Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema
Edited by Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh Samuelson
Wayne State University Press, 224 pages, $31.95
The co-editors of “Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema” stake their claim in the first sentence of their introduction: “This book sets out to mark a new and challenging path of the role of Jews and their experience in Hollywood filmmaking.” To some degree, they live up to this goal, in a varied collection that tends to get livelier as it proceeds. But considering how slippery and elastic their definitions of “Jews” can be, part of their path strikes me as familiar and questionable.
Fritz Lang, for instance, gets cited over a dozen times in the book’s index, but for me his inclusion is fully justified only once — in a fascinating article by Peter Krämer that charts diverse efforts over four decades to make a movie about Oskar Schindler that preceded Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” in 1993, many of those efforts launched by Schindler himself, who had a lengthy correspondence with Lang about the first of these projects in 1951. Virtually all the other references assume that Lang was a Jew because of his mother’s origins — despite the fact that he was raised solely as a Catholic and apparently never betrayed the slightest interest in identifying himself any other way.
The editors uncritically parrot the standard myth that Lang fled Germany in 1934 immediately after Joseph Goebbels offered him a job as head of a major German film studio. This is what Lang, the only source for this story, claimed years later — in a thrillerlike narrative that had him dashing off to Paris the same day, before he could even withdraw his funds from the bank. But the various dates stamped on his passport, which included one or more return trips, plus the absence of any allusion to such a meeting in Goebbels’s detailed journals, now make this story seem doubtful.
Rather like the common practice of identifying Barack Obama as only black (which denies that he had a white mother who raised him), there is an unconscious process of selectivity in determining who is or isn’t Jewish — a sort of expedient choosiness about electing members of the chosen people. As Sarah Kozloff candidly admits in her own essay here, “Playing ‘here’s a Jew, there’s a Jew’ is an admittedly limited approach to the history of cinematic liberalism, but the links are still intriguing.” Writer-director Samuel Fuller, unlisted in this book’s index, had immigrant parents named Benjamin Rabinovitch and Rebecca Baum, plus body language that I (rightly or wrongly) identified as quintessentially Jewish the first time I met him. But I suspect he tended to downplay his ethnic background because of the difficulties it might have posed for his journalistic career in the 1920s and afterward, so he almost never gets counted as a Jewish filmmaker, even though the theme of racism is central to his work. Charlie Chaplin, another missing name, wasn’t a Jew of any kind except existentially: A good many people thought he was Jewish, and during the whole Nazi period, out of a sense of solidarity, he refused to deny it — which for me counts for more than Lang’s biological background.
Nevertheless, the issue of whether Jewish identity needs to be hidden, brandished or passively assumed is what gives this collection much of its interest, even if some of the contributors, Jewish and otherwise, might be too cavalier about assuming it in others. This is why Neal Gabler’s provocative 1988 classic, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” describing the American Dream as the creation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in flight from their own roots, remains this book’s most important precursor.
The book does suffer from some occasional laxness in scholarly details — “The Old Man and the Sea” crediting Fred Zinnemann as the film’s director rather than John Sturges; the claim that Elaine May and Neil Simon’s “The Heartbreak Kid” is based on a play rather than a story by Bruce Jay Friedman. Nevertheless, it has provided me with some invaluable history lessons, including Wheeler Winston Dixon’s account of how Hollywood’s major and official censor from 1934 to 1954, Joseph Breen, who administered “The Production Code,” turned out to be a virulent anti-Semite. And David Sterritt’s morally and aesthetically acute essay, “Representing Atrocity: September 11 Through the Holocaust Lens,” explores some of the reactionary ways that memories of the Holocaust get unconsciously cross-referenced with the decimation of the World Trade Center and its inhabitants. Here and elsewhere in the book, the Gableresque theme of how Jews feel about being Jewish — and how both non-Jews and Jews feel about the results of this feeling — provides some of the more interesting and edgy observations.