Movies and Monotheism
by Herman Wouk
Simon & Schuster, 240 pp., $25.99
In 1932, an obscure Russian-born Jewish intellectual named Leon Zolotkoff wrote a novel called From Vilna to Hollywood. The protagonist is a talmudic prodigy named Hershele who abandons the dusty roads of Eastern Europe for the sunny coast of California and in the process becomes Harry Corbell, world-renowned director and owner of the upstart Corbell studio. Corbell/Hershele reaches a pinnacle of success unimaginable to his kinsfolk back home, but in the end he meets an inglorious demise, confirming the ethos of those less fortunate immigrant Jews for whom the American dream remained a groundless proposition. Zolotkoff's novel is deservedly obscure, but in retrospect it can be said to have established the outlines of a new story type: the "Jewish Hollywood novel." Among the sequels to Zolotkoff, we find Nathanael West's Day of the Locust (1939); Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run (1941); Norman Mailer's Deer Park (1955); a number of Daniel Fuchs' short stories, including "A Hollywood Diary" (1979); and Leslie Epstein's San Remo Drive (2003). The Coen brothers added a cinematic version, Barton Fink (1991), drawing on the experiences of the radical playwright Clifford Odets and adding a noir stylistic touch and a grisly apocalyptic denouement.
The origins of this story type in the depths of the Great Depression are revealing, since an underlying message of many of these works is that financial success is precarious and often gained at the price of one's soul. By the closing pages of From Vilna to Hollywood, the hero's compromised morality and self-disgust have left him no recourse besides suicide, and an agonized Harry strides into the ocean in a scene that eerily reverses the immigration journey that started the drama in the first place, as if he is trying to become little Hershele once again.
In Schulberg's novel, the brutally ambitious Sammy Glick abandons family and friends on the Lower East Side in a mad dash for success. According to Schulberg's own diagnosis, Sammy Glick is somebody who, having thrown over the religious ways of his pushcart salesman of a father, has "nothing except naked self-interest by which to guide himself." Jews are not alone in their fascination with the mythical allure of Hollywood, of course, but they have been among the most adept at crafting moral fables that decry its corrupting force. This makes sense not only because Hollywood has generated unheard-of success for legions of actual Jews, but also because it has provided a ready symbol for the Jewish experience in America, an experience that to many has seemed miraculous, perhaps too good to be true.