Henry Popkin here describes and analyzes one of the most striking phenomena in our popular culture of recent years: the disappearance of Jewish characters, Jewish comedy, and Jewish problems, in short the virtual elimination of a whole area of American life, from treatment in the popular arts.
In Auden and Isherwood’s play The Dog Beneath the Skin, a modern knight-errant bound upon a sacred quest encounters a sinister financier named Grabstein. Grabstein has cornered the rubber market, started a war in Spitzbergen, and “practically owns South America”—no one could possibly mistake him for anything but a satirical composite of every absurdity of the anti-Semitic imagination.
In 1948, however, when the group, the Interplayers, presented a lively production of The Dog Beneath the Skin in New York, Grabstein became a ruddy, white-haired Englishman named Mansfield, and with the loss of the archetypal quality of the Jewish “international financier” the character became quite pointless. The unusual element in this case was the fact that it involved an avant-garde play and a sophisticated littletheater audience. For what may be called “de-Semitization” is by now a commonplace in the popular arts. There has grown up an unwritten law that makes the Jew the little man who isn’t there. This law originates not in hate, but in a misguided benevolence-or fear; its name is “sha-sha.” At its most effective, the taboo banishes all Jewish characters, all Jewish names, the word “Jew” itself. If we pretend that the Jew does not exist, the reasoning goes, then he will not be noticed; the anti-Semite, unable to find his victim, will simply forget about him.
The policy of concealing Jews has itself been so well concealed that it is seldom mentioned in print. One of the rare discussions of it occurs in Ben Hecht’s A Guide for the Bedevilled (1944). Hecht writes: “The greatest single Jewish phenomenon in our country in the last twenty years has been the almost complete disappearance of the Jew from American fiction, stage, radio and movies.”
The source of this phenomenon, as of so many others in Jewish life today, is Hitler. When Hider forced Americans to take anti-Semitism seriously, it was apparently felt that the most eloquent reply that could be made was a dead silence: the American answer to the banishment of Jews from public life in Germany was the banishment of Jewish figures from the popular arts—in the United States.
The process has not been so thorough as Hecht suggests, in the comic strips, Harry Hershfield’s Abie the Agent and the dialect strips of Milt Gross continued to be published despite Hider; still, when Hershfield eventually did give up his comic-strip history of a Jewish businessman, he is said to have promised to revive it when times were “better” for the Jews. Little Mr. Guggenheim figured in The Nehhs until that strip was discontinued, and “In and Out of the Red with Sam” occasionally turned up in Wortman’s Metropolitan Movies. But neither in the “serious” comic strips nor in the increasingly rare “comic” comic strips are any other Jewish characters much in evidence as a necessary element of the plot or social landscape. The only instance I can find goes back a good many years, and even there the Jewish character is fenced around with reticence. Once Little Orphan Annie, the celebrated “reactionary orphan,” befriended a bearded tailor who bore some such name as David or Joseph. One of those proud, large-bosomed matrons who abound in Little Orphan Annie was horrified that the tailor should be accepted socially, and protested to one of Annie’s friends: “But you can’t! Don’t you realize that he’s a——!” Fortunately, she was interrupted before she could utter the obscene word “Jew,” and Annie’s friend broke in: “He’s a—fine man!”
A similar situation prevails in the comic books. “Comic” publications specializing in real-life stories have featured illustrated biographies of Irving Berlin, Bernard Baruch, Mordecai Noah, Judah TOUTO, Daniel Mendoza, Selman A. Waksman, and others, often with the hand of “Jewish defense” showing’ all too plainly, but the more numerous, more popular, and less inhibited comic books get along without Jewish characters altogether.
Even newspaper columnists tend to avoid Jewish references, often going far out of their way to avoid the word that must not be spoken. Walter Winchell, who used to print dialect jokes featuring one Max Mefoofsky, has since 1947 been campaigning against dialect stories with all the virtuous intolerance of a fallen woman reformed. Leonard Lyons, already noted as a spoiler of good stories, seems lately to have extended his talent to denaturing obviously Jewish anecdotes.
In pocket reprint editions of novels, now selling in astronomical numbers all over the country, the process of “de-Semitization” has had a growing effect. The reasoning behind this policy is that these inexpensive reprints are more likely than the original editions to fall into the hands of readers who will discover anti-Semitism, perhaps where it does not exist, and will either sympathize or be offended—equally undesirable reactions. Thus, in the Avon Books reprint of Irving Shulman’s novel of juvenile delinquency in Brooklyn, The Amboy Dukes, every trace of Jewish reference is eliminated. Bar Mitzvah becomes “confirmation,” and remarks about kosher meat are deleted; Goldfarb becomes Abbott, Semmel becomes Saunders, etc., etc. And yet the novel would seem to have little power for harm—in its original form it says no more than that Jews, like other groups in America, have the problem of juvenile delinquency.
It was more logical for the same publisher to “de-Semitize” Jerome Weidman’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale in its pocket edition. The Avon editors have toned down the more striking Jewish names and Jewish references: Meyer Babushkin is renamed Michael Babbin, Pulvermacher becomes the more euphonious Pulsifer, the hero’s mother calls him Hershie instead of Heshie (does this make him less Jewish?) and feeds him pancakes instead of blintzes. Perhaps, in view of the enormous and uncritical audience reached by pocket editions, these changes were justified, since the principal impression conveyed by the novel is of the total depravity of its emphatically Jewish main character: Harry Bogen may be said to add a new chapter in moral corruption to the ancient stereotype of the merciless sharp trader, where the boys of The Amboy Dukes are only petty criminals of the type familiar among all groups in slum neighborhoods. But once concealment is accepted, publishers prefer to play safe. There lies the danger.
The Bantam Books edition of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock falls somewhere between these extremes. The anti-Semitism that Greene displays in some of his early novels apparently belongs—or once belonged—to him as well as to his characters. In Brighton Rock, however, Jewish references are pretty much confined to the identification of Colleoni, the master racketeer, as a Jew, and to the fact that in the elegant hotel where he lives a “Jewess” sniffs “bitchily” at the poorly dressed hoodlum who is the novel’s chief character. This sort of thing is not calculated to please any friend of the Jews, but it is more annoying than vicious. Still, the publisher of the Bantam edition changed “Jew” to “man” and assimilated the Jewess as a blonde.
In the performing arts, the Broadway theater suffers least from self-consciousness of this sort. Partly this is because the dramatist retains considerable control over his work; a more important fact is that plays are written for the adult theater-going audience of New York, where playwrights and the public are reconciled to the existence of the Jews and think their stage representation neither exotic nor obscene. In fact, a Jewish character in a Broadway play or revue often seems as much a local reference as a statement about the topography of Columbus Circle.
Nevertheless, many plays that touch on Jewish themes are likely to suffer from an awkwardness that is the result of excessive self-consciousness. This past season exemplifies the pattern. Stalag 17 and The Number presented Jewish characters without apologies, but without much art either. One of the main figures in Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp was Dr. Morris Ritz, prototype of the city slicker, but in the play, unlike the novel, no one called him “Jew.” Both Paris ’90 and I Am a Camera offered conventional statements of philo-Semitic themes in connection with, respectively, the Dreyfus case and Hider. Still, if there was a lack of originality, together with an overplus of reticence, if there was a failure to show convincingly any part of a hostile environment, at least there was not silence.
To be sure, our growing reticence about Jews may have deeper effects, whose extent it is impossible to measure. Sometimes, one suspects, there is a kind of pre-censorship, often unconscious, that does its work inside the mind of a playwright. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman might be cases in point; in spite of their vaguely Protestant and “Anglo-Saxon” atmosphere, both plays strike some familiar Jewish chords in their treatment of business life and family relations and often in the cadences of their dialogue; George Ross makes an interesting detailed case for Death of a Salesman as an essentially Jewish play in his article “‘Death of a Salesman’ in the Original” (COMMENTARY, February 1951).
The Jewish dialect comedian who once flourished in the theater, the movies, radio, and, more recently, in television, is likewise disappearing. Some specimens of the type were seen briefly on Broadway in the two Yiddish-American revues aimed at the Jewish market, but the best of the tribe live in semi-retirement, like Lou Holtz, or are dead, like Willie Howard and George Sidney.
The tradition of these comedians goes back to at least the turn of the century, when David Warfield’s black-bearded, derby-wearing peddler fixed the general outlines; for years, young Jewish comedians were invariably billed as “the second David Warfield.” Like Warfield, many of these were on some occasions “Dutch” comedians, but the differences between the Jews and the “Dutch” were minimal. “Dutch” meant, of course, German, and George Jean Nathan has pointed out the interesting fact that a great deal of “Dutch” comedy became Jewish during the First World War because of the unpopularity of everything German; another war has now accelerated the disappearance of that comic vein. The first full-length Jewish-dialect comedy to win wide popularity was Potash and Perlmutter, produced in 1913, the longest-running play of its season; its sequels came just in time to profit from the anti-German feeling of the war years. In any case, however, the Jewish comedians and their plays soon found a large audience.
In some instances “Dutch” and Jewish comedies were the creation of the same authors, as well as the same actors. Aaron Hoffman, who was most prolific in the 1920’s, wrote plays for both comic types. His Politics bears on its tide page the legend “as played by Kolb and Dill,” one of the “Dutch” teams of the Weber-and-Fields tradition. Hoffman’s Give and Take (1923) was originally “Dutch,” though the leading roles were created by Louis Mann and George Sidney, who were also Jewish comedians; when the play was adapted and revived in 1943 as All for All, the Germans had with no great difficulty been changed to Jews, and the ebullient Harry Green played Sidney’s part. Hoffman also wrote Welcome Stranger, a comedy about anti-Semitism which originally starred Sidney, and Two Blocks Away, from which was taken the first movie of the Cohens-and-Kellys series, featuring the ubiquitous George Sidney as Cohen.
Hoffman’s comedies, the Potash-and-Perlmutter plays, and such other examples of the genre as Anne Nichols’ Abie’s Irish Rose are little more than commercial attempts to capitalize on comic dialects. What art most of them had seems to have been imparted by the actors. George Sidney, Harry Green, Alexander Carr (who created the role of Mawruss Perlmutter), and their fellow comedians of the revues, Willie Howard, Lou Holtz, Fanny Brice, and Smith and Dale, were all expert performers. There is no end of critical testimonials, but perhaps I may cite Richard Watts Jr.’s review of one of the Cohens-and-Kellys movies in the New York Herald Tribune, where he observed that it was “not far from anti-Irish propaganda to have the Irishman played by Charlie Murray, while so good an actor as George Sidney appears as the Jewish partner,” at the same time that he called the picture “the dullest comedy that has yet been produced in . . . California.” Most of these actors were at their best when they used their own material, Smith and Dale in Dr. Kronkheit, Harry Green in The Cherry Tree, Lou Holtz and Willie Howard in their Sam Lapidus and Pierre Ginzburg routines.
Those Jewish comedians who remain still make occasional appearances on the stage and on television, and they have been heard over the radio. The movies have been almost entirely closed to them for nearly twenty years. (A rare exception was the recent appearance of Smith and Dale in the movie Two Tickets to Broadway.) The principal reason for this difference is the fact that radio and television sprang up in the shadow of Broadway, in the mainstream of a freer tradition that could still recognize and present foreigners and foreign accents without excessive self-consciousness or reticence. Lou Holtz and Willie Howard made frequent guest appearances with Rudy Vallee; such characters as “Schlepperman” and later “Mr. Kitzel” have appeared on the Jack Benny program; Fanny Brice did “Jewish” monologues (before she became completely identified with Baby Snooks); and there have been Fred Allen’s Mrs. Nussbaum, Henry Burbidge, The Goldbergs (not all of the actors were comedians, but Menasha Skulnik and Arnold Stang would surely qualify). Potash and Perlmutter and Abie’s Irish Rose were the basis of mercifully short-lived dramatic serials, and there was once a comedy series about a detective named Cohen who had an assistant named Dr. Wasserman.
