Hollywood's Walk of Shame: Anti-Semitism in Cinema's Golden Age
Originally published by The IB Tauris Blog, February 2012.
On the 13th of November 1939, former ambassador and lay Catholic Joseph Kennedy addressed a gathering of Hollywood executives at the Warner Brothers’ studio. ‘Stop making anti-Nazi pictures or using the film medium to promote or show sympathy to the cause of the ‘democracies’ versus the ‘dictators’’, Kennedy told his audience. Hitler liked Hollywood movies, he explained, and wanted the US to keep making them but the studio heads were ‘going to have to get those Jewish names off the screen.’ Producers obeyed without argument. Indeed, as Steven Carr points out, ‘By the late 1930s, the overt representations of the Jew in mainstream American film had all but evaporated.’ Evidence for this can be found in the archives of the motion picture censorship organ the Production Code Administration. In the file for the film Scarface, the censors told producers that, ‘the lawyer, Epstein, should not be so pronouncedly Jewish, if at all’. Moreover, the 1937 film, The Life of Emile Zola features a depiction of the Dreyfus affair and yet the word ‘Jew’ was not uttered once.
Following Kennedy’s request to the letter, many of the Jewish immigrants who famously became Hollywood’s power brokers literally changed their names, and personal histories, so as to publicly ‘Americanise’ themselves. For example, the chief executive of Twentieth Century Fox, William Fox, had prior to his American citizenship been called William Friedman. The popular actor, Paul Muni, star of Scarface, had changed his name from the decidedly Jewish, Friedrich Muni Meyer Wiesenfreund and screen superstar, Edward G. Robinson had been born Emmanuel Goldenberg. In addition, the movie mogul, Louis B. Mayer, who was of Russian extraction, chose the fourth of July (American Independence Day) as his official birthday.
Popular opinion on anti-Semitism during the 1930s has been somewhat skewed by the profundity of the events which followed the decade. Conventional thinking has seemingly archived anti-Semitism as a uniquely Nazi trait. Yet inside Hollywood it flourished during the depression years. One explanation is that anti-Semtism was a tributary of the anti-communist sentiment in US culture that, even before WWII, was starting to breach the dykes. The House Committee of Un-American Activities and the American Catholic Church more broadly were convinced that communists had already infiltrated Hollywood and were fast creating a fifth column there. This sentiment partly derived from the significant number of New York playwrights who had flown the width of the country to chance their hand at cinema. They brought with them the social commentary that had been established on the east coast stage and a verisimilitude, or at least a desire to present social authenticity, not before seen in Hollywood. Additionally, they imported a Europeanised social vernacular from which Hollywood had hitherto been isolated. Such was the case with the writer Samuel Ornitz who arrived in LA in 1932, only to complain to Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) leader, Rose Stokes that it was ‘the first fascist city in America’. Martin Quigley was a publisher of motion picture journals, a supremely well connected lay Catholic and one of the authors of the Production Code censorship document. In January 1939, he told the chairman of the PCA Joseph Breen (another well connected lay Catholic) that, ‘In many places in the industry, especially amongst our Semitic brothers, there seems to be a growing acceptance of the idea of radical propaganda on the screen.’ The dreaded word, communism, was not stated here though its spectre haunts the phrase as does the conflation of Judaism and anti-Americanism.
The American Catholic Church was also of the opinion that communism and Judaism were often working in tandem against the US. In the Jesuit newspaper, America, an editorial published on May 7, 1938, read, ‘If more Jewish spokesmen reiterated opposition to communism and fewer Jewish people joined the communist ranks, the American people would on this point, have a kindlier feeling towards the Jew.’ These sentiments existed despite the fact that the majority of Jewish studio bosses actually held rather conservative political opinions. Louis Mayer for example supported Herbert Hoover for the presidency and helped to undermine Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign by claiming that he wanted to establish a Soviet style system inside California, should he win.
Beyond the fear of communism though, anti-Semitism existed in the American cultural idiom as an established independent impulse. This was most obviously seen in the American Catholic Church. Firstly, anti-Semitism was a particular feature in the Roman Catholic Church in general due to the belief that the Jews were ‘responsible’ for the death of Christ. Secondly, unlike blacks, another group distrusted by the East coast, Irish influenced Church, who had been ‘well Christianised’ by the 1930s, Jews came with their own faith that involved separate practices and a different language. The Jewish faith has historically also put education as a central tenet and therefore ran into conflict in an area the Catholic Church considered its jurisdiction. Moreover, and again unlike blacks, Jews were in positions of economic and social significance throughout the United States and especially within the cinema. In short, they were seen as rich, influential and different. As a point of fact, they were considered to be much, much worse.
In 1933, the Bishop of Los Angeles, John Cantwell wrote to his colleague the Archbishop of Cincinnati, John T. McNicholas asking him what could be done to remove the Jewish influence from Hollywood. ‘Promises’, he told McNicholas, ‘made to us by the Jews… will amount to very little.’ Cantwell subsequently hired the services of a lawyer, Joseph Scott, to represent his case to the Hollywood studios. In 1933, Scott held a dinner meeting with the studio heads where he described movie-making Jews as ‘disloyal Americans’. Cantwell also spoke at the function where he asserted boldly that if ‘the Jewish executives’ wanted ‘to keep the screen free from offensiveness’ they could but had simply chosen not to. Cantwell’s speech was written by the chairman of the Production Code Administration himself, Joseph Breen, and subsequently appeared in the February issue ofEcclesiastical Review (of which McNicholas ordered one thousand copies to be delivered to Churches nation-wide). In fact, Joseph Breen made the above sentiment abundantly clear when he argued that the nation was being ‘debauched by Jews’ who were ‘dirty lice’ and represented ‘the scum of the earth’.
This was not idle ranting but actual policy. Indeed, as Glen Jeansonne stated, the 1930s represented the ‘high tide’ of American anti-Semitism. In the early 1930s, the Episcopal Committee, the Catholic body responsible for organising the Church’s pro-censorship campaigns, issued a statement which asserted that, ‘The pesthole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures must be cleaned and disinfected.’ Taking into account the above words of Joseph Breen, this language, referring to pests and infection, was clearly directed towards Hollywood’s Jewish population utilising, as it does, classical anti-Semitic imagery.
By the 1930s there were some twenty million Catholics in the United States located in economic strongholds such as New York, Chicago and Boston, compared to only 1.5 million Jews. Adopting a siege mentality, the American Catholic Church in partnership with a Catholic dominated film censorship body, considered itself at war with whole swathes of the modern world. The most immediate peril, so they thought, came from communism whose ideology threatened the Church’s existence (and perhaps America’s) directly. This became conflated with a traditional anti-Semitism. Indeed, the two superficially meshed well. Both seemed to come from Central and Eastern Europe, both advocated their own educational programmes and neither could ever be reconciled with Church orthodoxy. Through a combination of conservatism and fear of reprisals, Jews in Hollywood, contrary to the popular image, became meekly servile in the face of more potent political agencies resulting in a decade in which Hollywood produced dozens of films promoting the heroism of Irish Catholic priests and the villainy of Italian fallen Catholic gangsters. The Jews meanwhile, as far as Hollywood films were concerned, simply did not exist.