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April 04, 2003 - Image 102

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-04-04

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Arts Entertainment

Chico, Zeppo, Groucho and Harpo Marx in `Anim -al
Crackers," 1930, in which Groucho famously rhymes
"explorer" with the Yiddish word "shnorer" (beggar)
in the song "Hooray for Captain Spalding"

Gregorji Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm and
Jewish actor John Garfield in "Gentleman's Agreement,"
1947, about a gentile reporter who masquerades as
a Jew to report on anti-Semitism in America.

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in Steven Spielberg's film
"Schindler's List." "Perhaps no other American work on
the Holocaust has generated such epiphenomena," says
co-curator Jeffrey Shandler.

From Betty Boop To Seinfeld

New York multimedia exhibit explores the varied avenues of Jewish participation
in the entertainment industry, while revealing changing attitudes toward _Jewish culture.

FRAN HELLER
Special to the Jewish News

I

n the 1930s, Molly Goldberg, the
indomitable Jewish matriarch, brought solace
to radio listeners who identified with her fam-
ily's struggles during the Great Depression.
In 1960, the movie Exodus gave visibility to the
new nation of Israel and a way for American Jews to
be Jewish in America with pride.
In the 1990s, television's Seinfeld drew an
American-Jewish roadmap through the lens of four
self-absorbed New York yuppies.
For the past 100 years, American Jews have been
largely defined by the popular culture. In like man-
ner, the popular culture has been largely defined by
American Jews who helped to create it.
"Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and
Broadcasting," on view through Sept. 14 at the
Jewish Museum in New York City, is an innovative
exhibition showcasing film, radio and television
clips, as well as other artifacts, that immerse the
viewer in a virtual world of entertainment.
More importantly, it traces the complex relation-
ship between America's Jews and the nation's enter-
tainment media from the turn of the 20th century
to the present day.
The chronological exhibit begins in 1905 with the
arrival of the moving picture shows, 30-minute store-
front films, where, for a nickel (hence the term "nick-
elodeon"), the nation's urban working class could
escape the humdrum of their hardscrabble existence.
These nickel flicks, mostly French imports, were

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2003

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particularly popular on New York's Lower East Side,
home to half a million Jews, and the most densely
populated part of America.
A public crusade against nickelodeons by civic
leaders who considered the new entertainment a
vice, took on anti-Semitic overtones, leading to an
exodus from New York to southern California by
Jewish exhibitors and former garment merchants
like William Fox, Adolph Zukor and Marcus
Loew, who started their own film companies.
While Jews were important in making movies,
they were less prominent as screen subjects. The
silver screen's first cowboy, Bronco Billy Anderson,
born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Ark., and
Hollywood's original vamp, Theda Bara, nee
Theodesia Goodman from Cincinnati, Ohio,
obscured their Jewish backgrounds, setting what
would become a longstanding precedent in the
American film industry.
In fact, the first "Jewish" superstar, Charlie
Chaplin, wasn't even Jewish, though he was widely
perceived as Jewish, an assumption Chaplin never
denied.
Chaplin's "Little Tramp" was a comic type that
struck Jews and non-Jews alike as essentially
Jewish, note exhibit co-curators J. Hoberman, sen-
ior film critic for The Village Voice, and Jeffrey
Shandler, assistant professor of Jewish studies at
Rutgers University, in their scholarly and fascinat-
ing catalogue that accompanies the exhibit.
Ironically, The Great Dictator was the only
movie in which Chaplin would play an explicitly
Jewish character — a barber who resembles the

anti-Semitic dictator Adenoid Hynkel.
It is even more ironic that Chaplin's perceived
Jewishness was linked with Communist and leftist
sympathies, causing a political backlash and his
departure from America in 1952.

`Hollywood's Jewish Question'

One of the largest features in the exhibit, sponsored by
HSBC Bank USA, centers around the 1927 movie The
Jazz Singer, Hollywood's first "talkie." Starring Al.
Jolson, the immigrant cantor's son, the film was based
on the performer's own life story.
Hoberman characterizes Jolson as perhaps the greatest
of the Jewish immigrant performers who burst upon the
American scene in the early decades of the 20th century.
The Jolson story, which became the stuff of myth,
resonated with Jewish audiences torn between tradi-
tion and assimilation.
The prickly issue of Jewish involvement in the'
movie industry, which the curators have called
"Hollywood's Jewish Question," focuses on studio
heads and their successors.
That a new industry as well as a national pastime
was in the hands of recent Jewish immigrants of
alien background aroused the concern of "native"
Americans; the most prominent amongst them was
Henry Ford.
Ford, an ardent "nativist" and anti-communist,
believed American culture was endangered by the cor-
rupting influences of non-white races and immigrants.
He attacked Jewish control of the film industry in
his Dearborn Independent newspaper and in The

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