The history of Jewish film by Pamela Melnikoff
Last updated: 2003-08-30
The home of films, Hollywood
The following is an exclusive extract from chapter 1 of Pamela Melnikoff's book about the history of Jewish film. For over 25 years, Pamela was film critic of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper and is author of several books.
The History of Jewish Film is a major work and a must for film fans who want to know about the influence and history of Jewish film from the earliest times to the present day.
Pamela welcomes offers from publishers who wish to see the book. Pamela can be contacted at the following e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
In December 1920, before Hollywood was widely acknowledged to be under Jewish domination, a news item in the Washington Press recorded that a meeting of the International Reform Bureau had voted to rescue the motion picture industry from the hands of "the Devil and 500 un-Christian Jews". Dr. Wilbur Crofts, who presided, vowed to enter Congress, and to defeat those ungodly movie-makers and overturn their 40 Million dollar slush fund with the aid of the Catholic Church and Christian reform organisations.(1)
Six years later, with the Devil still unvanquished and Jews more conspicuously than ever in control of the American cinema, the film journalist and producer Terry Ramsaye, who was later to become editor of the "Motion Picture Herald", pointed out in his book "A Million and One Nights" that "It is no accident but rather a phase of screen evolution which finds the American motion picture industry, and therefore the screens of the world, administered rather largely by our best and most facile internationalists, the Jews, with those of Russian extraction slightly predominant over the Germans." This development, added Ramsaye, had come about by the same process and for many of the same reasons as the prior but similar evolution in the garment trade. "The most casual attention will discover that the motion picture and the garment trade have a psychology in common to a marked degree."
This remark, though it might sound snide, was accurate enough, for several of the early Jewish studio heads, mostly immigrants from Germany or Eastern Europe, had indeed begun their working lives in the garment industry, with a particular predilection towards the fur trade.
Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, a Hungarian immigrant, had started work as a sweeper in a New York fur factory ("not a particularly dignified occupation for the future king of the cinema world", observed a "Jewish World" (2) columnist), and built his penny arcade business, the nucleus of his cinema empire, with the money he had made from inventing a patent snap for furs. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, had been, among other things, a fur salesman. Samuel Goldwyn (born Samuel Goldfish in Poland) started as a glove cutter, and took the road that led to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor when the glove industry failed. Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, was at one time a clothing store manager, and married the boss's daughter. William Fox, of Fox Films, left school at the age of eleven to toil in a sweatshop for twelve hours a day, eventually starting his own garment firm. Louis B. Mayer, by contrast, sold junk.
The origins of Hollywood's founding fathers did not go unnoticed. G.R. Doyne, in a volume of film history published in 1936 (3), described certain film companies as having been "initiated by Jewish Secondhand clothes dealers who were apparently able to keep an exalted artistic sense and spiritual outlook unsullied in the surroundings of New York's ghettoes." A little earlier, in 1928, "Variety" (4) recorded that the actor Francis X Bushman had vehemently denied having alleged that he was retiring from films because the medium was dominated by Jewish pants pressers and buttonhole makers. His best friends, he pointed out, had always been Jews, and he had used the term "pants pressers" figuratively. "I meant that certain floundering picture producers....were mentally equipped to make successful buttonhole makers but not to serve a great nation with its dramatic fare".
But not every early Jewish movie mogul served his apprenticeship in a sweatshop. Nor was every Jewish film-maker of immigrant stock. Gilbert Anderson, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, who created the screen character "Broncho Billy" and helped found the Essanay Film Company, which produced Charlie Chaplin's early films, was born Max Aaronson and could claim to be the first Jewish producer as well as the screen's first cowboy here. He played the lead in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), the first American feature film, and then went on to make 375 "Broncho Bill" films, at the rate of one a week, between 1908 and 1915, before retiring into the business side of the company. G.R. Doyle was sceptical of his qualifications. "Max Aaronson" (3), he wrote, "like so many others of his race, was a poor rider, and yet he actually passed as an American cowboy".
