My 1930s education at the movies

I’d long wanted to see the two movies on the double bill at our neighborhood movie house, the Princess at 61st and Main streets in Los Angeles, that week in 1939. Brother Raul and friend Ernie wanted to see the films too, even though they had been made eight years earlier. Mother was not enthusiastic. “Those are very scary movies,” she warned. We were not dissuaded and found ourselves sitting in the darkened theater on Sunday afternoon as the curtains parted.

The first half of the double bill was Dracula; the second, Frankenstein. They terrified me. Movies like this—about a dead man who rose from his coffin at night to find throats to sink his teeth into or about a mad scientist who sought to bring life back to cadavers he dug up by implanting new brains in them—embodied evil and could only end badly. What surprised me is why my brother and friend were not as frightened as I was. I left my seat for the safety of the sofa in the lobby and sat there waiting until my two companions finished viewing the entire bill. For the rest of my life, I have avoided movies about monsters, mummies, vampires, wolf-men, zombies and similar beings. 

I had the formal education my Los Angeles schoolteachers, church leaders, and my parents wanted me to have. But they couldn’t take me to other planets or India—and they certainly weren’t going to talk to me about bootlegging and femme fatales. Movies were frank and immediate, teaching me about an America that was scarier and more exciting than the one I encountered on the streets. Indeed, I saw visions of what America’s most fantastic wishes would look like if they came true, and what its most destructive fears could lead to. (And sometimes, I learned, I couldn’t watch.) 

For many years, we saw movies only at the Princess, but in time, my brother Raul and I expanded the boundaries of our movie-going world, adding two more theaters, the Century at 61st and Broadway, a block west of Main, and the Kiva, a block north. We started going to the Strand, a mile farther north, not long afterwards; it was at the corner of Broadway and Vernon Avenue. A child’s ticket cost 11 cents, and a small bag of popcorn, served in a little white paper bag (with butter), a nickel.

We even went midweek, when neighborhood theaters held Keno nights to increase attendance. Patrons were given numbered cards, the house lights were turned on, and a large wheel on stage was spun. Those with winning cards were given prizes. At the Kiva one Wednesday evening, I was a winner and was called to the stage where I was handed a bag that contained my prizes. I threw away the little jar of mustache wax and the fishing line but took home the box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

Going to the movies typically meant seeing two movies, a cartoon, occasionally a short subject, and, if we went on Saturday afternoon, a serial that continued week to week for 12 weeks or so. Serials featured cowboy stars like Buck Jones and Johnny Mack Brown. But my favorite was Flash Gordon, whose battles with the evil Emperor Ming, ruler of the planet Mongo, took 13 weeks to resolve.

The filmed news of the week was another extra. Charles Lindbergh had made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, just a few years before I started going to the movies, and he often appeared on-screen. Many boys, including myself, wore close-fitting pilot’s headgear, some equipped with goggles, in emulation of the young flier. Movies about pilots and their airplanes became very popular. Hell’s Angels, made in 1930, portrayed the lives of World War I combat pilots and featured blond newcomer Jean Harlow, which insured that not all the film’s action would take place in the sky.

Such films taught us who our friends were. In The Dawn Patrol (1938), Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone played English pilots making early morning flights over German-held territory. Their worthy nemesis was the German ace Von Richter, clearly meant to evoke the real life Baron Manfred von Richthofen (also known as the Red Baron) whom everyone, even us schoolchildren, knew about. Even though the plot details were fictional, reality couldn’t help but intrude occasionally. When war broke out in 1939, Niven had to leave Hollywood to return to England and joined the Army to fight real Germans. 

But the enemies didn’t have to be just the Germans. We school kids loved the action-adventure movie Gunga Din (1939) in which Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. played British soldiers stationed in colonial India. The bad guys were the Thuggee, who fought the British and who captured the three good guys.

The movies of the 1930s also could be frank about disaster. In San Francisco (1936) Clark Gable played Barbary Coast saloonkeeper Blackie Norton, and Spencer Tracy was his lifelong friend Tim Mullin, a Catholic priest. They fight over a singer (played by Jeanette MacDonald)—but the year is 1906, and the earth shakes, buildings topple, and people panic and flee in one of the most realistic disasters Hollywood has ever presented. (The final scene has the three stars reunited on Nob Hill singing hymns along with other survivors.) John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937) showed a realistic storm, toppling palm trees and buildings in ways that, upon a recent viewing, were as eye-popping as when I was 9 years old.       

At the movies, we learned about more than harmless gathering; there were stories of vice crime. The Prohibition era produced a new type of crime in the United States: the illegal manufacture, transportation, and sale of liquor. It went way beyond the people we knew in our neighborhood who made wine for their personal use—that was not illegal. It didn’t take Hollywood long to jump on the gangster bandwagon. In Little Caesar (1931), Edward G. Robinson played an Al Capone-like figure, glaring menacingly and threatening. Crime didn’t pay in the movies, and Little Caesar (also known as Rico) gets it in the end. As he lies dying he gasps out the words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

In Scarface (1932), Paul Muni played Chicago mobster Tony Camonte, whose racket is selling illegal beer to speakeasies. Parts of Scarface were risqué. The morning after a wild party, a man picks up off the floor a feminine undergarment that had been shed there the night before. Then there were the gangster films of James Cagney, known for hitching up his trousers with his forearms and uttering the phrase, “You dirty rat!” We knew these stories were make-believe, but we schoolboys mimicked him for fun. 

With stories of crime came stories of guns. And so, with our pocketknives, we whittled blocks of wood into guns that we armed with rubber strips cut from automobile tire inner tubes. With wood and metal clothespins we made pistols that fired lighted matches when we pulled the trigger. We wanted to imitate cowboy stars like Tom Mix, who lent their names to pairs of six-shooters with holsters that every toy store sold. We had cap pistols that we loaded with rolls of caps that exploded when we pulled the triggers.

