Marc Andreessen’s Library: Books still have power

September 15, 2016

Books still have power.  Did you know that the Silicon Valley venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz has a carefully curated library of 800 books in its waiting room?  A lot of people do now, because of this article in Wired magazine by Cade Metz. Each of the books has been selected and placed there by Marc Andreessen, the firm’s co-founder (and one of the original Internet browser inventors through Netscape).  The collection – focussing on Hollywood, Silicon Valley and computer programming – is so legendary that “as authors and publicists come through, many of them slot in their own books—sometimes in bulk”, Metz writes.  “Andreessen is the room. And the room still has the desired effect: It makes you want to talk to the people inside.”

According to the article and the photographs accompanying it, the library includes many of my favourites, including Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invested Hollywood, David Thomson’s The Whole Equation:  A History of Hollywood and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus.


Film review of Hail Caesar

March 6, 2016

(This film review of “Hail Caesar” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 3 March 2016.)

Directed and written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum
Most film directors love the movies, and the Jewish film-making duo of Joel and Ethan Coen is no exception. While only one previous film, “Barton Fink”, was set in “movieland”, their latest comedy, “Hail Caesar”, is takes place totally in and around an early 1950s mythical film studio called “Capitol Pictures”.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) runs production at Capitol, with responsibilities ranging from saving young starlets from exploitation by sleazy photographers to fixing up stars’ pregnancies to supervising edits to daily 8.00am telephone calls with the New York boss. He also runs external relations, convening a meeting of four religious leaders (including a rabbi) to review the script of the studio’s big Roman religious “swords and sandals” epic, “Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ” (the major “film within a film” of “Hail Caesar”), which in turn is a combination of (the real films) “The Robe”, “Quo Vadis” and “Ben Hur”.

The plot of “Hail Caesar” revolves around the kidnapping for ransom of the star of “Hail Caesar”, Baird Whitlock, a Kirk Douglas/Charlton Heston type (played by George Clooney), by a group of Communist (and mostly Jewish) screenwriters. They meet in a “study group” with the Marxist Jewish philosopher Herbert Marcuse (played by Australian-British actor John Bluthal).

In an odd way, the themes of “Hail Caesar” reflect two films currently playing in Australian cinemas: “Risen”, about a Roman tribune in the time of Jesus who decides to become his follower; and “Trumbo”, about blacklisted writers in the 1950s who were Communist sympathisers.

It feels rude to criticise “Hail Caesar”, given that it has been made with such love, adoration and affection for movies and movie history, and does such a delightful job of re-creating Hollywood circa 1951. The Coen brothers show off their film-making skill by creating scenes from a classic western, a group of tap dancing sailors (think “Follow the Fleet”), synchronised swimming (think “Million Dollar Mermaid”) and a British drawing room drama. As wonderful as each of these scenes are, they don’t add up: the whole of this film is less than the sum of its very good parts. The major plotline – the kidnapping – is weak and underdeveloped, and there is little character interaction, tension or emotional growth.

A number of star actors have small – virtually cameo – roles in “Hail Caesar”, including Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams type, Ralph Fiennes as an expatriate European director, Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) as a chain-smoking film editor, Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing actor, Tilda Swinton in two roles as competing twin gossip columnists (Hedda Hopper style), and Jonah Hill as a Jewish lawyer the studio goes to when they need a paid “fall guy”.

The real find – and by far the best performance in “Hail Caesar” – is Jewish actor Alden Ehrenreich, who convincingly plays singing cowboy star “Hobie Doyle”, a cowboy star who has great difficulty in making the transition from the prairies to talky dramas. At age 26, Ehrenreich previously played Cate Blanchett’s anguished stepson in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”. In movie-like fashion, he was first “discovered” by Steven Spielberg, while performing a comedy sketch at a friend’s bar mitzvah in Los Angeles. In “Hail Caesar”, Ehrenreich’s Doyle performs great feats of physical comedy, leaping on and off horses, using a cowboy lasso and then even turning a strand of spaghetti into a miniature lasso. Along with Brolin’s Mannix, he is one of only two characters who have any dimensionality in the whole film. He’s an actor with great potential.

In the Coen brothers’ tradition, the majority of minor characters and actors are Jewish, including recognisable Coen favourites David Krumholtz, Fred Melamed and Alex Karpovsky.

