Cinema Judaica: The War Years – Part 4 Interview With the Author

Jul 15, 2013 by

Cinema Judaica: The War Years – Part 4  Interview With the Author

CCAR Press is proud to be the ebook publisher of Cinema Judaica: The War Years, in partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which organized the related exhibition.  Though a departure from the usual books published by CCAR Press, this was a wonderful opportunity for collaboration with one of our Movement partners, and one that provides unique and fascinating educational content for our members and their communities.  In anticipation of the launch of Cinema Judaica, we took the opportunity to sit down with the author, Ken Sutak. Cinema Judaica is available through iTunes or Amazon.  Read Parts 12, and 3 of this interview.  

CCAR Press: What, then, do you think we can learn from Cinema Judaica, The War Years about Jewish identity?

Ken Sutak: Several things, I hope, but I will mention only the three that seem most apparent to me.  First, that it is and was, from the inception of the American republic itself, an essential part of the overall basic American character, just as it is one of the glues that hold the many different threads that comprise the social fabric of America together.  At no time was this clearer in our history—at least in retrospect—than during the War Years.  This was especially true during that critical period of the Great Debate between isolationism and interventionism, when the fate of the remaining democracies including our own, along with the fate of the world, along with the fate of world Jewry, hung in the balance.  Second, that the literary concept of the oppressed but steadfast Jewish female protagonist, which was very popular in mid-Nineteenth Century America thanks to one much-loved novel by Sir Walter Scott and his apparent inspiration, the Philadelphia benefactress Rebecca Gratz, was resurrected by American films and their underlying literary sources during the War Years.   Moreover, that was done with considerable critical and commercial success.  As a free society that tries to institutionalize equal rights, we have been enjoying the bountiful fruits of that revival ever since, but it began during World War II.

CJ sample 12Take a closer look at Paulette Goddard’s Hannah character in The Great Dictator, at Margaret Sullavan’s persecuted yet resilient Jewish heroines in The Mortal Storm and So Ends Our Night, or Katherine Taylor’s sacrificial lioness of a Jewish literary prop, played by K. T. Stevens, who falls prey to the frenzy of a Nazi mob in Address Unknown–all but the famous Chaplin film having been based on best-selling interventionist novels published in the very late 1930s.  Cinema Judaica, The War Years does.   And third, that there is a logical reason why it was so easy, and natural, for Leon Uris and others before him to Americanize the Israeli struggle for independence for popular consumption in America during the 1950s.  When the lesser known postwar “exodus” films like My Father’s House, The Illegals, and Sword in the Desert are placed in the context of a capsule history of the War Years from start to finish, including the wartime events leading up to Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, it becomes apparent that the first Arab-Israeli War was the last installment—for the 1940s—of the Second World War.  In all of these areas, however, whether you are able to tap into visceral issues of identity or not, it is important to approach the context visually, not just narratively.  Which is part of the appeal of the Cinema Judaica exhibits, and now, we hope, the illustrated Cinema Judaica  books.

CP: Why is that?

KS: Because we respond emotionally to a visual work or component more readily than we do to a verbal or editorial one.  That’s why Harry Warner wanted to begin the American fight against Hitler and Hitlerism at the movies, on top of all the anti-Nazi journalism that was around at the same time.  That’s why  Warner Brothers produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first openly anti-Nazi movie, and Sons of Liberty, a short biopic about Hyam Salomon that returned openly Jewish characters to the movies for the first time in five years, concurrently, for general release on the same bill in Warner Brothers theaters.  That’s why the German American Bund burned down one of the theaters showing Confessions, and why Hitler actually hanged some of the Polish theater owners who had showed Confessions in Poland from the rafters of their theaters.  It’s why the writers Meyer Levin and his wife-to-be Tereska Torres, he a former war correspondent with ready access to the press, she a former soldier in De Gaulle’s Free French Army, risked their lives to film a you-are-there docudrama movie called The Illegals which records an actual Aliyah Bet transmigration of Holocaust survivors from Poland to British Mandatory Palestine on a Haganah ship called “The Unafraid” during the last dangerous leg of the journey.  You have only to look at the online sample pages of Cinema Judaica, The War Years to see and feel what I mean.

