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How Jewish exiles from Vienna remade Hollywood in their image

When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened earlier this year, it faced criticism for neglecting the foundational role American Jewish immigrants played in the movie industry.

Its recent symposium and screening series, “Vienna in Hollywood,” planned long in advance of the opening, helped set the record straight. It highlighted the contributions of the European Jewish screenwriters, directors, technicians and actors who fled the Nazis, arriving to remake Hollywood with their own images.

Billy Wilder Image by Getty Images

“In the early 20th century, the nascent film industry in Hollywood was largely built by Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe,” the symposium and series website stated, “including many Austrians from regions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

This well-known truth may seem self-evident and in no way earth-shattering. But it was a belated appreciation of the enormous impact that Jewish emigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Billy Wilder, Vicki Baum, and Erich Korngold, had on Hollywood.

What Viennese and Austro-Hungarian Jews brought to Hollywood was an exiles’ and survivor’s adaptability, a world-weary cynicism borne of experience, an appreciation for breaking rules and beating the odds, and an optimism in the face of danger, death, and rejection. Examples abound in the range of Billy Wilder who shifted easily between murderous drama (“Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard”) and taboo-breaking comedies (“The Major and the Minor,” “The Apartment”) and Fred Zinnemann, who made morality plays out of Westerns such as “High Noon” as well as entertainments such as the musical “Oklahoma!”

Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson in ‘Casablanca.’ Image by Movie Stills Database

One session of the symposium, held over two days at the museum and at USC, focused on the contributions of Austrian women writers and exile networks. These included Salka Viertel, Greta Garbo’s favorite screenwriter, who used her Santa Monica home as a Hollywood salon, and Vicki Baum, whose “Grand Hotel” became an evergreen Hollywood concept.

“Jewish-Austrian women writers who found refuge in Los Angeles played an important part in the classic era of Hollywood as well as in the émigré community during World War II,” said the museum’s Doris Berger, adding that Vicki Baum and Gina Kaus had been successful novelists in Austria and Germany before coming to Hollywood.

Donna Rifkind, author of “The Sun and Her Stars,” a recently published biography of Viertel, told of the important role that Viertel played in Hollywood during the late 1930s and during World War II in establishing the European Film Fund with agent Paul Kohner, which helped bring European Jewish artists including Heinrich Mann to the United States.

But the prime example of the exile contribution was Billy Wilder, the focus of a second day symposium. Wilder was a master of channeling an exile’s frustrated desire, said Noah Isenberg of the University of Texas, Austin, whether it leads to murderous conclusions (“Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard”) or comic results (“The Apartment,” “Some Like it Hot”).

Eisenberg related that Wilder was so immersed in the sharp comedy of Berlin cafe society that there was a sign in his working office in Hollywood that asked: “How would Lubitsch do it?” referring to the urbane Berlin-born director Ernst Lubitsch who directed Wilder’s “NInotchka” with Greta Garbo.

Watching Wilder’s genius at play in “Some Like It Hot,” a comedy about artifice and about sex (wanting to have it, not having it, not being able to have it), struck me as being just as frothy as a Viennese kaffe mit schlag (coffee with whipped cream),where sweetness tempers bitterness. In Wilder’s work, humor is a shield for desire.

As in “Some Like It Hot,” love also triumphs in “Casablanca,” which the museum screened to cap the second day of the symposium. But under the direction of Michael Curtiz, the Budapest-trained director born Mano Kaminer, Humphrey Bogart does not go off into the sunset with Ingrid Bergman, but instead with Claude Rains for “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Greta Garbo

Source of Inspiration: Salka Viertel did some of her best-known screenwriting work for Greta Garbo. Image by Getty Images

The exiled Jews’ contributions were not just in directing, acting and writing. Panelists also explored Max Steiner’s creation of Hollywood sound, featuring such Austrian Jewish composers as Erich Korngold and Hanns Eisler, and another panel looked at relations between Vienna and Hollywood today.

In time, the majority of European Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis and came to Hollywood became American citizens, and their movies today are considered some of the greatest American movies of all time. “Vienna in Hollywood” celebrates their work, reminding us that Austrian Jews are as indelibly linked to Hollywood as kaffe is mit schlag.

For a complete list of the films and to get tickets check the Academy’s website.

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