Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film
JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month.
“The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs again on each of the next four Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EST. New Jersey-based film educator Eric Goldman organized the showcase with TCM producer Gary Freedman.
“I [wouldn’t have been] thrilled with doing ‘The Image of the Jew,’ whether it was a good or bad depiction,” Goldman told JNS.org. “I wanted it to be ‘The Jewish Experience.’ I wanted a broad sweep—how Israel, the Shoah (Holocaust), prejudice, and anti-Semitism affect Jews.”
Freedman, who had produced several of the aforementioned cultural showcases for TCM, had been pushing for a Jewish festival for several years. He told JNS.org that he has a particular love for Israeli films, attributing his feeling to the Jewish state’s film industry being relatively new, innovative and freewheeling with storytelling, and surprisingly apolitical.
The moment when the Jewish film showcase was conceived came when TCM got the rights to “Gentleman’s Agreement,” an 1947 Academy Award-winning film about a reporter who pretends to be Jewish to cover a story about anti-Semitism and personally experiences bigotry and hatred.
Goldman, the founder and president of the Ergo Media video publishing company, worked with Freedman to develop the showcase’s seven themes: the evolving Jew, the immigrant experience, the Holocaust, Israeli classics, the Jewish homeland, tackling prejudice, and coming-of-age stories. During the selection process, the organizers found that films were sometimes difficult to obtain or too expensive, but they ultimately assembled a lineup of films that they consider reflective of Jewish life and its challenges.
For the Israeli segment, Goldman wanted to feature rarely screened early films. One target was the 1949 film “Sword in the Desert,” made by an independent producer with Universal Studios and starring Dana Andrews, Jeff Chandler, Steve McNally, and MÃ¤rta Torén, which tells the story of illegal immigrants coming ashore in Mandatory Palestine and running from the British. TCM initially had difficulty getting its hands on “Sword in the Desert,” but ironically, after failing with Universal and major U.S. archives, organizers found what Goldman called “a somewhat anti-British film” at the British Film Institute.
Also included is the first film produced in Israel, 1955’s “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” which was directed by a Brit. “They didn’t feel anyone in Israel was capable [of producing a film] yet,” said Goldman.
The “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” cast included international actors as well as Israelis, three of whom wound up playing important roles in Israeli culture: Haya Harareet, who played opposite Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur”; Margalit Oved, who became a dancer and choreographer; and Arik Lavie, who became a well-known Israeli balladeer.
The 1964 film “Sallah” got caught up in Israeli bureaucracy. Although TCM had an agreement with Israel to obtain the film, it had not yet been sent and no one in Israel was answering the network’s calls. As time was running out and TCM was getting frantic, Goldman came to the rescue. “I have had many dealings with Israeli film people, and it’s not atypical for something to get lost,” he said. Goldman made lots of calls and didn’t take no for an answer. Finally, he spoke to the general manager who had access to the film—with a baby crying in the background—and the problem was resolved.
Goldman said he was not initially so thrilled about showing “Exodus,” based on Leon Uris’s book of the same name, as part of the TCM series because so many people have already seen it. But after introducing the film at last year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, expecting to leave promptly after his 5-10 minute talk before the screening, he watched the film and changed his mind.
“[‘Exodus’] is long and a little dated, but so important in terms of the impact it had on American Jewish life and how Americans in general perceived Israel and connected with Israel,” he said. “For most people, it was their first opportunity to connect with Israel visually.”
Goldman chose a couple of controversial films to illustrate the “tackling prejudice” theme. One was 1934’s “House of Rothschild,” whose production the Anti-Defamation League tried to stop. In fact, when Goldman saw the opening scene—in which a Jewish moneylender, played by British actor George Arliss, puts a coin in his mouth to test its authenticity—he said he squirmed a little.
But when viewers “see where the film goes and [that] it is portraying how this Jew—who is forced to be a moneylender, who can’t own land—is persecuted by the Prussians,” they should realize that the Prussians were stand-ins for Germans and that “House of Rothschild” is an anti-Nazi film, explained Goldman.
The actual version of the film that TCM is using sheds light on the history of film. The concluding scene is in Technicolor, a three-color process that produced magnificent color and did not fade with time, according to Goldman. When the film was made, the creators of Technicolor were trying to convince studios to try it out, and they decided to incorporate 3-4 minutes of it in the concluding scene of “House of Rothschild.”
Both “House of Rothschild” and “Gentleman’s Agreement” were produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, who was in his 30s and sought to fight prejudice. He was the only head of a major film studio at the time who wasn’t Jewish.
The third “tackling prejudice” film is 1947’s “Crossfire,” about a man apparently murdered by a soldier who was part of a group that had just gotten out of the army. The last film in that category, “Focus,” was drawn from an Arthur Miller novel, but flamed out quickly in theaters because it was released right after the 9/11 attacks, when fewer people were in the mood to go to the movies.
TCM’s Holocaust segment opens with 1953’s “The Juggler,” starring Kirk Douglas as a survivor having difficulty integrating into Israeli society. It was shot in Israel at a time when nobody in America was producing similar films. The director, Edward Dmytryk, a Polish Catholic who grew up in an anti-Semitic household, was behind three films Goldman considers among the most philo-Semitic ever made: “The Juggler,” “Crossfire,” and “The Young Lions” (1958), which tackled anti-Semitism in the military.
The opening film of the Holocaust segment is Orson Wells’s “The Stranger” (1946), about a Nazi war criminal who escapes to America, marries a judge’s daughter, and tries to make a place for himself. He is pursued by a Nazi hunter, played by Edward G. Robinson, who confronts the Nazi’s wife and, when she refuses to believe him, screens for her footage from the Holocaust. “The footage was compiled by Americans, largely to show to Germans; it was not really seen in this country to a great extent, and here it was in middle of a fictional film,” said Goldman, adding that Wells was very liberal, passionate about rights and freedom, and a staunch opponent of bigotry and prejudice.
Kicking off the series on Sept. 2 were “The Evolving Jew” and “The Immigrant Experience. “The Evolving Jew” featured two of the four film versions of “The Jazz Singer”: Al Jolson’s early sound film from 1927, and the 1952 remake starring Danny Thomas. The juxtaposition of the two versions illustrates societal change over time.
“In the 50s [version],” said Goldman, “both father and son were college grads and the rabbi was called ‘Dr.,’ and you see where the Jew has come in the years in between [the two versions].”