As the author of the new book, The American Jewish Story through Cinema, Eric Goldman believes you can chart the history of Jews in the United States by studying their roles in films: as actors, moviemakers, and moguls.
Goldman, an adjunct associate professor of cinema at Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary and a resident of Teaneck, will present this thesis at a Patrons Dinner of the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival at JCC MetroWest in West Orange on Wednesday, April 24.
He spoke with NJ Jewish News in a recent telephone interview.
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NJJN: To what extent did the early films involve Jewish themes and Jewish characters?
Goldman: In the early years the primary movie audience was made up of immigrants. A chunk of them were Jews, so many of the films dealt with Jewish themes. Some of them were not pleasant. I don’t want to say they were anti-Semitic but they were not very positive in their portrayal of Jews. One early example was Cohen’s Advertizing Scheme, made in 1904. Some were made by Jews but many were not.
Then there were Jews who came to this country and made films for specific purposes. Some were Russian Jews who were anti-communist and made films about the horrors of communism or pogroms in the first 15 years of the 20th century.
NJJN: It is interesting to note that the first full-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer, had a Jewish theme and a Jewish actor — Al Jolson — as its lead.
Goldman: The Jazz Singer is where I start my book. Here you have the first financial attempt to bring sound films to people, and it was something Warner Brothers very much gambled on the way they gambled on technological advances like Technicolor or Cinerama. The Warner brothers had some issues in terms of the future of their company and decided to roll the dice.
NJJN: Gregory Peck starred in the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement. Its theme of assimilation versus maintaining tradition has been a frequent theme in Jewish cinema, hasn’t it?
Goldman: Certainly in the early period, the Warner brothers realized it was a theme that spoke to America. Even though the main character was a Jew, the tug was between two generations — the immigrant generation and the new, young, want-to-be-American generation. With the technological advance of sound, it made The Jazz Singer even more salable.
NJJN: How did Jewish films reflect the way people in the audience felt about being Jewish?
Goldman: We can look at specific films for different times and gauge how Jews were doing. In the 1920s with The Jazz Singer you have a sense of the young American-born man who wants to break away. That disappears in the early 1930s. Jews in general disappeared from the screen for a variety of reasons — the Production Code, President Franklin Roosevelt and the Depression and the need to escape. Moviemakers themselves did not want to include anything Jewish.
NJJN: How did the Code inhibit films about Jews?
Goldman: In the early 1930s Hollywood was making some fairly racy movies. The Catholic Church demanded changes and ethnicity became a no-no. Jews disappeared from the screen by 1934. Then came the rise of Hitler and the fear by the Jewish movie moguls of being too identified as Jewish might possibly hurt their business. So you just didn’t see Jews on the screen in the late 1930s.
But there were some Jewish screenwriters who saw what was happening in Europe and said “this is crazy. I am not going to be quiet about this stuff.” In 1939, Confessions of a Nazi Spy came out and Washington went berserk. The House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings with slurs that “the Jews were trying to get us into the war.” Then, Charlie Chaplin said, “Screw you, this is too important” and he made The Great Dictator in 1940.
NJJN: What happened after World War II?
Goldman: You had a movement to start making social message films, like Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1947. The Jews in the Hollywood community did not want Gentlemen’s Agreement made. It is a study in American-Jewish fear. You had the American Jewish Committee putting pressure on one of the studios not to make this film. [Gentlemen’s Agreement is the story of a non-Jewish journalist who poses as a Jew so he can write an expose of anti-Semitism in New York.] Hollywood’s studio heads had a meeting on the Warner Brothers lot to figure out how to prevent Gentlemen’s Agreement from being made.
NJJN: Why did they behave that way?
Goldman: They believed if you made a film about anti-Semitism it was just going to light the fire. It would bring the idea of hating Jews to the American masses. Jews were just too timid and frightened.
NJJN: What is the “Jewish” situation now?
Goldman: There is a new generation where Jews are so totally comfortable that you are not seeing many movies about Jews, but many characters are clearly Jewish and nobody is concerned, whether it is an Adam Sandler movie or a Judd Apatow movie. You look at the Coen brothers; you may like their work or hate their work, but there are little Jewish elements in lots of their films. Steven Spielberg is a guy who is very comfortable with his Jewishness, and that is what you’re seeing today.