Archive for Hollywoodism

Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero

Posted in Media Watch with tags , , , , , on September 25, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla

The Jewish Daily Forward
March 19, 2008

The history of comics has been big recently, and there’ve been a number of books and articles about it. Because so many Jews were there at the creation of both the comic book and the great superheroes who served as the main attraction, you have to ask the obvious question: What, if anything, does it mean that the industry was so heavily populated by Jews?

Your answer to this will depend on what you think “comic books” really do. In “Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero,” Danny Fingeroth seems to assume that the most important comics tell tales of superheroes. He is mostly interested in what he calls “The Golden Age” — from 1938 until the end of the Second World War — when caped crusaders and men of steel patrolled the streets of Gotham City and the skies of Metropolis. Fingeroth, a former comics editor at Marvel, also gives due attention to the “Silver Age” of the 1960s and beyond — the heyday of oddball heroes, like Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. Unfortunately, the narrative he constructs leads him to breeze over what happened to the comics between the golden and the silver ages, to the fact that after the war, comic book buyers got bored with the squeaky-clean defenders of the innocent. They were more interested in Wonder Woman’s breasts.

As David Hajdu points out in “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America,” overt sex sold, horror reigned and the villains stole the stage from the superheroes. Magazines suddenly sported racy titles, like “Crime SuspenStories,” “My Secret Life” and “The Crypt of Terror.” These, too, were created by Jews. As far as Hajdu is concerned, you need to look at the whole industry — at both “Superman” and “The Crypt of Terror” — to understand what the comics mean. Hajdu demonstrates that the comics’ particular meanings and their particular forms of Jewishness cannot be divorced from their specific — and distinct — histories.

Fingeroth admits that it’s “hard to tell” where the comics themselves are properly Jewish. It probably is. Superman presents a relatively easy case: Jules Feiffer has argued that the Man of Steel really came “from the planet Poland,” while Gerard Jones, in his excellent 2004 book “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book,” suggested that Superman quite literally embodies the Jewish immigrant’s dilemma (he has to pretend he fits in, while knowing that he has special, unseen and potentially unappreciated powers). The “secret” of Superman’s success also rests on the fact that his is the dilemma of every geeky and not-so-geeky kid. A hero on the inside, he’s prime bully bait on the outside. So Superman’s dual identity fits a number of important bills. DC Comics, Superman’s publisher, profited from all of them.

But what about Batman? Hardly an immigrant and definitely not Jewish. And the rest of that alliterative and hardy crew of caped and costumed heroes who bashed the bad guys all through the early 1940s? Again, hard to tell. Nevertheless, Fingeroth wants to tell. The trouble is that he has to hyperextend in order to tease out what he calls “shreds of Jewish meaning” from the superhero comics. Unfortunately, that’s all they are: shreds.

According to Fingeroth, some heroes are stand-ins for Moses, some for survivors. Because comics script writers were ambivalent about not being professionals themselves, they created heroes who were established professionals in their day jobs. (Sorry, Mom.) You get the idea. Perhaps the oddest of Fingeroth’s claims is that Captain America’s writers were particularly Jewish in that they wanted every story to be “universal.”

In “The Ten-Cent Plague,” Hajdu makes the interesting case that postwar comics were the first shot in a coming youth revolt. By the early 1950s, cities were banning comics. Prodded by their parents, kids were burning them. The Senate was investigating them. Hajdu indicates that the sex and mayhem stories that caused such a ruckus represented the flip side of the superheroes’ adventures. He suggests that we see them as expressions of a particularly Jewish — though likely unconscious — mistrust of assimilation, of its enforced conventions and unavoidable authority. So if DC’s Superman appealed to the nerd in all of us, the sleazy comics peddled by companies like EC spoke to an inchoate but increasingly independent youth culture.

This new buying public of rebels without a cause — the same kids who would turn Elvis into a superhero of a different kind — scared the daylights out of their parents. Even though there was no overt proof, psychologists, politicians and the chief crime fighter in the land, J. Edgar Hoover, claimed that reading comics led directly to juvenile delinquency. In 1954, psychologist Frederic Wertham published his most famous work, “Seduction of the Innocent,” which made it sound as if he wanted to protect our children from the pernicious influence of the comics. But Hajdu makes an excellent case that the anti-comics brigades wanted protection from our children. The seduced, it seems, resembled other paranoid fantasies of the Cold War: all those fifth-columnists in the State Department and the communist dupes in the schools, those invasive germs in the kitchen and the brainwashed automatons lurking in the streets.

