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 ebook is available through iTunes or Amazon. Read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this interview.
CCAR Press: What does Cinema Judaica, The War Years have to say about how Hollywood saw Jews and Jewish history during the period it covers?
KS: Perhaps the most important thing it says, implicitly, about the “Hollywood” aspect of your question is that we in our Jewish communities, especially, have to stop referring to Hollywood as a monothematic or monolithic force when it comes to promulgating or allegedly ignoring Jewish issues, Jewish images, or Jewish themes, which often overlap with general American issues, images, or themes. Otherwise, we will continue to overlook the people of this period who did things that we should take pride in, or in some cases, not. Moreover, the motion picture industry figures who greenlighted or put together the films covered by the book did not so much portray Jewish history as they actually made Jewish history, which quickly became part of the broad swath of American cultural, political, and even military history of the period.
CCAR: Can you explain that distinction?
KS: “Hollywood” in the 1930s and 1940s consisted of eight major studios. Seven of them were owned and/or operated by largely Jewish studio executives. They produced and/or distributed most of the movies Americans saw in their theaters during this period. These eight major studios were surrounded by a constellation of smaller companies. Many of the smaller studios were owned and/or operated largely by Gentiles. Like Republic Picturess run by Herbert Yates which made mostly Saturday afternoon serials and low-budget westerns from 1935 to 1955. Like tiny Walt Disney Productions run by the great popular culture innovator himself, which only made cartoons and animated features prior to 1950. Like little Monogram Pictures, the crime movie factory, to name only three that also produced and released some surprising Jewish-themed films featured in the book. These smaller studios were mostly dependent on five of the eight major studios for distribution of their own movies. They often took their production cues from what the majors made. The so-called moguls, most of them Jewish, who owned and ran the majors displayed a wide variation in their attitudes toward placing Jewish characters, themes, or issues in their movies after Hitler came to power in the 1930s. In addition to wanting to avoid bankruptcy once Jewish content was forbidden by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Goebbels in Europe, a major market, they had to be very careful about not getting too far ahead of their predominantly Protestant public in the US. Not to mention their predominantly Catholic vetters and censors embedded in the Hays and Breen Offices. That’s partly because their movies enjoyed no First Amendment protection by decree of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1915, and partly because there were Neutrality Laws in effect, and partly because there was open and sometimes virulent anti-Semitism in several sectors of the country.
By the end of January 1940, however, five months after World War II began with Hitler’s sudden invasion of Poland, these studio heads, their appointed censors, and their big domestic audience, of predominantly different faiths, all found themselves becoming bound together in an emerging, perhaps unexpected common cause, as usually happens in times of crisis in America, to the dismay of isolationists. Some of the Jewish studio chiefs, like Harry Warner and his brothers Jack and Albert, along with some of the Jewish independent producers like Walter Wanger and Jesse Lasky, had been hellbent on fighting Hitler and National Socialism and all other forms of political fascism through some of their movies, to the extent they could get those movies made and released, from the beginning. These were the boldest or the most driven producers, the people responsible for making classics like Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Foreign Correspondent, and Sergeant York. On the opposite side of the commitment spectrum, others like Irving Thalberg at MGM could not have cared less. In the middle ground at first were important figures like the Cohn brothers, Harry and Jack, at Columbia and Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and potentially aggressive leaders like Murray Silverman at United Artists and the lone Protestant studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Despite some hesitant starts, they all eventually threw the fortunes of their studios in with the Warner Brothers approach, releasing pivotal 1940 movies in the first half of that year like My Nazty Spy, The Mortal Storm, The Lion Has Wings, and I Married a Nazi.
Those early anti-Nazi movies rapidly broke down censorship barriers and opened the floodgates to more interventionist films. Most people went to the movies several times a week in those days, so the national debate between interventionism and isolationism heated up. All of these movies together with many similar ones were a big part of that national debate. They were designed to portray the pressing reasons, in stark visual terms as well as dramatic ones, why an unprepared America had to prepare pell-mell for an impending all-out war with Nazi Germany. In time, and just in time as it turned out, most of the American public came to agree with them. I think it is one of the great American war stories of the first half of the Twentieth Century. But it has been largely overlooked because these predominantly Jewish studio chiefs weren’t fighting on the front lines alongside Eisenhower and Patton and MacArthur. Jews and Jewish history were not only a part of this war story, they were a seminal part of it. Much like Hyam Salomon played a seminal role in the Revolutionary War.
CCAR: How did these films impact on how America saw Jews and Judaism during this period?
KS: That depends on which side of America we are talking about at any given point in time. The 1930s were a very tough time, for a lot of people and for a lot of reasons. By September 1939, when Nazi Germany crushed Poland in two weeks, there were over a hundred fascist groups operating in the United States. Almost all of them hated Jews and Catholics alike. Then huge changes affecting Jews and Judaism along with everybody and everthing else occurred in America during the period of 1939 to 1949. Not just during the Great Debate period of 1939 through 1941, and not just during the postwar period, but smack in the middle period. One writer on the Great Debate period and the middle period that I particularly admire is Geoffrey Perrett, although he too got the “Hollywood” part of the story wrong and dismisses it in a single paragraph. He also mistakenly placed the height of the Holocaust in Europe after the Germans began to lose the war, rather than before. But we all make narrative mistakes, we’re human, and those mistakes don’t diminish the importance of his 1973 book entitled Days of Sadness Years of Triumph, The American People, 1939—1945. In that book, Perrett calls the period of January 1943 through August 1945 the “Remaking of a Nation,” meaning our nation. That was when the British, the Russians, and we latecomer Americans finally were able to go on the offensive in North Africa, the Soviet Union, and the Pacific, after taking terrible beatings everywhere. So this was a very turbulent, fast-shifting time period to begin with, and the answer to your question will differ according to what timeslot in that spectrum the thrown dart falls on. The answer to your question also depends on how you go about measuring social impact, which is hard to do unless there is a political impact.
To be continued… Part 3 of the interview will cover, among other things, the relationship of social impact to political impact. If you missed it, be sure to read Part 1 of the 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.