Jewish Journal

‘Mammy’ Over the Marx Brothers?

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Aug. 19, 2004 at 8:00 pm

Groucho Marx in "Duck Soup."

Groucho Marx in "Duck Soup."

What's the best way to celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in America? If you're the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, you fete one of the top cultural achievements of American Jews -- the movie business -- with that favorite all-American pastime, the top 10 list.

Participants have until Sept. 10 to vote for their favorite Jewish features at www.jewishculture.org; visitors can choose from approximately 100 movies listed by decade -- from 1922's "The Jazz Singer" to 2002's "The Pianist" -- or type in their own suggestions. The results will be announced at the foundation's Jewish Image Awards ceremony Oct. 11: "They'll remind people of the great heritage Jews have as filmmakers in this country," the foundation's David Tausik said.

Not that choosing 100 "semi-finalists" for the Web site was easy.

"We argued a lot," Tausik, a 43-year-old writer-director, said of the selection committee. "It's tough to define what makes a great film, let alone what defines a film as Jewish."

While movies such as "Schindler's List" proved to be no-brainers, debate raged over flicks such as 1933's "Duck Soup." Sure, the Marx Brothers were members of the tribe, but their films weren't Jewish-themed, some committee members said. Others countered that Groucho's "mixture of pride and self-deprecation" felt Jewish. The result: "Duck Soup" was in.

OK, so one could argue that the Marx Brothers have a Jewish sensibilty. But the Jesus saga "Ben Hur"? Or Danny Kaye's "The Court Jester"? Why are they on the list? Tausik, for his part, replied that the character of Judah Ben Hur was Jewish (unusual for films of the 1950s) and that the Jewish Kaye was "like the Hank Greenberg of actors" in his day.

When pressed, he admitted these films could be construed as a stretch, but then again, Top 10 lists themselves are iffy.

"They're silly, because they're arbitrary," he said. "But our goal isn't to create a definitive list. It's to draw attention to Jewish films people may not have seen, to help foster pride in our accomplishments, and to teach non-Jews a bit more about us. After all, a great deal of American Jewish experience resides in these films. They say something about who we are."

To find out more about events celebrating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America, visit www.celebrate350.org .

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