Jewish Film in America & Europe

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Films of the 1930s--such as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), Night Train (1940), and Professor Mamlock (1938)--addressed the Nazi threat to Jews, and they were followed by wartime films which marked even greater acceptance  of Jewish themes in film as in society generally.

Many film historians point to the 1940s as the defining moment in which Jews entered mainstream American cinema, through popular films like Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Crossfire (1947). Interestingly, both of these films focused on questions of anti-Semitism rather than on questions about or from Jews themselves. Both films include Jewish characters , but the protagonists--the journalist in Gentleman's Agreement, and the detective in Crossfire--are non-Jews who are in search of answers about anti-Semitism.

While 1950s McCarthyism saw a clamping down on controversial themes, including anti-Semitism, the birth of the ethnic identity movement in the 1960s led to pride in Jewishness, and Jewish themes began to figure strongly in mainstream American cinema. This included films about the Holocaust and the formation of Israel, such as Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Exodus (1960).

The work of Jewish authors like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth provided rich material for Jewish films in the 1970s, such as Portnoy's Complaint. Simultaneously, Jews began to appear in filmic genres from which they had been previously absent, like gangster films (Bugsy, Meyer Lansky) and Westerns (Blazing Saddles, in which Mel Brooks plays a Yiddish-speaking Indian).

There was also a dramatic increase in popular films focusing on Jews, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and The Heartbreak Kid. Key films such as Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Cabaret (1972), The Big Fix (1978), Hester Street (1975), and Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977) also signified a definitive growth in Jewish presence in mainstream American films.

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