Historians of Hollywood typically portray most of the Jewish executives in 1930s Hollywood as deeply assimilated, aloof from the Jewish community. Many suggest that they were afraid even to publicly criticize the Nazis, out of fear of calling attention to their Jewishness and concern that isolationists would accuse Hollywood's Jews of trying to drag the United States into a conflict with Germany.  Some major Jewish organizations, in particular the Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee, encouraged this attitude by urging Jewish movie producers to refrain from making films with Jewish or anti-Nazi themes, for the same reasons. 

Historian Felicia Herman sees the pressure from these Jewish organizations as the primary factor in persuading Jewish movie industry executives to avoid anti-Nazi themes. (American Jewish History, March 2001, p.89)  Neal Gabler (An Empire of Their Own, p. 340) cites, in addition, a vehement warning delivered by the U.S. ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy, to a group of Jewish Hollywood executives, to the effect that making films critical of the Nazis would cause anti-Semitism in America.  The meeting with Kennedy, however, took place in 1940, and therefore would not have been the cause of this fear, although it might well have reinforced the fears that already existed.

Harry and Jack Warner are usually depicted as the exceptions, although, as we will see, the extent of the differences between them and their colleagues may not have been as significant as one might imagine.

Gabler (p. 289) notes:  "Jack Warner demanded that his Jewish employees donate a percentage of their salary to the United Jewish Welfare Fund.  During a fund-raising drive, he would call them into the studio commissary. 'When we were all assembled,' remembered screenwriter Alvah Bessie, '[Warner] marched in and--to our astonishment--brandished a rubber truncheon, which had probably been a prop for one of the anti-Nazi pictures we were making.  He stood behind his table and smashed the length of rubber hose on the wood, and then he smiled and said, 'I've been looking at the results of the Jewish Appeal drive, and believe you me, it ain't good.'  Here he paused for effect and said, 'Everybody's gonna double his contribution here and now--or else!'  The rubber truncheon crashed on the table again as everyone present...reached for our checkbooks.'  'All he had to say,' admitted his son, Jack Jr., 'was, "You won't ever work here again if you don't give to the United Jewish Appeal." "

Bessie's mention of "anti-Nazi pictures" probably referred to the 1939 film "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," which was the only pre-World War II movie Warner Bros made that clearly falls into that category.  They also made two other films, The Life of Emile Zola (1934) and Sons of Liberty (1939) which, in the view of Felicia Herman, contained "coded" anti-Nazi messages since the former dealt sympathetically with the Dreyfus Affair, and the latter focused attention on Jewish contributions to America's Revolutionary War. (p.62) Curiously, however, the word "Jew" was never spoken in the Zola film.  (It did appear on screen once, as a French officer looks down a list of names and comes across Dreyfus, who has "Religion: Jew" next to his name.)

The Norman Lear Center's book and exhibit, Warners' War: Politics, Pop Culture & Propaganda in Wartime Hollywood, make the same argument.  See Randi Hokett's, Waging Warners' War. Hokett claims the Warners closed down their office in Germany as a protest against a Nazi decree that foreign companies in Germany had to fire their Jewish employees.  But Gabler (p.342) states, "They tried to hold on as long as possible, and Warner Brothers only closed its German office when a band of Nazi thugs chased and murdered its representative there, a Jew named Joe Kauffman."

There was a certain amount of anti-Nazi activity in Hollywood in the late 1930s, although it was not initiated by the film industry.  In 1937, local leftwing political activists created the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which sponsored numerous meetings, rallies, and publications.  The LAJCC tried unsuccessfully to persuade its leaders to change the group's name to the "Hollywood Anti-Nazi, Anti-Communist League." (Gabler, p.341)

The FBI kept watch on the League, because many of its top activists were either close to, or members of, the Communist Party.  The FBI's files on its surveillance make reference to several Warner Bros. writers who were involved in the League.  Consistent with the reorientation of American Communists as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in December 1939 changed its name to the Hollywood League for Democratic Action, and shifted its focus from anti-Nazi to opposition to American involvement in the European war.

A topic of possible greater interest for our purposes is the involvement of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, in facilitating Jewish emigration from Germany.  According to Gabler (pp. 338-440), Laemmle first became interested in the situation in Nazi Germany when he heard that a street that had been named after him in his home town of Laupheim, Germany, had been renamed Hitler Street.  Subsequently, Laemmle helped "over 250 German Jews" from the town (including some of his own relatives) relocate to America, by providing affidavits guaranteeing their financial stability in the United States.  Gabler adds that "when the State Department started questioning his affidavits, he began hectoring friends and relatives to provide affidavits in their names, giving a written guarantee that if they were asked to make any financial contribution to the people they sponsored, he would reimburse them."