1934. USA. Directed by Mike Mindlin, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.. Considered the first American anti-Nazi film ever made, Hitler’s Reign of Terror was attacked, censored, and bowdlerized on its theatrical release, and for decades virtually disappeared from view until the discovery of a unique, complete print at the Royal Film Archive of Belgium. An urgent undertaking of several unlikely collaborators—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., an intrepid journalist and great-great-grandson of the 19th-century robber baron; Joseph Seiden and Samuel Cummins, independent producer-distributors who specialized in Yiddish and Eastern European fare; Mike Mindlin, whose directorial work included sexploitation quickies; and co-editor and narrator Edwin C. Hill, an NBC correspondent known as “the Globe Trotter”—the film was a call to action through newsreel scenes, original footage, and reenactments, including a restaging of Vanderbilt’s tense encounter with Hitler at a frenzied rally in 1933, in which he had the temerity to ask the newly appointed Reich Chancellor, “And what about the Jews, Your Excellency?” 55 min.
1936. USA. Directed by Alfred T. Mannon. With Isobel Lillian Steele. Thomas Doherty writes, “On August 10, 1934, Isobel Lillian Steele, a pretty, 23-year-old American music student, was arrested in Berlin on suspicion of espionage…. In Alexanderplatz and Moabit prisons, Steele endured four months of harsh questioning, spartan conditions, and threats of execution.” Through a deft bit of diplomatic maneuvering, the American Ambassador to Germany and a U.S. senator were able to secure Steele’s release. As soon as she set foot on American soil again, she did what all newly famous people do: sold her story to the newspapers, lectured on her exploits, and starred in her own “tell-all” biopic, the sensationally titled I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany, which as Doherty notes is “the only anti-Nazi feature film produced in America and granted a [Hays] Code seal before 1939.” Though derided as “the story of a Hollywood girl in Naziland,” the low-budget film is nonetheless a fascinating historical artifact. Preserved print courtesy The Library of Congress. 55 min.
Inspired by Thomas Doherty’s book Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939, from which these descriptions are drawn, this program presents two fascinating, virtually forgotten American anti-Nazi films.