George Berthold Samuelson (1889-1947): Britain’s Jewish film pioneer*

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Jews played a decisive role in the American film industry's growth and development,1 yet their pioneering contribution to the industry in Britain tends to be overlooked. When motion pictures were still in their infancy (1900-19 10), they were generally considered to be "a low-grade form of enter- tainment - suitable only for the immigrant or the uneducated masses - rather than a valid art form, and those connected with films were held in contempt".

Not having to contend with powerful vested interests, enterprising Jews in Britain and the United States opened little picture houses for the less affluent, enabling them to enjoy the latest silent films. "Jews moved into motion picture production and exhibition for the same reasons they had gravitated to fields like small merchandising and the garment trades: little skill and little capital were required to participate. And since it was a new industry, all entrepre- neurs were on an equal footing".3 Before long, those operating these cheap movie theatres (known as cinemas in Britain and as bioscopes in South Africa) turned to film distribution. Some became producers and directors; others, particularly in Hollywood, went on to head large film companies with their own studios, hundreds of employees and a multi-million dollar turnover.

"For a long period", according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, "American competition made it impossible for the British motion picture to gain a foothold in the world market" and it was a Hungarian Jew, Sir Alexander Korda (1893-1956), who "finally pulled the British industry out of the dol- drums" after he established the London Films Company in 1930.4 While doing justice to Korda, this assertion underrates the previous achievements of Sir Michael Balcon (1896-1977; in partnership with Victor Saville, Balcon had spent £30,000 filming his first picture, Woman to Woman , in 1923). 5 It

1 See Patricia Erens, The Jew in American Cinema (Bloomington, IN: 1984) and Neal Gabler, Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York, 1988).

2 Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1972; hereafter EJ' s.v. "Motion Pictures", 12: 446.

3 Erens, Jew in American Cinema , 53.

4 £112:451-52.

5 One of many facts omitted from the skimpy article in the E J (4: 129-30).

completely ignores the still earlier pioneering role of George Berthold Samuelson (1889-1947), who had made no less than seventy films by 192 1. These included major productions of the silent era, films that had successful runs in the United States and others of a later vintage (1927-33) that showed both Jews and Judaism in a positive light.

When I began researching G. B. Samuelson's film work, in 1994, there were scarcely any references to him in books dealing with motion picture history (a brief entry in HallirpeWs Filmgoer's Companion states that Samuelson was "a British producer and distributor of silent films" but gives incorrect dates for his birth and death.6 One exception was the US writer David Shipman, who dismissed the earlier British entrepreneurs as "mainly dilettantes and theatre showmen" but hastened to add that "there were sound businessmen behind the successful companies, which were

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