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:
ANOTHER ANGLE—JOHN FORD
rising slowly, chewing on his handkerchief, wearing an old baseball hat.
My name is John Ford. I make westerns….
ANGLE ON THE MEMBERSHIP
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….
ANGLE ON 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….
ANGLE ON THE MEMBERSHIP
Not a sound in the jammed room.
ANGLE ON CECIL B. DeMILLE
an impassive Buddha
ANGLE ON FORD
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.
The retail experience in cloaks and suits and gloves and furs and dresses was, in fact, a priceless asset. These early movie magnates came from a discipline in which their economic future depended on their giving the goyim what they decreed, season by season, the goyim would want. A certain restlessness prevailed among them, however, because the market for the rag trade was limited, and they felt the urge to widen their horizons. The early movie business offered that opportunity. Between 1910 and 1912, the nickelodeon audience in America had doubled, from ten to twenty million people.9 And it was a working-class audience, still largely untapped. So new and still so disreputable was the business, so wanting of the rigor ambitious immigrants could provide, that the Jews would immediately be accepted without their origins being at issue.
No recounting of that early history of filmdom was complete without reference to the founding moguls as former “furriers” or “rag merchants.” It was an ethnic code, cryptological anti-Semitism. For furrier, read Jew. No, not Jew: the Sulzbergers were Jews, and the Kuhns and Loebs; to most of their critics these unlettered cloak and suiters were nothing but parvenu kikes, and there was always a giggle to be had at their pretensions. “Put that finger down,” John Barrymore once allegedly admonished a magnate. “I remember when it had a thimble on it.”10 Even Dwight Macdonald was not above this. In a piece he wrote in 1933 for The Symposium, he managed in the space of a few thousand words to deride the ethnic background of the directors Josef von Sternberg, who “spurns as a canard the rumor that he was born Joe Stern of Brooklyn”; Mervyn LeRoy, of whom “it is rumored that his real name is Lasky”; and Lewis Milestone, “whose actual name is said to be Milstein.”11
Not all the anti-Semitism was encoded. The movies, Henry Ford raged in his house organ, the Dearborn Independent, were
Jew-controlled, not in spots only, not 50 percent merely, but entirely…. As soon as the Jews gained control of the “movies,” we had a movie problem, the consequences of which are not yet visible. It is the genius of that race to create problems of a moral character in whatever business they achieve a majority.12
The moguls reacted to these assaults by embarking “on an assimilation so ruthless and complete,” Gabler writes, “that they cut their lives to the pattern of American respectability as they interpreted it.” So absolutely did they reject their pasts that when Danny Kaye was brought to Hollywood, Sam Goldwyn ordered his hair dyed blond, in order to downplay what other Hollywood Jews called Kaye’s “sinister,” or too Jewish, look. The founders also embraced America, or the America they conceived, in a ferocious, even pathological, manner. Carvel, Idaho, the home of Andy Hardy and his family, became the metaphorical center of the good and the true. (It is interesting to speculate whether, before the community had grasped the status potential of skiing, any Hollywood mogul ever actually visited Idaho, and indeed how this haven was selected as cultural ground zero.) This was an America, Ethan Mordden writes, of “Our Father, Dear Mother, admiring Big Brother, razzing Sis and understanding Kid Brother.” And the Hardys, he continues, a family of “dreary white Protestants who make one feel good to be single, Jewish, or an axe murderer.”
Of course the moguls would have regarded that kind of talk as subversive. These were not only self-made men but self-made Americans, and in the America they were in the process of inventing there was little room for dissent. The only politics they believed they could afford tended naturally toward reaction. Except for the Warner brothers, whose contrary natures would not let them agree with their fellow moguls on anything, the founders were the most conservative of Republicans. The Warners flirted with Franklin Roosevelt (“court jester I was, and proud of it,” Jack Warner claimed), but the flirtation did not outlast FDR’s first term. After the administration refused to quash a lawsuit against Harry Warner, even after Jack interceded with the President, Harry called Roosevelt an ingrate; the Warners had scratched his back, but FDR had not scratched theirs in return, and, in the Industry, this was the unforgivable sin. Louis B. Mayer thought Roosevelt a communist and hung an oil portrait of Francis Cardinal Spellman, in ecclesiastical scarlet, on the wall of his library; Harry Cohn so admired Mussolini that even after the end of World War II he kept Il Duce’s photograph in his office.13
Reaction’s finest hour came in 1934 when the studio chieftains banded together to fight Upton Sinclair when he ran for governor on a platform he called EPIC—End Poverty in California. It was bad enough that Sinclair had once been a Socialist, but he was also perceived as anti-Hollywood as well. With Irving Thalberg leading the way, the studios prepared a series of anti-Sinclair newsreels in which a putative inquiring reporter would ask putative ordinary citizens who they intended to vote for. “Vy, I am foting for Seenclair,” claimed a bearded wild-eyed extra in one short. “Vell, his system vorked vell in Russia, vy can’t it vork here?”14 The circle had been joined. Eastern European Jews had created the perfect American bogeyman—an eastern European Jew.
If the Hollywood Jews who ran the studios were conflicted about their religion and how it affected their place in American society, they had, in Edgar Magnin, the perfect rabbi. For over sixty years, Rabbi Magnin administered to the tonier Hollywood Jews, marrying Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, burying L.B. Mayer with a eulogy praising him as the vigilant enemy of “pseudo-liberals, Reds and pinks.”15 (When Harry Cohn died in 1958, Magnin was asked if he could find something good to say about the deceased, and replied, “He’s dead.” 16 ) A member of the Magnin family that founded the retailing empire in San Francisco—for Jews always the most assimilated of American cities—Rabbi Magnin saw himself less as a spiritual leader than as an envoy to the goyim and high priest of secularism. “I have no reason to go into the ghetto,” Magnin told Robert Scheer in 1977. “One of my grandparents came out of it. I don’t want to go back into it. I see these guys with their yarmulkes eating bacon on their salads at the club. They want to become more Jewish, whatever that means…. What virtue is there in ethnic emphasis?… We have beautiful Jews and we have stinkers, and so does everybody else. Who’s kidding whom with all this nonsense?… Roots, roots, roots—baloney!” This was a language the founding Hollywood Jews, so far from their roots, could truly appreciate.
Magnin’s arrival in Los Angeles, in 1914, roughly coincided, appropriately enough, with the filming of The Squaw Man, the first feature-length picture produced in Hollywood. His maiden sermon captured the mood that was to prevail, its title “The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of.”17 Magnin took voice lessons and when he built the Wilshire Temple, he insisted it have the dimensions of a theater, a Grauman’s Chinese of Judaism, as it were, seating 1,500 people. He sold religion the way his flock sold their pictures, changing ancient prayers as if they came from the typewriters of hack screen-writers, and existed only for him to work his magic. Hillcrest, the largely Jewish country club across the street from Twentieth Century Fox, became in effect his second synagogue, a place where he could work the room, schmooz, and establish a consensus. He avoided piety as if it were a sin and refused to be a moral guide, offering his absolution even to the sexual transgressions of the moguls. “Sleeping with a pretty gentile girl made them feel, if only for a few minutes, ‘I’m half-gentile,’ ” Magnin told A. Scott Berg in 1983. “No wonder they made idols out of shiksa goddesses. They worshipped those blue-eyed blondes they were forbidden to have.”
In matters of Americanism, Magnin supplied the text, to which the founders adhered religiously, as they rarely did to the Torah. In 1939, Magnin represented the Los Angeles Jewish community at a huge Hollywood Bowl rally honoring God, the flag, and Congressman Martin Dies, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (It was at this rally that Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was sung in public for the first time.)18 Magnin’s line on the committee, the blacklist, Senator Joseph McCarthy—and indeed on every public issue—was always is it good or bad for the Jews. “What was interesting was how much the Hollywood Jews’ hatred of communism seemed really a fear that Jewish radicals would make all Jews suspect,” Gabler writes, “rather than any ideological opposition.” For Magnin, even concern over the Holocaust was something American Jews should play down. “All they talk about is the Holocaust and all the suffering,” he said. “The goddamn fools don’t realize that the more you tell gentiles that nobody likes us, the more they say there must be reason for it.”19 He was the perfect spokesman for the quisling mentality of the founders.
