Neal Gabler: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Why

Neal Gabler presented his talk on Jews and Hollywood in Bowdoin’s Kresge Auditorium on March 24, 2015. Gabler is a distinguished author, cultural historian, and television commentator who contributes regularly to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history, and the Theatre Library Association Award for the best book on television, radio, or film.

Gabler’s talk focused on the early years of Hollywood, when five of the six major studios were headed by Jews. Jewish lawyers, Jewish writers, Jewish agents, Jewish producers and Jewish exhibitors controlled much of the film business. Yet these movie moguls wanted to be regarded first as Americans and strived to reinvent themselves here as new men. In doing so, they created a powerful cluster of images and ideas — so powerful that, in a sense, they “colonized the American imagination.” Through their movies, they painted an idealized portrait of an American society to which they were denied access. The movies made were quintessentially American while the men who made them were not.

In An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, =Gabler examines the psychological motivations of these film moguls, arguing that their background as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe shaped their careers and influenced the movies they made. He explores how these producers generally came from poor, fatherless backgrounds, and felt like outsiders in America because of their Jewishness. In Hollywood they were able to run their own industry, assimilate into the American mainstream, and produce movies that fulfilled their vision of the American dream.

The lecture was sponsored by the Harry Spindel Memorial Lectureship Fund, which was established in 1977 by the gift of Rosalyne Spindel Bernstein H’97, and Sumner Thurman Bernstein, in memory of her father, Harry Spindel, as a lasting testimony to his lifelong devotion to Jewish Learning. The fund supports annual lectures in Judaic studies or contemporary Jewish affairs and has celebrated Jewish culture and identity through lectures, music, photography and film.

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