Shmuel Gelbfisz was born in a Polish shtetl, the son of an unsuccessful second-hand furniture dealer. He studied in a cheder and at age 12, the penniless boy walked across Europe, took steerage to America, and "Anglicized" his name to Sam Goldfish. In 1918, he had graduated from glove salesman to budding Hollywood producer. He renamed and reinvented himself once more and became Sam Goldwyn.
The life of the legendary film mogul and malapropist ("Include me out," "In two words, im-possible") is narrated by Dustin Hoffman in a fascinating two-hour documentary to air Sunday, Oct. 7, at 9 p.m. on PBS station KCET.
The American Masters presentation of "Goldwyn" is neither a hagiography nor a snickering expose. It achieves the difficult balancing act of being honest — brutally so at times — while paying due homage to one of the dominant figures of Hollywood’s infancy and golden age.
Sam Goldwyn, like most of the immigrant Jews who created Hollywood, was not a lovable person. About the most effusive compliment to the man came from playwright Lillian Hellman, who admitted in an old interview that "within limits, I liked him."
His late wife, Frances, and his children, Ruth Capps and Sam Jr., testify that he was a most difficult husband and a lousy father. He had a vile temper, was an obsessive gambler, cheated at cards, yet at one of his weekly poker sessions dropped $150,000 (today’s equivalent of about $2 million).
Yet, as a fiercely independent producer when Hollywood was ruled by the studio system, Goldwyn brought to audiences some of the most memorable films of the 1930s and ’40s.
For years, "Samuel Goldwyn Presents" meant quality entertainment for millions of moviegoers. He made a total of 74 films, including "Dodsworth," "Dead End," "Wuthering Heights," "The Little Foxes," "The Pride of the Yankees," "Up in Arms," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Hans Christian Andersen" and, of course, "The Best Years of Our Lives."
Semiliterate himself, Goldwyn had a profound respect for writers and paid them top dollar, at a time when most studio chiefs ranked writers barely above the kitchen help.
Writers like Robert Sherwood, Sinclair Lewis, Ben Hecht, MacKinlay Kantor, Lillian Hellman and Sidney Kingsley thrived under his benign tyranny. Goldwyn also tried to persuade Sigmund Freud to write a romantic screenplay — figuring that no one knew more about sex than the father of psychoanalysis — but the great man declined.
But it is in the exploration of Goldwyn as a deeply conflicted Jew that the documentary offers some of its most intriguing insights, augmented by brief interviews with his biographer and his son at the preview screening.
Goldwyn shed his Jewish wife after nine years of marriage to wed a beautiful, young Catholic (and not very good) actress, and their son was raised in the mother’s faith.
It gave the mogul great satisfaction that his son was half-gentile "to bleach out his Jewishness," said A. Scott Berg, co-writer and co-producer of the documentary, which is based on his biography of the filmmaker.
But if Goldwyn, like Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, William Fox, the Warner brothers and the rest of the moguls, "tried to hide his Jewishness," as Berg says, he at times acknowledged his heritage in unexpected ways: When Yiddish-spouting Eddie Cantor and a young comedian named Danny Kaye were rejected by other studios as "too Jewish," Goldwyn hired them and made Kaye into a star.
Sam Goldwyn Jr. spoke about his surprise when he attended his uncle’s funeral and the senior Goldwyn recited the "Kaddish" flawlessly.
L.B. Mayer was Goldwyn’s arch-nemesis, and nothing annoyed Sam more than Mayer’s flirtation with Catholicism, the young Goldwyn said.
As Nazism became ever more threatening, Goldwyn started contributing to Jewish causes and for years was listed as the largest donor to the United Jewish Appeal.
In 1940, when Joseph P. Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to Great Britain and the future president’s father, called the Jewish studio chiefs together and counseled them to stop making anti-Nazi films and to remove "Jewish names" from the film credits, Goldwyn was one of the few to decline.
After the war, when the House Un-American Activities Committee started its witch hunt of Hollywood Communists, Goldwyn was the only mogul who refused to blacklist the targeted writers.
It might have been his legendary contrariness, as much as principle, "but nobody was going to tell Goldwyn whom he could hire or fire," Berg said.
Goldwyn, who died in 1974 at the age of 92, was nothing if not colorful, and the documentary is studded with anecdotes.
My favorite is the one of President Nixon visiting the by-then-feeble mogul to present him with the Medal of Freedom. Nixon, then running for reelection, delivered a string of smarmy cliches until Goldwyn tugged at his sleeve and observed, "Mr. President, you’ll have to do better than that if you want to carry the state of California."