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“Sometimes a Bee Can Move an Ox”: Biblical Epics and One Man's Quest to Promote Jewish Values in Blacklist-Era Hollywood

  • Andrew Paul
Abstract

In the 1950s, the top American Jewish organizations chose a single man, John Stone, to represent their collective interests in Hollywood. Over the course of the decade, Stone's Motion Picture Project sought to prevent antisemitism on film and to inspire the creation of positive Jewish characters. Negotiating the cultural politics of the era, however, resulted in an increasing tendency to favor depictions of biblical Jews over contemporary American ones. In a strange twist, Stone endorsed no film with as much zeal as Ben-Hur, a New Testament celebration of Jesus. By following Stone's tortuous attempts to navigate Cold War controversies, and by casting new light on the phenomenal success of biblical epics in the 1950s, this essay suggests that at the heart of postwar popular culture was a shift toward a particular discourse of liberal humanism.

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1 Hail, Caesar!, dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (Universal Pictures, 2016).

2 John Stone, Report #133, May 4, 1960, folder 12, box 43, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council Papers, American Jewish Historical Society, New York City, NY (hereafter cited as NJCRAC-AJHS).

3 Greif, Mark, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton, NJ, 2015), 32–3, 85, 87–8.

5 On Popular Front politics in the United States, see Denning, Michael, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1998) and Rossinow, Doug, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia, 2008). This essay treats liberalism in the sense that Lisa Duggan has called “capital ‘L’ Liberalism,” one entirely different than that used in popular media today. See Duggan, Lisa, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston, 2003); Brinkley, Alan, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York, 1995); and Rossinow, Doug, “Partners for Progress? Liberals and Radicals in the Long Twentieth Century,” in Making Sense of American Liberalism, eds. Bell, Jonathan and Stanley, Timothy (Urbana, IL, 2012), 1737.

6 The seminal work on the Hollywood blacklist remains Ceplair, Larry and Englund, Steven, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960 (Garden City, NY, 1980). For more recent treatments, see Humphries, Reynold, Hollywood's Blacklists: A Political and Cultural History (Edinburgh, UK, 2010); Freedland, Michael, Hollywood on Trial: McCarthyism's War Against the Movies (London, 2007); Sbardellati, John, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War (Ithaca, NY, 2012); May, Lary, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago, 2000); Ross, Steven J., Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (New York, 2011); and Critchlow, Donald T., When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics (New York, 2013).

7 Burke, Kenneth, Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed. (Berkeley, CA, 1984), 141. Examples of the tendency of scholars to ascribe resistance to blacklistees in the entertainment industry include Buhle, Paul and Wagner, Dave, Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950–2002 (New York, 2003), and Murphy, Brenda, Congressional Theatre: Dramatizing McCarthyism on Stage, Film, and Television (New York, 1999).

8 For an examination of leftist blacklisted writers who created anti-statist and libertarian popular culture in the 1950s, see Paul, Andrew, “Reassessing Blacklist Era Television: Civil Libertarianism in You Are There, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Buccaneers,” American Studies 54, no. 1 (2015): 2952.

9 Hedstrom, Matthew S., The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York, 2013), 10, 216; Schultz, Kevin M., Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York, 2013), 185.

10 Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion, 8–9; Hollinger, David A., After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton, NJ, 2013).

11 I borrow the descriptor “protean” from Gerstle, Gary, “The Protean Character of American Liberalism,” American Historical Review 99, no. 4 (Oct. 1994): 1043–73.

12 “Guide to the Records of National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council 1940–1994,” American Jewish Historical Society, 2017, http://digifindingaids.cjh.org/?pID=365502 (accessed Dec. 23, 2017).

13 Nathan Katz, memorandum, Sept. 9, 1946, folder 1, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #1, folder 5, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

14 Gabler, Neal, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York, 1989), 302, 305; NRCAC Mass Media Committee on Motion Pictures meeting minutes, Sept. 18, 1947, folder 1, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS.