The Academy of Motion Pictures, nevertheless, thought sufficiently highly of Aaronson to lift him out of obscurity in 1957 with a special Oscar "for his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment". Another home-grown film producer - the first to set up a studio in Hollywood - was William N. Selig (known for some non-military reason as "Colonel" Selig), who was a magician, and also ran a minstrel show, before entering the movies in 1896. Like Max Aaronson, Selig made some of America's earliest Westerns, but his particular speciality was wild animals and jungles.
As a result of the box-office success of his "Hunting Big Game in Africa" (1903) - in the course of which Theodore Roosevelt was seen killing a lion - Selig set up his own zoo, which he rented out to other companies. Recording this fact in his "Twenty Five Years of Films", G.R. Doyle (3) also pointed out that Selig had chosen Los Angeles as a venue for his company "because he had very good reason for wishing to be within handy reach of the Mexican border so that he could leave the United States at short notice." Although of German birth, Sigmund Lubin, described by Doyle as "a fairground cheapjack", also ranked high among America's pioneer film-makers. Trained as an optician, he peddled eyeglasses in Pennsylvania, where his knowledge of optics and photography soon brought him into the business. Starting in 1897 with a "short" showing a pillow fight between his two young daughters, Lubin went on to vastly more ambitious projects, including "The Battle of Gettysburg", made in 1912.
There was much here to displease people who did not love Jews. It was not merely that so many of the early film-makers were Jewish; even the very first bank to finance the film industry, in 1919, was the Jewish owned Kahn, Loeb and Co. "Yes, the film industry is an expensive game", wrote G.R. Doyle nearly two decades later, "A venture which it would be useless to embark upon in the absence of generous financial backing. Consequently, the 'big' men in pictures are those who could provide the commodity that talks most, even in silent films - Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldfish, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, Jewish J. Selznick, Marcus Loew, Joseph Schenk. To this list it might be proper to add the names of one or two gentiles, except that it is not easy to recall an example off-hand".
But of course money was not everything, and the Jewish moguls had qualities other than deep pockets to bring to the movie business. Over the years many answers, not all connected with money, have been given to the question "Why are Jewish so active in the film industry?" In 1929 the London "Jewish Chronicle" quoted an explanation from no less an authority than the half-Jewish Douglas Fairbanks (5).
Viscount Castlerosse had, according to the report, put the question to Fairbanks in an informal manner on the links at Baden-Baden, to which the star had replied that "the Semitic race seemed to be the only people who have the combination of financial acumen and artistic sense". In an article published in the "Jewish Chronicle" in 1926, Irma Kraft (6) wrote "With the single exception perhaps of the de Mille and Griffiths productions, the moving picture industry is in the hands of the Jews. Mammoth corporations are owned, directed and financed by men who both wandered into it often from business pursuits, or perhaps at times from frustrated business careers...It is difficult to conceive that those Jews are the near descendants of repressed Ghetto dwellers whose aesthetic longings and whose dreams of artistic development were necessarily constricted within the shadows of the pale". Three years later, the New York correspondent of the "Jewish Chronicle" (7) pointed out that each of Hollywood's seven chief motion picture organisations had a Jew at its head, and added "It has been said that the Jew is the 'brains' of the American cinema."
So much success, of course, had to be paid for; in 1937, on the eve of the Holocaust, American-Jewish director Mark Sandrich, who had made many of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, commented in a "Jewish Chronicle" (8) interview that he did not think antisemitism was increasing in California, but added that there had always existed a certain jealousy and resentment at the success of the Jews in the film industry.
Much later, in 1976, Rick Kardonne, in an article in the "Zionist Record and South African Jewish Chronicle (9), saw this very dislike of the Jew as the breeding ground for Jewish control of the cinema. "Hollywood", he wrote, "was, the remains, the only major island of unlimited upward Jewish mobility and structural control in an American sea of quiet but efficient corporate antisemitism. Early in the century, Hollywood attracted an over supply of ambitious Jewish businessmen who, in conditions free of prejudice, would have become auto and steel tycoons...."
Italian producer Carlo Ponti attributed Jewish pre-eminence in the film industry to the Jewish love of a gamble, and David Lewin, commenting on this in a "Jewish Chronicle" (10) article, added that "for the immigrants who arrived in America, most from backgrounds of extreme poverty, at the beginning of the century, it was the gamble of the motion picture industry that gave them the chance to make money fast".
