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Goldwyn: A Biography

by A. Scott Berg
knopf, 579 pp., $24.95

The Search for Sam Goldwyn: A Biography

by Carol Easton
Morrow/Quill, 304 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death: Essays on the Pornography of Power

by Robert Scheer
Hill and Wang, 389 pp., $19.95

Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era

by Kevin Starr
Oxford University Press, 380 pp., $10.95 (paper)

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s

by Otto Friedrich
Harper and Row/Perennial Library, 495 pp., $10.95 (paper)

John Ford

by Andrew Sinclair
Dial Press (New York, 1979, out of print)

The Deer Park

by Norman Mailer
Putnam/Perigee, 372 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Hollywood Glamor Portraits: 145 Photos of Stars, 1926-1949

edited by John Kobal
Dover, 144 pp., $7.95 (paper)

The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour

text by Paul Trent, designed by Richard Lawton
McGraw-Hill (New York, 1972, out of print)


In the midst of an argument to some other point, Harry Cohn, the much hated tycoon responsible for the success and ultimate respectability of Columbia Pictures, once bet that his own hated brother Jack did not know and could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. Equally full of bluster, Jack Cohn accepted the wager, and with a certain trepidation, began, “Now I lay me down to sleep….” Harry Cohn glowered and shoved his money across the table. “That’s enough,” he said. “I didn’t think you knew it.”

Like most stories about Hollywood, this one is probably not true, and certainly not original, its prayerful antecedents going back at least to a book published in England in the nineteenth century.1 Hollywood, however, was not called the dream factory for nothing, its history always more pipe dream than fact, manufactured by generations of flacks, fan magazines, ghostwriters, and those most downtrodden, self-aggrandizing, self-flagellating, and ultimately most revisionist of the worker bees, the screen-writers. “Schmucks with Underwoods,” Jack Warner, the most monstrous of the Warner brothers, called screenwriters, but those schmucks, to whom the words “hack,” “overpaid,” and “undertalented” were usually attached, had the gift of poisoned and unforgiving memory. “For their degradation,” Neal Gabler shrewdly observes in An Empire of Their Own, “the writers did exact a small measure of revenge, since it is almost exclusively through writers that we know what we know of the Hollywood moguls. Our whole history of Hollywood is framed by the writers’ prejudices. It is history by retribution.”

With such sources, the history is of course anecdotal, and the anecdotes usually provided by professional story-tellers. In this milieu, truth is not overly valued. “When the legend becomes fact,” a character says in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.”2 In Hollywood, legend and fact are synonymous. The not altogether unbecoming result is that most stories about the movies have the shorthand sense of being scenes from a screenplay, with dialogue, set decoration, and camera movements. Thus Sam Goldwyn, lying critically ill in Doctor’s Hospital in New York, becomes the silent protagonist of a classic hospital scene, the one in which the female lead has her big moment.

The time: 1936. Prognosis: Goldwyn has two hours to live unless a new medicine works wonders. Conflict: whether or not to make the final payment of $140,000 for the rights to Sidney Kingsley’s play, Dead End. The decision must be made by noon or all money previously advanced is forfeited, and the option returned to Howard. With her husband unconscious, Frances Goldwyn must act, and act she does, with a speech best rendered in screenplay format:


Sam’s going to get well. He’s going to make that picture. And it’ll be good. I’ve got that faith in God and Sam Goldwyn.3

Even at firsthand, a filmmaker tends to look at life, not excluding his own, as a series of dramatic moments. The best of them are no more immune to this tendency than the hacks. John Ford, for example. Early in the McCarthy era, a reactionary wing of the Directors’ Guild, led by the impeccably reactionary Cecil B. DeMille, moved to recall guild president Joseph L. Mankiewicz from office, because Mankiewicz opposed a mandatory loyalty oath for directors. A special meeting of the guild was convened, and for four hours the liberals opposing the oath and the conservatives favoring it hammered at each other, each side questioning the other’s loyalty and patriotism, one director even charging that while he was fighting at Bastogne, DeMille was in Hollywood defending his capital gains. Finally Ford, a man whose own reactionary credentials were beyond dispute, rose to defend Mankiewicz:


rising slowly, chewing on his handkerchief, wearing an old baseball hat.


My name is John Ford. I make westerns….


waiting on Ford’s every word.


I don’t think there is anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille….


waiting for the other shoe to drop.


…and he certainly knows how to give it to them. In that respect I admire him….


Not a sound in the jammed room.


an impassive Buddha


who waits a beat, staring at DeMille.


…but I don’t like you, C.B. I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you are doing here to-night….4

It was a moment of superb kitsch, with the good guys winning behind the most unlikely of good guys, the reactionary turned libertarian, a great director of a hundred movies starring in a scene whose dialogue has been perfected over those same hundred pictures. One hears, in such a scene, the music cues.


Envy has always informed any contemplation of Hollywood. “Through its star system,” Kevin Starr has written,

Hollywood took ordinary Americans—which by and large the stars themselves were, in terms of talent and frail humanity—and endowed them with a quality of transcendence that flattered star and audience alike…. They touched ordinariness with a glamour of appearances and possibilities for which each individual in the audience of millions secretly yearned.

Frailty, to be sure, often compounded by the grubby sexual adventurism the unlettered and undereducated were forced to expend as capital; Merle Oberon was a hundred-dollar-a-night whore before her star rose, 5 and Clark Gable, according to George Cukor, a homosexual himself, hustled the meaner streets of Hollywood prior to his being dusted by the star-makers. It was indeed Cukor’s contention that Gable had him fired as director of Gone With the Wind because Cukor remembered Rhett Butler from those cruising nights.6 Inversion, however, was not on the menu when Hollywood, especially in the early days, made movies about itself. In all the precursors to A Star Is Born—long forgotten silents such as Inez in Hollywood, The Runaway, Hollywood, and The Legend of Hollywood—decency, talent, and hard work were all it took to turn, as it were, the trick.

