Cel­lu­loid Strangers

Eric Wasser­man
  • Review
By – June 21, 2012

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.

David Cohen is a senior edi­tor at Politi­co. He has been in the jour­nal­ism busi­ness since 1985 and wrote the book Rugged and Endur­ing: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Foot­ball. He resides in Rockville, MD.; his wife, Deb­o­rah Bod­in Cohen, writes Jew­ish children’s books.

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