Jews in Film: A Double Feature

Posted on July 25th, 2016 by

Ever since I started this internship, I have been learning more about Jewish life everyday. This rich culture, except for its portrayal in movies, was foreign to me just seven weeks ago. Now, as we come towards the end of the internship, and I am infinitely more knowledgeable, I had the idea to revisit a couple of the films I have watched that feature Jewishness: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and The Comedian Harmonists, to look at what they have to say about the Jewish experience with new perspective. I also have a more selfish motivation…to share these great movies with more people! These extraordinarily different films, unsurprisingly, tackle the subject in contrasting ways. Note: spoilers for both films will follow!

The Great Dictator (1940)

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Charlie Chaplin’s first sound film, The Great Dictator, satirizes Adolf Hitler, fascism, and anti-semitism. One of this film’s many strengths is its incredible timeliness. It was released in 1940, a year before the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into WWII. Chaplin’s character makes a speech to the audience at the end of the film , imploring the people of the world to exercise their humanity. The fact that, at the time he delivered that speech, the Holocaust was just beginning makes his message even more profound.

The Great Dictator, is not, however an overly heavy film. It actually has a great deal in common with Chaplin’s earlier movies: cases of mistaken identity, physical comedy, and hilariously over-the-top characters. In one of my favorite sequences in the film, Chaplin’s farcical Hitler character plays with a giant globe balloon–representing his naive desire to conquer the world–only to have it explode in his hands. Charlie Chaplin weaves together comedy and political commentary so deftly that the lines between them are blurred.

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The most symbolically meaningful feature of this film is the fact that Chaplin’s version of Hitler and the Jewish protagonist change places through the course of the film. The protagonist, known only as “the barber”, takes advantage of his resemblance to “Adenoid Hynkel” in order to bring down his regime with appeals to kindness. Charlie Chaplin made a point of creating a deep, human Jewish hero while Jews were being dehumanized just across the Atlantic. If I were to summarize the main point of The Great Dictator, it would be that Jews are human and deserve dignity; a simple but powerful message.

The Comedian Harmonists (1997)

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I originally watched this film for a German class when we were studying the culture of the Weimar Republic. It follows the German music group, The Comedian Harmonists, through their rise in popularity, which ran parallel in time to the rise of the Third Reich. Three of the six group members–Harry Frommermann, Ari Leschnikoff, and Roman Cycowski–were Jewish. Harry, the protagonist, is also in a relationship with a non-Jewish German woman named Erna, and the film shows the danger that the Nazi regime posed to the couple. The most interesting aspect of this movie, to me, is the disbelief the characters express at each stage when the Third Reich gained power. When a group of Nazi soldiers vandalized the music store where Erna worked and attacked Harry, the store owners remarked that they couldn’t believe that could happen in Germany. Knowing the horrors that would unfold later, it was interesting to see the characters’ perspectives from the beginning.

What does The Comedian Harmonists have to say about being Jewish? It certainly demonstrates the danger of being a famous Jew in Germany during the beginning of the Third Reich and the painful choices they had to make in order to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

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I would recommend these two movies to anyone, regardless of their background. The Great Dictator makes sweeping, acute statements about the nature of humanity, while The Comedian Harmonists is more concerned with the daily dangers and conflicts of Jews living in Germany at the beginning of the Third Reich. As a lifelong fan of movies, I am thankful that the work that I have done in this internship has provided me with the experience to consider some of my favorite films in a new light! This is one of the many benefits of working at the Jewish Museum of Maryland!

Alice badgeBlog post by Exhibitions Intern Alice Wynd. To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.





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Fievel and the Tooth Fairy visit the JMM

Posted on August 20th, 2015 by

This past Sunday, JMM Features continued, the second in a series of free movie screenings accompanying this summer’s exhibit Cinema Judaica. The classic animation An American Tail  drew a great crowd. Everyone seemed to enjoy the movie and there was plenty of popcorn to go around! It was especially wonderful to see lots of new faces.

The event included fun activities for the whole family. Children and parents learned how to draw their favorite Jewish cartoon characters. Other activities included creating Fievel out of pipe cleaners and illustrating modern cartoon version of An American Tail, considering the challenges faced by immigrants today.

The crowds gathering before the movie starts

The crowds gathering before the movie starts.

Learning how to draw Fievel

Learning how to draw Fievel.

My favorite activity -  making Fievel with pipe cleaners.

My favorite activity – making Fievel with pipe cleaners.

We also had a visit from an unexpected guest, the Tooth Fairy! Adam and his family, visiting from Ohio, joined us for the movie. However, while watching Fievel on his adventures, Adam’s wiggly tooth came out. We have welcomed guests from around the globe but this may be a first.



