The Prizefighter and the Lady
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.”