The Jews not only created Hollywood, but also created the American dream. So goes the theory of Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. I’ve mentioned Gabler before. He is probably the best writer I know when it comes to talking about how entertainment has had an effect on the American imagination and culture. He also wrote the definitive book on Walt Disney. It’s called Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
In Gabler’s book on the Jews in Hollywood, he talks about how many Jews came to America and were not included in mainstream WASP America. They were excluded from this world of wealth and power by ignorant stereotyping. The early movie industry, and California during this time period, were things that were open to anyone. They were virgin territory. The Jews got into the movie business because it was a place they could find success because there were not cultural barriers to stop them. This book is really interesting and the stories of all of the early studio heads is tremendously fascinating. All of Gabler’s books are worth reading.
What was one of the most fascinating things in Gabler’s book, and something I would like to dive into more deeply, was how the modern day American dream was created by these people that were originally barred from it. The Jews, more than anything, wanted to be accepted into the mainstream. Louis B. Meyer, one of the early studio heads, even claimed that his birthday was on the 4th of July.
They didn’t want to be seen as outsiders so, even though most of the major studios were run by Jews, they didn’t make Jewish movies. They also did not want to anger the country, which was much less accepting of taboo subjects than we are now. In the early film industry they created what we think of as the traditional Hollywood films; movies that had clear moral codes which showed the best of American values. These movies usually had clear good and bad guys. Often these films showed the loving traditional American family. These movies showed the America that the Jews wanted to be a part of.
For the first time in history Americans were going to the theater. What they were often seeing reflected back at them in the early days of American cinema was an idealized version of who they were. These films helped to solidify in the American mind, which was a nation of immigrants, the notion of the American Dream.
I find it interesting that this dream, which every American knows, was helped along the way, if not outright created, by people that were originally outside of the acceptance of the mainstream. This dream which informs the way we think about ourselves, how people vote, so much of our cultural life, was simply invented in large part. That’s not to say that it has any less power because of it. It’s just that if we are to go forward, it helps to know this, as we think of how we treat each other and what our relationship is to one another as a people. All dreams come from the minds of humans. How do we make those dreams a reality for more people, as we travel down the road?