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  • Make Way for Youth:The American Jewish Committee and the Social Problem Film
  • Art Simon (bio)

Historians of American cinema have long recognized a cycle of socially conscious films produced in Hollywood during the ten years following World War ii. The social problem film, as it is most commonly known, brought to American movie screens representations of the immorality of capitalism in Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948); of race prejudice in Pinky (1949), Home of the Brave (1949) and The Lawless (1950); and of the fight against domestic antisemitism in Crossfire (1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). In the ten years after World War ii, religious advocacy agencies and organizations affiliated with the intergroup relations movement produced dozens of films. Our People (1946), Prejudice (1948), Your Neighbor Celebrates (1950), To Live Together (1950) and The Challenge (1950), to name just a few, were made to promote racial and religious tolerance. These films found an audience in churches, synagogues, schools and union halls and in postwar educational programs in foreign countries and eventually on American television.1

Make Way for Youth became the most widely seen non-theatrical film devoted to promoting religious and racial tolerance, made by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in 1947. The well-financed, high profile films of Hollywood, while provocative and even daring at times, were not the only voices circulating among the film-going public in the struggle against prejudice. Indeed, the audiences for Gentlemen’s Agreement and Pinky were also being addressed by educational and human relations films produced by organizations whose primary mission was the promotion of interfaith understanding, — organizations that were just then turning to the cinema as an essential tool. The social problem film, in other words, emanated from various points along the film production spectrum and was articulated through formal strategies beyond the familiar language of commercial cinema. While major studios like [End Page 367] Twentieth Century-Fox and RKO shaped postwar definitions of race and ethnicity, so, too, did the AJC and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL). But the latter organizations tended to fold its warnings about antisemitism into more general calls for religious tolerance and civic cooperation.

The year 1947 was crucial for Hollywood’s newfound focus on the problem of antisemitism, the year in which Crossfire and Gentlemen’s Agreement were released. It was also the year the AJC produced Make Way for Youth. By 1947, the AJC had been working for a decade on using various forms of popular media to address issues of concern to its constituency. In fact, the AJC’s fight against antisemitism, waged largely through a broad campaign on behalf of tolerance and interethnic understanding, was characterized by a remarkable penetration of American mass culture. As Stuart Svonkin has outlined in Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties, the AJC and the ADL labored creatively and, often, stealthily, to use radio, print journalism and, eventually, film and television, not only to counter religious and racial stereotypes, but also to advance a civil rights agenda. Svonkin provides an excellent overview in the chapter he titles “Propaganda Against Prejudice.” A more detailed contextualization and a close reading of this exemplary film will shed even greater light on the AJC’s efforts to contribute to emerging definitions of postwar American identity.

Those efforts began in earnest in 1937 with the AJC’s radio project. Under the direction of Milton Krents, the AJC radio project claimed to have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for approximately 2,000 broadcasts during 1938 alone. As Krents’ department sought to produce local and network radio programming and to influence the programming of others, it pursued four aims: to underscore the advantages of democratic government over totalitarianism, especially in its American version; to combat theories of racial superiority by presenting America as a land of many peoples; to teach and warn about the threat posed by the Nazis; and “to present the Jew in a dignified light and in his place as an integral part of American life and history.”2

The radio project produced original programming and supplied ideas and materials to programs heard by listeners across...


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pp. 367-389
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