The Prizefighter and the Lady

By Robert Ecksel on November 7, 2013
The Prizefighter and the Lady
“This committee believes that Max Baer is furthermore a particularly Negroid type [of Jew].”

Hitler liked Laurel and Hardy but disliked Tarzan. He adored Greta Garbo but thought Marlene Dietrich, with her preference for “prostitute roles,” was a slut…

“A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.”—Bertrand Russell

All is not as it appears. Fact and wishful thinking merge with fiction and myth to become all but indecipherable. We embrace the implausible as an antidote to uncertainty because we want answers and we want them now. But the answers we embrace, as often as not, are to questions too troubling to articulate, as Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” makes clear.

Before, during, and after World War II, the public was assured that Hollywood fought the good fight against fascism on celluloid. American films, then as now, were wildly popular the world over. In the 1930s, movies like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It Happened One Night set a high standard. They weren’t just popular with American audiences. They were also popular with Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a film fanatic (to go along with his other fanaticisms) and recognized, as few in Nazi Germany did at the time, the power of cinema to control thought and modify behavior. That Hollywood furthered his ends, consciously and conscientiously, is no small matter.

The idea for “The Collaboration” came from an offhand comment by the late Budd Schulberg, Academy Award winning screenwriter of such classics as On the Waterfront, The Harder They Fall, and A Face in the Crowd. His father, B.P. Schulberg, ran Paramount Pictures in the 1930s, so he was in a position to know of what he spoke. Schulberg said that the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, screened films for the German consul in Los Angeles in advance of their release, and edited work and killed projects which the Nazi censors did not approve. MGM wasn’t however alone. Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Warner Bros., all of which were founded and/or run by Jews, acquiesced to the Nazis, as did Columbia, Universal, United Artists, and Disney. Why they acted as they did is no mystery. Quentin Tarantino calls it, “Capitalism’s pact with Hitler.”

Hitler was the boss of bosses and had the last word, but he sometimes had run-ins with his subordinates. For example, one of his favorite films was King Kong. Oddly enough, mixing races, let alone species, at least on screen, didn’t disturb the Reichskanzler. But the Propaganda Ministry, not for the first or last time, felt otherwise. Professor Zeiss from the German Office feared that King Kong would “be damaging to the health of its viewers” and that it was “NOTHING LESS THAN AN ATTACK ON THE NERVES OF THE GERMAN PEOPLE.” Asked to explain, Zeiss said, “It provokes our racial instincts to show a blonde woman of the Germanic type in the hand of an ape.” However provocative on its face, not to mention in its paw, King Kong opened in Berlin on December 1, 1933, to mixed reviews.

Hitler liked Laurel and Hardy but disliked Tarzan. He adored Greta Garbo but thought Marlene Dietrich, with her preference for “prostitute roles,” was a slut. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a stirring bit of agitprop in which Hitler starred, was his kind of film. All Quiet on the Western Front, about Germany’s defeat in World War I, was not. There’s a curious kind of logic to Hitler’s likes and dislikes. But before reaching any conclusions, consider that Frankenstein was shown in Germany, but The Invisible Man was not, and all gangster films were banned as an American ploy to “reintroduce crime” to the Third Reich.

Into that heady mix of paranoia, irrationality, and state power run amok, The Prizefighter and the Lady, a bit of fluff from MGM, caused a furor. Unlike films starring Dietrich, which were banned because they were naughty, The Prizefighter and the Lady distinguished itself as the first film banned not for its content, but because of its leading man.

Max Baer fought Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 1933. Although Schmeling was not a Nazi, Hitler embraced the swarthy pugilist. He told Schmeling over dinner at a restaurant in Berlin prior to the fight, “If anyone over there asks how it’s going in Germany, you can reassure the doomsayers that everything is moving along quite peacefully.” Schmeling complied. Baer, on the other hand, whose grandfather was a “Jew from Alsace-Lorraine,” told the press, “Every punch in the eye I give Schmeling is one for Adolf Hitler.”

Baer stopped Schmeling in the tenth round. He shocked the world, but he also shocked Adolf Hitler. According to Hitler’s harebrained theories of racial superiority, those with Jewish blood weren’t strong; they were weak, “an East European species of cockroach.” Or as the Nazi song “Horst Wessel” merrily contrived, “When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, things will go well again.”

Meanwhile back in the States, Max Baer was lionized. He was handsome. He was charming. He was a character. But most of all, he had defeated the “Black Uhlan of the Rhine.”

Louis B. Mayer recognized a good thing when he saw it. He offered Baer $30,000 ($539,716 in today’s dollars) to star in a major motion picture, The Prizefighter and the Lady, a film about a heavyweight champion, his fights, and his affairs with foxy starlets. It might have been a case of art imitating life, but that was of no concern to American filmgoers. The Prizefighter and the Lady, directed by W.S. Van Dyke and co-starring Myrna Loy, Primo Carnera, Jack Dempsey, and Walter Huston (with cameos by Jess Willard, Jim Jeffries, Billy Papke, Jackie Fields, Frank Moran and Joe Rivers) was a big hit, and MGM intended to distribute it worldwide, including of course in Germany.

