Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film
Color and Black & White
Screened at SFJFF 2010
Color and Black & White
Screened at SFJFF 2010
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s special 30th Anniversary program, Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film , continues this October 2010 with four more archival Jewish gangster films, screening on the first four Sundays in October at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, co-presented by YBCA. The gangster films screening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are: EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) , John Sayles’ riveting drama about the White Sox throwing the 1919 world series, on Sunday, October 3 at 2pm; MURDER, INC. (1960) , Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenburg’s stylized look at one of the most ruthless gangs in New York, on Sunday, October 10 at 2pm; LITTLE CAESAR (1931) , Mervyn LeRoy’s classic tale of the rise and fall of a mobster, starring Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) Sunday, October 17 at 2pm; and STRAIGHT IS THE WAY (1934) , Paul Sloane’s tale of a young Jewish man who has served five years in the slammer and his attempts to walk a straight path despite pressure from local gangsters, on Sunday, October 24 at 2pm.
Tickets are $8.00 general admission and $6.00 for students, seniors, and Jewish Film Forum or YBCA members. For tickets and information, please call (415) 978-2787 or visit www.ybca.org
Gangster films are an intriguing prism through which to view one of the darker aspects of American Jewish history: Jewish gangsters and Jewish crime. I first became interested in Jewish gangsters when I found out that my grandparents, Arthur (Abe) and Frederica Fishman had been threatened by Brooklyn gangster Dopey Benny Fein, who sent them a funeral wreath—probably because they refused to pay him protection money. Frankly, I thought that the name Dopey Benny had been made up until I did some research and realized he was the real deal: a New York thug and racketeer who—when he wasn’t intimidating small business people like my grandparents—sold his strong arm services to unions (and never, he claimed, to management) in the seething labor disputes that raged in the first half of the last century. Not exactly what one would call a nice Jewish boy!
Scratch the bark on your family tree and you might uncover a Jewish gangster or someone who paid off a Jewish gangster. However, you might have an easier time finding a Jewish gangster story in your family than an explicitly Jewish gangster film. A complex question for cinema historians is the extent to which Hollywood’s mostly Jewish producers and studio owners avoided making films about Jewish gangsters for fear of creating negative images of Jews during a time of widespread anti-Semitism.
Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film is a series of four films and a panel in this summer’s Festival, continuing with more films at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the Fall. The program includes cinematic images of Jewish gangsters, as well as “ethnic” gangsters played by Jewish actors. Scarface (1932), starring Paul Muni as a thinly disguised Al Capone, is an excellent example of a gangster movie that would have had a Jewish subtext for the Jewish audience of its day because of Paul Muni’s career in the Yiddish Theatre.
Gangsterism is often a prevalent phenomenon in immigrant communities precisely because it offers a way out of poverty. A large percentage of American bootleggers (some estimates are as high as 50 percent) during the Prohibition era were Jews. Many of the Jewish gangsters, from the turn of the last century through World War II, were simultaneously hated and admired for their grit and chutzpah. The second wave of Jewish gangsters, in the late 1940s and ’50s, added brains to their brawn and created an almost corporate business model for their criminal activity. Some of their stories are not pretty, but there are also tales of Jewish mobsters doing good; rumors swirl around anti-Nazi and anti-bund activities, aid to the United States Navy in the invasion of Sicily and early support for Israel.
Our sidebar and panel discussion will look at the unique place that Jewish gangsters had in their communities and in cinema—both as icons of strength and power and as a source of embarrassment to the Jewish community. Questions we hope to address include: How did portrayals of Jewish gangsters in film (or iconic Jewish actors in non-Jewish gangster roles) play in the Jewish community and outside of it? How does the Jewish gangster experience parallel that of the Italian American gangster experience and its representation in cinema? What role does the Jewish gangster play in the spectrum of Jewish masculinity? And why weren’t more Jewish gangster films made?
The four films screening in the festival include Bugsy (1991), Barry Levinson’s dramatic and romantic rendering of the rise and fall of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, featuring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening; King of the Roaring 20’s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961), Joseph M. Newman’s tale of Rothstein’s gambling exploits, featuring David Janssen as Rothstein and Mickey Rooney as his partner in crime; Lepke (1975), Menahem Golan’s sweeping saga about Brooklyn-born Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, starring Tony Curtis; and Scarface (1932), Howard Hawks’ classic film about a Chicago gangster, starring Paul Muni.
Are Jewish gangsters or Jewish gangster films “good for the Jews”? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do know that these films are exhilarating and endlessly entertaining, while providing a unique window into the Jewish immigrant experience.—Nancy K. Fishman, Guest Curator
Special support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
There will be a panel discussion about Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film after the screening of Lepke at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, July 25, at 4:00 pm. Panelists will include: Ron Arons, author of The Jews of Sing Sing; Professor Patricia Brett Erens, author of The Jew in American Cinema; Professor Albert Fried, author of The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America; and moderator Nancy K. Fishman.
This fall, please join us at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on the first four Sunday afternoons in October for four more films featuring Jewish gangsters or iconic Jewish actors in lead gangster roles. Visit www.sfjff.org in the fall for screening details.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is delighted to promote a concurrent exhibition, Wise Guys: Mobsters in the Mishpacha in The Katz Snyder Gallery of the JCCSF, 3200 California Street in San Francisco, from June 15 – Sept. 15, 2010. This exhibit is presented by the Eugene & Elinor Friend Center for the Arts at the JCCSF in association with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
The Katz Snyder Gallery, located on the second floor of the JCCSF, features Wise Guys: Mobsters in the Mishpacha, some 41 drawings of Jewish gangsters, each with a short biographical sketch. These portraits bring to life the tough, sometimes tragic and sometimes heroic Jewish gangsters who muscled their way into the American dream—or perhaps created their own version of it.
Pat Hamou is an illustrator and graphic artist currently living in Montreal, Canada. Inspired by the accidental art of vintage mug shots and the dark charms of colorful characters, he created intricate, colorful and textured pen and ink and watercolor drawings that reflect a bygone era while bringing new life to them.
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