In recent times James Mason, a leading British actor who had worked extensively in Hollywood, found himself looking back with nostalgia at the era of the Jewish Moguls. "As the occasional visitor looking in from the outside", he said, "I find contemporary Hollywood a little crazy, with an air of amateurism about the whole thing. In the old days the industry was run by a bunch of Jewish studio bosses who really knew what they were doing...."
But while many people have tried to find the reasons for Jewish domination of Hollywood, others have denied that it even existed. One of these was Eddie Cantor, who in an exclusive interview with the "Jewish Chronicle in 1934 (11), soon after his appointment by President Roosevelt as representative of the National Recovery Administration in the Film Industry, refuted allegations that Jews controlled the medium. "Most of the film industry", he declared, "is in the hands of bankers, not Jews. It is the bankers who control policy". Denying also that Jews in the film industry veered towards assimilation and intermarriage, he pointed out that most of the Jews in Hollywood were married to Jewish girls, an interesting exception being Irving Thalberg, whose wife was the non Jewish Norma Shearer.
However, Norma Shearer, according to Eddie Cantor, was "much more Jewish in feeling that are many Jewesses". The sufferings being endured by the Jews in Germany, he said, moved her intensely, and she always referred to their misfortunes as "the sufferings of our people".
In a book on "The Jews of Britain", published in 1938, Sidney Salomon, Press Officer of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (12), not only denied that the British film industry was in the hands of Jews, but also claimed that allegations of a Jewish monopoly in Hollywood were much exaggerated. "In England, though some important companies are under Jewish control, the most powerful individual in the English screen world is a Scots lawyer, Mr. John Maxwell, who is a director of Gaumont-British and has control of the Associated British. In America, Jews play a greater role in the industry than in England, but even in the companies with the biggest proportion of Jewish directors (i.e. MGM, Warner Brothers, Columbia) they are represented on the Boards by only just over 50 per cent. Of the other companies, RKO has only two Jews among the 19 directors; United Artists 4 out of 19; Fox one out of 18; Universal two out of 13; Paramount 5 out of 15, and Warner Brothers 9 out of 21. The proportion of Jewish directors is small, and the proportion of Jews among screenwriters - this is important in view of the allegations that the screen is used for pro-Jewish propaganda - is even smaller. It is doubtful if they number one in ten, while among 2,685 screen actors in Hollywood, only 84 are Jews."
Jewish players were not always scarce; in 1917 they were so numerous that the "Jewish Chronicle", in a piece on "Jewish Starts" (13), pointed out that "the mimetic ability of the average Jew and Jewess can and does find a lucrative outlook for their talent in 'the movies'....Remembering the many thousands of pounds of Jewish capital already sunk into moving picture ventures, it would be surprising if Jewish talent did not receive at least some meed of encouragement in this particular quarter". Jewish actresses, in particular, proliferated on the screen in the early years, among them Carmel Myers, a Rabbi's daughter, and Theda Bara (née Goodman), the exotic daughter of a Jewish tailor.
But by the early 1930s Jewish performers had grown scarce - possibly because, as a Hollywood agent confided to a "Jewish Chronicle" leader writer (14), "the camera has an awkward way of showing up Jewish features too vividly". Jewish characters were usually, by order of Jewish studio heads, presented on the screen as cleancut, blond American boy-or-girl-next-door types, and it is only recently that Jewish stars of Jewish appearance, such as Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and Walter Matthau, have become acceptable to the filmmakers.
Jewish actors were automatically converted into WASPs by the publicity machine, while Jewish actresses ceased to exist. Commenting that the "low visual profile of Jewish girls on screen made the average earthworm look like a highflyer," British journalist Julie Burchill, in a book on "Girls on Film" (15), added "From all angles this is perverse....Jews happen to run the film industry. It could be that familiarity breeds contempt, and that studio heads desire the Other as much as any other man. Whatever, when it was suggested to Harry Cohn that he groom the great Judy Holliday for stardom, he said "You're joking! Films are made for Jews and by Jews - not with Jews!"
