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A Kosher Hollywood For All.

When one reads Neal Gabler's detailed history of how Hollywood was created, there is a subtle irony to be learned. The subtitle of An Empire of Their Own is the most significant -- How the Jews Invented Hollywood -- for its implication that an ethnic group (mostly immigrants to America) could "invent" themselves and Hollywood through their determined belief in the power of entertainment (Anchor Books, pp. 432).

This book, first issued in 1988, has a paperback edition and was the subject of a recent A&E documentary by Simcha Jacobici. Gabler is a skillful chronicler of Hollywood history and especially excels in this subject as he illuminates the psychological implications of Jewish Eastern European immigrants' contributions at the turn of the 20th century, creating a new order which became Hollywood.

"In order to understand what may have been the chief appeal of the movies to these Jews, one must understand their hunger for assimilation and the way in which the movies could uniquely satisfy that hunger," writes Gabler. "Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country -- an empire of their own, so to speak -- one where they would not only be admitted, but would govern as well."

Tracing this "empire" through the fascinating annals of the founding Hollywood "emperors" and their successors, a pattern emerges in the account of cinema history. The book Brings the reader into the lives of the men who one associates with the names of Hollywood studios, who transformed the pioneering days of cinema into the "prestige building" of a film industry. Insightful details provide similar backgrounds of these scrappy Hollywood moguls who ultimately went to California to complete the invention in new environs, away from he New York establishment.

Gabler begins with the magnificent career of producer Adolph Zukor (Paramount Pictures), perhaps the first to promote the advancement of movies to the middle class, both by calling his company Famous Players and putting reigning actress Sarah Bernhardt in Queen Elizabeth and presenting the film as an event on July 12, 1912. By bringing films out of the penny-arcade form of entertainment to screens as a stage event, Zukor successfully sold his films based on classics to Europe, beginning what has become Hollywood's maligned but consistent global box-office domination that translates in every country.

Yet Zukor and the others first had to break the shackles of inventor Thomas Alva Edison, a shrewd businessman who was ready to have a monopoly of all motion-picture equipment that encompassed his patents and get a stranglehold on the film industry. A clear ethnic divide was formed between the Edison-backed Trust, consisting primarily of older white AngloSaxon Protestants, and what were called the "Independents," mostly ethnic Jews and Catholics, all battling to show films.

Carl Laemmle, who immigrated to America in 1893 from Germany, proved to be the "giant killer," initially circumventing the Trust by buying European movies and film stock for his Laemmle Film Rental Services. Universal Pictures was formed to make "independent" film productions to counteract the Trust films. His first film Hiawatha, made in 1909, proved that film production was as good a business as selling them.

Joining the battle of independents was William Fox, whose heritage as a Hungarian immigrant and success in the garment trade led to vaudeville theater and film. He followed the theme of these self-made men, down to their pattern of having strong mothers but weak and unsuccessful fathers. He joined the growing legion of independents who had a vision of elevating the entertainment business and started Fox Entertainment, later changed to Twentieth Century Fox.

The book explores not only the stories of these men -- including Jack and Harry Warner, Marcus Loew, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn and others -- through an engrossing film-like narrative, but also delves into the more profound inner motives of their wedging into the film world. This helps to broaden one's understanding of today's Hollywood industry.

"The most significant remnant of Fox's childhood, as for so many of the Hollywood Jews, was fear," writes Gabler. "Jews succeeded at the sufferance of the gentile establishment. Everything gained could just as easily be lost, and it was the provisional nature of success."

While the first part of the book enchants us with the men who made Hollywood, Part Two reveal what the men did with their money, women and opulence. Since Hollywood was basically a semi-wilderness when the Jewish movie entrepreneurs arrived, their studios and vast estates indeed resembled an "empire of the senses" where one could reinvent oneself, including raking on a new wife, to be far removed from the past.

The only factor that remained constant was the Jewish religion, where the Hollywood world of glamour existed. Although the synagogue and the rabbi were as theatrical as cinema and aligned with the mainstream, the Jewish concepts of family, tradition, hard work and loyalty were constantly being reinforced. The ground-breaking first talking motion-picture, 1925's The Jazz Singer from the Warner brothers, mirrored the problems of assimilated Jews, including its star Al Jolson.

Some of the excesses of the second generation perhaps undermined much of what the pioneers achieved and -- with the disintegration of the studio system -- led to the eventual corporatization of Hollywood. Yet their legacy remains vibrant, reflected in the rapport with audiences. Contemporary Jewish Hollywood moguls such as Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, who created the aptly-named Dreamworks SKG, buffer the book's premise of the dream-like power of the medium.

As Neil Gabler writes in his epilogue, "What the Hollywood Jews left behind is something powerful and mysterious. What remains is a spell, a landscape of the mind, a constellation of values, attitudes and images, a history and a mythology that is a part of our culture and our consciousness. What remains is the America of our imaginations and theirs. Out of their desperation and their dreams, they gave us America. Out of their desperation and dreams, they lost themselves."
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Video Age International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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