“In two words, im possible”
Actually that was an old English music-hall gag, refined by Charlie Chaplin, who then attributed it to Sam Goldwyn.20 Many of Goldwyn’s celebrated malapropisms were, in fact, conceived by others, a point that once again underscores John Ford’s maxim: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Without the legends, there is a problem with the biography of any Hollywood mogul. The subjects are essentially no more interesting than Alfred P. Sloan or Harlow H. Curtice, whose success (or failure) in running General Motors had a deeper effect on the American economy than the output of any given studio chieftain in any given year.21 What made the moguls interesting was their tyranny and their excess, and legends about their vices and vulgarity and pleasures that grew more outsized with every retelling. In the strictest sense, they were only CEOs with a penchant for terror. The laws of libel protected the living, taste the dead. Only in fiction do the moguls really come alive, to the point where they have become stock players. The character we remember in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park is Herman Teppis, and we remember Herman Teppis mainly because he was fellated in his office by a contract starlet, remember him also for one of the funniest exchanges in any Hollywood novel, between Teppis and his daughter’s husband, the producer Carlyle Munshin:
“The doctor told me you ought to lower your nervous tension,” [Munshin] said.
“You’re my son-in-law, and you’re a pimp,” Teppis burst out.
It is useful to point out that Norman Mailer wrote his first screenplay for Sam Goldwyn22 ; this is one of the few facts that A. Scott Berg fails to mention in all the reverential amplitude of Goldwyn’s 579 pages. Goldwyn is a classic biography of immigrant boy making good, with the attendant costs, beginning on the first page with the birth of Schmuel Gelbfisz (later Sam Goldfish, later still Sam Goldwyn) in the Warsaw ghetto, ending on the last, ninety-seven years later, with the death in Beverly Hills, eighteen months after his own, of Goldwyn’s second wife, Frances Howard Goldwyn, her last years a descent into alcoholism, loony Catholicism, madness, and senility. Schmuel Gelbfisz left Warsaw in 1895, when he was sixteen, and walked five hundred miles to Hamburg, where he learned the rudiments of the glover’s trade and somehow managed passage to England. From London he walked another 125 miles to relatives in Birmingham, who anglicized his name to Samuel Goldfish. In 1898, Sam Goldfish embarked to the new world, probably on stolen money, probably to Canada, where he slipped across the border into the United States, finally finding work as a glover in Gloversville, N.Y.
By 1904, Goldfish had learned enough English both to become an American citizen and to talk himself into a salesman’s job with the Elite Glove Company. He was a natural drummer, his territory always expanding, until finally he became Elite’s man in New York, a stockholder in the company and a figure in the schmata business. In 1910, he became a bridegroom as well, marrying Jesse Lasky’s sister Blanche. Jesse and Blanche Lasky had once been in vaudeville, with a cornet act, and eventually Jesse had become a Broadway producer. Via the Laskys, Goldfish had a foot in the show-business door.
To Sam Goldfish, a gambler even then, the infant nickelodeon business offered vistas gloves did not have. His idea of the future was not the nickelodeon’s staple two-reel quickie but a picture the length of a Broadway play. With Lasky and a mutual playwright friend, Cecil Blount DeMille, Goldfish formed the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company; Lasky was the front man, Goldfish the salesman, and DeMille the creative force. For four thousand dollars the Lasky company bought the rights to an old Broadway hit, The Squaw Man, a love story set in the old west. That none of the partners knew how to make a motion picture was of small moment; with the exception of D.W. Griffith, almost no one else did either. DeMille headed west with his company of players, found Arizona wanting as a location, and continued to Los Angeles. It was 1914. Hollywood was born.