The film was due to open at the Capital Theater in Berlin on March 16, 1934, but eight days earlier a British film called The Rise of Catherine the Great opened at the same theater. The Rise of Catherine the Great starred Elisabeth Bergner, a German Jew who had been one of Deutschland’s film idols. No sooner did she appear onscreen than the audience, which included uniformed Nazis, hurled eggs and rotten oranges while screaming, “We don’t want Jewish pictures.”

Although The Prizefighter and the Lady was a “Jewish picture,” it opened, after assurances from Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, as scheduled and without incident. As a matter of fact, the audience erupted with rapturous applause at the end of the screening. Even the critics (film criticism would be banned in 1936) were passionate about what they had seen.

It was when The Prizefighter and the Lady was dubbed into German that the trouble started. The head of the regular censorship board, Arnold Bacmeister, thought it was bad enough that Max Baer was a Jew. But even worse, he was shown cavorting with non-Jewish women on the screen. As a result, both the original and dubbed versions of The Prizefighter and the Lady were withdrawn from circulation.

Dr. Ernst Seeger, head of the Department of Film for the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, convened a high-level meeting where the movie was discussed. Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath felt The Prizefighter and the Lady, however offensive it might be to the German sensibility, should be seen, because playing ball with Hollywood was good for business. He wanted Goebbels to intervene, but Seeger wouldn’t hear of it, at least at first. He said, “The entire film is a singular apotheosis for Max Baer, whose life and times serve as its principal content, and whose fight at the end has all the sympathy of the public on his side… This committee believes that Baer is furthermore a particularly Negroid type [of Jew].”

The decision to ban the film was upheld.

Ben Urwand, author of “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” recently said, “We typically think of Hitler as the most evil figure of the 20th century… But when I started [researching the book], I was looking at his opinions of American movies and was just struck by how banal they were. To think that this most evil person was watching Laurel and Hardy and Mickey Mouse and Greta Garbo and having completely normal reactions, that boggled my mind.”

The banality of evil is an established fact, which makes it no less relevant. But as Max Baer said about The Prizefighter and the Lady, “They didn’t ban the picture because I have Jewish blood. They banned it because I knocked out Max Schmeling.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

«The Prizefighter and the Lady» (trailer)

The Wizard of Oz (1939) - Trailer

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939 Trailer (ProMovies)

King Kong (1933) (Trailer)

Laurel and Hardy-The Battle of the Century

Frankenstein (1931) Trailer

26 The Invisible Man 1933 Trailer

Triumph of the Will

All Quiet on the Western Front - Trailer [1930] [3rd Oscar Best Picture]

Max Baer vs Max Schmeling

Marlene Dietrich - Falling In Love Again - In German 1930

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  1. Michael Domino 07:45am, 11/13/2015

    Great Article !

    There is no doubt that if “The Boss of Bosses”  could buy movie tickets in the front row in “Hell’s Theatre” today he would probably be choosing current day thought provoking films such as : The Avengers ,  Bad Grandpa and Ant Man , just to name a few . 

    Michael Domino

  2. Norm Marcus 12:29pm, 11/10/2015

    Excellent article Robert. As you know I have written and talked extensively on Max and Buddy Baer. Just want to make clear one item in the story. In many different articles Max mistakenly was said to have solely a Jewish grandfather. This would make him one quarter Jewish. This is not the case. The Baer brother’s father was 100% kosher. Both grandparents on his father’s side were Jewish. I know because I talked to his family in Livermore while researching my book on Maxie years ago.
    The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame also checked my assertion with Max Baer Jr. He told them his dad’s parents were indeed both Jewish. So Max Sr. was indeed half Jewish. After that was cleared up The Hall sent me a letter of apology and called it a example of a mistake, repeated so often that it becomes fact.
    The Nazis in the 1930s could have pushed the one grandparent tag on Baer. You see one Jewish grandparent could be excused by Nazi law. In special cases they were even allowed to serve in the German Army during the war years. I kid you not. So they could claim that Baer was not really a Jew, who knocked out their champion, Max Schmeling.
    I love Maxie’s story. Would love to pitch it to Steven Speilberg!

  3. Sharon Cobb 11:02am, 11/09/2013

    This is one of the best pieces of work not related to coverage of a current fight I have ever seen on here.

    Of special note is filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who was the first female director and editor of new techniques, who was fortunately blackballed in Hollywood for having a big hand in bringing Hitler to power with her film ‘Triumph Of The Will.’  Her ultimate karma was living until 101 and she couldn’t make a living at film.  She also developed new editing techniques for ‘Olympia.’  May she rot in hell with Hitler, but from an historical viewpoint,  people need to know how powerful she was to Hitler and his propaganda and sports and how she edited ‘Olympia.’ (Rent ‘The Wonderful-Horrible Leni Riefenstahl’ for more info on her and what she did for Hitler and the Olympics).

