Hol­ly­wood’s Cho­sen Peo­ple: The Jew­ish Expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­can Cinema

Daniel Bernar­di, Mur­ray Pomer­ance, Hava Tirosh Samuel­son, eds.
  • Review
By – July 17, 2013

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

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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