I realise that I’ve said very little so far about the historical context of Barton Fink. It would probably be a mistake to get too far into this series without addressing the matter, as many identify a political subtext to the film which I suspect I’m going to end up referencing sooner or later. Roger Ebert, for example, saw the film, or at least specific aspects of it, including Charlie’s relationship with Barton, as an allegory for the rise of Nazism:
"[The Coens] paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the “common man” but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer’s mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster."
You can read Ebert's full review of the film here.
Barton Fink is set in 1941, the year in which the US entered World War II. The impending threat of war goes unreferenced for much of the film – for a while, the only hint we get of what’s going on in the wider world outside of Hollywood is via the date 9th December 1941 on the clapperboard in the wrestling picture dailies that Geisler orders Barton to watch. This indicates that the latter half of the film takes place during the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor of 7th December 1941. Later, while out celebrating the completion of his screenplay at a USO hall, Barton runs afoul of a group of sailors who state that they are shipping out tomorrow. Finally, when Barton meets with Lipnick at the end of the film, the latter is dressed, somewhat absurdly, in a military uniform assembled from the Capitol Pictures wardrobe department (an allusion to the real-life activities of Jack L. Warner – see below), ranting about how much he’d like to take on the “little yellow bastards.” Lipnick ultimately dismisses Barton by telling him “there’s a war on.”
The film’s only direct reference to Nazism comes from Charlie, who says “Heil Hitler” at one point, although given the context the significance of this is unclear. There is nothing else to suggest that Charlie’s actions are motivated by any kind of political agenda, although the implication that he might have murdered Barton’s family while in New York (perhaps the most chilling moment in the entire film) arguably carries overtones of the Holocaust. Personally, I think that it would be flat-out wrong to interpret Charlie’s “Heil Hitler” as a sign that he is a Nazi sympathiser, or to assume that his treatment of Barton’s family is rooted in anti-Semitism, although the insidious nature of Charlie’s character arc does act as a reminder that charisma can be used as a front to disguise a variety of evils, and that the affable everyman has the potential in them to commit great atrocities.
If any characters in Barton Fink are suggestive of a Nazi allegory, it’s the two detectives on Charlie’s trail, Mastrionatti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney). Their names, Italian and German respectively, are a nod to the Axis Powers, which, coupled with the anti-Semitic and homophobic views they express in their encounters with Barton, is evocative of the rising threat of Nazism. Significantly, it is Deutsch to whom Charlie addresses his “Heil Hitler” remark, while pointing a shotgun at his head, implying that Charlie is redirecting his ideologies back at him in a final taunt.
In addition to the WWII backdrop, Barton Fink contains multiple allusions to real-life figures who worked in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. While the Coens have denied that any of the characters in Barton Fink are intended to be representative of real people, a number were used as starting points in devising their backgrounds and characterisation. For example, Barton himself is loosely based on the left-wing New York playwright Clifford Odets, who wrote the Broadway plays Awake and Sing! and Waiting For Lefty in the 1930s, and went on to a career as a Hollywood screenwriter (albeit more successfully than Barton). W.P. Mayhew, meanwhile, was inspired by the southern novelist William Faulkner, who worked as a Hollywood screenwriter throughout the 1930s and 1940s and had a tendency toward binge drinking – John Mahoney even bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Faulkner, which led to his casting. Also noteworthy is that Faulkner, like Barton, got his start in Hollywood working on a Wallace Beery film about wrestling, Flesh (John Ford, 1932), although the "wrestling picture" was never a popular Hollywood genre in the manner that Barton Fink suggests. Finally, Jack Lipnick takes inspiration from a number of different Hollywood producers of the period, including Louis B. Mayer of MGM (whom he most strongly resembles, and who originally hailed from Minsk, Belarus, like Lipnick), Jack L. Warner of Warner Brothers (who famously referred to screenwriters as "schmucks with Underwoods"), and Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures (whom Michael Lerner had previously portrayed in the 1983 TV film Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess).