Academic journal article Film & History

The "B" Movie Goes to War in Hitler, Beast of Berlin (1939)

Academic journal article Film & History

The "B" Movie Goes to War in Hitler, Beast of Berlin (1939)

Article excerpt

During the 1930s, the neighborhood movie house was a place of refuge for many-the pressures and strains of the world vanished amidst the laughter, thrills, and chills of the Golden Era of the "B" movie. In the world outside, people were weighed down with the burdens of the era-living with memories of the family, friends, and neighbors who died in World War I; struggling to survive the effects of the Great Depression; and cautiously witnessing the strife of the Spanish Civil War-but once inside the movie house doors, the tensions of everyday life melted away as the "Bs" brought low-budget action, suspense, comedy, and melodrama into the lives of the movie-going masses. With a shriek, a pratfall, or a fiendish glare, "B" movies served up extra helpings of the over-the-top escapism that Americans craved. By the end of the decade, however, the boundaries between the world of the cinema and the world outside began to erode. The question of whether or not to once again become involved in Europe's recurring struggles was beginning to polarize popular sentiment, and, as the conflicts in Europe and Asia escalated, the film industry once again engaged with the more serious affairs of the world.

Hollywood's "Poverty Row," known for its quick, low-budget "B" productions pandering to desires for over-the-top entertainment, produced a small film. Hitler, Beast of Berlin (1939), that played a striking role in the national tug-of-war over military preparedness. While other films of the interwar era whispered words of fear or caution in the ears of American moviegoers, Beast of Berlin screamed-it mocked, shocked, and menaced in defiance of the Third Reich. Dismissed by critics as an artistic flop, but a masterful work of propaganda (Crowther, Morrison, Thirer), Beast of Berlin combined images depicting life inside the Third Reich and slap-in-the-face, exploitation-style public relations to create one of the first few blatantly interventionist films of the pre-war years and also one of the first to openly cast the Nazi regime in a villainous light. The film brought vivid, tangible oppression onto the screens and into the lives of theater-goers in support of U.S. involvement in the European conflict.

Produced by Ben Judell in 1939, Hitler, Beast of Berlin was one of the inaugural efforts of the small, independent Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC)-which, in 1943, would become the infamous Producers Releasing Corporation. When the German invasion of Poland (September 1939) produced widespread concern in Hollywood, Judell's low-budget studio was one of the first to act, and it did so in sensationalist form, setting aside other projects to rush into production of Hitler, Beast of Berlin, based on the novel and screenplay, Goose Step (n.d.) by Broadway producer-director Shepard Traube. In line with the studio's lowbrow dedication to "high entertainment and exploitation values" (Fernett 99), Judell changed the title to the more dynamic Hitler, Beast of Berlin, hoping to capitalize on the notoriety of the 1918 film, Kaiser: Beast of Berlin, which, during the previous world-wide struggle, had incited audiences to anti-German riots in several cities. Subsequently the PDC project became Beasts of Berlin, but as public sentiment mounted in favor of the Allied cause, the "Hitler" title shouted at audiences from marquees and lobby posters. At the time of its official release date (Oct. 15, 1939), Beast of Berlin was a 'hot' item, regardless of its "B" status. Cited as pro-war, inflammatory, and offensive to Germany-it was quickly sanctioned by the Production Code Administration (PCA) and censorship boards in several states. After a month of editing and title-changing, it reopened to reviewer praise as the first fiction feature to depict the terrors of life inside the Fuhrer's Reich.

Hollywood and Intervention

Before 1936, the idea of meddling in world affairs was a complex and unpopular one, and it would continue to be so until it became clear that intervention was unavoidable. …

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