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From Contract to Blacklist: Hollywood Exile Experience

In Partnership with USC Libraries
The USC Libraries actively support the discovery, creation, and preservation of knowledge at the University of Southern California and beyond.

Sunshine Sanctuary, a new series presented by the USC Libraries, investigates the legacies of exiled artists and cultural producers living in Los Angeles and Southern California. This series was prompted by an August 2013 conference on Weimar exiles in Los Angeles, sponsored by the London-based Legatum Institute and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study.

By Anne-Marie Gregg

Do Hollywood's political allegiances always lean toward liberalism? The reality simply does not match popularly held misconceptions as Hollywood has historically shifted along with prevailing political winds. In the years prior to World War II America held a largely isolationist, anti-immigration stance, which meant for émigrés fleeing political and religious persecution to secure a place here they had to prove their situation was truly dire and that they had money, a contract to work, or an affidavit from a sponsor.

In the 1930s, movie moguls Jack and Harry Warner were outspoken anti-fascists who actively campaigned for a relaxation of immigration quotas and standards. Harry Warner personally intervened by hiring émigrés as employees for Warner Bros. Even though the studio worked with the U.S. government to produce films promoting the war effort, the alliance deteriorated in the post-war years when the country became obsessed with rooting out communism. A suspicion of all things foreign poisoned the atmosphere and émigrés working in Hollywood soon faced exile from their newly adopted homeland.

Jack and Harry Warner, 1928 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Prints Collection, USC Libraries Special Collections.

Early efforts to assist exiles and émigrés fleeing persecution were orchestrated by the European Film Fund (EFF). Though the fund mainly helped those connected with the film industry, it also provided affidavits of support for other artists. The president of the EFF, Ernst Lubitsch, along with Paul Kohner, Charlotte Dieterle, and Elizabeth Liesl, served as conduits between artists, sponsors, and employers. In order to help writers who were in grave danger, Paul Kohner devised a plan through which the powerful film bosses offered a contract for a year at $100 per week to exiled writers. Warner Bros., MGM, and Columbia agreed to take 20 writers on staff. Among those saved were Friedrich Torberg, Heinrich Mann, Alfred Neumann, Hans Lustig, and Walter Mehring. Although these early efforts helped establish the aforementioned writers, the contracts were short-term and were not renewed beyond the first year.1

January,1937 George R. Bilson's correspondence with Harry Warner requesting aid to Jewish refugees. | Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Jack L. Warner Collection.

In addition to working with the EFF, Harry Warner made a point of personally supporting and enabling a select group of émigrés. Harry met composer Hans Sommer and his wife through friends on a visit to Europe, and despite their relatively casual acquaintance, Warner became a proactive sponsor of their emigration to the U.S. Over the course of four years Warner not only supported the Sommers financially (providing money for food, housing, and medical costs), but he also sought legal counsel and made personal pleas to immigration authorities on the Sommers' behalf. The correspondence between Sommer and Warner serves as an example of the discreet assistance that Warner brothers provided to exiles struggling to find sanctuary in Los Angeles. As movie moguls they wielded the power and authority to enable composers, filmmakers, writers, and other artists to find sanctuary and begin their new lives under contract with a major film studio.

During World War II, Harry Warner and the motion picture industry took on the role of recorder and reflector of the American way of life. The threat of war, then the outbreak of war itself, pulled the West and East coasts into a mutually beneficial union that transcended what had been primarily an economically one-sided relationship.2 Warner used his role as studio head not only to produce numerous patriotic films for mass release, but also to gather his staff and the larger Hollywood community for impassioned speeches about the threat of fascism. Through his speeches at Warner Bros., he beseeched his staff to understand the looming danger and recounted his family's emigration to the United States saying:

"I would rather see my children in the earth, buried than to live under any such system as the one I am trying to prevent them from living under. I want you to know that my father and mother lived under such a system, and that's why we were brought here...The did not come here to earn a living, they...left everything behind just as those poor unfortunate people are doing today... so that their children could have a home in a place where everybody has an opportunity."3

Warner's speech illustrates his drive to help those facing political and religious persecution. His efforts to mobilize Hollywood in the fight against fascism produced an explosion of organizations devoted to promoting liberal causes, such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Fight for Freedom. While the film community was increasingly taking the lead in publicizing important international issues to a largely isolationist nation, it was often communist sympathizers who served as the prime movers behind this activism--a fact that later came back to haunt them and the rest of the movie capital when a changed post-war political climate turned viciously against those who did so much to awaken the U.S. to Hitler's menace. 4

Flyer distributed via plane over Hollywood,1938 | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Jack L. Warner Collection.

The American Committee for Refugees Public Appeal Brochure,1939<br />
Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Jack L. Warner Collection.

As much as Americans empathized for the plight of the exile, they still remained anxious about the "foreign" element in the United States. Additionally, many harbored animosity toward Jews. Some members of Congress even showed sympathy for Hitler before the U.S. formally entered World War II.5 Deeply entrenched in the fearmongering and isolationist popular opinions of Americans were anti-Semitic undertones that were directly aimed at Hollywood. Anti-Semitic groups spread propaganda that targeted American Jews and recent émigrés living and working in the entertainment industry. An anti-Semitic flyer accusing the film industry of pushing a communist agenda and employing indecent and violent producers and directors was dropped from planes over the city.