The Squaw Man was a hit, and Goldfish set on a course from which he did not deviate until the day he died. When he needed partners, he brought them in, when they had fulfilled their usefulness he discarded them; even his wife Blanche and their daughter Ruth were jettisoned when they became excess cargo. His life was littered with lawsuits and friends turned enemies. He fought with Mayer and with Zukor and with Chaplin and with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and with Edgar Selwyn. Selwyn is of interest only in that his partnership with Goldfish was called by the portmanteau name Goldwyn Pictures, Goldwyn the prefix of one surname and the suffix of the other; when the two partners split acrimoniously, Goldfish took the company name legally as his own.
This period of Goldwyn’s life reads like, and has as much interest as, a balance sheet. The titles of unremembered pictures are stacked one atop the next: The Floor Below, Joan of Plattsburg, Thirty a Week, Dodging a Million, The Kingdom of Youth. Stock is issued, depositions are taken, women chased, real estate purchased, pictures cast, grosses given, plots synopsized, all to the litany of “And then he produced….” What was produced was largely dreck, although Goldwyn did manage to commission an official biography, his command of public relations, as always, masterful.
Goldwyn was forty-six when he finally moved full-time to Hollywood with his second wife, Frances Howard, a famous beauty twenty-four years his junior. (Frances Howard was actually in love with George Cukor, a love that went unrequited because of Cukor’s homosexuality. They remained friends for life, and when Cukor died in 1983, he was buried, in accordance with the terms of her will, in the same crypt with Sam and Frances Goldwyn.) Without a studio apparatus, Goldwyn was a true independent producer, using the proceeds of one picture to finance the next; he had no commercially reliable B-pictures (“programmers”), as did Mayer at MGM and Zukor at Paramount, to cushion the losses, no roster of actors and writers and directors to throw into a picture with a release date set. The amazing thing about Goldwyn’s success was that he had absolutely no gift for spotting that indefinable “it” that made a star; he tried, and failed, with Vilma Banky, Anna Sten, Virginia Mayo, Andrea Leeds, with Farley Granger and Dana Andrews, a veritable minor league farm team. Indeed an argument could be made that the only first-class talent Goldwyn ever nurtured and kept was neither an actor nor a director, but a cameramen, the incomparable Gregg Toland, the man whom Orson Welles used to light Citizen Kane.
The forgettable pictures became a blur in Berg’s account. “Condemned opened at the…. Raffles had been a warhorse of the London stage since…. The Devil to Pay is the story of a…”—and these were just three Ronald Colman pictures, made before Colman hit Goldwyn with a lawsuit to get out of his contract. Humiliation was the given in Goldwyn’s relations with subordinates; he reduced director Archie Mayo to carrying film cans in hopes that Mayo would quit his five-year contract; Mayo hung on. The Goldwyn Girls were hired to add glamour to the larger productions, and some of them became just that—Goldwyn girls. “You can’t really resent Sam’s vulgarity,” Robert Sherwood told Anita Loos, “when he himself has never learned the meaning of the word.”23
Dinner at the Goldwyns was a hot ticket, and served promptly at eight whether the guests had arrived or not. Cole Porter, Elsie Mendl, William Paley, and the Averell Harrimans were the draws for such local gentry as Katharine Hepburn, Howard Hawks, the Gary Coopers, and Clark Gable, who presumably did not discuss his days as a cruiser at table with Cole Porter; evenings usually ended with a movie in the Goldwyn screening room. After twenty-four years of seeing pictures in private screening rooms, I am compelled to say that it is the rare night when at least half the guests do not go to sleep, often loudly so.
Hollywood is full of unexamined legends. One is the genius of Irving Thalberg, in large part perpetuated by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of him as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon; Stahr was not the man to let contract actresses do him under his desk. Only Lillian Hellman has ever really put Thalberg into perspective. “The Last Tycoon was a sentimental view of Irving Thalberg,” she wrote in An Unfinished Woman. “Scott…got all sticky moon candy about a man who was only a bright young producer.”
