When the Moguls Ruled Hollywood

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`THIS book begins, as Hollywood itself did,'' writes Neal Gabler, ``with something of a paradox. ``The paradox is that the American film industry, which Will Hays, president of the original Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America called `the quintessence of what we mean by ``America'',' was founded and for more than 30 years operated by Eastern European Jews who themselves seemed to be anything but the quintessence of America.''

In his compelling new book, ``An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,'' Mr. Gabler tells the stories of Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, the four Warner brothers, and Harry Cohn, founders respectively of Paramount Pictures, Universal, 20th Century-Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros., and Columbia Pictures. All were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who had grown up destitute. Trying to assimilate into a new nation and culture ``when nativism and xenophobia were rampant,'' says Gabler, they headed west, gravitating to the film industry.

``If the Jews were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and status in America, the movies offered an ingenious option,'' writes Gabler. ``Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country ... one where they would be admitted, but would govern as well.''

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In doing so, ``the Hollywood Jews created a powerful cluster of images and ideas - so powerful that, in a sense, they colonized the American imagination.''

The book's original thesis and thorough grounding as a social history have been greeted with wide critical acclaim. ``Countless observers have written brilliantly about the tail and trunk of Hollywood,'' wrote one critic, ``but no book has quite gotten the whole animal that Mr. Gabler's does.'' A brief interview with Gabler, a film critic (formerly on PBS's ``Sneak Previews'' program), follows:

MONITOR: How did you generate your thesis?

GABLER: I was teaching film history at the University of Michigan and it occurred to me that all of these individuals are mentioned in the literature, but the fact that they were Eastern European Jews is sort of glossed over. No one ever drew any relationship between the fact that arguably the most significant industry in shaping the American image and consciousness was wrung by a remarkably homogenous group of individuals.

MONITOR: You write that they would ``create [America's] values and myths, its traditions and archetypes. It would be an America where fathers were strong, families stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful, and decent.'' Weren't these men products of America as well?

GABLER: I'm not saying they created this full blown out of nothing. I mean there are images of American success, Horatio Alger, etc., that build upon what preceded it. But the notion of the middle-class American in Columbia Pictures and the Andy Hardy pictures of MGM are distinct from Alger; which is not to say they don't reinforce other traditions in American life, but they are more powerful than the generation of myths and images, I think, from any other source.

MONITOR: How does your book differ from other ``histories'' of Hollywood?

GABLER: I don't think there's ever been a book about Hollywood that is sympathetic to the moguls. They are invariably regarded as the villains, because those who wrote the histories were former Hollywood writers and script personnel who had an ax to grind.

MONITOR: How is your view unique?

GABLER: I'm dealing from the points of view of all those who knew these men intimately - sons, daughters, relatives, business acquaintances, and more. I started drawing conclusions about why Louis B. Mayer ran MGM as a family, and why Harry Cohn wanted to become known as the toughest hombre in Hollywood, and why Adolph Zukor was so ruthless in his compulsion to make Paramount the biggest of the studios, and why Harry and Jack Warner so detested one another. Those kinds of questions are not addressed in other books.

MONITOR: Why do you link each mogul's personal style to each studio's pictures?

GABLER: Because how do you explain the fact that you can look at any Warner Bros. picture by any number of directors and you can still identify it as Warner Bros.? The same is true of MGM, Paramount, and the others.

MONITOR: What is it about their ``Jewishness,'' per se, that so specifically drove their vision?

GABLER: As Jewish immigrants, they have a much greater concern that somehow it will all be taken away from them because they are Jewish, and that's why you can't simply talk about Italians or Poles in motion picture industry, but rather that certain ethnic fear, if you will, that helps shape the movies they make.

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