In March 1933, Herman J. Mankiewicz, a respected Hollywood screenwriter and producer, took a leave of absence from Metro Goldwyn Mayer to write a screenplay about Adolf Hitler. The former New York newspaperman, playwright, theater critic, and Algonquin Table habitué was known for his sophistication and irreverent wit. But Mankiewicz was also deeply political, and as he watched the Nazis tighten their stranglehold on Germany, he understood the implications and felt he had to act. Abandoning his usual ironic detachment, he wrote The Mad Dog of Europe in a desperate attempt to awaken the American public to the danger of Hitler’s rise to power. The story of his screenplay’s ultimately fruitless journey offers a portrait of American culture in the years leading up to World War II and the obstacles facing those who shared his prescience.
Set in “Transylvania,” The Mad Dog of Europe has two storylines. The first tracks the rise of housepainter “Adolf Mitler.” The second follows a pair of families, one Jewish and one Christian, who live in Gronau, Transylvania (Gronau was an actual German town). The screenplay opens with an “earnest and impressive” voice reciting: “This picture is produced in the interests of Democracy, an ideal which has inspired the noblest deeds of man. It has been the goal towards which nations have aspired—one after the other having asserted a determination to overthrow tyrants and erect a government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’ Today the greater part of the civilized world has reached this stage of enlightenment.”
Onscreen is: “THE INCIDENTS AND CHARACTERS IN THIS PICTURE ARE OF COURSE FICTITIOUS. IT IS OBVIOUSLY ABSURD TO ASK ANYONE TO BELIEVE THEY COULD HAPPEN IN THIS ENLIGHTENED DAY AND AGE.”
To accompany the sarcastic disclaimer, Mankiewicz wanted the haunting melody of the Kol Nidre, the prayer associated with the holiest day of the Jewish year, “with the military phrases of DEUTSCHLAND ÜBER ALLES audible as an undertone.” Then, “a large swastika fills the screen, upon which the title is superimposed. The swastika gradually fades to the form of a cross with a figure crucified upon it.”
The first story opens in 1914 in the middle-class Gronau home of Professor Mendelssohn, his wife, their daughter, and three sons. When their oldest son, Karl, announces that he has enlisted to fight in the Great War, his father endorses his patriotism.
The second opens on a pair of housepainters, with the “dark little fellow” (Adolf Mitler) getting his colleague fired. A close-up of Mitler’s arm “sawing up and down with a paintbrush” dissolves into an arm “still going up and down without brush,” in a beer hall. Mitler’s first audible line is, “The French are a nation of niggers. We must exterminate them.”
Back in Gronau, little Ilsa Mendelssohn plays with Heinrich and Fritz Schmidt, whose father owns the local newspaper. Ilsa’s two older brothers die in the war, and Heinrich enlists. When the war ends, Heinrich returns, bitter and angry. Newsreel shots depict scenes of unemployment, and before Heinrich leaves Gronau to make a name for himself, he asks Ilsa to marry him when he returns. Ilsa agrees out of pity, though she actually loves his brother Fritz.
The two narratives merge when Heinrich becomes Mitler’s follower and watches him develop his political party. After a re-creation of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch that sent Hitler to jail and inadvertently gave him the opportunity to write Mein Kampf, Heinrich accompanies Mitler to a country-club-like prison where Ilsa and Fritz visit him.
HEINRICH (proudly): I have learned what it means to be a Transylvanian.
ILSA: I’m a Transylvanian, too!
HEINRICH (bitterly): You’re a Jew!
ILSA (stunned): What—
HEINRICH (parroting Mitler): No Jew can be a Transylvanian.
They are enemies of Transylvania—parasites feeding on Transylvania’s blood.
ILSA ( furiously): How dare you say that? My brothers died for Transylvania.
When this momentarily stops Heinrich, Mitler, who has been watching, tells him, “Don’t lower yourself by arguing with a Jew.” After they leave, Fritz tells Ilsa that Heinrich is like so many others who came back from the war, “beaten—hurt…they want to hurt someone else to get even.”
