BY TOM LAVIS
Heritage Discovery Center is displaying an unprecedented exhibition of iconic Hollywood film posters from 1939 to 1949, illustrating how the motion picture industry countered America’s isolationism.
“Cinema Judaica: The War Years” also covers the way in which American film influenced postwar perceptions of Jewish people and the founding of the State of Israel, and shaped the face of contemporary Jewish life.
The exhibit, on loan from Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, may be viewed through March 31 at the center, 201 Sixth Ave. in the Cambria City section of Johnstown. It joins the current exhibit, “Remembrance: 150 Years of Jewish Life in Johnstown.”
Both exhibits are part of the yearlong Jewish Community Heritage Project, a collaborative effort between Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA) and Beth Sholom Synagogue.
“Cinema Judaica” consists of 46 framed film posters, movie stills and other objects that show how the motion picture industry was shaped by, and created changes in, public opinion during the difficult years of 1939-49.
It illustrates how the industry encouraged America’s isolationism and advocated going to war against the Nazis.
The exhibit is from the collection of Ken Sutak, a New York lawyer, occasional writer, and, for the past several years, a lecturer on Jewish-themed movies during World War II and the war’s aftermath.
“Many people today don’t realize the extent to which the studios responded to political pressure and were even censored during this period – and how they influenced public opinion,” said Richard Burkert, CEO and president of JAHA.
“Obviously, this exhibit will attract people interested in Jewish history, World War II or film, but it’s also for anyone interested in the role mass media play in history.”
The exhibit is on display on the discovery center’s fifth floor and is divided into four sections: “The Great Debate” 1939-1941”; “After Pearl Harbor, 1942-1945”; “The Post-War Anti-Semitism Films of the 1940s”; and “Post-War Exodus Films of the 1940s.”
“The Great Debate,” 1939-1941” puts the first anti-Nazi films into the context of the nationwide debate about whether America should enter the war against the Nazis in Europe. The question was discussed in the media, in open forums sponsored by political organizations, and in Congress, where many wanted to avoid another European war. In fact, 60 percent of Americans believed that participating in World War I had been a mistake.
In the late 1930s, most Hollywood studios, except Warner Bros., complied with Nazi restrictions on American films that were shown in Germany and Europe.
Jewish characters disappeared from films, and references to the Nazis or the political situation in Europe were avoided.
Even studios like Warner Bros., that were willing to give up German and European distribution, disguised anti-Nazi plot lines and Jewish roles through symbols, character name changes and other techniques.
But by July 1938, Germany became increasingly aggressive, and the first openly anti-Nazi script, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” was produced.
In addition to “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” featured films included “Sons of Liberty,” “Pastor Hall” and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”
“After Pearl Harbor, 1942-1945” shows how patriotic movies grew in popularity following the attack on the Hawaiian naval base on Dec. 7, 1941.
Important themes included the great melting pot of American ethnic diversity and an effort to instill a fighting spirit in the public.
From this period, the exhibit includes posters for World War II espionage and concentration camp escape melodramas, such as “To Be or Not To Be,” plus films about Nazi Germany’s accountability, such as “Address Unknown,” “Tomorrow the World,” and “Hotel Berlin.”
“The Post-War Anti-Semitism Films of the 1940s” section depicts how the movie industry confronted the problem of anti-Semitism in the United States.
Anti-Semitic organizations like the Christian Front and the Christian Mobilizers blamed the Jews for the war, and attacked Jewish citizens, stores and synagogues in major northeast cities.
In many examples, including “The House I Live In,” “Crossfire” and “Open Secret,” an Italian-American or Irish-American authority figure condemns anti-Semitism, stops an assault or solves a racist murder. “Gentleman’s Agreement” addresses the related subject of white Protestant anti-Semitism.
The fourth part of the exhibition, “Post-War Exodus Films of the 1940s,” includes Hollywood films that focus on postwar Jewish life.
Themes include rebuilding Jewish life and culture in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel.
These films include “My Father’s House,” “The Illegals,” “The Search” and “Sword in the Desert.”
Entrance fees are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for students.
JAHA members are admitted free.
Johnstown Community Heritage Project is funded by the Abe and Janet Beerman Fund at the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, the David A. Glosser Foundation, the William L. Glosser Family Fund, the Saul and Eva Glosser Memorial Fund and the United Johnstown Jewish Federation.
What: “Cinema Judaica: The War Years, 1939-1949.”
Where: Heritage Discovery Center, 201 Sixth Ave. in the Cambria City section of Johnstown.
When: Through March 31.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
Tickets: Regular admission.
Cost: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for students. JAHA members are admitted free.
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