“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. You rose from rags to riches, but more important, you rose from darkness into the glare of publicity, from obscurity into universal recognition.
In this respect, the attraction of books about Hollywood lies in the flash of the names they parade: a well-known name is a success story in miniature. We look less for gossip and insight (although we wouldn’t say no to either) than for an accumulation of allusions to fame’s heroes. The more casual the allusion the better, to be sure: “…the memorable night when I danced with Mistinguette at a bash given at the old Lido” (Milland); “I joined beetle-browed Winston Churchill and his jug of brandy. ‘Good show,’ Winnie remarked” (Walsh). Garson Kanin has a wonderful story which puts all this familiarity in its place. He goes to see John Barrymore on behalf of his studio and says he is RKO. Barrymore invites him in, slaps him on the back and says, “Mind if I call you R?”
But the myth was a myth. Hollywood didn’t just give you fame, it demanded hard work and various rather more scurrilous activities in return; and it demanded talent. Apart from the odd anecdote about Clara Bow getting tipsy and the time Theda Bara fell into a lake, Milland and Walsh have very little to say about this Hollywood. Garson Kanin and Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., on the other hand, have a great deal to say about it. Both are Hollywood writers, and both really can write. Kanin can evoke personalities on the page in a few lines of dialogue, so that reading his book we seem to hear Garbo, Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Carole Lombard, many others. There are no loud signals, very few stage directions; there are just voices, brilliantly and discreetly recreated: Garbo says, “I think it must be so comforting to have a love letter”; and Groucho says, “So I’m through, Harry. I’m finished with that foolishness. You know that’s hard to say? Finishedwiththatfoolishness?”
Lasky writes with a relaxed intelligence that perfectly suits his subject: these are the mildly self-deprecating memoirs of a man who grew up in Hollywood, became a none too successful writer there, and finally left for Europe when things fell apart. An occasion in childhood: he describes returning to a London hotel with his mother to find “two rather formidable pipe-smoking authors” waiting to see his father.
The great scribes rose, bowed to Bess like a vaudeville turn, and smilingly announced, “We’re H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. Now, Mrs. Lasky, you must guess which is which.”
It is part of Lasky’s style, as well as part of the story, that Mrs. Lasky should guess wrong. Here is Lasky on the question of writing for De Mille:
You may ask how four men write one movie. I suppose you could ask how more than one artist managed to paint some of those oversized Italian paintings of the sixteenth century. Each man works on a different area. Then when the sequences are finished the survivor goes over his collaborators’ sections to ensure some ultimate consistency of style. I don’t recommend this as the best way to produce a deeply subjective masterpiece.
The word survivor carries that paragraph a long way.
But the strength of these two books, in the end, is that they are memories and anecdotes grouped around central figures, and that those figures are at the heart of Hollywood. Lasky’s book is essentially about De Mille, and Kanin’s is essentially about Sam Goldwyn; and the real test of a book about Hollywood, once we have got past the pictures and the gossip and the rattle of famous names, is how much it tells us about men like these; men like Selznick, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, L. B. Mayer: the moguls, the rajahs Lasky and Kanin pass the test with ease, offer us complicated and convincing portraits of their respective monsters. Lasky describes De Mille as “politically a shade to the right of Louis Quatorze” and goes on to show us the great man in scene after scene, autocratic, pious, phony, sincere, engaging, infuriating, old, and dying, planning a film about Baden Powell. “Do I correctly remember you were once a Boy Scout, Jesse?…The Scout movement is a lot more than tying knots and making fires without matches….”
Kanin recalls battles and reconciliations with Goldwyn, and becomes positively scholarly on the subject of Goldwynisms, sorting out the fake from the genuine with the patience and refinement of a connoisseur. Kanin sees the most famous attributed remarks—“Gentlemen, include me out” and “We can get all the Indians we need at the reservoir”—as fake, but certifies a couple of new, genuine ones. Asked where he got a painting by Picasso, Goldwyn peers at it and says, “I don’t remember. In Paris. Somewhere over there on the Left Wing.” Telling Louis Bromfield that he ought to work in movies in order to make a real reputation, Goldwyn says, “If you write two or three successful pictures, the name of Bloomfield will be known all over the world.” Lasky (who is Goldwyn’s nephew) also contributes a Goldwynism, but one that I suspect Kanin would not authenticate. A story editor says a certain play may not be suitable for a movie because the main character is a Lesbian. “That’s all right,” Goldwyn replies, “we can change her into an Italian.”