Another equally unexamined legend is what generations of Goldwyn publicity men called, and which Sam Goldwyn himself agreed was, “the Goldwyn touch.” His biographers have trouble explaining exactly what the Goldwyn touch is. ” ‘The Goldwyn touch’ is not brilliance or sensationalism,” Alva Johnston wrote in The Great Goldwyn. “It is something that manifests itself gradually in a picture; the characters are consistent; the workmanship is honest; there are no tricks and shortcuts; the intelligence of the audience is never insulted.” Berg does no better: “Every decision as to which scenes were reshot or included in the picture required Goldwyn’s approval; not a word of the script reached the screen without Goldwyn’s okay; none of Richard Day’s sets was built or Omar Kiam’s costumes sewn until Goldwyn permitted.” William Wyler, who directed seven pictures for Goldwyn, including the producer’s two best, Wuthering Heights and The Best Years of Our Lives, has the last word. “Tell me,” he asked Berg in 1980, “which pictures have ‘The Goldwyn Touch’ that I didn’t direct?”24
Berg struggles manfully page after page with an intractable subject, as if trying to wear the reader down by sheer weight of presentation. Whenever possible he tries to invest Goldwyn’s invincible vulgarity with dignity, to the point, in the epigraph, of invoking kinship with Ozymandias. Virtue is even made of Goldwyn’s never carrying cash because it would spoil the drape of his custom-tailored London clothes; this is the best evidence we have of a Goldwyn touch. Schmuel Gelbfisz, the wandering Jew about whose threads history is scant, is more interesting than Samuel Goldfish, and Samuel Goldfish, the upwardly mobile philandering glover, more so than Sam Goldwyn.
In the end, we remember not Goldwyn’s touch, but his Goldwynisms, whether his alone or polished by other hands. “Tomorrow we shoot whether it rains, whether it snows, whether it stinks,” he said to the director Leo McCarey after weather delays on The Kid from Spain. And when Preston Sturges, of course called “Sturgeon,” finished his script of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, Goldwyn congratulated him for his “snappy nineteenth-century dialogue.” Claiming he was not sexually squeamish, he said, “I’m no Polly Adler,” and one of his paintings he identified as “my Toujours Lautrec,” and to no one in particular he said, “You’ve got to take the bull by the teeth” and “I’m sticking my head in a moose” and “You need Indians you can get them right from the reservoir.” My particular favorite is a limpid plot summary of one of his less worthy pictures, Edge of Doom: “This is a simple story of a boy who wants a fine funeral for his mother, so he kills a priest.”
In 1967, while doing a book about a motion picture studio, I was invited to a party the studio gave for its distributors at the Hollywood Hills home of George Cukor. Cukor stayed inside the house out of sight, receiving only the most senior of the studio executives and the few above-the-title stars in attendance. Outside the hoi polloi mingled around the pool. The flowers were in bloom, the trees in full fruit. I finally left, and as I waited for the parking boy to retrieve my car, I casually picked a lemon from a potted tree outside Cukor’s house. The lemon, I noted as my car appeared, was stamped with the word “Sunkist.”
This is the sort of thing always happening to people visiting what Norman Mailer, in The Deer Park, called “The Capital,” the sort of thing that makes their trip and improves with every retelling. Ridicule has always been a major component in any discussion of Hollywood, especially of the founding Hollywood Jews with their intellectual shortcomings and the conspicuous consumption they confused with glamour. Mocking the vulgarity was easier than trying to understand the cultural revolution that the movies had caused, and its recurring aftershocks, which are still being felt today. Before Goldwyn, Zukor, Mayer, Cohn, Carl Laemmle, and the rest heeded Horace Greeley, whom they probably had never heard of, and went west, American standards were largely defined in the Protestant northeast. That the moguls were indifferent to the cultural heritage of an eastern establishment in which they had never had a stake was taken as evidence of an indigenous lack of culture: this and their Sunkist lemon trees became objects of derision.
