Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream

HollywoodismSynopsis: From Columbia Pictures to Warner Brothers, the studios that gave rise to the Hollywood empire were all founded by innovative Eastern European immigrants and first-generation American Jews.

Called “a lucid, inviting work of social history” (The New York Times), this mesmerizing program tells several dramatic stories, including the rise of American film, the personal sagas of the people who shaped it, and the origins of so-called Hollywood values. Using never-before-seen home videos, film clips, and interviews with everyone from Carl Laemmle, cofounder of what is now Universal Studios, to film critic Leonard Maltin, this is a groundbreaking portrait of how Hollywood first began.

A&E® is proud to present a fearless and provocative look at how the founders of “America’s Dream Factory,” while struggling to reinvent themselves as Americans, managed to change the image of the nation itself.

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Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream 7.25

eyelights: the historical perspective of Hollywood that the film provides.
eyesores:  its limited exploration of momentous aspects of Hollywood history.

“Hollywood was a dream, dreamt by Jews who were fleeing a nightmare”

‘Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream’ is a documentary based on the book ‘An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood’, by Neal Gabler. Rife with film clips and archival footage, it provides an overview of the origins of Hollywood – of the six men who started it all, from their arrival to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century to the mid-’50s.

Originally produced for and broadcast on A&E, it was repackaged on DVD under the title ‘Hollywood: An Empire of Their Own’. I picked it up a few years ago as part of an A&E Biography boxed set featuring many documentaries on various Hollywood legends. ‘Hollywoodism’ had been one of the more informative ones, given that it had a larger scope.

Back in the day, there were five major movie studios, all established in the ’20s: 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros. All were brought to life by Jewish immigrants  from Eastern Europe, who had lived within a 500 mile radius: William Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Henry Warner, and Adolph Zukor.

Persecuted back home, they came to America to start over. They all changed their names in a bid to leave their past behind and to be accepted in this new life. They even went so far as to hide their heritage from their children, in order to give them a fresh start. Unfortunately, their options were incredibly limited, so most of them to struggle to find work.

Before they got into the movies, motion pictures were very anti-immigrant or critical of non-white Protestants; the biggest cinematic achievement before their arrival on the scene was ‘Birth of a Nation’. Racism and intolerance prevailed: it is said that Edison so wanted to keep Jews out of the business that he ended up driving them out to California.

…to what would become Hollywood.

These pioneers weren’t easy to fell. Tough as nails, they all brought their respective studios to life within a few years. Carl Laemmle even went so far as to found Universal City, with its own postal service, police station, …etc. He created a small movie-making city that exists to this day (although it has morphed to a certain degree through the years).

Their personal experiences translated in the films that they made. Universal had the persecuted monsters, Warner Bros. had the little guys (the losers, …etc.), Columbia focused on the “common man”, Paramount went with fantasy/escapism, and MGM brought class on a grand scale. On screen, their personal determination to survive translated as the will of the everyman to overcome obstacles.

Eventually, they created an image of America based on their own ideals, including a worship of the mother figure, a distrust of the father figure, and an idyllic life that was wrapped up in personal freedom, a sense of community, and patriotism. It was so popular with the masses that it became something to aspire to – an “American Dream” that persists today.

‘Hollywoodism’ also discusses other significant figures, such as acclaimed songwriter Irving Berlin, who was also a Jew and who expressed similar concerns and values as the movie moguls did. In fact, his songs were featured in many films and became standards. He’s also the author of “God Bless America”, for which he received a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1954.

Despite all their tremendous successes, the documentary gives the sense that these men remained desperate for acceptance even in their later years, that their early experiences had very much rooted in them a fear of persecution. It seems to suggest that they felt so close to the edge of being ostracized that they made decisions they wouldn’t otherwise have made.

For instance, this influenced their decisions during Hitler’s rise to power, when many of them tried to lay low so as to not attract attention to themselves – instead of denouncing what was happening. It also affected them when the House of Un-American Activities Committee started their witch hunts; for fear of losing everything, they agreed to a black list of Communist sympathizers.

The documentary gets a little thin by this point; we get an general sense of the direction that the studios took, collectively, but not really the individual decisions that were made. Of course, many of the moguls had died off by the mid-’50s, but it would have been nice to get a better sense of what transpired during those world-shaking and culture-changing years.

Still, although it doesn’t delve into the finer details of each man and studio, ‘Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream’ is an essential film for anyone who wants to understand the foundations on which Hollywood is built, to understand how it became and remains such a potent purveyor of dreams.

These men were the original dreamers, and their vision(s) still influences our culture today.

Date of viewing: March 26, 2014

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