When Ilsa worries that they will get into power, Fritz laughs: “Here in Transylvania? How could they? They don’t even make sense. No thinking person would listen to them. They go around making speeches to each other and being put in jail.” They confess their feelings for each other, but Ilsa refuses to marry Fritz because being married to a Jew could make life difficult for him. Fritz prevails.
Real and fake newsreels and trick shots convey events from 1924 to 1929, including “shots of Nazi disturbances being quelled by police clubs…to show the illegitimacy of the movement.” And “famous Americans arriving in Transylvania …i.e., Dempsey, W.R. Hearst, Charlie Chaplin, etc.”
To depict the 1929 “world crash,” Mankiewicz wanted newsreel footage of panics and bank closings, followed by another trick shot: “Money being sucked back from Transylvania. Under the force of this suction several cracks appear in the surface. Across the bottom of the film the rats are swarming. As the cracks widen, they swarm up through them to the top, overrunning the whole surface.”
Then: impressionistic shots of Mitler addressing larger and larger groups of people. Following milestones such as the Reichstag fire and “Mitler’s” election, Herman wanted a public book-burning scene like those held all over Germany in May 1933, to showcase Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front—“a traitor to Transylvania—and still alive!” Albert Einstein’s Quantum Theory—“a Jew…and still alive!” Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Upton Sinclair…and finally, the Bible.
Under Mitler, Heinrich returns to run Gronau and encounters his father. The two embrace, then begin to argue. When a four-year-old boy wanders in, Heinrich teaches him to give the Nazi salute and say “Heil Mitler.” Once Ilsa and Fritz appear, Heinrich realizes with horror that the boy is theirs. “You’re through with her,” he tells Fritz. “With her and her Jewish brat.”
Professor Mendelssohn is harassed in the street. In his classroom, a little boy sits in a corner wearing a dunce cap with the word “JEW.” “His shirt is torn. He screams as a pen strikes and imbeds itself in his shoulder. He pulls it out, wet with blood.” Another student writes “My teacher is a Jew” on the blackboard. The students eventually drive teacher and student from the classroom.
One of the headlines in Herr Schmidt’s newspaper protests the firing of Professor Mendelssohn. Another announces: “MITLER DECREES ALL ARYANS MARRIED TO JEWS MUST SEPARATE OR BE SENT TO PRISON CAMPS.”
After Ilsa’s brother Hans is killed, Fritz tries to convince her to cross the border. They learn that both their fathers have been killed, and Frau Mendelssohn shoots herself.
They despair of finding a way out when Heinrich arrives at Fritz and Ilsa’s, swastika flags waving on his official car. Handing them false passports, he urges them to take his car. He will pretend they stole it. Seeing his father killed was the turning point: “Before my eyes…I have been blind—insane. How could I think that was the way to help Transylvania—by killing the finest man that ever lived. And Herr Mendelssohn—and Johann, and those thousands of others. But he made me see…”
As troops approach, Heinrich assures Fritz and Ilsa he will try to join them at the frontier and hands them a clutch of money. The Nazis begin to close in, and Heinrich throws himself in their path. He dies shooting at them, and the story ends with Fritz and Ilsa “speeding away to safety.”
From the beginning, Mankiewicz understood that the powers in Hollywood would consider the very idea of such a portrayal of those events dangerously incendiary and assumed he would have to produce it himself. After telling the press he had already arranged financial backing and distribution, he went to New York to find it. Despite prodigious effort, he failed, and because he could not afford to go without a paycheck for long, Mankiewicz was back at MGM by the end of June 1933.
In July, film producer Sam Jaffe, one of Mankiewicz’s closest friends, took out full-page advertisements in the trade newspapers announcing that he had acquired the rights to Mankiewicz’s “anti-Hitler motion picture depicting the sacrifices of the Jews and Catholics in a Central European Nation and the indignities to which they are being subjected.” Jaffe also announced that he had resigned from RKO “to devote [his] entire time and attention to this project” and had hired “one of America’s foremost dramatists” to help.
