The Lost Career of David Oliver

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UCLA Film & Television Archive Director Jan-Christopher Horak’s observations on the life of David Oliver

Film academics usually include a list of their “research interests” in their resumes and short biographies.

As a film historian I have been sustained by and identified with research into the exile of German-speaking filmmakers from Berlin and Vienna after Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. Beginning with my Louis B. Mayer Foundation oral history and my dissertation, as well as through numerous subsequent articles, these mostly Jewish refugees, estimated to number more than 1500, have become a part of my life. Thus, when Mark Oliver, a Canadian actor-producer, called me last Fall to ask about his grand-father, David Oliver, it was as if a long-lost cousin had suddenly appeared on my doorstep.

I had written about David Oliver as long ago as my master’s thesis on the founding of the UFA film company, and I knew that he had been one of the pioneers of the German film industry, but I had lost his trail in the 1920s and had no idea that he was indeed one of “my émigrés,” as my wife likes to call them. Just a year ago at the Berlin Film Festival, I had finally caught up with Dona Frasquita (1934), a Spanish film directed by an equipe of German exiles, including director Hans Behrendt who would be murdered in Auschwitz a decade later, but I had no idea that David Oliver had founded the film’s production company, Iberica Films. Last week, Mark Oliver was in town to interview me for his documentary UFA MAN…The Story of Movie Pioneer David Oliver. Mark, himself, had only discovered the nature of his grandfather’s career after the death of his own father, when he found several boxes of clippings and photographs in his father’s estate, learning for the first time not only of David Oliver’s illustrious accomplishments, but also that he was of Jewish heritage. When Mark asked me how it could have happened that a man of Oliver’s importance had simply fallen out of film history, I explained that the chasm of 1933 had swallowed up many in the film industry whose names were not listed in film production credits: the front office men, the distributors, the cinema owners, the publicity women, the agents, etc. Their histories have yet to be written.

David Oliver was born in Galicia in 1880, and like many trying to escape the periodic pogroms in the Shetl, had emigrated West and Germanized himself, apparently founding a cinema in Bremen as early as 1905. Bremerhaven was the main port of embarkation for Eastern European Jews to America, and Oliver may have intended to travel on, but discovered a business opportunity in nickelodeons, as Carl Laemmle and L.B. Mayer would around the same time in America. Ten years later, David was the owner of Oliver Film, Berlin, and the chief representative in Berlin for the Nordisk Film Co., one of Europe’s largest film companies, which controlled numerous first run film theaters on the continent. Oliver Film produced as many as 65 films a year, many of them short comedies with local talent, like Dorrit Wechsler. In November 1917, David Oliver became a founding member of the Board of the giant UFA Film combine, after Nordisk merged with several other large German film companies and the blessings of the German Military High Command of General Ludendorff, creating one of the first vertically and horizontally structured film companies in the world, encompassing production, distribution and exhibition. At a fantastic salary of 44,000 German Marks a year, Oliver was named chief of the company’s huge cinema chain. His name turns up again in 1929 as one of the builders of Europe’s largest movie palace in Hamburg, the magnificent UFA-Palast with 2,667 seats.

Sometime after April 1, 1933, when the UFA fired 100% of those employees who had been identified by the Nazis as Jewish, David Oliver emigrated to Spain, where he founded Iberica Films, and managed to produce several titles, before Generalissimo Franco and the Spanish Civil War drove him into exile yet again. He emigrated to London with his family, where he helped Alexander Korda, himself an émigré, found Denham Studios, the Bauhaus design by Walter Gropius destined to become the most modern studio facility the U.K. had to offer, where such classics as The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937), The Four Feathers(1939), and The Thief of Bagdad (1940) were produced. Oliver became managing director of the Denham Studios Laboratories, which processed those and countless other films for English studios. He remained in that position until his death in November 1947 at the age of 67. Despite his long association with Korda, who had single-handedly revitalized the dormant film industry in the United Kingdom, David Oliver’s name is not to be found in a single book on British cinema.

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