In a way, Henry Ford was right: they were immigrant Jews, without much experience of Anglo-Saxon culture. What they did instead was invent an America—“an empire of their own,” as Gabler calls it in his estimable and essential book. “They would create its values and its myths, its traditions and archetypes. It would be an America where fathers were strong, families stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful and decent.” Having invented America, they even invented an established class for this America—their own “East.” It is the “East” we see today in the windows of Ralph Lauren’s flagship boutique in the old Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue. Look at the studio photographs by George Hurrell, Bert Six, and others in Hollywood Glamor Portraits and The Image Makers—Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant and Robert Montgomery and Gary Cooper, Joan and Constance Bennett, Katharine Hepburn, Paulette Goddard. Every imperfection has been airbrushed out, pipe and cigarette smoke billows, ascots are casually knotted, décolletage discreetly displayed. For all the croquet wickets, badminton racquets, and polo mallets in Lauren’s windows, he is presenting not a world of old money, but old money as envisioned by Adolph Zukor and L.B. Mayer and Schmuel Gelbfisz. Another circle closed: the fugitive rag merchants created an idea of American glamour; its custodians are the contemporary schmata tycoons.
There was, of course, a down side to this invented America: “Mother Goose platitudes and primitive valentines,” as Ben Hecht said. “There are no problems of labor, politics, domestic life or sexual abnormality but can be solved happily by a simple Christian phrase or a fine American motto.”25 In other words, the Hollywood moguls invented the imaginary land we have come to know as Ronald Reagan’s America, an America in which it is always morning. This was their most enduring and ironic legacy, one perhaps even that most notorious of anti-Semites, Henry Ford, might applaud.
May 18, 1989
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. ↩
Andrew Sinclair, John Ford, p. 197. ↩
A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn, pp. 279–280. ↩
Sinclair, pp. 157–158. ↩
Berg, p. 256. ↩
Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Studios, p. 100. ↩
Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream, p. 310. ↩
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. ↩
Starr, p. 309. ↩
Starr, p. 315. ↩
Dwight Macdonald, On Movies (Da Capo Press, 1981), pp. 120–126. I do not wish to imply that Macdonald was an anti-Semite, but the tactic, in the hands of those who were, had an ugly whiff of nativism. Listing the members of the Committee for the First Amendment on November 24, 1947, Mississippi Congressman John Rankin, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and rabid anti-Semite, said: “June Havoc, her real name is June Hovick, John Beal, whose real name is J. Alexander Bliedung, Edward Robinson, [whose] real name is Emmanuel Goldenberg, Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg.” See Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, pp. 371–372. ↩
Gabler, p. 277. ↩
Gabler, pp. 368 (Roosevelt), 285 (Spellman), and 152 (Mussolini). ↩
Gabler, p. 314. ↩
Gabler, p. 425. ↩
Berg, p. 484. ↩
Gabler, p. 270. ↩
Robert Scheer, Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death—Essays on the Pornography of Power, p. 33. ↩
Gabler, p. 349. ↩
Berg, p. 396. ↩
Curtice, in fact, was interesting in that during his tenure as GM’s chief executive, his brother was a foreman in a GM plant. ↩
Friedrich, p. 375. ↩
Carol Easton, The Search for Sam Goldwyn, p. 234. ↩
Although he does not address Wyler’s rhetorical question in Goldwyn, Berg tried to do so in an interview he gave The New York Times (March 27, 1989, p. C18). In apparent rebuttal, Berg asked: “Which pictures have the Wyler touch that Goldwyn didn’t produce?” The answer is in the titles of the pictures Wyler directed without Goldwyn. There are, of course, the usual clinkers, but among those with some claim to our attention are Jezebel, The Letter, Mrs. Miniver, The Heiress, Detective Story, Roman Holiday, Friendly Persuasion, The Big Country, and The Collector, as well as the World War II documentaries Memphis Belle and The Fighting Lady. ↩
Berg, p. 417. ↩