Vincent Brook reviews David Fincher’s biopic Mank.
Commenting on the cast of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), film historian Patricia Erens observed, ‘The rolling credits probably contain the largest list of Jewish names in film history, apart from the Yiddish cinema of the 1930s’. David Fincher’s Mank (2020), about Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz’s writing contribution to Citizen Kane, may not compete with Allen’s film in the number of Jewish actors (Mank himself is played by non-Jewish Gary Oldman), but in Jewish characters, and historical ones to boot, in a non-explicitly Jewish film, it has raised a high bar.
Any movie that deals with Hollywood’s so-called ‘golden age’ (1930s to mid-1940s) is bound to be filled to the brim with Jews, from the studio moguls on down. Mank has the added attraction of focusing on screenwriters, arguably the most prolifically Jewish of the industry’s above-the-line talent, and at a time when screenwriting was handled more by committee than in the post-classical era.
Mank’s notoriously contentious one-on-one collaboration with director Orson Welles on Citizen Kane was an exception, and a harbinger of things to come, but only because the 24-year-old wunderkind was unprecedentedly granted complete control on the project. Groupthink was the rule, and is risibly showcased in a couple of flashback scenes in Mank’s pre-Citizen Kane period. In the first, we’re introduced to a smoke-filled writer’s room at Paramount, featuring more gambling and cavorting and a bare-bosomed secretary than brainstorming or actual scribing. Mank jokingly likens the merry band to Manhattan’s prestigious Algonquin Round Table, with which, indeed, most of the writers — Mank, George S. Kaufman, S. J. Perelman, and Charles Lederer — were associated. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur round out the over-qualified literati, among whom, only MacArthur wasn’t Jewish. Also on hand is Mank’s younger brother, Joseph Mankiewicz, an Oscar-winning writer-director to be, who, though obviously talented and Jewish, had yet to earn his A-team stripes.
Ribaldry continues and Jewishness expands when the writers are hustled into the office of famed Jewish producer David O. Selznick, for a story conference about their idea for the next film of noted Jewish director Josef von Sternberg. With a straight face the writers pitch a cockamamie combination of Frankenstein and The Wolfman. And while Mank insists this horror mash-up ‘will mean something’, the cohort clearly knew it wouldn’t fly with the artsy von Sternberg, who predictably dismisses it as a B-picture. So, with Paramount footing the bill, it’s back to the gambling den cum strip joint.
The Jewish cavalcade continues at another Hollywood yeshiva, MGM, where Mank worked in the late 1930s on, among other films, The Wizard of Oz (1939, uncredited). There we encounter Jewish studio boss Louis B. Mayer and legendary Jewish production head Irving Thalberg, the model for producer Monroe Stahr in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon (posthumously published in 1941). Along with their addition to the accumulation of Jewish names, Mayer provides the film’s first truly Jewish ‘moments’: when he physically throws a pitchman out of his office for the man’s insulting his own mother, and when the man shouts back at Mayer before storming off, ‘You fucking junk dealer!’ The capper comes soon after, when, before announcing a Depression-era half cut in pay for all his lower-level employees, Mayer boasts that MGM doesn’t stand for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, ‘it stands for Mayer’s ganze mishpocha, the whole family — don’t ever forget that! If you have a problem, come to Papa!’
Mayer is presented even more unsympathetically, if somewhat inaccurately, in a scene at William Randolph Hearst’s castle along the California coast, which Mank, also a frequent guest, would turn into Florida’s Xanadu in Citizen Kane. When the subject of Hitler comes up at an after-dinner gathering of high-rollers, Mayer scoffs, with Yiddish inflection, at the dangers the Führer poses: ‘Hitler, Shmitler — you don’t turn your backs on a market as big as Germany!’ This dig is partly justified, given that MGM and other, but not all, major, mostly Jewish-run studios continued to distribute their films in Germany up until the start of World War II, and even granted Hitler’s emissary in Hollywood, Georg Gyssling, a say in movie content. What is missing from this indictment, as historian Steven Ross documented in Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jewish Spies Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America (2017), is that behind the scenes Mayer and other studio bigwigs were bankrolling a Jewish spy network that prevented major terrorist plots by America’s home-bred Nazis, including assassinations and mass killings of Jews. Less excusable, of course, as the film correctly depicts, was Mayer’s shameless smear campaign in 1934, including bogus newsreels, against California Democratic gubernatorial candidate and avowed socialist Upton Sinclair, who before the onslaught of fake news was predicted to win.
Mank, on the other hand, his chronic alcoholism notwithstanding, is perhaps drawn a tad too sympathetically. It’s doubtful, for example, given his actual somewhat conservative politics, that he supported Sinclair, as he does in the film, though he might have stopped short, as the film also shows, of donating to Mayer’s smear campaign, which Papa had demanded of his ganze mishpocha. And Mank did, to his undying credit, help rescue Jews from Nazi Germany. This is poignantly portrayed in an exchange between the British secretary and German nurse attending to Mank while he recovers from a car crash and labours drunkenly on Citizen Kane. When his secretary, Rita Alexander, berates his nurse, Fraulein Frieda, for abetting his drinking, Frieda says that Mank had not only sponsored her emigration from Nazi Germany but had saved her entire town of a hundred people. The ‘entire town’ is perhaps an exaggeration, probably composited with Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle’s actually having saved all the Jews in his hometown of Laupheim and the nearby city of Württemberg. But the ‘hundred people’ might be an understatement, according to Mank biographer Richard Meryman, who claims that ‘Herman became the official sponsor for hundreds of German refugees’.
The multiple Jewish references that permeate the film and offer a potent subtext to it are admittedly secondary to Mank’s basic premise: that Mank, not Orson Welles, deserves most of the credit for Citizen Kane’s Oscar-winning screenplay, for which Mank and Welles shared the Academy Award in 1942. Yet even there, Jewishness lurks. Mank’s screenplay by Jack Fincher, David Fincher’s father, was based on Pauline Kael’s controversial book-length essay Raising Kane (1971). Although since discredited by later documentation and undermined by accusations of plagiarizing original research by then UCLA professor Howard Suber, Kael was and Suber is Jewish.
So, let the last words go to Citizen Mankiewicz, Mank’s Number One Jew. At film’s end, in a newsreel interview, Mank holds his Oscar for Citizen Kane and delivers the acceptance speech he says he might have given had he attended the awards ceremony (which Welles also missed), stating what he actually said at the time: ‘I am very happy to accept this award, in the manner in which the screenplay was written. That is to say . . . in the absence of Orson Welles.’
Mank is currently streaming on Netflix.
All photos courtesy of Miles Crist and Netflix/