It Came From Minsk

From Neal Gabler’s brilliant and bristling best-seller An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) the Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has made an equally impressive documentary, Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream (Sunday, March 22; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E), guaranteed to raise both consciousness and hackles the night before we put on scuba suits to go into the tank for a deluge of Titanic Oscars. The men who built the studios that made the movies that created our popular culture would have been in steerage rather than tuxedos on the original Titanic. Each was an Eastern European émigré. It’s Gabler’s thesis that the Hollywood of Harry Cohn (Columbia), William Fox (20th Century Fox), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Louis Mayer (MGM), Jack Warner (Warner Bros.), and Adolph Zukor (Paramount) “was a dream, dreamt by Jews, fleeing a nightmare.” As they reinvented themselves in the “raw social environment” of the Far West – “from Poland to polo in a single generation” was the joke – these moguls also reinvented the way the rest of us pictured ourselves. Their big-screen images of an over-the-rainbow “shadow America” – of strong fathers, supportive mothers, rebellious sons, the common man, the picket fence, integration, assimilation, Andy Hardy, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart – “devoured” what we had previously thought was real. And Gabler further suggests that it all fell apart when HUAC came to town like the Cossacks on a pogrom.

This rich material is superbly served by talking heads (J. Hoberman, Bernard Avishai, Hasia Diner, Thomas Cripps, Aljean Harmetz, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Gabler himself) with provocative things to say, and who say them sharply. Also by pointed juxtapositions of archival material (the nineteenth-century migrations, Eastern Seaboard tenement life, the “golden shtetl” of Los Angeles) with snippets from the film-fantasy factory line, often in witty montage; and by apposite references, between promiscuous generalizations, to a range of cinematic images, from the pre-Jewish film world of a pro-Klan Birth of a Nation all the way up to a self-consciously satirical Barton Fink. Before they became moguls, the men who made Hollywood had been clothiers, merchants, traders in diamonds and fox stoles, yard-goods and dry-goods salesmen. They got into the movie-theater business in pre-World War I New York City and Chicago because, as one grandchild tells the camera, “people paid the money before they got the goods!” Dissatisfied with buying the film product of a Protestant elite that would later try to shut them out of the motion-picture industry as they’d been shut out of Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Harvard, they started to make their own films – which were, in a way, psychic yard goods.

Hollywoodism is a deep and sympathetic reading of any movie that ever embodied even the vaguest notion of the loner, the loser, the little guy against the system, the misunderstood and/or despised outsider. No wonder the first talkie was The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson as the cantor’s son. Metaphorically, King Kong was also Jewish, and so was Superman – a mild-mannered, glasses-wearing intellectual on the Clark Kent outside but a Man of Steel in the closet, forced to keep his true identity a secret. A western like The Kansan could be read as a parable about the slaughter of the innocents. And Show Boat, in which Ava Gardner as Julie pretended to be a black woman trying to pass as a white woman, spoke in code of the needs and fears of social outcasts wanting to belong. The movie musicals were based, of course, on Broadway musicals, most of them written by Jewish composers, if often, like Jolson’s blackface singer, borrowing the blues. (That Irving Berlin should have given us not only “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” but also “God Bless America” says something sadly Scott Fitzgerald-like about the fatal desire to please.)

The continuing drama of Jewish Hollywood was an upward mobilizing of prole moxie to middle-class values and small-town mythos, from The Grapes of Wrath to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Somehow it all ends up as A Star Is Born, whether the screenplay is by Dorothy Parker (1937), Moss Hart (1954), or Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (1976). The drama darkens, of course, John Rankin and J. Parnell Thomas ride into the golden shtetl to accuse them, with their swimming pools and yachts and second, younger, gentile trophy wives, of un-Americanism. Suddenly, instead of blackface, blacklists.

We are so accustomed to meretricious cultural studies that when the real thing comes along, generous and suggestive, we may fail to see how many windows and veins it opens. In Stanley Elkin’s finest novel, The Franchiser (1976), he might well have been writing about Hollywood when he invented Ben Flesh. From his godfather, Julius Finsberg, who made a fortune designing costumes for musical comedies, Flesh inherits not money but the use of it. He can borrow at the prime rate up to the value of the Finsberg estate, which he does – to buy other men’s names, especially those that have been franchised, like Arthur Treacher, H&R Block, Dr Pepper, One-Hour Martinizing, and Jacuzzi Whirlpool. This, too, is a parable of assimilation. Of what does the melting pot consist? Campbell’s soup, Kraft cheese, Kool-Aid. All the little yogurt cultures have been turned into one big Mister Softee. And which dreams does Willy Loman sell? “I come from Fred Astaire, everybody dance!”

But in such a musical comedy, after the immigrants have shortened their names, the Jews changed them, the slaves borrowed new ones from their masters, we are diminished. Tailored to the specifications of a culture that wanted someone else, we stick out at the wrists, our shoulders are wrong, we have to be taken in at the back or tucked in at the nose. Eating at McDonald’s, sleeping in a Marriott, we are strangers in a golden whatever. Distend the metaphor to include another remarkable novel like Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990), and we get these last words, in block letters on a postcard to Moses from Solomon in Hanoi: LOOK AT IT THIS WAY. THE SYSTEM WAS INSPIRED, BUT IT IS MAN THAT IS VILE. IT WON’T WORK. THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT. THE MANIFESTO. THE WORLD CONTINUES TO PAY A PUNISHING TOLL FOR OUR JEWISH DREAMERS.

Hollywoodism argues there has never been a medium better suited than the movies to express the fluidity of self-creation, the trading of futures on an identity exchange. And even so . . .

It Came From Minsk