Movie Jews

Movie Jews

Local film maven looks at cinematic Hebrews

Robert Osborne, left, chats with Dr. Eric Goldman during a session of “Projected Image” on “The Jewish Experience on Film.”

A Lebanese-Christian playing a cantor’s son in the lesser-known version of “The Jazz Singer”?

This and other priceless cinematic lore forms the basis for the latest “Projected Image” on Turner Classic Movies. The popular series focuses on “The Jewish Experience on Film” in five segments that will air from Tuesday, September 2, through September 30.

The ambitious effort was guided and influenced in large part by Eric Goldman of Teaneck. Dr. Goldman, the Jewish Standard’s film critic, teaches American Jewish history as reflected through film at Yeshiva University’s Stern College. He joins longtime TCM host Robert Osborne in introducing, discussing, and contextualizing the 22 pictures that made the final cut.

“Bob Osborne is a gentleman’s gentleman,” Dr. Goldman declared, summing up the good vibes given off during the 10-month project to evaluate, locate, and curate the selections. Mr. Goldman was tasked by TCM producer Gary Freedman, who reached out to him after reading his book “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema,” which was published last year.

“He’s a Jew who loves Israel,” Dr. Goldman said of his producer, describing Mr. Freedman as a strong ally and partner in the venture. The film critic called the process of assembling “Projected Image” a give-and-take collaboration, and he praised TCM for its efforts to find the best prints available, and to remaster and digitize very old, neglected ones.

Dr. Goldman noted that “Projected Image” already has tackled series on Native Americans, Arabs, Latinos, and gays, and that the movies always have provided a provocative backdrop for religious, ethnic, and cultural groups whose members have been persecuted or marginalized.

“In the end, I’m quite pleased with the selections,” Dr. Goldman said. “My suggestion to viewers is to take the historical framework of the film and consider what it was trying to do and when it was made.” As an example, he cited “The House of Rothschild,” released in 1934 just on the cusp of the Hollywood code. It stars George Arliss and will air during the September 23 show titled “Tackling Prejudice.”

Dr. Goldman explained that Hollywood’s only major non-Jewish mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox, made “Rothschild where his colleagues feared to tread. The film calls unflattering attention to Jews of the period as moneylenders, a vocation into which they were forced by the restrictive laws of European nations.

Mr. Zanuck, whom Dr. Goldman describes as ardently philo-Semitic, showed courage in green-lighting the production, which some viewers today might view as politically incorrect or squirm-inducing because of the stereotypes it includes. Mr. Zanuck continued to play the role of maverick, according to Dr. Goldman; he also produced the groundbreaking 1947 “Gentleman’s Agreement,” starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield, which will air the same night as “Rothschild.”

Two versions of “The Jazz Singer” will open the “Projected Image” as it debuts on September 2 in a segment called “The Evolving Jew.” The 1927 movie, starring Al Jolson, famously was ballyhooed as the first feature-length talkie. Mr. Jolson, of course, was Jewish. The lesser-known 1952 remake thrusts Danny Thomas, a comedian of Lebanese-Christian ancestry, into the role of the cantor’s son who must choose between a Broadway career and his religious obligations.

For Dr. Goldman, that’s just another example of Hollywood’s tendency to cast non-Jewish actors in Jewish roles. The balance of the opening evening’s offerings, under the heading of “The Immigrant Experience,” are “Hester Street” (1965) and “Avalon” (1990).

Israeli productions will be screened in later segments. Dr. Goldman said that the 1964 film “Sallah” provided him with his first glimpse of Israel. Calling it “a touch anti-British,” he said that it was difficult for him and Mr. Freedman to track down a print. They eventually found a copy in, of all places, the British Film Institute.

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