The relationship between history and biography has always been difficult to define. Society and the individual are inseparable and interrelated; there is no individual outside of society, yet society is made up of individuals. The biographer necessarily distorts history by viewing the past through the life of his or her subject. What is alien to this subject, what occurs outside the control or knowledge of the individual, is reduced in importance or omitted, while contributions, even minor ones, are magnified. Social history, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of people in groups and sees vast forces operating in society that significantly negate the agency of individual human beings. At one extreme there is the psychohistorian who examines childhood development and the unconscious to explain human actions; at the other extreme is the social historian who ignores such factors and all but obliterates the historical role of “the Great Men.”
In An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Neal Gabler attempts to overcome this problem by welding prosopography—or collective biography—with social history. The resulting study of the Jews who invented Hollywood (his phrase), while failing to overcome the dualism between the individual and society, does provide a fascinating study of the growth of the film industry and the studio system.
Five of the six major studios were headed by Jews, marginal to and discriminated against by the dominant Protestant culture. Jewish lawyers, Jewish writers, Jewish agents, Jewish producers, Jewish exhibitors controlled much of the nascent film industry. Coming from similar impoverished Eastern European backgrounds at the end of the nineteenth century, they created an industry that had tremendous power to shape an idealized American culture. The images and ideas which they presented on the motion-picture screens, Gabler writes, paradoxically “colonized the American imagination”: “The movies were quintessentially American while the men who made them were not.” The Hollywood Jews emerged as moguls during a period of rampant xenophobia; they were outsiders longing for acceptance, looking in on the respectable gentility of the Protestant world from which they were excluded. In their drive to assimilate with that culture, they created on the screen an idealized America and in the process “reinvented the country in the image of their fiction.” In the process, they rejected their own history and traditions.
The Hollywood Jews had much in common. Most of them had fathers who were financial failures and mothers who were adored; most were immigrants from Eastern Europe; very few practiced their Jewish religion, yet almost all of them depended on Jewish-controlled institutions for financing; most had family connections that aided them in their business; most had little formal education. These generalizations provide the basis for Gabler’s psychologizing of non-Jews as well. Frank Capra, one of the great cinematic geniuses, maintained a “strange, symbiotic relationship” with Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Capra was Italian and not Jewish, as was the founder of the Bank of Italy, Amadeo Peter Giannini. When non-Jewish-controlled banks refused loans to the new film industry, Giannini formed an alliance with the Jews of Hollywood and backed their productions. Gabler’s explanation of this anomaly is that Capra and Giannini, like the Hollywood Jews, were marginal to the cultural establishment and had similar European impoverished backgrounds: outsiders united against the powerful common enemy. As for Darryl Zanuck of Warner Bros., the fact that he was not Jewish does not appear until page 349, where he is introduced as a Protestant from Wahoo, Nebraska, who had been in Hollywood so long that he “might have been called a Jewish fellow traveler, and his closest friend was a Jewish talent agent.”
To be Jewish then, in Gabler’s terminology, does not refer to religion. Most of the Hollywood Jews were not Jewish; indeed, there was a strong leaning toward Catholicism and Christian Science within their families. Nor is it reflected in cultural traditions: very few attended a temple or even held seders at Passover (only Carl Laemmle and Harry Warner did so). Gabler quotes “Rabbi to the Stars” Edgar Magnin as observing that film executives such as Laemmle, Harry and Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, Irving Thalberg, and “dozens” of others joined his B’nai B’rith congregation not for religious observance but “to secularize religion.” “Jews,” then, was the name given to them by the Protestant world that excluded them.
(The entire section is 1904 words.)