This collection of twelve essays, with an introduction by the editors, covers a wide range of topics as it traces out a history of Jews in mainstream American film, from the early nickelodeon operators through the heyday of the studio system to the rise of independents in the 1970s and beyond.
As too often happens with volumes of this sort, the collection is a mixed bag that could have profited from sharper focus. Many of the subjects chosen by the contributors are only tangentially related to the theme announced in the book’s subtitle, and many of the essays that deal with the meatiest issues come off as perfunctory. A piece on Jewish immigrant directors in the 1930s and 1940s adds little to our received understanding of that generation of filmmakers, and an essay on the deracinated Jews who ran the major studios (Mayer, Cohn, Zukor, Warner, et al.) and Joseph I. Breen, the virulent anti-Semite who became their chief censor, makes their relationship seem far more adversarial than it probably was. (Whatever they may have thought of Breen, or vice versa, the moguls needed a moralist’s imprimatur to make their product commercially viable.)
Some of the essays that deal with narrower issues are among the most interesting. A piece by Sumiko Higashi on the Debbie Reynolds – Eddie Fisher – Elizabeth Taylor love triangle of the 1950s is a nice bit of cultural history, mixing sociological insight with occasionally jaw-dropping dish (even before Richard Burton reconfigured the triangle as a trapezoid); Vivian Sobchack has a field day deconstructing the ambivalence – and outright antipathy – of many, including herself, toward Barbra Streisand; Lester D. Friedman argues convincingly that Edward Sloman’s 1925 silent His People deserves masterpiece status; and William Rothman contributes a fine homage to George Cukor that makes much of hats.
Related: Jews and Cinema Reading List