Jews in Hollywood, 1930-1950

Projecting America.

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Louis Mayer, head of M-G-M, was probably fairly typical in this respect. Once away from the Orthodoxy of his Boston youth, he tended to treat his religion "rather casually;" he did belong to a temple, but rarely attended. Some, of course, were more disaffected. David Selznick, not wanting to be considered a Hollywood Jew, once told Hecht, "I'm an American and not a Jew." Harry Cohn, of Columbia, avoided temples, and at his “nondenominational" funeral in 1958 no reference was made to his Jewish birth and origins. His biographer relates that:

One afternoon Louis B. Mayer spent an hour on the telephone before he was able to evoke a contribution from Cohn to Jewish Relief. Mayer used all his considerable powers of persuasion to appeal to Cohn's loyalties as a Jew, but Cohn had none. After he committed himself to a sizable donation, Cohn complained to an aide, "Relief for the Jews! Somebody should start a fund for relief from the Jews. All the trouble in the world has been caused by Jews and Irishmen.”

While not very culturally Jewish, Jewish Hollywood was somewhat socially separate in structure, making up its own social circle (or circles, of various levels and roles in the pecking order) of Jewish friends and associates for job nepotism, art collecting, the country club, golf, gambling, and even intra-colony marriage (such as that of Louis B. Mayer's daughter to David Selznick).

The Importance of Being an Immigrant

If Jewish Hollywood had little explicit Judaism or Jewishness to contribute to those foundation years of sound films, what, then, was its motive power? Both Zierold and French more or less detect that there was something about its "immigrant-ness" that lay behind the achievements, strengths, and shortcomings.

First, their desire as immigrants or near-immigrants to be fully accepted as culturally assimilated “Americans,” “one hundred per cent Americans,” lent them an enthusiasm for the transmission, idealization, and creation of American popular culture. Through their movies, they presented to the world their own selective perception of aspects of American values and virtues.

Second, it has frequently been contended that, as immigrants-becoming-Americans, they had a special sense of, or “instinct” for, what the movie-goer wanted and liked, which was usually what they, as typical or, at least aspirant, mass Americans, wanted and liked. Cohn, for example, once ordered a three-syllable word to be taken out of a script because, “If I don't know what it means, the average guy in a movie theater sure as hell won't.” And he had a "foolproof” method to determine the quality of a film: “If my fanny squirms, it's bad. If my fanny doesn't squirm, it's good. It's as simple as that.” Goldwyn's stomach was his guide. In retrospect, it appears that their intuitive judgments were correct more often than not.

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Norman L. Friedman is Professor of Sociology at California State University, Los Angeles.