What the movies offered was the first new way to tell a story since the invention of the printing press, technology as an art form, an art form bankrolled moreover by men about whom it was said, in a quote whose provenance has long since been lost, they “knew only one word of two syllables, and that word was ‘fillium.’ ” Not that this unfamiliarity with the language was a barrier: the early pictures were silent. Intuitively the founders seemed to understand that the reaction to film was visceral, requiring no verbal agility. They could not articulate this thought; they just knew it. “Enjoyment of motion pictures demanded no special literary abilities or preparation,” Starr writes:

Films spoke directly to the cognitive and subconscious self with next to no dependence on the apparatus and language of formal culture.7

By 1926, the movies were America’s fifth largest industry, a $1.5 billion a year business that accounted for 90 percent of the world’s pictures. Hollywood also produced what the rest of American industry could not—a kind of royalty, kings and queens of the screen who were only salaried employees at the mercy of their employer’s whims. And the employers had whims of steel. Although most of the founders cordially despised one another, they shared certain traits. They had a need to display how tough they were, how unlettered, uncultured, and foul-mouthed. They had a lust to make enemies, as if only through enemies could they define themselves. They were Jews estranged from their children and from Jewish first wives who had become an embarrassment; Goldwyn, L.B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Jack Warner all married shiksas the second time around. Many of them were serious gamblers; Sam Goldwyn won $155,000 one week and lost $169,000 two weeks later. Jack Warner once settled a $425,000 gambling debt with Goldwyn by the loan of Bette Davis to star in Goldwyn’s production of The Little Foxes.

Only the coming of sound threatened the ascendancy of the founders. “It’s a fad, it won’t last,” Adolph Zukor said almost hopefully after an early and primitive demonstration. The Jazz Singer dashed that hope. “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” Al Jolson spoke from the screen. “You want to hear ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’? All right, hold on.” Near panic gripped Hollywood. “Like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo,” Mary Pickford said, and the vacuous gossip columnist Louella Parsons, as always the mouthpiece of management, wrote, “The public has no intention of paying good money to be so annoyed.” Uneasy as they were with their adopted language, the founders feared that sound would undermine the hegemony they had fought so hard to establish.

Instead sound allowed them to expand and consolidate. Silent pictures may have been, as the director King Vidor said, “an art form complete unto themselves,” but talkies were a gold mine, and art never the object. Writers by the hundreds were imported to Hollywood, and assigned to a project usually two at a time. With their inchoate distrust of words, many of which they could neither pronounce nor understand, the moguls seemed intuitively to comprehend that while one writer was a possible anarchist, two under harness were only a tame pair on a mule team; there were often a dozen mules on the team, fabricating as many as thirty drafts. Ben Hecht and the occasional Broadway playwright—Sidney Howard, say, or Robert Sherwood—were the rare writers allowed to work alone, and Hecht less for his talent than for his speed—he could write a script in two days—a facility that allowed him to make outrageous demands, such as insisting to Sam Goldwyn that for his efforts on Barbary Coast he be paid in cash every afternoon. Words mystified the moguls, as indeed did the concept of reading. Even to the present time, film executives rarely use the verb “to read”; the form they prefer is “do some reading,” as if reading were a job, like laying pipe.

However uncomfortable the founders were with words, the talkies were the means that allowed each studio to evolve a personality of its own. At MGM, under L.B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the producer was king, the budgets big, the stars the brightest, the director always a subordinate, the stories invariably edifying. Paramount, under Adolph Zukor, was a director’s studio where Ernst Lubitsch, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges, and (later) Billy Wilder created a world of surfaces and sex and double entendre and even abandon in which virtue was not always triumphant. Harry Cohn’s Columbia featured the earnest populism of Frank Capra and Robert Riskin, while the Warner brothers made their gangster pictures a metaphor for an underclass the very existence of which MGM, for example, refused to acknowledge.


From its beginnings, the motion picture business—“the Industry,” as its founders insisted on calling it, and as it is still called today—was the only major manufacturing enterprise in the United States that was run almost entirely by Jews. Not Jews from Middle Europe like the Schiffs and the Kahns, with a taste for finance and a talent for underwriting manifest destiny and wars of conquest, the riches from which were plowed into culture and philanthropy, which in turn brought respectability, if not acceptance by the gentile majority. These Jews looked down in embarrassment on the Jews who would invent Hollywood, coming as the newcomers did from the poor Jewish quarters of Polish and Russian towns—Warsaw for Sam Goldwyn, Rybinsk for the Schenck brothers, Risce in Hungary for Adolph Zukor, Minsk for Louis B. Mayer.8 Most of them were immigrants, illegally so more times than they were willing to admit, uncertain in the language, their first stake earned in the rougher precincts of retailing—hardware, ready-to-wear, and cheaper by the dozen. Their philanthropy, such as it was, extended only to themselves.

  1. 1

    Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, pp. 433 and 464. The nineteenth-century version of the anecdote was told in a book by Angela Lambert, Unquiet Souls.

  2. 2

    Andrew Sinclair, John Ford, p. 197.

  3. 3

    A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn, pp. 279–280.

  4. 4

    Sinclair, pp. 157–158.

  5. 5

    Berg, p. 256.

  6. 6

    Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Studios, p. 100.

  7. 7

    Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream, p. 310.

  8. 8

    Friedrich, pp. 14–15. While the founders were largely immigrants, Leo Rosten, in his study Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers, found that by 1941 nearly 60 percent of the 120 leading film executives had graduated from college and that fewer than 5 percent came from Poland and Russia.

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