History and Controversy in 1930s Hollywood by abstraks


									                          History and Controversy in 1930s Hollywood:
                             The Case of Borzage's Weimar Trilogy

                                   Film and History Conference
                                     Cape Town, South Africa
                                            July, 2002

                                      Benjamin L. Alpers
                                     University of Oklahoma

       In the 1920s and 1930s, Frank Borzage was one of the most celebrated and powerful

directors in Hollywood. He achieved fame with 1920's Seventh Heaven, for which Borzage won

the very first Academy Award for Best Director. Borzage was unusually skilled at imbuing

material that, on the page, might seem mawkish, with real emotional power. He became best

known for "four hanky pictures," melodramas like Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl (1931), for

which he won a second directorial Oscar. It is thus rather surprising that Borzage directed three

of the most important Depression-era Hollywood explorations of life in interwar Germany:

Little Man, What Now (1934), Three Comrades (1938), and The Mortal Storm (1940).

Particularly significantly, the first two of these films grappled with German politics at a time

when Hollywood otherwise strenuously avoided the subject.

       But despite the significance of these three films – often referred to as Borzage's German,

or Weimar, Trilogy – comparatively little has been written about them. Even at the time of his

greatest fame, Borzage's critical reputation was surprisingly low, in large part because critics

undervalued melodrama. This continued at least through the 1970s. Borzage's defenders, such

as Andrew Sarris, have tended to praise him entirely as a director of melodramas, and have often

discounted the politics of his Weimar Trilogy. Sarris, for example, declares Borzage's objection


to Hitler to be "a curious one": "what Hitler and all tyrants represented…was an invasion of the

emotional privacy of individuals, particularly lovers."1

       This paper will argue that Borzage's Weimar films are more political, and their politics

less peculiar, than they are often taken to be. Far from being unique, Borzage's concerns about

Nazism threatening bourgeois family life and romantic love were but one instance of much

broader concerns about modern dictatorship in 1930s America. Borzage's favored mode of

melodrama was perfectly suited for expressing these concerns. Since melodramas were widely

seen as apolitical, Borzage was also well situated to skirt the severe limitations that the studio

system placed on making films about the German situation during most of the 1930s,. Borzage's

Weimar Trilogy thus tells us much about American anti-fascism and the political limits, and

possibilities, of Hollywood film-making in the 1930s. A longer version of this paper discusses all

three of these films; today I'll focus on the first two (Little Man, What Now? and Three

Comrades). I'd happy to take questions about The Mortal Storm after my paper. Before

exploring these films, a few preliminary words must be said on Hollywood anti-nazism.

Hollywood Anti-Nazism

       During the 1930s, Hollywood became a hotbed of anti-Nazi politics. Leading the way

were a large number of refugees from Nazism working in the film industry. They were

supported by the active American-born Hollywood Left. By the end of the decade, Nazi

antisemitism had begun to worry even the conservative, Jewish movie moguls. Jack and Harry

Warner went so far as to join the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the movie capital's largest

Popular Front organization. Nevertheless, for most of the decade, making explicitly anti-Nazi

movies in Hollywood was nearly impossible. From 1934 on, the Production Code Administration

(PCA), under the watchful eye of Joseph Breen, deeply conservative, anti-communist, and quite

possibly antisemitic, had the task not only of enforcing the Production Code, but also of, more

generally, looking out for the interests of the industry as the PCA saw them. Breen was was both

personally suspicious of left-wing politics, and very concerned with maintaining Hollywood's

crucial overseas business, including in Nazi Germany. The PCA thus viewed anti-Nazi films

with great suspicion.

Little Man, What Now?

       Frank Borzage was not active in Hollywood anti-Nazi (or any other kind of) politics.

Nonetheless, it appears that Borzage himself lobbied Universal to direct Hollywood's first

attempt to depict German politics in the 1930s, Little Man, What Now?2 Released in 1934, Little

Man was based on German writer Hans Fallada's novel Kleiner Mann - Was Nun?, which had

become an international best-seller in 1932. The novel explores the fortunes of Hans Pinneberg

and his wife Lämmchen, a typical petit-bourgeois couple in Germany during the depression of

the early 1930s. While Fallada surveyed the entire political spectrum of Germany, including one

major Nazi character and numerous cameo appearances by Communists, Socialists, and other

Nazis, his message was deeply apolitical. Kleiner Mann suggests that through love, men and

women might be able to weather any storm. Although initially hostile to the book, the Nazis

ultimately deemed it acceptable and eventually even allowed the completion of a German film

based on the novel.3

       Even such relatively safe material was potentially controversial in Hollywood, and

Universal, which had a reputation for germanophilia, did what it could to tone down the story.

The film eliminates the novel's one major Nazi character and makes no direct mention of

Nazism. The film even begins with a long intertitle signed by producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., that

denies the importance of its German setting, and suggests that its purpose is universal: "The

story of LITTLE MAN is the story of EVERYMAN -- and the question of WHAT NOW? is the

WORLD'S DAILY PROBLEM." Ultimately, the film seems to have generated little

controversy. There is no record in the PCA files of any objections lodged against Borzage's film

by German authorities at any stage of its production.4

        In its celebration of heterosexual love as a means of escape, Little Man perfectly suited

the film-making style of Frank Borzage. In his hands, it went from being an apolitical work

celebrating perseverance despite the chaos of Weimar Germany, to an anti-political work that

saw love and domesticity as a route to an absolute escape from that chaos. Indeed, while the film

remained quite true to the novel in most respects, those alterations that it did introduce served to

draw much starker contrasts between the Pinnebergs' life and the life of sociopolitical


        The contrast between love and domesticity, on the one hand, and politics on the other is

set up in the film's opening sequence. [FILM CLIP: Opening Sequence of Little Man]

        Over the course of the film, we follow the Pinnebergs, who try to build a foundation for

their family, first in a small city, and then in Berlin. But their modest ambitions are constantly

thwarted: their living arrangements (first with an employer, and then with dissolute relatives in

Berlin) threaten the privacy and sanctity of their marriage; and Germany's economic collapse

eventually puts Hans entirely out of work. At the end of the film, Hans, desperate for money to

allow Lämmchen to give birth in a hospital, once again encounters the Communist we met in the

opening sequence (it is his third appearance in the film). [FILM CLIP: Hans and Communist at

political rally.]

        Throughout Little Man, What Now? Germany on the verge of the Nazi dictatorship is a

country torn by economic ruin and political strife. Most importantly, home life is threatened.

The Pinnebergs, desiring a "normal" family life, cannot find it in Germany. The Communist,

who hopes to change the world, only manages to kill his wife (their relationship seems largely

without human love to begin with). Politics threatens family life, and a political understanding

of family life only makes things worse. The only answer is escape. At the end of the movie,

after Hans has rushed home to meet his infant son, the Pinnebergs hear of an opportunity in

Holland. The movie ends as they decide to leave Germany.

       This conclusion is a departure from the novel, in which the Pinnebergs decide to

persevere in Germany, however hard things get. While the novel proposes that family can be a

haven from politics, in the movie politics are more threatening. Physical escape from Germany

is necessary to preserve love and family. The coming Nazi dictatorship is never mentioned in

Little Man, but the 1934 audience would have seen it in the political activity which forms the

backdrop for the Pinnebergs' lives. Dictatorship will come to Germany; the Pinnebergs have to

leave. Once again, while the novel is apolitical, the film is actively antipolitical.

       The film offers a deeply ambivalent portrait of Germany. On the one hand, Germany in

Little Man is very attractive, with its picturesque, cobble-stoned streets and colorful, if shabby,

domiciles, and effusively gemütlich characters. But it is a country haunted by an impending

sense of political, social, and cultural crisis, a crisis that the audience knew the conclusion of,

even if the film couldn't show it. Little Man tapped into a larger ambivalence about Europe in

1930s and 1940s American culture, an ambivalence that Hollywood rehearsed in countless films,

from Universal's own horror classics like Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), to The

Prisoner of Zenda (Selznick, 1937) and Cat People(RKO, 1942).

       In equating the breakdown of family with the rise of social chaos and, implicitly, the

arrival of dictatorship, and in associating all these things particularly with Europe, Little Man

rehearsed some fairly significant themes in early 1930s public culture. To the extent we think of

1930s American anti-Nazism today, we tend to think of the Popular Front, and beyond it the

larger world of the 1930s Left. But Americans across the political spectrum feared dictatorship

for much of the 1930s; other forms of anti-Nazism coexisted with the familiar Left-wing variety.

