Jews in Hollywood, 1930-1950
Reprinted with permission from Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.
Movie Making, a Jewish trade?
Philip French's The Movie Moguls and Nolan Zierold's The Moguls give good overviews and collective/comparative portraits of the small group of top-level Jewish-born entrepreneurs who fashioned the [Hollywood] dream factories, Marcus Loew, Adolph Zukor, Sam Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, the Selznicks, Jesse Lasky, William Fox, the Warner Brothers, Louis B. Mayer, B. P. Schulberg, and Harry Cohn.
Having either been born in America or come from Europe in their childhood or youth, most of the moguls could be classified as second generation American Jews, from poor or modest-income families. They were exceptionally industrious and ambitious, and, interestingly, quite a few came to the motion picture industry from various retail trades, particularly the garment industry. Zukor and Loew, for example, began as furriers, Fox and Laemmle as clothing merchants, Goldwyn as a glove salesman. Control was enterprisingly gained over theaters and, later, over studios, linking distribution and production.
The creation of the two industries was not utterly dissimilar. Both in clothing and motion pictures Jewish entrepreneurs, starting from a mass distribution base, created mass production industries for garments and entertainment. With daring and finesse, they organized innumerable individual skills (of sewing or photographing) for the vast market of voiceless consumers.
The moguls, thus, brought to Hollywood certain business skills acquired in related retail trades and, by the 1930’s, six of the eight major studios were Jewishly controlled and managed. In addition, persons of Jewish birth were prominent among the second and third level of business-oriented producers, managers, assistants, agents, and lawyers.
How Jewish Was Jewish Hollywood?
What was the shape of the formal or explicit religious Judaism and ethnic Jewishness practiced and expressed by Jewish Hollywood? During this period, almost no films were made about specifically Jewish settings, experiences, or characters. Though most of the moguls came from observant Jewish homes, and learned some Hebrew and/or had been bar-mitzvah, they tended, as adults, to live and think in a culturally assimilated life-style removed from the cultural content, activities, or practices of the Jewish heritage, or of the affairs of the larger Los Angeles Jewish community. Theirs was a somewhat passive though unashamed Jewishness, comprised usually of the use of some Yiddish words, temple membership but infrequent attendance, and support for Jewish philanthropy. Screenwriter Ben Hecht has rather caustically characterized and explained the stance as follows:
He finds it convenient to forget his Jewishness in the high-class world into which he has vaulted. He is thus eager. to prove his Jewishness secretly by donations to Jews in distress. He will support a synagogue with large gifts for thirty years without ever entering it. The closest he comes to this secret Judaism to which he stubbornly lays claim is observing a few religious principles, such as not going to the races on Jewish holidays, or arranging for a rabbi to officiate (in English) at his funeral.