Judaism according to Hollywood and Netflix

Ever since I reclaimed my spiritual birthright as a teenager, I’ve been very annoyed (to say the least!) at how Jewish characters and Judaism are depicted on the vast majority of TV shows and films. Historically, it’s pretty rare for a film not about the Shoah to depict the religious side of Judaism as The Jazz Singer (seen above) does. While the film clearly champions a secular identity over a religious one, it doesn’t denigrate religiosity as 100% incompatible with modern life either.

Jewish subjects on film in the silent era frequently played on ugly antisemitic stereotypes, but there were occasional positive depictions, such as Hungry Hearts (1922), based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives; a few early D.W. Griffith shorts; and the German Golem trilogy (of which only the last installment is known to survive in full).

Unfortunately, many Jewish characters are played by non-Jews, and 99.9% of the time they’re Ashkenazic (of Central and Eastern European descent) and therefore white-presenting. This feeds harmful stereotypes and disgusting slanders, like claiming we just Magically appeared out of thin air in 18th century Poland and later immigrated en masse to the Middle East as part of a white supremacist, colonialist project.

No acknowledgment at all of how we’re an ethnoreligious tribe indigenous to Israel, with a continual presence tracing back thousands of years! Nor do these Ashkenazocentric portrayals depict the full rainbow of Jewish peoplehood. Eighty percent of Israeli Jews are Mizrachim, from North Africa and the Middle East. And even white-skinned Ashkenazim aren’t ethnically European.

There are also Sephardim, of Spanish and Portuguese descent, as well as Italians, Romaniotes (Greeks), Ethiopians (who completely disprove the racist lie that all Jews are white!), Persians, Indians, and so many other Diaspora communities.

It’s not as though there are barely any Jewish actors, the way it’s difficult to find real disabled people to play disabled roles. But more often than not, a Jewish character is played by yet another Gentile actor.

Fictional Jewish families are also almost always intermarried, secular, and assimilated, unless the film is about the Shoah. Then it’s okay, because most of them will be dead by the end anyway. There’s a reason Dara Horn titled her 2021 essay collection People Love Dead Jews.

Nowhere in the majority of Hollywood and Netflix productions do we find a warm, accurate, nuanced, sensitive depiction of Jewish life. People are either secular and assimilated or cartoonishly stereotyped members of an ultra-Orthodox enclave, from which some poor oppressed woman is desperate to escape so she can achieve liberation with bikinis, high heels, crotch-high skirts, and lots of casual sex.

Never mind the fact that many women have made the conscious, educated choice to leave the secular world for Orthodoxy! I’ve known so many Orthodox women, and they’re not at all oppressed, unhappy, or abused. There are legit criticisms of the more extreme corners of the Orthodox world, but even the fanatics who do things like throw rocks at men and women praying together at the Western Wall are NOT representative of the majority of people in those communities.

If there is an Orthodox character in a non-Shoah story, odds are s/he’s portrayed as an out of touch bigot who needs to learn a lesson and become dutifully secular and assimilated, or accept intermarriage as the modern American way. The world Jewish population still hasn’t recovered from the Shoah, due in huge part to intermarriage and assimilation!

And speaking of intermarriage, the real-life statistic is only about 33%, NOT the constantly bandied about 52% figure. There were significant flaws in the data collection of that survey. But according to Hollywood, it’s 99%! There’s also the storyline that makes me cringe every time, “Ooh, I’m getting married, I have to convert!” Cue a quicky, insincere conversion and Judaism never being mentioned again in any serious way.

The obligatory Chanukah episode falsely portrays this holiday as a Jewish Christmas, though it’s a minor holiday and only rose to prominence as a way for people to demonstrate they were just as American as their neighbors in postwar suburbia. There might be an episode with a Pesach Seder or mention of the High Holidays, but never will you find holidays like Shavuot, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, or Purim, let alone fast days like Tisha B’Av.

Compare the nonsense of Hollywood and Netflix to Israeli shows and films like Shtisel and Srugim, where the full range of Jewish life is depicted honestly instead of being reduced to cheap stereotypes and offensive slander.

From gutter to glitter and back again

Released 9 January 1931, Little Caesar was the first of the classic gangster films made famous and popular by Warner Brothers. While there certainly had been more than a few prior films featuring gangsters, it was only in 1931 that the modern gangster film as we know it took shape. Now, for the first time, real violence was depicted onscreen, and gangsters were protagonists instead of antagonists or side characters who had to be brought down.

