JACK WARNER, NAZIS, AND HOLLYWOOD – By Garry Armstrong, with a bit of inspiration from Marilyn Armstrong

I was usually able to get candid comments from “old Hollywood” people because I didn’t ask the typical questions about favorite co-stars, celebrity perks, or favorite roles. I frequently shared my disdain for the “suits” in my business who tried to interfere with my work. This attitude, along with being a minority,  got me some sympathetic responses from people who normally just gave standard sound bites. It also helped that I was a movie “maven,”  more knowledgable than many so-called ‘entertainment reporters’ famous for fluff questions.

Jack L Warner, 1970. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The topic of Jack Warner came up this morning. Marilyn is reading his biography, a book called “We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Film” by Noah Isenberg. Do NOT buy the book, by the way. It’s written well — and completely wrong about pretty much everything.

Marilyn said the author apparently believes that Jack Warner was a man with a conscience who claimed to go the “extra mile,” slipping anti-Nazi stuff into Warner Brothers films in the late 1930s and early 1940s when it was “dangerous” to speak out against the Nazis.

Much of this country’s population was essentially isolationist.  Businessmen didn’t want to rock the boat,  including many Hollywood moguls concerned more about their overseas markets, especially Germany.

As always,  it was all about the money.

So, here’s a list of a couple of Hollywood legends from Tinseltown’s golden years and their takes on Jack Warner and his “anti-Nazi” stance.

JAMES CAGNEY

Probably Warner Brothers’ most bankable star from 1930 to 1950. In a 1971 conversation with James Cagney (an informal afternoon chat on Martha’s Vineyard),  the star gave full credit to Warner Brothers for giving him his breakthrough roles. Cagney got his “Public Enemy” role when the director switched Cagney’s supporting role with the star,  favoring Cagney’s energy.  Despite his “gangster” popularity, Cagney had to fight the Warners for diversity in roles.

Cagney and his horses on Martha’s Vineyard.

In Hollywood back then it was not uncommon for big studios to keep a tight rein on their stars.

James Cagney with chickens

Cagney was still doing gangster films in 1939 as the Nazis flexed their muscles. In Hollywood, big and small studios were nervous about doing films that might jeopardize their lucrative overseas market. The inside word was: “Don’t antagonize the Nazis in your films.” Germany was a large market for American films.

There was a film waiting to be ‘greenlighted called “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” at Warner Brothers. The director, European expatriate Anatole Litvak, was eager to get started. The project sat for months. The behind-the-scenes arguments between the Brothers Warner could be heard throughout Hollywood. They were the butt of jokes, concern. and anxiety by other studios who wanted to tackle Nazi Germany on film. Someone had to be the first to do it.

Sam and Harry Warner were decidedly in favor of taking it to Adolph Hitler.  They held the keys to the studio’s financial and legal coffers.  Jack was the smiling front in Hollywood, dealing with actors, directors, and writers.  He was the public face. With his big, broad smile, pearly whites who some people likened to those of a great white shark, Jack was regularly bashed by actors and actresses as gross, a sexual predator, a philanderer, and a fraud — which was typical stuff for Hollywood suits.

When “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” came across his desk, Jack Warner blanched and balked. He didn’t want to touch it. The first-generation immigrant mogul didn’t want to risk losing his studio and power to Nazi pressure.  His brothers disagreed saying it was their duty to do the film.

Jack disagreed until a lackey suggested they could do it as a gangster film with underworld bad guys subbing for Nazis.  His brothers refused to do it that way. Jack started leaning on his stable of stars — James Cagney, George Raft, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and others. They surely could pull off the film as a Tommy-gun melodrama.

No one wanted to do that film.

Jack Warner fumed! Meanwhile, Edward G. Robinson, widely admired in Hollywood as a Rennaissance Man of courage way beyond his screen image, lobbied for the film as an out and out warning against Nazism.  He even put up some of his personal earnings to back the script while agreeing to take on the lead role as a Federal Agent ferreting out Nazi spies in the U.S.

