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Cinema Judaica: The War Years – Part 3 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 123, and 4 of this interview.      

CCAR Press: You’ve been a great speaker on the Jewish lecture circuit since the time of the original Cinema Judaica exhibits in New York.  I want to ask you to step into your synagogue speaker shoes for a few moments in order to give our readers a sense of what it’s like to attend a Cinema Judaica lecture.  Let’s assume that you have just been asked at one of those functions to elaborate on the question of social impact versus political impact.

Ken Sutak: Okay.  Here goes.  Social impact is closely related to political impact.  In a democracy the social impact usually precedes the political impact.  President Roosevelt couldn’t get too far ahead of the American public, either. Whenever he had tried that before 1940, he was checkmated and his re-election prospects were seriously endangered.  He needed visible public support to sway a resistant Congress, and these bellwether movies wore their intentions to garner public support for military preparedness on their sleeves.  It is pretty clear for instance, as Cinema Judaica chronicles in an exciting way I hope, that the anti-Nazi films released by the major Hollywood studios from May 1939 through July 1941, especially the barrage from almost every major studio that began in June 1940, helped  Roosevelt push his key military preparedness programs through a divided Seventy-Seventh Congress, beginning in May 1940.  I am referring to the huge new ship-CJ Sample 8building and aircraft construction projects that operated on accelerated production schedules at breakneck speed, the Selective Service Act that established compulsory conscription without a Declaration of War, the Lend Lease bills that rearmed the British and later armed the Russians with war materials despite constant German U-boat threats to our Eastern coastline and numerous sinkings of our trans-Atlantic shipping.  This  informal relationship between the movie industry and the government during a time of national crisis enabled America to use the critical eighteen-month period before Pearl Harbor to prepare to wage an enormous two-ocean war with three Axis Powers in two hemispheres with multiple fronts that could not have been won by the Allies otherwise.

CP: Why is that?

KS: Because without the massive infusion of American-made tanks and other war materials that the British received in North Africa before the Battle of El Alamein in late 1942, and the Russians received before and during the Siege of Stalingrad at roughly the same time, North Africa would have fallen into Hitler’s hands.  For all military purposes, Germany would have won the war.  The Russians would have been overrun by Hitler’s Sixth Army  soon after Rommel’s Africa Corps had rolled its Panzer  divisions over Montgomery’s army and plowed through Egypt to reach Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, where the oil pipelines that supplied the Royal Navy and kept it afloat were located.   Then Rommel’s Africa Corps probably would have received the 180,000 German and Italian infantry reinforcements that Berlin actually dispatched to Tunis when Rommel was in retreat.   Together with the Africa Corps these augmented German forces would have been used to smash through the Caucasus in order to strike the main Russian Army on its southern flank and destroy it.   Hitler’s armed forces would then have been in position to prevent an invasion of Europe from any direction, and to reinforce the Japanese in the Pacific from both Egypt and Eastern Russia before American soldiers could even make their first landfall in Tunisia, where they were initially defeated as it was.  Meanwhile the Einsatzgruppen, the SS death squads that accounted for much of the actual killing of civilian populations in the Holocaust, would have continued their advance behind Hitler’s Sixth Army through Russia.  Additional Einsatzgruppen units had already been assembled by Berlin to follow Rommel’s advance into Egypt, Palestine, and the rest of the Middle East once Rommel had broken through the British and Australian lines at El Alamein, which would have extended the Holocaust into that region.  Now, that is what did not happen. Instead, the American war materials kept coming across the Atlantic in large amounts to resupply the British and the Russians because America had built so many ships to move them and so many factories to make them in the year and a half before Pearl Harbor happened.  And American reinforcements replete with more tanks and war materials were on their way to the North African front not far behind these critical supply ships because America  had instituted a nationwide draft with the bi-partisan support of both Roosevelt and his opponent Wendell Willkie even before the 1940 election took place.