15 Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 306; Minutes of NCRAC Motion Picture Committee Meeting, Nov. 15, 1948, folder 1, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS; “History of NCRAC's Hollywood Project,” June 23, 1949, folder 1, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS; Stone, Report #1, NJCRAC-AJHS.

16 Stone, Report #1, NJCRAC-AJHS.

17 Svonkin, Stuart, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (New York, 1997), 73; Bernard Trager to Dore Schary, Mar. 27, 1953, folder 5, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS; Bernard Trager to NCRAC Motion Picture Committee, Aug. 20, 1953, folder 6, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS; Mendel Silberberg to Jacob Blaustein, Henry Schultz, and Bernard Trager, Sept., 18, 1953, folder 6, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS.

18 Minutes of Meeting of Mass Media Committee on Motion Pictures, May 31, 1950, folder 1, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS.

19 Sbardellati, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies, 103–4, 144, 152; Kahn, Gordon, Hollywood on Trial: The Story of the 10 Who Were Indicted (New York, 1948), 3, 192; “‘Un-American’ Committee Aiming at Control Content in Film and Hiring of Film-makers,” The Other Side of the Story, Hollywood, CA, Oct. 29, 1947, folder 18, box 4, Hollywood Democratic Committee Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI (hereafter HDC-WHS); Minutes of Meeting of Mass Media Committee on Motion Pictures, May 31, 1950, folder 1, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS.

20 Minutes, Sept. 18, 1947, folder 1, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS; Minutes of the “East-West Meeting of the Motion Picture Committee,” Mar. 31, 1949, folder 2, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS.

21 Sbardellati, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies, 101, 103, 152, 200–1.

22 “Revival of Ku Klux Klan Reported at Annual Conference of Anti-Defamation League,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 7, 1948, http://www.jta.org/1948/05/07/archive/revival-of-ku-klux-klan-reported-at-annual-conference-of-anti-defamation-league (accessed Nov. 24, 2013); folder 1, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS; folder 2, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS; “Excerpt from NCRAC 1953 Joint Program Plan: Recommendation in Area of Mass Media,” folder 5, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS. I use “left-liberal” broadly to refer to the coalition of New Dealers, Popular Fronters, communists, and socialists that operated in American political culture from the mid-1930s through the end of World War II, and broke up in the early years of the postwar red scare. In doing so, I borrow from Rossinow, “Partners for Progress?”

23 John Stone, Report #10, May 23, 1949, folder 3, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #7, Feb. 7, 1949, folder 3, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

24 John Stone, Report #2, Oct. 15, 1948, folder 3, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

25 John Stone, Report #4, Nov. 15, 1948, folder 3, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #6, Jan. 15, 1948, folder 3, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

26 Stone, Report #6, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #9, Apr. 8, 1949, folder 3, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

27 Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 303.

28 Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice, 135–43; “Role of JCR Agencies in Combatting Communism,” folder 9, box 51, NJCRAC-AJHS. For an overview of the history of the postwar red scare, see Schrecker, Ellen, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton, NJ, 1998).

29 “Blue Skies,” Time, Feb. 21, 1949, 104; Dore Schary, “Executive Responsibility: A Case History,” Films in Review 5, no. 7 (Aug.–Sept. 1954): 326; Hedda Hopper, “He Should Know,” May 8, 1954, folder 12, box 99, Dore Schary Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI [hereafter DS-WHS]; SAC Los Angeles to Director FBI, Jan. 2, 1951, Dore Schary File, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, D.C. [hereafter DS-FBI]; SAC Los Angeles to Director FBI, Oct. 13, 1951, DS-FBI; Letter to Louis Nichols, Oct. 29, 1951, DS-FBI.

30 Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition in Hollywood, 390–1; “Martin Gang; Lawyer in McCarthy Era,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 4, 1998, http://articles.latimes.com/1998/feb/04/news/mn-15451; M.A. Jones to Mr. Nichols, Oct. 29, 1951, 10, DS-FBI.