Edward G. Robinson

Jack Warner winced. Other prominent actors including George Sanders and Paul Lukas, encouraged by Robinson, agreed to join the film, playing unsympathetic Nazi spy roles. They didn’t care if it jeopardized their careers.  If “Eddie G.” was doing it, that was good enough for them.

Over Jack Warners’ private arguments, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” was made in 1939.  Surprising many insiders, it was a box-office success and nominated for several Oscars.  During the Oscar Ceremony, Jack Warner leapt past the winner to embrace the award and give a big patriotic speech about the courage of fighting Nazis at a dire historic time.

Warner talked humbly about ‘tuning up’ the script to bash the Nazis without endangering the film.  Insiders just smiled.  The cast and crew of the film fumed silently. Thirty years later, James Cagney recalled Jack Warner’s antics. Cagney had a strange smile on his face as he talked about Jack Warner.

“The man had chutzpah,  I’ll give him that. He certainly gave me my chance. But, young fella, he was the epitome of a two-faced, hypocritical ‘suit’.  You think you have worked for bad guys.  Give yourself a few more years.

“Jack Warner took credit for everything he rejected. He loved getting awards. I remember attending award ceremonies. I had to do them.  Part of my job.  The VFW, DAR, Sons Of American Freedom. You name the award ceremony and Jack Warner was there, big teeth and phony smile, to accept the honor.

“He was always ‘umble.  Young fella, I had to hold my stomach and breath around the guy. He loved garlic bread and used to sit close to me.  I was his pet or so he thought.  Jack Warner a hero and anti-Nazi fighter?  No!  He was even a bigger problem when we did “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.  He didn’t want any strong anti-Nazi bias in the film. He said it was just a song and dance film,  nothing more.

“George M. Cohan was around one day and wanted to deck smilin’ Jack. Sorry to drift on about Jack Warner but even in my so call mellow years, the man still angers me.”

That’s an unfiltered remembrance of my conversation with James Cagney.  It was a wide-ranging talk that included his not so fond memories of Jack Warner — years after his final film for the studio.

CHARLTON HESTON

 In 6 or 7 meetings, ranging over a similar number of years, Charlton “Call me Chuck” Heston gave me wide-ranging inside looks at Hollywood. Once he talked about Edward G. Robinson who was one of “Chuck’s” heroes. They made “Soylent Green” together which turned out to be Robinson’s last film.  He died a short time after the film was completed.

The movie “Soylent Green”

Heston talked warmly about Robinson and his gentle “man of the world” presence.  Heston volunteered the information about “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and Edward G. Robinson’s pivotal part in getting the movie made with its strong anti-Nazi message.

Heston relayed stories Robinson shared with him about Jack Warner.  They weren’t flattering. Heston had a few encounters with Warner as a young and rising Hollywood star.

I gave him a look and Heston just smiled, shaking his head.  No words needed.

RUTH DONNELLY

She was a contract player at Warners in the 1930s.  She usually played ditzy friends of lead actresses like Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Olivia DeHavilland, Barbara Stanwyck, and other stars.  Often Donnelly was paired with Eve Arden as a comedy foil in melodramas and romantic comedies.

“A Slight Case of Murder” starring Ruth Donnelly

Donnelly was on the Warners lot when “Confessions of A Nazi Spy” was in production. She remembered, in a 1970 interview,  how Jack Warner used to interrupt scenes being shot. This is a big NO-NO unless you held the money for the film. Warner, Donnelly recalled, was boorish and intimidating. He tried to bully writers on the “Confessions” film, demanding they change their scripts and then feigning ignorance when asked by Anatole Litvak, the director if it was true.  Warner even tried to get the writers fired for the controversy he created.

Ruth Donnelly smiled when I asked what she would say to Jack Warner in 1970.


Also see: What Charlie Chaplin Got Right

49 thoughts on “JACK WARNER, NAZIS, AND HOLLYWOOD – By Garry Armstrong, with a bit of inspiration from Marilyn Armstrong

  1. Huh–I ended up writing a paper about the German American Bund in college for my social movements class and that film was a big part of it (I was also taking lots of film analysis classes at the time). I got a copy of some of the materials talking about the Warner Bros studios daring to make such movies and whatnot when there was a film museum exhibit about it. Well, they never specified Jack by name as far as his enthusiasm for any project, at least not that I can recall. But I remembered there were four brothers in the company, and i’m sure several of them wanted it.