Whatever the reasons, the early Jewish movie moguls tried to avoid confronting Jewishness on the screen. Filmwriter Michael Blankfort, who had worked with most of them, once described them as "terribly frightened men, who rejected their immigrant background to become super Americans". It was a sign of their insecurity that they called a meeting in the late 1930s (9), when Jewish influence in Hollywood made them a popular target for fringe anti-Semitic groups, to set up a threepoint "defence plan". It was agreed that they would keep Jewish names off the screen, sell their Cadillacs and Rolls Royces, and pension off their non-Jewish mistresses.
Later, during the McCarthy era, the studios were to be purged of hundreds of writers and directors, mostly Jewish, on trumped-up charges of Communism. The studio heads had already rejected political Zionism, refusing to support writer (9), director and producer Ben Hecht in his efforts to finance a Jewish division to fight under Zeev Jabotinsky's leadership during World War II. When the State of Israel was about to be born, and Hecht was boycotted by British cinema distributors for promoting the cause of the Irgun, the Jewish studio heads without exception declined to help salvage his career. And so little interest did they evince at this time in Jewish themes that Hollywood movie columnist Louella Parsons was moved to champion the cause of the Jewish film.
As far as their personal Jewishness, the movie moguls were ambivalent. While most belonged to the Reformed Wilshire Boulevard Temple and gave generously to American Jewish philanthropic causes, and though they provided sanctuary and work for Jewish refugee filmmakers from Nazi Germany, few were religiously observant or even liked to be publicly identified as Jews. In 1953, F.H. Samuel (16), film critic of the "Jewish Chronicle", commended Adolph Zukor as one of the few Jewish film celebrities who did not politely edge away from his at official receptions. Another committed Jew was Dore Schary, head of MGM. He was also chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith, and campaigned on behalf of Black civil rights as well as fighting antisemitism, supporting Soviet Jewry, and producing - at inevitable financial risk - several movies (including "Crossfire") which condemned prejudice and bigotry. "Dore Schary", commented the American "National Jewish Monthly" (17), "is an example of an integrated Jew... The courage of his convictions is based on his commitment as a Jew. Dore Schary was born into a traditional Jewish home, and has never left it". But Schary did more than merely adhere to the faith; he also wrote and compiled his own Chanukah home service for his family, which was subsequently distributed in booklet form by the United Synagogue of America. "Variety" (18) recorded that the 16 page booklet explained the meaning of the festival and the purpose of the lighting of the candles. Against the eighth candle Schary wrote "America's own symbols and words, such as the words on the Liberty Bell and the words on the Great Seal, are words from the Torah. So, in every fibre of our being, as Americans and Jews, we can rededicate ourselves to the Festival of Peace".
Dore Schary was an object lesson in how to be both a patriotic American and an observant Jew. Most of his fellow movie moguls achieved only the former. Much has been made of the fact that Jewish Hollywood studio bosses lived in an Aryan world, rejecting their own heritage in favour of the Gentile fantasies they brought to the screen. But there was nothing unusual about their attitudes, which were not confined to the Jewish filmmakers of the New World. In Europe, Britain and even as far away as "heathen" China (where it was reported in 1917 (17) that one Benjamin Brodsky, a Jew, enjoyed a monopoly of the cinema business, controlling 80 motion picture theatres scattered from Peking to Kong-Tchong and from Canton to Tyng-Choo, and maintaining fully equipped studios in Shanghai for the manufacture of Chinese films), the film industry was virtually controlled by Jews. In Germany, Max Reinhardt (née Goldman) was the father of expressionistic cinema and an enormous influence on the medium, while the cinema - until Hitler intervened - cherished such Jewish directorial talents as Fritz Lang, Paul Leni, William Disterle, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, as well as a galaxy of Jewish actors and actresses. In Russia there were, among others, Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov (née Kaufman), father of the cinema verite movement; from Hungary came Alexander Korda, Paul Czinner and Michael Curtiz; from Frances, Abel Gance, and from Sweden Mauritz Stiller, who discovered Greta Garbo. Although many may have been committed Jews (and were forced out of their homelands for being Jews by birth), there is little evidence that they had put their Jewish identity before their initial loyalty to Germany, the Soviet Union, Hungary, France or Sweden.