But the fog of concealment has been creeping over these areas too. At least one Jewish radio comedian seems to have fallen victim to the complaints of hypersensitive listeners: according to Alistair Cooke, Lou Holtz had to go off the air when his act was, incredibly, accused of being anti-Semitic. Apparently, most of the leading Jewish “dialecticians” have been objects of complaint at one time or another, and—to mention a more directly cultural factor—the Jewish comedian in his best embodiments is in any case out of step with the industrialized techniques of gag files and joke conferences that now rule.
On television, to be sure, there has been a kind of renascence, and perhaps we may hope it will endure, though one suspects that the chief factor has been simply television’s gargantuan need for material. Smith and Dale have made guest appearances, The Goldbergs has become a popular dramatic series, Menasha Skulnik briefly had his own program, and the new medium found its own Jewish comedian in Sam Levenson. (The main reason for considering Milton Berle a Jewish comedian is his occasional use of such a phrase as “for two cents plain.” The querulous, skeptical city types played by Arnold Stang have a better claim to a place in the Jewish comic tradition.) Some of these actors have been sadly handicapped by a lack of material; Skulnik in particular was victimized by the threadbare skits that were written for him. Only Levenson has exhibited a fresh and personal flair in his adaptations of Jewish stories and his discourses on family life. But even he is so strongly aware of the hostile forces of “shasha” that in the preface to his book Meet the Folks he anticipates his critics by disclaiming some of the traditional elements of Jewish humor. One of his least persuasive disavowals is his rejection of stories about the “little Jew.” I for one cannot see why such stories are, as Levenson puts it, “fundamentally anti-Semitic”—would we be somehow better or more sympathetic if we were a race of giants? Levenson goes on to assure his readers that he has “tried to keep the stories within the great Hebrew-Christian tradition of the goodness and the dignity of man.” Fortunately Levenson is not as good as his word. The stories in Meet the Folks are not all concerned with oversized models of goodness and dignity.
Whatever may happen in the future, one fact is encouraging: in television, as in radio during its heyday, there prevails what might be called the New York idea, that Jewishness is not freakish or embarrassing and there might as well be Jewish comedians as any other kind. Hence one finds the sort of Jewish reference, whether comic or not, that stands in refreshing contrast to the rest of our antiseptically “Aryanized” popular culture: a Yiddish phrase spoken, a Jewish dialect or intonation, an identifiably Jewish ironic quality, or—to get away from comedy—a “detective” play about a dress business run by a Mr. Alpert in the garment district, another about the return of a prodigal son on the Seder eve, and adaptations of Elmer Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law and Samson Raphaelson’s The Jazz Singer. All of this expresses no attitude, breaks no lances against anti-Semitism; it only recognizes one fact of experience: that the Jews do exist.
The blight has fallen most heavily on the movies. It was not ever thus. Time was when Groucho Marx, in Animal Crackers, could sing “My name is Captain Spalding, the African explorer,” and add under his breath, “Did someone call me shnorer?“ And when James Cagney could find a moment to make a proud display of his knowledge of Yiddish. In her recent autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, Anzia Yezierska tells how Samuel Goldwyn brought her to Hollywood to work on the silent movie version of her story of Jewish life, Hungry Hearts; she was dismayed at being joined by Montague Glass, author of Potash and Perlmutter, who was commissioned to turn Hungry Hearts into a “Jew-play” with a happy ending. The Cohens and the Kellys, in 1926, was one of the biggest box-office hits, and its heroes accordingly had further film adventures in Paris, Africa, Atlantic City, and Hollywood; in addition, there were film versions of Potash and Perlmutter, Welcome Stranger (less attractive than the original), and Abie’s Irish Rose. And no one who knows the history of the movies needs to be told that the first talkie (actually part talking and part silent), The Jazz Singer, featured Al Jolson as a Jewish boy who was being brought up to be a cantor, but left the synagogue to become a popular entertainer.
