A Cultural History Up to World War II

By Steven Alan Carr

Cambridge Univ. 342 pp. Paperback, $24.95

When "Home of the Brave," Arthur Laurents's play about anti-Semitism, was made into a movie in 1949, it underwent a significant change. "In the screen adaptation produced by Stanley Kramer, the Jew was changed to a Negro," Laurents wrote in his memoir. "When I asked why, Stanley replied, 'Jews have been done.' He was referring to the movie 'Gentleman's Agreement,' in which Gregory Peck played a gentile (no stretch) pretending to be a Jew (only in the movies). The picture's moral was Be nice to a Jew because he might turn out to be a gentile."

Laurents had come up against what Steven Alan Carr calls "the Hollywood Question." It's not really a question so much as a recognition that the American film industry had been founded by men such as Jesse Lasky, Marcus Loew and Carl Laemmle, and was run by men such as Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and the Warner brothers, and that all of these men were Jewish. Carr's book examines how the perception that the Jews controlled Hollywood shaped not only the movies but also American culture in general.

A Question implies a Questioner, or in Carr's words, "it conceals and naturalizes a constructed subject position -- white, male, and Christian. The Question, in essence, does not simply tell people what to think about Jews, Hollywood, and control, but simply reminds people that they should think about these things from a particular vantage point." Even Jewish executives and producers, such as Stanley Kramer, took the Christian point of view as normative. From that point of view, Jews had been done.

But they had been done, in "Gentleman's Agreement," by a white male Christian: Darryl F. Zanuck, the 20th Century Fox mogul who was the only head of a major studio in the '40s who wasn't Jewish. And Zanuck had produced his movie over the objections of men like Mayer, Goldwyn and Warner, who were afraid that a film about anti-Semitism would draw the fire of anti-Semites against their industry. "Gentleman's Agreement" was a hit, however, and it won the Best Picture Oscar. One of the films it beat was "Crossfire," about the murder of a Jew by a psychotic anti-Semite. But even there the Hollywood Question was at work: In the novel on which "Crossfire" was based, the victim is gay, and his killer is a rabid homophobe.

Gay, black or Jewish -- the role is that of the Other, facilitating such Hollywood substitutions. But the Hollywood Question played on specific prejudices, as Carr points out. One was sexual -- the notorious "casting couch": "The Jew was seen as threatening Christian culture through the sexual degradation of aspiring female starlets." Another was the ancient calumny of the Jew as usurer: The Jewish mogul was charged with an "implacable disregard for fair business ethics" and with degrading "the delicate art of the motion picture with his knowledge of credit and discount." And a third was a presumed cultural inferiority: "The Jew threatened national identity through his ability to access the American mind and appeal to its lower tastes and values."

Carr shows how Hollywood's sensitivity to these stereotypes shaped the films it made. The Hollywood Question kept the studios from making strongly anti-Nazi films before 1941, and in 1934 the studios handed over the task of self-censorship to the anti-Semitic Joseph I. Breen, a Catholic layman who headed the Production Code Administration until the mid-'50s. Breen tempered his public utterances when he became responsible for enforcing the code, but as Carr discovers, "throughout the early 1930s, he railed against the Jews. . . . He blamed evil films and Hollywood's dissolute lifestyle on the 'lousy Jews,' claiming that '95 percent . . . are Eastern Jews, the scum of the earth.' "

Carr also suggests that anti-Semitism was responsible for the antitrust prosecution that eventually destroyed the Hollywood studio system. Before 1948, MGM, Paramount, RKO, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. not only produced movies but also distributed them and exhibited them in theaters that they owned. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court found that the studio practices "constituted an illegal oligopoly," and forced the studios to sell their theatrical holdings. Carr asserts that "no other agreement regulated other, similarly integrated postwar industries. In fact, since 1948 the federal government has never taken as extensive or as vigorous an action with any other industry."

"Hollywood and Anti-Semitism" heightens our awareness of how we continue to look at the role of the entertainment media in our society and our lives, though it's occasionally a frustrating book. Its key points often have to be hauled out of a morass of academic jargon, and Carr seems to need to demonstrate the originality of his research. Attitudes toward Hollywood and toward Jews have changed. We like to think of contemporary America as diverse and multicultural, and to believe that awareness of the Holocaust has driven anti-Semitism to the darkest extremist fringes. But having read Carr's examination of the persistent Hollywood Question, I'm reminded that the entertainment industry continues to be under fire, and that one of its most vocal critics during the last presidential campaign was the Democratic candidate for vice president, an Orthodox Jew.