Samuel Goldwyn, one of Hollywood’s pioneer filmmakers and most distinguished producers, was a classic example of the poor immigrant who makes good. The oldest son of Aaron David and Hannah Gelbfisz, Hasidic Jews in Warsaw, Schmuel Gelbfisz was born in 1879. The family of eight lived in poverty in the Warsaw ghetto, where Schmuel spoke Yiddish at home and had Polish as a second language. His father died when Schmuel was fifteen, and, seeing no future for himself in Poland, young Gelbfisz left the next year and walked five hundred miles to Hamburg, where he learned the rudiments of glove making. A philanthropic glovemaker named Liebglid gave him eighteen shillings to send him to London, from which he walked 120 more miles to Birmingham, where he had relatives, who anglicized his name to Samuel Goldfish. In 1898, Goldfish sailed steerage to Nova Scotia, entered the United States illegally, and worked his way to Manhattan. Escaping from the horribly crowded tenements of the Lower East Side, Goldfish went to Gloversville in upstate New York, where he got a job cutting gloves. At first, he was unpopular—a loner, who avoided the Jewish religion. Balding, with large, pointed ears, a large mashed nose, and a high-pitched voice, Goldfish did not make an agreeable first impression. He studied business and English at night school and became a naturalized citizen in 1904. Talking his way into sales, he quickly became the top salesman in the glove-making industry and a stockholder in the Elite Glove Company.
In 1910, the now-prosperous Goldfish married Blanche Lasky, through whose brother Jesse, a vaudevillian and Broadway producer, he got a connection with show business. Three years later, after fourteen years in gloves, thirty-four-year-old Goldfish happened to see a “flicker” in which Broncho Billy jumped from a horse to a moving train. Fascinated, Goldfish became inspired with the idea of filming not two-reel shorts that were the staple of nickelodeons but features as long as Broadway plays. Obsessed, he persuaded Jesse Lasky to form a partnership with him, and they hired Lasky’s friend Cecil B. DeMille as director. Their entire capital was fifteen thousand dollars. To get some idea of filmmaking, the utterly inexperienced DeMille watched an Edison director film a few scenes. DeMille’s niece Agnes thought that the team succeeded through a combination of energy, greed, and ignorance.
Their first production was The Squaw Man (1914), a Western based on a popular play. DeMille was to shoot it in Flagstaff, Arizona, but decided the location would not do and cabled Lasky: “FLAGSTAFF NO GOOD FOR OUR PURPOSE. HAVE PROCEEDED TO CALIFORNIA. WANT AUTHORITY TO RENT BARN IN PLACE CALLED HOLLYWOOD FOR $75 A MONTH. REGARDS TO SAM.”
Thus Hollywood was born. When Goldfish looked at the print of this legendary first Hollywood feature-length film, he thought the lighting was so poor that people could not tell what was happening. “Tell them it’s Rembrandt lighting,” said DeMille. “For Rembrandt lighting,” replied Goldfish, “they pay double.” Goldfish knew nothing about films, but he learned quickly and made himself knowledgeable about the most minute details of filmmaking, though for the first six years of his involvement with films, he stayed in New York, not moving to California until 1919, when he was forty. The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company provided films for Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Distributing Company. Goldfish hired opera star Geraldine Farrar for a series of films, followed by a series starring popular comedienne Mabel Normand.
While his new venture was prospering, Goldfish’s private life was in turmoil, and in 1915, his wife ended their marriage in a bitter divorce. Goldfish shamefully neglected their daughter Ruth. Indeed, though he could charm people with an enthusiasm and self-confidence that created an aura of excitement, he was often irascible, blustering, and bullying. He broke with Lasky and Zukor and formed a new company with Edgar Selwyn, blending their names into Goldwyn pictures, with the trademark of a growling lion and the motto Ars Gratia Artis In 1923, Goldfish changed his name to Goldwyn, despite protests from the Selwyns, who threatened to sue him for “stealing half our name.” That same year, he divorced himself from the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, which became Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer (taking with it the Goldwyn lion and motto), and founded Samuel Goldwyn, Incorporated, as an independent producer. Thus Goldwyn is the only person for whom two film companies are named. In 1925, he became an associate of yet another company, United Artists, making a contract to produce films that they would distribute.
Having fled from Polish pogroms and the shtetl, Goldwyn himself became a sort of czar. Berg notes that most of the founders of the motion picture industry were Central European Jews born within a five-hundred-mile radius of Warsaw—Louis B. Mayer, Lewis Zeleznick (who became Selznik), William Fuchs (who became Fox), Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, and his nephew William Wyler—all self-made men who rose from obscure poverty to fame and fortune and then created the film image of the American Dream. Despite their power and wealth, these Jewish moguls still encountered anti-Semitism. Mary Pickford, who hated Goldwyn, called him “Shylock.” Goldwyn’s second wife, a Roman Catholic, had their son baptized and would quiet her blustering husband by telling him in Yiddish to shut up. Her mother would not even say the word “Jew” and called Jews “Orientals.” Even Goldwyn himself, when he brought Danny Kaye to Hollywood, had Kaye’s dark hair dyed blond to minimize what he considered Kaye’s too Jewish look. In the 1940’s, however, Goldwyn fought anti-Semitism, planned a film on the subject (which was aborted when Gentleman’s Agreement was released in 1947) supported Israel, and became president of the United Jewish Welfare Fund.
The same year that he joined United Artists, Goldwyn married Frances Howard, an aspiring young actress. She was in love with director George Cukor, who returned her love platonically, since he was homosexual. When she told Cukor that Goldwyn had proposed, he said, “Marry him, Frances. You’ll never get a better part!” She admired...
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