MTSU Professor Discusses Jewish Immigrants and the Founding of Hollywood

By Robby Kerr, Contributing Writer

The MTSU Honors College continued its “Power of Place” lecture series with a historical account of the role Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe played in the birth of America’s film industry in the early 20th century.

“Placing the American Dream: The Founding of Hollywood” was presented by Dr. Elyce Helford, member of the English department and chairman of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies department Monday afternoon in the Honors Building.

For Helford, the earliest days of the movie industry were heavily influenced by the lives and experiences of 19th century Eastern European Jews, including their success stories in the United States.

The first “hollywood movie moguls”—the bosses of major film studios such as 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures—were all Jewish immigrants.

“Jews in many ways did found Hollywood,” Helford said. “They created what we now call the American Dream.”

In order to do this, Helford said Jews had to become “entrepreneurs” and “risk takers,” leaving their homes in New Jersey and New York because the film industry there was controlled by Edison Studios, the production company owned by Thomas Edison, to start their own companies on the West Coast.

Helford discussed how Jewish filmmakers were sensitive to the taste of white middle class Americans, calling early Hollywood filmmaking racist, sexist and even anti-Semitic, because the audience at the time did not want to see Jews on camera.

Helford also said that although the moguls and other Jewish filmmakers were not seen on camera, they “indirectly infused” Jewish culture into their films by making plots and characters that paralleled their own experiences.

This is why, she said, that the audience was able to show “sympathy with the monster” in movies like Frankenstein, because such characters represented the misfits of society.

Dr. Howard recommended classic films including A Gentleman’s Agreement, The Great Dictator, and A Double Life. She also recommended watching The Front, starring Woody Allen, as an accurate representation of Jewish filmmakers during the Red Scare.

The Honors College lecture series continues every Monday from 3-4 p.m. Next week English professor Martha Hixon will speak on the effect of children’s literature.

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