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Anzia Yezierska and the Marketing of the Jewish Immigrant in 1920s Hollywood Lisa Botshon When Jewish immigrant author Anzia Yezierska arrived in Hollywood in 1921, she stepped off the transcontinental train into a cloud of waiting paparazzi . Wearing a worn blue serge suit, Yezierska stared wide-eyed at the Hollywood luxury that was offered her, and blushed at all the attention she received. Samuel Goldwyn, who had bought the film rights to her first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, had brought her to Hollywood to play the part of the Goldwyn Company's resident Jewish immigrant ingenue , and Anzia Yezierska, at least initially, appeared to be an excellent candidate for such a role. Goldwyn's hiring of Yezierska coincided with a boom in the representation of the Jewish immigrant in American popular culture. During the 1920s the nation experienced a growing unease about immigrant entry and assimilation, and a concomitant rise in the commercialization of ethnicity. The representation of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant became caught in the sway of these competing ideas. In American popular culture Jews were portrayed as the miserly and manipulative racially inferior dregs of Europe, but they also came to represent the ideal Every Immigrant , holding the promise of American opportunity. Complicating the imaging of the Jewish immigrant in the twenties was the fact that a significant number of Jewish immigrants occupied positions of cultural control in Hollywood: Jewish movie moguls such as Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.3 (Fall 2000): 287-312. Copyright O 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 288 ] N T Zukor, and William Fox made a great impact on the way in which Jews were portrayed on the silver screen. Likewise Anzia Yezierska, whose short stories depicting the Jews of New York's Lower East Side ghetto propelled her to fame, was able to leave her own mark on the American imagination. The marketing of the Jewish immigrant was never a straightforward event. The representation of Jewish immigrants on the silver screen could inspire ticket buyers eager to view the way "the other half lived"; on the other hand, it also could provoke anti-semitism or anti-immigrant sentiment . A ghetto film might play successfully in ghetto movie houses, or the film itself could be condemned for negative stereotyping. Lester Friedman maintains that Jewish ghetto films "tried to make Americans less nervous about Jews, and Jews more conscious of themselves as Americans" ("Conversion" 48). But while this formulation is valid, it doesn't account for the ambivalences inherent in such a process. Hollywood's almost relentless insistance on representing the Jewish immigrant as icon housed simultaneous doubt; the fiercely independent Yezierska's makeover into romantic ingenue barely covered the worldly woman's wrinkles; and the happy assimilationist ideology of the ghetto films could break down on the level of narrative and dialogue. In exploring Anzia Yezierska's experience in Hollywood and the production of the film Hungry Hearts based on her work, this essay addresses the ways in which the mass-marketed Jewish immigrant, which appeared to be a smooth package on the surface, often unraveled around the edges. The Immigrant Jew in the American Imagination Representations of Eastern European Jews proliferated in early twentieth -century American culture in virtually every possible popular genre, from newspapers, to cartoons, to songs, to vaudeville. Old paradigms stigmatizing Jews abounded; film historian Kevin Brownlow cites a report of the Anti-Defamation League printed in 1913: "Whenever a producer wishes to depict a betrayer of public trust, a hard-boiled usurious moneylender , a crooked gambler, a grafter, a depraved fire bug, a white slaver or other villains of one kind or another, the actor was directed to represent himself a Jew" {Behind the Mask 376). Anzia Yezierska and the Marketing of the \ewish Immigrant 289 Despite the prejudices and hostilities these immigrants faced, however, they were also celebrated for a certain exotic and romantic appeal. The Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience, the Jewish people, and the Lower East Side ghetto they inhabited were of great cultural interest to other Americans. The Lower East Side was seen equally as a locus of intellectual and creative activity, the site in which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 287-312
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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