POLLYWOOD – Polish secrets of the American media – Part 1

Without Sigmund Lubin we would still be watching films in a kinetoscope and without Warner Brothers the cinema would be silent and black & white to this day. Billy Wilder is one of the most prominent directors in the history of cinema and Pola Negri was the first true diva. Each of them had Polish roots and created the basis for the future of Hollywood. How did it happen?

Saying that the media rules today’s world is as surprising as saying that the sun is hot. It is the media who decides who has the power, which country will declare war on another, what the exchange rate will be tomorrow and what we will be wearing next season. As for the extent of the media’s power, we could debate that for years. To make things simpler let us choose some of the media genres such as the press, radio, TV, movies, music, marketing, PR, schooling and education, fashion, social media and the Internet. Contrary to appearance, all of them have common roots, common ancestors. And we can look for their origins in one place  – Poland.

The movie industry which undoubtedly started the development of the media was created in some ways just like the universe. The first elements came together really slowly and they had to wait for a very long time for the spark which would bring them to life. In terms of the universe, it was the Big Bang while in the movie industry the spark was the invention of the camera which was able to capture the motion of an object. Maybe it is worth thinking of why this invention moved the imagination of one, specific group of the immigrants. It is worth noting that the beginning of the movie world coincided with a huge wave of immigration to the United States. Between 1880 and 1923, 20 million people from across the world came to USA. But among those, it was the Polish (and a few Hungarian) citizens who created the industry which dominated the world.

To make the things clear, we must establish what is Poland and what is a Polish citizen. I adopted the definition used by the international law that for a Pole we regard every person born on Polish ground, regardless of their religion, race or sexual orientation. I extended this definition from the current borders to these before the partitioning of Poland and to the people born in the XIX century I added an additional criterion – their own choice. Louis B. Mayer would state as his place of birth “Russia/Poland“, but he did not have to. He could have written “Russia“ and would not have been lying to anyone. The Shubert brothers did the same. The terrains they came form were under the Prussian protectorate so they could simply call themselves German or Prussian and this would be true. But they did not. For the three Warner brothers – Krasnosielc, and for Billy Wilder – Sucha Beskidzka were the places which they often thought of and – as in Wilder’s case – used every occasion to find out more about them. I was a witness to it. The most prominent producer in the Hollywood history, born in Jarosław, Sam Spiegel, after rebirth of Poland in 1919, having a choice, decided to have a Polish passport and not the Austrian one he had used for more than twenty years, when he got the American citizenship. If they had this inner need to express their feelings for Poland, what right do we have to deprive them of it?

The dynamics of the bilateral relations of the characters of my article were truly extraordinary. The fact that they practically knew each other is without a doubt; that they compete with each other and not always fairly – also true. For the fact that they hated each other and often stabbed each other in the back we have much evidence. But when – as a group – they felt trapped, they immediately united and fought with the enemies – only for that to fight against each other. They had the same character traits in common – extraordinary cunning and the ability of exhaustive observation. They were able to find possibilities in everyday situations and places, which others had ignored. A good example of such a talent is the famous history of the gloves, the hero of which was Samuel Goldwyn, a movie producer and cofounder of the MGM film studio. In 1913 when President Wilson and the American congress suppressed the domestic industry, lowering duty tariffs for the import of gloves, Goldwyn – in that time a salesman in a New York company – got on the ship to France. There he bought a huge number of cheap gloves and ordered them to be packed not in pairs but individually in lefts and rights. Then he packed them into six lots – three sets of right-hand gloves and three sets of left-hand and sent them off to six different ports in the United States. Then he returned to New York and did not collect the packages for six months. After half a year, under the law of the day, the government would regard the orders as abandoned and belonging to nobody. As such they were not subjected to the duty. The docks auctioned them to regain the costs of the storage and, of course, no one wanted to buy only left or only right-hand gloves so there were no buyers for these products. Goldwyn appeared at the auctions as the only buyer and very cheaply bought back his own gloves, transporting them to New York where he again paired them up. While generally the gloves industry was dying, Goldwyn’s company was recording record sales. In this whole affair Goldwyn did not break any law or rule, he only used every possible legal loophole in his favour. Every character mentioned by me in this article has similar stories to tell.

Readers might ask themselves why I chose these people from the huge group of Poles and not any others? The answer is because the dominant criteria I used was how much each had done for the new industry and its development. Or, to put it more simply, they were pioneers. Without Sigmund Lubin we would still be watching movies in a kinetoscope: individually, frame by frame in separate machine. His portable projector started a revolution, enabling one film to be shown to many viewers at the same time. Without Samuel Goldwyn the movies would be short. It was he who created the first full-length movie in Hollywood. From that day on, rather than being time-fillers between the sketches on stage, movies became the main attraction and a Los Angeles district called Hollywood changed into the world’s capital of the movie industry.

By Andrzej Krakowski, New York
Studio publicity photo of Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson.