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Why Was Hollywood
at War with Poland?

An Interview with
Professor M.B. Biskupski

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Hollywood’s War with Poland, 1939-1945, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is a thoroughly documented study of how Tinsel Town portrayed Poland in films made during World War II. Its damning indictment shows that, while Hollywood generally ignored Poland, when it did deal with the country, it portrayed it in uncomplimentary, negative, and even false ways. Why Hollywood chose to present Poland so badly—the ally whose invasion caused the start of World War II—is the subject of this work which, while thoroughly researched and documented, remains very readable and of interest to a popular Polonian readership. Its author, Professor M.B. Biskupski, discussed his book with the Polish American Journal.

Mieczyslaw B. Biskupski has held the Stanislas Blejwas Endowed Chair in Polish and Polish-American Studies at Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, since 2002. Born in Chicago of parents

Fredrik Sobieski (Ralph Bellamy) prepares to hit Anthony “Tony” Barrett (Gary Cooper), because of Barrett’s advances on Sobieski’s fiance, Manya Novak (Anna Sten) in “The Wedding Night.” The film displayed a contemporary community of Poles living in Connecticut as virtual barbarians

whose origins came from Mazowsze and Poland’s eastern borderlands, he was a high school dropout who eventually received a fellowship and earned his doctorate from Yale University. Dr. Biskupski subsequently taught at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York, and the University of Rochester. He has been a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Warsaw at the University of Warsaw and a Fellow of the Central European University, Budapest. He is a past president of the Polish American Historical Association. The author or editor of numerous books (including Polish Jewish Relations in North America, edited with Antony Polonsky), Biskupski is the father of five (Olesia, Jadzia, Mietek, Misia, and Stasiu).

PAJ: Polish Americans have been struggling against the image of the “dumb Polack” ever since Archie Bunker made them his trademark on “All in the Family.” In light of your book, one could argue that the “dumb Polack” stereotype goes back a long way before 1970. Your comments?

MBB: The image of the Pole — and especially the Polish-American as cloddish certainly pre-dates the films of the Second World War era. In the 1930s we had such titles as Warner Brothers’ “Black Fury,” in which Paul Muni played a Pole as a genial dolt. The film “Palooka” of the same era made the prizefighter-probably intended to be a Pole-another dull-witted figure. The film “The Wedding Night” displayed a contemporary community of Poles living in Connecticut as virtual barbarians. The list could be extended. However, it seems most unlikely that the negative image of the Poles waited until the 1930s. It would be an intriguing topic of research to discover whether there was a Polish “type” in Vaudeville in an earlier generation. My suspicions are that the image of the Pole as an uneducated boor was established soon after the mass-migration at the close of the 19th century, when Poles occupied the lowest rung in American society and their ignorance of the English language and isolation from the host society made them seem all the more exotic and distastefully so. Poles did not enjoy a favorable image in American eyes from the beginning of their en masse arrival here and it has only slowly evolved.

PAJ: You attribute the pejorative image of Poles in World War II Hollywood films to three factors: Communist/leftwing influence among writers, the Roosevelt Administration’s foreign policy, and the Polish-Jewish roots of some Hollywood moguls. Let’s take each in turn. Anytime anybody asserts “Communist influence” in America he risks charges of “McCarthyism” and “witch hunt.” Please comment on the extent of Communist influence in 1940s Hollywood. How would you answer charges of “McCarthyism?”

MBB: The Left was very powerful among screenwriters in that period and many of the most unkind representations of Poles or Poland were the product of radical leftists, often members of the Communist Party. We must also remember that the Left had a particular grievance against Poland for several reasons. First, Poland was widely perceived on the Left as a reactionary country still preserving many of the characteristics of a bygone era. Secondly, the Poles had defeated Soviet Russia in the war of 1919-1921-a virtual sin to the pro-Soviet Left. Finally, Poland was the victim of a double assault in September 1939 by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Hence any mention of Poland immediately raised the issue of Communist collaboration with the Nazis and the brief era when Hitler and Stalin were allies. Hence for the Left, Poland was at least an obstacle and at most an object of hatred. There was no pro-Polish element in Hollywood to counter the Left’s powerful animus against Poland.