If the scripts were usually uninspired, there were actors, on the screen as on the stage, who sometimes rose above their material, especially after talking pictures brought more of the stage comedians to Hollywood. In Hollywood George Sidney repeated his early stage success, and so did Harry Green, who had been one of the “second David Warfields” of years ago. Gregory Ratoff was identified with Jewish roles; as late as 1932 it was announced that he would play the lead in Samuel Ornitz’s novel of Jewish life, Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl, but the picture was never made. George E. Stone made a career of playing young Jews. In the late 20’s and early 30’s, these four, along with the veteran Alexander Carr, were among the busiest comedians and character actors. The monologuists and revue comedians never got very far in pictures, possibly because they could not make their comic antics conform to the dull stereotypes of movie characters and the dubious logic of movie plots; Willie Howard, like Smith and Dale, was assigned principally to making short features.
But comedians were not the only Jewish types to be seen in the movies of that earlier period. When Svengali was produced in 1931 with John Barrymore, and Oliver Twist in 1922 with Lon Chaney and again in 1933 with Irving Pichel, no protests seriously threatened the films’ distribution, even though the villains were visibly Jewish. There were tear-jerkers about Jews—Symphony of Six Million (with Ratoff), No Greater Love (with Carr), and the silent Humoresque. There were screen adaptations of plays, including Counsellor-at-Law (with John Barrymore), Once in a Lifetime (with Ratoff), The Last Mile (with Stone), Kibitzer (with Green), The Yellow Ticket (with Elissa Landi as the Jewish heroine), and Street Scene, in all of which the Jewish characters were preserved intact. A few pictures—for example The House of Rothschild—defended the Jews against anti-Semites. I remember vividly, also, a DeMille movie called This Day and Age, about the murder of a Jewish tailor by a racketeer and the effort of some high school students to bring the killer to justice. The victim was a conventional, pious figure played by a relatively subdued Harry Green; a Jewish student mourning him after his death recalls that the tailor used to make tsimmes for him.
Then came the great retreat. By 1935 most of the Jewish comedians had vanished from the screen. Harry Green was in seven movies in 1934 and none in 1935; since leaving Hollywood he has spent most of his time in England, appearing occasionally on Broadway and making two movies in 1940. George Sidney retired from movie-making in 1935, reappearing just once more in 1937 and also acting on Broadway. Gregory Ratoff and George E. Stone became less identified with Jewish parts, and Ratoff ultimately came to be a director. Alexander Carr’s story was the saddest. He was very busy in Hollywood till 1934; after that he couldn’t get a part. At the end of 1938 he turned up in New York to entertain at a Jewish night club, returned to Hollywood in 1940 to appear in Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, and died in 1946, having made only one picture in the last twelve years of his life.
The comic villain of George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man, a character named Lehman, retained his original name when the play was filmed under its own title in 1928 and as The Tenderfoot in 1934; but in 1937, when the play became Dance, Charlie, Dance, he was named Morgan, and in 1940, when the play had another metamorphosis as An Angel from Texas, he became Allen. (One is reminded of the story of the Jew who changed his name from Ginzburg to Cartwright and then from Cartwright to Pendleton, so that if he was asked what his name was before it was Pendleton, he could say “Cartwright.”) When The Front Page was filmed in 1931, the Governor’s befuddled but honest emissary kept the name he had in the original play—Irving Pincus; in the second movie version, His Girl Friday, he was called Joe Pettibone When Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy was filmed, the boxing promoter Roxie Gottlieb became Roxie Lewis, possibly because the part had been created on the stage by Robert Lewis.
Often the changes have taken the form of eliminating Jewish villains—a practice which may be defensible as good public-relations practice in behalf of the Jews, but might well have boomerang effects if it should appear that Jews were the sole beneficiaries. Italians still furnish most movie gangsters, and this emphasis has been particularly obvious since the Kefauver hearings; other nationalities also make visible contributions to the ranks of villains. However, when Kind Lady was filmed in 1936, the French antique dealer, a by no means unsympathetic character, had his name changed from Rosenberg to Roubet; in the latest movie version of this play he is called Malaquaise. Similar examples are numerous.
