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Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream

      Credit writer-director Simcha Jacobovici with ambition: to convert Neal Gabler's 420-page book study, An Empire of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood, into a coherent documentary. Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream, playing at the Coolidge Corner,is quite a film story, of how a group of impoverished Jews immigrants from Eastern European shtetls eventually became czars of the studio system: Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor at Universal, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Harry Cohn at Columbia, and the three Warner Brothers. The movies they green-lighted were thematic affirmations of their own rags-to-unbelievable riches sagas: asserting that anyone with chutzpah can make it in the USA, including little guys and outsiders, that there's an inevitable happy ending at the end of the rainbow. Since everybody went to Hollywood movies, and breathed the utopian cant of studio product, these Jewish moguls could be said to have invented "the American Dream."

     Hollywoodism provides sagacious observations from Jewish film critics and studio historians, including Gabler, J. Hoberman, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, and prime footage of the Jewish bosses: i.e., Mayer pontificating before the American Legion, Laemmle lecturing his employees, "I will not have quitters or lazy men working for Universal," and with the thickest of Yiddish accents. But Jacobovici's film is weirdly schizophrenic. The first half is Jewish boosterism, proud crowing about how these lowly Jews ascended in Hollywood. Only one historian mentions that these studio heads "were ruthless, badly mistreated women." The second half (more credible) is often a finger-wagging at these same bosses for hiding their Jewishness, for forcing Jewish actors to change their names to gentile ones, for doing movies which always pushed assimilation, for being totally cowardly before World War II about making anti-Nazi movies, for being gutless a second time in cooperating with HUAC in purging Hollywood of supposed Communists.

     A couple of problems: (a) the film bunches 20th Century Fox with the Jewish-run studios, but William Fox was a gentile. In actuality, Fox was known as "the goyisher studio." Including the final scene from Fox's The Grapes of Wrath to illustrate a "root for the underdog" Jewish point of view is simply an untruth: the filmmaker, John Ford, and the producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, are likewise Christian.

     (b) It's certainly stretching film history to describe the era of the Jewish bosses as being an enlightened time for blacks on screen, as opposed to, earlier, when WASPs were in control and the pro-Klan The Birth of a Nation was the par. Yes, there were several all-black musicals made in '30s Hollywood, but otherwise blacks were stereotyped as maids, eye-rolling porters, and shuffling, muddle-headed servants in countless films made by Zucker, Mayer, the Warners, and Harry Cohn. Curiously, Jacobovici shows a flagrant example of Jewish racism without criticizing it in his voiceover: Al Jolson switching from singing in the synagogue to doing "Mammy" in blackface in the Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer.

Boston Phoenix, September, 1998

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