Review

An Empire Of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood

  • by Neal Gabler. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1988. Hardcover, 502 pp., illustrated, $24.95, ISBN 0-51746808 X.

Reviewed by Jack Wikoff

Much of An Empire of Their Own reads like a press agent release for the stereotypical Hollywood movie producer. Having originally subtitled his book How Zukor, Laemmle, Fox, Cohn and the Warner Brothers Invented Hollywood, author Neal Gabler provides valuable information about those Jews who came to dominate the film industry during the nineteen-twenties, thirties and forties.

Undoubtedly the subtitle was changed to How the Jews Invented Hollywood to promote more effectively the myth that Jews singlehandedly created the film industry. Reading An Empire of Their Own may cause one to be ultra-conscious of whether a film producer, director, actor or technician is Jewish or not. One reviewer has written that "if misread, the book could provide fuel for anti-Semitism." This may or may not be true. What is certain is that the history of cinema is now old enough for us to see the extraordinary power this medium has had upon the political and moral values of the masses. Many Jews have persistently sought, and gained, this power throughout the twentieth century.

In concentrating upon the lives and personalities of these Jewish producers, mostly of Eastern European birth, the author glosses over or completely ignores the achievements of gentile, Christian pioneers of the film industry. It can safely be said that the earliest cameras, projectors, sound and lighting equipment, and raw film stock were developed primarily by gentile inventors. The same can be said of those artists who were the first to create artistic movies with true narrative content, creative lighting and special effects, panoramic scenic settings and fast-paced editing. Certainly Jews made many valuable contributions to early film, but Gabler vastly exaggerates their innovation. Creative individuals such as W.K.L. Dickson, William Friese-Greene, Thomas Armat, Georges Melies, Louis and Auguste Lumiere, and Charles Pathe are not even mentioned. Edwin S. Porter, the director of the early narrative film and first western, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was also an engineer who developed cameras, projectors and special effects devices. In An Empire of Their Own, Porter is dismissed as a Projectionist-turned-director." Thomas Edison is portrayed as a villain for his great power in the early industry. Edison and his partners created the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908, which until 1918 held an almost complete monopoly in camera and projection equipment licensing.

What these Jewish producers did achieve was to move very quickly from owning a few nickelodeons to controlling complete monopolies consisting of production, distribution and exhibition facilities. These men acquired this control because of an excellent sense of what the public would buy, intense personal drive, group solidarity as Jews, a willingness for hard work-and -- a lot of shady dealing. Gabler describes how Adolf Zukor and Carl Laemmle illegally used Edison cameras without paying the royalties and how Louis B.Mayer cheated the producers of Birth of a Nation by falsifying his bookkeeping, thereby making as much as $500,000 on the exhibition of that one film in 1915.

These Jewish producers moved to Hollywood from the East Coast in the teens and twenties because of the abundant sunlight, cheap non-union labor and distance from the enforcers of the Edison Patents Company. Zukor and his associates arrived relatively late in Hollywood. A woman from Illinois had given Hollywood its name in remembrance of her native state's holly bushes; several Englishmen, the Horsley brothers and Charles Rosher, created the first film factory in Hollywood, the Nestor Studio, in 1910. The Jews did not invent Hollywood, but they certainly did come to dominate it.

Throughout An Empire of Their Own Neal Gabler contends that Hollywood "was founded and for more than thirty years operated by Eastern European Jews who themselves seemed to be anything but the quintessence of America" and that "above all things, they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews; they wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men."

For Gabler The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, epitomizes in cinematic terms the conflict of the Jew in America. The elderly cantor of a synagogue on the Lower East Side of New York City assumes that his only son will follow in his footsteps and retain the orthodox traditions. But the son would prefer to be an entertainer and goes against his father's wishes. Years pass and Jakie Rabinowitz, the cantor's son, has become Jack Robin, a nightclub singer. The crisis comes when the elder Rabinowitz cannot sing the "Kol Nidre" on Yom Kippur and the congregation pressures the young jazz singer to fill in for his father. But Jack's Broadway opening happens to be the same night.

As Gabler describes this situation: "Jack's quandary is that he can bring Judaism to show business, but he cannot bring show business to Judaism -- which is to say that Judaism cannot be reinvigorated or revitalized in America or by America. It is alien to it."

The Jazz Singer has a happy ending. Jack's producers allow his Broadway premier to be postponed a night so he can sing the "Kol Nidre" in the synagogue. Then, in his show business triumph, the young Jewish entertainer appears in blackface, "one minority disguised within another," singing "Mammy" to his mother seated in the enthusiastic audience. The son of the immigrant gets the best of two worlds.

Viewed from outside the Jewish subculture, the anxiety and conflict that "assimilation" produced in these men does not seem as extreme as Gabler would have us believe. Although the Jewish movie moguls rarely kept kosher and seldom went to synagogue, it does not mean that they ever really stopped being Jews. Assimilation often simply meant acquiring ostentatious symbols of wealth and success such as country club membership, the breeding of thoroughbred racehorses, compulsive gambling and sexual highjinks in Las Vegas and Havana, season tickets at the opera and palatial mansions on both coasts. Many of these "role models" dumped their old Jewish wives and married younger gentile women. In retrospect these Jewish men never truly wanted to join the culture of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. What they sought was entree into those domains of power and influence which had once been exclusively gentile.

The most important question in historical and political terms is to what extent the Jewishness of these movie executives affected the content of motion pictures. An Empire of Their Own provides a number of valuable answers to this question. Gabler also reveals inside information on the East Coast boards of directors and stockholders who were the true powers behind the movie producers. A number of passages cite the various Jewish lobbying groups which also influenced film content. Several chapters are devoted to the Hollywood executives' response to the investigations of congressional committees into Jewish and Communist influence in motion pictures in the 1940's and 1950's.

In spite of Neal Gabler's ethnocentric prejudices (and partly because of them!) An Empire of Their Own will be a valuable addition to any collection of books about the political and cultural history of the twentieth century.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1989 (Vol. 9, No. 2), pages 243-246.