Review: ‘Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream’

Hold that dream. Though the facts have always been hiding in plain sight, "Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream" connects the dots in persuasive ways.

Hold that dream. Though the facts have always been hiding in plain sight, “Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream” connects the dots in persuasive ways. Using both archival material and clips from classic pics, plus interviews with relatives of long-dead moguls, this fascinating though sometimes oversimplified item by documaker Simcha Jacobovici shows how that dream was in fact the creation of a bunch of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe earlier this century, rather than a product of America’s prior history. Intelligently written, if not always clearly organized, docu basically regurgitates Neal Gabler’s book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” and may bring a wider group of converts to the argument, both in festival and small-screen outings, which should be numerous. The film airs March 22 on A&E in the States.

Opening with provocative one-liners (“The American Dream was born in Central Europe”), the feature-length docu largely focuses on six key moguls from the Golden Age of Hollywood, some of whom came from towns within a few miles of one another: Carl Laemmle (founder of Universal) from Germany, Harry Warner and Sam Goldwyn from Poland, William Fox and Adolph Zukor (Paramount) from Hungary, and Louis B. Mayer from Russia.

Fleeing persecution in Europe, and embracing America with a no-going-back fervor, they initially encountered a new form of discrimination in New York — WASP control of banking, finance, higher education and movie production — before heading west to the rawer, more level playing field of California, where they created their own “golden shtetls.” Industrializing the filmmaking process by creating studio complexes, and even inventing the Oscars to celebrate one another, they imbued non-Jewish, all-American subjects with images and values drawn from their experiences back in Europe, with each of the major studios packaging the dream in ways that reflected its owner’s background and personality.

Russian pogroms on shtetls became ranch wars and the burning of homesteads in Westerns. And in down-home, white-picket-fence dramas, it is generalized Jewish values, such as the importance of family and community, reverence for mother figures and awareness of the evils of discrimination, that were made kitsch. As interviewee Aljean Harmetz proposes, maybe there was no cohesive “American Dream” prior to the Jews’ arrival in California and their invention of a new global religion, Hollywoodism.

Though the docu simplifies the complex development of Hollywood for its own convenience, and chooses its clips from movies with an impassioned single-mindedness, the basic argument is convincingly hammered home, including the grand irony that 20th-century Americans define themselves through images created by Central Europeans. The docu also addresses a darker irony: that the immigrant moguls — who bent over backwards to be accepted as WASPs (“from Poland to polo in one generation,” the joke went) — were finally torpedoed by the Protestant establishment they so assiduously courted.

Ever the outsiders, despite their wealth and power, the moguls themselves turned “collaborators” during the HUAC investigations of the late ’40s. Though their slow fall during the ’50s was due to more complex reasons than this film admits, it may well be true that, emotionally, “the fight went out of them” post-HUAC.

Producer-director Jacobovici, an Israeli-born Canadian documaker, and producer Elliott Halpern, both with solid backgrounds in sociopolitical fare, have assembled rare archival footage and home movies alongside a sizable lineup of crix and witnesses. Clips, which are not letterboxed, are often of poor quality, though the docu should look better on the small screen than on the vid-to-film transfer screened at Berlin. But it’s the power of the argument that wins here, rather than technical niceties or even the reminiscences of present-day relatives.

Per Halpern, pic proved hard to finance within the U.S., with a top-level turndown from at least one major company. CBC and the U.K.’s Channel 4 were the main supports in the six-year search for coin, with A&E coming in at a crucial moment.

Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream

Docu; A&E, Sun. March 22, 6 p.m

Production

An Associated Producers presentation of a Halpern/Jacobovici production, in association with Canadian Broadcasting Corp., A&E Network, Channel 4. (International sales: Behavior Intl., Toronto.) Produced by Elliott Halpern, Simcha Jacobovici. Executive producers, Michael Levine, Monty Montgomery. Directed, written by Simcha Jacobovici, based on the book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" by Neal Gabler.

With

Narrator: R.H. Thomson. With: Bernard Avishai, Judith Balaban, Walter Bernstein, Bruce Cohn Curtis, Thomas Cripps, Hasia Diner, Edward Dmytryk, Les Friedman, Neal Gabler, Aljean Harmetz, J. Hoberman, Richard Kozarski, Bette Lasky, A.C. Lyles, Irene Mayer Holt, Abraham L. Polonsky, Robert Rosen, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Daniel Selznick, Bob Thomas, Arthur Tracy, Betty Warner Sheinbaum, Cass Warner Sperling, Jim Zukor.
Camera (color), Mark MacKay; editor, Reid Dennison; music, Aaron Davis, John Lang; sound, Adrian Tucker; creative consultant, Stuart Samuels. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 12, 1998. 2 HOURS.

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