American anti-Nazi writings in the 1930s often focused on precisely those things which Little

Man associated with interwar German politics: the threat Nazism posed to basic social

institutions, especially the family. The Nazi leadership was particularly singled out for being, in

the words of one pamphleteer, "literally honeycombed with insanity, perversion, venereal

disease, and the drug habit."5 In fictional accounts of American dictatorship, including Sinclair

Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here, fascist movements tended to be all-male affairs, often tinged

with hints of homosexuality.

       Little Man tapped into two other distinctive features of this broader sort of American anti-

fascism. First, many, especially on the political right, imagined fascism as an exclusively

European phenomenon, best met with isolationism and a calculated brand of xenophobia.6

Secondly, while most of the left, especially in the years 1935-1939, tended to see the Soviet

Union arrayed with the world's democracies against fascism, many others in America equated

Nazism and Soviet Communism.7 One cannot deny Little Man's anti-Nazism, as film scholar

Jean Pierre Coursodon does, simply on the basis of its evident anti-communism, much less its

"romantic individualism" (which Coursodon takes as proof that it is not a political film at all).8

Indeed, anti-communism and romantic individualism were both entirely compatible with much

American anti-Nazism. Doubtless Little Man's explicit anti-communism helped it ease through

review by the PCA's Joseph Breen9

Three Comrades

       Three Comrades, Borzage's next foray into interwar Germany would be significantly

more politically controversial. The film was based on a novel by German author Erich Maria

Remarque. Set in late 1920s Germany, Remarque's Three Comrades tells the story of three

disillusioned German World War I veterans, Robert (later Erich in the movie), Otto, and

Gottfried,, fighting to survive in a world of economic hardship. All of them eventually find hope

in Robert's love for Pat, an impoverished and consumptive daughter of the old German

aristocracy, who finally succumbs to tuberculosis at the novel's end. Politics plays an important

role in this story, both as a backdrop and in the lives of the central characters. Gottfried is active

on the political left and is eventually killed in a street clash with a group of Nazis.

       The author himself was a source of controversy. Most famous for All Quiet on the

Western Front, Remarque was fiercely anti-Nazi and lived in exile in France. The Nazis banned

and publicly burned his books. In the fall of 1936, before the film even went into production,

Joseph Breen received a letter from German consul Dr. George Gyssling expressing his country's

concern that Three Comrades was being made into a film. 10 By 1936, such communications

from the Nazi official were a commonplace occurrence, and the PCA chief generally tried to

accommodate them.11 Although Gyssling repeatedly wrote Breen about Three Comrades, Breen

only became aware of the production when MGM sent him a script by R.C. Sherriff in May,

1937.12 Sherriff had, apparently without any prompting from the PCA, eliminated Gottfried's

political murder from Three Comrades and most other political references in the story.13 The

script thus did not much worry Breen.14

       But politics would be restored to Three Comrades. Producer Joseph Mankiewicz tapped

F. Scott Fitzgerald to rework the screenplay; later Ted Paramore was brought in to assist

Fitzgerald. This would eventually turn into one of the most famous screenwriting disputes of the

1930s, as Paramore and Fitzgerald began to feud with each other over the script.15 However, all

three principals at MGM – Mankiewicz, Fitzgerald, and Paramore – were united in their desire to

restore the political subplot that Sherriff had more or less eliminated.

       As the Fitzgerald, and then Fitzgerald/Paramore, scripts began to arrive at the PCA,

Breen's alarm increased. Eventually, Breen met with a variety of MGM representatives,

including Louis B. Mayer and Mankiewicz, but not the screenwriters or Borzage. MGM agreed

to a series of compromises which, while not entirely quelling Breen's political concerns, at least

put the production back on track. Mankiewicz agreed to move the action of the film from the

late 1920s to the period immediately after Word War I, before the Nazi party existed.

References to democracy and threats to it were removed from the script. No political groups

were to be identified by name; swastikas and other political emblems were not to appear. The

one scene directly concerning antisemitism was removed, and minor characters with Jewish (or

Jewish-sounding) names were removed or renamed. Mankiewicz, however, flatly refused to turn

the Nazi "heavies" into communists.16 To the extent Three Comrades was a political film, it

would be, at least obliquely, an anti-Nazi one. Upon completion of the film in May, Breen

arranged a special screening to which he invited Gyssling. This resulted in further cuts: three

scenes involving violence – two of them explicitly political – were greatly reduced in length. A

year and a half after Gyssling first expressed concern, Three Comrades was ready for release.

