Exiles and Emigrés in Hollywood 1933- 1950

by Yoram Kahana February 16, 2015

The Light & Noir exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center traces the history of some of Hollywood’s most prolific immigrants and the contributions they made to American cinema.

"Chased from my country,now I have to see
if there's some shop or bar that I can find
where I can sell the products of my mind"

So wrote playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, who was chased from Germany by the rising Nazi regime. He and dozens of other refugees settled in Los Angeles and sold the products of their minds and talent to the Hollywood movie industry.

The exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Emigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 which is currently at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (through March 2015), explores the experiences of these German-speaking creative people, many of them Jewish, who fled Europe and settled in California and how they influenced the classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age for almost two decades until, ironically, the rise of McCarthyism in America made a number of them, Brecht included, pack again to emigrate back to Europe.

Those newcomers created or contributed to such iconic and beloved American movies as Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Casablanca, and Ninotchka. Theirs was an unmistakable style, rooted in the pre and early noir traditions of German filmmaking between the two world wars. They practiced it in their new home as actors, directors, art directors, designers, writers, and composers. Their impact on American cinema and culture is examined, showcased and celebrated in this exhibition. If some of them are not household names, many of their movies are. Film directors: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Ernst Lubitch, composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman, actors including Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, Claude Raines, and writers, such as Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger.

Light & Noir brilliantly tells the story of the impact of the emigres on Hollywood. The focus is on genres in which these exiles were especially knowledgeable and productive: the exile film, the anti-Nazi film, comedy, and above all, film noir. It uses diverse and unique items such as costumes worn by Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Joan Crawford, or one of Billy Wilder’s several Academy Award "Oscar" statuettes, or an album celebrating Ernst Lubitsch’s twenty-five years anniversary with tributes written by the who is who of Hollywood, both emigré and native born, The exhibit includes scores of stills, movie clips, posters and print material. Also shown are original props recreating part of the set of Rick’s Café in Casablanca, that beloved and evergreen movie is arguably the most impressive and memorable work created by the emigrés in Hollywood. The underlying subject matter, that supports the central love triangle, is the essence of the emigré experience: The flight from Europe, the elusive transit papers and visas, the perils,costs and heartbreaks of the journey to the promised land, America. The complicated ways of love underlie the suspenseful story about the precarious nature of escape and survival. Most of the cast and crew of Casablanca were indeed emigrés from Germany and central Europe like director Michael Curtiz, costar Conrad Veidt and composer Max Steiner. Some fled the Nazis' rise to power in 1933, such as co-stars Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre. Indeed, most of the movie's billed actors were emigrés, and their looks and accents added to the final shape of this iconic movie. After all, there but by the grace of God, they too may have remained there, stuck in Rick's Cafe, waiting for a visa, or worse.

An ironic side of that era, also documented in this exhibition, is the rise of virulent anti semitism in America, even as the Nazis were persecuting Jews in Europe. The German-American pro Nazi party, Bund, held open rallies against the 'Jewish dominance of Hollywood'. The newly arrived refugees, who knew the horrors of the Nazi regime first hand, created a sub genre of movies- the anti Nazi drama, sounding the alarm for a still dormant and rather ignorant public opinion. Warner Brothers were the first to attempt to produce anti Nazi dramas, but the film industry Production Code Administration tried to stop them, demanding "fairness": Equal voice for the German regime. Warner found a loophole - basing movies on true events. First was Confessions of a Nazi Spy, directed by Jewish German emigré Anatol Litvak. It was based on the discovery of a pro Nazi spy ring in the USA. Later, emigre Ernest Lubitch presented his expose of Nazi ideology as a comedy, in To Be or Not to Be, (1942).

Arguably, the two best examples of film noir came from emigré writer director Billy Wilder, who absorbed elements of the German expressionist film genre, before escaping from Germany to America. He was nominated for 10 Golden Globe awards, winning 4. Double Indemnity (1944), which gathered seven Academy nominations, was directed and co-written by Wilder based on the James Caan novel. Sunset Boulevard, the Golden Globe winner for 1951, was also directed and co-written by Wilder, and photographed by Seitz. The HFPA gave it a total of seven nominations and four wins: Swanson, and three emigrés: Wilder, supporting actor (and former director) Eric Von Stroheim, and composer Franz Waxman.

But by that time, the cold war had brought chilling winds to America. McCarthy was hunting communists, and Hollywood was a prime target. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) knew that Hollywood hearings would create headlines, and many of the emigrés, foreigners who were fervently anti Nazi and anti fascist, with their sympathies on the left, were a prime target. The Hollywood studios were complicit in The McCarthy/ HUAC witch hunt. Many in Hollywood were called to testify. Many of those who refused to do so were put on a Black List and could not work. Some were jailed, others left the country. The Light & Noir exhibition also ends its survey in 1950. It features Bertold Brecht appearance in front of the HUAC. On his lawyers' advice he agreed to testify, but turned the hearing into a theater piece, with sly, noirish humor. HUAC eventually let Brecht go. The very next day he flew back to Europe, never to return, once again an exile, but this time from his American refuge. Light and Noir brilliantly records his story and that of his fellow Hollywood émigrés.

Yoram Kahana