Retelling Jewish American Story Through History of Cinema

Scholar Examines 12 Films From 'The Jazz Singer' to 'Avalon'

Look Who’s Talking: ‘The Jazz Singer’ marks the beginning of talking pictures and of Eric A. Goldman’s study of Jewish American cinema. This image was taken on the set of the first version of that film in 1927.
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Look Who’s Talking: ‘The Jazz Singer’ marks the beginning of talking pictures and of Eric A. Goldman’s study of Jewish American cinema. This image was taken on the set of the first version of that film in 1927.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published April 18, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
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● The American Jewish Story Through Cinema
By Eric A. Goldman
University of Texas Press, 264 pages, $55.

Eric A. Goldman’s look at about a dozen Hollywood movies released between 1927 and 2009 can be recommended especially to readers who don’t flinch when they ponder his book’s title. For me, the very notion of postulating such a thing as “the” American Jewish Story — as opposed to, say, “an” American Jewish story (meaning any American Jewish story, of the author’s own choosing), or, better yet, multiple American Jewish stories — is already somewhat problematic. But in fact, Goldman is usually too thoughtful to be quite as categorical as his title threatens. Stories told in and by movies are basically what he’s thinking and talking about, and usually these are ones about American Jewish assimilation: characters stepping beyond ghetto and ethnic boundaries to contemplate such things as intermarriage and other forms of wider acceptance while repositioning historical memories and a sense of cultural identity.

I wish that the movies he picked for close examination, such as “The Young Lions,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Avalon,” were more engaging to me as art. I should admit that it was his book that finally induced me to catch up with the original, Al Jolson version of “The Jazz Singer” (at the age of 9 or so, I saw the 1952 Danny Thomas remake) and made me seek out Jerry Lewis’s strange 1959 made-for-TV version, with Molly Picon, no less, playing his mother.

Thematically, the original may not be much more nuanced in its social meaning than the 1956 film “Don’t Knock the Rock” was three decades later, and part of its impact may be dissipated if you decide, like me, that you prefer Jolson’s rendition of the “Kol Nidre” to his “Mammy.” But Goldman traces an interesting progression of autobiographical ethnic inflections from Samson Raphaelson’s original 1922 short story (“The Day of Atonement”) to his 1925 stage play with George Jessel (which, this newspaper reported, was “by a Jew, about Jews and designed for 100% Jewish consumption”) to the Warners and Jolson musical, over which Raphaelson had no say.

Though Goldman devotes a short section to all the “Jazz Singer” remakes, I wonder if he’s seen Lewis’s version, which he curiously claims was “directed by Ginny Gibbons and Ralph Nelson.” (Nelson is the credited director, and Ginny Gibson is the name of the character played by Lewis’s co-star, Anna Maria Alberghetti — a big-time “shiksa star whom the title hero fantasizes marrying, with his father’s approval). At least he’s hip to Lewis’s personal investment in the story, though he’s wrong in saying that his character breaks with his cantor father’s tradition “to become a clown rather than a singer”; in fact, he becomes a comedian who sings, donning clown make-up only once.

Although Lewis, pushing things to extremes, as he often does, winds up singing the “Kol Nidre” in part of that make-up, and an earlier sequence actually features a shock cut from the father collapsing during a synagogue rehearsal to his son taking a pratfall onstage. The violence of the cultural shift is obviously what gives the story flavor in any of its incarnations, but the fact that Lewis’s show-biz father failed to show up for his son’s bar mitzvah suggests that Lewis might have had this particular Oedipal trauma in reverse.

On the subject of American Jewish assimilation, it might be argued that the 1959 version produced by and starring Lewis, even though it isn’t especially good, offers at least as many cultural insights as the 1927 original. And for me, Elaine May’s 1972 film “The Heartbreak Kid,” which Goldman mentions only in passing, has much more to say than any of his own examples; it’s also far more durable as art.