       MGM's publicity campaign was entirely aimed at denying that Three Comrades was in

any sense a political film, although word of German objections to the film and industry's

acquiescence had leaked out in the press.17 MGM's official pressbook for the film began by

declaring "Let's talk about Love! Because it is your most salable product." The opening page of

the pressbook continued, "3 Comrades IS NOT A PROPAGANDA PICTURE. The locale might

be any large Central European city and the time is the present. It is not political or controversial

and its turbulent scenes could happen in any country."18

       Frank Borzage's role in all of this is extraordinarily elusive.19 Although the director was

working on the project while MGM and the PCA struggled over the script, Borzage's name is

entirely absent from the record of the disputes over the political content of Three Comrades.20

Fitzgerald wrote to a friend in 1938 that Borzage "had little more to do than be a sort of glorified

cameraman."21 But Borzage's participation in the project was crucial for at least two reasons.

First, from the point of view of publicity, Borzage's reputation as a director of melodramatic

women's pictures would have helped provide MGM with additional cover for the film's political

content. More importantly, despite Fitzgerald's criticism of the director's working methods,

Borzage's visual style was almost entirely responsible for rescuing a film that otherwise would

have fallen victim to its muddled politics and a potentially ludicrous love story.

       In the film's final form, the political backdrop of Three Comrades remains important.

The three title characters represent three possible reactions to post-war disillusionment:

Gottfried (Robert Young) is a political idealist and activist; Otto (Franchot Tone) tries to succeed

in business as an auto repairman, though his true love is his sportscar, Baby; and Erich (Robert

Taylor) is an aimless romantic. Erich's courtship of Pat gives joy and meaning to his life and

provides his friends with hope that Germany's failing economy and threatening political life

cannot, hope which is not extinguished by her sickness and death. Love does not, however,

simply banish politics. By the end of the film, politics will kill Gottfried, and make life in

Germany undesirable for the practical Otto and the bereaved Erich, who decide to leave for

South America.

       However, on screen, politics in Three Comrades is reduced to a cipher. This is most

obvious in the film's two key political scenes, which Breen ordered edited following his

screening of the film with Gyssling. [FILM CLIPS: Scene of mob at bookstore; scene of mob at

political rally.] As they appear in the final cut of the film, much of the political action in these

two scenes is nearly indecipherable. The two sequences actually have the feel of having been


       However, contemporary audiences would have read the film's politics through their prior

understanding of contemporary Germany. Ultimately, the new, early 1920s setting for the film

becomes something of a red herring. The film seems haunted by the Nazism of which it was not

allowed to speak. Far from being geographically unspecific, Three Comrades features a

Germany not unlike that of Little Man: picturesque, but on the verge of social and political

collapse. As in Little Man, individual loyalties, especially heterosexual love, and escape from

Germany are the only way the protagonists can persevere. Borzage was one of the few directors

in Hollywood who could have turned such often maudlin material into effective drama. Indeed,

the sheer beauty of the film, and Borzage's ability to imbue his characters' actions with spiritual

significance, lends the entire production a kind of coherence that the screenplay lacks. While the

film disappointed those who were looking for a plot-driven, anti-Nazi statement, it received

favorable notices from others who were prepared to see it first and foremost as a melodrama.22

While the story of Three Comrades' path to the screen highlights the rather severe limits

Hollywood placed on openly anti-Nazi film-making as late as 1938, it also suggests that

determined filmmakers could nonetheless produce films that, however obliquely, presented anti-

Nazi messages.

