The United States has never been kind to immigrants. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to resistance to accepting Syrian refugees and fear-mongering over security on the US-Mexico border, America loves immigrant labor but refuses to grant the people who provide it any semblance of basic human dignity or decency. The origins of the American film industry follow this same pattern.
From 1820 through 1881, a steady wave of Central European Jews migrated to the United States to escape economic hardship. Starting in the 1880s and lasting until the 1920s, migrants were mostly from Eastern Europe because of ongoing pogroms in the Russian Empire. Despite coming to the United States to pursue better lives, the arrival of large numbers of Jewish people to the United States led to a rise in antisemitism.
Wider American society would not allow Jewish people upward mobility, so they had to make their own industry. According to film historian Neal Gabler in his book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, “There were no social barriers in a business as new and faintly disreputable as the movies were in the early years of the [20th] century. There were none of the impediments imposed by loftier professions and more firmly entrenched business to keep Jews and other undesirables out.”
In this article, I’ve chosen to focus my attention on two groups: the founders of the studio system and the directors. They emigrated from Europe to the United States between 1920 and 1945. I’ve highlighted some of my favorite films by the people discussed at the end of each section, many of which are available to stream for subscribers of HBO Max and Criterion Channel. A longer list is also available on Letterboxd, which includes the producers and directors named here and many Jewish screenwriters, actors, and musicians.
The Studio Founders
Classic Hollywood’s studio system as we think of it today was largely in place by 1930, just a few years after the arrival of synchronized sound. 8 companies controlled the industry, known as the Majors (or the Big Five) and Minors (or the Little Three). The Majors were vertically integrated, meaning they also owned theater chains and distribution arms — at least until the Paramount Decision in 1948. These studios were Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Fox (later 20th Century Fox after a merger with 20th Century Studios in 1935), Warner Bros., and RKO. The Minors were Universal, Columbia, and United Artists (UA).
Of these 8 studios, all had at least one Jewish cofounder. Paramount had Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky, MGM with Louis B. Mayer and Marcus Loew, Fox by William Fox, Warner Bros. by Harry and Jack Warner, RKO by David Sarnoff, Universal by Carl Laemmle, Columbia by Harry and Jack Cohn, and United Artists had Douglas Fairbanks.
Paramount was known for extravagant European-style productions, including Josef von Sternberg’s collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedies, radio comics like the Marx Brothers, and the films of Preston Sturges and Cecil B. DeMille. MGM was the industry’s biggest star factory, having signed the likes of Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Gene Kelly, Ava Gardner, and more. Fox didn’t have as many stars, but Shirley Temple was a major draw for them in the 1930s, and they also provided steady employment for Western icon John Ford. Warner Bros. made films at a lower budget than the other majors, but their output was much higher. Their contract players included Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn; and their regular roster of directors included Mervyn LeRoy and Michael Curtiz. RKO didn’t have a ton of stars, but they milked the partnership of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire for everything they could.
Universal’s most successful and remembered films of this period were their monster films, as well as the works of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello. Columbia didn’t have many of its own directors or stars, but they often borrowed them from other studios. One constant they had was Frank Capra, whose 1934 film It Happened One Night was the first to sweep the Academy Awards. United Artists released an array of projects, including some of Alfred Hitchcock and William Wyler’s most famous films.
Some recommended films with Jewish producers:
- Gold Diggers of 1933 (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1933)
- Holiday (Columbia Pictures, 1938)
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (RKO Radio Pictures, 1939)
- Modern Times (United Artists, 1936)
- The Phantom of the Opera (Universal Pictures, 1925)
- The Pirate (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1948)
- Shanghai Express (Paramount Pictures, 1932)
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Fox Film Corporation, 1927)
The Émigré Directors
Ernst Lubitsch emigrated from Germany in 1922, and he made films at Warner Bros., MGM, and Paramount. When synchronized sound came along, Lubitsch was among the first to create movie musicals — including his collaborations with French actor Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade (1929) and One Hour with You (1932). Lubitsch’s most famous works are his delightful romantic comedies like Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living (both 1932), Ninotchka (1939), and To Be or Not to Be (1942).
Warner Bros. invited Hungarian director Michael Curtiz to join the studio in 1926. He was highly prolific in the 1930s and 40s with beloved films like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces (both 1938), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945).
After the Nazis gained power in 1933, many more directors fled Germany for Hollywood. This is a significant part of why film noir owes a debt to 1920s German cinema — four of the most influential directors of the noir cycle were German émigrés. Fritz Lang’s films noir The Big Heat (1953) and Scarlet Street (1945) are the most fondly remembered of his Hollywood works, though none reached the level of his German works like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).
Otto Preminger emigrated in 1935 to work for Fox, but Darryl F. Zanuck fired him in 1937 over disputes during the production of Kidnapped (1938). Preminger then went to New York, both acting and directing on Broadway and teaching classes at the Yale School of Drama. In Zanuck’s absence, William Goetz, who was running the studio, invited Preminger to return on a seven-year contract. Once back in Hollywood, he made many acclaimed films, including Laura (1944) and Carmen Jones (1954) — the latter of which made its star Dorothy Dandridge the first Black woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
Robert Siodmak arrived in 1939, making B-films for a variety of studios before signing with Universal in 1943. He worked steadily on films, including but not limited to Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect (all 1944), and The Killers (1946), but was overshadowed mainly by more prestigious directors like Alfred Hitchcock. Siodmak returned to Europe in 1952, where he continued to make films.
Billy Wilder moved to California in 1933, working mainly as a screenwriter on screwball comedies like Ball of Fire (1941) and Ninotchka (1939). His first film as director was The Major and the Minor (1942), but the quintessential noir Double Indemnity (1944) put him on the map. From then on, Wilder proved to be one of the most versatile filmmakers in Hollywood. He could do anything from farce (1961’s criminally underrated One, Two, Three), romantic comedies (1948’s A Foreign Affair, 1959’s Some Like it Hot, and 1960’s Best Picture-winner The Apartment), hard-hitting dramas (1945’s The Lost Weekend), and blisteringly satirical dark comedies (1950’s Sunset Boulevard and 1951’s Ace in the Hole).
Some recommended films by Jewish émigré directors:
- Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)
- The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
- The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
- The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
- Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)
- Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
- Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)
- To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)