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PAJ: Poland seems to have been an inconvenient ally for the Roosevelt Administration, complicating its efforts to warm relations with the Soviet Union during World War II. Do you think that the Administration actually wanted the negative portrayal of Poland found in those World War II films where Poland appeared, or would its goals have been served just as well as by mere silence about Poland? If the latter, why didn’t the Office of War Information (OWI) demand that the anti-Polish vitriol be toned down?

MBB: There is no doubt that the studios and not the federal authorities were the more intent upon portraying Poland negatively. Indeed, we have memoranda from the Office of War Information criticizing films for being excessively anti-Polish or omitting positive aspects of Polish Americans which might have been easily included. In other words, the chief enemy of Poland in getting favorable treatment in Hollywood was Hollywood, not the Roosevelt administration. However, we have to remember one feature which complicates the picture. The Roosevelt administration was extraordinarily interested in a positive portrayal of the Russians. Given the foul behaviors of the Russians towards the Poles, to present the Russians positively required you to omit their behavior in relation to the Poles. Here, the virtual white-washing of Moscow had direct consequences for the way in which issues crucial to Poland were presented. To celebrate the Soviet Union you had either to misrepresent Poland, or to edit it out.

BISKUPSKI

PAJ: You note that Jews of Polish ancestry were prominent in 1940s Hollywood, e.g., the Warner Brothers, but that they had ambivalent attitudes about the “old country.” Can you develop this theme?

MBB: It has been noted in other contexts that the Jewish immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century did not wish to return to the country of their former residence. Many Catholic Poles, by comparison, did not intend to stay in the United States, but regarded it as a temporary sojourn. The Catholic Poles overwhelmingly brought with them powerful attachments to their ancestral homeland. For the Jews of Eastern Europe the situation was far more complex. For some warm feelings for Poland remained with them — one may mention for example the publisher Jakub Vorzimmer or the entrepreneur Ludwik Hemmerling – but for most their former homeland was associated with bad memories — at the very least alienation, for many actual discrimination. That this was the often the product of the Partitioning powers did not change the memories. Virulent nationalism was on the rise at the turn of the century and the Poles shared in this unfortunate phenomenon. To many nationalist Poles, Jews were either unassimilated or inassimilable. It is striking how many of the Hollywood Jews never spoke about their ancestral homelands and regarded those generations there as a closed chapter. This alone caused a division between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews in the United States. The Jews assimilated into a resident Jewish community and abandoned their former countrymen. For the Catholic Poles this was tantamount to betrayal. The seeds of animosity were planted as soon as the immigrants arrived.

PAJ: You indicate that Jews in Hollywood had some interest in presenting the issue of the extermination of European Jewry in film, but that the Roosevelt Administration fought those efforts. Can you expound on this a bit?

MBB: Hollywood Jews were very chary about presenting Jewish issues in wartime films. They were aware that polling evidence indicated that large segments of the American population harbored feelings of suspicion and dislike for the Jews. To even suggest that the War was over Jewish issues, i.e. the Holocaust was worrisome to the Jews who feared a public backlash. Similarly, the Administration did not want Jewish issues focused upon in order to maintain public unity: the war as moral crusade not the rescue of persecuted Jews. Both Washington and Hollywood saw Jewish issues as dangerous to confront. This explains the lack of films about the Holocaust. “None Shall Escape,” a film set in Poland, is a notable exception. There are minor Jewish sub-plots in two other films (“To Be or Not to Be,” “Once Upon a Honeymoon”) largely set in Poland.

PAJ: You make the striking comment that, for Poles, raising the Polish flag over Monte Cassino was as sacred and symbolic as raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. Can you tell us how Hollywood recounted that event?

