Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


© 2007 UrbisMedia

© 2007 UrbisMedia

In one of the early scenes of Ragtime (1981) a piano player watches pictures on a silent screen and causally fits his music to first a one-reeler and then some newsreels. A few scenes later, in recreated busy streets of Manhattan’s lower east side, Jewish immigrants are plying various trades from stands and push-carts. One of them, Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), makes his living cutting silhouette profiles for sitting customers.  Later, he is seen peddling the flip-books he makes to shops, and in still later scene he reappears in a beach scene, this time directing a one-reel silent film with actors in costume.  

The year was 1910, and the notion that a peddler might quickly rise to become a movie director is not only a plot convenience but also an historical gesture to the early days of the cinema in America. Indeed, in the early years of the 20th Century, the conditions for the emergence and growth of the American cinematic experience might have been unique in the world. The cinema also took root in Western Europe at the same time and quickly spread to Asia. [1]   But in America, the City, the Cinema, and immigrants came together at this time in a unique and unprecedented way. Immigrants were involved in the creation of the American cinema as audience, were often the subject matter, and installed themselves in production and distribution.   The portrayal of a Jewish immigrant peddler as an early American filmmaker is more fact than fiction.   Film historian Steven Zipperstein has written that: “Hollywood was created by remarkably homogeneous groups of Central and Eastern European Jewish men.   . . . It was they who transformed primitive moving pictures, the product of very recent technical advances by Edison and others, into America’s most popular entertainment form by the early 1920s.   Nickelodeons were replaced by movie palaces (sufficiently opulent to satisfy the escapist needs of the working class and to capture the respectable middle class) short flicks expanded into features, their obscure players made into stars, and eventually, by the late 1920s, their visual pleasures enhanced immeasurably by sound.” [2]

The founders of the great movie studios were Jews who had emigrated from the villages in Germany (Carl Laemmle), Hungary (Adolf Zukor and William Fox), Russia (Louis B. Mayer) and Poland (Benjamin Warner). The men who became the “moguls” of the movie industry had no special training or talent for that line of work. They were unlettered and some of them were barely literate.  But they were skilled in trades that were suited to the needs of the early film enterprise; they were used to methods of merchandising that brought products to consumers.[3]   Early film distribution, to beer halls and social clubs, and then to nickelodeons, was suited to men with experience as peddlers. Thus the storefront theaters that exhibited films in before 1920 were subsequently transformed into the movie theatres by these men who knew how to conduct business in the City, where getting the product to the consumer was, in the initial years of movies, the key to its success.   Realizing the promise of this enterprise they quickly moved into all aspects of production, forming talent agencies, hiring entertainment lawyers, and, of course, with their movement to the film production friendly climes of California, founding their own “industrial” city of Hollywood.

They were unlikely men to leave their imprint upon the American city. But they did, because the cinema not only changed the way in which Americans found their diversions and entertainment, it also introduced a new land use to the City. Cities had theaters since the golden age of Greece, but they were few in number and usually centralized. Large, opulent “movies palaces” would be built in the centers of the American city, but the cinemas would also proliferate and become a fixture for many years in different neighborhoods until new methods of distribution came into being.

But these unlikely “founding fathers of film” did more than establish a new industry, they left their imprint on the industry’s product as well, especially in the way it was used to portray life in their adopted country.   Extremely conscious of anti-Semitism and concerned about accusations that their domination of the industry would undermine “American values,” they made great efforts to appear as “American” as possible.   As a result, their films created a varnished, wholesome image of their adopted nation, a place that was far more tolerant in their movies than it was of them. Although they craved assimilation they associated mostly among themselves in a social world of their own making. Hollywood allowed them a certain respectability that would not have been possible in the Eastern establishment, and there no social barriers to admission in a business that was just becoming established and not regarded as the equal of other “professions.” Thus, in a strange way the cinematic vision of America, certainly in the formative years of the cinema, was created by entrepreneurs who were “outsiders” not only as immigrants but also as men who continued to regard themselves as outside the mainstream of American social life.

To employ a term that has come into common usage, the conditions in American cities at the end of the 19 th Century were a “perfect storm,” a confluence of technology, a compression of diverse immigrant groups needing a new form of entertainment to give them some release from long, hard hours of labor, and a particular entrepreneurial group whose commercial ways were forged in the crucible of prejudice and discrimination in Europe. Because they were often not allowed to own property in the countries of the diaspora, Jewish merchants were required to peddle their wares in the streets from pushcarts as the only way in which they could get their products to customers. As they say, “when life serves you lemons, make lemonade.”

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.6.2007)

[1] The Australian produced film Shadow Magic (2000), directed by Ann Hu, chronicles the earliest introduction of moving pictures into China in Beijing in 1902. when a newly-arrived Englishman who’s brought a projector, camera, and Lumière-brothers’ shorts to open the Shadow Magic theater . 

[2] Zipperstein, Steven (1989) “The Lions of Judah in the Jungle of Hollywood,” The Los Angeles Times Book Revie, November 5, 1989 p. 12.

[3] European Jews might well have become skilled at “peddling” their wares from carts and stalls to consumers because in many countries they were either not allowed to own property or otherwise found owning real estate a risky investment when expulsions or pogroms were threats.