Old posters, starlets’ costumes, props from “Casablanca” and other items from classic Hollywood films in an exhibit in Sacramento help tell the story of how Jews shaped the industry.
With nearly 100 artifacts on display, “Light & Noir: Exiles & Emigres in Hollywood, 1933-1950,” at the California Museum, spotlights Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi persecution in Europe, their achievements in building Hollywood’s film industry, and their legacy.
“The exhibit lays the background for how Jewish immigrants founded Hollywood, and the time period before and during the war,” said museum executive director Amanda Meeker.
On Sunday, Sept. 24, in conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will host a salon with Julie Kohner, founder and CEO of “Voices of the Generations,” and film historian Kimberly Truhler, who will discuss costume design and designers who shaped the genre.
Kohner, who lives in Los Angeles, will share her personal connection to the exhibit. Her uncle, Paul Kohner, was a Los Angeles-based Hollywood talent agent who managed the careers of many stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Maurice Chevalier and others. In 1938, Paul Kohner co-founded the European Film Fund, which from 1938 to 1948 provided assistance to individuals trying to escape Europe. According to Meeker, he helped sponsor nearly 300 Jews so they could receive entry into the United States.
Julie’s father and Paul’s brother, Walter, escaped Czechoslovakia prior to the war, leaving behind his sweetheart, Hanna. She survived four concentration camps, including Auschwitz, before being liberated. Walter joined the U.S. Army and learned from a sergeant that Hanna was still alive. The couple reunited after Walter found Hanna in Amsterdam, and they settled in Los Angeles in 1946. Hanna’s appearance on the 1950s TV show “This Is Your Life” was the first nationally televised broadcast of a Holocaust survivor’s story.
“Her mother and father’s story is so gripping,” said Meeker. “It brings a personal perspective to the experience.”
Equally personal, she added, are stories of cast- and crewmembers who worked on film sets at the time, many of whom were recent immigrants themselves.
Originally organized by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles in association with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “Light & Noir” draws from the Academy’s collection as well as from studios such as Warner Bros., NBCUniversal and Paramount. The exhibit includes items from films like “Casablanca” (1942), “Double Indemnity” (1944), “Mildred Pierce” (1945), and “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), with posters, props, set and concept drawings, scripts and musical scores.
In addition to showcasing the success of Jewish immigrants, the exhibit presents the more ominous side of public opinion toward immigration: anti-Jewish propaganda, along with video, newspaper and magazine clips of the House Un-American Activities Committee that targeted Jews.
The exhibit “really fits in with the museum’s mission to tell stories that are not typically shared,” Meeker said, adding that people might know about films and about immigration, but not about how they intersected. “Everyone loves the classics, but this digs deeper into the people who made those movies.”
The speaker presentations, she said, add another layer of information to the museumgoer’s experience. “I hope people walk away with a great appreciation of what immigrants brought to this country,” she said. “Although this took place a generation ago, it is still a topic that is relevant today.”