Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, an exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles illuminates how America and Hollywood attracted émigrés and on how those newcomers influenced the movie industry’s Golden Era. The exhibition highlights the immigrants who founded the American film industry; the largely German-speaking actors, directors and other film talents who fled Nazi persecution; and the Hollywood’s Golden Age of film in the 1930s and 1940s that they created.
Co-presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Skirball exhibit features many Oscar winners as it tells the story of foreign-born directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Fred Zinnemann; composers Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold; and writers such as Salka Viertel and Lion Feuchtwanger. The movies include classics like Ninotchka (1939), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Casablanca(1942). Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich wore some of the costumes that are featured.
While Light & Noir focuses largely on 1933-1950, it starts with the birth of Hollywood, when a handful of legendary émigrés founded the big studios. The formative titans were Carl Laemmle (Universal), who was German, Louis B. Mayer (MGM) from Russia and Adolph Zukor (Paramount) and William Fox (Fox), who were both from Hungary.
One film that gets special treatment in the exhibit is Casablanca (1942), which is a film largely about people trying to flee from the Nazis made by many people for whom the experience of displacement was all too real. Director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner and actors Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt and Ilka Gruning were all immigrants to the U.S.
Warner Bros. was the first studio to exploit a loophole in the Hollywood Production Code and make anti-Nazi films. The code would not have allowed them if fiction, but Warners made two films in the period that were based on true stories. So, the studio made Confesssions of a Nazi Spy with Edward G. Robinson in 1939 and To Be or Not To Be, a film about entertainers during the Nazi occupation of Poland, was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starred Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. One irony is that those who fled the Nazis often played them. For example Martin Koslack, a German immigrant, played Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda master, five different times and other German soldiers.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the noir films emerged with their dramatic shading and uneven camera angles to heighten the atmosphere. These films included The Maltese Falcon, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and Billy Wilder’s Oscar winning Sunset Boulevard.
The period also featured the romantic comedies with the “Lubitsch touch.” The director was well known for skirting censor morality rules of the day with hints at affairs or questionable relationships as well as double entendres. But another part of the comedies the émigrés made dealt with absurd situations, conflicted identify as a contrast to the noir films. Examples highlighted in the exhibit include Harvey and Foreign Affair.
The last part of the Light & Noir exhibition deals with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was charged in 1938 with investigation those suspected of having fascist or communist ties. Many of the émigrés, who ironically fled the fascists, were suspected of being communists and the American freedom they sought years before was being questioned.
The Light & Noir exhibit on the role émigrés played in the golden era of Hollywood will be at the Skirball Cultural Center until March 1, 2015. The Skirball is located on the westside of Los Angeles, near the Getty Center. The museum is open Tuesday to Friday from Noon to 5 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.
By Dyanne Weiss
Visit to Exhibition on Oct. 25, 2014