The British filmmakers, likewise were proud and patriotic Englishmen. C.M. Woolf (who, like some of his American counterparts, had started in the fur business) devoted himself to the production of films that were essentially British, one of his blockbusters being a patriotic piece called "The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands". Michael Balcon, English-born son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who headed several British studios and produced some of the most prestigious films in the country's history (and who indeed was described as being best able to capture the mood and spirit of the British people on film) was so grateful to England for giving sanctuary to his Jewish family that - as his daughter Jill Balcon (who married the English Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis) was later to reveal in a television interview - he grew willows in his English country garden for the manufacture of the essentially English cricket bats. Nor did these Jewish filmmakers from territories beyond the United States devote much effort to the manufacture of Jewish interest films.
On the contrary, few pre-war films on Jewish themes by European-Jewish producers or directors have made any mark on cinematic history, while most of those produced there since the war - mainly on Holocaust themes - have been the work of non-Jews. But because Jewish influence has been most consistent in Hollywood than elsewhere, and because Hollywood has always been regarded as the film capital of the world, both the film-going public and film historians have tended to think of Hollywood moguls as the only Jewish filmmakers who ever lived, and to castigate them for their failings as if these were a totally American phenomenon.
If the Hollywood moguls were consistently attacked for ignoring their Jewish heritage, they were also from the outset blamed for the dissemination via the cinema screen of debased values and low morals. Some of this censure, it is true, came from people who were not enamoured of Jews. In May 1930, for example, the Rev. Henry I. Duff, of Carrollton, Illinois (20), stated in an article called "The Menace of the Movies", published in a local journal, that "we are at the mercy of the movie magnates, and they are 90% Jews. We do not like to think that a certain type of Jew, as we know him, is able to set the moral standards of our young Americans, yet he is doing so by the influence of the movie pictures. What the movie producer gives us is 75% filth, licentiousness, crime, lust and debauchery". Sadly, many well-motivated Jews felt obliged to agree. In October 1931 a Hollywood Jew published an open letter to the film moguls in the New York "Century" (21) which was couched in very similar terms. "To say that a large proportion of those who control the motion picture industry are Jews", he wrote, "is to risk appearing to raise a race issue and fan the flames of racial animosity. You should show the Gentiles....that your historic virtue, your spiritual strength, is more than an empty boast. But what has power brought to you, and to the rest of the world- Nothing but mediocrity, debasement, filth. You are proud of wallowing in the mire of a parvenu's life and turning out picture after picture with false sentiment, false morality and false everything else".
From across the Atlantic the leader-writers of the two main Anglo-Jewish newspapers joined in the chorus of disapproval. "It had to come, as I have so frequently said it would", thundered the "Jewish World" (21), as it reproduced the "Century" letter, "and upon the shoulders of the Jews the blame for the degraded character of the films issued from America has at last arrived in full force". His colleague on the "Jewish Chronicle" (22), meanwhile, greatly chastised the "American Israelite" for finding excuses for the filmmakers' conduct. "To retort, as my contemporary does, that the producers of these films are Americans, and must be deemed as such, and not as Jews, is ridiculous", he declared, "for it does not overcome the fact that most of these 'American' producers are of our people....pandering to all that is vile for the sake of money. It only adds to the evil they enact when their fellow-Jews....find excuses, however lame, for them, and still more when....some of the creators of these garbage films are lauded as pillars of the community and honoured to the point of worship, because they give some of their ill-gotten gains to charity or other public purposes".
Either the ethical quality of these films improved immeasurably over the next two years, or else the attitudes of the paper's leader writer suddenly became more liberal, for in 1932 (23) he did an amazing volte face. Commenting on attacks made on the American movie moguls, he added "the pictures have, in practice, abated lawlessness by offering cheap entertainment for idle moments and taking 'the man in the street' off the street. They have been the foe of the public house and the drink habit. They have promoted domestic union, by providing an inexpensive gathering place for parents and their families....They have given the workers....something to look forward to at the factory's hour of release....If the Jew is to be held up to execration for the alleged defects and sins of the screen, at all events let these things be accounted to him for righteousness".