Opposition was formidable. Although the studios’ top executives were almost all Jewish, they were well aware of anti-Semitism’s prevalence in American culture and the dangers it posed to them. While leaders in other industries were praised for fulfilling the American Dream, successful motion-picture business executives were routinely portrayed as ignorant, jumped-up former garment merchants–“pants pressers, delicatessen dealers, furriers, and penny showmen,” as Karl K. Kitchen wrote in Columbia, the official Knights of Columbus magazine. Rather than as captains of industry, they were characterized as “moguls”—Oriental, Asiatic despots. They were maligned as greedy capitalists whose sensational products corrupted wholesome Christian Americans, especially during a time when the Depression fueled so many resentments. They knew that if they depicted Nazi abuses, they risked being branded as warmongers, trying to pull the United States into a European problem to help their co-religionists.
Studio executives also faced economic pressure. Most of the major studios were owned by publicly held corporations, so even if the studio chiefs wanted to proceed, their corporate bosses would not allow them to jeopardize foreign markets. As one historian put it, the motion-picture business was “an industry largely financed by Protestant bankers, operated by Jewish studio executives, and policed by Catholic bureaucrats, all the while claiming to represent grass-roots America.”
The Catholic bureaucrats in question staffed the industry’s trade organization, Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), which was often called the Hays Office, after the organization’s president, Will H. Hays. Besides representing industry interests, the MPPDA operated as a self-censoring body, created by the industry to forestall national and local censorship efforts. MPPDA was supposed to be the industry’s advocate, but its employees’ sympathies ranged from well-meaning to avowedly anti-Semitic, and those with the latter sympathies were not above exploiting Jewish studio executives’ apprehensions. When Nazis assaulted American Jewish employees of American film companies and pushed them out of Germany in 1933, the MPPDA spokesman presumably charged with protecting industry interests said only that “these men left the country willingly and have since returned to work there.”
Created in 1930, the Code by which the MPPDA regulated its members’ pictures reflected the Catholic values of the Code’s creators, addressing issues of profanity, alcohol and drug use, respect for clergy, nudity, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, respect for the flag, miscegenation, and the sensibilities of other nations. MPPDA did not enforce it effectually until July 15, 1934, when Hays’s assistant, Joseph I. Breen, took charge of the MPPDA’s newly formed Production Code Administration (PCA). That meant the Mad Dog script was submitted during the interval between 1930 and mid-1934, a period film historians now fondly recall as Pre-Code Hollywood. During those early Depression years, studios pursued diminishing audiences with increasingly sensational films and stories filled with gangsters, violence, and less censorious treatments of sexual mores.
A week after Jaffe’s announcement, Hays summoned him and Mankiewicz to his office and accused them of greed: They were exploiting “a scarehead situation for the picture which, if made, might return them a tremendous profit while creating heavy losses for the industry.” Then he asked, even if they were to find a studio willing to rent them production facilities, how could they exhibit the film if all the major theaters refused them? Jaffe responded that even if he had to contend with higher costs and lower revenues, he would exhibit it in smaller theaters in lesser markets.
Mankiewicz, who was as averse to admitting a noble purpose as he was addicted to insulting more than one target at a time, undercut Jaffe’s honorable declaration by seeing and raising Hays’s accusation of (Jewish) greed. He said he had written Mad Dog with “the esthetic tastes of the public” in mind and “for the same reason that Hollywood producers had made Baby Face, Melody Cruise, and So This Is Africa.” With his usual wit, Mankiewicz simultaneously repudiated his and Jaffe’s obvious idealism; ridiculed the industry for the triviality of its output; mocked the MPPDA for hypocrisy; and exposed its regulatory code as ineffectual. All three of his examples were major studios’ recent releases; all three were MPPDA-approved; and all three pushed sexual, rather than political, boundaries. Hays was not amused.
