Cold Case from the Film Archives: Film Historian Thomas Doherty Does Some Detective Work on a Mystery from the 1930s, When the Hollywood Studios Had to Deal with the Upsurge of Racism in Hitler's Germany

By Doherty, Thomas | History Today, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Cold Case from the Film Archives: Film Historian Thomas Doherty Does Some Detective Work on a Mystery from the 1930s, When the Hollywood Studios Had to Deal with the Upsurge of Racism in Hitler's Germany


Doherty, Thomas, History Today


FOR FORENSIC DETECTIVES willing to dirty their white gloves, even the coldest case can yield secrets that expose the perpetrator of a crime. For the film historian--whose white gloves may only get smudged in a motion-picture archive--the work of sifting through evidence may be more mundane but the desire for narrative resolution is no less intense. When a puzzle from the past can't be pieced together, when leads can't be traced and the trail runs cold, the frustration of closure denied can be maddening. In the early 1990s, while researching a book on Hollywood and the Second World War, I found myself hooked by an unsolved mystery from Hollywood history, complete with a possible homicide. Here's the backstory.

During the late 1930s, Warner Bros. Pictures was the most fiercely anti-Nazi of all the major Hollywood studios. It banned Nazi newsreels from its theatres, inserted coded anti-Nazi signals into its shorts and features, and produced Hollywood's first wholeheartedly anti-Nazi film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), with Edward G. Robinson and George Sanders. Made in an era when movies were more liable to skirt political controversy than court it, Warners' brash message-mongering was distinctive and even a little risky. At a meeting of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1938, Groucho Marx raised his glass, and for once not his eyebrows, to praise a front office he usually trashed: 'I want to propose a toast to Warners--the only studio with any guts'.

According to studio chief Jack L. Warner (1892-1978), the reason for the anti-Nazi activism was as much personal as political. In his memoir My First Hundred Years in Hollywood (1964), Warner recalls how, in 1936, he learned 'the sickening news that Joe Kauffman, our Warner Brothers man in Germany, had been murdered by Nazi killers in Berlin. Like many another outnumbered Jew, he was trapped in an alley. They hit him with fists and clubs, and kicked the life out of him with their boots, and left him lying there.' Appalled, he closed down the studio's German distribution branch and became a committed and premature anti-fascist.

The anecdote is repeated in Lester D. Freidman's Hollywood's Image of the Jew (1982), Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own (1988), and Colin Shindler's Hollywood Goes to War (1979), all of whom footnote Warner as the original and sole source of the story. Though Hollywood memoirs are best read with scepticism, the mogul had no reason to lie and the anecdote seemed persuasively to explain Warner Bros.' atypical lurch into foreign policy.

I was hungry for more details. My first stop was the obituary index of the movie weekly paper Variety, which records the dates of the last reviews of motion picture industry personnel. But no citation existed for either Joe Kauffman or Kaufman, a likely alternative spelling. This was odd: anybody who was anybody in the movies got a final notice in the pages of this show business bible. The murder of a motion-picture executive would surely have been big news in 1936.

Next I checked The Film Daily Yearbook, a year-by-year compendium listing the employees in the overseas branches of the major studios, including a register of employees for the overseas branches of Warner Bros. in 1936. There was no listing for Joe Kauffman. Poring over back issues of likely trade periodicals and newspapers also turned up no trace of the man or his murder. I thought grimly about the odds against tracking down any single Jewish victim of the Nazi terror--six million to one?

Trying not to cross the line between scholarly rigor and obsession, I picked the brains of various colleagues in film studies. At the Motion Picture Research Division of the Library of Congress, the archivists were stumped. At the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California, which houses the Warners Bros. archives, the staff recall other enquiries about the Kauffman story over the years, but no one was able to confirm it. …

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