Once upon a time, Hollywood told the story of a forgotten Jewish patriot
In the pantheon of name-brand Founding Fathers, Haym Salomon stands well back of the pack. His picture is not on our currency, his statue is not in the Capitol Rotunda, and his character is not on stage in “Hamilton.” Unless you’re a Revolutionary War buff or an alumna of Hebrew School during the Cold War, the name will probably not ring a bell.
In spring 1939, however, as Americans tried to ignore the sound of goosesteps in Europe, Salomon was given an honor bestowed on only a select few from the pageant of history — a Hollywood biopic. Admittedly, it was not a feature-length biopic on the order of the “Great Man” epics that thrived in the 1930s, a decade in dire need of larger-than-life heroes, when audiences flocked to well-mounted hagiographies like “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), and “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939).
Salomon’s time on the screen lasted a mere 20 minutes and his name was not even in the title: “Sons of Liberty.” What made the film noteworthy was the fact that the son of liberty in question was Jewish.
Haym Salomon was born in Lissa, Poland, in 1740, the child of Jews chased out of Portugal. As a young man, he embraced the cause of Polish independence — he was a compatriot of the Polish sons of liberty Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościusko — and, when that revolution failed, he was forced to flee to England. In 1772, he emigrated to New York and lived the American dream before it became a thing. A gifted merchant and broker, he accumulated a fortune as an investor and ship builder.
In 1776, when the Revolutionary War broke out, Salomon knew which side he was on. He served as a spy for Washington, was arrested, sentenced to death, spared, arrested again, condemned again and escaped again.
Yet financing not espionage was Salomon’s decisive contribution to the American Revolution. As the strong right arm of Robert Morris, superintendent of finance for the nascent United States, he employed both his fundraising skills and his personal wealth to sustain the colonial forces, securing credit and funneling cash into the meager coffers of the Continental Congress. The likes of James Madison and James Monroe called on Salomon for personal loans and, wrote Madison, “he obstinately rejects all recompense.”
Perhaps he should not have been so generous. In 1785, at age 45, after nearly a decade of unstinting service and sacrifice, Salomon died in obscurity and poverty. A single line in the Philadelphia Journal and Weekly Advertiser marked his passing: “On Thursday died Haym Salomon, a broker.” The U.S. government never made good on the debt it owed to him and his heirs. To the extent he was remembered at all, it was as “the forgotten patriot of the Revolutionary war.”
Harry M. Warner, the second son in the Warner Bros. family business, determined that the forgotten patriot would be forgotten no more. Like Salomon, he was a behind-the-scenes businessman, working out of New York with the Wall Street bankers, whereas younger brother Jack L. was the hands-on supervisor at the studio plant in Burbank, a credit-hog whose name was imprinted in the company shield in the title credits: “Jack L. Warner Executive Producer.” (Tech geek brother Sam, who urged the brothers to gamble on the new sound technology, died in 1927, on the eve of their great triumph “The Jazz Singer” ; Albert, the quiet one, worked unassumingly as studio treasurer.)
Though Harry and Jack disagreed on a lot, they shared a seething hatred for Nazism — and were willing to put the company resources where their politics were. They closed the studio’s branch office in Berlin in 1933, soon after Hitler took power; they helped fund surveillance of pro-Nazi domestic outfits such as the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund; and they lent the house radio station, KFWB, to broadcasts by the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Most audaciously, while “Sons of Liberty” was in development, the studio was also producing “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (April 1939), the first explicitly anti-Nazi film by a major Hollywood studio.
Part of the studio’s anti-Nazi campaign was to remind American moviegoers of the best of their history — the foundational principles of freedom, tolerance and equality. To this end, Harry initiated a series of patriotic exhortations he called the “Americanism shorts,” a series of two-reel history lessons celebrating the great leaders and signature moments in American history. The titles give a fair indication of the flag-waving subject matter: “The Declaration of Independence” (November 1938), “Lincoln in the White House” (February 1939), and “The Bill of Rights” (August 1939).
Typically, shorts were bargain-basement productions that kept the studio machinery humming during down time between features. No one really came to the movies to see the short, so why shovel money into a tangential attraction? Yet Warner Bros. devoted enormous resources to the Americanism shorts, a far bigger investment than would ever be returned in rentals. The films were shot in the costly Technicolor format and each looked like a mini-A picture, with expansive period sets and costuming.
