When US moviemaking started out, it was an enterprise disreputable enough to attract the wrong sort of people: get-rich-quick speculators, third-tier theater folk, organized crime, and even god forbid Jews. The last rose to pilot most major studios as Hollywood became a gigantic industry. Yet this alleged Jewish mafia (a term still not fully retired in some circles) seldom used wealth and imagistic power to integrate fellow Jews into the cultural mainstream. Instead, they largely buried their ethnicity by living outrageously grandiose versions of the WASP American dream. The movies they made suggested a melting-pot fondue composed solely of Anglo-Saxon American cheese.
A long line of stars stretching from cowboy hero Bronco Billy onward adopted Anglicized names and hid (or at least didn't publicize) their ethnicity, among them Lauren Bacall, Charles Bronson, Tony Curtis, Lorne Greene (birth name: Chaim Leibowiz), and Judy Holliday. (If you think this practice doesn't continue today, dig beneath the surface.) The moguls themselves practiced private-sphere assimilation by ditching Jewish first wives for apple-pie glamazons.
Nonetheless, the number of films produced during Hollywood's first decades meant a few Jewish movies slipped onto the screen, if only for novelty's sake. One is a 1925 feature called His People. This rediscovered gem is the centerpiece attraction of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's 27th annual program. Its July 21 screening at the Castro Theatre will be accompanied by a commissioned score played live by New York City jazz star Paul Shapiro and his sextet.
Shapiro will be the big lure for many. I hope his klezmer bop sounds don't overwhelm the film. It has a relatively simple, borderline-cliché plot, including a variation on the classic "I hef no son!" moment, which reached a camp zenith when rabbi Sir Laurence Olivier disowned Neil Diamond in 1980's remake of The Jazz Singer. But prolific, forgotten director Edward Sloman handles even that purple melodrama with tact and affection.
In "the Ghetto" (as titles inform us) of NYC's Lower East Side, the Comiskey family struggles along. Devout immigrant father David (Rudolph Schildkraut) pegs all of his hopes on studious offspring Morris (Arthur Lubin). Dad is harsher in his judgment of Sammy (George Lewis), a street scrapper (usually in the service of defending his jag-off sib) and supposed ne'er-do-well. Only Mama Rose (Rosa Rosanova) perceives Sammy's true-blue nature, while suspecting Morris is a weasel. It's Sammy's scandalous moonlighting as a boxer that puts his bro through law school. After graduating, little ingrate Morris gets a prize position and courts his rich uptown boss's WASP daughter, claiming that he's "an orphan" when queried about his background. Fear not: his comeuppance will be mighty, though not unforgiving.
His People is a real discovery. Wonderfully openhearted and funny, the film respects both cultural tradition and progress, rejoicing in Sammy's love for Irish girl next door Mamie Shannon (Blanche Mehaffey). Brit transplant Sloman also directed another obscure but admirable Jewish-themed silent, 1927's Surrender, among nearly 100 Hollywood titles. (He also racked up dozens of screen credits as an actor.) This movie suggests a major talent, yet his career sputtered once the talkies arrived. By 1938 he'd abandoned movies for radio work. In 1972 he died in Woodland Hills at the age of 86.
His People is a major exception to the silent era's ironic general avoidance of Jewish imagery beyond the occasional comic stereotype, scheming shopkeeper, or biblical flashback. Even after Al Jolson kicked off the sound era as a cantor's son in the 1927 part-talkie version of The Jazz Singer, Jews largely remained in the closet onscreen.