If you haven’t had a chance to join us yet for JMM Features you have one last chance this week. On Sunday, August 23rd at 8:00 p.m. we will be holding a free screening Gentleman’s Agreement in the lot in front of the JMM. Again this is a BYOC (bring your own chair) event but we will supply the popcorn. If you feel like making an evening of it, bring a picnic, or even grab something from one of the wonderful local restaurants.

I hope to see you on Sunday!



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The Alliterative Adventures of an Archivist and her Assistant

Posted on August 19th, 2015 by

While doing background research for our current exhibit Cinema Judaica, I came across a surprising number of photos in our collections showing Hollywood stars in and around Baltimore.  Most of these made obvious sense: people who owned homes nearby, or who were in town to raise funds for Israel Bonds or promote a film. One photo in particular was a little harder to parse, however: a publicity shot of Pearl White, silent movie star.

Headshot of actress pearl white.

Pearl White, 1916. Donated by Richard Millhauser, JMM 1995.88.27

In the 1910s, Miss White (1889-1938) was the daredevil heroine of film serials with fabulous titles like “The Perils of Pauline” and “The Exploits of Elaine.” You know the film cliché of a distressed damsel tied to the railroad tracks, cowering from a mustachioed, black-hatted villain? Though this specific trope is more common in later cartoons and spoofs than it ever was during the silent era, the broader notion of action-packed, anything-goes filmmaking in the 1910s and ‘20s is thanks in part to Miss White – who was famous for doing her own stunts – and her endangered-heroine films, including the occasional stint on a railroad tie. Please enjoy this thrilling advertisement for “The Fatal Ring” (1917):

Movie poster for The Fatal Ring

So many thrills! “The Fatal Ring” by Pathé Exchange (film) – Internet Archive. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

…But back to our collections, and the reasons Miss White appears in them.  As best I can tell from published material, such as her autobiography, Miss White was not Jewish, nor was she from Maryland.  What’s she doing in my archives?

With internet research, a field trip to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and the assistance of intern Kaleigh, the question was easily solved. To start with, the back of our photograph is inscribed in pencil, “To Mr. David Millhauser – The man who got my life history – Sincerely, Pearl White – in Baltimore July 3 ‘16”.

Handwritten note on back of photograph.

Reverse of JMM 1995.88.27

David Millhauser (1892-1992) worked as a reporter for the Baltimore American.  Bits and pieces in our collections indicate that he covered political and industrial news around the city.  For example, here’s his U.S. Customs “Pass to Piers, Waterfront or Vessel” from 1918, listing his occupation as “newspaper reporter” and his employer as C.C. Fulton Co., the owner of the American.

Scan of customs passport

Donated by Richard Millhauser. JMM 1991.133.1

Pearl White filmed a now-lost movie, “Mayblossom,” at Carrollton Hall (Howard County, Maryland) in 1916.  On July 3rd of that year, she was photographed and interviewed at Baltimore’s Hotel Kernan by unnamed representatives of the Baltimore American; her photo appeared in the paper on July 4th, and a longer interview was published on July 9th.

Scan of newspaper image of Pearl White.

“Popular Movie Actress Here. Miss Pearl White, the daring and popular Pathé star, who is in Baltimore to take the leading role in a picture to be staged here. The photograph was taken in front of the Hotel Kernan yesterday afternoon by a member of the Art Department of The American.” From The Baltimore American, July 4, 1916, accessed at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Though the July 9th article – which consists almost entirely of Miss White’s own words, detailing her poverty-stricken background, her adventurous career, and her refusal to divulge her age – is unattributed, the source interview on July 3rd coincides neatly with the date noted on the photo given to Millhauser; unless there was some other way he elicited her life story on a Monday in Baltimore, I presume that he was the American’s interviewer.

Was a chat with an actress something of a departure from Millhauser’s regular beat? Based on the cursory nature of the article’s descriptions – Miss White is noted simply as “wearing a big blue hat fastened under her chin with a rubber band” – I’m inclined to think this kind of gossipy publicity piece wasn’t really in the author’s line. We’ll have to do some more research in the American’s archives to find out for sure… but in the meantime, there is one more connection to be made with Baltimore’s movie history.  In the 1910s David’s father Moses Millhauser owned the Elektra, a movie theater on North Gay Street in Baltimore.  The whole family, including David, took part in the theater’s operation, from managing the lobby to providing voiceovers for the silent films on the screen. Perhaps this connection is what garnered Millhauser the assignment of interviewing one of the most popular movie stars of the day. Whatever the reason, thankfully he held on to the personalized photo for many years, until it eventually made its way to our archives – providing just a hint of adventure and glamour to those who stumble upon it.

Entrance of the Cinema Judaica exhibit

The fanciful façade of Moses Millhauser’s Elektra Theater greets visitors to “Cinema Judaica”, open through September 6, 2015 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Photo by Will Kirk.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

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