Tailors who invented Tinsel Town

A new book traces the early years of US cinema.


They were the men who created the most significant art form of the 20th century. Every time you go into a cinema, or even turn on the television, mutter a lehayim to the mostly Jewish businessmen who decided there was more to making moving pictures than showing them in fairgrounds on what-the-butler-saw machines.

The magic of these men, collectively called the Moguls, was to decide to create the equivalent of theatrical plays flashed on to screens and shown in palatial buildings without a trace of sawdust — and create Hollywood in the process.

It is sometimes argued that the Moguls — the men who ran the all-powerful studios in the golden years of Hollywood — were ignorant money-grabbers who only cared about the box office. That is a canard, even though Harry Warner, the head of the Warner Bros (they always spelt their name that way) once said: “I don’t want it good, I want it Tuesday.” What the studios did was make them both good, and ready by Tuesday.

The Warners, like most of their competitors, came from Russia (although the youngest, Jack, was born in Canada on the way over). Like their competitors, they started out in a different business. They were butchers who sometimes sold bicycles — they worked for their father who was also at one time or another a shoemaker and a tailor (he used to get his sons to lie down on a bolt of cloth and he would cut round them). Harry, his brothers Abe (who ran the cinemas for the firm, but would have preferred to be in the dress business), Sam, the scientific genius and Jack, the head of production, made their fortune from producing the first “talkie” film in 1927, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, the story of the cantor’s son who chose the stage rather than the shul.

Jack knew what made good films, but loved being the comedian in the family. He once entertained Albert Einstein at the studio. “Professor, I’d like to welcome you to Warner Bros,” he declared. “You know, I have a theory too — about relatives. Don’t hire ’em.”

I don’t want it good, I want it Tuesday

Most of the Moguls started off as traditional Jews who married Jewish women. As the years went by, their Jewishness declined, they divorced their wives and married out of the faith. If they ever went to a synagogue, it was for a few minutes on Yom Kippur. It was at the famous Wilshire Boulevard Temple that Harry Warner discovered that, days after selling the company, his youngest brother had bought it back again behind his back.

The Moguls’ main association with active Judaism was culinary — Louis B Mayer, boss of MGM, the most glamorous of the studios, insisted that every day, for his private dining room, the chef would serve chicken soup made to his mother’s own recipe. Warner Bros used to emblazon on the water tower outside their Burbank studio the legend “Combining good citizenship with good picture making.” The writer Julius Epstein, who with his twin brother Philip won an Oscar for a little thing called Casablanca, said: “And, I always added: ‘Great pickled herring’.”

Another connection with their past was language. The Warners talked to each other in Yiddish. Once, they were arguing about James Cagney’s latest demands for money in front of the star who grew up among Jewish boys in New York. Suddenly, Harry realised there was a problem. “Shveig,” he said, “der goy vershtayt Yiddish” (“Quiet, the goy understands Yiddish”).

Shmuel Gelbfisz was the man who really discovered Hollywood, with his partner and brother-in-law Jesse L Lasky. Gelbfisz had made a fortune from selling the finest gloves in America (he had walked from Warsaw to Hamburg, there caught a boat to Liverpool and finally sailed to the United States) and decided he wanted more excitement in his life — along with a new name, Sam Goldfish. He sent a team to Flagstaff, Arizona, led by a young man called Cecil B DeMille, to scout out a location for the film they were planning called The Squaw Man. Their train was met by a group of American Indians and a snow storm. So they got back on the train and finally sent a telegram back to New York. They had found a new place to make their film… called Hollywood.

Later on, Sam found a new partner, the theatrical producer Oscar Selwyn, and decided to combine the syllables of their surnames. So Sam Goldfish became Sam Goldwyn. One wag said: “They got it wrong. They should have used their other syllables and called themselves ‘Selfish’. That was one thing that Sam Goldwyn never was. He never borrowed from a bank, invested all his own money in making films that had to pass the Goldwyn Test of Quality. The man who had insisted on selling only the finest gloves made from the best leather and silk, hand-made by the finest seamstresses, brought the same standards to the movie business. Once, he went down onto the set where the famous Goldwyn Girls were dancing around a fountain of peppermint ice cream. He had been told that there could be no substitute for real ice cream. While the girls were dancing, he interrupted the routine to put a finger in the fountain. “Stop!” he ordered. “This is pistachio.”

This was the man who insisted on seeing every stage of production. When he made Guys and Dolls, he wanted to experience the real Broadway, the film’s location. “Anywhere here I can get a good Jewish meal?” he asked his choreographer Michael Kidd. The Lower East Side-born Kidd directed him to Lindy’s. All the way, Kidd revealed to me, Goldwyn was salivating at the gefilte fish he was going to order, followed by chicken soup with kneidlach. He told the waiter that was exactly what he wanted but then asked: “What’s the special today?” “Irish stew,” said the man. “Good,” said Goldwyn, “I’ll have it.”

Goldwyn’s record was amazing for a one-man studio, producing classics like The Best Years of Our Lives and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Louis B Mayer’s MGM studio was run like a personal fiefdom with a boss who considered himself, in turn, emperor, and then father, of sometimes errant children who made the mistake of asking for more money. If a star upset him, he was known to have knocked him to the ground with a left hook. But the films were, to use the favourite publicity words of the age, “colossal” and just a little “stupendous”.

Mayer was born in Russia and had joined his father in the scrap-metal business. It was after buying a theatre which then grew into a chain that he started actually making movies. The letters stood for Metro Goldwyn Mayer — although Sam had sold out his own interests and had nothing to do with MGM — but which could easily have stood for Makers of Great Musicals. It was also said to stand for Mayer’s Ganzer Mishpocha (Mayer’s whole family) — not just a joke in an institution where it was suggested the son-in-law also rises.

He stands out as the iconic Mogul, although he was given a run for his money by Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, producers of important movies like Gilda and The Jolson Story. When Cohn died, the rabbi was asked if there was anything good that could be said about him. “Sure,” he said, “two words: ‘He’s dead’.” The funeral was attended by 2,000 people. “Just shows you,” said the comedian Red Skelton. “Give the folks what they want and they’ll show up for it.” That was the real secret of the men who made Hollywood. The folks always showed up.

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