A provocative, original, and richly entertaining group biography of the Jewish immigrants who were the moving forces behind the creation of America’s motion picture industry.
The names Harry Cohn, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Jack and Harry Warner, and Adolph Zucker are giants in the history of contemporary Hollywood, outsiders who dared to invent their own vision of the American Dream. Even to this day, the American values defined largely by the movies of these émigrés endure in American cinema and culture. Who these men were, how they came to dominate Hollywood, and what they gained and lost in the process is the exhilarating story of An Empire of Their Own.
This book is not just about a religious tribe pioneering the birth of movieland but also the humanity and pathos that inspired the Big Bang of 20th century cinema. They came from the ghettos of Europe escaping persecution, turned their backs on impoverished upbringings, peasant parentage and created a celluloid dream world where they could rise to high society and forget their worries as well as our own. Having hit Hollywood’s genesis stride before, during and after the Great War, they retreated America into a 40 foot escapism where the silver screen was at first safe from unhappy endings. Some were workaholics who died young, others had family rivalries embroiled in domestic strife. But many had compromised their sense of personal identity to sell larger than life make believe and fit into the new world.
Through it all, these cinematic giants were steadfast to an early optimism of an America that refused to be down and out when theater pastime reflected our best and brightest showmen, players and storytellers. But it was not simply the vision of the people of the book but of the different ethnic groups within their ranks whose life philosophies reflected the subject matter of their productions. Laemmle’s Universal evolved from B movies to iconic horror films, Zukor’s Paramount reveled in lavish epic productions, Fox staged star system vehicle extravaganzas, Cohn’s Columbia feel good everyman allegories, Warner Brothers street tough film noir and Loew’s MGM lighthearted family fare and musicals. Downplaying their proud religion, their underlying ethnicities were also part of the white power structure majority of America itself to which most of them easily assimilated.
The only critical thing that can be said about this intricate portrait is that in its dedication to the personalities of the men who were the bosses of the early dream factory, it sometimes confuses the extent of their business influence with on the job credit of actual artists who did the work. All this when it was their underlings who were often the fall guys in the McCarthyism era when the big shot studio heads who bowed to the conservative status quo were besieged by blacklists as that same power elite turned its back on them and equated Judaism with a Communist menace. And so any ideals that they once clung to in the form of motion picture messages were usurped by their becoming victims of a system envious and jealous of their power and bent on antisemitic witch hunts.
Biased on the defensive as witness to the latter, Empire’s begrudging entertainment focus is on social politics and not the masterful quality of old classic Hollywood. And it gives this book a bittersweet slant that forgoes a wealth of content to explore the outsider psychology of success. In it we learn that moguls were smitten by movies with virtuous themes but often failed to live up to setting good examples behind the scenes. A largely right wing studio power structure born of a will to belong practiced a social exclusion that betrayed its utopian film vision. In many cases, for legendary figures unable or unwilling to see the big picture outside the myopic rose colored lenses of fame and fortune, good business was a matter of political expediency and self preservation. So their success did not always add up to happiness because power player relevancy faded with the passage of time and did not redeem their social well being in retirement.
For Jews shut out of other business destined to dominate the movie biz as poetic justice, the understatement of their legacy was an inclusive rainbow of American Dream contributions despite stereotyping and marginalization of non blue blood whites in image depiction and pay scale. The social conscience of America was captured by Sicilian immigrant director, Frank Capra, whose hit movies virtually made Columbia. Louis B. Mayer’s favorite family value film was based on a William Saroyan novel. The most prolific luminary to try to break the blacklist was not a member of the tribe but singer/actor Frank Sinatra, who was known for an Academy Award-winning short on tolerance long before it was even remotely fashionable. And last but not least, Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy became the All American star of the 1940s.
As a research tool and conversation piece, this book serves as a historical backlog for the reasons why golden age Hollywood remains the quality yardstick for movie media. The startup moguls were first generation upstarts who wanted to become a part of the land of the free without an agenda separating their vision of good entertainment from that of the heartland. They mapped their imagination to the pulse of what John Q. Public wanted. If it was politically correct or prudent, rather than exploit their successful status as pop culture executors, they used it for good will, as an extension of classic literate motifs and a force for education. Since they were salt of the earth from a much simpler time, they got off on the soft sell before hard bean counters took over and made sin and sinners a box office opiate.
If this has a poignant coda, it mourns tribal forces in La La Land who flourished as founding film industry fathers but lost themselves in real life as a consequence. They sacrificed their souls to lay claim to the moving picture zeitgeist but were disillusioned by identity crises in the struggle for success. The last part laments how obsolete players of old Hollywood were supplanted by a new breed prone to changing mores after the war years. What the enduring triumph of this book is is that it profiles that greatest generation of ingenious immigrants who gave Hollywood the gift of innocence that mirrored their own hopes and dreams for America. If you feel that you have to live in the past to see a truly great film, then it’s because of these immortals and they are owed a deep debt of gratitude for a Hollywood gone forever but not forgotten by movie fans with class, style and taste