The political leanings of the entertainment industry, initially bent on quashing fascism, reversed course when the government's stance on communism shifted public policy to the right. A left-leaning Hollywood found itself pinned against a sternly anti-communist American agenda. The film industry's efforts to raise patriotic awareness and the production of anti-Nazi propaganda also fed into a spirit of paranoia and fear of occupation. America's role as a democratic stronghold and the nation's heroic military efforts in Europe were overshadowed as focus quickly shifted from disdain for fascism to the burgeoning threat of Communism. The Red Scare reached epidemic proportions, and the possibility of bombs dropping on American soil sent citizens running for their makeshift shelters. What once was a melting pot and sanctuary for those seeking relief from persecution became a breeding ground for suspicion and exclusion. A united, patriotic America devolved into one of finger-pointing and paranoia, where communists were feared to be hiding around every corner.

March,1939 Harry Warner letter regarding Mr & Mrs. Hans Sommer's visas<br />
Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Jack L. Warner  Collection.

The House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was created in 1938. Its deeply isolationist and paranoid views, which reached a crescendo with the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s, were on display from the beginning, with members voicing hostility toward Jews and practically anyone that could not prove a deep American pedigree.6 When New Jersey Republican J. Parnell Thomas became the head of HUAC he announced that "hundreds of very prominent film capital people have been named as Communists" and that White House pressure had forced the studios to produce "flagrant Communist propaganda films." In 1947 Hollywood moguls named names and denounced people they thought were communist sympathizers. Jack Warner declared his preference for outlawing the Communist Party altogether. Fifty Hollywood chief executives and producers gathered in New York and made the formal announcement that they would not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter they began producing films with titles like "The Iron Curtain," "The Red Menace," "The Red Danube," "I Married a Communist," and "I Was a Communist for the FBI." 6

March,1941 Hans Sommer's contract with Warner Bros. Pictures <br />
Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Jack L. Warner Collection.

The very broadcasts and papers in which émigrés had cried out against Nazism were suddenly being cited as evidence of longstanding "communist sympathies." The witch hunt focused on Hollywood, and specifically, the influence of recent émigrés. Exiled and politically leftist writer Bertolt Brecht contributed to Warner Bros.' war propaganda film repertoire. "Hangmen Also Die," directed by Fritz Lang, was developed from Bertolt Brecht's story. The film was loosely based on the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich Protector of German Occupied Prague, second in command of the S.S. and chief architect of the Holocaust. All three contributors, Fritz Lang, composer Hans Eisler, and Brecht were subpoenaed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Disgusted by the communist witch-hunt, Brecht left immediately following his testimony, never to return to the United States. Hans Eisler was one of the first people named and was labeled the "Karl Marx of Communism" in the field of music by the committee. He was forced to leave the United States and upon his departure addressed the press saying, "I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation. I could well understand it when in 1933 the Hitler bandits put a price on my head and drove me out. They were the evil of the period; I was proud at being driven out. But I feel heart-broken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way." Fritz Lang was blacklisted for several months but ultimately was able to resume his career as a director in Hollywood. Anyone who had lived in Europe in the 1930s, who had as an émigré in the early 1940s demonstrated an eagerness to help the Allied cause, or who had belonged to some committee or fund, was believed to have some sort of covert connection to Russia. The idea of guilt by association was a driving force that led numerous intellectuals and artists to flee, including Luis Buñuel, Thomas Mann, and Jean Renoir. In a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't, HUAC based many of their spurious allegations on the fact that when exiles arrived in Los Angeles they often joined anti-Nazi organizations -- organizations that HUAC declared years later to be pro-Communist. 7

United We Survive Divided We Fall! Harry Warner's June,1940 speech to employees and the entertainment industry. | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Jack L. Warner Collection.

Initially, Hollywood worked to sway American popular opinion and influence political leanings toward a freer global democracy. The industry's alliance with the government to spur patriotic unity ultimately served as fodder for the House of Un-American Activities, which deemed such undertakings as liberal radical communist messaging. Under attack, Warner Bros. sacrificed their own talented writers, composers, and filmmakers -- creative professionals who had injected important social themes into the national dialogue. Scrutinized by conservative political leadership, major Hollywood moguls that had once provided sanctuary and assistance to exiled artists quickly offered up names and denounced anyone who was even accused of any "un-American" fraternization or expression. Though the industry's suddenly hostile political climate did not necessarily mirror the oppression and persecution many had experienced in their place of birth, Hollywood ultimately expelled its own creative exiles. The fear of communism and the crippling suspicion of outsiders reversed the Southern California exile legacy and curtailed the permeation of their contributions to Hollywood.

Warner Club News July,1940 | Courtesy of the USC Libraries -- Jack L. Warner Collection.


1 Cornelius Schnauber, "Hollywood Haven" (Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1997), 47-48.

2 David Welky, "The Moguls and the Dictators Hollywood and the Coming of World War II" (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008), 328.

3 Christine Ann Colgan, "Warner Brothers' Crusade Against The Third Reich: A Study of Anti-Nazi Activism and Film Production, 1933-194" (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 1986), 43.

4 Joseph Horowitz, "Artists in Exile" (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008), 306.

5 Cornelius Schnauber, "Hollywood Haven" (Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1997), 3.

6 Larry Ceplair and Steven Englung, "The Inquisition in Hollywood in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60" (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 258-260.

7 Gene D. Phillips, "Exiles in Hollywood" (London: LeHigh University Press, 1998) 53.

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Top Image: Protestors Demand Freedom for the Hollywood 10, 1950 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Prints Collection, USC Libraries Special Collections.

About the Author

Anne-Marie Gregg is an artist and writer.
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