Celluloid Strangers is the story of the Gandelman brothers, four Massachusetts ‘expatriates’ living in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. The lead character is Simon Gandelman, a gifted screenwriter with Communist leanings and a politically passionate girlfriend named May Park. The story touches on organized crime (the Gandelmans all have a connection to Meyer Moskowitz, a thug from their old neighborhood), the Hollywood blacklist, labor strife, the Holocaust, and the birth of the State of Israel.
Many of Wasserman’s characters are Jewish, though for most of them, their religion is baggage they’d rather unload. The author builds his tale around the Gandelmans as they get deeply connected to the crises of the day, and with this, he covers a lot of ground effectively. The novel also makes good use of references to a ton of movies; some are real films and some just creatively imagined. The author’s reading of famous films is also inspired: Benny Gandelman’s interpretation of “Frankenstein” sums up much of what you need to know about his troubled character.
Unfortunately, the author’s grasp of history is limited. It’s not just that lots of little details are not correct (such as premature references to Audrey Hepburn and Lew Wasserman), but also that some points that drive the plot are off, such as having Simon visiting Auschwitz during World War II as the liberated death camp, deep behind Soviet lines in Poland, is somehow crawling with U.S. soldiers. Or having a major studio turning out hundreds of feature films a year, enough to withstand a strike without a scratch. (Warner’s, for instance, released a mere 20 features in 1947.) This novel would be significantly better if certain elements of historical fiction – its portrayals of American communists, trade unionists, HUAC hearings and movie studios – were more convincing.