    Probably the thing that helped the film get made most is EGR and many of the actors in Confessions… were members of the Anti-Nazi League (I think EGR was a founding member, if I recall correctly). Paul Lukas and many other actors were recent immigrants and wanted to expose what the Nazis were doing, and were annoyed at how German censors would demand edits be made before any film shipped to Germany. They felt it was un-democratic to have another country dictate what should be in their films.

    I’d love to find some books about the Anti-Nazi League and those years, sadly, I haven’t managed to find anything. I always wanted to revisit that research and see what came about or what was there. Guess I’ll keep looking…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya, Chatty. You are on target about EVERYTHING. Keep digging, keep researching. It would be nice if you could find a descendant of someone who worked on “Confessions” or worked at Warners during that period.

      The anti-Nazi movement was a perilous time for many people who made public inquiries about Nazi politics. Many were “ratted” out by neighbors. You had to be very careful who you talked to about Nazis. I remember my maternal Gramps who worked at Barnard College and was very, very careful discussing politics with students, faculty, and alumni. He was on solid ground chatting about cricket (He was a Barbados native) rather than politics.

      My Mom didn’t suffer fools or intimidation. She told me about nasty situations involving friends who were closet Nazis. Anyway, Chatty, keep looking and don’t take anything on face value. There are revisionists out there who want to sell the “La La” land image of old Hollywood. They are too quick to print the legend.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Chatty, VERY sad. It used to be fun to share those lines with friends. Movie mavens like to think of themselves as unique. We aren’t. The internet, social media enables anyone to be an expert, a maven. Some of the fun is gone. I miss it. And, yes, I miss being a “know it all”. I know folk now who can run rings around me about movie trivia.

          There’s always baseball.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I also suggest you read a good biography of Charles Chaplin. After he made “The Great Dictator,” they literally drove him out of the country. He went to England — where he was considered a hero — which he was. He never came back to the U.S. It IS hard to find this material, but a real library might be a big help because they have older books that aren’t in print anymore.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The Great Dictator: Criterion Collection DVD had a documentary about Chaplin that mentioned his never returning to the U.S., hounded out because his views on peace before AND after the war were considered Communist (funny how I just wrote about a teacher who was forced out of his job and considered communist due to his peace stance in the Barefoot Gen series. Gives that “peacenik-Commie” insult some perceived credibility, I guess.)

        Like

      • Chaplin had a unique kind of heroism.

        I hope they’re teaching “Chaplin 101” in some drama and/or history courses.

        Like

  2. Hey, everybody. It’s now tomorrow night. The snow is still here but it’s predictably harder. Like a rock!

    Like a “Cool Hand Luke” wannabee, I chopped and slammed – re-cleaning the front walk and parts of the back porch so we could get to the bird feeders. Got the feeders inside. The bird chow was frozen! So the feeders were emptied and washed with hot water. Refilled the feeders and placed back outside for our feathered friends.

    They slowly returned for late afternoon chow and, I’d like to think, fluttered their wings in appreciation.
    Late afternoon shave and hot shower, I’m still shivering in my slippers. BRRR!!

    Tomorrrow, need to go shopping. Running short of food. We will see how well our car covers have worked.

    On, King, On you Huskies!
    Sgt. Preston

    Like

      • “ON King, ON you Huskies!”………’Grrrr’ Huskies give the Sarge an indignant look, how’ bout some treats, Sarge? What’s with Yukon King? is he special? Let HIM carry more of the load, Sarge. Wanker!

        Like

  3. I haven’t met that many Hollywood producers and directors.
    Off top of my head at 1130pm/Sunday ..and I’m fading

    — Afred Hitchcock — late 70’s
    –George Cukor —– mid 70’s
    –Tom Gries ———- early 70’s
    –Joe Levine ——— late 70’s
    –Richard Attenborough — early 80’s
    –Blake Edwards –early 80’s.
    –Frank Capra–early 70’s
    –Stephen Spielberg –mid 70’s

    there are others but my brain is turn ing to mush, folks.

