Although Jewish executives, producers, writers, performers, and directors dominate the American film industry, American movies before the 1960s rarely ventured very far beyond stereotypical Jewish characters trapped within conventional situations. From 1908, when Walter Selig moved his company to California–with the exception of Darryl E Zanuck’s 20th Century-Fox (“the Goy Studio”)–Jewish creative artists and businessmen guided the destiny of America’s largest propaganda machine.
Their pictures influenced not only the millions at home, but also countless more abroad whose only view of America was cranked out by the studios of such ill-educated but streetwise immigrants as Louis Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Marcus Loew, Adolph Zukor, Harry Cohn, Jesse Lasky, the Warner brothers, and Samuel Goldwyn.
How paradoxical that those films, which so accurately captured the country’s spirit, almost totally ignored one of America’s most prominent minorities. How ironic that those pictures, which forever froze our national experiences into unforgettable images, limited almost all references to the cultural and religious heritage of the industry’s leaders.
A story about Harry Cohn of Columbia illustrates the prevalent attitude among Jewish moguls throughout the studio years. The director Richard Quine wanted to use a specific actor in a film. “He looks too Jewish,” barked the irritated Cohn, adding, “around this studio the only Jews we put into pictures play Indians!” Louis Mayer (M-G-M) obviously shared Cohn’s cruder sentiments when he told the dejected Danny Kaye, “I would put you under contract right now, but you look too Jewish. Have some surgery to straighten out your nose, and then we’ll talk.”
Once, when an ailing studio chieftain walked into a hospital, he was questioned about his heritage for the institution’s records. “American” he quickly responded, an answer that prompted a startled volunteer to ask, “But aren’t you Jewish?” “Oh, yes” he added, “That too.” “That too” aptly sums up the attitude of Jews in Hollywood, both on and off the screen, from the inception of movies until the end of the studio system in the late Fifties. The attempt at almost total assimilation by the powerful men who ran the studios reflected itself in a de-Semiticizing of the action that took place in front of the lenses.
A New Generation
The death of Harry Cohn on March 2, 1958, signaled the end of one-man studio rule in Hollywood. Although Adolph Zukor lived until 1967 and Samuel Goldwyn until 1974, they retained little actual power. Many who replaced the old moguls in the industry’s hierarchy were also Jewish, but they were American-born and had radically different worldviews than their immigrant predecessors.
Some had degrees in management and accounting; most were college-educated. All were far removed, both physically and psychologically, from the old-country shtetls [small Eastern European villages] and immigrant experiences that helped shape the dictatorial Jewish studio bosses. Although some looked back nostalgically to the paternalistic studios and their erratic, colorful chieftains, most of this new breed realized that those bygone days were ancient history.
Freed from a monolithic studio system that cranked out predictable assembly-line films supporting white, male, middle-class, Christian values, the movies from the 1960s onward provocatively mirrored the growing ethnic consciousness that marked the evolution of American history.
Thus, an emerging ethnic concern, coupled with the destruction of the old studio system, inspired film producers in the 1960s to transcend moribund racial stereotypes and create a cinema that confronted ethnic issues and characters with greater understanding, sensitivity, and sophistication. Ethnic consciousness in the American cinema is a fairly recent trend, however, one that sprung to life during the turbulent era of campus protests, Flower Power, and cultural upheaval. The United States of the 1960s prized individuality over sameness.
The notion of a “great melting pot” that reduced everyone to blandly similar types, therefore, held little interest for people needing to proclaim their uniqueness. To discover who they were, many reached back to their ethnic origins, back to the customs and traditions that made their heritage–and, by extension, themselves–distinctive. And they liked what they found. Many saw ethnic identification as an alternative to a modern, computerized world of the Fifties that rewarded uniformity and praised conformity.
Ethnic affiliation, pride in belonging to a minority culture group, thus became important, one critical element in what has continued to be a nationwide obsession with ethnicity. Since the 1960s, minority-group members have found themselves scrutinized under the penetrating lenses of America’s movie cameras, their traditions explored and their psyches dissected.
By the middle of the 1960s, therefore, American film directors found it possible to speak overtly about ethnic issues, to have ethnic characters clearly identified as such within their films, and to confront controversial issues with few fears of industry (or even audience) backlash. Jewish directors new to the cinema–for example, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks–found a freedom of expression absolutely unknown to earlier generations, while veterans such as Sidney Lumet found themselves suddenly free from many of the constraints that had shackled them throughout their television and early film careers.
Faced with this new freedom of expression, Jewish filmmakers had no direct tradition, no previous examples or models, to draw upon in creating a visual art filtered through their Jewish consciousness. Of course, one might question the extent to which they contemplated or even desired to fashion a film art that was somehow specifically Jewish, but nevertheless the directors turned to Jewish themes and characters to take advantage of the ethnic sensibility characteristic of contemporary American culture. In so doing, however, they faced an empty past, a cinematic lacuna they attempted to fill with models drawn from other, earlier Jewish forays into art and popular culture.
Reprinted with permission from American-Jewish Filmmakers: Traditions and Trends (University of Illinois Press).