Can anyone—Jewish or Gentile—look at a “star portrait” of Claude Rains as Hyam Solomon wearing a tricorn hat and a prayer shawl, opposite a pair of typical U.S. war bond drive posters featuring his fellow American patriots George Washington and John Paul Jones at their own battle stations, and not feel prideful in or of American Jews?  Or just consider the contrast between a complex editorial fact and a simple visual correlative in this starker example.  According to the statistics compiled by the Jewish Welfare Board Bureau of War Records, roughly 550,000 Jewish American men and women served in the American Armed Forces during World War II, out of roughly 11,000,000 Americans in total.  About 35,000 were surviving casualties of battle and approximately another 8000 were killed in action.  For a single ethnic group that represented somewhere between 3.4%  and 3.7% of the population of America at the time, that’s a fairly proportionate loss of life and limb and more than a proportionate participation in the wartime service of their country.  These statistics often surprise some people, especially younger Jews unfamiliar with the World War II history that their forebears lived through.  These statistics are cited in the narrative of Cinema Judiaca, The War Years.   Standing alone, though, they don’t necessarily carry an emotional wallop that brings fundamental feelings of identity to the surface.  However, I don’t think any audience, especially a Jewish audience, can watch the scene in The Sands of Iwo Jima where an American Marine, part of John Wayne’s multi-ethnic combat platoon, falls mortally wounded in battle with the Japanese and then recites the opening Hebrew words of the Shema before he dies on Mount Suribachi, and come away from that scene unmoved—or, if it’s a Jewish audience watching that scene, unaware that his or her Jewish identity is inextricably linked with the multi-ethnic and multi-religious identity of this country.  That’s the kind of War Years moment that grabs you by the throat and squeezes your most primal feelings up into the emotive lobes of your brain, like the effect of loud lightening in a storm.

CP: You just mentioned younger Jews, the ones that many of our congregations most wish to reach.  How can Jewish communities use Cinema Judaica to teach?

KS: Cinema Judaica is a useful educational aide, a visually appealing book available in alternate e-book or print book editions, with accurate summaries of otherwise unmanageable amounts of historical information subdivided into teachable subject headings, in order to achieve reasonably obtainable educational goals.  The earliest instance of the use of the term “Cinema Judaica” that I know of is in connection with a Jewish film festival in Los Angeles that shows Jewish-themed movies of the War Years period, like Gentleman’s Agreement, accompanied by a lecturer who discusses the all-important context.  Unless you can teach the context, you can’t teach anything about Jewish-themed films except movie trivia and filmmaking technicalities: the quality of the performances, the writing, the direction, the cinematography, the score.   Audiences for Cinema Judaica festivals in L.A., which also have included concerts of film music, do skew older.   Yet they also include the TCM type crowds that contain a lot of avid young film fans who are eager to see and learn everything they can about classic films.  So why can’t that same approach, times ten, times ninety, work for our synagogues, now that such an educational tool is available?  Plenty of synagogues sponsor their own Jewish film festival at least once a year, but these events rarely showcase old movies.  They tend to showcase new Israeli films as a rule, which is great, because the American synagogues have become an important outlet for Israeli filmmakers gaining exposure for their films, and Israeli filmmakers need that support.

But if you also want to introduce younger congregants, particularly those of Bar and Bat Mitzvah or high school age, to the unpleasant but must-know subject of anti-Semitism in America as it once manifested itself, then sponsor a Cinema Judaica screening and discussion, show the nine-minute  The House I Live In on a double bill with the ninety-minute Crossfire, and make sure the audience has a chance to read “The Postwar Anti-Semitism Films” section of Cinema Judaica, The War Years for the historical background information beforehand, or build a multi-part curriculum around it.  It’s perfect for that, especially in the visual culture in which young people are growing up.  It’s like the way a synagogue book group operates, but with two visual components added, one being the representative movie and other the tie-in book  which is colorfully illustrated with rare posters and trade ads of the period, and which you can download onto your iPad.  With the book, there’s no need for an outside lecturer to talk on the same subject and answer questions.  Similarly, if you wish to teach the complicated subject of the key events leading up to the formation of the State of Israel after the end of World War II, in a manageable way, then show the hour-long DVD of The Illegals, which you can license for a nominal fee from Ergo Media online,  and offer your audience an opportunity to read “The Postwar Exodus Films” section of Cinema Judaica, The War Years beforehand.   Same thing for teaching “The Great Debate” period, or the period when we were actively engaged in World War II as a nation engaged in a war of national survival.  Same thing for teaching “The Postwar Holocaust Films” if you wish to discuss how  Eastern European filmmakers, some of whom had been concentration camp inmates, took it upon themselves to portray the camps they had been in as soon as permitted after the war ended.  You’ve got a whole curriculum right there.