As a consequence, Montgomery was able to repell Rommel’s advance in November 1942 and drive the Africa Corps back toward Tunisia. There the British, the Australian, and the newly arrived American forces converged on Rommel’s reinforced Africa Corps for several more months of fierce give and take battles in North Africa.  By the end of May 1943, Rommel’s once unbeatable army had surrendered, North Africa was in Allied hands instead of Hitler’s hands, and the Allies were in a position to invade Europe and win the war in Europe.  Of course, that would take another two years of tremendous joint efforts and extensive Allied casualties, starting with the Russian victories at Stalingrad and soon afterward Leningrad and then the invasion of southern Italy by the Americans and the British in July 1943.   Nevertheless, for the motion picture industry there is an important connection between what Warner Brothers began in May 1939 and what happened in May 1943 to turn the tide of the Second World War decisively in favor of the Allies.  We can infer a cause and effect relationship which culminated in that turning point because in August 1941 the isolationists both in and outside of the Seventy-Seventh Congress reacted to the movie studios’ role in this great military preparedness endeavor with an openly anti-Semitic congressional investigation of the studio executives’ alleged “warmongering” conspiracy with an interventionist President.  The ensuing hearings in the Senate then blew up in their faces and faded away by the end of October 1941.  That was because Americans, on the whole, having already moved from predominantly isolationist attitudes to predominantly interventionist attitudes over the preceding year and a half, rejected what the isolationists were up to by that time, just as they denounced the anti-Semitism in Charles Lindbergh’s ill-conceived September 11, 1941 Des Moines speech which was part of that whole circus.  For the period after the war was over, though, cause and effect relationships are not so readily apparent.

CJ Sample 9CP: Can you give me an example of that ambiguity?

KS: I can give you one that bridges both Cinema Judaica books and ties them together sequentially.  It is well known that anti-Semitism in America plummeted during the twelve-year period following the general release and wide popularity of the critically acclaimed 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement.  One often discussed study of that dramatic drop attributes it to the social impact of this one great film.  But was there really such a cause and effect attributable to this one film, very influential though it certainly was?  Gentleman’s Agreement was one of four so-called “social films” released in the post-war period between September 1945 and 1948.  All of them are discussed and illustrated with several of their rare posters and other promotional materials in my book, after being placed in context.  Gentleman’s Agreement was the only one of the four that attacked White Anglo Saxon Protestant anti-Semitism, country-club anti-Semitism if you will.  The other three “social films”—The House I Live In, Crossfire, and Open Secret—attacked the kind of American anti-Semitism associated with Coughlinism or the German American Bund.  That was the kind that gave rise to some really hateful street violence against Jewish Americans in Boston, New York, Providence, and Chicago before or during the war, usually perpetrated by teenage youths.  Which type of American anti-Semitism dropped more precipitously or more noticeably in the ensuing twelve years?  Did the early postwar Jewish biblical or historical epics released in succession—Paramount’s Samson and Delilah in 1950, 20th Century Fox’s David and Bathsheba in 1951, and MGM’s Ivanhoe in 1952—contribute more or less to that vital achievement?  Each one of these epic films was either the biggest or second biggest box office success of its release year.

That means among other things that they all reached a very large mass audience because they possessed crossover appeal.   Did the ensuing phenomenal box office success of The Ten Commandments, released in October 1956 just before the start of the Sinai War between Israel and Nasser’s Egypt, have even greater influence?  Did the similarly huge box office success of Ben-Hur, which was released to unanimous critical and also interfaith acclaim in November 1959?   Did Exodus, another big epic film based on Leon Uris’s blockbuster historical novel, which followed the premiere of Ben-Hur thirteen months later into the same reserved-seat theaters that Ben-Hur vacated?  Like Ben-Hur, Exodus became a big popular culture event in 1960 and 1961, but the book paved the way for that by creating a popular sensation in 1958 and 1959.  The only thing that can be said for sure, I think, is that all these films achieved a very significant positive influence on American society by acting in combination, whether they were designed to do that or not.   They were part of a continuous process that started with the major studios promoting religious and ethnic universalism during the War Years. Then, once Judaism was recognized by postwar social commentators and accepted by most of the country as one of America’s three major religious faiths, together with Protestantism and Catholicism, these mainstream films quickly and quite self-assertively also evolved into popular examples of Jewish particularism.  Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca in Ivanhoe,  Charlton Heston as a very physical Moses, Heston again as a Star of David-wearing, mezuzah-kissing Judah Ben Hur, and Paul Newman as the Israeli superhero Ari Ben Canaan, repeatedly declared and even insisted throughout these crowd-pleasing spectacular films that they were proud and determined Jews.  More than that, they did so in the context of the biggest action epics of the 1950s.  Gentleman’s Agreement and the other “social films” of the late 1940s were aimed at–and for the most part connected with—a mixed audience of sophisticated adults in large cities.  The Jewish-themed biblical and historical epics that followed them were aimed at everybody, everywhere. Millions of American kids and adolescents saw them at an impressionable age, alongside millions of adults of all ages.  Altogether, from top to bottom, across every age group and every religious group, the postwar Jewish-themed films from 1945 to 1959 demonstrated that the process of remaking our nation, which started in the middle of the Second World War, was a continuous and ongoing one.  But just how much any one of them contributed to that process, no one can say for certain.

To be continued…  Part 4 of the interview will address, among other questions, what we can learn from Cinema Judaica, The War Years about Jewish identity.

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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