While Hajdu explicitly refuses to draw a parallel between McCarthyism and the attacks on the comics industry, they are linked by a common fear of contagion and subversion. And, though Hajdu won’t go this far, it would be fair to guess that there was more than a touch of latent antisemitism in the comic book affair. The Catholic Church, the American Legion, towns without many Jews and towns with too many Jews all ganged up on the comics. Jewish comics editors and publishers like Bill Gaines (hopped up on amphetamines and aggression) came up before televised committees of such manifestly upright, proudly non-Jewish lawmakers as Estes Kefauver and Robert C. Hendrickson (and, as Michael Chabon shows in “Kavalier and Clay,” the Jews did not come out so well). In an era when the most famous American traitors were a pair of down-at-the-heel communist Jews, it’s hard to imagine that the great comics scare was not a sideshow in the even greater Red Scare.

Hajdu’s book winds up in the mid-1950s with the exemplary case of EC’s Mad magazine. Mad’s caustically anarchic humor — sometimes gross, and often puerile — matched up Jewish snarkiness with adolescent rebellion. It was a hit. Having incurred the anger of the powers that were, EC turned Mad into a “real” magazine, upped its price and found a different distributor. EC and Mad lived to fight another day.

In the glory days of the depression and World War II, millions of people read about Superman, Batman and the scores of other superheroes who rode in on their cape-tails. Though a lot fewer people now buy comics, Fingeroth is right to say that these heroes still saturate our culture — if mostly at the movies. In the final chapter of “The Ten-Cent Plague,” R. Crumb is quoted as saying that he never got over “Mad.” We have never gotten over Superman, either.

For better and for worse, the comics, cranky and grandiose as they frequently are, really do express the various fantasies of American Jews. What’s more — and this is absolutely critical to their success — they seem to reflect the fantasies of everyone else. Of course Jews and non-Jews sometimes dream of different things, but that might be the most important point. The comics can mean so much because they can skillfully coordinate so many dreams.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
By David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages, $26.

David Kaufmann, cultural critic for the Forward, teaches English at George Mason University.

This article can be found at http://www.forward.com/articles/12974/

Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero

“Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream”

Posted in Media Watch with tags , , , , , , on September 3, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla

For anyone who disputes the fact that Jews run Hollywood, this obscure little documentary film is a must-see.

“Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream” is a mainstream production and therefore contains a number of exaggerations and falsehoods. It does, however, make one important concession: namely, that Hollywood — and the industry it spawned — was “largely the product of six movie studios… run for over 30 years by a group of Jewish immigrants” with “strikingly similar backgrounds.”

The 1hr/42m film goes on to explain how these studios, under exclusively Jewish ownership, spent the next several decades using their new medium to create an artificial “American Dream.” As the narrator explains in the introduction: “This is the story of the founders of Hollywood; the story of the idea that became their America — and ours.”

Quoting a host of Jewish film experts, “Hollywoodism” answers the contentious question of Jewish influence on the movie industry straight from the horse’s mouth: as Author/Historian Aljean Harmetz states: “I’m not sure that there was an ‘American Dream’ before the Jews came to Hollywood and invented it.”

Based on Neal Gabler’s best-selling book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, the film tells the story of a small group of Jewish immigrants who transformed the technological novelty of moving pictures into the most influential art form of the twentieth century.Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount, Carl Laemmle of Universal; Louis B. Mayer, of MGM; William Fox of 20th Century Fox, and Harry Cohn of Columbia; were all immigrants (or children of immigrants) who reinvented themselves as Americans. In the process, they transformed America.

“Modern America first saw light on a Hollywood screen,” the documentary begins. “It was largely the product of six movie studios, established in the 1920s, and run for over 30 years by a group of Jewish immigrants” with “strikingly similar backgrounds.”

The moguls — virtually all of them Jewish — included Harry Warner of Warner Bros., born in Poland; Samuel Goldwyn of MGM, also born in Poland; Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, born in Germany; Louie B. Meyer of MGM, born in Russia; Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, born in Hungary; and William Fox of 20th Century Fox, also born in Hungary. Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures was born in New York to German-Jewish parents.