31 “Program on the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions,” folder 20, box 4, HDC-WHS; “Introducing … Representative John Rankin,” box 7 folder 16, HDC-WHS; Edgar Peterson to Frank Capra, Nov. 30, 1945, box 101 folder 2, DS-WHS.

32 John Stone, Report #23, October 20, 1950, folder 6, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition in Hollywood, 390–1.

33 Ellison, Ralph, “An American Dilemma: A Review,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. Callahan, John F. (New York, 2003), 328–40, here 340. For more on racial liberalism, see Jodi Melamed, who describes it as an “antiracism” based on “abstract equality, individual rights, and market liberties.” Melamed, Jodi, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis, MN, 2011), 20.

34 Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice, 197n16; “Weight of Evidence,” Daytona Beach Morning Journal, June 1, 1968, 10B.

35 John Stone, Report #16, Dec. 29, 1949, folder 5, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; Minutes of the Meeting of the Motion Picture and Mass Media Committee, Oct. 6, 1949, folder 2, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #13, Aug. 17, 1949, folder 5, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

36 Sbardellati, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies, 181.

37 The Red Menace, dir. R. G. Springsteen (Republic Pictures, 1949).

38 John Stone, Report #8, Mar. 4, 1949, folder 5, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

39 Stone, Report #10, NJCRAC-AJHS.

40 John Stone, Report #17, Jan. 13, 1950, folder 5, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #22, Oct. 6, 1950, folder 6, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #40, Jan. 7, 1952, folder 7, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

41 John Stone, Report #34, Aug. 27, 1951, folder 6, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

42 NCRAC to Jack Warner, undated, folder 3, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS.

43 Ibid; John Stone, Report #30, May 4, 1951, folder 6, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #41, Feb. 25, 1952, folder 7, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #43, Apr. 1, 1952, folder 7, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; “Excerpt from NCRAC 1953 Joint Program Plan - Recommendation in Area of Mass Media,” undated, folder 5, box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS.

44 Minutes of the Meeting of the Motion Picture and Mass Media Committee, Oct. 6, 1949, folder 2, box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS.

45 John Stone, Report #20, May 10, 1950, folder 6, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

46 Stone, Report #20, NJCRAC-AJHS. For more on The Goldbergs and the politics of ethno-religious representation, see Lipsitz, George, “The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television,” in Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis, MN, 1990), 3975.

47 Stone, Report #13, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #39, Jan. 17, 1952, folder 6, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

48 Jules Cohen to Sidney Vincent, May 9 1956, folder 4 box 40, NJCRAC-AJHS; Stone, Report #4, NJCRAC-AJHS; Minutes of the meeting of the Mass Media Committee on Motion Pictures, New York City, May 24, 1948, folder 1 box 44, NJCRAC-AJHS; Henry Popkin, “The Vanishing Jew of Our Popular Culture,” Commentary, July 1952, 46–55, here 46.

49 Steinberg, Cobbett, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records (New York, 1978), 338, 344–8.

50 “Minutes of meeting of Mass Media Committee on Motion Pictures,” Oct. 20 1948, folder 1, box 40; John Stone, report #15, Oct. 24, 1949, folder 3, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

51 Samson and Delilah, dir. Cecil B. DeMille (Paramount Pictures, 1949).

53 Stone, Report #34, NJCRAC-AJHS; Stone, Report #15, NJCRAC-AJHS.

54 John Stone, Report #36, Oct. 24, 1951, folder 6, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #58, Apr. 9, 1953, folder 8, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

55 John Stone, Report #69, Apr. 8, 1954, folder 8, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #75, Oct. 1, 1954, folder 8, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

56 Stone, Report #75, NJCRAC-AJHS; John Stone, Report #95, Aug. 7, 1956, folder 10, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

57 The Ten Commandments, dir. Cecil B. Demille (Paramount Pictures, 1956).

59 Haker, Joseph, “Moses and the Marketplace,” in A Destiny of Choice? New Directions in American Consumer History, eds. David Blanke and David Steigerwald (Lanham, MD, 2013), 135153.

