Friday, November 26, 2010
By: Vickie J. Rubinson
This book begins as Hollywood itself did, with something of a paradox. The paradox is that the American film industry was founded and for more than 30 years operated by Eastern European Jews who themselves seemed to be anything but the quintessence of America. The much vaunted "studio system" which provided a prodigious supply of films during the movies' heyday, was supervised by a second generation of Jews, many of whom regarded themselves as marginal men trying to punch into the American mainstream.
The storefront theaters of the late teens were transformed into the movie palaces of the twenties by Jewish exhibitors. And when sound movies commandeered the industry, Hollywood was invaded by a battalion of Jewish writers, mostly from the East. The most powerful talent agencies were run by the Jews. Jewish lawyers transacted most of the industry's business and Jewish doctors ministered to the industry's sick. Above all, Jews produced the movies. "Of 85 names engaged in production," a 1936 study noted, "53 are Jews. And the Jewish advantage holds in prestige as well as numbers." All of which led F. Scott Fitzgerald to characterize Hollywood as "a Jewish holiday, a gentiles tragedy."
The real tragedy however was certainly the Jews'. Their dominance became a target for wave after wave of vicious anti-Semites from fire and brimstone evangelicals in the teens and early 20's who demanded the movies' liberation from "the hands of the devil and 500 un-Christian Jews" to Red-baiters in the forties for whom Judaism was really a variety of communism and the movies their chief form of propaganda.
Above all things, the Jews wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews, they wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.
The Hollywood Jews at least the first generation that built the industry were a remarkable homogeneous group with remarkably similar childhood experiences. Carle Laemmle was born in a small village in southwestern Germany. Adolph Zukor was born in a small Hungarian village and William Fox was another Hungarian. Louis B. Mayer was from Russia and Benjamin Warner was from Poland.
The most striking similarity among the Hollywood Jews, however, wasn't their Eastern European origins. What united them in deep spiritual kinship was their utter and absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country.
Yet ironically, American values came to be defined largely by the movies the Jews made. Ultimately, by creating their idealized America on the screen, the Jews reinvented the country in the image of their fiction. How they did so, why they did so and what they gained and lost by doing so is the story of this well-written book.