Depression audiences keenly related to these anti-heroes who weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths and had to work hard for everything they got (even if most people in the audience didn’t climb out of the working-class world through crime!). In the blink of an eye, gangster anti-heroes also lost everything they were so proud of and worked so long and hard to achieve.

And since the über-restrictive Hays Code only came into play in 1933, these earliest gangster films were at liberty to show a great deal of violence and gritty realities.

Little Caesar was based on a crime novel of the same name, written by American novelist W.R. Burnett in 1929. This was his very first novel, and was such a runaway success he was invited to Hollywood as a screenwriter. Most of his books were converted into screenplays, and feature characters who are above all else deeply human, regardless of their walk of life. Hardened gangsters and criminals can show a softer side or even attempt to give up their wicked ways, while cops, judges, and guardians of so-called virtue can be evil, cruel, and two-faced.

And of course, Little Caesar also launched the film career of my second-favorite male actor of the sound era, Edward G. Robinson. Though he began appearing in films in 1916, it was only in 1929 that he began doing it regularly. (He began his acting career in the Yiddish Theatre District of New York in 1913, and débuted on Broadway in 1915.) Sadly, due to the institutionalized antisemitism of the era, he had to use a Gentile-sounding stage name in lieu of his birth name, Emanuel Goldenberg.

Astonishingly, Clark Gable was seriously considered for either the lead role or the second-leading role. While he certainly played his share of tough guys, I can’t see him as Rico at all! Edward G. Robinson was the absolute perfect choice for the title character. Seeing anyone else attempting that role would just feel wrong, similar to how The Wizard of Oz would be a completely different film had Shirley Temple been Dorothy.

Because Edward G. Robinson had already played several gangster characters, both onstage and in films, and since he’d proved his chops in a number of films throughout 1930, Warner Brothers asked him to take the lead role. After Little Caesar shot him to superstardom, he signed a longterm contract with the studio.

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Rico) and his buddy Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) hold up a gas station at night and promptly beat it to a diner, where they read in the newspaper about Diamond Pete Montana, a big shot in the underworld. Hearing about Pete’s success makes Rico burn with jealousy and resentment, so much so he decides to move to a bigger town and start making waves for himself. Joe meanwhile wants to return to his dancing career, and only sees crime as a temporary quick fix for money.

Towards that end, they relocate east to Chicago and start working at the Palermo nightclub, which is but a front for mob activities. Though Joe joins the gang along with Rico, he spends more time working as a dancer and predictably falls in instalove with his partner Olga (Glenda Farrell).

Olga feels the gun in his pocket while they’re kissing, and isn’t exactly pleased about it. Joe asks her to pretend she didn’t see it, and tells her not to worry, that it’s just a little good luck charm. He’s very hesitant to leave his life of crime for Olga, as much as he likes her, since no one gets away with desertion and betrayal.

Out of fear of what the gang might do to him otherwise, Joe agrees to take part in a holdup at the Bronze Peacock club during a New Year’s Eve party. He’s very shaken up when he returns to Olga’s room and confesses what happened. However, he insists he didn’t do the shooting, and reiterates that it’s impossible to leave his gang.

Rico demands a much bigger cut than boss Sam Vettori promised him, and is soon raking in riches beyond his wildest dreams. He’s particularly delighted to be honored at a swanky dinner, at which he receives a fancy pocketwatch (stolen from a shop last night). One of the people honoring him is Diamond Pete Montana, who’s now lower in the pecking order than Rico.

Absent from this banquet is Joe, who hasn’t come around in a long time.

Joe overhears a rival gang planning a hit on Rico, and phones his gang to warn them. They’re unable to find Rico until after he’s been shot, but the bullet only grazes his arm. Rico is touched to learn about how Joe tried to save him.

Rico’s next move is to take over his gang’s entire territory and convince rival boss Arnold Lorch to leave town alive before he leaves it in a pine box. His power, prestige, and wealth continue increasing. Before long, he controls the entire North Side and is living in a grand mansion.

Rico invites Joe to his new digs and asks him to be second-in-command of the North Side. It’s too big for Rico to control all by himself. Joe immediately refuses, which earns Rico’s wrath. If Joe doesn’t give up Olga and return to the gang, there will be terrible consequences.

Joe slips out while Rico is on the phone, and rushes to warn Olga. The situation becomes even worse when Olga calls the cops instead of discreetly leaving town together like Joe begged her to do.

