The Mensches Who Made the Movies

Susan King is a Times staff writer

White picket fences. Andy Hardy. The little guy beating the odds. Frank Capra's common man. Outsiders looking to become insiders. The lone hero riding off into the sunset.

These are all indelible images of how Hollywood--especially in the '30s and '40s--depicted the American dream. This "perfect" vision of America, though, was born out of the dreams of the oppressed Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe.

The two-hour documentary "Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream," premiering next Sunday on A&E;, chronicles the lives of the founders of Hollywood and their visions of America.

Paramount's Adolph Zukor, Universal's Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers, MGM's Louis B. Mayer, 20th Century Fox's William Fox and Columbia's Harry Cohn were Jewish immigrants or sons of immigrants whose vision not only transformed the motion picture industry but turned it into the most influential art form of this century. As they reinvented themselves as Americans, they reinvented American culture.

Based on Neal Gabler's award-winning 1988 bestseller "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," the documentary features scenes from classic movies, rare footage of the moguls and interviews with Gabler, historians, directors and relatives of these titans.

The film traces their encounters with anti-Semitism when they were locked out of traditional American businesses, their success with the nickelodeons, their journey to California and subsequent rule over Hollywood for three decades. The documentary ends with their demoralization and loss of control after the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated alleged communist infiltration in the film industry in the late '40s and early '50s.

"Hollywoodism" was produced by the Emmy Award-winning team of Elliott Halpern and Simcha Jacobovici, who also wrote and directed. Stuart Samuels was the co-director.

As Gabler points out in his book and in the documentary, though the cinematic America has never been real, Americans and the world have embraced it as sort of a "shadow" reality.

"The great irony is that you have these marginalized Americans who could never enter the precincts of 'real' America, who created this America which everyone thinks is the real America, and they adopt it as the real America. Virtually the entire image of this country is built, of course, on this Eastern European vision of America. This idealized vision of America is everyone's vision of America."

And it still is.

"People in Europe pooh-pooh Hollywood films, saying they are about car crashes and special effects," says Jacobovici.

"In fact, I have traveled the world as a documentarian and you go to military dictatorships and they are not watching European art films. They are watching 'Rambo.' I think the reasons why is if you're living in a country where people are going to shoot you down for just walking on the street, it's very empowering for a movie where one guy can take on a whole army and win. It's very empowering to the little guy to make it to the top or the outsider who gets adopted by a town. These Hollywood themes speak to a universal language because they come from the same place that [the moguls] come from. The Jews come from a storytelling position."

The moguls also craved assimilation, though, as Gabler states in his book, "guilt ran too deep for them to disavow Judaism entirely."

"The whole idea was to eradicate everything that might identify you as anything other than American," Gabler explains. "It's hard for us in this day and age when we have a very pluralistic vision of America to really kind of understand the melting pot paradigm at its most extreme. What these guys were a part of is there is a thing called an American and you become one. You are not Jewish and you are not Irish and you are not black. What you are is an American."

Jewish performers such as Paul Muni, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield all had their names changed and rarely, if ever, played anyone Jewish.

"I have a story in my book," Gabler recalls. "It's one of my favorite stories. John Garfield comes to Hollywood, comes to Warner Bros. as Jules Garfinkel. They say, 'We got to change your name.' They sit around batting around names and Garfinkel was changed to Garfield. So they are batting around first names. They come up with James Garfield. Garfield looks at them and says, 'You can't name me James Garfield--that's the name of a president. You wouldn't name someone Abraham Lincoln, would you?' One of Jack Warner's flunkies looks at Garfield and says, "Of course not. With a name like Abe everyone would think he's Jewish.' "

Ironically, says Jacobovici, nobody wanted to make "Hollywoodism."

"Here I had a bestseller and I thought this is a piece of cake. We have Propaganda Films [as executive producers]. I thought I'd get it financed as a TV documentary. We went to every major broadcaster in the United States because I thought it was the logical place to go."

One network's boss, he says, thought he was too Jewish to make the film. Yet another said he was too Gentile. "I like the joke that A&E; must have the right mix of Jews and Gentiles because they ended up making it."

Jacobovici acknowledges that a lot of people were legitimately worried that this film would stir up anti-Semitic feelings. "They were afraid of Jew-haters," he says. "My point to all of them was if we don't talk about it then we are giving them ammunition because Jew haters can say, 'Did you realize that every one of the studios was founded by a Jew and that there is a Jewish conspiracy?'

"But if you tell the story honestly and say the studios were founded by Jews and the irony is that they were not only not pushing the Jewish agenda, the last thing they wanted to be was Jewish and were even afraid to make anti-Nazi films [before World War II]. My argument was that if we talk about it we will put the Jew-haters out of business."

* "Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream" can be seen next Sunday at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E.;

For the Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 17, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction Documentary--The A&E; documentary "Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream" will be broadcast Sunday at 6 and 10 p.m. An incorrect time was given in Sunday Calendar's Film Clips section.
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