Wide-Eyed in Babylon
Each Man in His Time
Whatever Happened to Hollywood?
“Every movie star,” Garson Kanin writes, “is a leading character in a fairy tale. Once upon a time (July 16, 1911, in Independence, Missouri), a little girl was born. She was christened Virginia Katherine McMath….” And she grew up, in the course of the fairy tale, to be Ginger Rogers. Once upon a time, in Wales, on January 3, 1907, a boy called Reginald Alfred John Truscott-Jones was born, and he, after an unruly childhood, a spell in the Horse Guards, and one or two small parts in British films, became Ray Milland.
Even directors catch a piece of the magic. Raoul Walsh’s life is the story of a wandering cowboy, erstwhile gravedigger, and sometime doctor’s assistant in Butte, Montana, who came to find himself confronting Khrushchev, hobnobbing with royalty, and rubbing shoulders with Goering and William Randolph Hearst. The guests at Hearst’s San Simeon, as Walsh lists them, sound like the inhabitants of an Olympus of celebrity, the top of the international pops: Churchill, Mac-Arthur, Howard Hughes, Hemingway, J. Edgar Hoover, Somerset Maugham, Gloria Swanson, Joan Bennett, Irene Castle, and the girl who used to be Virginia Katherine McMath. On the fringes of such fame, if you were Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., son of Jesse L. Lasky, Sr., one of Hollywood’s founding grandfathers, you could hold Douglas Fairbanks’s camel in The Thief of Bagdad (directed by Raoul Walsh), and for a while you could even get to be almost more than just good friends with Jean Harlow.
The name of the fairy tale, of course, is Hollywood, and its theme is metamorphosis, a change of state often signaled by a change of name; the transformation of the ordinary into the legendary. Reports from inside the fairy tale, like the autobiographies of Ray Milland and Raoul Walsh, tend to sound rather blasé about the whole business. These men were in it for the thrills or the money, they tell us, or because they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. Milland has made some remarkable movies, like The Big Clock and The Lost Weekend and Ministry of Fear, and Walsh has directed, among many other films, Battle Cry, What Price Glory, White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, and High Sierra, but they both write as if they just stumbled into these things.
Perhaps they did. But the effect of their writing in this offhand way about it all is to bolster up the fairy tale. You didn’t get famous in Hollywood for doing anything, you just got famous. That’s what Hollywood was, in the loosest and most general of our myths about the place. It was simultaneously a machine for the manufacture of fame—not the only machine available, but the swiftest and the most up-to-date—and the natural habitat of the famous, however they came by their renown. It was the world capital, not of sex and scarcely of the movies, but of a strange modern glory: being known for being known …