Is “Jewish” what is in the sacred texts of Judaism or is “Jewish” what a lot of Jews do? I’m fine with both definitions and more.
I remember working prole jobs, making tons of mistakes, and being told by Jewish bosses, “That may cut it in Seventh-Day Adventist land but that’s not how we do things in Jewish Hollywood. In your defense, you can’t help it. You don’t have the Jewish gene for excellence.”
Different peoples have different gifts. Jews, for example, have a gift for telling stories. Being outsiders in a gentile world, they have a gift for analysis. They don’t feel a need to kneel before the goyisha status quo. In fact, they might feel a need to subvert it.
The men who created the Hollywood studio system were Jewish, so does that mean there’s something distinctively Jewish about Hollywood movies? That question—how Jewish is Hollywood, really?—used to be considered anti-Semitic. Then in 1988 Neal Gabler wrote An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and made the question kosher. Gabler’s thesis was that the immigrant Jews who founded the movie studios were simply intent on assimilation and acceptance, and created an idealized America on screen, an enchanted mirror designed to flatter and unite the ticket-buying public. The Jews of Hollywood didn’t just subscribe to the American dream, they invented it. Jewish control of Hollywood could be a matter of pride, not awkward evasion.
I always had a slight problem with Gabler’s suggestion that the films themselves were an expression of the Jewish moguls’ point of view. Even if the studio heads were overwhelmingly Jewish, the directors, writers, and actors who made films were not. I’ll see your Cukor, Lubitsch and Wilder, but I’ll raise you Sturges, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Capra. How Jewish were those guys? Howard Hawks was an anti-Semite, according to Lauren Bacall (aka Betty Perske). Do we really think there’s anything Jewish about The Big Sleep?
Still, Gabler performed a valuable service, and his prodigiously researched tale of the founders and the studio system they created remains a classic of Hollywood history, even if the title is a bit of an overreach.
Now comes British critic and historian David Thomson, as much a provocateur today as Gabler was 30 years ago, asking once again: How Jewish is Hollywood? Thomson still thinks the movie industry was very Jewish, but with a twist. In his new biography of Jack Warner and the Warner Bros. studio, the latest volume in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, Thomson dispenses with Gabler’s notion that the moguls were patriotic flag-wavers and all-American dreamers. Instead he gives a fresh, subversive spin to Gabler’s now classic thesis. MGM may have peddled sunny assimilationism, and Paramount, Old World sophistication, but Warner Bros. courageously reflected the grittier aspects of Depression-era America and wasn’t afraid to make pictures that tapped into the anarchic and libidinous seams of the American dream.
Jack Warner was the youngest of the Warner brother and the least likely choice ever for Yale’s dignified series of Jewish biographies. Traditionally, the subjects have been a pantheon of Jewish cultural and political eminences, from Rabbi Akiva to David Ben-Gurion.
Jack Warner, however, was a real prick. He cheated anyone he could, including his wives and his brothers. He was uneducated, boorish, and a vulgarian; dishonest in business, abusive to family and employees, and a serial exploiter of women—among his many other achievements, he may very well have invented the casting couch.
As for leading any kind of Jewish life, Jack didn’t even want to be Jewish. He said he couldn’t remember his family’s original name. (It was Wonsal, or possibly Wonskolasor.) His older brother Harry was the real Jew: an ethical, religiously-observant man. Naturally, Jack betrayed him, stealing control of the company from behind Harry’s back. But as Thomson makes clear, all those wonderful films, those Warner Bros. classics of the 1930s and ’40s, were the projections of only one of the brothers: that randy, grinning gangster, Jack Warner.