“Its Simple Telling Necessarily and of Its Own Force Creates Mischief”: Jewish Concerns About Cecil B. DeMille’s Film “The King of Kings” in the B’nai B’rith Messenger, 9 December 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While it has been oft-noted here that the “Read All About It” series of posts on this blog featuring local newspapers in the Museum’s collection is heavily weighted towards 1870s examples, we do have many others from later periods, including the 1920s. This includes some editions of the long-standing Jewish paper, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, which was published from 1898 to 1977 (a predecessor called Emanu-El began publication in March 1897, but a San Francisco sheet issued by the prominent temple of that name was critical of the copying of the name and so it was changed a little over a year later.)

This post features, from the 9 December 1927 issue of the paper, which described itself as offering “All the Jewish News Carefully Edited Down Into Tabloid Form for Busy People,” the feature article reproducing an “Official Statement of B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League on the ‘King of Kings,'” this being the epic film produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille and which concerned the final days of Jesus. The piece was penned by the League’s Pacific Coast chair, Isidore M. Golden (1878-1941), who was born in Germany but came to the United States as a small child and grew up in San Francisco. As a young man, he worked in theaters and then he attended the Hastings College of Law, where he earned his degree as the 19th century came to a close.

A later photo of Isidore M. Golden published with his obituary in the San Francisco Examiner, 5 July 1941.

After a few years in private practice, Golden was appointed by the governor as a justice of the peace and, though reelected, he resigned to return to his practice before being called back to public serve as chief deputy to the San Francisco County district attorney. For fourteen years, until his retirement in 1933, he served in that position and he was widely known for his work in prosecuting famous cases. His reputation was such that he was twice appointed to an interim superior court judgeship before winning election to one in 1938, retaining that position until his death. His leadership in Jewish institutions included serving as president of the Congregation Beth Israel, vice-president of the Order of B’nai B’rith, and president of the Pacific Coast Zionist Region, with Zionism being particularly important to him. During the Great Depression, he served with the state’s Emergency Relief Commission and Division of Industrial Welfare.

The statement began by taking exception to a recent article in the Jewish Press by Rabbi Louis I. Newman of the Temple Emanu-El mentioned above casting a wide net of blame of those making the film and Jewish actors, rabbis and others “who are alleged to have given their approval” to the movie. While Golden and the League agreed with much of what Newman wrote, it drew the line at the latter’s assertion “that the Anti-Defamation League could have prevented Mr. DeMille from making the picture” or stopping it from being shown or the claim “that the League has betrayed and entrapped the Jewish people.” There was no need for defending the League, he continued, as for above 15 years “a band of earnest, devoted, and may we say intelligent and experienced Jews, mostly laymen, have given freely and unselfishly of their time, their effort and means in this work.” Newman was castigated for his comments about the organization, so Golden sought to present simple facts.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 20 May 1927.

First, the League’s governing board, while meeting in Chicago in 1926, learned of DeMille’s plans for the film and, while did not know details of the plot, had experience in dealing with such matter and “by the use of diplomatic methods and moral suasion, had been successful.” Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, the prominent leader of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and one of the Messenger editors, was tasked with reaching out to the filmmaker “and, if possible, induce him not to make the picture,” though the effort failed because production was far along, including the expenditure of more than $100,000.

Beyond this, however, it was said “that nothing could induce him to forego making this picture; that this picture was to be his crowning achievement—indeed, his life’s work” well . beyond profit. DeMille added “that his object was to present a message to the world” as “a companion and a sequel to his other production ‘The Ten Commandments,’ . . .” In fact, it was further explained “that his idea was to do something of a striking nature to help eradicate religious intolerance and bigotry from the land.” Golden pointed out that DeMille, as an independent with his own secure financing, possessed the ability to make the film regardless of opposition and added “it must, of course, be evident that there is no process of means known to the law whereby Mr. DeMille could be prevented from making this or any other picture if he so chose to do.”

Given that filming had not begun, the question was what Magnin could do and it was decided that the rabbi

as a measure of self-defense, requested his consent to our friendly suggestions in the making and taking of the scenes, to the end that the picture would, at any rate, be authentic, and that no matter would be incorporated that would needlessly create race or religious prejudices. Some may say we should have held aloof and let him go his way and make this picture as he personally saw fit. This was not, however, our view, and we felt then and feel now that, had we abstained then from doing what we could to eliminate all objectionable features within our power, we could justly have been charged with having been derelict.

Golden added that “the mere story itself is, from our view point, objectionable, and its simple telling necessarily and of its own force creates mischief,” but he pointed out that there was nothing to be done regarding the popular “Passion Play,” performed locally and elsewhere nor could there be a prevention of teachings of the New Testament or critiques of its authenticity. Despite this, he argued that, without the work done over months by Magnin and others, “the picture would have been inconceivably more terrible than it is today.” He reported that scenes were cut, revised and otherwise adjusted and some that were “objectionable” were, the League was told, to be removed before release.