A year later, the Jewish Chronicle" (24) was pleased to record the words of a British distributor - Mr. A.S. Moses, joint managing director of the Associated British Picture Corporation - when he praised the Jews for exercising "a distinctly moral influence" over the film industry. Jews were consistently opposed to films of a doubtful nature, he declared, and stood for "good clean entertainment as opposed to suggestiveness". Moreover Jewish patrons had proved keen judges of cinematic quality. Associated British Cinemas had a strong following in the Jewish quarters of many cities, and it was his policy to advise cinema managers in these areas to cultivate their Jewish clientele, "because if they could satisfy them, the standard set was always satisfactory to non-Jewish audiences." For all the "distinctly moral influence" xerted by Jews over the film industry, however, it was not they who were responsible for drawing up or even influencing Hollywood's Production Code, set up in 1930 to monitor those things that might or might not be shown on public screens. In 1956 it was revealed in "Played by Ear", the autobiography of the Rev. Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest who had died a year earlier, that he had been solely responsible for writing the Code, which was then transmitted via the Hays Office. "It was played down", commented "Variety" (25), "because the industry didn't want it to be known that the Catholics had such a close connection with the writing of the document".
Film historians who castigate the early Jewish movie moguls for avoiding Jewish issues on the screen appear to suggest that the American film industry began with Goldwyn and Mayer, and that Jewishness did not exist in Hollywood before their time. In fact the earliest American films were crammed with Jewish themes and characters. These, it is true, were not always complimentary, and before the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith made its stand in 1916 many were positively insulting. But after that, Jewish crooks and stony-hearted pawnbrokers vanished from the screen, leaving only the more "positive" characters. So commonplace, indeed, were both Jewish screen heroes and Jewish performers that the "American Hebrew", in 1915, even published a short story, by A. Bernstein, entitled "One Camera - Two Hearts", whose Hero was a young Jewish actor detailed to play a Rabbi in a Jewish-interest film. The youth, Joseph Selman, ran away when he realised that he had fallen in love with his co-star, the ostensibly Gentile Sybil Martin. The lovers were reunited, and a happy ending ensured, when it was revealed that the actress was really Sarah Marx, a Rabbi's daughter.
Between 1900 and 1929, some 230 Hollywood films featured Jewish characters. Where that early era differed, however, from every subsequent stage of the American Cinema, was in the interest shown by pioneer film producers in bringing Jewish classical and historical themes to the screen. Never, since that time, has so much emphasis been laid on the wider aspects of the Jewish heritage. Today the cinema suggests that Jewish life began at the turn of the century. A vast area of Jewish history and experience is ignored by film-makers (in Europe as well as Hollywood) as if it had never existed. In the first three decades of the century things were very different. There were not only numerous Biblical films, but also films about such legendary Jewish heroes (now ignored) as Bar-Cochba and the Maccabees.
There were films about Casimir, the medieval Polish king who championed his Jewish subjects and married a Jewess; about Queen Isabella, who introduced the Inquisition into Spain and drove out the Jews, and about one particular victim of the Inquisition, the Biblical scholar and heretic Uriel da Costa, whose sad story (he committed suicide in 1647) was brought to the screen by the Great Players in 1914. And there were three Disraeli films between 1917 and 1929 - the third, starring George Arliss, having the strongest Jewish content.
Historical themes did not surface again till 1992, when the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America led to two films about Christopher Columbus, as well as a "Carry on Columbus" spoof. "Christopher Columbus, the Discovery," directed by John Glen, not only afforded glimpses of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, but also hinted that Columbus himself was of Jewish origin. He also had Jewish friends, and a Jewish cabin boy. However, the end of the film saw him sailing forth wearing the cross given him by Queen Isabella. Marlon Brando here made a surprisingly benign Torquemada; certainly I had not expected the mastermind behind the Inquisition to plead quite so kindly with the departing Jews to stay and embrace Christianity. In "1492," directed by Ridley Scott, Gerard Depardieu played Columbus as a moral man who was revolted by the persecution of Jews burned at the stake, and by the refusal of the Church to consider the ideologies introduced into Europe by the Moors and the Jews.
From early times till the present day, there have been various attempts, including a successful campaign by the ADL of B'nai Brith in 1931, to ban "Oliver Twist" and "The Merchant of Venice" from school curriculae, but they continue to appear on the screen and occasionally (as in the case of David Lean's 1948 "Oliver Twist") give offence. Four versions of "The Merchant of Venice", all emphasising Shylock's villainy, reached the screen between 1908 and 1914, when Jewish villains were still in vogue. In a 1923 German version, directed by Peter Paul Fellner, Shylock was played by Werner Kraus, who was later to achieve notoriety in the Nazi film "Jud Suss", and Portia by Henny Porten, who was to be banned from German film studios during the Nazi era because her second husband was a Jew. This version was based, not on Shakespeare's play, but on a Florentine drama that had been one of the Bard's sources, and contained a detailed if unlikeable portrayal of the Venetian Jewish community.
A planned Nazi version of Shakespeare's play failed to materialise, and after that the subject remained more or less taboo, with the exception of a 1952 French-Italian co-production, starring Michel Simon, which "Variety" described as "neither good Shakespeare nor good screen fare". Other planned versions have fallen through, sometimes inexplicably. "I wonder if there is a jinx on film versions of 'The Merchant of Venice'", wrote a "Jewish Chronicle" columnist in 1971 (26) when reporting that two distinguished projects - one starring Peter O'Toole and the other Jonathan Miller's National Theatre production, with Lawrence Olivier as Shylock - had been abandoned. George Arliss who had already played Rothschild and Disraeli, also wanted to play Shylock, and spoke of his disappointment at not being allowed to add Shakespeare's Jew to his gallery of Jewish characters. "I have always believed", he wrote in his memoirs (27), "that 'The Merchant of Venice' would make a magnificent movie. Unfortunately the Jews don't like it, and as they are great supporters of the cinema and theatre in the United States, the American producer doesn't care to hurt their feelings - or his own. I don't understand the Jewish attitude towards the play. The Gentiles might object to it with good reason, for a greater collection of dishonourable cads than Antonio and his set it would be difficult to find. Shylock is the only gentleman in the play".
In more recent years, other eminent actors have expressed a completely opposing viewpoint, turning down invitations to play the role George Arliss had coveted. Orson Welles (28) refused to play Shylock in a London production of the "Merchant" in 1960, following local outbreaks of antisemitism, while admitting that Shylock, a character for whom he felt great sympathy, was his own dream role. The Israeli actor Topol received three separate offers to play Shylock - once in a screen version, and twice on television. He rejected all three. "The problem with this play", he later explained (29), "is that you must portray Shylock as a villain if you are going to be true to the author's intention".
In recent years there has been a considerable "narrowing down" of Jewish experience as presented on the screen. While the Holocaust has been and is still being commemorated by numerous films made in Eastern and Western Europe since the end of the war, other events in the Jewish past or Jewish literature are still largely ignored by filmmakers. Even a cinematic acknowledgment of Jewish courage in Nazi death camp and ghetto is largely a phenomenon of the 1980s. Back in 1945, journalist Ben Lappin (30), calling in the "Jewish Frontier" for films on such heroic themes as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, added "A film of which kind would speak more forcibly for itself than a thousand innuendoes as to the Jew's place in the brotherhood of man....Fears that such film would plead the Zionist cause are as valid as worrying that a movie lauding the American war effort would constitute propaganda for the Democratic Party. It is no less reasonable for the Jew to want to tell the world of these achievements than it is for the Russian, the Norwegian, or the Czech to record his particular accomplishments on the screen". It took another forty years for his plea to be vindicated.
But while American filmmakers have made a number of Holocaust films, as well as a few earlier movies about the birth of the State of Israel, most American-Jewish films are set firmly inside the mainstream American Jewish community. There have been occasional non-Holocaust Diaspora movies, such as "Fiddler on the Roof", "Yentl", "The Fixer", "Ivanhoe", and "The Shoes of the Fisherman" (1968), a screen version by Michael Anderson of Morris West's novel, in which a Pope walking the streets of Rome in the guise of a humble priest was inadvertently called to the bedside of a dying Jew, and led the family in Hebrew prayer.
