- American Zeus: The Life and Alexander Pantages Theater Mogul by Taso G. Lagos, and: Twentieth Century Fox: The Zanuck-Skouras Years, 1935–1965 by Peter Lev
Greek Americans' active presence in American cinema both in front of and behind the camera as characters, artists, and businessmen stretches back to the very beginnings of the medium. Yet scholarship on the subject, and more broadly on Greeks' involvement in the arts and humanities in North America, remains limited, overshadowed by accounts of their business prowess and, more occasionally, political involvement. Studies of the Greek contributions in American cinema have mostly focused on second or subsequent generation immigrants like John Cassavetes, Elia Kazan, Irene Pappas, and Olympia Dukakis. More recently non-celebrity names like Hollywood screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (aka "Buzz") have come to the fore. Moreover, thanks to the efforts of Dan Georgakas, Vassilis Lambropoulos, and Barbara Saltz, an extensive filmography of the Greeks' presence in American motion pictures has been compiled and is constantly being enlarged and updated. A special issue of The Journal of Modern Hellenism in 2016 was dedicated to the topic with articles on most of the figures already mentioned, including an article in which Georgakas traced the changing perceptions of Greeks on screen during the first two decades of the Cold War (Georgakas 2016).
While less has been written on the pioneers of the artistic and business side of movie studios whose involvement with cinema started long before World War II, this special issue did include an article on Alexander Pantages, one of the most prominent producers and theater owners in North America [End Page 445] during the 1920s (Lagos 2015). Its author Taso G. Lagos has now published a book-length manuscript on Pantages's life and work. This biography comes three years after Peter Lev's chronicle of Spyros Skouras's years as president of Twentieth Century Fox and Ilias Chrissochoidis' work with the Skouras papers at Stanford University that have brought this important film executive back into public consciousness. Chrissochoidis maintains a useful and in-depth webpage on Skouras, and has also edited a version of his unpublished memoirs (Chrisochoidis 2013a; 2019). A search aid to Skouras's papers is available at Stanford University's Manuscript Division, but no comparable collection exists for Pantages (Stanford University 2018). Considering the two new books on Skouras and Pantages jointly provides an opportunity to assess the current state of scholarship at the nexus of cinema history and Greek American and diaspora studies as well as the quite disparate historiographical approaches adopted by the authors.
Lagos approaches his subject from the perspective of ethnic and diaspora studies with a sociological bent. Throughout the book, he is concerned with Pantages's status as a readily identifiable immigrant, perpetually fresh off the boat in an America that (much like today) was becoming increasingly intolerant and fearful of perceived Others. American Zeus, the title of this biography, might foretell an impressive account of accomplishments, and indeed Pantages enjoyed a prominent place during cinema's silent era due to his ownership of one of the largest movie theatre chains in the world—but his is ultimately a tragic, morally ambiguous, and largely unsettled life story. Lagos tries to pack too many narratives in the space of a 200–page tome, including cultural history (American attitudes toward cinema and sex), Greek American history (Pantages's involvement in the Greek American community was always arm's length), history of entertainment (changing business models in producing films during the advent of movie palaces) and narrative/popular history (a story of crime, deception, and abuse, a family tragedy, a tale of rags to riches to rags). This syncretism is the book's chief drawback and Lagos would have been better served by focusing more closely on the history of film exhibition during the era of movie palaces and Pantages's rise...