      Sarris, The American Cinema, 86.
       The story of how Borzage came to direct little man has been told in a number of variations.
Having completed a number of films for Fox, Borzage was working freelance after 1932. The
film historian Hervé Dumont suggests that Borzage, who had been working on a quite different
project for Universal, asked Carl Laemmle, Jr. if he could adapt Little Man. Laemmle informed
him that James Whale had already been given this project. Film historian Lawrence Quirk
suggests that Borzage was first suggested for the project by the film's eventual star, Margaret
Sullavan, who had to plead with Laemmle to make the film in the first place. Both agree that it
was through Sullavan's intercession that Borzage was eventually given Little Man to direct.
Although Sullavan had never before worked with Borzage, she greatly admired his work. She
would go on to star in each of the Borzage's Weimar films. [Hervé Dumont, Frank Borzage.
Sarastro à Hollywood (Milan: Mazzotta, 1993), 221; Lawrence Quirk, Margaret Sullavan:
Child of Fate (New York: St. Martin's, 1986), 32.]
      Jennifer Williams, "Some Thoughts on the Success of Hans Fallada's Kleiner Mann - Was
Nun?," German Life and Letters 40 (July 1987), 306-7, Dumont, 221.
  PCA file on Little Man What Now, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS),
Los Angeles, CA.
  Matthew Josephson, "Nazi Culture: the Brown Darkness Over Germany," John Day Pamphlets
37 (New York: the John Day Co., 1933): 17; see also James Watterman Wise and Pierre van
Paassen (eds.), Nazism: An Assault on Civilization (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas,
      National Americanism Commission of the American Legion (eds.), Isms: A Review of
Alien Isms, Revolutionary Communism and their Active Sympathizers in the United States, 2nd
Ed. (Indianapolis: National Americanism Commission of the American Legion, 1937).
      Les K. Adler and Thomas G. Patterson, "Red Fascism: the Merger of Nazi Germany and
Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism," American Historical Review 75 (April,
1970): 1046-1064; Thomas R. Maddux, "Red Fascism, Brown Bolshevism: the American Image
of Totalitarianism in the 1930s," The Historian 40 (November 1977): 85-103; Benjamin L.
Alpers, "Understanding Dictatorship and Defining Democracy in American Public Culture,
1930-1945" (Ph.D dissertation, Princeton University, 1994).
       Jean Pierre Coursodon, American Directors (New York: McGraw Hill, 1983).
       Indeed, the only explicitly political change that the PCA required was to a minor, French
character's comment that the peace Germany enjoyed was nothing but a pause between two wars.
        Letter, Georg Gyssling to Joseph Breen, September 30, 1936 (PCA file on Three
Comrades, AMPAS).
        Letter, Breen to Gyssling, October 2, 1936 (PCA file on Three Comrades, AMPAS).
        Letters, Gyssling to Breen, April 8, 1937 and May 28, 1937 (PCA file on Three Comrades,
AMPAS) ; letter, Al Block to Breen, May 8, 1937 (PCA file on Three Comrades, AMPAS).

        R.C. Sherriff, Screenplay for Three Comrades, February 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald film
work materials, Box 2, Folder 7, University of Southern California film collection, Los Angeles,
CA. In a note attached to this version of the screenplay, Sherriff comments that he sees politics
as basically irrelevant to the material, which is basically a love story: Gottfried's murder "is
important as throwing light upon the political troubles in Germany, but that is a different story."
        Letter, Breen to L.B. Mayer, May 11, 1937, (PCA file on Three Comrades, AMPAS).
        For a good summary of the dispute, see Matthew J. Bruccoli's "Afterword" to F. Scott
Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Screenplay for "Three Comrades" (Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1978).
        Letter, Breen to Mayer, January 27, 1937; Undated memo containing proposed changes to
Three Comrades (PCA file on Three Comrades, AMPAS). See also Matthew J. Bruccoli,
"Agterward" to Fitzgerald, Screenplay for "Three Comrades", pp. 265-6. Bruccoli suggests that
the idea of making the bad guys communists was originally Gyssling's, but bases this in part on
an apparent misdating of Breen's request to Mankiewicz, Breen was entirely capable of hatching
such a scheme on his own.
        "Off Color Remarque," The Daily Worker, February 15, 1938.
        MGM Pressbook for Three Comrades, Pressbook Collection, USC Film Library.
        Even Hervé Dumont, the most indefatigable investigator of Borzage's career could not pin
down his part in the production history. Dumont, Frank Borzage, p. 265. Borzage's name comes
up in Fitzgerald's notes from a December 27, 1937 production conference [F. Scott Fitzgerald
film work materials, Box 2, Folder 69, USC].
        It is worth noting that in the parallel dispute over Universal's 1937 production of
Remarque's second novel, The Road Back, director James Whale (who had originally been
assigned to the project some five years earlier) took an active role in persuading Gyssling that the
film would not offend Germany [Summary memo on The Road Back, 2/12/37 (PCA file on The
Road Back, AMPAS)].
        Quoted in Ellen Draper, "Cinema Texas Program Notes," vol. 18, No. 2 (March 5, 1980)
(in Three Comrades clippings file, AMPAS).
        In its review of the film, Variety (May 25, 1938) slammed Three Comrades for failing to
connect its action to current events in Germany, but, perhaps more importantly, simply for being
dull. Variety's film preview section (May 21, 1938), on the other hand, praised the film as
"Frank Borzage's finest directorial achievement."

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