As Jaffe set up an office and hired the playwright Lynn Root to work on the script, a number of Jewish organizations mobilized. They, too, wanted Americans informed about Hitler and the Nazis, but they wanted the word spread by non-Jewish messengers. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which had been organized in 1913 specifically to combat anti-Semitism, joined studio heads and the MPPDA in actively opposing the realization of Mad Dog. They feared it would provoke accusations of Jewish warmongering, and they worried that if it failed commercially, it would demonstrate American apathy to Hitler or even pave the way for pro-Nazi films. After Jaffe showed the Los Angeles ADL the script, some members thought it might be effective if toned down, but officially the organization opposed it.
In August 1933, Mankiewicz and Jaffe conceded defeat. They might use the title at some future time, Mankiewicz told a Los Angeles ADL official, but if they did, they would make it more a “newsreel type” picture. ADL officials took the precaution of alerting potential sources of money anyway, in case Jaffe tried again.
By September, Jaffe also needed to get back to work, so he sold Mad Dog rights to Al Rosen, a tough agent eager to make his mark as a producer. Rosen went to Paris to meet with Billy Wilder, Paul Kohner, and Sam Spiegel, all Austrian or Austro-Hungarians, but he too was unable to secure funding. After that, Rosen embarked on one scheme after another, including hiring a Hitler lookalike to generate publicity. Eventually, he convinced New York philanthropist Samuel Untermeyer to finance it, but ADL members interceded and Untermeyer withdrew. In October 1933, Herman Mankiewicz asked to have his name removed from the script.
Once the new Production Code went into effect in mid-1934, Rosen had to deal with Joseph Breen, a known anti-Semite who pulled no punches. “Because of the large number of Jews active in the motion picture industry in this country, the charge is certain to be made that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler picture and using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes,” Breen said. “The entire industry, because of this, is likely to be indicted for the action of a mere handful.” Some believed “that such a picture is an out-and-out propaganda picture” that “might establish a bad precedent. The purpose of the screen, primarily, is to entertain and not to propagandize. To launch such a picture might result in a kind of two-edged sword, with the screen being used for propaganda purposes not so worthy, possibly as that suggested by THE MAD DOG OF EUROPE idea.”
As the ADL executives had feared, Breen explicitly suggested that anti-Semites deserved equal time. “It is to be remembered that there is strong pro-German and anti-Semitic feeling in this country, and, while those who are likely to approve of an anti-Hitler picture may think well of such an enterprise,” Breen said, “they should keep in mind that millions of Americans might think otherwise.” By then, he had reinforcements. Nazi censors were already screening everything coming into Germany, but to stamp out offending material at the source, they sent German consul Dr. Georg Gyssling to Hollywood to work with studios on scripts before they were even produced.
Rosen did not give up. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia, at which time the press began referring to Benito Mussolini as “the mad dog of Europe.” Rosen kept at it. Again announcing production plans, he said the picture would be accompanied by a novel of the same name. In July 1935, Joseph Goebbels and the German Film Board of Censors notified MGM’s foreign department that “photoplays written by Herman J. Mankiewicz” would not be allowed into Germany unless Mankiewicz’s name was removed. There was no accompanying explanation.
Mankiewicz had spent the previous two years turning out MGM fluff, and, if anything, his 1934 Stamboul Quest, a caper starring Myrna Loy, was a sympathetic portrayal of an actual World War I German spy. His most recent picture was Escapade, an adaptation of Walter Reisch’s turn-of-the-century Viennese drawing-room romance, Maskerade. A number of censors had objected to the line “A woman in that condition should be seen by two men only; her husband and her doctor, and I am both,” but that risqué reference to pregnancy hardly seemed sufficient to trigger a Nazi ban from the highest level, and only against Herman Mankiewicz.
The New York Times coyly speculated that since his films “contained no references to the present German Government or any of its officials,” perhaps its ad hominem ban was attributable to “the writer’s ‘non-Aryanism.’” Or might it be because “the writer contemplated a film production of ‘The Mad Dog of Europe’ a few years ago.” It was “generally understood” that he had abandoned the project “on the advice of influential American Jews,” who feared “bitter consequences for their coreligionists in Germany.” As the only screenwriter the Nazis singled out, Mankiewicz wore the distinction with honor.