(photo below:  Alden Ehrenreich in “Hail Caesar”, playing one of his cowboy roles)

Hail Caesar Alden E

Film review of Trumbo

February 21, 2016

(This film review of “Trumbo” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 February 2016.)

Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara, based on the book “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman and Michael Stuhlbarg

Although the “Hollywood blacklist” increasingly seems to be an artefact of history, the events of that time – from 1947 to the early 1960s – remain some of the most significant intersections between two objects of world-wide fascination: American film and American politics. During a time of domestic political upheaval and external Soviet expansion, American politics turned rightwards. A “witch-hunt” for American Communists resulted in the “blacklisting” of a number of people in the film industry, under pressure from the US Congress “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC).

That’s the background to the new biopic, “Trumbo”, which focuses on the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the best-known of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”. Starring Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) in the title role, the film charts Trumbo’s experiences as a left-wing organiser through to the blacklisting process, his time in prison for “contempt of Congress”, his subsequent of writing uncredited scripts in order to make a living, and his triumphant return.

Remarkably, the “blacklist” has only appeared a handful of feature films, notably “The Front” (1976, with Woody Allen), “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991, with Robert De Niro), “The Majestic” (2001, with Jim Carrey), and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, George Clooney), and briefly in “The Way We Were” (1973, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford) and the subject of a few documentaries.

The story is a powerful one, and Cranston – nominated for an Oscar for his role – provides one of the best performances of the year. Cranston reflects the complicated nature of this progressive and hard-working genius, who remained loyal to his principles, his family and his friends – and who produced some of the best 20th century American film writing. Helen Mirren gives the film’s other outstanding performance, as right-wing newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. With such a great actress, it’s not surprising that director Jay Roach (who converted to Judaism to marry his wife, musician Susanna Hoffs) and writer John McNamara give her lots of screen time, significantly over-stating the importance of her role in the blacklist. One scene – surely fictional – sees Hopper threatening MGM boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) to bow to the blacklist, calling him various antisemitic epithets. Did this happen? Not likely. Mayer – a businessman like all of the film moguls – reluctantly acceded to the blacklist under political pressure far greater than what Hopper’s newspaper column could bring.

For fans of Jewish film history, there is much to savour in “Trumbo”. In addition to Mayer, other important Jewish characters include “Arlen Hird” (Louis C.K.), a “composite” character representing a number of the Jewish “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters; Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg, the new “go to” Jewish actor for Jewish roles in “Steve Jobs”, “Blue Jasmine” , “A Serious Man” and “Boardwalk Empire”); John Goodman as Frank King (“Kozinsky”), the Jewish schlock movie producer who secretly hired Trumbo and other blacklisted writers; Kirk Douglas (Dean O‘Gorman), who openly hired Trumbo to write the script of “Spartacus”, which Douglas both produced and starred in; and Otto Preminger, the Austrian-Jewish director of “Exodus”, who hired Trumbo to adapt Leon Uris’ novel to the screen.

If there are any heroes in “Trumbo”, King, Douglas and Preminger – all of them Jewish – are the ones, for resisting pressure not to deal with Trumbo. Douglas and Preminger are both widely credited with finally breaking the blacklist, a combination of their personal power and an indication that the political times had changed, particularly under President John F. Kennedy. (Douglas has also stated that the proudest moment of his career was “breaking the blacklist”.)

“Trumbo” has been made with great love of American film, and includes some lovely recreations of famous film scenes, such as Douglas in “Spartacus”, and other notable characters including John Wayne (David James Elliott), and Diane Lane playing Trumbo’s wife Cleo. Despite the great story and some delightful performances, “Trumbo” the film falls down with an often pedestrian script by McNamara; the first third of the film plays like a telemovie rather than a proper feature. My critique of the script goes far deeper, however, in that the focus on Trumbo’s life results in lack of recognition of the role of Jews as the primary victims of the blacklist, and its antisemitic nature.

All of the original “Hollywood Ten” served time in prison for refusing to testify in front of the Congressional Committee, and not just Trumbo (the film does not make this clear). Many film historians point out that antisemitism and attacks on Jews formed a crucial undercurrent of the Congressional investigations and the blacklist. Among the “Ten”, six were Jewish: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz and Sam Ornitz. Of the four non-Jews, three were closely involved with films that dealt with antisemitism: Edward Dymtryk and Adrian Scott (director and producer of “Crossfire”) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (writer of “Earth and High Heaven”, similar to “Gentleman’s Agreement”). Thus of the ten, only Trumbo was neither Jewish nor had worked on an antisemitism project, although “Exodus” came later. The overwhelming majority of HUAC “witnesses”, both friendly and unfriendly, were Jewish.

The film ends, appropriately enough, with Dalton Trumbo’s emotional 1970 speech to the American Screenwriters Guild, when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and appeared to forgive those who “named names”, when he famously said, “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one … who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals…. It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”

(photo below:  Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird and Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo”)


Hollywood Jews and the Iran deal

August 17, 2015

It’s been quite a long while since we heard the phrase “Hollywood Jews”. We will soon approach 100 years of debate about the “Jewish influence” in Hollywood, a word that broadly describes the American film and television (and other entertainment) industries in Los Angeles. There’s lots of documentation that shows that:

1. Jews are over-represented in Hollywood, especially in some key creative and some high-profile positions.
2. The Jewish “influence” over Hollywood is overstated by an enormous amount – even by Jews themselves.
3. There are lots of good historical reasons why Jews gravitated to work in the American film and television industries – primary among them because historically they were locked out of a large number of other industries and professions. Hollywood, for a complex set of geographical, historical and economic factors, was open to “the Jews” at a key point in Jewish and film history, and has remained relatively so since.

Here’s what Neal Gabler, in his 1988 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, writes with respect to point three: “There were no social barriers in a business as new and faintly disreputable as the movies were in the early years of this century…. There were none of the impediments imposed by loftier professions and more firmly entrenched businesses to keep Jews and other undesirables out.”

And here’s a good example of point number two. Premiere, a monthly film magazine published in the USA from 1987 to 2010, used to present its annual “Top 100 power list”. I analysed the “power list” every year over a ten+ year period (approximately 1995 to 2005), to see how many of the “top 100” on the list were, in fact, Jewish. When I gave lectures on Jewish representation in film, I would ask the audience how many on the list did the audience think were Jewish. These were Australian Jewish audiences, reasonably sophisticated in media, in film and with a high degree of Jewish “awareness”, and not prone to over-estimating Jewish power in the world. The average guess was about 50%, with some people estimating as high as 90%. The lowest estimates – yes, the absolute lowest – only just met the reality: between 22% and 25%. Over the ten or eleven years in my survey, the top number was about 29%, and the lowest 20%.

Okay, so 25% is a lot, you might argue, especially when Jews make up only about 2.5% of the American population. Yes, it’s an over-representation by a factor of ten, but far from control. And the further down the list you go, the fewer Jews actually appeared. I strongly suspect that the second 100 (if totalled) would be significantly less.

So that’s the some of the background of the recent headline coverage of “Hollywood Jews support the Iran deal”, with some pretty strong criticism of the full-page advertisements that appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal last week. We Jews – and many non-Jews, both sympathetic to Jewish causes and not – are pretty alert to “Jewish power” issues. So when the “Hollywood Jews” make a statement together, well … we notice. And we notice a lot more than when it’s a simple group of Jews, because of the nature of Hollywood film history. “Cleveland Jews” making a statement just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

So here, below is a copy of the advertisement. You can find a lot more information on the Hollywood Reporter website. Even The Times of Israel insisted on calling the group “Hollywood Jews”, when the more accurate description – one used by the group itself – was “Los Angeles Jewish leaders”.

Hollywood Jews endorse Iran dealFor the record, here is the list of signatories to the ad:

Mel Levine, Mickey Kantor, Eli Broad, Norman Lear, Frank Gehry, Stanley Gold, Irwin Jacobs, David Abel, James Adler, Daniel Attias, Elaine Mitchell Attias, Lawrence Bender, Peter and Barbara Benedek, Michael Berenbaum, Donna Bojarksy, Peter Braun, Rabbi Sharon Brous, David Bubis, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Eli Chernow, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Bruce and Toni Corwin, Geoffrey Cowan, Bert Deixler, David Fisher, William and Patricia Flumenbaum, Terry Friedman, Abner Goldstine, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Arthur Greenberg, Earl Greinetz, Richard and Lois Gunther, Stephen Gunther, Janet Halbert, Michael Hirschfeld, Elaine Hoffman, Jane Jelenjo and Bill Norris, Charles Kaplan, Marty Kaplan, Steven Kaplan and Janet Levine, Glenn and Miriam Krinksy, Luis and Lee Lainer, Mark Lainer, Peter Landesman, Shawn Landres, Shari Leinwand, Irwin Levin, Peachy Levy, Rabbi Richard N. Levy, Mike Medavoy, Douglass Mirell, Charles Mostov, Allan and Nicole Mutchnik, David N. Myers, Mark and Marsha Novak, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Carolyn Ramsay, Gene Reynolds, Victoria Riski and David W. Rintels, Fredric D. Rosen, Rick Rosen, Monica and Philip Rosenthal, Ranni John Rosove, Thomas Safran, Dena Schechter, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Larry Shapiro, Abby Sher, Richard Siegel, Glenn Sonnenberg, Carolyn Strauss, Bradley Tabach-Bank and De Dee Dorksind, David A. Thorpe, Larry Title and Ellen Shavelson, Matthew Velkes, Hope Warschaw, Rick Wartzman, Matthew Weiner, Sandford and Karen Wiener, Daniel Weiss, Marcie and Howard Zelikow and Michael Ziering.

