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Honoring Hollywood's Jewish founders

Rayna Breuer
May 29, 2022

The red carpet is rolled out these days in Cannes and is set to be in Hollywood as well, though this time for the film industry's Jewish founders. The Academy Museum plans a permanent exhibition.


Carl Laemmle was born in 1867 in southwest Germany in the small, picturesque town of Laupheim. He grew up in a prosperous family and developed a strong bond with his mother. He longed to leave Europe for the US, but it wasn't until his beloved mother had died that he left Germany in search of the American Dream. He eventually found it in the Hollywood Hills.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (AMMP), which opened last fall, however, didn't offer much on Laemmle or others like him — Jewish emigrants who founded Hollywood and its powerful film industry.

Critics say the diverse histories of the Jewish founders are missing or inadequately represented — "a colossal miss," according to Anti-Defamation League (ADL) head Jonathan Greenblatt, an organization that advocates against the defamation of the Jewish people. "Any honest historical assessment of the motion picture industry should include the role that Jews played in building the industry from the ground up," Greenblatt told The New York Times.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures responded quickly. "We were very interested to hear the feedback. It was a privilege and a learning experience," curator Dara Jaffe told DW, adding that they had "an exhibition planned dedicated to the founding of Hollywood specifically, a major aspect of the story."

The museum rotates its exhibitions very frequently, she said, but the organizers decided "that our visitors really wanted to see this story told in its concentrated form. So our decision was to make this exhibition permanent." Jaffe will curate a permanent exhibition titled "Hollywoodland" about the origins of Hollywood and the lives of its founders.

'Devotion to their new country'

Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Warner, who laid the foundation of the Los Angeles film industry, are all to be honored in Hollywoodland. And they all have one thing in common: "... their utter and absolute rejection of their past and their equally absolute devotion to their new country," as Neal Gabler put it in the 1988 book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood."

Mayer even chose July 4 as his birthday, allegedly claiming the original birth records were lost.

"The birth of Hollywood itself is an immigrant story, a specifically Jewish immigrant story," Jaffe argued. "Growing up in this country, all the doors of high society were closed to them; there were only specific industries in which they were even allowed to participate, and prejudice was a very, very real and looming presence in their lives."

Cinema was a very new invention, already labeled as the entertainment of the masses, she said, adding that even some of the inventors didn't think "it was going to become this huge industry."

 The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, white building sits at a street corner
New in L.A.: Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Image: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/picture alliance

Laemmle, Zukor, William Fox, Mayer and Warner, some of whom had started their careers in the garment and furrier industries, saw it as a chance.

Several of the founders noticed that nickelodeon theaters — simple cinemas that charged five cents for admission — could be the next big thing. "They cleared out their storefronts, put in a nickelodeon theater, and then things took off from there," Jaffe said.

Next, they moved into distribution, and then they realized that they should be producing films, too, Jaffe said: "Then they founded their own studios to actually create the film content."

'Creating their own American Dream'

Right from the start, there were attempts to take away an industry from them that they had "forged out of nothing," said Jaffe.

The National Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization dedicated to identifying objectionable content in movies, tried to censor their films.

The Jewish film producers knew they would have to show a version of America that would be accepted, but they also knew they had influence within those parameters.

The businessmen were first-generation Jewish Americans and very focused on assimilation, said the curator: "They wanted to be thought of as Americans, not as Jews, first and foremost."

They reinvented themselves, creating their own American Dream, she said, while at the "same time creating the American Dream that was to become synonymous with Hollywood's American Dream, the version of America that you see on the screens."

The new permanent exhibition is to present the history and lives of the founders, as well as answer the question of why Los Angeles became the birthplace of Hollywood.

The early producers will be honored, as well as other Jewish pioneers who fled from Germany, Austria and other European countries to the US in the 1930s and 1940s to flee Nazi persecution and also left their mark on Hollywood.

Among them are of directors Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger, actors including Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid, producers Eric Pleskow and Sam Spiegel, screenwriters Vicki Baum, Gina Kaus and Salka Viertel and Erich von Stroheim as well as composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernest Gold, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa and Franz Wachsmann.

This article was originally written in German.