Monday, November 09, 2015

Holocaust Museum's 'Light & Noir' Exhibit Shows How Hollywood Émigrés Persisted, Prospered and Took Action -- Museum Exhibit Review

Exhibition Review

Light & Noir
Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950
Illinois Holocaust Museum, Skokie
Thru Jan. 10, 2016

Understandably, viewing the permanent collection at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie--the third largest in the world--is a rather grim, wrenching experience.

First-hand accounts by Holocaust survivors who relocated to Skokie, raised families, stood up to Neo-Nazis and made it their mission to create the museum provide a modicum of uplift among the horror, as do displays about heroes who risked their lives to save others, but detailing an event that claimed 6 million Jewish lives--and just as many others--can't help but be harrowing.

So while a special exhibit highlighted by movie memorabilia may not at first blush sound in keeping with the museum's abiding themes and tone, Light & Noir Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950 manages not only to be complementary, it provides a nice bit of counterbalance to the gravity of the permanent exhibit.

Photo credit on all: Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune
Not that learning about the Holocaust shouldn't leave one somberly affected, but while directly alluding to the devastation Hitler wrought on Europe and particularly Jews, the new exhibit ties in more to messages of perseverance and--in this case, creative--rebellion.

Even in exploring Light & Noir with a hardcore Film Noir fan, we got through it in under an hour, and thus were able to well-fit in a 90-minute docent-led tour of the permanent exhibit on the same visit. 

I have seen the main portion of the museum several times, but never had taken a tour, which I found rewarding. Tours begin at 2pm, and I would recommend that anyone coming to see Light & Noir plan their visit to accommodate this duality (if not also a deeper intake of the permanent exhibit than a tour provides).

Billy Wilder's application for American citizenship
Organized, curated and initially presented by Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center, which focuses on Jewish heritage, Light & Noir alludes to but doesn't provide much background on Hitler's rise and the Jewish persecution that prompted actors (Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, etc.), directors (Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Curtiz), producers, composers and more to flee Germany, Austria and other countries under duress.

In another venue, such context might be more desired, but given the main exhibit in Skokie, the temporary exhibition can rightly focus primarily on what the exiles and émigrés accomplished after reaching Hollywood (including, as referenced in the title, contributing substantially to the development of the Film Noir genre).

As it was explained that Jewish film moguls such as Carl Laemmle, George Zukor and Louis B. Mayer left Europe for Hollywood well before the rise of Nazism, and that even before life was made unbearable for Jews, studios were recruiting German talent due to the achievements of F.W. Murnau and others, I'm a bit fuzzy about who may have been "pulled in" rather than or ahead of being "pushed out."

But the seminal talents cited above not only helped create numerous wondrous movies, many made a point of castigating the Nazis in their films--and beyond.

Outfits worn in Casablanca by Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman
and Humphrey Bogart
Likely the exhibit's marquee gallery is one devoted to Casablanca, a stridently anti-Nazi film directed by Michael Curtiz in 1942, while World War II was still ongoing and death camp atrocities largely unknown. 

Original film props are on display, as well as clothing worn by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Heinreid.

In an adjoining gallery recreating the talent agency office of influential émigré Paul Kohner, I enjoyed noting a copy of Casanlanca's script (not an original), which was written by Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein and Howard Koch. As my friend Dave informed me, the Epstein brothers are the Grandfather and Great Uncle, respectively, of Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein. (Hopefully someone has made a point of inviting him to the exhibit.)

Dress and shoes worn by Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair
Photography wasn't allowed in the special exhibit, but some of the main "Oh, wow!" items are shown here via pictures from the Chicago Tribune (by Erin Hooley).

These include a dress and shoes worn by Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair, directed by Billy Wilder, and a dress donned by Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, directed by Curtiz.

The exhibit also includes the Oscar statuette Wilder won for writing the Sunset Boulevard screenplay. 

Displays about anti-Nazi films, including Confessions of a Nazi Spy (starring Edward G. Robinson) and To Be or Not To Be (directed by Ernst Lubitsch) added thematic heft, enhanced by exposition about anti-Semetic backlash. (Though Charlie Chaplin doesn't himself fit into the scope of the exhibition, his The Great Dictator could have been well-represented in the anti-Nazi films section as well.)

Dress worn by Joan Crawford
in Mildred Pierce
I also found it interesting, and perplexing, to note that with the rise of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)--which was started to uncover citizens with Nazi ties but transitioned to hunt those suspected of ties to Communism--some of the exiles who were persecuted out of Europe were persecuted to return.

So while Bogie's suit and Dietrich's dress may well be what most catch one's eye, and fancy, there is quite a bit of informative insight that gives the exhibit instructional depth.

Although it fits well into the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center--both figuratively and literally, as it makes the fullest use of exhibition space on the lower level I've yet seen--Light & Noir may not be extensive enough to warrant more than an hour's drive on its own...or the museum's $12 admission.

But it makes for a rather unique, engaging and both light & noir complement to the permanent exhibit, and especially when combined for an enlightening afternoon, it is well-worth your while to make it to the museum by January 10.

Click here to learn more about the Light & Noir exhibit and some special programs being held in conjunction.

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