It’s an interesting list, with a few well-known names, including Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), Eli Broad (philanthropist and entrepreneur), Norman Lear (TV mogul) and Frank Gehry (the architect, not a media person), Mike Medavoy (a genuine Jewish film mogul), Michael Berenbaum (Holocaust film scholar) and Mickey Kantor (former politician). A fascinating group, but (a) not a “power list” of Hollywood personalities (how many do you recognise?); and (b) includes lots of non-entertainment types. Missing are most of the biggest actor, director and producer names. Not exactly what I’d call a “Hollywood Jewish coalition”, by any means.

However it suits the media to frame this as a “Hollywood” (read: film and television) list.

Book review of The Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

July 12, 2014

This book review of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents book review appeared in Media International Australia, issue 136, August 2010.  I am re-printing it here so that it is more easily accessible.


Kemper, Tom, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2010. ISBN 978 0 520 25707 8, xvii + 293 pp.

It is hard to believe that before Tom Kemper’s book Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, there were no academic studies of the history of agents in Hollywood.  It’s not that agents have been ignored: numerous “how to” industry books have dealt with them; Nikki Finke’s tell-all Pay or Play: The Rise and Rise of the Hollywood Agent (1998) charts their modern successes; David Thomson’s The Whole Equation (2005) frequently refers to them; and there have been at least two recent books on super-agent Lew Wasserman.

But Kemper stands in a class alone.  He easily disproves “the standard conception of film history” that agents only became powerful figures in the 1950s with the establishment of MCA, and then ICM and CAA in the 1970s, and commences his study in the Hollywood studios of the late 1920s.  As such, Kemper’s work runs parallel to the historical Hollywood works by Tino Balio, David Bordwell, Douglas Gomery, Thomas Schatz and others, and gives unique and highly detailed insights.

With extraordinary detail, Kemper – a visiting lecturer at the University of Southern California – covers the period up to the 1950s, leaving subsequent developments for a future book.  Kemper’s great contribution is in showing how agency practices and business models – strategies like packaging, story approval guarantees, percentage points and freelance deals – were all first developed, tested and implemented in the 1930s.

Although Hidden Talent deals with a number of different agents and agencies, two agents loom large in the history: Myron Selznick (brother of David O.), the leading agent of the 1930s; and the contrasting Charles Feldman.  Kemper’s chapters take a mixed thematic and chronological approach, dealing with “the power of place”, boutique agencies, the contract industry, agents as producers and then finally the “new fortunes” in the 1940s, and the shift to the “corporate era” of the 1950s.

The book contains clear prose, never falling into deadly academic jargon that can drag film history books down, such as this colourful description of Myron Selznick:  “He rudely relished the power and fortune of his victories by grotesquely spilling cash, owning a fleet of cars, and imbibing biblically.” (p. 25)

One criticism:  While most of the agents of his period are Jewish, Kemper simply avoids the topic, noting that dealing with it is “another project” best left to the likes of Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own and Steven Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.  But what elements of Gabler’s assimilation thesis applied to the agents?  Part of our understanding of how Hollywood ran then is in fact based on both on who they were and why they became involved in the industry, not just how they did their jobs.  It is, of course, this “how” that Kemper succeeds in describing, with great breadth, depth and clarity.  He has mined extensive archives (accessing materials that will never make their way online) in Hollywood agencies, studios, guilds and associations.

