The Enduring Image of Greek Americans in Hollywood Cinema

The Greek American Image in American Film is the guiding theme throughout the latest Journal of Modern Hellenism (JMH), Volume 32 (2016). It is available online at journals.sfu.ca.

Volume editor and TNH columnist Dan Georgakas has, once again, gathered a series of researchers to produce a common-themed series of eleven articles dealing explicitly with a specific aspect of Greek-American cultural history. As with the other volumes and books instigated and edited under Georgakas’ direction, this collection of essays is, now, the “go-to” volume on the theme of Greek-American images within American cinema.

The essays are as follows, “An Introduction” by Georgakas; which is a concise historical vignette on the JMH from its beginnings in 1984 as a joint venture sponsored by Harry Psomiades of the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies of Queens College (City University of New York) and Nomikos Michael Vaporis of Hellenic College to this new digital edition format.

Next there is “The Greek American Image in American Film: Creation of a Filmography” by Barbara Saltz. Saltz’ opening lines offer the core thesis for this volume: “A central concern of Greek American Studies and Diaspora specialists in Modern Greek Studies is how mainstream Americans viewed Greek immigrants and the communities they created. Although there are numerous specific accounts of incidents, comprehensive statistical data is sparse and is often compromised by not accounting for differing regional, class, religious, and urban-rural factors. One aid in dealing with these compilations that is rarely used in a systematic manner is how Greek immigrants and their offspring are presented in American film.” Saltz also provides a thumbnail sketch on the history of research events that led to this current volume.

With the next essay, “’Other’ to ‘One of Us.’ The Changing Image of Greek Americans in American film: 1943-1963” by Georgakas, we have a film-by-film presentation with analysis of the evolving image of Greeks in the United States as seen in Hollywood films. Georgakas’ survey of films explores the characterizations of Greeks-Americans as they were presented and as they were to transform across the decades.

As this volume is structured, we are offered a composite view of these Hollywood Images of Greek-Americans. Aside from individual films the other essays in this volume explore the career arches of specific actors, directors and assorted others as they contribute to this overall body of images, all to telling effect.

As we see in the next account, “The Hollywood Films of Irene Papas” by Gerasimus Kastan. In that essay, the author presents a historical and thematic survey of this fabled actress’s roles in American film. “Before and Beyond America America” by Stathis Giallelis is based on a series of interviews conducted by Georgakas. Giallelis offers his perspective as an actor form his first role in Elia Kazan’s, America, America until now. Then, with “And the Winner is Olympia Dukakis,” by Elaine Thomopoulos explores the career and cultural hurtles this acclaimed actress overcame in her efforts to engage fully in her art.

From Greek film stereotypes to actors and directors in “Working Through and Against Convention: The Hollywood Career of A.I. Bezzerides” by Yiorgos Kalogeras, we are given a detailed well documented review of this writer’s career.

“Creating Images for Hollywood Classics” by Vicki James Ananias provides an unexpected mix of two Greek-American Hollywood notables: Jack Pierce and Hermes Pan. Greek immigrant Pierce was, aside from his early career as a silent screen actor, the first Hollywood makeup artist/special effects legend. Pierce, was the creator of such Hollywood movie characters as Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and other such iconic creations. Hermes Pan was the award winning choreographer who is most recognized for his collaboration with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

“With Forgotten Movie Theater Pioneer:Alexander Pantages and Immigrant Hollywood” by Taso G. Lagos is an extremely detailed account of the extremely important mogul’s career. An exhaustively documented account of great worth Lagos offers us as full a survey of Pantages as one could wish. Having said that, Pantages was never alone. Other Greek-American theater owners, all across the country (as well as their theaters in Canada and Mexico) formed a very noticeable collective all across the nation with considerable clout in Hollywood. Pantages was not alone among Greek-American entrepreneurs in his sustained efforts to build upon his vaudeville theaters into what was to become for him a movie palace empire.

In the next two essays we are offered juxtaposing views of Greek-American directors. In “John Cassavetes and the Uneasy Conformismof the American Middle Class” by Vrasidas Keralis the author explores this director’s career from a complicated viewpoint of an artist exploring the boundaries of film and the cultural conventions in which he is immersed. Next in “Promises, Trust, Betrayal: The Art of Elia Kazan” by Geoffrey Jacque, we are offered a mixture of film choice/content with a historical presentation of this director’s own evolving sense of himself, his politics and how these two forces are dealt with in this man’s films. Jacque’s survey is clearly one deeply indebted to cinema theory. An erudite study to be sure but one that while it clearly has particular resonance for those also deeply involved in film studies may be a tad too devoted to these broader questions of film studies and analysis for the interests of the average Greek-American.

The single omission to this volume that would, in my view, have completely covered this volume’s overall theme would have been an article dealing with Spyros Skouras, his brothers and their joint impact on Hollywood. It is so very strange. At the very moment when Greek-America is collectively attempting to preserve its past and unquestionably concerned about its future – we are also in something of a golden age of research and writing about our collective experience. As such this volume, like the others before it, given Georgakas’ pioneering efforts on behalf of Greek-American Studies, is that rarity – a truly unique first time contribution.

I have honestly lost count but this must be the fifth or sixth such collective effort successfully initiated by Georgakas. As such this volume, like the others before it, given Georgakas’ pioneering efforts on behalf of Greek-American Studies and experience is now the “go-to” collection on the cinema-graphic image of Greeks in the United States as exhibited in American film. Not just for this special volume but for all the others over a thirty year period Greek-American owes Dan Georgakas a debt it may never be able to repay. I can think of no other contemporary scholar involved in Greek-American studies with Georgakas’ track record of personal scholarly work coupled with this one-of-a-kind editorial leadership. For this and many, many other reasons Georgakas, while certainly not alone in the ever developing field of contemporary Greek American studies, remains a leading – if not the leading figure in this as yet to be acknowledged field of study.


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