Now the stage is set for one final showdown between Rico, Joe, Rico’s gang, and the law.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part III (Reception and legacy)

The Four Horsemen was premièred to great acclaim in New York on 6 March 1921, and became one of the very first films to earn over a million dollars. During its long initial run, it earned $4,500,000 in the U.S. alone. So very successful and popular was it, the film was rereleased on 2 October 1926.

Its Canadian première came in April 1921, and it was released in Japan, Australia, and throughout Europe during 1922 and 1923. Adjusted for inflation, this is the highest-grossing film of the silent era, with a grand total of $9,183,673 ($142,602,432 in 2021).

However, there was one corner of the international market which wasn’t exactly enthusiastic—Germany. The von Hartrotts are depicted in a rather stereotypical way, and the German soldiers who occupy Marcelo’s castle in Villeblanche are absolute beasts who help themselves to anything they want and rough up anyone standing in their way. In this immediate period after World War I, when anti-German sentiments and memories still ran high, they were consistently depicted in a negative light in films.

Gone were the days when German was America’s unofficial second language and people proudly bore German surnames. Many street names and business names were changed as well, and people of German descent were viewed with hostility and suspicion.

Some U.S. censorship boards also demanded ridiculous changes, as described in an October 1922 issue of Photoplay. Pennsylvania censors removed the references to Julio’s birth and the intertitle “It’s a boy!” Also altered was the nature of Julio and Marguerite’s relationship. The entire dynamic of their forbidden love was radically changed, with Marguerite and Étienne Laurier being merely engaged instead of in an arranged marriage where only one person (Laurier) has feelings of love.

“Foolish Censors” is a really good article. The author totally calls out modern-day Puritans who believe “every American is a half-wit” and needs constant protecting from the tiniest little hint of anything that’s not rainbows, flowers, puppies, and kittens. Among other ridiculous examples he cites, a Chicago censorship board wouldn’t let a husband pull the curtains down in his own home, an Ohio censor thought Treasure Island taught piracy to children, and Pennsylvania censors found the word “ornery” offensive.

But overall, rave reviews poured in all across the board. Picture-Play called the film an artistic triumph, and praised the actors. So acclaimed was the film, screenwriter June Mathis became one of the most powerful and respected women in Hollywood, second only to Mary Pickford. Many modern people don’t realize how many powerful women there were in Hollywood during the silent era, both behind and in front of the camera.

June was so in demand thanks to this success, she wrote films for Famous Players-Lasky and Goldwyn Pictures as well as Metro. These included several of Rudy’s future films. June always made sure he got the best roles and was taken care of very well.

The Four Horsemen made Rudy an overnight superstar, but Metro sadly refused to raise his piddly $350 a week salary.  Even extras and bit players on their lot made more money than that. Metro also didn’t use Rudy’s talents to the best possible extent, and immediately cast him in the B-picture Uncharted Seas (his only lost stardom-era film).

Rudy wisely moved to Famous Players-Lasky after that, where he got much better work.

Director Rex Ingram (on the left) also became a huge star because of the film’s success, but he egotistically felt that was all down to his own work behind the camera and had nothing to do with Rudy’s brilliant acting. He soon grew to resent Rudy’s new superstar status, and only made one more film with him, The Conquering Power.

Most of the rest of his films starred his wife Alice Terry as the leading lady, and newfound star Ramón Novarro as the leading man. Rex heavily promoted Ramón as the new Rudy, though they were both equally awesome.

It just so happens that Ramón appeared as an extra in The Four Horsemen.

There was a garbage remake in 1962, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Glenn Ford as Julio, Ingrid Thulin as Marguerite, Charles Boyer as Marcelo, Paul Henreid as Étienne Laurier, and Yvette Mimieux as Chichí. The setting was changed to WWII, which completely alters the story. Not only that, the circumstances of patriarch Madariaga’s death are different, and Julio joins the French Resistance and smuggles messages in magazines instead of becoming a soldier to prove his bravery and maturity. Chichí is also arrested and tortured, when she’s never in any danger in either the book or original film.

And did I mention how ridiculous it is for a 46-year-old and 36-year-old to play a couple in their twenties?

I can’t say enough wonderful things about the original screen adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s fine novel, and highly urge everyone to both see the film and read the book.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s 1916 novel Los Cuatro Jinetes del Apocalipsis was a huge bestseller all around the world. In 1918, it was translated into English, and the next year became the bestselling book in the U.S. Despite its huge popularity, however, most film studios found it too sweeping and ambitious to adapt to the silver screen.

