The approaching 70th anniversary edition of the Academy Awards is the perfect time to show the endlessly fascinating “Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream.” The two-hour documentary on A&E; Sunday is based on Neal Gabler’s landmark 1994 book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” which recast familiar Hollywood history and biography from a fresh and provocative perspective.
For example, to Gabler and the documentarians, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” is as important for depicting a cantor’s son torn between the lure of show biz and expectations of his father to follow family tradition and become a cantor as it was for ushering in the talkies. If you look at it from Gabler’s point of view--that the jazz singer ultimately managed both to follow his dream and to appease his parents, performing in blackface while his Gentile girlfriend is waiting for him in the wings--there’s a whole new meaning to Al Jolson’s famous ad-lib, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Indeed, you may have seen many of “Hollywoodism’s” fabulous cache of clips, but now they’re presented in a different light. The documentary sees Hollywood as the way in which blacks were introduced to mainstream culture and how the Broadway musical, largely a creation of Jews, became a major movie genre.
The “grand irony,” as Gabler explains it to “Hollywoodism’s” writer/director/co-producer Simcha Jacobovici, is that the Jewish immigrant Hollywood pioneers, having been excluded from so many avenues of opportunity in anti-Semitic, turn-of-the-century America, projected (literally) their idealized vision of a society to which they were outsiders so powerfully through the new medium of the movies that the public devoured this “Shadow America,” preferring it to the real thing.
“Hollywood,” Gabler says, “is a dream dreamt by Jews fleeing oppression.” Journalist-historian Aljean Harmetz astutely adds that the so-called American Dream may not have truly existed until the Hollywood dream factories gave it expression.
Jacobovici cites six key pioneers: Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, Universal’s Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, Fox’s William Fox and Columbia’s Harry Cohn, who were born in Europe within 500 miles of one another and whose studios were within 15 miles of one another.
These men and their families were fleeing permanent oppression and danger to an America dedicated to keeping immigrants in their place but which nonetheless proved to be the proverbial land of opportunity to these risk-takers. Most of them got started in the garment business or related industries but saw the vastly greater possibilities in the making, distributing and exhibiting of motion pictures, an industry whose attempts to exclude them helped drive them to California with its less rigidly structured society and economy.
“Hollywoodism” is fearless of the sweeping generalization and fortuitous connection, but its thicket of ideas hold up pretty well in arguing that the sensibility of the American cinema is pervasively Jewish.
In their assimilationist zeal, which was also inarguably smart business in appealing to the masses, the Jewish moguls rarely depicted Jews on screen, but Gabler et al suggest that the theme of the plight of the outsider permeates Hollywood movies to this day and is key in providing identification for audiences worldwide.
“Hollywoodism” argues that the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings--in which these men by and large capitulated to the witch hunting and instituted blacklisting--undid the moguls’ power more than anything else, but that’s debatable since almost simultaneously the studios were being forced to divest themselves of their theater chains and then confront the onslaught of television.
What seems inarguable is that Hollywood movies defined American popular culture worldwide--not to mention helping launch the art form of the 20th century--and that their mythology is fundamentally a Jewish invention, enduring to this day.
* “Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream” can be seen Sunday at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E; cable.