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Cold Case From the Film Archives

Film historian Thomas Doherty does some detective work on a mystery from the 1930s, when the Hollywood studios had to deal with the upsurge of racism in Hitler’s Germany.

For forensic detectives willing to dirty their white gloves, even the coldest case can yield secrets that expose the perpetrator of a crime. For the film historian – whose white gloves may only get smudged in a motion-picture archive – the work of sifting through evidence may be more mundane but the desire for narrative resolution is no less intense. When a puzzle from the past can’t be pieced together, when leads can’t be traced and the trail runs cold, the frustration of closure denied can be maddening. In the early 1990s, while researching a book on Hollywood and the Second World War, I found myself hooked by an unsolved mystery from Hollywood history, complete with a possible homicide. Here’s the backstory.

During the late 1930s, Warner Bros. Pictures was the most fiercely anti-Nazi of all the major Hollywood studios. It banned Nazi newsreels from its theatres, inserted coded anti-Nazi signals into its shorts and features, and produced Hollywood’s first wholeheartedly anti-Nazi film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), with Edward G. Robinson and George Sanders. Made in an era when movies were more liable to skirt political controversy than court it, Warners’ brash message-mongering was distinctive and even a little risky. At a meeting of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1938, Groucho Marx raised his glass, and for once not his eyebrows, to praise a front office he usually trashed: ‘I want to propose a toast to Warners – the only studio with any guts’.

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