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Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood (DVD Review)

13 Jun, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive       
$21.99 DVD
Not rated
Narrated by Sigourney Weaver.

At this late date, it’s not all that easy to come across something that can make one look at Casablanca in a slightly different way. But the arguable high point of what I suspect is an under-seen two-hour history from filmmaker Karen Thomas shows just how many of that Warner Bros. landmark’s memorable performers (from Paul Henried and Peter Lorre on down) came from the Olympic-sized pool of displaced actors who fled Hitler for successful careers in Hollywood. If, that is, they were among the lucky ones. A lot of them weren’t, and these include the talents who managed to make it as far as the fringes of the U.S. studios without ultimately attaining the financial or artistic success to match what some of them had previously accomplished at home in what had to have seemed like quainter times.

If you check your family history, there’s probably someone who exists or existed only because one of his or her parents experienced some kind of personal catastrophe that forced a move to some strange village or city — thus enabling the party in question to meet a mate that he or she otherwise never have known walked the Earth. So it’s in the same vein that out of one of eternity’s most catastrophic blunders (Hitler’s political, and, for that matter, biological, creation) came a hefty percentage of the Hollywood movies that still matter from the ’30s, ’40s (especially) and beyond. Think, naturally, of the Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak film noirs that were in turn influenced by the German cinema of the 1920s. But also think of the wit-heavy scripts of Austria-Hungary-born Billy Wilder (who could also do noir when he was in the mood), who not only had put in a couple hard years of groundwork learning English but also the language’s idioms and slang to nail down what became the now easily recognizable Wilder writing style. And this was well before he started directing.

Though Berlin-born Ernst Lubitsch didn’t need a Hitler to get him to Warner Bros. and The Marriage Circle by 1924, he served as a brilliant example for others to emulate in terms of success — as well as a literal mentor to Wilder himself, who became a Lubitsch collaborator at Paramount and MGM Lubitsch belongs in this documentary — and is — though the focus is naturally on the ones who had to flee (sometimes on a dime) and then, in some cases, exist on subsistence funding set up by those lucky enough to find employment of the studios. Of the successful ones, Wilder is on screen for no small amount here, thanks to some 1990 interview footage.

For a story predominantly about European Jews, some of the best moments here come courtesy of Mexican-American actress Lupita Tovar, best known for having had the “Helen Chandler role” in the concurrently filmed 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula. (Still with us at almost 106, she’s also the mother of former actress Susan Kohner, who got an Oscar nomination for the Douglas Sirk version of Imitation of Life and the grandmother of About a Boy’s Weitz Brothers.) Married to future ‘A’-list Hollywood agent Paul Kohner, who at this earlier time ran Universal’s Berlin-based European wing, she saw first-hand what was happening in the streets and what was happening to movies after Joseph Goebbels nationalized the industry. Her anecdotes have an unmistakable feel of immediacy even decades after the fact.

Everywhere you turn here, there’s something interesting — from a chapter on 1929’s Criterion-released People on Sunday (the landmark experimental drama that brought together youngsters like Siodmak, Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann) to an impressive amount of swimming pool and beach-related home movie footage of successful émigrés enjoying a California life they could hardly imagine. But there are also portraits of non-directors like Metropolis producer Erich Pommer, composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Friedrich Hollander, musician-turned-editor Rudi Fehr (a good guy who was in charge of Warner’s studio prints when I was programming the AFI Theater in the ’70s and ’80s) and also of onetime substantial talent Joe May (The Invisible Man Returns and The House of Seven Gables) who couldn’t finesse the transition and, instead, struggled with operating a restaurant.

Somehow, I missed Exiles when it ran on PBS in 2009, but its recent Warner Archive availability comes almost immediately on the heels of a Turner Classic Movies airing, so maybe it’ll get the exposure it deserves. The Casablanca passage is really something: Once you get past Bogart, Bergman, Greenstreet and Dooley Wilson, it seems as if most of the significant case members got there via a tragedy of history for a movie that really must have hit them where they lived.


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