Los Angeles Times, 21 May 1927.

The League then requested a private showing of the completed work and, in April 1927, though without DeMille present because he was out of town, but representatives were dismayed that, not only was the filmmaker absent, but some of the titles were not included and, more importantly, “the picture still had many objectionable features.” The auteur’s assistants promised that the League’s concerns would be considered “and that they would no doubt be satisfied.” Yet, it was pointed out,, “Mr. DeMille, however, has not kept the faith,” even though he agreed to remove elements for the European version, though not the American one “upon the ground that he would thereby entirely destroy its dramatic effect.” What these components comprised was not specified.

Seeing that there was no further need to try and reason with DeMille, the League turned to Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Production Association and later the namesake of the Hays Code, which regulated the moral content of films. Again, however, the producer and director’s total independence was such that he was “not in anywise subject either to the jurisdiction or directions of Mr. Hays or his Association.” Despite this, Golden recorded that “Hays . . . has agreed that henceforth no picture shall be produced which, in the opinion of the B’nai B’rith Organization, may be objectionable as being calculated to incite racial or religious prejudice: and that the good faith efforts would be taken towards friendly supervision (the use of the word “censorship” being assiduously avoided) with the assistance of B’nai B’rith representatives.

Given its experience with DeMille and “King of Kings,” the League was studying its future approaches to similar situations, including the idea of establishing branch offices in New York, where most film financing and arrangements were made, and Los Angeles, “where most of the pictures are actually manufactured.” Other ideas were being circulated and “the League invites anyone who has suggestions to make to submit them” because its members “do not know it all.” It was added that “the Jewish people may be assured that the League will continue to function as best it can and with the lights before it.”

Golden wrote that he was not directly involved in any of the proceedings concerning the film and the League’s efforts with it, but assured readers that “the facts herein recited are authentic and this statement is approved by the General Committee of District Grand Lodge No. 4, of the B’nai B’rith.” He went on to note that the League was engaged in its work without Rabbi Newman’s assistance, pointing out “long ago, I tried to enlist him actively in the everyday work of the B’nai B’rith.” The rabbi protested that he was too busy—though Golden noted “he did offer to make speeches whenever we requested,” insinuating that Newman only did this to enlarge his public profile. Besides, “of speakers and orators we have a plenty” and “as a rule, we do not work in this way.”

Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, 9 December 1927.

The statement ended with:

Finally, if anyone can show us, without vituperation, how or by what practicable means we could have compelled Mr. DeMille to scrap his picture or have prevented him from exhibiting it in such houses or theatres as are wiling to show it, we will, indeed, be happy to hail him as our leader.

As to DeMille’s epic, which was followed by 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, it opened in New York on 19 April 1927 and premiered in Los Angeles a month later, on 20 May, as the debut feature at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. One ad for the venue blared that “ALL LOS ANGELES IS STILL DAZED BY THE GLORIES OR GRAUMAN’S CHINESE THEATRE and the DRAMATIC EMOTIONALISM of “THE KING OF KINGS.” The film, it continued, “has simply overwhelmed the city by its magnitude and awed everyone who has seen it” and asserted “there will never be a motion picture greater.”

The Los Angeles Times of 21 May featured an article “Praise for Premiere” which quoted Hays as saying, “‘The King of Kings’ will be one of the most popular pictures of all time,” while declaring to Grauman that his theater was the most beautiful on the planet. Director D.W. Griffith, whose racist 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, released originally as The Clansman was of deep concern for African-Americans much as King of Kings was for Jews, gushed that “Mr. DeMille has made a picture which will be viewed by generations yet unborn” adding “I doubt whether it will be humanly possible to make a finer picture . . . ‘The King of Kings’ belongs to the ages yet to come. It is the world’s most glorious picture.” Mary Pickord, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” claimed “we will never have another masterpiece like ‘The King of Kings.'”

Though no one knew it at the time, least of all the unknown extra in the film who’d recently been signed by DeMille, there is no small amount of historical irony in a photo taken at the Southern California Manufacturer’s Exhibit, held at Broadway and 1st, where a Jewish star— shaped copper gong from the movie was displayed with a 23-year old Sally Rand, who, within several years would be known internationally for wearing considerably less than in the image as she embarked on a notorious career as a provocative burlesque dancer. Rand appeared in The Sign of the Cross with only carefully placed flower garlands on her nude body as her character was sacrificed to crocodiles—there’s an example of the mix of the sacred and the profane!

Budding actor and King of Kings extra, Sally Rand, who went on to provocative and controversial career as a burlesque dancer, pictured on a copper gong in the shape of a Jewish star used in the production, Times, 21 May 1927.

This article is a very interesting one and well-deserving of a post on its own, but the issue of the Messenger has plenty of other notable and important content, so we’ll look to share more of it next year on this date, so be sure to check back with us on 9 December 2023 for that post.

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