Phelps, Hollywood operated an “influence of evil” and called for a government investigation into Hollywood. The “friendly” radio philosopher got his wish.

The result was a US Senate inquiry into motion picture propaganda in the fall of 1941. The industry defended itself against xenophobic criticism and came out strong on the eve of the U.S. involvement in World War II. Last year, I wrote about the US Senate investigation into Hollywood propaganda, but will now note that it brought together the America First movement with a few ignorant, jealous, and xenophobic senators and some small fry journalists who went up against Hollywood moguls and were outdone by one smart junior senator and some fearless entertainment leaders. The Senate investigation drew headlines around the nation but was soon overshadowed following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Despite my book on the subject, Hollywood Hates Hitler, as well as others that mention the investigation, this part of history remains largely unknown.)

What remains today is that there are many who still don’t know, or willfully ignore, the implications of the rising antisemitism of the 1930s. Such hate led to the holocaust, a term increasingly misunderstood and often inaccurately weaponized. On Nov. 21, Melissa Barrera, star of the latest Scream installments, was removed from the series after what Spyglass referred to as “false references to genocide” and “holocaust distortion.”

Of course, Hollywood of the 1930s and early 1940s did not have social media to collect every thought that goes through the minds of celebrities and non-celebs alike. What is also different from the early and mid-twentieth century, is that we should be much more aware today of the plight of Jews home and abroad over the last century. Casual antisemitism has been mainstreamed in a way that mirrors Phelps’ and the isolationist Senator’s thinly veiled xenophobia. Many celebrities and some politicians have found themselves in hot water for touting the “from the river to the sea” refrain that is understood in Jewish circles as a call for genocide.

It wasn’t too long ago that controversy erupted when the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures was criticized for having one major blind spot – spotlighting the Jews that founded Hollywood. As reported in Rolling Stone, the head of the Anti-Defamation League famously walked through the museum and rightfully asked, “where are the Jews?” A museum focused on the history of cinema, housed in Los Angeles, a city that boomed thanks to immigrant Jews creating the global industry that the museum is celebrating, left out what many believe should have been the inaugural exhibit. The sad reality is that it took outrage of wealthy donors to get the ball rolling on a new permanent exhibit titled “Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Movie Capital” that will open in May 2024. One can’t help noticing the cyclical history of Hollywood Jews, who founded the Hillcrest Country Club in 1920 because all others were restricted. For a while it looked like Hollywood Jews would be forced to create their own museum as well.

The weeks following the upped security and violence at the Museum of Tolerance had Jewish-related events on high alert, including a talk I did in Burbank to discuss my book the Jewish founders of Warner Bros. It was the first time in my career that I thought to myself, “Do I have to be worried?” The Burbank Public Library put our event on law enforcement’s radar. Fortunately, the event went on as planned. The day after my talk, Nazis openly marched in my home state of Wisconsin, stopping at a local synagogue to chant “there will be blood,” reminding us all that battling Nazis is a problem facing us all.

Perhaps more so than any other American industry, Hollywood is a business that grew amidst rampant antisemitism and flourished in the face of hatred. As history echoes, it is important to be aware of Hollywood’s long history in facing Jewish hatred. Fear of violence and hatred is not a knee-jerk reaction from Hollywood Jews, it’s a second nature reflex coming from over a century of such attacks on Jews in the industry.

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