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From the days of silent pictures to a recent upsurge in Jewish documentaries, Jewish characters and themes have appeared at an increasing rate in American cinema. Film scholar Stuart Samuels suggests the development of Jewish themes in American cinema mirrors the status of Jews in American society. Prior to World War I, when Jewish alienation within American society was paramount, Jews appeared infrequently in popular films. The 1920s and 1930s represented an era of greater acculturation, and by the 1940s the assimilation of Jews into society and their greater visibility in American life translated to an increased screen presence.
Beginning in the early 1900s, directors based their plots on Biblical stories to produce epic silent pieces like Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. Great literary works also served as the basis for films with key Jewish characters, such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Jewish characters, often featured as unsavory businessmen, appeared in films that tackled issues such as generational conflict, intermarriage, and struggles against discrimination.
Jews in Poland and the United States started producing Yiddish films in the 1920s, portraying not just the life of the shtetl (small Eastern European village), but the diversity and richness of the Yiddish-speaking world as a whole. Though wildly popular, the Holocaust and the decline of Yiddish in America caused the demise of the genre in the 1940s.
The 1920s also ushered in an era of acculturation regarding Jews and film. As Jews began assimilating into American society, Jewish characters and themes began to emerge on the big screen. Simultaneously, Jews began filling major studio executive roles. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, a key film of the decade, follows the rise of a Jewish boy to success in America’s melting pot. Films about Irish-Jewish relations also appeared frequently, including Clancy’s Kosher Wedding (1927), and Fool’s Highway (1924).
Stuart Samuels calls the 1920s a period of “de-Semiticization” in which Jewish characters were either downplayed or altered when books were transformed to film. In His Girl Friday–originally titled Front Page–the character of Irving Pincus became Jim Pittibone. Similarly, in the film version of Success Story, the original Jewish characters of Ginsburg and Glassman became the Irish characters of Martin and Griswold.
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