With membership in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League exceeding 4,000 in 1936, Rosen approached the U.S. State Department about the film and came close to convincing Sol Lesser to produce it at RKO. Then the State Department contacted the MPPDA, and Breen sent the State Department and Lesser his 1934 memo, and again killed the project.
In 1937 Rosen announced that after conducting a poll to measure the appeal of an anti-Nazi film with a script “by Herman Mankiewicz, Lynn Root and [Albert] Rosen,” he planned to proceed without the blessing of a Production Code seal. Furthermore, he would not reveal casting until shooting began, “because of the incident in which Dr. George Gyssling, local German consul, figured in connection with ‘The Road Back.’” When Universal adapted Erich Maria Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, Gyssling had pressured Universal but also had warned individual actors and technicians that if the film offended the Germans, Germany would not only ban that picture but might ban their past, present, and future films. Universal capitulated, transforming Remarque’s anti-Nazi film into a comedy.
That attempt failed as well, and by then events were overtaking the screenplay. A January 1938 episode of Time’s “March of Time” newsreel/documentary series revealed more about Hitler and the Nazis than the public had hitherto seen, and refugees were trickling into the United States. Despite the fact that income from the countries under fascist rule had already dried up, the major studios continued to reject hard-hitting projects, though they released a few that were at least implicitly anti-Nazi, including The Three Comrades (1938), which Herman’s brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz produced. Around this time, Rosen published Mad Dog as a novel, supposedly written by the pseudonymous “Albert Nesor” (Rosen spelled backward).
In 1939, six long years after Herman Mankiewicz had first tried to warn the public, Al Rosen continued to publicly credit Mankiewicz, Lynn Root, and himself as Mad Dog’s creators, and to milk every name or connection he could conjure. He even tried hiring Hitler’s sister-in-law as the film’s adviser. Finally, Breen grudgingly approved the script as a “fair” representation of “prominent people and citizenry,” though he cautioned that such a film was “enormously dangerous from the standpoint of political censorship outside the United States,” so Rosen would likely encounter “serious difficulty” in marketing it overseas.
Then Breen engaged in the usual Code negotiations, and his objections, given the subject matter, can only be described as bizarre. Rosen was to remove the “obvious homosexual” character—“I think you know that any suggestion, or even the slightest inference, of sex perversion is not acceptable.” Expletives “For God’s sake,” “Oh God,” and “God” were to be eliminated. Breen also warned that “political censor boards” frequently eliminated “blood suckers” and would likely also delete the image of a swastika fading into the figure of a crucified Christ. He noted that the British censors were unlikely to allow the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and he urged Rosen to shoot the riot scenes so that they were not “too realistically brutal or gruesome”—they should show no dead bodies, either in those sequences or in the morgue. Then there was Breen’s attention to national sensibilities. “It is our thought that even though the expression ‘the French are a nation of niggers’ may be an authentic quotation [of Hitler’s], its repetition is likely to give offense to the French nation and people, and it might be well for you to consider dropping the expression entirely.”
It appeared as if production would begin at last at Denham Film Studios outside London, with distribution by Columbia Pictures. But Mad Dog’s moment had passed. Hitler, Beast of Berlin opened in October 1939, with a press kit suggesting that exhibitors hang photos of Hitler, dress a young man as a storm trooper, and build a concentration-camp torture box. In 1940 MGM released The Mortal Storm, a Nazi-era love triangle among a Jewish woman (Margaret Sullavan), a Christian Communist (James Stewart), and a Christian Nazi (Robert Young) that bore some resemblance to Mad Dog. Although it had been adapted from a 1938 Phyllis Bottome novel, Rosen filed suit in 1943, alleging plagiarism by the film’s writers, director, producer, and studio.
Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge Learned Hand finally decided against Rosen in 1947—two years after the Nazis were finally vanquished.