Hollywood Gets Its Close Up

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Published on November 1st, 2010 | by Ryan Wells

“Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood” premiers tonight on Turner Classic Movies. The seven-part series runs till December 15 on Mondays and Wednesdays. Check local listings for the most accurate schedule.

The history of classical Hollywood cinema can be bookended by three very different kinds of inhabitants of the Old West. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter created a rousing spectacle with “The Great Train Robbery,” the film infamous for its closing shot (literally) of one of the robbers unloading a pistol at the audience. Some sixty-six years later in 1969, John Wayne and Jon Voigt competed for the best actor Oscar with Wayne winning for “True Grit” (some call it a mercy win, others felt it well-deserved). Voigt’s “Midnight Cowboy” was a very different sort of cowboy whose characterization was at the very least prescient of what was to come in cinema, not simply in Hollywood but the world itself.

In Jon Wilkman’s seven-part documentary series for Turner Classic Movies, “Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood,” we get a very sleek, well-presented version of what the Hollywood apparatus looked like before, during and what was to come after the Classical years. The beauty of Wilkman’s work is that he took his time and it shows. It would simply be cruel to whittle over seventy years of Hollywood history into an hour long program. But this happens, this abridgement, more than it should.

The best part of the Christopher Plummer-narrated series is without question the first half. Pleasingly, Wilkman punts Hollywood’s genesis several centuries to the sixteenth of Dutchmen Christiaan Huygens who was one of the first designers of the magic lantern. Much of the imagery it displayed (the majority was on the walls of convents and theaters) were pastoral settings; however the real glimpses of its cinematic roots were felt in the macabre visuals of devils, phantoms and so forth. The spectator reaction, it be could said, was delightfully hysterical at best.

We then move forward several hundred years to the mid-nineteenth century where transplanted British photographer Eadweard Muybridge is solving a curiosity of the California governor and two other friends about whether a galloping horse’s hooves are all in-flight at the same time (the result being no). He created a series of a single negative photograph, which he strung together heightening their abilities to show movement. Muybridge can be seen as the modern predecessor to the work of Edison and the Lumière Brothers who struck riches with their variations on what Muybridge and Huygens had done before with image and movement. (It was admirable of Wilkman to include French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché into early cinema genealogy, as she’s often been absent in many mainstream documentary retellings.)

Reactions, of course, to this mass spectacle were auspicious and scandalous. The early films had no distinct plot and were essentially lower class, peep show glimpses or simple snippets of everyday life. During this time many of the men who would later go on to be movie moguls—the majority of whom were Eastern European Jewish immigrants—were getting their foot in the door, usually by purchasing a reel or two and setting out to conquer new geographic territory (as the Warner Brothers did), or address a demand in their backyard (e.g. the Balabans of Chicago). From William Fox (whose studio is now owned by another immigrant, Rupert Murdoch), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Louis B. Mayer (MGM), Samuel Goldwyn (Goldwyn) to Adolph Zukor (Paramount), these men saw a vast opportunity to capitalize on what could be deemed the twentieth century gold rush and set up theaters, and eventually production houses. Fort Lee in New Jersey was an early shared facility; Edison’s Black Maria, on the other hand, was a stand-alone and worked as a kind of improv system where any present could simply jump into the scenery.

“The Birth of Hollywood” section is when Wilkman clearly shows Hollywood coming into its own with the designs of The Movie Actor and The Director being sketched, and pegging Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith respectively, as rightful owners of these titles. For convenience’s sake, Wilkman was right to generalize in this regard, though without question there were significant players who easily competed with Gish and Griffith as proto-celebrities.

From the Twenties onward the story becomes a familiar one. We see Hollywood shaping into an industry as impactful on the economy as manufacturing and natural commodities. A variety of different censorship codes were formed (usually from protests by the religious groups of America) though it didn’t make much of a difference, case in point being Cecil B. DeMille’s marvelously baroque tits and ass fests slightly veiled as religious iconography. And outside moguls such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Kennedy (of Boston) delved into the movie business albeit unsuccessfully and short lived. However, Hearst was impactful through the introduction of vertical integration methods into the studio system by means of controlling the entire apparatus of a film’s reputation, particularly in the media in which he owned a significant amount.

The weakest sections of the series were during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties (though the exploration of television’s impact on Hollywood was, certainly, enlightening)—the so-called Golden Age. You can’t fault Wilkman too much for the oversimplifying he does as he’s only been given essentially fifty minutes a decade to work with which isn’t much, though, the over-glamorizing of the studio system and audience reception gets a bit tired in places.

The Sixties, which completes the series, is a breath of fresh air of reality itself for “Movies and Moguls.” The amount of dishy events to dwell on is in abundance: the rise of the power broker (Lew Wasserman, for instance), the destruction of good manners and embraceable profanity (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), the ineffectiveness and decline of the Old Guard moguls, the insertion of politics and topical events into the scripts (“Easy Rider”; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”) and simply a new breed of audience taking shape.

Again the main concerns with the series are more to do with what was excluded, not with the execution which was superb. Wilkman made marvelous usage of several historians (Cari Beauchamp, David Thomson, Gore Vidal, Tony Maietta; though more of Thomas Schatz would not have gone amiss) and relatives of the early pioneers (actor Bob Balaban for one, a real treat), and peppered their commentary throughout without adding distraction or coming across too didactic. The series as a standalone works well, however TCM’s strategic programming couples each section with a handful of films that fall under its respected radar which has a terrific learn-by-seeing effect. The entire affair is a fine achievement and shouldn’t be thought lesser of since it’s made for cable; if anything that’s smart thinking on TCM’s behalf and I encourage everyone to take advantage of the accessibility of this series.

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is the Founder and Editor-at-Large of Cinespect.

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