Plight of Nazi-era émigrés’ to Hollywood explored in ‘Light & Noir’
Those featured include Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre
By CARLA MEYER, SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
May 24, 2017
As Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, many German-speaking actors and directors found refuge and work in Hollywood. These exiles — many of them Jewish, but not all — included directing great Billy Wilder and much of the supporting cast of “Casablanca.”
The exhibit “Light & Noir: Exiles & Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950” at Sacramento’s California Museum makes clear “how important German-speaking exiles were in shaping what we now call the Golden Age of Hollywood,” says exhibit curator Doris Berger in a telephone interview.
Berger, who now works for the under-construction Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, was curator at that city’s Skirball Cultural Institute when she first put together the exhibit, which includes costumes and props from “Casablanca” as well as Wilder’s screenwriting Oscar for “Sunset Boulevard.” Berger, an Austrian native, says she had long been fascinated by the vast influence of German-speaking immigrants on arts and culture in L.A.
The exhibition made its debut at the Skirball in October 2014, long before President Donald Trump tried to ban wartime refugees of a particular religion — this time Muslim — from entering the United States. The California Museum booked the exhibit in early 2016, before the term “alt-right” became ubiquitous and construction bids were being taken for a wall separating the United States from Mexico.
“I could not foresee that, and I am not happy about it,” Berger says of the unexpected timeliness of “Light & Noir,” last mounted late in 2015 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. “But I am so glad the exhibition is up…. We can see that people whom some might not welcome, if (given) a chance, can contribute to your culture and society. The film industry was an example of that.”
The immigrants highlighted in “Light & Noir” (on view in Sacramento through Oct. 15) “really brought an artistic achievement to this place that we would not have without it,” notes Amanda Meeker, Executive Director of the California Museum.
“Light & Noir” gives visitors a close look, via Wilder’s Oscar, at how manhandling a coveted statuette can wear off some of its gold plating, and how Humphrey Bogart and Joan Crawford, despite their giant charisma, were not very tall people — at least to judge by their costumes from “Casablanca” and “Mildred Pierce,” respectively, also on exhibit.
Just as fascinating are the immigration papers filed by such celebrities as Wilder, “Casablanca” actor Peter Lorre and actress Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich, who came to Hollywood before Hitler took power, opened her home in the United States to German and French exiles during World War II.
“Light & Noir” pays tribute not just to the directors, actors and crew members who fled Hitler but their German-speaking predecessors in Hollywood who helped welcome them. Those included director Ernst Lubitsch, agent Paul Kohner and Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle. Together, those three formed the European Film Fund to help film-industry immigrants come to Los Angeles.
The émigrés often had professional ties to the newcomers as well. Wilder, a Jewish Austrian who had worked briefly in Germany before the Nazis banned Jewish people from the German film industry in 1933, made “A Foreign Affair” with Dietrich in 1948. “Light & Noir” displays a paisley-print gown Dietrich wore in the film.
Wilder later collaborated with composer Franz Waxman, another exile, on “Sunset Boulevard.” But what was perhaps the most visible creative intersection of exile talents occurred in “Casablanca,” the 1942 classic to which the California Museum exhibit devotes significant space.
A glass display case holds a wooden room divider and two chairs — all etched with Moroccan-style designs — used in scenes set at Rick’s Cafe Americain, the club owned by Bogart’s ex-pat character. Also displayed are a suit worn by Bogart, a skirt-and-blouse ensemble worn by Ingrid Bergman and a suit worn by Paul Henreid, the Austrian actor who played Czech resistance fighter Victor Laszlo.
Henreid was not Jewish but was strongly anti-Nazi, and he had been deemed an “enemy of the Third Reich” before coming to Hollywood. “Casablanca” also famously featured Lorre, a Jewish Austro-Hungarian who first found fame in German film, and Conrad Veidt, who had a flourishing career in Germany before he left in 1933 with his Jewish wife. Lorre played a black-market seller of “letters of transit,” Veidt a Nazi officer.
“Almost all of the cast were exiles and émigrés themselves,” Berger says, with Veidt facing the same predicament of other German actors with heavy accents in Hollywood, of often being cast as the Nazis from whom they had fled. Combine the backgrounds of these actors with the movie’s setting — Rick’s saloon as a way station for people desperate for exit visas during World War II — and you have the ultimate émigré film.
It was directed by Michael Curtiz, a Jewish Hungarian — and big financial contributor to the European Film Fund — who made movies in Austria and Germany before coming to Hollywood in the 1920s. Curtiz would go on to direct Crawford to a best-actress Oscar as the title character in “Mildred Pierce” (1945). A suit Crawford wore while playing Pierce is displayed in the exhibition.
German-speaking Hollywood directors strongly contributed to the noir subgenre, Berger says. With its dramatic shadows and sharp camera angles, film noir shows roots in the Expressionist style that Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”) had helped perfect in Germany before landing in Hollywood.
Berger named the exhibit “Light & Noir” in homage to its subjects’ contributions to comedy and noir, and to reflect their experience. “I felt the émigré experience is always an experience of two poles,” she says. “It’s positive because you made it out. It is negative, because you left things behind.”