All that changed when screenwriter June Mathis became the head of Metro’s scenario department. Because she was so deeply immersed in Spiritualism, mysticism, and the paranormal, and believed in the Book of Revelations, she was determined to write a strong, compelling screenplay for this ambitious book.

Metro liked her script very much, so much so they let her choose both the director and the actor to play main character Julio Desnoyers. For director, she selected Rex Ingram, who also was very mystical-minded and fascinated by the macabre and bizarre. For her actor, she chose Rudolph Valentino, whose brief role as cabaret parasite Clarence Morgan in Clara Kimball Young’s Eyes of Youth (1919) had very much impressed her.

Rudy had been appearing in films since 1914, and in 1918 graduated to playing leading and secondary roles in B-movies like A Society SensationAll Night, and The Married Virgin. However, the powers that be were quite leery of casting this relative unknown as the star of a major picture. Rudy also had a distinctly Latin look and terracotta skin, which wasn’t exactly common or popular among leading men.

June insisted so strongly that Rudy was the one and only perfect actor for the role, the other studio executives finally relented. After she and Rex Ingram watched the rushes, they were even more impressed, and decided to expand Julio’s role so Rudy’s talents could shine to the fullest extent. One way they did this was including dancing scenes, most memorably that tango near the beginning. There’s no tangoing in the novel.

June lovingly mentored Rudy every step of the way and pushed him to succeed when no one else believed in him. For the rest of his life, apart from a brief period of estrangement which was later happily patched up, she was a very dear friend and served as a surrogate mother.

However, since Rudy was still an unknown quantity, Metro only paid him $350 a week, far less than the other actors. Rudy was also forced to buy his own costumes, which cost thousands of dollars. A costume factory on the studio lot was provided for the actors.

Alice Terry, soon-to-be-wife of Rex Ingram, was cast as Julio’s married lover Marguerite Laurier. (Underneath the trademark curly blonde wig she wore in all her films, she was truly a brunette.) She and Rudy spoke French to one another during their scenes, to add to the authenticity and impress skilled lip-readers. Since Rudy’s mother was French, he was fluent in the language.

June paid novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez $20,000 ($277,948 in 2021) and 10% of gross earnings for film rights. It cost $80,000 ($1,111,792 in 2021) to make the film over six months, and 12,500 actors were used. Seventy-two of these actors were listed as principals (back in the days when everyone understood what an ensemble cast is and that not all stories need to revolve around just one protagonist or two protagonists).

So much time, love, money, and effort went into making The Four Horsemen, an elaborate program was created for distribution. Filmgoers could read all about the actors, the story, the filming process, the critical reviews, the people behind the camera, and so much more. The program even helpfully provided an explanation of the word apocalypse.

Feel free to right-click and download any or all of the pages of the program! Unlike certain other people sharing public domain vintage images, I don’t put my own freaking watermark or URL on them and pretend I have rights to them. The community of history-lovers, in all its wide range of fields, is greatly enhanced by the free distribution of valuable newspaper scans, ads, photographs, and the like.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part I (General overview)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, released 6 March 1921, was based on the 1916 international bestseller of the same name by Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. It remains one of the finest, most accurate book to screen adaptations I’m aware of. Reading the book made me love and appreciate the film even more, since I knew about things left unsaid, or left out entirely, on the screen.

This was also the film which shot Rudy Valentino to superstardom after several years of playing secondary roles and a few leading roles in minor films. Screenwriter June Mathis, who insisted on casting him and lovingly mentored him every step of the way, also became a huge sensation because of this film.

Madariaga (The Centaur) (Pomeroy Cannon) immigrates to Argentina from Spain, and after years of toil and poverty becomes a rich man with vast lands. He’s very capricious and despotic, and his workers both love and fear him. Many bear an uncanny resemblance to him.

Madariaga also has two legitimate children, Luisa (Bridgetta Clark) and Elena (Mabel Van Buren). Marcelo Desnoyers (Josef Swickard), Luisa’s husband, manages the gigantic estate. Elena, the younger daughter, has a German husband, Karl von Hartrott (Alan Hale, Sr.). Madariaga hates Karl and didn’t approve of the marriage.

After seven years of childlessness, Luisa and Marcelo are finally blessed with a child, Julio, whom Madariaga makes his heir. This greatly displeases Elena and Karl, who hoped their three sons would inherit Madariaga’s millions.