Occasionally films such as "Disraeli", "The House of Rothschild", "The Life of Emile Zola", and a couple of films about Sigmund Freud ("Freud, the Secret Passion" and "The Seven Per Cent Solution", both of which portrayed the father of psycho-analysis as a cultured member of the Viennese Jewish community with the mandatory Menorah in his study) have dealt with the lives of Jews who were not Americans. But often the Jewish angle has been ignored; the facts played down even in films about real-life events. "The Life of Emile Zola" managed to depict the Dreyfus affair without mentioning that Dreyfus was a Jew. At least three films about the sinking of the Titanic have been equally lax. They did bring in the usual mandatory minor but heroic Jewish characters - all resident on the upper decks. In "A Night To Remember" (1958), admittedly a British-made film, these comprised an elderly couple who chose to die together rather than be parted, and a millionaire, Mr. Guggenheim, who went to meet death dressed in his best; in the American "Titanic" (1953), the Jewish heroine was Mrs. Isadore Straus, who refused to leave her husband when offered a place in a lifeboat. What all these films failed to record was the fact - revealed in the "Jewish World" - that some four hundred Jewish immigrants from Russia had been among the Titanic's steerage passengers, and that most of them had been drowned. In the film, "S.O.S. Titanic (1971), the steerage passengers were all Irish.
Essentially, little has changed in Hollywood since the era of the Jewish studio heads. Only the set-up has altered. "Now, instead of the moguls with their idiosyncrasies, their intuitions and willingness to take risks with stories they liked and others abhorred", leading director Arthur Hillier (31) recently explained, "we have the conglomerates...., the difference is that, generally, the film for them is not a subject for love but for business". The heads of this new film business are, however, still Jewish, each studio either being part-owned by Jews or employing Jewish executives in top positions. Jewish creative talents are given free rein, with Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen pre-eminent among the filmmakers. Moreover, Jewish stars no longer have to hide behind bobbed noses and assumed names, but are even welcomed for their ethnic quality.
Indeed, An American correspondent (32) recently defining the American filmmaker in an English newspaper, had this to say: "If you ever staggered out of a cinema wondering who made a film like that, I can tell you. Most likely a white male, Jewish, liberal democrat, who earns more than £140,000 a year. This profile emerges from a survey of the writers, producers and directors of the 50 most successful films of the last 18 years". No, things have hardly changed at all.
(1) From "A Million and One Nights" by Terry Ramsaye. (Published Simon & Shuster Inc. 1926)
(2) "Jewish World" 7th April 1920
(3) From "Twenty-Five Years of Films" by G.R. Doyle (published Mitre Press, Mitre Chambers, Mitre Street E.C.3. 1936)
(4) "Variety" 25th January 1928
(5) "Jewish Chronicle" 18th October 1929
(6) "Jewish Chronicle" 26th November 1926
(7) "Jewish Chronicle" 18th January 1929
(8) "Jewish Chronicle" llth June 1937
(9) Article "Jews in Hollywood" by Rick Kardonne. "Zionist Record and South African Jewish Chronicle" 17th September 1976
(10) "Jewish Chronicle" 25th September 1970
(11) "Jewish Chronicle" 11th January 1934
(12) From "The Jews of Britain" by Sidney Saloman (published Jarrolds Ltd 1938)
(13) "Jewish Chronicle" 2nd November 1917
(14) "Jewish Chronicle" 11th March 1932
(15) From "Girls on Film" by Julie Burchill (published Virgin Books 1986)
(16) "Jewish Chronicle" 30th October 1953
(17) "National Jewish Monthly" 7th January 1964
(18) "Variety" 9th January 1952
(19) "Jewish World" 4th April 1917
(20) "Jewish Chronicle" 9th May 1930
(21) "Jewish World" 15th October 1931
(22) "Jewish Chronicle" 9th May 1930
(23) "Jewish Chronicle" 11th March 1932
(24) "Jewish Chronicle" 5th April 1935
(25) "Variety" 14th March 1956
(26) "Jewish Chronicle" 22nd January 1971
(27) From "My Ten Years in the Studios" by George Arliss (published Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1940)
(28) "Daily Express" 16th January 1960
(29) "Jewish Chronicle" 22nd March 1968
(30) "Jewish Frontier": "Hollywood and the Forgotten Jew" by Ben Lappin, September 1945
(31) Article by Joseph Finklestone, "Jewish Chronicle" 27th September 1985
(32) "Dermot Purgavie's America", "Daily Mail" 13th March 1984
copyright 2002 - Pamela Melnikoff