  4. Bob 02:27pm, 11/08/2013

    What a great piece of work. Read every word with rapt attention.

  5. Robert Ecksel 10:41am, 11/08/2013

    Several years ago Spike Lee and Budd Schulberg sought funding for a film called “Save Us Joe Louis.” Terrence Howard was pencilled in to play Joe Louis, Hugh Jackman was interested in portraying Max Schmeling, and Jodie Foster was on tap to play Max’s movie star wife Anny Ondra. Unfortunately, the money wasn’t there to make it happen.

  6. Danny Collins 10:32am, 11/08/2013

    The Baer-Schmeling fight, along with Schmeling’s fights with Louis, would make for same amazing movies of their own. Surprised this hasn’t been done yet.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:33pm, 11/07/2013

    Robert Ecksel-Another superb article from a pound for pound world class boxing writer on….which reminds me….it’s nice to know that murderous monsters who carry out genocide have funny bones like the rest of us run of the mill every day monsters…..moreover, since Shitler’s monstrous wind breaking was highlighted in the piece…..I don’t feel the least bit guilty in pointing out that Kong is wearing King size assless chaps in the video clip above.

  8. Stephanie 02:40pm, 11/07/2013

    Here are pictures:


    and after:

  9. Pete The Sneak 11:33am, 11/07/2013

    Another great write-up of historical boxing views and information that you just can’t find on any other boxing site…Stephanie, that’s great stuff as well.. Truly enjoyed this…So, Hitler was a Laurel and Hardy fan, huh? Who knew that all along Hardy was the inspiration for the Fuhrers Mustache…Peace.

  10. Stephanie 09:57am, 11/07/2013

    Thanks for the great article.
    Here are some miscellanea:
    As a matter of fact, the German newspaper articles in the wake of fight suggest that there could have been an order not to stress Baer’s Jewishness. It was mentioned here and there, but it was played down. One author did another thing, he didn’t use the word »Jew« one single time, but implied it three times by using widespread anti-Jewish stereotypes to describe Bear. (There was only one exception: the Stürmer, a pure hate-newspaper, who headlined it.)
    My impression is, that they were terribly afraid. (Fun-fact: Nazis don’t have balls.) Their belief in Schmeling was challenged by Baer’s right hand, that they knew had ended the life of Frankie Campbell and now declared its blows, that landed, were for Hitler himself. I’m sure, they would have been a bit less scared if they hadn’t up to that day, on and on and over and over again, used Schmeling for the cause of German, Nazi, Aryan or whatever convenient kind of heroic superiority.
    However, the fight reports in the aftermath don’t mention Baer’s Jewishness anymore at all. They sound very depressed. They tell us about that terrible heat in New York, which handicapped Schmeling. Well, no excuse, they say, just to go on and rave about that terrible heat, to which Schmeling wasn’t adapted, but Baer was, so it was a disadvantage for Schmeling, but hey, no excuse. (Their following technical fight descriptions were as good or bad as usual.)

    Considering, what a win of Schmeling would have done for Nazi propaganda, I’m very, very grateful, that Baer knocked him out.

  11. Clarence George 08:34am, 11/07/2013

    Boxing and World War II…two of my favorite topics nicely joined in matrimony (I won’t say “holy”) by our Führer, er, Editor-in-Chief.

    In reading Robert’s excellent piece, I was reminded of “The Mind of Adolf Hitler,” by psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer, in which I learned that Hitler was very fond of whistling the Walt Disney tune, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.”  How German can you get!  Reminiscent of the Peter Lorre character in “M,” whistling Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”

    I’ll close by observing that Myrna Loy was a hottie, particularly in “The Thin Man” movies.

  12. Mike Casey 08:14am, 11/07/2013

    Hitler’s aides dreaded the Fuhrer losing his temper, and not for reasons you might expect. He was prone to remarkable bouts of flatulence.

  13. El Bastardo Magnifico 07:43am, 11/07/2013

    Superb Fearless Editor. Hope you did not offend some old fucker down in Uruguay or Argentineee way—or maybe we hope you did—hee hee. Timely article considering the find/release this past week of hundreds of priceless chunks of stolen art sitting in some small dusty apartment being retrieved some two years ago, with the local constabulary not mentioning it this past two years—some very unhappy folks wanting to know why they were not told earlier so they could make claim by pre-war right of ownership—by the way I did not know the Nazi schmucks attended boxing conventions—looks like a rules meeting….Okay I stop right there!!! Need Woody Allen and Carl Reiner to take over!!!!

  14. Mohummad Humza Elahi 07:32am, 11/07/2013

    This site is on an absolute roll at the moment, the quality of the articles has been incredible.  Baer - Schmeling was a lot bigger than boxing and there are very few prizefights that entered the socio-political arena of the time, these were almost like proxy wars in their importance to propaganda efforts of each involved.

    Great stuff.

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