MBB: The film, “The Story of GI Joe,” is focused on the allied assault on the Gustav Line, the well-prepared German defensive position stretching across Italy. A focal point in this line was the famous monastery of Monte Cassino. There were repeated attempts by Allied troops — including Americans — to take the position. All failed. But, the Poles were victorious in May 1944 and raised the Polish flag over the heights. Polish casualties in this action were enormous and the victory allowed the Italian campaign to resume after months of being stalled. This was a major Polish contribution to the war made at huge costs. For the film to omit the Poles and suggest that it was an American victory is simply outrageous. The film incidentally was written by members of the Communist Party. In the film, it is the American flag that is raised over Monte Cassino—a fantasy, not an historical fact.

PAJ: You insist that there was no “conspiracy” to slur Poland in World War II Hollywood, but that various independent factors dovetailed to produce what happened. Poland, you say, had few friends and many enemies in Tinsel Town. Could events have been different and, if so, how? Is the Polish situation in Hollywood any different today?

MBB: There was no effective Polish “lobby” in the United States. There was no significant Polish presence in Hollywood. The Polish government-in-exile was virtually penniless and a very minor voice in the West. Hence, there was no strong voice for Poland. Even the Catholic Church, seemingly an ally of Roman Catholic Poland, did little for the Poles. After all, the American Catholic Church was dominated by the Irish and Polish influence in the Church hierarchy was almost invisible. The factors were in place to make it impossible for the Poles to receive sympathetic treatment by Hollywood.

PAJ: What inspired you to write this book? How long did it take, and what was your most memorable anecdote associated with its writing?

MBB: I began my research for the book several years ago and travelled about gathering information: from studio records, private papers, and government documents—including FBI reports—as well as many memoirs of actors, directors and studio executives. I started writing the book a few years ago, but was interrupted several times which delayed the process. In all I should say the project took more than five years. I remember watching World War II era films with my family when I was a boy. My mother was a great student of Hollywood and had a fantastic memory for films and their players. In addition to her enthusiasm, I remember very well the frustration and sadness of my family at the neglect of Poland in these films. We all knew what Poland had suffered during the war: they deserved more than this indifference. I should think my most striking experience — of which there was more than one occasion—was when I would discover that Hollywood screenwriters would simply invent whole episodes which were utterly without foundation to present the Poles in a foul light. Some of these creations are utterly fantastic and were fabrications which the writer certainly realized at the time he was preparing the script. A good example is the supposedly accurate rendition of the memoirs of Joseph E. Davies, “Mission to Moscow,” by screenwriter Howard Koch. There are scenes in the film critical of the Poles which do not appear in the book despite Koch’s claims to the contrary.

PAJ: What kind of reception has the book received to date?

MBB: When I was in Poland briefly in March, there was considerable interest in the book—after all it touches a sensitive spot for Poles: why their suffering and achievements were ignored. It would be enormously satisfying to me were a Polish-language edition to be published. I have given a few lectures on the book here in the United States and have drawn large audiences. I have no idea what the sales figures are. Reviews are only beginning to appear so I cannot make a response. I anticipate that the political Left, of which I am very critical in the book, will be dismayed by the book and react accordingly.

PAJ: Do you intend to follow up on the themes Poland/Hollywood raised in this book? What else are you currently working on?

MBB: I think one book on films for a historian whose work is devoted to political and intellectual history is more than enough. I am finishing a very long work on the role of the United States in Poland’s resurrection as a free country during World War I. It is a theme which has interested me for many years. I have almost finished another volume on why November 11th is Polish Independence Day and the myths and symbols surrounding it which have helped create the modern Polish political mentality. Finally, I just published a book a few weeks ago which is a collections of essays on the idea of democracy in modern Polish thought. In this effort, I worked with colleagues from Purdue and the University of Toronto.

PAJ: Thank you, Dr. Biskupski. We hope your book finds its way to every Polish American’s bookshelf!

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Hollywood’s War with Poland, 1939-1945
Edited by M.B.B. Biskupski
University Press of Kentucky, 2010
Hardbound, $60, pp. 362
To Order: (800) 537-5487 or
hfscustserv@PRESS.JHU.EDU


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