Author/Critic Neal Gabler states: “All of these men who founded Hollywood were born within a 500-mile radius of one another — and all of them wound up within 15 miles of one another in Los Angeles.”

The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, epitomizes in cinematic terms the conflict of the Jew in America. The elderly cantor of a synagogue on the Lower East Side of New York City assumes that his only son will follow in his footsteps and retain the orthodox traditions. But the son would prefer to be an entertainer and goes against his father’s wishes. Years pass and Jakie Rabinowitz, the cantor’s son, has become Jack Robin, a nightclub singer. The crisis comes when the elder Rabinowitz cannot sing the “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur and the congregation pressures the young jazz singer to fill in for his father. But Jack’s Broadway opening happens to be the same night.

As Gabler describes this situation: “Jack’s quandary is that he can bring Judaism to show business, but he cannot bring show business to Judaism Ö which is to say that Judaism cannot be reinvigorated or revitalized in America or by America. It is alien to it.”

The Jazz Singer has a happy ending. Jack’s producers allow his Broadway premier to be postponed a night so he can sing the “Kol Nidre” in the synagogue. Then, in his show business triumph, the young Jewish entertainer appears in blackface, “one minority disguised within another,” singing “Mammy” to his mother seated in the enthusiastic audience. The son of the immigrant gets the best of two worlds.

The film explains how, in the late 19th century, these men immigrated to the USA from Eastern Europe, where Jewish populations allegedly faced persecution at the hands of the Russian czar. No doubt exaggerating the extent of Jewish suffering, the narrator explains how, “without warning, death could come crashing down on the defenseless schtetls, reminding the Jews that, as a people, they were permanent outsiders — vulnerable and powerless.”

The future founders of Hollywood came to America with little money, “but they brought with them a new vision of America,” the narrator states. “Hollywood was a dream, dreamt by Jews fleeing a nightmare.”

In 1912, after a brief stint in New York (where, according to the film, the movie business was “monopolized” by bad-guy Thomas Edison), this small band of determined Jews set up shop in California, where they met with instant success. By 1920, they had established their own film studios and began producing hundreds of movies every year.

Interestingly, “Hollywoodism” — while stating that the moguls first came to America “with little money and few belongings” — does not explain how these monumental business ventures were initially financed.

[The 800lb. Gorilla poses this thought: perhaps the six studios, all set up simultaneously by Jews of “strikingly similar backgrounds,” were all financed by the same source — i.e., Rothschild — from the very beginning. This certainly appears to have been their modus operandi in most other industries, where so-called “competitors” are actually controlled by the same forces from behind the scenes.]

By the 1920s and 1930s, “seventy-five percent of all Americans went to the movies at least once a week,” the film explains, while movie houses had become “temples of the new Hollywood religion — Jewish values made kitsch.”

“Actors became the gods and goddesses of the new American religion. And where there are new gods there must be new idols, so the studio heads began a movie guild with the lofty title of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” the film explains. “It was Meyer’s brilliant idea to create the Oscars, where the movie moguls could honor themselves by giving each other awards. In this way, they went from being a group of immigrant Jews to award-winning American producers.”

The Jewish moguls, however, did more than just establish a superficial and self-serving Hollywood cult (which has never boasted more devotees than it does today). According to sources quoted in the documentary, they also used their new medium to create an American “mass culture” based on self-gratification and consumerism — that which would later become known as the “American Dream.”

“I’m not sure that there was an ‘American Dream’ before the Jews came to Hollywood and invented it,” Author/Historian Aljean Harmetz states in the film. “What you had…was an idea of freedom, but you didn’t have what we have today, which is a popular culture that creates dreams — a dream factory.”

[For more on the transformation of America into a gratification-based society through the medium of advertising — also at the hands of a small clique of East European Jews — see Adam Curtis’ brilliant, four-part BBC documentary, “Century of the Self.”]

Film Critic Gabler states: “They created their own America — an America which is not the real America… But ultimately, this shadow America becomes so popular and so widely disseminated that its images and its values come to devour the real America.”

“The grand irony of all Hollywood is that Americans come to define themselves by the shadow America that was created by Eastern European Jewish immigrants…,” Gabler adds. “One could say that the American Dream was really founded in Eastern Europe.”

“Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream” — Download it HERE

“Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream”