Confessions of a Nazi Spy, 1939

Confessions of a Nazi Spy, 1939

Edward G. Robinson was the living embodiment of the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

After his spectacular success as Rico in Little Caesar, Robinson spent lavishly on himself, his family and everybody and anything that needed a chunk of change. In the 1940’s alone he made more than 850 contributions totaling more than a quarter million dollars.

But in 1947, inglorious ex-communist turned “Red” Hunter (and future Confidential Magazine editor and wife slayer) Howard Rushmore,  fingered Edward G. Robinson as a fellow “traveler” or commie before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Edward G. Robinson, who had enjoyed almost twenty years at the top in Hollywood, imploded and his career never recovered from the accusations.

(please read my abbreviated bio on Rushmore below.)

Hideous. Unlike most on the infamous “blacklist,” Robinson was not a communist party member**. Far from it. He was kind of a cross between George Clooney and Bob Hope–fighting and raising money for the less fortunate and going all out for the troops.  Robinson was one of the first stars to speak out against Hitler. He was the first star to go overseas after the Normandy invasion to entertain the troops. He donated $100,000 to the USO during WWII. Robinson even broadcast radio spots in a multitude of languages to countries occupied by the Nazis during WWII to help the “cause”. On a lighter note, his wife Gladys organized the “Desert Battalion”: groups of young girls that would visit training camps on weekends to dance with servicemen away from home. This was the man hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 on suspicion of being “Un-American”.

Robinson on set, before the fall

Robinson, the epitome of the immigrant assimilator was horrified. He spent the next 5 years trying to clear his name and repeatedly went before the HUAC  to plead his case. He hired a forensic accounting team to prove that out of the 850 donations he made in the 1940’s the 12 donations under suspicion were not to communist causes. It was to no avail. In the end he caved and cried uncle: ” Yes, Mr. Committee Sir, I was a Commie Dupe.”

Sound crazy? . . .Well let’s hit the rewind machine. This story actually starts about ten years earlier. Back in 1938 Robinson spearheaded a group of  influential stars, studio heads, directors that called on Congress to boycott all German Products, until Adolf Hitler agreed to stop persecuting Jews and other minorities.

Persecuting was a mild word. Once Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he banned all Jews from working in the cinema. (Hence, the great Hollywood migration) Within a couple years Jews were also banned from working, voting, owning property, going to school, living in certain towns, and then were eventually deported. After Kristallnacht in November, 1938,  30,000 Jews and other “undesirables” were arrested and sent to concentration camps. This was the Germany the star activists wanted to boycott.

Sounds so reasonable. But, no. It’s one of the ways “Hollywood Commie” stuff  got started: Hitler Bashing.  Instead of being hailed for calling out a megalomaniacal despot, the stars were pilloried as “commies” and war mongers. In 1938 most Americans thought communists were a bigger problem than Nazis and Hitler bashing was just war propaganda.

Let’s discuss how deep the Nazi denial went. And the germination of Confessions of a Nazi Spy. In February 1938 the FBI captured a Nazi spy ring operating in the US. The Nazis were put on trial, and sentenced as spies to die! The Warner Brothers (Jack, Sam, Albert, Harry) were ecstatic. Now they could made a movie about Nazis based on facts and on a real life FBI Nazi Spy hunting hero. How cool was that?

The industry recoiled in horror. Louis B. Meyer was afraid of German repercussions and lost revenue and fought its release. Fearing all American films would be bannedthe other studios joined the fight. The Production Code Administration (PCA), led by the rabidly anti semitic Joe Breem, fought its release by claiming its portrayal of Hitler was unfair because he was depicted as a “ screaming madman and a bloodthirsty persecutor” and no consideration was given his “phenomenal public career, his unchallenged political and social achievements, and his position as head of the most important continental European power.” The PCA finally gave approval to production in 1939 as along as the movie did not portray the Nazis abusing any Jews or talking about any kind abuse during the film. Afterwards, movie industry czar Will Hays kaboshed the whole Nazi film idea. He informed studio bosses that if any of them trash talked Nazis in their films they would not get a PCA seal. This idiotic ban lasted 6 months:  from September 15, 1939 to January 1940.

Ronnie Under Fire in International Squadron

Confessions of a Nazi Spy was a world-wide success despite its anticipated bans in Germany, Japan and assorted despotic terrains (a theatre set to run it in Milwaukee was torched). Isolationist Senators were outraged. In 1941 they organized an Investigation of Propaganda in Motion Pictures hearing. Senators charged Hollywood with war- mongering and spoke of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at getting the US into war. Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the center of the hearing. Other Warner war-mongering films targeted included the Oscar-winning  Sargent York and the  inciteful International Squadron starring Ronald Reagan as an American fighter pilot in the RAF.

A couple months later Pearl Harbor was bombed and the Senators forgot their role in the hearings immediately.* Hollywood was needed to sell war bonds, entertain the troops and make patriotic war movies!

After the war, Hitler was gone, Roosevelt was gone, and senators memories selectively returned. And, as we all know, three times the charm.

In 1947 The HUAC once again began investigating Hollywood for communism and war mongering leading up to WWII. But this time the republicans had control of the votes in the house and senate. Sen. Joe McCarthy was given a long leash. After cynically surveying his options in Round 3 of Everyone in Hollywood must be a Commie, Jack Warner caved and started throwing people under the bus to save his studio. (Collateral damage included John Wexler the co-writer of Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and even the writers of Casablanca.)

Robinson, on the other hand was not so cynical. He truly believed all he needed to do was show up with the facts, over and over again, to clear his name. He had devoted years to helping the armed forces at home and abroad, often at the government’s request. Would the government forget all the good he had done for the country? Would not people stand up for him? Well, guess not. But Warners would “help” him if he would do the mea culpa danceWarners then helped Robinson by writing a PR piece entitled “The Reds Made A Sucker of Me”. Robinson, now technically “cleared” by the HUAC could now go back to work — in B movies.


*Howard Rushmore used to be a movie reviewer for the  Daily Worker up until 1939. He quit the communist party because he liked Gone With The Wind and they didn’t. Rushmore then became a Red-hunting reporter for Hearst’s Journal-American.  Rushmore was one of McCarthy’s key witnesses in the 1947 U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee’s. He was so good at coughing up names and stories that Sen. Joseph McCarthy called him “one of our greatest Americans.”

Before long Rushmore had a falling out with McCarthy and the senator’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, and overnight began blasting them as thugs and goons. Party lines being what they were, Rushmore found himself jobless again. Rushmore, taking advantage of his Hollywood snitch circle found himself a job as editor at Confidential Magazine. But, of course, a falling out with the owner, and ensuing lawsuits found Rushmore unemployed again.

In the late fifties Rushmore got into a drunken fight with his wife on the streets of New York and shot her and himself to death.

*Well,  not everyone. During the war, HUAC Chairman, John Rankin, D-Miss.,  accused Hollywood movies of  sending coded messages about German air raids, so Communist spies and sympathizers in Europe could take cover.
**Not that there was anything illegal about that. Being a Communist Party member was perfectly legal. It was a recognized party that regularly ran candidates in elections.




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