The outsiders who dreamt up America
by Charles Cumming

The outsiders who dreamt up America Jewish immigrants turned movie moguls forever changed the way Americans see themselves, writes CHARLES CUMMING

IT'S a delicate subject. Mention the relationship between Hollywood and Jews and you can land in some very hot water. Journalist William Cash discovered this in 1991 when he wrote an article for The Spectator about the increasing influence of Jews on the American entertainment industry. More than a dozen movie luminaries - including Charlton Heston, Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg - sent an impassioned letter of complaint to the magazine, chastising Cash as a latter-day Nazi and complaining about the trite and vulgar Jewish stereotypes in which he had couched his argument.

Yet the thrust of his piece was accurate. The movie industry in the US has always been controlled by Jewish men and women in a town that was created by Jewish immigrants, Hollywood.

What is less well known is that the stories and themes of the movies distributed in its early years reflected the sense of exclusion and persecution that the studio moguls had experienced as younger men.

That, at least, is the persuasive argument put forward in Hidden Hollywood, a documentary screened in Britain this month.

Based on Neal Gabler's acclaimed book An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, the documentary demonstrates how all of Hollywood's major studios, including Warner Brothers, Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia, were created by a small band of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. They were born, towards the end of the last century, within a 800km radius of one another in Russia, Poland or Hungary.

Like many of their countrymen, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B Mayer, Harry Warner and Adolph Zukor fled from the horror and poverty of Eastern Europe to start afresh in the New World. Young and ambitious, they arrived only to find themselves excluded from industries such as banking and insurance by an East Coast Wasp elite that was deeply distrustful of Jewish entrepreneurs.

Thus, long before they saw the financial opportunity presented by motion pictures, budding moguls were forced into finding other means of making a living.

The four Warner brothers, for example, worked as butchers, ice cream sellers, soap manufacturers and fairground attendants.

So how did they end up in Hollywood?

In the early years of the century, silent movies were being made on the East Coast by the likes of Thomas Edison and D W Griffith. They were often blatantly anti-Semitic and racist: Griffith's Birth of a Nation, for example, glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

Zukor, Mayer and others decided to get in on the action - and they soon changed the nature of motion pictures forever. Films were no longer vehicles for propaganda or mere spectacles to be gawped at, but fully fledged narratives with massive appeal.

But, as the Jewish movie entrepreneurs became increasingly successful, gentile film-makers tried to curb their ambitions. This forced them west, to California, which was the one place where a Wasp elite didn't rule the roost.

Thus Hollywood was created by immigrants who had found themselves ostracised in their adopted country. And many movies from the early years - and beyond - take as their subject the rise of the little man battling against impossible odds. The moguls had taken their own experiences, both in Europe and the US, attached their fierce desire to succeed, and fused them with traditional American ideals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness to forge a new cultural aesthetic.

One of the key points of Gabler's argument is that many of the idealistic images of American life depicted in the early Hollywood movies were an immigrant's dream of the New World.

The notion of cosy small-town life with its white picket fences, brave heroes and simple truths sounds quintessentially American but it was, in fact, an artificial image. And as cinema audiences mushroomed, this invented representation of life became part of what we now think of as the American Dream.

The irony is that, even as the Jewish moguls were altering the way in which ordinary Americans looked at themselves, their burgeoning success was concealed in deep-rooted insecurity: they still yearned to be accepted as "genuine" Americans. Mayer, for example, was so keen to be embraced as an all-American boy that he changed his birth date to July 4.

The moguls were even prepared to eradicate their Jewish identities. They divorced their immigrant wives and replaced them with younger, more socially acceptable gentile women. Their children were sent to Catholic schools and taught how to ride horses and play polo.

Very few Jewish characters were written into movie scripts, while stars such as Lauren Bacall (Betty Jean Perske), Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwarz) and Kirk Douglas (Issur Daniclovitch Demsky) were encouraged to change their names to make them sound less Jewish.

The Jewish-controlled studios even gave a woefully muted artistic response to the rise of Nazism in Germany.

As the years went by, the movie-makers consolidated their power and erased almost every trace of their ancestry. The stereotype of the cigar-chomping mogul took shape.

Men such as Columbia's Harry Cohn inspired fear and loathing in equal measure, commanding respect for their intuitive business sense but also disgust at their disregard for the wellbeing of their employees.

The film critic David Thomson tells the story of Cohn's surprisingly well-attended funeral in 1958, where one of the mourners was heard to quip: "Give the people what they want and they'll always come and see it."

But the moguls' ability to make or break a career was no laughing matter. When the promising director Marshall Neilan joked, "An empty taxicab drove up and Louis B Mayer got out", Mayer saw to it that his career was undermined.

The moguls had an overriding desire to preserve their power and prestige. Jack Warner, arguably the most flamboyant and charismatic of the early studio heads, went to extraordinary lengths. His elder brother, Harry, died of a heart attack after an argument with his younger sibling. And his son was forcibly thrown off the studio lot by security guards on his father's orders.

As he explained to Albert Einstein when the physicist toured the studio in 1931: "Doctor, you have your theory of relativity and I have mine: never hire a relative."

Jack Warner didn't even know all that much about the workings of the movie business. Like Cohn, he merely possessed an uncanny knack for knowing what the public wanted.

Interviewed by The New Yorker earlier this year, his niece, Betty Warner Sheinbaum, told a story about Warner spotting a beautiful teenage girl at a Los Angeles club. He approached her without hesitation and told her that she should go into the movies. The young woman replied: "Well, how do you do, Mr Warner? I'm Shirley Temple."

So who are the modern equivalents of Warner, Cohn and Mayer? Most striking are the moguls who created the new Dreamworks studio, Steven Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg and David Geffen (who lives in Warner's old house). It is no coincidence that they are all Jewish - it is just a logical progression of history.

And it should come as no surprise to learn that first from their new studio was Spielberg's slavery epic, Amistad. Its subject? The story of an oppressed people discovering adversity and salvation in America.


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