In 1933, Herman Mankiewicz—a writer and producer with a successful career at MGM—authored a screenplay for a movie called The Mad Dog of Europe, set in Transylvania (an obvious stand-in for Germany) and focusing on two families, one Jewish and the other Christian. Deeply scarred by his service in World War I, a member of the latter family then falls under the influence of a deranged former housepainter named Adolf Mitler, and melodrama ensues. Mankiewicz teamed up with the producer Sam Jaffe to make the movie, but their efforts, which continued right up until 1939, were thwarted at every turn, as Sydney Ladensohn Stern recounts:
Although the studios’ top executives were almost all Jewish, they were well aware of anti-Semitism’s prevalence in American culture and the dangers it posed to them. While leaders in other industries were praised for fulfilling the American Dream, successful motion-picture business executives were routinely portrayed as ignorant, jumped-up former garment merchants—“pants pressers, delicatessen dealers, furriers, and penny showmen,” as Karl K. Kitchen wrote in Columbia, the official Knights of Columbus magazine. . . .
They were maligned as greedy capitalists whose sensational products corrupted wholesome Christian Americans, especially during a time when the Depression fueled so many resentments. They knew that if they depicted Nazi abuses, they risked being branded as warmongers, trying to pull the United States into a European problem to help their co-religionists.
Even as Mankiewicz and Jaffe had little luck finding backers, they soon encountered more active opponents, including Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA):
Hays summoned [Jaffe] and Mankiewicz to his office and accused them of greed: they were exploiting “a scarehead situation for the picture which, if made, might return them a tremendous profit while creating heavy losses for the industry.” Then he asked, even if they were to find a studio willing to rent them production facilities, how could they exhibit the film if all the major theaters refused them? . . .
As Jaffe set up an office and hired the playwright Lynn Root to work on the script, a number of Jewish organizations mobilized. They, too, wanted Americans informed about Hitler and the Nazis, but they wanted the word spread by non-Jewish messengers. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which had been organized in 1913 specifically to combat anti-Semitism, joined studio heads and the MPPDA in actively opposing the realization of Mad Dog. They feared it would provoke accusations of Jewish warmongering, and they worried that if it failed commercially, it would demonstrate American apathy to Hitler or even pave the way for pro-Nazi films.