60 John Stone, Report #50, Sept. 15, 1952, folder 7, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; Stone, Report #58, NJCRAC-AJHS.

61 John Stone, Report #64, Nov. 2, 1953, folder 8, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

62 John Stone, Report #70, Apr. 30, 1954, folder 8, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

63 Stone, Report #70, NJCRAC-AJHS.

64 John Stone, Report #79, Feb. 21, 1955, folder 9, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS. John Stone, Report #78, Jan. 18, 1955, folder 9, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; Stone, Report #70, NJCRAC-AJHS.

65 McAlister, Melani, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 (Berkeley, CA, 2005), 18, 19; Squires, L. Ashley, “The Wealthiest Man in the Empire: Ben-Hur as Model of Evangelical Political Engagement,” Arizona Quarterly 69, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 2346, here 23; Richardson, Heather Cox, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (New Haven, CT, 2007), 190.

66 John Stone, Report #114, May 27, 1958, folder 11, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

67 John Stone, Report #127, Nov. 2, 1959, folder 11, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS; Stone, Report #133, NJCRAC-AJHS.

68 Ben-Hur, dir. William Wyler (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959).

70 William Wyler, letter draft, Mar. 9, 1956, folder 596, box 46, William Wyler Papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles, CA (hereafter WW-MHL); “In Fact,” manuscript, June 30, 1947, folder 598, box 46, WW-MHL; Kahn, Hollywood on Trial, 140–1; “Now Available on Records…,” Nov. 28, 1947, folder 9, box 4, HDC-WHS; “HLYD FIGHTS BACK - (FINAL) - SPOT 27 LIVE,” folder 596, box 46, WW-MHL; “Committee for the First Amendment,” folder 596, box 46, WW-MHL; William Wyler to Bosley Crowther, Nov. 1947, folder 596, box 46, WW-MHL.

71 Kahn, Hollywood on Trial, 143; “Writers’ War Board Strongly Attacks Anglo-Saxon Myths,” Hollywood Independent, Oct. 1945, 2, folder 17, box 4, HDC-WHS.

72 Ceplair and Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood, 369.

73 John Stone Report #99, Jan. 2, 1957, folder 10, box 43, NJCRAC-AJHS.

74 On exceptionalism, see Michels, Tony, “Is American ‘Different’? A Critique of Jewish American Exceptionalism,” American Jewish History 96, no. 3 (Sept. 2010): 201–24.

75 Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice; Shana Bernstein, Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (New York, 2011).

76 Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man, xi–xii.

77 On the idea of positive freedom, see Dewey, John and Tufts, James H., Ethics (New York: 1908), 437–9; and Taylor, Charles, “What's Wrong with Negative Liberty,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 (New York: 1985), 211–29.

78 Delton, Jennifer A., Rethinking the 1950s: How Anticommunism and the Cold War Made America Liberal (New York, 2013). For a history of the project of making an American consensus, see Wall, Wendy L., Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (New York, 2008). For the political economic history of the postwar period, also see Cohen, Lizabeth, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York, 2003); Storrs, Landon R. Y., The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (Princeton, NJ, 2012); and Phillips-Fein, Kim, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal (New York, 2009).

79 “Movie Makers Advised on Minorities by Expert,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1961, J19.

80 Schultz, Tri-Faith America.

I would like to thank Joseph Haker and Nate Holdren for their feedback on an early draft; my anonymous readers, who provided substantive and valuable suggestions; and Sarah Phillips and Brooke Blower at MAH, who showed great attention and care in ushering this essay through to publication.

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Modern American History
  • ISSN: 2515-0456
  • EISSN: 2397-1851
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