Who hasn’t heard the old saw:“The Jews run Hollywood”? Do we? And if so, just how did that come about?
Up to 1913, most American film production was carried out around New York, but due to the monopoly of the Edison Company’s film patents and its attempts to preserve it, many filmmakers moved to Southern California. Enter five Jews from Eastern Europe.
These young men who came from poor or modest-income families came to California in the late 1910s and 1920s when they were unable to carve a place for themselves within the East Coast establishment. As a result, the Hollywood we know today was essentially founded by just a few key Jewish men, each of whom owned a movie studio.
As Neal Gabler points out in his book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” this is not surprising. “The early Jewish movie pioneers … came to Hollywood because they felt barred from power in the east. … If the Jews were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and status in America, the movies offered an ingenious option,” wrote Gabler. “Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country, one where they would not only be admitted, but would govern as well.”
The doors were thus always open for Jews in Hollywood, which was not the case in many other areas of the United States. People prefer to go where they’re welcome and where there will be support. Jews went to Hollywood to find work, and they got it, and so established a large and strong foundation of Jewish culture. In addition, Jews were also prominent among the second and third level of business-oriented producers, managers, assistants, agents and lawyers.
Though the Hollywood moguls were highly competitive, they worked closely together to build “a close-knit empire modeled after the social hierarchy of the very east coast society that alienated and patronized them,” according to Gabler.
They were also exceptionally industrious and ambitious men, and, interestingly, many had been merchants and in other trades. Quite a few came from retail, particularly the garment industry. The two industries were not that dissimilar. To be successful in both, mass production was vital. They brought their business acumen to Hollywood and by the 1930s, six of the eight major studios were Jewishly controlled and managed.
Their pictures influenced not only millions of Americans at home, but many more abroad who saw a view of America produced by the studios of these ill-educated but streetwise immigrants: Louis Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Marcus Loew, Adolph Zukor, Harry Cohn, Jesse Lasky, the Warner brothers, and Samuel Goldwyn.
Though most of them came from observant Jewish homes and learned some Hebrew and/or had been bar-mitzvah, they tended, as adults, to live and think in a culturally assimilated lifestyle removed from the cultural content, activities, or practices of their Jewish heritage, or of the affairs of the larger Los Angeles Jewish community. Though they were largely responsible for building the Wilshire Temple in Los Angeles, they remained aloof from their traditions. For what united these Jews wasn’t their backgrounds as much as their rejection of those backgrounds.
The irony is that was called “the quintessence of what we mean by ‘America’” was founded and for more than thirty years operated by Eastern European Jews who were anything but the quintessence of America. Their dominance would become a target for wave after wave of anti-Semitism. While they were accused of trying to undermine traditional American values, they were the ones not only portraying them on the screen, but desperately embracing those values.
Gabler points out that “they fabricated their empire in the image of what they thought America should be, and cast themselves in the image of prosperous Americans. They created the myths and values of their adopted county as well as its traditional archetypes: the strong father and stable families. In their America people were attractive, resilient and strong.”
In its early decades, American cinema mostly hid American Jewry, with studio moguls shying away from on-screen representations and avoiding portrayals of Jewish stories or individuals. Jewish actors were made to change their names, and Harry Cohen once told Danny Kaye that he would only be successful if he “fixed his nose.”
When the Great Depression hit, Jews in the film industry were attacked by the political right for “adolescent entertainment” and “immoral practices.” This only intensified the anxiety of Jewish Hollywood moguls, who feared “ethnic” stories would damage their Anglo integration. That might explain why in two 1937 films, “The Life of Emile Zola,” about the Dreyfus affair, and “They Won’t Forget,” based on the Leo Frank lynching, the word “Jew” is left unsaid.
It was only when 20th Century Fox executive Darryl Zanuck was refused membership at a Los Angeles country club because he was (wrongly) assumed to be Jewish that he pushed Hollywood to produce the Academy Award-winning “Gentleman’s Agreement.” The film was strongly discouraged by Jewish studio heads who feared it would “stir up trouble.”
During World War II, involvement in “Europe’s war” was unpopular with most Americans, so Hollywood mostly refrained from depicting the Holocaust — with the exception of Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant “The Great Dictator” (1940). However, in the postwar years, strong nationalism, Holocaust testimony and the creation of Israel led to an apparent change in American filmmakers’ attitude.
Then came the Cold War and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Senator Joseph McCarthy blacklisted liberal “anti-American” writers who raised controversial social issues, blaming the movie industry for being interventionist “because of Jewish influence.”
Half of the people subpoenaed by HUAC, including the Hollywood Ten, were Jewish. They included producers, directors and screenwriters who refused to answer HUAC’s questions regarding possible Communist affiliations; they spent time in prison for contempt of Congress and were unable to work for many years.
In the later part of the twentieth century, while Jews continued to have a strong presence in Hollywood, the film industry was changing. Many who replaced the old moguls in the industry’s hierarchy were also Jewish, but they were American-born and had very different worldviews than their immigrant predecessors. Most were college educated with degrees in management and accounting. All were far removed from the old-country and immigrant experiences that helped shape the Jewish studio bosses. As the decades have passed, there has been less anxiety about portraying controversial issues—including those with Jewish themes.
Immigrant populations have always gravitated towards those particular business enterprises they were “permitted” to enter, so it should be no surprise that the Jews embraced the film industry. And while the movie industry is no longer controlled by that exclusive club of Jewish moguls, it is true that today many of the studios are still run by Jews. And so what!
Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A., has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004.