Twenty years pass, and Julio is now a regular at dancehalls, dive bars, and clubs in the seedy Boca quarter of Buenos Aires. The elderly Madariaga, desperately clinging to his youth, accompanies him. The vain illusion of youth and relevance can’t last forever, though. After the weakened Madariaga falls out of his chair, he admits he’s too old to go out anymore, and begins staying home with Julio’s little sister Chichí (Virginia Warwick). He then proceeds to lead Chichí into “wild ways” as well by teaching her how to tango.

Not long afterwards, Madariaga is found dead by his horse, a whip still in his hand. The reading of the will stuns Julio, who always believed he’d inherit everything. Instead the money is split between Elena and Luisa. Julio’s adorable pet money comforts him in this moment of sadness.

Karl announces he’s going to dispose of his share and return to Germany, where he can resume his rightful position and give his sons the advantage of culture and education. Marcelo urges him not to do this, since Madariaga always preached that one’s true home is where one raises a family and makes a fortune. Karl shoots back that one’s first duty is to one’s native land, where one’s children can “grow up in allegiance with the advantages of super-culture.” (All three of Karl’s sons are in their twenties!)

Luisa thinks he’s right, and asks Marcelo why they shouldn’t return to his own native country. In Paris, Chichí could find a good husband, and Julio could study art.

Marcelo has been keeping a secret for years, that he left France to avoid military conscription. However, he decides to take a chance, and says one always risks one’s happiness when leaving home for another land.

A few years pass, and the Desnoyers family isn’t doing so well. Marcelo constantly goes to auctions and returns with unnecessary furniture for a castle in Villeblanche, a pursuit which threatens to bankrupt him. Meanwhile, the von Hartrotts are doing splendidly for themselves in Germany.

Marcelo tries to butter up Chichí and Luisa with jewelry and accessories from the latest auction, but they’re not having any of it. Chichí calls him out as a miser, and says Julio couldn’t continue his art studies if their mother didn’t give him money. Marcelo then fires back by saying there’s no studying going on in Montmartre, since Julio only cares about tango teas, debauchery, and women. Painting is but a pretext for these hedonistic activities.

While Julio is painting, his secretary Argensola (Bowditch Turner) bothers him with bills that must be paid at once. If Julio doesn’t pay, his father will be contacted. Argensola suggests his mother might provide the money, since she’d give Julio her last cent.

Marcelo has two new friends, Senator Lacour (Mark Fenton) and Étienne Laurier (John St. Polis), to whom he shows his latest auction treasure, a golden bathtub. Also visiting is Sen. Lacour’s young son René (Derek Ghent), who’s greatly taken with Chichí. Both he and Chichí are too bashful to admit their true feelings.

When the older men leave, Julio broaches the subject of money with his mother, who says Marcelo forbade her to give him any more money. She decided to obey after seeing the naked women in his studio, but doesn’t object too much. In place of money, she gives Julio some of her jewelry, saying Marcelo will never miss it.

Then Laurier’s pretty, much-younger wife Marguerite (Alice Terry) arrives, and she and Julio have an instant connection. Marguerite says she’s seen him dancing many times at the Tango Palace, and Julio invites her to dance with him sometime.

They begin an affair, and Julio neglects all his other dance students. So many people see them together and begin talking, they’re compelled to move their affair to Julio’s studio. In the middle of all this, war breaks out and begins creeping ever closer to France.

Laurier gets word of their liaison, and demands Marcelo take him to Julio’s studio. Julio hides Marguerite behind a curtain, but other evidence of her presence is soon discovered. Laurier challenges Julio to a duel, but when Marcelo begs to avoid scandal, Laurier decides to send Marguerite to her mother and arrange a divorce.

Argensola has made friends with an intense, mysterious stranger (Nigel de Brulier) who lives upstairs and resembles Rasputin. Shortly after war finally reaches France and everyone begins enlisting, Julio arrives at the studio early and meets this stranger.

The stranger says the outbreak of war is a prophecy’s fulfillment, and that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are about to be unleashed upon the world. He shows Julio and Argensola a rare book with Albrecht Dürer woodcuts illustrating the Book of Revelations. His explanations are intercut with dramatizations.

Marguerite becomes a war nurse, and her brother, Laurier, and René Lacour all enlist. René is put into the auxiliary, despite his desire to go to the front. He and Chichí are still too shy to admit their romantic feelings!

Marcelo receives a travel passport to go to his castle in Villeblanche, and sends his wife and daughter to safety in Biarritz.

And then the insistent, deadly hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen gallop ever closer, as the full horrors of war are unleashed upon France. No one’s life will ever be the same after so much devastation and trauma.

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