The Coens’ “Hail, Caesar!” and Jewish Hollywood History

George Clooney as a glamorous star in Hail, Caesar!

In An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, the author Neil Gabler analyzed how a scrappy band of Eastern European Jewish immigrants came to define, not just the Hollywood ideal, but the American imagination. The collective American psyche—a fusion of fantasy, mythology and boundless optimism found its reassuringly escapist home within the posterity of celluloid. American exceptionalism had arguably its most fervent proponents in these indomitable emigres, men with the Anglicized surnames of Mayer, Cohn, Warner and Goldwyn. Shmata peddlers turned showbiz machers, these veritable dream merchants midwifed our ideals, programmed our expectations and reaffirmed all things American, for a good part of the 20th century. As Gabler explains:

The American film industry, which Will Hays, president of the original Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, called “the quintessence of what we mean by ‘America,’” was founded and for more than thirty years operated by Eastern European Jews who themselves seemed to be anything but the quintessence of America.

mgm-lion-leoBut these outsiders eschewed their Old World identities and demonstrated that assimilation, rather than cleanliness, was actually next to godliness. And with a definitively Hollywood-esque moxie for reinvention, the moguls exalted themselves as paragons of Americana, and didn’t just delight in the apple pie – they served it up readily and with their own virtuous, wholesome à la mode.

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Of all the studios, Louis B. Mayer’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, whose Leo the Lion (his predecessor was named Tanner), has roared from within MGM’s logo for 92 years, is perhaps the most storied. Originally formed in 1924, MGM came into existence when a movie theater tycoon called Marcus Loew, commandeered the reigns of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures. With Nicholas Schenck based in New York and Mayer in Culver City (along with the savant Irving Thalberg as its first head of production), Loew’s amalgamation of these production entities enabled a steady distribution supply for his sprawling, overextended real estate empire. (Although the studio forever bears his name, Samuel Goldwyn remained an independent producer with no affiliation to MGM other than a lifelong animus toward Mayer.)

The studios are about as close to God as secular Hollywood will allow.

Corporate politics aside, MGM reveled in its glamour and was fabled, among other things, for its star-minting factory. As the studio’s sloganeering went, MGM had “More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens.” At one point or another, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Jean Harlow, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly were among its indulged, promoted and exploited.

Mayer, whose patriotic fealty entailed the changing of his birthday to July 4th (he was born Lazar Meir on July 12, 1884, in Minsk), was particularly judicious about the reputation of his starry stable, and he sheathed his own value system and that of his contracted thespians in Puritanical rectitude, in all of its anodyne, repressive innocence. At once a tyrannical businessman and a devoted paterfamilias, both inside and outside the lot at MGM, Mayer was a proselytizer not for any religion per se, but for the religion of image—a picture of an America as high-minded as it was corn-pone. Gabler reminds us that Mayer subscribed to:

the world of Andy Hardy and Homer Macauley, the world of homespun truths, strong families, beloved mothers, and virtuous children, the world of religion and high morals. [. . .] In the end, it was this world, his world, that he was trying to protect from the leftists, freethinkers, cynics, and realists who were already destroying it.

Hail-Caesar posterIn Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen’s zanily affectionate hymn to the salad days of the studio system, the land of old Hollywood was the land of the “fixer.” And at MGM, the fixer’s name was Eddie Mannix.

As general manager for MGM, Mannix oversaw every aspect of the studio’s voluminous budget and read every Western Union telegram, but his most important task was monitoring the company’s luminous roster of A-listers, effortlessly minimizing and often concealing even their slightest peccadilloes. Mannix was a rogue and a Rottweiler, a paradoxical vigilante within Mayer’s otherwise flinty, rule-bound world. He was Mayer’s highly paid vanquisher of indecency, though he often had to act indecently to keep it that way.