The enthusiastic case Goldman makes for Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” (1999) piques my curiosity somewhat. But none of his other key entries that I’ve seen has stuck in my memory with much resonance: “Crossfire” or “Gentleman’s Agreement” (both 1947), “The Young Lions” (1958), “The Way We Were” (1973), “The Prince of Tides” (1991), “Avalon” (1990) or “Everything Is Illuminated” (2006). Basically Oscar fodder or worse, these are the sort of disposable mainstream movies whose interest resides mainly in what they have to say about Jewish roles in society when the films were made, which is obviously why Goldman picked them.

Recalling Jacques Rivette’s classic remark that D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” has more to say about 1916 than it does about any of the historical periods it depicts, he notes that although “The Way We Were” “is set in the 1930s–1950s, it is essential to understand that it is really about the 1970s, when it was made” — which overlooks the confusions that might arise from three separate decades being represented by the sensibility of only one. “Gentleman’s Agreement” may have won three major Oscars, but even its director, Elia Kazan, who acquired one of them, admitted in his autobiography that he barely remembered anything about having made it.

And maybe I’m just being a spoilsport, but the thing that I find most illuminating in “Everything Is Illuminated” — apart from its many fadeouts to white, and its dog reaction shots — is how blotchy digital video can look in the wrong hands.

This isn’t to argue that what Goldman has to say about his chosen movies isn’t often interesting and instructive — when he brings his own original research into the picture. But because he’s talking most often about subject matter and only incidentally about style or vision, what he has to say about these movies’ production histories often exceeds anything he has to impart about their artistic or social value.

It’s fascinating to learn that some members of the American Jewish Committee attacked “Crossfire” before they even saw it, fully convinced that any movie about virulent anti-Semitism was bound to stir up trouble and make things worse, while the Anti-Defamation League “wholeheartedly endorsed the film.”

As for “The Young Lions,” Goldman is quite fascinating on a variety of subjects — that is, distinguishing between attitudes toward Nazis as they’re expressed in Irwin Shaw’s novel and Edward Anhalt’s script; the separate demands and/or attitudes of lead actors Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando (the latter of whom insisted on basic changes to make his Austrian Nazi character more sympathetic and less of a Nazi), and the positions of director Edward Dmytryk (who had a non-Jewish, Ukrainian background but wound up directing other films with Jewish subjects, such as “Crossfire”).

What gets lost in the shuffle, unfortunately, is any effort to make any cultural distinctions between Austrians and Germans, and it becomes impossible for me to tell whether this lack is a matter of insufficient knowledge or indifference, on his part or on Shaw’s. However emotionally understandable it might be from a Jewish standpoint to equate German Nazis with Austrian Nazis, I’m not sure how helpful it is intellectually or historically.

Like some of the movies he chooses to focus on, Goldman has a habit sometimes of diving straight into pools of kitschy cliché. Consider how he ends his discussion of “The Prince of Tides”: “What insight does this film provide? America was changing. The Jew once sought acceptance, then assimilation and societal entrée. By the 1990s, the American Jew was firmly entrenched. The Jew, the new person on the block, had finally established residence, and would not move.”

It’s hard to know how anyone can tell the truth in language of this kind. And in “Everything Is Illuminated,” the writing gets still worse, grasping after superlatives that express only banality: “[Jonathan Safran] Foer and his wife, Nicole Krauss… are among a group of contemporary young Jewish writers who are enthralling readers with their artistry. Just as impressive are the effects of a cadre of capable screenwriters and actors like [Liev] Schreiber, who have decided to try their hand at producing and directing Jewish-themed films.”

Enthralling or not, such stories become dull when they’re written about so mechanically. This suggests that Goldman is a far better critic, analyst and historian when he goes looking for fresh discoveries and arguments. When he clicks onto automatic pilot, his readers can go only through the motions of being attentive.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is the author of “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition” (University of Chicago Press, 2010).


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