The curve of a breast under a silk negligee. Smoke rolling off a recently extinguished cigar. Sharp suits, scheming eyes, and guns. Many of these iconic film noir images were dreamed up German (often Jewish) expats who had fled life under the Nazi regime. The Skirball Cultural Center’s new exhibit, Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950, illuminates their story, one that is uniquely American and distinctly Hollywood.
After Germany fell completely under Nazi control in 1933, more than 100,000 European Jews sought refuge in the United States. Many of the creatives ended up in Los Angeles, bringing their talent and connections with them and effectively launching Hollywood into its Golden Age.
Prominent Hollywood Jews like Adolph Zukor of Paramount, William Fox, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, and brothers Sam and Jack Warner used their power for humanitarian engagement. With their 1939 movie Confessions of a Nazi Spy the Warner brothers were the first to show the increasingly desperate situation in Europe. It was only thanks to a loophole that they managed to produce the film, which faced fierce anti-Semitism from Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration
The Skirball’s exhibition, curated by Dr. Doris Berger, mixes classic films like Mildred Pierce and Sunset Boulevard with never-before-seen items, many of which were unearthed from personal collections or from the vaults of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Noir Effect room presents an interactive showcase of posters, paintings, and pictures as well as a chance to dress up noir-style or play the LA Noir video game. There’s a whole room dedicated to Casablanca. As Berger points out, Casablanca is as much a story of exiles in transitional spaces as it is a tale of star-crossed romance. Almost the entire cast and most of the crew were exiles or refugees. (Berger points out how the assorted accents in the film add to its charm and comic relief.)
Marked by high-contrast lighting, stories steeped in paranoia, and dark psychological twists, the roots of film noir can be found in German Expressionism. But those seeds thrived in the United States. Even the comedies of the era could be just as dark as the dramas. To Be or Not to Be, which came out 1942, illustrated the absurdity of Nazi beliefs and policies through wacky interactions and comical situations. Light & Noir features Marlene Dietrich’s personal floral paisley dress, which she wore in 1948’s A Foreign Affair. Dietrich, who financed the voyages of numerous escapees from Nazi Germany, originally debuted the dress when she performed for American troops in Italy in 1944.
Light & Noir ends, like Hollywood’s Golden Age, in the 1950s as the Red Scare begins and many of the people who had found refuge in the U.S. were branded communists. Some were put on trial, some were blacklisted, and others were exiled or became émigrés once again.