The moguls created Hollywood, they were whatever the place came to mean; and if we understood our fascination with these domineering vulgarians better, we should understand a lot more about our enjoyment of Hollywood movies. Even a book as elegant and intelligent as Philip French’s The Movie Moguls1 is a tribute to the fascination rather than an exploration of it, and biographies of tycoons leave all the mystery intact. But I’m inclined to believe that the real Hollywood story—the one that flavors every Hollywood movie we care about with its weird mixture of crassness and subtlety—is not made up by the moguls alone. It matters, of course, that Goldwyn should play the part of Sam Goldwyn with such dizzy panache, and that Harry Cohn should play with such ferocity at being Harry Cohn. The talents of stars, directors, and writers matter a great deal. But what matters most, it seems to me, is the duel between the mogul and the artist (the writer, the director, or whoever it is that brings culture into the mogul’s den); the combat between flamboyant lucre and fastidious style. What is needed is the real studio tyranny of De Mille and the wit which will describe him as politically a shade to the right of Louis Quatorze. Or to take a more complicated example from Garson Kanin, what is needed is West Coast boorishness and East Coast snobbery.
Kanin, having recorded his rather condescending surprise (and pleasure) that Goldwyn should enjoy ballet so much, starts to draw an invidious comparison with Harry Cohn, who can’t stand ballet, because he doesn’t like shows “where everybody chases everybody and nobody catches nobody.” But then Kanin finds himself in the following exchange, where it is not at all clear who wins and who loses, and where it is clear that the scene needs both parties Cohn and Kanin:
“Harry,” I said. “You’ve got no class.”
“Who needs class? I’ve got money. That’s better than class.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
“You think you’ve got class?” he demanded. “Your wife’s got class. Not you.”
“Who needs class?” I said. “I’ve got money.”
“You haven’t got that either,” he said. “Don’t kid me.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, craftily, “if you had money, would you be working for a bum like me—with no class?”
Kanin goes on to say that both Cohn and Goldwyn longed to be gentlemen, and that the difference between them was that Goldwyn made it. But that tells us almost as much about Kanin as it does about Cohn and Goldwyn, and we are back with the duel and the discrepancy. The moguls had a great scorn (mitigated by fascination) for things they thought were fancy, and the artists had a great scorn (mitigated by fascination) for the moguls. Movies were made out of their meetings.
If they were not unmade in such meetings. Paul Sylbert’s Final Cut describes the recent setting up and shooting of a film based on Irvin Faust’s novel The Steagle, starring Richard Benjamin and directed by Sylbert himself. There were the most hackneyed difficulties and quarrels—a man high up in the conglomerate controlling the money for the movie wanted a major part for an untalented actress friend, Sylbert said no, the film was off, Sylbert said yes, the film was on, Sylbert hired the actress but kept her out of the film—and the film was butchered out of all recognition by its producer, all its meanings inverted, and released into quiet obscurity as The Playboy. But what failed to appear on film takes place in this book: the battle, that is, between the gross but human presence of Joe E. Levine, almost literally the last tycoon of the cinema, and the graceful snobbery of Sylbert’s writing. Here is Levine:
He sits, and he mostly sits, behind a desk that appears lower than usual by virtue of its width. Since, when he stands, he also appears lower than usual by virtue of his width….
Here is one of Levine’s subordinates, executive producer of the film:
Every sentence seemed to die of its own little power failure, so that what he said gave you the impression that it had been immediately retracted. I do not know whether Freud ever came across an oral retentive, but Avco certainly had…. It was the authentic voice of the conspirator. If he told you the time, it would fall on your ear like a plot.
Sylbert occasionally gets carried away by culture, and invokes Dr. Johnson, R. P. Blackmur, Walter Benjamin, Brecht, and George Eliot solely in order to tell us what a modest little movie The Steagle was meant to be. But his book is full of fine, casual lines (“The table was round, the mood reminiscent of Uther Pendragon’s death”) which are all the more appealing because the tycoon lurks just beyond the reach of them, and because Sylbert is as fascinated by Levine as Kanin is by Goldwyn, or as Lasky is by De Mille. Sylbert’s fascination is darker and angrier—his film was mangled, after all—but fascination is what it is.