CP: How did you go about gathering all the material in the books, and over how long?

KS: In this case the material consists of three categories.  First there are the films themselves, together with the underlying novels, novellas, or magazine series installments, if any, that preceded the film productions, which had to be identified, located, viewed, and read.  Then there is the illustrative promotional material for the films.  Much of it is rare, if still obtainable, which most of it still was, and is.   Without enough of it the exhibits would not have been possible, nor the books as a practical matter, although for the books all I needed was high res photographic images.   Finally there are the secondary research sources, some of which are out of print, but findable, for both the movie history and the general wartime history, along with as many of the original distributor’s pressbooks for the films as could be found.   Pressbooks are primary movie memorabilia too, but of an informative, factual type.  It took me about four years of off and on effort to collect enough representative primary material—original posters, trade ads, pressbooks, rare scene stills or publicity photos, and the like—to mount a small War Years exhibit and the larger Epic Cycle exhibit, and to watch or learn more about all the films.  A lot of the exhibit items were located and obtained on Ebay, most of it inexpensively.  Some of them were purchased or borrowed from dealers, some of them were borrowed from personal collections, or lent by owners who had inherited them from family members.  It took another two years or so to plan and actually produce the original museum exhibits at HUC-JIR Museum.   During that time a book manuscript started to evolve, under the oversight of my agent, and it became the basis of the exhibit signage.  Throughout this time, and the lead-in time, I located copies of most of the films either on VHS or DVD or on the internet, and watched them whether or not I had seen them before in theaters or on TV.   I also read most of the underlying literary sources.

CJ sample 11However, the most time-consuming part of doing almost any book of an historical nature is reading, notating, and absorbing the essential facts in the secondary sources.   That was true for Cinema Judaica, The War Years though not so much for Cinema Judaica,The Epic Cycle, where I was already familiar with a lot of the underlying social and political history.  I am a fast writer but a slow reader.  Moreover, I make my living not as an occasional book writer but as an attorney.  I am a 24/7 litigator who doubles as an entertainment lawyer with a New York law firm. So all my research and writing on this two-book project had to be done during breaks from my litigations or my transactional work.   That took about another four years.   At the same time, because the books are broader than the exhibits, I was still gathering additional material for them.  Often, this entailed gathering information about whether or not any surviving copy of any poster from a particular film still existed, and if so where, or from whom I might acquire or license a photograph of it.  As you can tell from the acknowledgements at the end of  The War Years book, a lot of people contributed images of very rare posters, or surviving, sometimes one-of-a-kind photographs, or esoteric information about wartime events or filmmaking incidents that could not be come by otherwise.  Everyone who did so was enthused by the subject matter of Cinema Judaica, The War Years when I described it to them.  And very few asked for anything more than a contributor’s credit in return.  It was as though all these contributors of rare images for the book or rare artifacts for the museum exhibits wanted to be part of the overall project, almost to the same extent we are told by American social historians like Geoffrey Perrett that people wanted to be part of the war effort while the War Years were taking place.  To quote Perrett, “spirits soared.”  The actual visual stuff, real artifacts of that time period, not just the story they enhance, causes spirits to soar.  That said, I still had to go to Prague to track down the sole surviving copy of the original Czech poster for the 1949 Czech Holocaust film Daleka cesta, or Distant Journey, which like that film itself is owned by the National Film Archive in Prague.  The National Film Archive licensed its photograph of it to me for use in this book, which is the first time a color image of that surviving poster has been published.  I also had an unusual number of lucky breaks in locating some of the other rarest items.

CP: Such as?

KS: No film poster dealer in the United States, nor either of the two Jewish film archives in Israel, had ever seen or even heard of the window card poster for the 1947 film My Father’s House.   So I could only hope and pray that a surviving copy would show up on Ebay.  Then one day, one did.  It was the printer’s remainder, no less, in unused condition because that’s what one-of-a-kind printer’s remainders are, by definition.  Now it is part of the HUC-JIR Museum travel show.  I had no such luck locating any surviving poster for The Illegals, though. I don’t think there is one.  However, it turned out that Meyer Levin had taken some publicity photographs of the Times Square theater marquee when the film opened in New York City in July 1948.  Above the marquee had stood a big wall poster, and below it were some door panel posters.  Meyer’s son Mikael Levin, a career photography artist, gave me permission to publish some of his father’s photographs in the book. He also agreed to let the book’s graphic designer, John Bernstein, isolate the wall poster in the black and white photograph of the theater marquee and create a digital reconstruction of the wall poster with added colors for the book.  The owner of  Emovieposter.com, the online distributor of the print edition of the book, contributed nineteen images of rare posters from his archive.  One of them, the never-seen poster for the Warner Brothers’ Oscar-winning 1945 postwar short called Hitler Lives, which  warned Americans in that characteristic Warners’ style that Hitlerism would soon reappear again, only became possible to include in the layouts at the eleventh hour before the layouts were closed when an excellent condition copy of the poster miraculously showed up for auction out of the blue.  The images of the four impossibly rare and very valuable posters for the two Three Stooges anti-Nazi film shorts circa 1940 and 1941 were contributed by the Stoogeum, a specialized museum in Pennsylvania which is dedicated to exactly what its name implies.  Who would ever have thought that such a museum existed?

