POSTED July 10 2012

Steamy Summer Cinema…in the Catskills

Natalie Wood as the archetypal Jewish-American princess who falls for Jewish bohemian (Gene Kelly!) in Marjorie Morningstar.

On Wednesday July 11 and the following two Wednesdays I’m hosting “Steamy Summer Cinema,” the sibilantly-titled series at the National Museum of Jewish American History in Philadelphia. An alternative title for the program might be “Sex and the Single Camper in the Catskills.” The movie begins at 7 pm at the NMAJH at 5th and Market Streets. If you’re in Philadelphia, Hope you can join me.

Marjorie Morningstar (1958), starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly, based on Herman Wouk’s 1955 bestseller (by some metrics the most popular 20th century American novel after Gone With the Wind) opens the series tomorrow night. ┬áThis is the one that introduced America to that species, the Jewish-American Princess. On July 18 the subject is the sultry mambo of that modern classic Dirty Dancing (1987), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. On July 25 the series wraps up with Tony Goldwyn’s underknown A Walk on the Moon (1999), set in a Catskills bungalow colony the summer of Woodstock, the lunar landing, and the sexual adventures of a married mother (Diane Lane) and her 14-year-old daughter (Anna Paquin).

Yeah, I know. Casting Natalie Wood and Diane Lane as Jewish girls and Gene Kelly as a Jewish bohemian in the Catskills is a symptom of the Hollywood paradox that the Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs who built the industry were loath to deal with explicitly Jewish content, and when they did, frequently cast non-Jews as Jews in order to make the characters more accessible to the audience. It’s an example of that Hollywood casting tradition, cousin of blackface in vaudeville, that for lack of a better expression I call “Yid-face.” Other equally jaw-dropping examples include John Barrymore as the Jewish attorney in Counsellor at Law, Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur, Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel and Michael Fassbender as the Jewish concentration camp survivor Magneto in X-Men: First Class. )

Moss Hart, who did hard time in the Catskills as an entertainment director at resorts during the 1920s, recalled that the campers had mutually exclusive agendas, that “camp had as its goal sex on the part of boys and marriage on the part of girls.” The heroine’s good girl/nice girl conflict is the basis of Marjorie Morningstar and to a lesser degree a factor in A Walk on the Moon. For the┬áheroine of Dirty Dancing it’s a non-issue.

Other Catskills movies worth including? Other startling examples of non-Jews cast as Jews?




  1. Love the program title; enjoy some of the movies; think it’s interesting to celebrate the (kind of queasy-making) genre as a shared, rather than private, pleasure; genuinely respect your originality in putting this together. Hope the NMAJH air conditioning is working really, really well for your evenings. Curtis

  2. Stephen M. Silverman says:

    Having Wonderful Time (1938)

    Ginger Rogers, a bored New York office girl, goes to a camp in the Catskill Mountains for rest and finds Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

  3. Joe says:

    Carrie! I came to this belatedly. Fabulous program. All three titles are compulsively watchable. One quick question: Wasn’t Natalie Wood a Russian Jew? I always thought so. Or am I wrong? -J

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