TELEVISION

Jews in Tinseltown

Was the American Dream bora in Eastern Europe?

NOMI MORRIS March 9 1998
TELEVISION

Jews in Tinseltown

Was the American Dream bora in Eastern Europe?

NOMI MORRIS March 9 1998

Jews in Tinseltown

TELEVISION

Was the American Dream bora in Eastern Europe?

Jews and Hollywood, a touchy topic. So touchy that it took Canadians Simcha Jacobovici and Elliott Halpern more than three years to get funding for a documentary, and another year to secure archival footage. Jacobovici and Halpern, founders of Associated Producers in Toronto, were inspired by Neal Gabler’s 1988 bestseller about six early film moguls—all Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. But they were forced to abandon the title of Gabler’s book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, because it had proven too hot to handle, particularly in the United States. Even so, they had trouble getting old film stock until Canadian entertainment lawyer Michael Levine convinced the Bronfman family of Seagram renown that Jacobovici, himself an observant Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, would put the footage to good use. Once Seagram-owned Universal Pictures opened its archives, other studios followed.

The result is the more delicately titled Hollywoodism—Jews, Movies and the American Dream (CBC, March 8,8 p.m.). But there is nothing delicate about the film’s premise. It boldly asserts that a fantasy version of America as a land of opportunity sprang from the assimilationist aspirations of a group persecuted in Europe and then marginalized in the United States. Jacobovici coined the term “Hollywoodism” to describe the belief system that propelled some two million Eastern European Jews in the early

part of the century to choose American immigration over Marxism or Zionism.

The film traces how the Jewish founders of major studios—Adolph Zukor of Paramount, Carl Laemmle of Universal, the four Warner brothers, Louis B. Mayer of MGM, William Fox of 20th Century-Fox and Harry Cohn of Columbia—made their fortunes mostly in clothing and cinemas. Then they headed to the unfettered frontier that was 1920s California, and largely governed Tinseltown’s output for three decades. The movies they produced reflected their Jewish experience, showing that the outsider can make it to the top. “I’m not sure there was an American Dream before Jews came to Hollywood,” historian Aljean Harmetz says in the film.

Jacobovici and Halpern make their argument with characteristic flair, using more than 100 film clips in some provocative juxtapositions: footage of Russian pogroms is mirrored by early cowboy movies showing the torching of settlements; the arrival of immigrants in New York City is set to Judy Garland’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz singing Over the Rainbow. The crux of the documentary is that the moguls were not pursuing a Jewish agenda at all. ‘We are not supporting the anti-Semitic view, but under-

mining it,” says Halpern. We show there was no sinister Jewish cabal—there were real sociological reasons for why Hollywood evolved the way it did.”

In fact, the studio heads were bent on denying their Jewish identities in both their private lives and their films, in an almost tragic search for legitimacy. They did not dare make anti-Nazi movies until after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. And it was a Jew, Irving Berlin, who wrote both God Bless America and White Christmas. Their patriotic dream collapsed in the 1950s when the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted Hollywood Jews under the shield of anti-communism.

The film will make some uncomfortable by claiming Jewish authorship of what are viewed as core American values. But Halpern, 41, and Jacobovici, 44, have made a specialty of embracing tough topics. They dub their genre “investigative cinema,” which strives to combine the immediacy of hard news with the lyricism of documentary film. A seamless partnership—Jacobovici calls it a Lennon-McCartney marriage— has earned the duo a boardroom full of international awards. They won back-to-back Emmys for investigative journalism for The Plague Monkeys (1994), about the Ebola virus, and The Selling of Innocents (1996), about the sex-trade traffic of young girls in Nepal and India. Deadly Currents, a stark portrayal of the Middle East quagmire, earned a 1992 Genie for best feature documentary, and Plague Fighters, which chronicled the Ebola outbreak in Zaire, won two 1997 Geminis.

Jacobovici, who came to Montreal from Israel at age 9, launched his career with Falasha, the first film to expose the plight of Ethiopian Jewry, and it led indirectly to their 1984 airlift to Israel. He is now working on a feature about the lost tribes of Israel, and is again pestering the Israeli government to take an interest in an obscure group with Israelite roots—this one on the border of Burma and India. Such activist film-making, as 2 well as strategic partnerships S with broadcasters around the 2 world, has turned Associated 1 Producers into a rarity—a I profit-generating documenE tary company that now employs 15 people. Hollywoodism was financed entirely through pre-sales, thanks to the CBC’s bedrock support of the project. As Canadians, the film-makers believe they were close enough to the American Dream to understand it, but far enough from Hollywood to deconstruct it. As Jews, they were determined not to hide behind the same self-censorship that plagued the Hollywood moguls.

NOMI MORRIS