Hollywood Jews

Despite the Jewish dominance of Hollywood, Jewish filmmakers were not always comfortable portraying Jewish themes on screen.


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.

jewish film quiz

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.

De-Semiticizing Films

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.

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David Desser is the director of cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former editor of Cinema Journal.

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