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The Coen brothers depict Mannix (sturdily played by Josh Brolin) as nothing if not unflappable. And the Coens have sly, agnostic fun in having Mannix cut an unseemly, venal figure even as he regularly seeks expiation in the booths of confession. The Coen’s Eddie Mannix remains a devout Catholic, even as he worships the secular liturgy of Hollywood then and now: corruption, greed and the razzle dazzle of smoke and mirrors.

Studio brass lorded over fiefdoms like feudal barons.

The ingeniousness of Hail, Caesar! is in its protean triumph as a movie vaudeville, a spoof consumed by movie love. The Coens offer up a most generous homage to the cinematic patois of MGM’s yesteryear. Whether lampooning the the gaudy, aquatic-laden kitsch of Esther Williams pictures; sandal-clad solemnity of Ben-Hur-esque biblical epics; or the fleet-footed, wide-eyed innocence of Gene Kelly musical comedies, the Coens evidence their restive blend of intelligence and affection. They have regularly re-written the language of comedic idiosyncrasy in a 30-plus-year career, whether in stories about fugitive baby robbers, (Raising Arizona) Homeric satires (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or stoner/slacker cum noir parodies (The Big Lebowski).

But in Hail, Caesar!, the Coens salute Tinseltown’s inherent myth-making, as much they subvert Hollywood’s mass-marketed, high-octane con. Mannix knows that the game is rigged, and as a true believer, he intends to keep it that way. What else is Eddie Mannix but a hustler, a sinister emissary, who, like Mayer, brooked no dissent, and who routinely went to battle against subversive threats, both real and imagined, from unions and Communists?

Empire of their own book coverMany of the moguls were happy to name names during the red-baiting days of McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, as the heady days of the early Cold-War era had no shortage of hysteria and paranoia. For Mayer and his brethren, the Stalin-shaded Communism, which was an import from the countries of their births, was anathema, and that which they spurned and strove mightily to overcome. In their minds, these feisty Marxists threatened to upend the Protestant, white-picket fenced Xanadu they helped maintain and of which they longed to be permanent inhabitants. As Gabler points out:

They were also in the grip of a deep and legitimate fear: the fear that somehow the delicate rapprochement they had established between themselves and this country would be destroyed, and with it their lives.

Indeed, the studio brass inhabited their own economically rarefied world (they still do in many respects), essentially lording over their fiefdoms like feudal land barons. As such, that pesky scourge of the Hollywood food chain, also known as writers, were essentially facilitators, conduits for the words and the narratives that the moguls and their aides-de-camp readied for the silver screen. In turn, these scribes were employed for what is known in industry parlance as “work for hire,” where they were paid a nominal fee for an intellectual copyright that the studio could own and exploit in perpetuity, much to the writers’ chagrin. In the great chain of being as divined by the corporate chieftains of the movie business, the studios are about as close to God as secular Hollywood will allow, rendering their screenwriters (mostly) irrelevant.

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As it happens, the Coens make gleeful mischief in Hail,Caesar! with a Communist subplot that pits a cadre of aggrieved writers against the establishment and the iron-fisted rule of Mannix. The reactionary views of old-time tyrants like Mayer and Warner largely quashed any pro-Communist insurgency against the studio system, since their own glorified status as cultural czars—and now elite members of the country they longed to be accepted within—was by all means a revolution all their own. Even though the Coens depict an era of the studio system (the ’50s) where the dominance of movies was threatened by the emergence of television, the anarchic hijinks of the film give way to the normalcy of robust studio power by the picture’s end, suggesting that the empire could and did strike back.

Or did it? Gabler’s book reveals how it takes writers to tell us stories, which, in the case of the many biographies and histories, have given us the many colorful tales of the these cinema pioneers in all of their complicated and fraught glory. Communists may not have won the skirmish, but writers, long Hollywood’s flotsam, may have proved that revenge is a dish best served in prose. In the end, Gabler assesses:

For their degradation, however, the writers did exact a small measure of revenge, since it is almost exclusively through writers that we know what we know of the Hollywood moguls. Our whole history of Hollywood is framed by the writers’ prejudices. It is history by retribution.

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