Levine is the oversized villain of this sad story—Mike Nichols tells Sylbert that Levine is “a real murderer if you double-cross him”—and in Sylbert’s sweeping extension of the charge, Levine is an incarnation of what is wrong with American movies, the real reason why we have no Fellinis, Bertoluccis, Truffauts, Bressons, Bergmans, or Ozus. He is the producer as ogre, the dire heir of Irving Thalberg, who made the studio (meaning the mogul) the true owner and author of American movies. “The flicks flourished,” Sylbert writes of Thalberg’s reign, “but some essential part of the film art died.” This is certainly true, but your feelings about Thalberg and his legacy will depend on how much you like the flicks, and on what sort of stake you have in the film art.
The flicks were an American form: not art in the usual meaning of the word; American art if retaining the word matters to you. The conflict between the coarse and the delicate is a daily event in American life, and in Hollywood it found its home and its expression. If the conflict can now only be suffered, or written up in books rather than played out on film, then that, perhaps, is just what the death of Hollywood means. Not the passing of old stars and old studios, not the auctioning off of lots and properties, not even the death of the great moguls, but the end of some sort of American pact, a time when the middle of the road was a place where people met, not a place where they lived. There is a glum contrast between Sylbert’s diagnosis of producers’ contempt for their audiences and Sam Goldwyn’s deciding, in the last line of Kanin’s book, that the intricate story line of The Thomas Crown Affair is all right: “The public is f’Chrissake smarter than we are!”
The moguls, of course, were unwitting midwives to the auteur theory—an auteur was an artist who smuggled a bit of skill and grace into the mogul’s crude commissions—and that theory was only a literary and onesided view of the duel I have been describing. Once the game is afoot, though, there is no holding it. If the director of a movie is an auteur, what about the writer of a movie, the auteur’s auteur? Alexandre Astruc called for a caméra-stylo, but what about the stylo-stylo? Richard Corliss’s Talking Pictures is a companion and reply to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, a critical survey of a hundred films by thirty-five writers or writing teams, an attempt to do for screen-writing what Sarris did for directing.
Do for is perhaps the operative idiom. Corliss is most successful when he is implicitly (or even explicitly) sabotaging his own polemical project: discussing writers who direct their own films, like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and George Axelrod; admitting that Ernest Lehman’s marvelous screenplay for North by Northwest still needs Hitchcock for its full effect; over-interpreting the flimsy work of a writer like Peter Stone (Charade, Mirage, Arabesque); finding no less than four authors in Dr. Strangelove (Peter George, who wrote the original novel; Kubrick, who set the tone; Terry Southern, who added one or two grotesques; Peter Sellers, who created the three characters he himself played). Corliss has interesting things to say about many movies, and he likes Wilder’s unpopular The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes almost as much as I do. But the questions he is supposed to be asking are ultimately muddled rather than clarified by his book.
It would be useful to know just what we should credit to whom in movies, but it hardly seems essential to our understanding of film. What probably is essential is that we should learn to recognize the kinds of contributions that constitute a finished movie. If we don’t simply ascribe a film to its director (and don’t simply ascribe it to someone else instead), can we do any better than merely mumbling about a fruitful collaboration between all concerned, which must be about the degree zero of critical comment. Perhaps we need some new, nonliterary metaphor, although I confess none comes to mind at the moment. One thing, though, is certain—and this returns us to the moguls. Scarcely anyone now writing about movies insists on the crucial stage of editing a film.
The final cut of Sylbert’s title is not the stab of Brutus Levine’s dagger but the right to hack a finished print about in any way you like—of course, it came to much the same thing in Sylbert’s case. Cutting a movie into its last shape is what produces the pace and the style and a great deal of the meaning of the movie; it is what converts a lot of film into a film. Thus the man who has final cut has almost everything, and that man is usually a spiritual son of Irving Thalberg. Directors like Welles and Losey used regularly to disown their films on the grounds that the work they shot and put together was never shown, and if there is a fine potential alibi there, a perfect excuse for movies that didn’t come off, there is also much undoubted, ongoing truth.
Hollywood is dead but the moguls’ children still ride. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones and their jokes and their capricious moments of vision.
October 31, 1974