    Others include people who shot films like “The Brink’s Job”, “The Fighter”, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, “The Great Gatsby”, “Blown Away”, “Knight & Day”, “The Perfect Storm”, etc.

    Okay, say goodnight, Garry

    “Goodnight, Garry!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the blog IS the book. Call me greedy, since I already know I can’t sell it (to sell that kind of book, you need to be pre-famous), it’s an awful lot of work to so you can give free copies to your friends. I did sell some of my books early in the process — like maybe a thousand over two or three years.

      I did signings and TV and radio interviews … and then I got cancer and which finished my involvement with the book. Before I fully recovered from that, it was heart disease. These days, writing a book seems like a lot of work for little reward.

      Give me an agent and a contract and enough money to make it worthwhile, I’d do it. I’d do it WITH Garry. But I know authors. A lot of them and half of them have had multiple best-sellers — and they all need to have a second job to keep a roof over their head. Publishers have always been ripoff artists, but I swear they’ve gotten worse.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Eagle, I think I’ve found the opening. No more (New Year’s) resolutions. Start wherever I am. Begin preface/intro with present scenario and intro, perhaps, with piece just posted on my Dad. Initially, a string of my blog pieces with fresh links. Later on, with first edits we give the book some form.
      Eagle, thanks for the nudge.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Marilyn, see my above comment to Eagle-eyed editor. I think we can begin the book this week with my above suggestions. No more procrastination. You’ll have to be my Max Perkins. Hopefully, we’ll have something.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Methinks? You sure talk purty, Eagle-eyed. The book is showing signs of life.
      Methinks I should cease procrastination while my brain still works.

      Like

    • Well, I was reading a book about Casablanca and I said to Garry “I have a feeling this author actually never spoke to ANYONE who worked in the business.” So Garry wrote me this note that I said was way too good to be a note — so it’s a blog. Garry would answer, but he’s outside chipping ice off the car. Yuck.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Marilyn. I read a book last year that was about the Island. It was full of bs from beginning to end. The factoids were all wrong, the premise was completely off base and the writing was not half bad. No idea where he got his information but anyone in the know said, “that’s bs completely untrue, I was there.” so I understand how some can make anything plausible.

        Like

    • Covert, you’re a peach of a reader and a constant supporter. Thanks for everything. YOU are truly appreciated.

      Like

  4. Trent, from all that I’ve heard, including folks who worked with him like – James Cagney, George Raft, Charlton Heston and others – Edward G. Robinson was a kind, generous, affable “Rennaissance Man” – with a score of paintings, classic books, music and poetry. He was also a philanthropist. The exact OPPOSITEof Jack Warner – who just liked to grab awards and was, generally speaking, a foul mouthed self-serving,exec who revelled in bullying his people. –with a big SMILE.

    Like

    • Garry is a movie encyclopedia. There is very little he doesn’t know, but he’s always learning new stuff. Baseball and movies. And modern history, what our Presidents were REALLY like … and all the bars in Boston 😀

      He’s outside trying to de-ice the car. I wish he’d done it earlier but if he didin’t do it now, it would be much worse tomorrow. It’s still snowing.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Leslie, I think we may finally be on our way. See the above comments. Thanks so very much. You’ll have a place in my acknowledgements.

      Like

      • I just got in from shoveling – we got about 14″ and more on the way – I guess there will be snow this winter, at least in southern NH… (I think it was in the upper 40s on the Cape)

        Liked by 1 person

          • Marilyn & Trent:

            It was Sgt Preston & Yukon King cold — out there in the dark..

            Just kept chipping & brushing till top of jeep was cleared. My arms too short to do entire roof, side to
            side. Falling snow kept filling in what I cleared. Had engine running to make it easier – front side and hood. Finally, finally with runny nose and runny eyes — cleared most of snow away and awkwardly put covers on hood and top of car. I was friggin’ burned out and could hear my breath. Walked back down the driveway like Frankenstein / Lurch. My suede workman’s glubs were stuck w/ ice on my hands. Yeesh!

            We’ll see how well I’ve done tomorrow. I wuz frozen through when I came in. The hot cocoa was wonderful.

            Like

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