The two equally rare lobby cards for Sons of Liberty came from the collection of Ray Faiola, the noted soundtrack album producer and CBS executive.  The two rare original Walt Disney Productions cover artworks I came by accidentally, in conversations with a Disneyana collector in Canada and with a film memorabilia dealer in New York.   The latter happened to remember that he had a piece of pre-Pearl Harbor Disney anti-Nazi artwork buried in his warehouse in New Jersey which might be of interest to me.  As it turned out, it is one of only two known surviving copies, neither of them possessed by the Disney Archive.  Now it’s on display with the HUC-JIR Museum travel exhibit.   It is changing the way Walt Disney has heretofore been regarded in some Jewish circles, based on hearsay, because it proves that Disney sided with the interventionists against the isolationists before and during that congressional investigation I mentioned.  There is a rare original publicity photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt, from the photographer’s contact sheet, taken during the filming of her introduction to the U.S. release, presented by her son James through United Artists, of the 1940 British interventionist film Pastor Hall, which was based on the 1938 anti-Nazi play by Ernst Toller.  I came across it on ebay one day, where rare artifacts of uncertain historical significance just float by like flotsam sometimes.   That was also the case with what turned out to be a surviving original British publicity photograph for a key scene in the same film.  It was taken during the filming of the brutal concentration camp sequence in which Toller’s Lutheran protagonist wears a Jewish Star, prior to the Battle of Britain.  The on-set British photographer, Douglas Slocombe, subsequently became a famous cinematographer for movies like The Lion in Winter and the Indiana Jones trilogy.   Slocombe is now one hundred years old—no kidding.  He told me over the phone from London that he was stunned to learn that any of his photographs taken on the set of Pastor Hall had survived the Blitz, and that he was delighted that one of them was now on exhibit in the United States and going to be published in this book.   He asked me to send him a picture of his own photograph taken over seventy years ago because although he is blind now, he wanted his daughter to see it. In other words, there are a lot of images in Cinema Judaica, The War Years that no one, by and large, has had an opportunity to see anywhere else since the War Years ended.   I had an incredible run of  luck in being able to round them up in the nick of time before they could disappear from sight forever.

CP: So when will the second Cinema Judaica book, The Epic Cycle, make its appearance?

KS: Next year, probably.  John Bernstein, the New York graphic designer for art books who is responsible for the layouts and the eye-popping perfect color reproductions of Cinema Judaica, The War Years, will start laying out the text along with the Epic Cycle poster images as soon as we can start photographing another two hundred or more posters for inclusion.  A Cinema Judaica, The Epic Cycle travel exhibit has already started.  In the meantime, The War Years travel exhibit has proven to be much in demand among Jewish and secular venues alike.  And now those venues will be able to sell the print book edition of Cinema Judaica, The War Years on site, while the e-book edition from CCAR Press is available on iTunes and the print book edition is also available online from Emovieposter.com.

Read Parts 12, and 3 of this interview

You are invited to join us for a book launch, July 17th, 2013, from 6:00-7:30, at Hebrew Union College, 1 West 4th Street, NY, NY, 10012. Please bring ID.  

Ken Sutak is an attorney in New York with a specialization in entertainment law. In addition to the Cinema Judaica books, Ken Sutak has written or contributed to two legal books including The Great Motion Picture Soundtrack Robbery published by Archon, and two environmental reports published by the Mayor’s Council on the Environment in New York City.  Two of his famously long and influential film music essays, The Return of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Alamo Remembered, are available online (the latter with Technicolor scenes added) as internet republications by Pro Musica Sana and Cinemascore/SCN.  He is currently collaborating with the California-based writer Ken Dixon on another narrative-pictorial e-book, based on the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, for Emerald Chasm Entertainment.

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