J. Hoberman

  • Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History up to World War Two by Steven Alan Carr
    Cambridge, 342 pp, £42.50, July 2001, ISBN 0 521 79854 X

‘To be anti-Hollywood was, in a sense, to be anti-semitic.’ So said Budd Schulberg, the son of a pioneer film producer, a successful screenwriter and author of the quintessential Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? (a book that was itself accused of a self-directed anti-semitism). To be anti-Hollywood has also, at various times, been a way to enlist the rhetoric of anti-semitism to express sentiments that are anti-modern, anti-urban, anti-New Deal, anti-internationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Communist or anti-American. That, at any rate, is the argument of Steven Alan Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism, an impressively researched and closely reasoned cultural history, which takes up its theme in 1880, 25 years before the appearance of the first nickelodeons, and pursues it through to the US entry into World War Two.

Hollywood and Anti-Semitism is less a study of Jewish influence on American movies than an account of what Carr calls the Hollywood Question – which is to say, the ways that this presumed influence has been represented, and what those representations can tell us about the landscape of American culture. The Hollywood Question, Carr writes, has structured ‘an entire way of looking at ethnic agency in the motion picture industry’. The most celebrated recent examples are Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood – to which Carr’s book is in part a response – and its documentary analogue, Hollywoodism. (Other instances range from Hollywood fictions like the former screenwriter Dori Carter’s potboiler Beautiful Wasps Having Sex, to studies such as Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot.) Hollywood is captive to its own mythological origins. Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own sees it as the Jewish invention of a ‘shadow America’, an idealised vision of assimilationist immigrants who sought to reinvent themselves in ‘the image of prosperous Americans’. As his title implies, Gabler’s grand claim is that ‘ultimately, American values came to be defined largely by the movies the Jews made.’

A response to the remarkable success of certain foreign-born or first-generation Jewish entrepreneurs, the Hollywood Question was initially an expression of ‘native’ American xenophobia and with time became a way of commenting on the myth of the American Dream. Because the influx of East European Jews into urban America coincided with the rise of storefront peepshows as the most popular form of entertainment in the slums, the association of immigrant Jews with American movies dates to the nickelodeon era. Like the movies themselves, the nature of the relationship changed significantly once the business became an industry, relocated from the polyglot cities of the East Coast to the balmier climate of Southern California, and organised around half a dozen large studios, most of which were founded and run by Jewish businessmen of East European origin.

While the notion of Jewish Hollywood has at different times emphasised producers, exhibitors, writers, agents and performers, its focus has most often been on ‘movie moguls’ – a term which, in its ironic association with foreign conquest and Oriental despotism, requires unpacking. The stars aside, the first generation of Hollywood executives – William Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Jesse Lasky, Marcus Loew, Louis B. Mayer and Adolph Zukor – were, by the 1920s, the most colourful symbols of America’s dynamic, expanding motion-picture industry; and from the 1920s till the present day, observers have taken the Jewishness of the studio heads to explain the means by which Hollywood fashioned a seemingly universal form of public entertainment for an audience of unprecedented scope. At the same time, Jewish ‘control’ of the movies has been perceived as a considerable cultural threat. That a newborn industry was seemingly in the hands of recent immigrants of alien background was cause for concern, if not outright alarm. The moral sanctity of Protestant America was threatened by what the 1924 tract Hollywood as a World Center described as a ‘loathsome and degraded Orientalism’.

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