The movies weren’t all about good vs. evil. There was great comedy that taught us about what was funny about the country. Comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their film debut in a movie they made about Army life, Buck Privates. In 1940, the United States initiated a pre-Pearl Harbor military draft, and the comic team depicted their version of life in the Army of that time.

And the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (and for a time, Zeppo) could make anything funny, even the severe immigration restrictions of the 1930s. In Monkey Business (1931), the four try to pass an immigration checkpoint by each in turn presenting the French singing star Maurice Chevalier’s passport as their own. When the immigration official remarks to each passport holder that he bears not the slightest resemblance to the French singer, each begins to sing “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” a Chevalier standard. Harpo played a mute, and when his turn comes, he sings exactly like Chevalier, to the moviegoer’s surprise. But then we discover he is playing a portable record player strapped onto his back.                       

I recently came across the 1998 list The American Film Institute compiled of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. I have seen 96 of them. I’ve always devoured stories, whether in the form of movies, fiction, or non-fiction. Americans have an almost insatiable need to be entertained, and Hollywood has filled that need for over a century, and hasn’t stopped yet. Of all the movies I’ve seen, my favorite is The Wizard of Oz. I first saw it not long after its release in 1939 and have seen it many times since. I never fail to be taken in by the fantasy and by its lessons—that there’s no place without troubles and there’s no place like home.

Manuel H. Rodriguez taught in local Los Angeles schools for 41 years, 35 of them at Los Angeles Valley College. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish problem

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is nauseating, pornographic and soul-crushing — and you have to see it.

You have to see it, because you — meaning society, Jews, all of us as individuals — have to face the questions it raises about money, wealth and morality. 

Director Martin Scorsese is taking some heat for depicting Jordan Belfort as a likable rogue. Yes, Belfort lies, steals and snorts avalanches of coke off naked tushees, but he loves his dad, has a great run and, after all, he’s Leonardo DiCaprio.  A generation of young men will now flock to Wall Street aping Belfort, just as a generation of drug dealers took their cues from Al Pacino in “Scarface.”  

I don’t blame Scorsese. His genius is to examine society’s most grievous sins through its most colorful practitioners. True, he doesn’t show the effects of Belfort’s crimes on their victims — the families wrecked by financial loss and legal troubles, the people who fell for the cons and paid with their nest eggs. Then again, the movie is told entirely from Belfort’s point of view, and Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter probably assumed Belfort has never spent two seconds thinking about the human suffering he caused — unless it was his own.

[Related: DiCaprio defends ‘Wolf of Wall Street’]

But I do regret that Scorsese chose not to deal with the fact that Jordan Belfort is Jewish. Although some of the characters in “Wolf,” like Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, are clearly portrayed as Jews, even to the point of wearing chai necklaces around their coke-frosted necks, Belfort, with his Anglo looks and Frenchy name, is left to be simply American. I get it: To do otherwise might give the movie a whiff of anti-Semitic caricature. Scorsese feels much safer depicting the Italian-ness of his violent mobsters than the Jewishness of his greedy con men.

But, just between us, let’s talk about Belfort-the-Jew — let’s go there. In the movie, you never really understand how someone so gifted can be so morally unmoored. But in his memoir, upon which the movie is based, whenever Belfort refers to his Jewish roots, the diagnosis becomes more apparent. 

He is a kid from Long Island. His dad, Max, grew up “in the old Jewish Bronx, in the smoldering economic ashes of the Great Depression.” Belfort didn’t grow up poor by any means, he just wasn’t rich enough. The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.” 

Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come….”

It’s not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn’t join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others.   

Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is an extreme example. These are guys who feel they have nothing, they are nothing, so they will do anything to acquire everything. They cross a pretty clear line and just keep going.

The question that gnaws at me is whether there’s something amiss in the vast gray area that leads right up to that line. Are the Belforts and Madoffs unnatural mutations, or are they inevitable outgrowths of attitudes that have taken root in our communities? We don’t, as a community, like to talk about money and wealth and how to acquire it and how to spend it. A Madoff affair happens — a crime that devastates thousands of people, businesses and philanthropies, many of them in the heart of the Jewish community — and we hardly speak about it anymore.  

These days, we are deep in the pit arguing over the American Studies Association’s (ASA) boycott of Israeli academics and whether Jewish students at Swarthmore College’s Hillel should open their doors to anti-Zionist speakers. We have devoted so many smart words and fiery sermons to these issues, you’d think the entire Jewish future depended upon them. Never mind that there are bridge clubs bigger than the ASA, and that the State of Israel, with its history, power and genius, may just survive the withering onslaught of a panel discussion in suburban Pennsylvania. The Jewish world never lacks for turbulent conversations. My only concern is whether they’re the right ones. Talking about Israel is easy — talking about money is uncomfortable.

But these are the conversations we need to be having. What’s the right way to make money? How much is enough? How much must we share, and with whom? We are blessed to be living at a time of unparalleled Jewish power and wealth, and it makes us so uneasy, we prefer to talk about everything but. We have benefited from an economic and political structure that is becoming less and less just. We are enjoying unprecedented wealth as millions struggle on minimum wages, facing hunger, unemployment, benefit cuts, homelessness. We look to our rabbis and institutions for guidance, but too many of them are afraid to upset the wealthy donors upon whom they are dependent. So we talk instead about Israel, about Swarthmore, and our communities become breeding grounds for the next Madoff, the next Belfort.

That’s not a movie. That’s a shame. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.