Harry doted on the series. When a reporter for Motion Picture Herald came to the Burbank studio to cover another story, Harry accosted him and demanded to know why he had not written about the Americanism series. The reporter sputtered that he hadn’t seen one. Warner grabbed the guy by the arm, planted him in the studio projection room, and ordered the projectionist to unspool a sampling. The guy wrote the story.
“Sons of Liberty” was the most elaborate entry in the whole series and the most provocative: about a figure that most Americans had never heard of, and a Jew. The project had percolated around the studio since early 1938, when it was originally conceived as a feature length production overseen by George Jessel and starring biopic heavyweight Paul Muni as Salomon. When Muni turned down the role, the scenario was downsized into the Americanism series.
Warner Bros. went first class all the way with “Sons of Liberty,” budgeting more than had been expended on any previous short — $160,000 with another $70,000 for publicity and distribution. Hal B. Wallis, the studio’s best unit producer, supervised the film. Director Michael Curtiz, fresh off the huge success of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), asked to helm it. The original screenplay was written by multihyphenate Crane Wilbur, who had long been obsessed with the story and who had directed several of the Americanism shorts himself.
The on-screen talent was of equal stature. Claude Rains, an A-picture star, read the script and campaigned for the part of Salomon. (John Garfield was also considered for the role; you can almost hear Jack Warner snap, “Too Jewish.”) Gale Sondergaard, the activist-artist who had won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Anthony Adverse” (1936), played Salomon’s faithful wife Rachel; the veteran character actor Donald Crisp played Salomon’s friend and fellow son of liberty Alexander MacDougall; and, Montagu Love, with fake nose but real teeth, played George Washington.
“Sons of Liberty” is as much allegory as history lesson. It begins with a fanfare of patriotic music and a long panning shot of refugees at the rail of a ship coming into port in the New World. The huddled masses bear a transparent resemblance to refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Unlike their 1939 descendants, the 1776 immigrants seeking asylum are welcomed to American shores.
Salomon is first seen at underground meeting of the revolutionary firebrands, the Sons of Liberty. (Rains plays the part stiff, stolid, and noble—with nothing of the sly panache of his most famous role, Captain Renault in ‘Casablanca’ .) “Persecution and intolerance drove my family to exile,” he tells his comrades. “I came to America in search of liberty. I found it here.” He repeats the sentiments when he is hauled before a tribunal for treason to the crown, emphasizing “the right to worship as we please.” Later, stormtrooper-like Redcoats burst into his home and drag him off to prison.
In the old Sugar House prison in New York, as Salomon awaits his own fate, a condemned man is distraught to be without a Bible. “A good Christian lad,” says Salomon’s Jewish friend Jacob, “who needs a bit of comfort.” The lad cannot remember the words to the 23rd Psalm. Salomon knows the words and he and the condemned man recite the psalm together. When they finish, the jailhouse door opens. “Nathan Hale!” barks a guard, summoning the youngster to his death. (In 1939, the name of the first great martyr to the Revolutionary cause, who at the gallows uttered his immortal last words [“My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country”] would have been recognized by every elementary school child in the audience. Today, even among undergraduates, and trust me on this, it requires a footnote. If the incident sounds too good to be true, it is: Salomon and Hale may well have been confined in the same prison, but the psalm duet is a Hollywood embellishment.
Also fabricated — mostly—is the dramatic centerpiece of the film. General Washington is in desperate need of an infusion of cash: his unpaid troops are demoralized and deserting in droves. He sends a courier to implore Salomon to raise $400,000 to meet the payroll.
The courier finds Salomon at synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur. He interrupts the service. The rabbi is not pleased, but when he hears the magical name “Washington,” he quickly backtracks: “A plea from General Washington must be heeded.” (The first rabbi did not arrive in America until 1840, but never mind.)
Not since “The Jazz Singer” had a Hollywood studio staged so elaborate a scene in a fully decked-out Jewish synagogue – men on the ground floor, women in the balcony. “Centuries of bitter persecution have taught us the value of liberty,” Salomon reminds the congregation. They must dig deep into their pockets to ensure the victory for the great cause that is America. The congregation, including the rabbi, donates generously.
The sacrifices of the community pay off. In 1781, in Philadelphia, the Salomon family hears the Liberty Bell ring out the chimes of freedom.
But Salomon — emotionally and physically broken from his ordeals — does not live to see the nation that he helped bring to life ripen to maturity. “Raise our children to be good Americans,” he tells Rachel on his deathbed, but his last words are from Thomas Jefferson—about self-evident truths, inalienable rights and the equality of man.
While telling Salomon’s story, director Curtiz and screenwriter Wilbur neatly finesse two trouble spots. As crucial as his contribution was to the Revolution, Salomon’s role was as moneyman, the oldest of Jewish stereotypes. “Sons of Liberty” needs to make clear that the Jewish contribution was not only in coin but in blood. During the synagogue scene, Jews in the congregation step forward to reveal the cost in life and limb: a congregant has given two sons to the cause, another has lost his arm.
The other inconvenient truth was that the War for Independence was fought against the British, then our natural allies in the looming battle with Germany — and, not least, the nation that was Hollywood’s most lucrative overseas market. So Washington’s army dought against the mercenary Hessians — the Germans hired by the British.
With the film in the can, Warner Bros. ad-pub department shifted into high gear. On May 21, 1939, “Sons of Liberty” was given a gala premiere in Chicago, the first time a short subject had been accorded the feature film treatment. The festivities included a $10-a-plate dinner to raise funds to erect a Haym Salomon memorial. Politicians were on hand to praise Salomon, but the biggest applause went to three clergymen—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—who in turn preached interfaith solidarity. (In 1941, a statue of Salomon, standing beside Washington with Robert Harris, was unveiled in Heald Square in Chicago.)
Special screenings were arranged for the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Warner Bros. purchased lavish full-page color ads in the motion picture trade press and designed one-sheet posters.
One of the theaters where “Sons of Liberty” was shown was the most prestigious venue in the country, Radio City Music Hall in New York. “Warners short in praise of Haym Salomon, Jewish patriot in the Revolutionary War, drew applause Thursday night,” reported critic Robert Landry in Variety, who also noted the disconnect with the rest of motion picture program. “With red-coated villains (in Technicolor), it was an ironic subject just after newsreels largely devoted to the King and Queen of England.”
Reviews were ecstatic, motivated, one senses, by ideological approval as well as aesthetic appreciation. “Transcendingly magnificent,” decreed Film Daily, “as solidly American as the 48 stripes and 13 stars in the nation’s flag.” At press screenings, hard-to-please critics applauded “Sons of Liberty” “spontaneously and vigorously.”
Predictably, the Jewish press lauded Warner Bros. for recognizing “the Hebrew patriot of the American Revolution and the friend of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson” and for showing him “in the uniform of a soldier of the American Revolution, a bible in his hand, a ‘tallis’ draped over his shoulders, the everlasting light above his head, and the tablets of Moses in the background.”
Everywhere, the reception of the film was filtered through the headlines of the day— the menace of Nazism overseas and the threat posed by its fifth column at home, the German-American Bund. “In an era of fanaticism, a period of bitter and unwarranted racial prejudice, it is well to recount the service of Haym Salomon, who loved America so passionately as to sacrifice fortune and life itself that liberty for humanity be forever established,” intoned the American Tolerance Society in full-page ads reprinted in newspapers around the country.
“Those who are trying to spread antisemitism would do well to emulate this Jewish patriot who risked both his life and his fortune for the cause of liberty,” admonished the Pittsburgh Press. The Showman’s Trade Review made an apt suggestion: “Too bad we can’t show it at all `Bund’ meetings.”
The most poignant endorsement underscored how timely and urgent the message of the film really was. It came from Ian Masaryk, the former minister of the no-longer-extant Czechoslovakian Republic, who watched Sons of Liberty and other patriotic shorts with Harry Warner in the studio projection room in Burbank. That March, the Nazis had barreled into Prague and erased his homeland from the map of Europe. “Every American should see the pictures,” said Masaryk.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of “Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century” (Columbia University Press, 2020).