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City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s
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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. 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.” 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.
Even at firsthand, a filmmaker tends to look at life, not excluding his own, as a series of dramatic moments. The best …
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Shooting the Legend July 20, 1989