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on 19 June 2017
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on 23 September 2014
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on 30 January 2014
This book arrived this morning, and I have been reading all day...it's a real page turner...Thank you very very much.
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Gabler is a uniquely erudite cultural critic. This is the third book I have read by him and I am deeply impressed with the unusual breadth of his coverage. In this case, he writes about the founding fathers of Hollywood, the dictatorial dreamers and shapers of its golden age (to the late 1940s}. In his telling, they are all Eastern European Jews, striving to become part of the American dream and at the same time providing many of the images that entered the American psyche. They all started with the penny arcades at the beginning of the century, and built empires in which they exercised total control of content and creation.

This book is less about the economics of the studio system - cartels that manufactured films on lots, virtually owned the "talent" via long-term contracts, dominated the distribution of their films, and controlled many of the theatres that played them - than about the culture and ethos they were trying to create in their dictatorial domains. The era passed with the Supreme Court trust-busting ruling, political attacks during the McCarthy era, and the rise of independent talent in actors, producers, and writer-directors.

As Gabler sees it, these founders were fairly secular Jews, who wanted to fit into the American ideal of pseudo-aristocratic entrepreneurs (from poverty). This was the source of their maudlin, sentimental style and crude american ideals, each studio with its own peculiar character. I must admit, I find this angle of analysis, with all the objections one can make for its subjectivity, quite fascinating and given their power to shape things, dead on the mark.

Gabler tells the story in the form of serial biographies. It is a wonderful flowing narrative, superlatively written and with a genuine depth of historical understanding. Indeed, while I think this early book is somewhat weaker than his later books, Disney and Life" the Movie, I will read any book that this critic writes.

Warmly recommended. This is not my usual domain of interest, so the reading is often hard going for me, but I have learned an immense amount from this critic, who is a real intellectual.
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on 23 March 1998
On Sunday, March 22, 1998, A&E presented a documentary based on Neal Gabler's "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. The presentation was entitled "Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream". I quote the ad:
"Theprogram shows viewers the development of movies from a startling new perspective, revealing that classic Hollywood themes of white picket fences, little guys fighting the odds, outsiders who become insiders, and the lone hero riding off into the sunset, were dreams born in the oppressed Jewish [shtetls] of Eastern Europe."
This "new perspective" was so startling that this viewer was forced to wonder if Mr. Gabler [or the creators of the documentary] is completely unacquainted with the theatrical (and literary) fare of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as much that has been done since the founding of Hollywood. I will present only two examples to demonstrate my astonishment (perhaps others will occur to those who also saw this program).
1- The "documentary" claims the American musical to be a Jewish invention (with a side comment on the existence of Cole Porter as an anomaly) due to Irving Berlin and "Teams" like Learner & Lowe and Jerome Kern (I was unaware that Jerome Kern was a team). I mention only one progenitor by way of example: Despite any number of film cuts showing Jimmy Cagney singing and dancing from the numerous musical works of George M. Cohan, George is not mentioned as one of the more prolific, popular, and influential originators of the American musical. Perhaps the author(s) were misled by the name of Cohan (not, alas, Cohen) which is a fine Irish name but sounds very similar to the Jewish one (a fact George commented on as being to his advantage).
2- The frequent insistence that the "white picket fence", the importance of mother, the children, and the "family" was an invention of Jewish immigrants suffering from the horrors of Russian pogroms seems to discount the entire nineteenth century German, French, English and American Romantic tradition (Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa Mae Allcott, to mention a few). I suggest the author(s) read "Little Women".
I fear the author(s) have fallen into the contemporary trap of feeling compelled to devise a new and different "hook" on which to hang their material, to the point of obscuring the very real contributions made by the Jews in both the theatrical and motion picture world. Despite a rather plausible view that the HUAAC brought about the fall of these moguls, I suspect the reasons were somewhat more complicated: Economic changes made the old studio system impossibly expensive. Much of the monies now came from Eastern financial institutions. Television had been born and was beginning to supplant Hollywood in a number of critical B-movie areas. International distribution was assuming much more importance (we now supply at least 80% of the entire world's movie fare). Theatre artists (particularly directors and actors) wanted to move on to independent productions, etc., etc.
There is no need to insist that these movie moguls created the world in seven days. Much of it was quite adequately created by other people (i.e., My Fair Lady was, after all, drawn directly from the non-immigrant Irishman, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and did not spring full blown from the Jewish immigrant's need to express the plight of the outsider who was forced to learn to speak English). In creating the ultimate American Dream, the author(s) could have had the decency to mention (although they showed a number of film cuts) the contributions of that distinctly non-Jewish immigrant, Frank Capra. The brilliance of these Jewish immigrants consists in the ways in which they comprehended and grasped the evolving "American Dream", articulated by every generation and country of immigrant aspirations, and how they developed the organization and machinery to produce the incredibly various celluloid manifestations of those dreams.
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on 11 July 1999
I merely wish to correct a factual error which appears both in the book and in the TV doc: Lee J. Cobb's original surname was not "Jacoby". He was born LEO JACOB. Heaven knows where Mr. Gabler came up with "Jacoby". It's pure fiction. What actually happened was this: When at age 18 Lee was about to enter upon an acting career, his (our) father suggested the name-change, to which Lee instantly agreed. I am, after all, Lee's brother so I trust the above will be given due credence. And I do wish subsequent editions of the book will include this correction. Thank you.
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on 5 December 2012
Stuff in here you would never know, a good read. The description of early cinema development is fascinating and really does show the entrepreneurial spirit that built America.
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on 25 April 1999
I merely wish to correct a factual error contained in Neal Gabler's otherwise highly readable book. And the error appears in the TV documentary as well. My brother Lee J. Cobb's original surname is NOT "Jacoby" but Jacob. The play on the surname "J. Cobb" was actually conceived by our father, Benjamin Jacob. I cannot imagine how this bit of misinformation took root. And it seems somehow to be spreading. Of course, I will enlighten the author as well.
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