There is a lot of loving – and highly illuminating – detail here, such as the inclusion of the floor plan of Myron Selznick’s specifically designed new agency officers in 1938.  This one graphic gives us more insight into organisational relationships than many thousands of words could describe.

Hidden Talent book cover

Hollywood, the Nazis and the Jews – the controversy continues

January 27, 2014

Louise Adler’s Sydney Morning Herald review of two books on Hollywood, Hitler and the Jews (“Silence of the Movie Machine”, Spectrum, 25-26 January 2014, pp. 30-31) contains a number of unfortunate misleading and unsupported statements.  She summarily dismisses widespread criticisms of Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler as “turf envy” without dealing with their substance.  She strongly supports Urwand’s charge of how the Hollywood moguls, the majority of them Jewish, “collaborated” with the Nazis, arguing that objections to the word “collaboration” are only “niceties”.  Thus, she follows Urwand’s line of equating genuine collaboration with the Nazis (witness the activities of the numerous puppet governments set up by conquering Nazis of deporting Jews and other minorities to their deaths) with ill-advised business measures by American businessmen.

For one whose life revolves around the printed word (Adler is the chief executive of Harvard University Press), to make a political point (presumably that Jewish moguls were self-serving and immoral), Adler appears remarkably willing to ignore the significant political implications of what the term “collaboration” meant in the World War Two context.

But Adler goes even further than Urwand does.  In one convoluted sentence of her review, she appears to accuse “the American Jewish leadership” of “exacerbating the fate of European Jewry”.  The full sentence reads:

To keep the German market open, Hollywood executives yielded to American moral censoriousness, abetted by the timid, small-target strategy of the American Jewish leadership in fear of home-grown anti-Semitism and exacerbating the fate of European Jewry, a government policy of appeasement and vociferous interference by local Nazi representatives.

This statement veers uncomfortably close to “blaming the victim” (or at least, the victim’s cousins) for the Holocaust, ignoring the facts that the cautious American Jewish leaders of the time felt extremely vulnerable and insecure, and thus were virtually powerless in the face of significant world events.  For more information on this topic, don’t rely on Adler, but look instead to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the books The Emergence of American Zionism by Mark A. Raider and Uneasy at Home: Antisemitism and the American-Jewish Experience by Leonard Dinnerstein.

Finally, note that contrary to the Herald review, Thomas Doherty’s book Hitler and Hollywood, 1933-1939 (which is also reviewed in the same article, although in less detail) is published by “Columbia University Press”, not “University of Columbia Press”.

Hollywood and Hitler book cover Doherty

Hollywood Jews and Hitler – Did they collaborate?

October 4, 2013

Nothing like a good Jewish film controversy.  I spent years researching my PhD thesis about one – the reception of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  And what I discovered that there were a whole lot of others.  We do feel passionately about film – what’s on screen can stir our emotions in ways that few other things can.

Well, the latest Jewish film controversy is not a movie at all, but a book entitled Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand.  In it, there’s a “game changer” to our current ideas of Hollywood history.  As Alexander C. Kafka (love that last name!), covering the controversy in The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes:

Urwand unearthed evidence that suggests the studios were not merely self-censoring in an effort to keep their shareholders, audiences, and industry and government monitors happy. Rather, he says, the studios began working in detailed coordination with Nazi officials, putting profits above principles.

The Collaboration Urwand book cover

And look who has weighed in to this controversy:

–          David Denby, noted film critic for The New Yorker, has published a much-commented upon blog post entitled “How could Harvard have published Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration?”, which followed his initial review of the book.

–          The Atlantic has covered it.

–          The New York Times has covered it a couple of times, both in Arts and in Books.

–          Particularly trenchant – and credible – criticism of the Collaboration book has come from Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty, who authored a book covering a roughly similar topic – Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939.  In the Hollywood Reporter, Doherty writes that Urwand’s book is “slanderous and ahistorical”.

–          Vanity Fair has covered the story.

–          Here in Australia, The Australian (Rosemary Neill) has covered it, calling it “the out there book of the year”.

And that’s just a sample.  Not bad for an academic book.

The allegations of Hollywood moguls cozying up to the Nazis are not new.  In fact (and I have lost the exact reference here), apparently Germany was the second largest film consumption market in the world (after the USA) in the 1930s, so it is not that surprising that they tried some sort of appeasement.  But Urwand’s findings go way beyond the earlier known information about Hollywood and the Nazis, using a deliberately distasteful word – “collaboration” – with all of its connotations of how various people worked closely with the Nazis to assist their crimes against humanity.  So you can see why some people are, as they say here in Australia, “getting their knickers in a knot” about this.

