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The Founding Fathers of Hollywood : AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN : How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler (Crown: $24.95; 491 pp.)

September 25, 1988|Charles Champlin | Champlin is The Times' arts editor.

Years ago at the elaborate annual SHARE fund-raising party in Hollywood, Phil Silvers and Polly Bergen did a number called "The Rabbi and the Nun," in which he and she, suitably costumed, argued over who had the most influence in the industry, the Jews or the Catholics.

The nun offered the likes of Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Bing Crosby and Leo McCarey, the director. The rabbi countered with Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, the Brothers Warner, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle and an inexhaustible list of producers, directors and actors.

The contest was so one-sided that at last the nun said in exasperation, "The next thing you know, you'll be telling me that our Dear Lord Himself was. . . ." Her voice trailed off.

The fact is that Hollywood, a.k.a. the American film industry, was "founded and for more than thirty years operated by Eastern European Jews," as Neal Gabler says in his lively and scholarly history of the phenomenon, "An Empire of Their Own."

He adds that the studio system was perfected by a second generation of Jews. Even now, in a Hollywood profoundly changed by the coming of television, the industry behind the cameras, from its top leadership through the ranks of producers, marketers, talent agents, business managers and legal counsel, is still preponderantly Jewish, although far from exclusively so and with far less sense of community than in prewar days.

The extraordinary paradox, Gabler points out, is that through their movies, the Jewish patriarchs painted an idealized portrait of an American society to which they were denied access. For Jews, one of the lures of the industry was simply that it let them in. "There were no social barriers in a business as new and faintly disreputable as the movies were in the early years of this century," Gabler says. "There were none of the impediments imposed by loftier professions and more firmly entrenched businesses to keep Jews and other undesirables out."

The mating of Jews and the film industry had indeed a kind of historical inevitability. The founding moguls shared what Gabler calls "a patrimony of failure." They had come out of hard times and oppression in Eastern Europe, and most, remarkably, also shared a heritage of strong mothers and weak fathers. It became the common drive among these men to break with the past, to commit what Gabler calls "a kind of patricide" and to embrace the new country.

They had a hunger for assimilation and, in the face of resistance and exclusion, "the Jews could simply create new a country--an empire of their own, so to speak . . . an America where fathers were strong, families stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful, and decent." The 20th-Century American Dream was to a considerable degree depicted and defined by Hollywood.

The industry leaders became superpatriots, although for years, their patriotism was held slightly suspect and there was, Gabler notes, a strong taint of anti-Semitism throughout the rancorous investigations of Communist influence in Hollywood, culminating in the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The same strain of anti-Semitism surfaced again this Summer in some of the far-right Christian protests against the release of "The Last Temptation of Christ" by Universal.

Rebuffed by the larger society they were celebrating, the Hollywood Jews constructed a parallel society of their own, and much the most fascinating part of Gabler's book is his detailing of the manners and mores of that society.

If the Los Angeles Country Club was closed to them, they created Hillcrest. They created Hollywood Park and collected thoroughbreds. Louis B. Mayer did this very successfully indeed. (Gabler quotes Scott Fitzgerald's Monroe Stahr: "the Jews had taken over the worship of horses as a symbol--for years it had been the Cossacks mounted and the Jews on foot.")

The Jews patronized the Hollywood Bowl, bought superb paintings and sculpture and supported all the arts. They built homes, each more palatial than the last. They became active Republicans, glad to be pals with Presidents, before and after F. D. R. They played polo. They demanded the best schools for their children. They created a social pecking order as ruthless as any in Boston or old New York.

Faith itself was an uneasy matter. "Guilt ran too deep for them to disavow Judaism entirely," Gabler says. But the founding generation tempered their faith so they could in fact assimilate without guilt, while later generations have been able "to be Jews again without guilt."

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