British movie-makers, despite their boner with Oliver Twist, have been learning fast. When Somerset Maugham’s story “The Alien Corn” was filmed as part of Quartet, the important factor of Jewish origin in the troubles of the Bland family and the son’s revolt was completely dropped. The change made in Kind Hearts and Coronets was perhaps more justifiable, for here it was a murderer—albeit an amiable one—whose origin was altered. The main character’s mother in the film was made to cut herself off from her noble family by marrying an Italian, whereas in the original novel, Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank, she alienates her relatives by marrying a Jew.
More disturbing than the disappearance of one Jewish character here and another there, is the absence of recognizable Jews in films that require their presence. Elliot Paul and Luis Quintanilla, in their study of Hollywood conventions, With a Hays Nonny Nonny, suggest that a Hollywood producer might film the Biblical story of Esther as a tale of Nazi oppression of the Czechs: “It would be bad for the public to get the idea the Nazis are persecuting Jews. . . . In the eyes of the producers, it is even worse to show a Jew in clover than one in the soup up to his eyes. The solution is not to show him at all. He becomes a Czech or some kind of Central European the 40,000,000 [movie-goers] can view impersonally.”
By this sort of logic, Hollywood frequently excluded the issue of anti-Semitism from movies attacking the Nazi movement. A few films did show anti-Semitism as a part of Nazism, following the novels or plays on which they were based with at least a reasonable fidelity: The Mortal Storm, Tomorrow the World, Address Unknown. But only a few years before, reports had come out of Hollywood that the issue of anti-Semitism was eliminated from the script of Three Comrades over the protests of the authors of the screen play, one of whom was F. Scott Fitzgerald. And the British-made Mr. Emmanuel, generally regarded as the first movie to attack Nazi anti-Semitism, was thought so revolutionary that it was publicized with such slogans as “A daring picture on a daring subject” and “Have you got the nerve to see this picture?”
Even plays and novels telling stories of Jewish life were “de-Semitized.” In John Howard Lawson’s Success Story, filmed in 1934 as Success at Any Price, Ginsburg became Martin and Glassman became Griswold, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Colleen Moore acting these leading roles, which had been played on Broadway by Luther and Stella Adler; a happy ending helped to preuify the proceedings. Later, when Irwin Shaw’s parable of tyranny and revolt, The Gentle People, was filmed under the title Out of the Fog, the Jewish tailor Goodman turned into an Irish tailor named Goodwin. Aben Kandel’s novel of Jewish life, City for Conquest, was made the basis of a movie of Irish life. The play Home of the Brave dealt with the psychological problems of a Jewish soldier; the movie made him a Negro, burdened with precisely the same problems. (At about the same time, seeking to make a movie about anti-Semitism, Hollywood picked up a novel called The Brick Foxhole, which was about the murder of a non-Jewish homosexual, and turned it into Crossfire. Go know!) When Mr. Skeffington was faithfully translated to the screen in 1944, the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune specifically commended the film because “it is not afraid to identify Skeffington by race and religion.”
Pushing further into the area of distinctively Jewish subject matter, the moviemakers watered down the Jewish elements of the New York garment industry in the greatly altered film version of Jerome Weidman’s novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale. The movie also cleaned up the personal ethics of the book’s principal character (besides changing him into a woman: Harry Bogen became Harriet Boyd). Even the Borscht Belt and the Old Testament have not escaped. In Having Wonderful Time, based on Arthur Kober’s play, the Catskill vacationers became, as the disappointed Frank S. Nugent put it in the New York Times, “alle goyim.“ Typical campers were Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ginger Rogers; Stern became Shaw, Kessler became Kirkland, Aaronson was Armbruster, Sam Rappaport was Emil Beatty, and, in short, it seemed most unlikely that this particular summer hotel should really be located in the Catskills. Likewise, neither Hebrews nor Israelites are ever mentioned in DeMille’s Samson and Delilah; instead, Samson persistently reminds us of his loyalty to the Tribe of Dan; we never hear of any larger social unit to which Dan belonged. The makers of Quo Vadis could be a little bolder, perhaps because they proceeded on the assumption that a movie with a Christian theme and offering Peter and Paul as its only Jewish characters has by its very nature disarmed the (nominally Christian) anti-Semite. Quo Vadis shows us a Paul not unlike the anti-Semite’s traditional concept of the large-nosed, black-bearded Jew, and has him identify himself as a rabbi. “Despise him if you dare,” the incipient anti-Semite is implicitly admonished, “but remember that this Jew is Saint Paul.”
Beyond the more conscious desire to avoid inciting anti-Semitism, another motive that operates less consciously in suppression of Jewish elements in films is simply the desire to prettify, to depict life without discordant, heterogeneous elements. Jews are an intrusion; they do not belong to the pretty picture. Their presence is suppressed just as other odd, unsightly things are suppressed. Thus in Golden Boy, the hero’s distinctive physical mark was changed from crossed eyes to curly hair for the same reason that the name Gottlieb was changed to Lewis—for beauty’s sake. Similarly, in The Glass Menagerie Garfinkel’s delicatessen was changed to Schultz’s for the same reason that Mrs. Wingfield was made to speak of “stomach trouble” instead of “cancer of the stomach.”
Where the unsightly Jews must be present, it is often felt necessary to conceal their peculiarities in a cloud of other peculiarities: Jews may be strange, some films seem to say, but other people are strange too—strangeness itself is made a form of the familiar. Often the Irish seem to offer the handiest camouflage. Thus in The Lost Weekend Don Birnam must walk along Third Avenue desperately seeking a pawnshop where he can sell his typewriter. In the novel he discovers from two Jews “in their Sunday-best” that all pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur, and that ends the conversation. In the movie he cries: “What about Kelly’s and Gallagher’s?”—a rather unlikely question. “We’ve got an agreement,” he is told. “They keep closed on Yom Kippur and we don’t open on St. Patrick’s”-the inference being that closing on St. Patrick’s Day is a regular practice among Americans of Irish descent. Here, as in such plays as Abie’s Irish Rose and Two Blocks Away, the message of “tolerance” comes to us at second hand, and the Irish, whose acceptance is taken for granted, are made buffers for the Jews: Jews are a bit peculiar, so the argument seems to go, but they are after all no more outlandish than the Irish.
This “buffer system” seems also to supply the logic behind those “cross section” films where Jews are self-consciously presented as “part of America,” engaged with their fellow Americans in some common task. In recent years the common task has often been World War II, and with extraordinary regularity the typical “service picture” would present Americans united in military action but showing their diverse backgrounds in their accents, their names, and their recollections of home. Along with the Texan, the man from Brooklyn, the Americans of Irish, Italian, and Slavic descent, occasionally a Negro, there might be a Jew. Such pictures as A Walk in the Sun, The Pur-ple Heart, Guadal-canal Diary, Air Force, Action in the North Atlantic, Sands of Iwo Jima, and Bataan all belong to this category of “minority” abstractions, and they all admit the Jew into the cross section (of Bataan, the New York Times reviewer observed: “Thomas Mitchell plays his usual Irish iron-man, even though he is called Corporal Jake Feingold”). In most of these films, the characterization of the Jewish figure is fairly perfunctory, but no more or less so than the characterization of most of the other service men. Wayne Greenbaum, the clever ironic City College graduate played by Sam Levene in The Purple Heart, is probably the best portrait in the gallery; most of the others are virtually interchangeable.
The Miracle of the Bells and a few other movies have introduced the “cross section” on a primarily religious basis; more often some melodrama will thrust a Jewish name into its list of detectives. A screen writer named Sydney Boehm has used such a character, almost as a kind of private signature, in one film after another (e.g., The Undercover Man, Union Station, and The Atomic City) . Boehm’s Jewish detective is little more than a name, but I am told that he is introduced deliberately as a contribution toward making the Jew a “natural” part of the social scene, a person taken for granted as one American among many others. This is, in general, the estimable intention of the “cross section” movie; too often, however, the mechanical configuration of such a movie betrays it as only a more complex example of suppression.
One more detective movie deserves to be mentioned here: Where the Sidewalk Ends, from a screen play by Ben Hecht, who, as his Guide for the Bedevilled testifies, has a special interest in the return of the Jew to the movies. Hecht goes at this task with a vengeance, presenting a sympathetic detective named Klein, who is the embattled hero’s best friend; Klein’s wife Shirley, who conforms to a popular but well-intentioned stereotype by being superficially ungenerous but proving ultimately to have a heart of gold; an unregenerate gangster named Sid Kramer; a dress manufacturer named Friedman who seems pleasant enough but who unjustly discharges the heroine when she becomes involved in a murder; and a key witness, a Mrs. Tribaum, who is a friendly, elderly widow. This movie is in fact not very good, but it does succeed in putting across the revolutionary (for Hollywood) idea that the Jews simply are there in the community, capable of the same strengths and the same weaknesses as others. (Another commonsense natural treatment of Jewish characters that deserves mention is Body and Soul, a movie about a Jewish prize fighter.)
In It’s a Big Country, one of the most ardently inoffensive of the “cross section” films, there is a “Negro episode” in which, instead of a professionally acted story, we see newsreel clips of Negro dignitaries, while the spoken commentary tells us that these are “Americans” in every walk of life; the word “Negro” is not used—one would never guess from the sound track what the episode is about. As one might expect after this display of discretion, the “Jewish episode” never mentions Jews. An American soldier home from Korea calls on the mother of a friend who has been killed in action. The mother is hospitable until she learns that the soldier’s name is Maxie Klein, but her hostility changes back to friendliness when he reads a letter from her son in which the son urges the necessity of having “allies.” Klein is of course a satisfactorily neutral name; the mother never mentions the cause of her hostility, and Maxie never refers to it. The letter he reads is at a respectful, discreet distance from the subject at hand. One wonders how many of those the film wished to influence for the better even got the point of this episode.
Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement, though they presented their messages more clearly, suffered likewise from an excess of discretion. Bent on showing that Jews are just like everyone else, these films so neutralized their Jewish characters as to deprive them of all reality. Indeed, in Gentleman’s Agreement, it will be recalled, the main “Jewish” character is simply a Gentile who calls himself a Jew so he can write a series of articles called “I Was Jewish for Eight Weeks.” And Crossfire simply failed to characterize fully the Jewish victim of prejudice; evidently the makers of the movie were so concerned to enlist everybody’s sympathies on his side that they feared the results of endowing him with any specific traits other than a vague benevolence. They did not allow Sam Levene to give the typical performance he has sometimes been permitted to give, even in the movies, apparently because they did not want it said that he was “too Jewish.”
It is certain that the important role played by Jews in the movie industry, and some sensitivity about the large financial rewards the industry has brought them, have, especially since Hitler, contributed to the establishment of the “tradition” of suppression, evasion, and sugar-coating that I have described.1 There has also been pressure from Jewish organizations, often more energetic than effective. And there has been support from the Hays code, which went into effect in 1934 and which provides that no religion shall be ridiculed; under the code, Jews are regarded as members of a religious group. The avowed intention of the policy has been laudable: to combat anti-Semitism. But there is in it also a great deal of stuffiness, timidity, and plain lack of imagination, which, when it is allowed to predominate, produces a culture of stereotypes and uniformity.
We are entitled to ask, too, whether the policy does not even defeat its primary purpose. Do not these restrictions and concealments make the Jew, in the eyes of the anti-Semite or the potential anti-Semite, more menacing and mysterious than ever— a figure so powerful that he can cause his image and his very name to vanish when it serves his purposes? The disappearance of the Jew from the popular arts inevitably inspires the question, especially among the prejudiced: what does he have to hide?
If the creators of our popular culture believe in a world in which the Jew exists, let them show such a world. Let the Jew come back, not as apologist or walking object lesson, not as a generalized focus for sentiments of tolerance or as a public-relations representative of his people, but the man himself in all his concreteness—his strengths and his weaknesses—the human being he used to be.
1 In Ludwig Bemelmans’ Dirty Eddie, a satirical novel about Hollywood, a delegation of Jews comes every year “to tell Moses and a couple of others that they shouldn’t allow themselves to be paid the biggest salaries in the country. They say it is bad for the Jews.”