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An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood Paperback – August 8, 1989
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
Almost all of the major studios were founded by men who more or less fit Gabler's description. There are a number of major and minor characters in Gabler's story, the most prominent being Adolph Zukor, who was instrumental in creating Paramount; Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal; William Fox of Fox Pictures, which later merged with Twentieth Century; Louis B. Mayer, who built MGM into Hollywood's largest studio; Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers; and the belligerent Harry Cohn of Columbia. There are in addition a number of crucial supporting characters, none more important than the legendary Irving Thalberg (I knew very slightly Thalberg's son, also Irving, an academic philosopher who spent his career in Chicago and who quietly funded liberal political causes--he paid for the Chicago Seven's legal bills at their trial--while quietly pursuing his university career), the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's last novel THE LAST TYCOON. We also meet the Schenck brothers, Nicholas and Joseph, the Rabbi of Hollywood Edgar F. Magnin, theater chain owner Marcus Loew, and an uncountable number of smaller figures.
One of the most striking aspects of the biography is how utterly these men suppressed their Jewish backgrounds in their films. Although THE JAZZ SINGER is the story of the son of a Jewish son rejecting the culture of his cantor father (Gabler points out that the son's story was also the story of the moguls), the vast majority of movies produced by Hollywood in the twenties, thirties, and forties contained no identifiably Jewish characters. Although an astonishing number of the people producing the movies were Jewish, it was as if they felt compelled to completely erase Jews from their idealization of American life. The was more than mere assimilationist aspirations; it was as if they were trying to expunge the weak fathers of their youths, the poverty they knew growing up, and become a part of a nation that largely rejected them. For two or three decades, at least, they could maintain this myth, but in the forties and the HUAC committee of the U.S. House of Representatives they found their fiefdom increasingly under attack for the industry's supposed inculcation of un-American (i.e., Communist) values. Many of their attackers persisted in the fascist depiction of Communism as an essentially Jewish cast of thought (in Hitler's writings there is no clear distinction between Jews and Communists, and at least one part of his motivation in attacking Russia was to attack what he weirdly considered a Jewish nation).
This is not a perfect book. For one thing, the scope is simply too large for any one book to undertake. And inevitably there are either serious omissions or details that don't quite tell the whole story. For instance, Gabler attempts to characterize the more plebian tendencies at Warner's by mentioning that one of their stars was Rin Tin Tin, which seems to hint at how far down the ladder they were in the Hollywood pecking order, but failing to note that for most of his life Rin Tin Tin was the number one box office star in Hollywood. Also, there is amazingly little discussion of the many Jewish performers in Hollywood. Some are mentioned in passing (such as Groucho Marx, noting his famous reply to the attempt by the Jewish country club Hillcrest to recruit new members following the stock market crash, that he wouldn't want to be a member of a club that would accept someone like him as a member), and Edward G. Robinson gets a few mentions, but for the most part actors are ignored. This is overwhelmingly a book about the top brass. And one can take issue with some minor depictions, such as the long discussion of the nature of Universal in the thirties, but no mention of the man who is most responsible for the visual look of those films and the director of all their major achievements, James Whale. The implication is that the distinctive look of Universal films was not determined by the former art director Whale. But this is all nitpicking.
I do have to take strong issue with one of the current featured reviews that criticizes the book because he believes that the American depicted in the movies was very much the America he knew in the forties and fifties. First, the book deals mainly with America in the twenties and thirties, a bit less with the forties, and the fifties almost not at all, so the time framework of his criticism is off. Second, how can anyone argue that the movies were not an idealization if one knows any American history at all? Certainly the poverty that my parents and grandparents knew growing up in Arkansas during those decades was almost completely ignored, THE GRAPES OF WRATH aside (and the subject of that film were very much my people). Any informed demographic study of the period will show that the depiction of women in the films was wildly out of kilter with the actual lives of women, many of whom had to take jobs even in the thirties, forties, and fifties to enable families to make it financially (the fifties is the only decade in American history of which the so-called traditional American family is even somewhat true). And Hollywood films of the period are notorious today for their depiction of race relations. Anyone stating that the Hollywood film in any conceivable sense depicted America as it really existed beggars credulity.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone either interested in the history of the movie industry or how immigrants sought to integrate themselves in their new nation. The book contains a wealth of information and I can't imagine anyone know coming away from it not merely entertained but better informed.
As Gabler wrote of these industry leaders: "What united them in deep spiritual kinship was their utter and absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country....something drove the young Hollywood Jews to a ferocious, even pathological, embrace of America. Something drove them to deny whatever they had been before settling here" (p. 4). Gabler believes that these Jewish leaders "colonized the American imagination" (p. 7). Over time, their films embodied American values; the irony is that they were made by people alienated from that culture. As Gabler concludes, "the Jews reinvented the country in the image of their fiction" (p. 7).
This is a very interesting and useful study of the role of film in defining the American character in the early twentieth century.
Neal Gabler states early on that the moguls' vision of "America" shaped not only the fictional realities of their films but the reality of America itself, in that it was through Hollywood that we developed much of our self-image. Apart from passing mentions, however, such as noting that our later vision of a lost, small-town America was largely shaped by memories of the Andy Hardy series beloved by Louis B. Mayer, he does not develop that important thread.
There are also a few frustrating narrative lapses that set me to reviewing the index to see if I'd missed something (which I hadn't). The author leads us through the story of Paramount's Adolph Zukor, whom he presents as perhaps the most important and emblematic of the moguls, to a point at which Zukor is poised to seize a commanding role in the national distribution of films. Gabler then cuts away, and when we return to Zukor we find that his expansionist efforts have failed and his position at the studio is now in jeopardy, though we are not shown how.
I recommend this as a fascinating beginning to an exploration. I hope there will be more books like it to develop the story further. Perhaps, in time, we will even see books that will treat the same questions with regard to popular music, comedy, and other fields so shaped by the Jewish people.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
He told us this as a story swifting between the author point view and characters themselves