By Michael Berns, Special to Chicago Jewish News
‘Hollywood Heyday: 75 Candid Interviews with Golden Age Legends’ is what co-author and son of Holocaust survivors David Fantle describes as “a history of 20th century entertainment.”
A collection of interviews with actors, comedians, directors, song writers and producers weaved into a narrative 40 years in the making, Fantle and his colleague Tom Johnson bounced around from London to New York to Los Angeles on a quest to compile something that hadn’t been done before.
“The ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ wasn’t golden for everybody” Fantle said as he reflected on conversations with some of the stars, Jewish and not Jewish, he spoke with. While many of the entertainment moguls and heads of studios in L.A. were Jewish themselves, they were first and foremost business people hoping to earn the trust and dollars of a mostly gentile audience.
Several of the Jewish celebrities Fantle and Johnson spoke with changed their given names in order to sound ‘less Jewish’ and more American. For instance, George Burns’ birth name was Nathan Birnbaum. Comedian, actor and television host Jack Carter was born Jack Chakrin. A German-American composer who won four Academy Awards and 10 Grammys and who escaped Nazi Germany as a 10-year old changed his name from Andreas Ludwig Priwin to André Previn. Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz.
To many producers in the Golden Age of Hollywood before and leading up to the release of ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ a film that won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm) and Best Director (Elia Kazan) at the 1947 Academy Awards, it was considered bad, risky business to have plotlines that dealt with issues in the Jewish community. ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ was the first film “to deal directly with anti-Semitism,” and it ultimately received rave reviews from fans and film critics alike.
There are more examples of anti-Semitism in 20th century Hollywood. In Los Angeles, even though many Jewish celebrities were incredibly successful in their careers, many country clubs — including Los Angeles Country Club — refused to allow Jews into their ranks. Hillcrest Country Club in Cheviot Hills in West Los Angeles was a place where Jewish celebrities could feel welcome, and many of those mentioned in the book were members including George Burns and George Jessel.
Judaism played a role in the lives of many actors interviewed in ‘Hollywood Heyday,’ but much of it was off-camera. George Jessel was a Zionist who proudly advocated for the State of Israel before its founding in 1948. Others were philanthropists, donating and providing endowments to synagogues in their local communities. They gave to charities and went to Temple, but they were not necessarily public in their support on-camera or in their roles in entertainment.
Judaism “wasn’t front and center in their lives” Fantle said of the people he spoke with in his book. “Many of the actors that I mentioned were practicing and aware of their faith and their background…. I think a lot of these actors and celebrities used discretion as to what extent they wore Judaism on their sleeve” — because that could have been “box office poison” especially in movie theaters south of the Mason-Dixon line.
If an actor “sounded or looked too Jewish,” theaters in the American South wouldn’t show movies with those actors in them. Studios or theater owners would edit films as late as the 1950s to cut out parts with Jewish actors in them. As a result of knowing this, and in an effort to maximize box office profits, movie producers and directors were well aware of the potential consequences of hiring Jewish and other minority actors.
Still, comedians like Don Rickles helped break down stereotypes against Jews, and really against all minority groups. Rickles was known to be one of the greatest insult-comedians of all time. To him, every person regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation was fair game to make fun of. Because Rickles treated those he made fun of equally and ‘attacked’ everybody as opposed to just one or two groups of people, he leveled out the playing field for comedic entertainment in Hollywood and on TV.
A common thread exists in the Jewish comedians, songwriters, composers, actors and directors Fantle and Johnson interviewed. “They really came with two things: Very limited means, and for the most part a very limited education. Many of them were first generation Americans and [like most immigrants] they often grew up in very adverse conditions.”
These were people with “G-d given talent, one-of-a-kind talent” who dreamt of building an American lifestyle; a lifestyle where creativity and skill could shine through and shatter glass ceilings.
David Fantle will be talking about his book at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 29 at Barnes & Noble at Old Orchard in Skokie.