Life & Culture

Revealed: the truth about the ‘Jewish’ Hollywood


Hollywood is the town of legends. And, unusually for anything to do with legends, they are mostly true. But not always. The almost-true one about the few square miles known as Tinseltown is that, like it or not, for the best part of three quarters of a century it was a place controlled by Jews.

The studios, when there were such things, were Jewish-owned and, as that legend goes, they were not always the nicest people in the world, interested only in profits and not at all in art and good taste.

Two things wrong about that. First, that the studios weren't all Jewish-owned; second, they were far from being ignorant men without artistic sense.

Second point first: Harry Warner, the titular boss of Warner Brothers, may have said - if another legend is true, and it probably is - "I don't want that film good, I want it Tuesday", but Sam Goldwyn wanted every scene to look as though it had been designed by the finest artists around, and the stars' dresses created by men and women who could have been Paris couturiers (if the money had been good enough).

But all Jewish-owned? United Artists, created by D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin (who was once "accused" of being Jewish, but answered to his everlasting credit "I am afraid I do not have that honour"). Then there was Walt Disney, famous for banning both trades unions and, supposedly, Jews from his workforce. Howard Hughes ran RKO without much Jewish help. Before he took over, however, Pandro S. Berman was the man behind the Astaire (half or perhaps quarter Jewish,though no one knew) and Rogers classics.

Mack Sennett's brilliant musical show, Mack and Mabel, now playing in Chichester, puts it all into focus, to use an appropriate term. It doesn't dwell on the fact that he was an Irish Catholic or that his mistress Mabel Normand wasn't exactly a product of the shtetl, but is a wonderful testament to the fact that not everyone in command in the film business was Jewish.

But, as the show makes clear, even they had a pair of Jewish producers and financiers.

Still, don't rejoice too much if you are still embarrassed by what certain people think every movie ever made had Jews at the helm. And don't be too sorry if you would like to think that in fact they were - and discover it is not so.

Hollywood was invented in 1911 when Sam Goldfish (ne Shmuel Gelbfisz) teamed up with his brother-in-law Jesse L. Lasky to make the first feature film, The Squaw Man.

What happened as a result of that decision would make a Hollywood movie of its own: a Jewish Mack and Mabel. They had bought a script, they had contracted a star called Dustin Farnham (later to be the inspiration of a family called Hoffman) and a couple of scouts, one of whom had the unlikely name of Cecil B. De Mille, who caught the train from Grand Central Station to Flagstaff, Arizona.

All went well till the train stopped - in the midst of a snowstorm and to be greeted by seemingly a whole tribe of what were then called Red Indians. They got back on the train and sent a telegram the next day back to Manhattan: "We've found a place to make our film. It's called Hollywood."

And, soon, the film industry moved with them. A few tiny one- and two-reel films had been made there before but this was how the movie industry packed up, lock, stock and cameras, from New York.

Hollywood immediately seemed to businessmen to be a Jewish town, even if the only notable Jewish performer was the girl from Cincinnati who became known as "The Vamp", Theodosia Goodman. Cinemagoers got to know her as Theda Bara.

Goldwyn was typical of the men who became known as "the Moguls". They had all come from poor families and started to make good. Shmuel Gelbfisz changed his name to Goldfish before settling on Goldwyn, which was a mix of his surname and that of a business partner named Selwyn (a wag said they chose the wrong syllables and should have called themselves Selfish). He was a glove salesman earning $1,000 a week before deciding he was bored with gloves.

Louis B. Mayer, a cinema boss, had been a scrap dealer. The Warners worked for their father who had been a butcher, a bicycle salesman and a tailor (his sons had to lie down on a bolt of cloth and their dad would cut it around them.)

They all married Jewish women and then threw them over for nice, seemingly perfect, ladylike gentile girls, who knew where the bagels their husbands still craved were buttered. As Jack Warner Jr, son of the most colourful of the Warner Brothers, told me: "My mother was a typical Yiddisher Mama, who made the best gefilte fish in the world. My stepmother was not."

Food was in many ways the last refuge of their Judaism. Mayer ordered chicken soup, made to his mother's recipe, to be served in his private dining room every single day that he was in charge of his MGM studio - sometimes known as "Mayer's Gunzer Mishbocher" because of his nepotism. Warner Brothers boasted that it was the studio that believed in "Combining Good Entertainment with Good Citizenship", to which the Casablanca writer Louis Epstein added: "And the finest chopped liver".

My favourite story about Sam Goldwyn was when he made a "recce" of Broadway where his studio was making Guys and Dolls. "Is there anywhere round here I can get a good Jewish meal," he asked the Jewish choreographer of the film, Michael Kidd. "I told him, yeh there was Lindys at the next corner - not exactly kosher, but Jewish. "All the way Sam was salivating, especially when he mentioned chicken soup and kneidlach. The waiter greeted him warmly and Goldwyn asked what was the speciality. "Irish stew" was the reply. "I'll have it," said Sam.

The Moguls went to very Reform Temples, but generally only on Yom Kippur and mostly for Yiskor. This was an opportunity to talk shop and boast. And usually in Yiddish - and they still do. Just go into the deli Nate and Al's and see the business cards handed out just as Jackie Mason tells it.

The non-Jewish gangster actor James Cagney told me how his bosses at Warner Bros were discussing in front of him what they considered to be his "chutzpahdik" demands - in Yiddish.

Suddenly, Harry Warner realised that the New Yorker Cagney understood the language: "Shteigan," he broke in, "der Goy vershtate Yiddish".

In those days, they made very few Jewish films - until Warners made the first talkie, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer about the chazan's son who preferred the chance to sing on the stage than to do it in shul.

Jewish- themed films are much more common today and so are TV shows like the infamous but hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The Jewish entertainers like Jolson, Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Jack Benny set up their own club when the older establishments put up "Reserved" notices and kept them out.

The club, called Hillcrest today, is as successful as ever. It has a few non-Jewish members, but all have to guarantee a six-figure gift to the United Jewish Appeal and put up with a box of matzahs on their tables. In the early days, there was a lot of envious chat about the club from its competitors - particularly when it struck oil near the tennis courts.

For years, there was a showbiz synagogue in Hollywood - Walter Matthau was one of its wardens

All has not always been good for Hollywood's Jews. When at the end of the 1940s, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee came to town to root out Communists, it was as antisemitic as it was anti-Red.

All but three of the Hollywood Ten jailed for refusing to collaborate with the committee, were Jews. One by one, Jewish writers and composers were fired. In the House of Representatives , Congressman John Rankin made a speech consisting simply of listing the real names of Jewish actors, Daniel Kaminsky, alias Danny Kaye, Asa Yoelson, Al Jolson; Melvin Hesselberg, Melvin Douglas and so it went on.

Hollywood and its Jews recovered from that. Today, the studios are mostly parts of international conglomerates, like Columbia,, once owned by the former music salesman Harry Cohn, which belongs to Sony. But there is always Steven Spielberg, the best known Mogul of this era. And go into any agent's office…

There are still Jewish stars - perhaps more than ever- ranging from Barbra Streisand to the newly self-recognising Michael Douglas and his dear old dad, Kirk. And Adam Sandler.

As Melville Shavelson, the late writer-director- producer (of the movie about early Israel, Cast a Giant Shadow) and Bob Hope's chief writer, put it to me citing Hollywood's big sports teams: "We used to have Giants in this town, now all we have are the Dodgers." He would have liked Mack and Mabel.

Michael Freedland is the author of 'The Men Who Made Hollywood'

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive