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POLLYWOOD Polish secrets of the American media, part 2

In the last issue we analyzed the beginnings of the film industry and we learned how great an influence Polish people had on the development and form of modern media. In the second part of this fascinating story about those who created the foundations of Hollywood we discover how the world came to appreciate the genius of Polish immigrants.

Gordon and Mayer created the first system of renting movies, leading to the creation of distribution companies. Without them, we would not have big movie theater networks and multiplexes. Without Mayer, we also would not have studios and international media in the form that exist today. Neith would we have movie stars.

Without Warner brothers, films would still be mute and black-and-white. They were the authors of the change, whose further development caused a technological revolution. The unparalleled speed at which present time technology changes, we owe to these four brothers.

Without the Shubert brothers we would not have such extensive theater growth, and Broadway would still be one of the New York bulwarks, rather than a symbol of entertainment. The symbiotic relation between theater, literature and film definitely owes them a lot – as well as the big shows and musicals of today, not to mention the remakes of famous productions and movie adaptations of popular plays.

Pola Negri, as the first star from the Europe, took over the hegemony of American screen goddesses and her legacy remains at the hearts of the film industry to this day. It was she who opened the doors to fame for Greta Garbo, Hedy Lemarr and later icons of the cinema, such as Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich. Along the way, with her exalted behavior, she became the original diva and archetype of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”.

 Al Jolson was the first superstar actor, being declared in his time as the most famous entertainment actor in the world. No doubt his Polish roots played a major part in his rise to fame. Paul Muni in turn was the first actor born on Polish ground, who not only gained an Oscar, but also raised acting standards to a level to which even the most prominent modern dramatic actors around the world still aspire. Perhaps with the exception of Polish actors, since he remains unknown in his native land.

Billy Wilder is considered, if not the most important, then as one of the most prominent producers in the history of film. No one has a body of work as wide ranging in style and genre as his. Without Wilder there would be no French New Wave or Italian Neorealism.

 Who did I miss? Without doubt appreciation must go to Max Fleischer from Kraków, without whom there would be no American film animation, and to David Sarnoff from Uzlyany, near Mińsk, without whom there would no modern television. Also noteworthy are Kraków-born Marianna Michalska, who as Gilda Gray became a great star and promoted one of the most popular dances of the epoch; Salka Viertel from Sambor; Mark M. Dintenfass from Tarnowo, without whom there would be no Universal works; Sam Spiegel, who from a fraud became the greatest producer in the history of cinema; and Bronisław Kaper, the first Polish compositor, winner of Oscar for “Lili” and a tireless promoter of Polish art.

Cropped screenshot from the trailer for the 1932 film Scarfac

Cropped screenshot from the trailer for the 1932 film Scarfac

 So why was it these people –  and not immigrants from other countries – who created this industry, setting the foundations of the future Hollywood? They came to the States driven from their countries by poverty, a lack of work and religious persecutions. But the same applies to the rest of the 23 million immigrants of Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, Japanese and Mexican descent. But while most of them were uneducated, and unable to find jobs in their own countries, among the Jewish immigrants there was almost no illiteracy. Every child, or at least every boy, in order to come to Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, had to be able to read and write, which in comparison to other religions gave them an advantage.

The restrictive laws and the pogroms denied Jews the opportunity to observe strong family traditions. But more motivating still was their ability to survive, to adapt to new conditions and see the possibilities where others could not. They were not afraid to take a risk. Other immigrants, whether successful or not, could return to their homelands. Polish immigrants of Jewish origin did not have this comfort. No one was waiting for them, beyond service in the Tsarist army and more pogroms. They were the eye witnesses of atrocities and dehumanization, which resulted in strong feelings of empathy in them, probably the most important element of creativity. Their urge to share their histories as a warning for others, made them natural creators.

And why did so many immigrants from Poland break into Hollywood after the World War II? One reason, I believe, is a phenomenon that I would call “the fury of neophytes”. The founders of the film industry, with time and multiple fortunes, went away from their roots. Despite coming from shtetls, their work gained international attention. They began to feel like citizens of the big world, they were becoming the pioneers of modern globalization. Their descendants have little sentiment towards the country of their parents, often not even knowing where they originate from. They do not know the language of their fathers. They grew up in the new world. About their ancestors, they talk reluctantly, often with disdain. They forget that thanks to their enormous efforts they did not have to work hard and could study at the best universities. Their capabilities are limited only by time and the fortune that they have at their disposition. Immigrants from Poland remind them that they were once part of the ruling class. Unfortunately, the memory of their parents about the country they come from, vanished on the day they left it. A hundred years later, when there are no Cossacks or shtetl, in the memory there still remains rape, violence, poverty and fear. And children are mindlessly passing this picture to the next generation. A pity.

By Andrzej Krakowski
Photos: Wkipedia