In early 1933, Phil Kaufman, the Berlin branch manager for Warner Bros., was beaten up by thugs supported by the newly-elected Nazi government. Soon afterwards, the studio made the decision to pull all their business out of Germany, years before any other Hollywood studio followed suit. From this time until the American entry into World War II, Warner Bros. was at the forefront of the American media’s fight against the Nazi menace. 80 years ago today saw the wide release of Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first explicitly anti-Nazi movie made by a Hollywood studio.
On September 19, 1938, Warner Bros. hosted a gala event during the American Legion’s national convention in Los Angeles. All Legion members and their families were invited to tour the studio, and a luncheon was also held. At this luncheon, WB President Harry Warner gave an impassioned speech defending the motion picture industry from charges of communism, and warning of the ever-growing threat from Germany, both in Europe and across the world. Here Warner is seen at the luncheon with Daniel J. Doherty, National Commander of the American Legion.
Leon G. Turrou was an FBI agent who helped investigate and prosecute a Nazi spy ring in New York City in 1938. After leaving the FBI, he published a series of articles and a book that would become the foundation for Confessions of a Nazi Spy . Turrou was hired by Warner Bros. as a consultant on the film, and appears in many studio publicity photographs from early 1939. Here is Turrou with actress Priscilla Lane on the set of Daughters Courageous (filmed under the working title Family Reunion).
Ignoring considerable pushback from inside and outside the movie industry, Jack Warner and Harry Warner, seen here at the 1939 Academy Awards, were determined that Confessions of a Nazi Spy would be produced and released. No stranger to controversy, Warner Bros. was known for making tough social issue films throughout the 1930s. Having recently released movies like The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and They Won’t Forget (1938), the studio clearly had the rise of the Nazis and fascism on its mind. Staff writer Milton Krims was sent to New York to attend the spy trials and develop a screenplay.
Despite harsh objections from the German government (via their Los Angeles consul George Gyssling), the script received approval from the Hays Office (Hollywood’s self-censorship group), mainly due to the fact it was based on current, verifiable events. Here is a supportive editorial from the December 24, 1938 issue of Motion Picture Herald (courtesy of the Media History Digital Library).
Warner Bros. legend Edward G. Robinson stars as FBI Agent Edward Renard, a character based on Leon G. Turrou.
Paul Lukas as Dr. Karl Kassel (second from left) and George Sanders as Franz Schlager (far right) are the spy ringleaders, seen here with their Gestapo goons.
Edward G. Robinson interrogates Francis Lederer as Kurt Schneider. Lederer was a well-known stage and film actor in Europe, most notably appearing in the German silent classic Pandora’s Box. He left Germany as the Nazis were coming to power, becoming an American citizen the year Confessions of a Nazi Spy was released. He lived to see his 100th birthday, passing away in 2000.
The movie was directed by Anatole Litvak, a Russian-born director who emigrated to Hollywood after Hitler came to power. During World War II, he and Frank Capra co-directed five entries in the Why We Fight film series from the U.S. government. Litvak (seen at right in this studio publicity still) directed several other films for Warner Bros., including the Best Picture nominee All This and Heaven Too (1940).
Agent Renard (Robinson) conducts a search of Dr. Kassel’s (Lukas) medical office. Ironically, five years later Lukas would win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as an anti-Nazi activist in Watch on the Rhine. He is best remembered today for playing Professor Aronnax in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
These fascinating photos were almost certainly staged for publicity purposes, but the need for additional security was not an exaggeration. In reality, the movie was made under the strictest secrecy on the WB lot in order to avoid any potential instances of sabotage. One day, an overhead light ominously crashed down on the set, narrowly missing cast and crew. Some actors, fearing for their safety, only agreed to perform under pseudonyms. Both the studio and lead actor Robinson received hundreds of threatening letters before and after the release.
Beyond its historic stature, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was also a box office success, both domestically and in the foreign countries where it wasn’t banned. The National Board of Review named it the Best Film of 1939 – no mean feat due to its competition during what is generally considered classic Hollywood’s greatest year. For much more information about the making of this film and the circumstances surrounding it, please see the excellent book Hollywood and Hitler by Thomas Doherty.