There are a few lessons in this.  The first is that – as I said in my Macquarie University graduation address in April 2012, “history matters”.  It matters because we still care about it.  Some of us care about the truth, others about interpretations of the truth, but whatever it is.  As Alexander Kafka writes, “At stake: the moral culpability of Jewish studio heads during cinema’s golden age.”  This is a pretty big question, so it’s not surprising that so many people have weighed in.  Yes, at stake is nothing less than a lot of powerful myths (stories? narratives?) about the basic goodness of Hollywood, American film, the American movie moguls – and the Jews.

This is how Urwand describes the rationale for the use of the word “collaboration”:

Throughout the 1930s, the term “collaboration” was used repeatedly to describe dealings that took place in Hollywood. Even studio heads adopted the term. An executive at RKO promised that whenever he made a film involving Germany, he would work “in close collaboration” with the local consul general. A Fox executive said the same. Even United Artists offered “the closest collaboration” if the German government did not punish the studio for the controversial 1930 air combat movie Hell’s Angels. According to the Foreign Office, “Every time that this collaboration was achieved, the parties involved found it to be both helpful and pleasant.”

I suspect that Urwand was naive in his choice of words, particularly given the meaning that “collaboration” took on following the Nazi downfall.  Technically he may be correct, but the criticism of this term seem fair.

For those of us resident in Australia, what’s especially fascinating about this controversy are the local connections:  Urwand was born in Sydney in 1977 and attended the University of Sydney, where he won a prize for his undergraduate history thesis about Steven Spielberg and the film Schindler’s List.  Both of his parents were refugee migrants to Australia:  Urwand’s father was forced to leave Cairo in 1956 (presumably because of the 1956 war with Israel), the same year that his mother left Budapest (presumably because of the Hungarian uprising).  He worked for Fox Studios Australia before moving to the USA to study at the University of Chicago and then the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his PhD in history.  The book creating all of this fuss is based on his PhD thesis.

The fact that Urwand is Jewish (and the son of migrants/refugees from Egypt and Hungary) is an important part of the narrative, because if he was not, people could accuse him of antisemitism.  But it’s hard to accuse a Jew, short of saying somehow that he is “self-hating”.  But that’s hard to prove – and I am not suggesting it in any way.  By the way, and I don’t mean to be petty here, for those who notice these things, Urwand does not seem to be particularly religious.  The interview he had with Kafka (noted above), mentions that he had a “gazpacho and lobster salad”.  Lobster (a form of shellfish), as most Jews can tell you, is not kosher.  You have to be pretty assimilated to eat it; eating lobster feels like a much bigger break with Jewish tradition than occasionally mixing milk and meat (also not kosher).

And one of Urwand’s most vociferous critics is a woman named Alicia Mayer, whose website “Hollywood Essays” notes that she is a grand-niece of Hollywood film mogul Louis B. Mayer, and that she lives in Sydney, working as “book editor in the arcane area of corporate governance”.  She has written a passionate “rebuttal” to Urwand’s book that begins, “I need your help. Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis.”

Hollywood Essays book cover

Interesting in knowing more?  You can read an extract from the book in The Hollywood Reporter, from an issue that made its cover.

This is a story that won’t go away.  More updates to come.

Hollywood Reporter issue cover

Update on 4 December 2013:

Laura Rosenzweig, a lecturer in Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, has just published an interesting article (“Spy vs Spy”, Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2014) which acts as another coda to this discussion.  She examines archival evidence that the studio moguls funded a spy ring that infiltrated Nazi groups in Los Angeles, feeding their findings to a Congressional committee and to prosecutors.  More evidence to counter the Urwand thesis.  This article has been drawn from her PhD thesis (University of California, Santa Cruz) that she is turning into a book – entitled “Hollywood’s Spies: Jewish Infiltration of Nazi and Pro-Nazi Groups in Los Angeles, 1933–1941”.

Update on 22 June 2015:

For those wishing to have a comprehensive overview of this controversy, Alicia Mayer has compiled an “Updated Rebuttal List”, which includes links to 36 additional articles and stories (the latest is July 2014).  She has a link to an article by Hector Tobar in the Los Angeles Times (December 31, 2013), which lists this controversy as one of the “5 memorable literary scandals and contretemps of 2013”.