As Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, many German-speaking actors and directors found refuge, and work, in Hollywood. These exiles – many but not all Jewish – included directing great Billy Wilder and much of the supporting cast of “Casablanca.”
The new California Museum exhibit “Light & Noir: Exiles & Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950” showcases “how important German-speaking exiles were in shaping what we now call the Golden Age of Hollywood,” exhibit curator Doris Berger said by telephone.
Berger, who now works for the under-construction Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, was curator at Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Institute when she first put together the exhibit that includes costumes and props from “Casablanca” as well as Wilder’s screenwriting Oscar for “Sunset Boulevard.” Berger, an Austrian native, said she had long been fascinated by the vast influence of German-speaking immigrants on arts and culture in L.A.
The exhibition debuted 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 on a United States-Mexico wall.
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“I could not foresee that, and I am not happy about it,” Berger said of the unexpected timeliness of the Sacramento opening of “Light & Noir,” last mounted in late 2015 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. “But I am so glad the exhibition is up because of that. Because we can see that people who some people might not welcome … if you give them a chance, they can contribute to your culture and society. The film industry was an example of that.”
The immigrants highlighted in “Light & Noir” “really brought an artistic achievement to this place that we would not have without it,” California Museum Executive Director Amanda Meeker said. “Looking at it that way, you could say, ‘We don’t know what the future holds, but you can always draw what inferences you will from history.’ ”
The exhibit, which opens Tuesday, May 16, and runs through Oct. 15, will gibe well with August’s opening of the museum’s long-in-the-works Unity Center, Meeker said. The Unity Center is a 4,000-square-foot gallery space devoted to works celebrating diversity in California.
“Light & Noir” gives visitors a close look, via Wilder’s Oscar, at how manhandling a coveted statuette too much 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 judging by their costumes from “Casablanca” and “Mildred Pierce” on display. Just as fascinating is a display of immigration papers filed by such luminaries as Wilder, “Casablanca” actor Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich. The yellowed Dietrich document looks like something a train-inspector character might have examined under his monocle in “Shanghai Express.”
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 the German-speaking predecessors in Hollywood who helped welcome them. They include director Ernst Lubitsch, agent Paul Kohner and Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle. Together the trio formed the European Film Fund to help film-industry immigrants come to Los Angeles.
This group – not technically “exiles” but “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. (She was tall, or at least her dress was.)
Wilder later collaborated with composer Franz Waxman, a fellow exile, on “Sunset Boulevard.” Perhaps the most visible creative intersection of exile talents was in “Casablanca,” the 1942 classic film to which the California Museum exhibit devotes significant floor 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 (brown and three-piece, rather than Rick’s signature white dinner jacket), 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 had been deemed an “enemy of the Third Reich” before he came 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 said, 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 these actors’ backgrounds with the movie’s setting – of Rick’s as a way station for people desperate for exit visas during World War II – and you have the ultimate exile film.
It was directed by Michael Curtiz, a Jewish Hungarian – and big financial contributor to the European Film Fund – who made films 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 pie-slinging, romantically thwarted, bad-seed-mothering title character in 1945’s “Mildred Pierce.” A suit Crawford wore as Mildred is displayed in the exhibition’s “noir” section.
German-speaking Hollywood directors strongly contributed to the noir subgenre, Berger said. With its dramatic shadows and sharp camera angles, film noir shows roots in the Expressionist style that Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”), another director who eventually landed in Hollywood, had helped perfect in Germany. Lang loved to recount the story of how Joseph Goebbels had once offered him the job of Germany’s chief filmmaking propagandist, and how he listened to the offer and then caught the next train to Paris. The exhibit acknowledges Lang’s time in Hollywood with a poster from his 1945 noir “Scarlet Street.”
Berger named the exhibit “Light & Noir” in homage to its subjects’ contributions to comedy and noir, and to reflect the immigrant experience.
“I felt the émigré experience is always an experience of two poles,” she said. “It’s positive because you made it out. It is negative, because you left things behind.”