Thursday, April 9, 2009

City of Nets

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's, Otto Friedrich

Friedrich's erudite mix of history, criticism, and anecdote serves up an era of a Hollywood on the cusp of decline. City of Nets has an impressive sweep, ranging accounts the German expatriate community to the blacklist, from stories of near-illiterate film executives more lucky than good to the antics of neurotic stars, from the back story of epics like Gone With The Wind to the wartime propaganda films that few people actually wanted to see.

The stories of the expatriates who fled Hitler's Germany and wound up in Hollywood resonates ironically against the practices of loutish and mostly Jewish film executives like Louis B. Mayer. The composer Arnold Schoneberg languished on the faculty of UCLA, poorly paid and yet possessed of enough dignity to decline film score opportunities because they came with too little control. The novelist Heinrich Mann lived off of the generosity of fellow expats while his brother Thomas gained international acclaim and wealth. In the end, both left an America that they regarded as essentially philistine. The Austrian refugee Billy Wilder, on the other hand, rose from menial contract positions to become perhaps the signature director of the era. Mayer, meanwhile, screams at underlings, taking particular pleasure in calling the Jewish ones "kikes."

Friedrich is at his best when drawing contrasts. During the blacklist era, the pressure to offer friendly testimony (i.e., name names) to the House Un-American Activities Committee often became unbearable. Actor John Garfield died of a heart attack while the vocal anti-Communist Ronald Reagan put into place what became the beginnings of his remarkable political career. Imprisoned members of the Hollywood Ten watched fresh hearings on television with fellow inmates who disdained the stool pigeons who ratted out their colleagues.

City of Nets is a must for film history buffs, especially fans of the era. It's bound to swell Netflix queues with its accounts of classics and cult favorites. Friedrich strips bare the myths surrounding executives like Mayer, the Warner brothers, and the Cohn brothers -- he portrays them as ignoramuses in charge of a business that simply couldn't fail -- at the same time that he cements the reputations of talents like Wilder and Preston Sturges. Highly recommended...

According to Friedrich, William Faulkner disliked Hollywood as profoundly as he needed the money he made cleaning up scripts. One of Faulkner's favorite dodges was to get permission from a producer to work "at home." While the unsuspecting producer assumed that Faulkner meant his Hollywood apartment, Faulkner instead decamped to Mississippi.

While in Hollywood, Faulkner did strike up a friendship with the director Howard Hawks, which led to an encounter with Clark Gable:
Hawks liked to take Faulkner on hunting expeditions, and when Clark Gable heard one day that the director was setting off for the Imperial Valley early the next morning, he asked to go along. Hawks agreed. The three of them were driving through Palm Springs, as Hawks later recalled, when the talk turned to writing. Gable, whose ignorance was almost classic, idly asked Hawks' gray-haired friend who he thought were good writers. "Thomas Mann, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and myself," Faulkner said. Gable seemed mildly surprised.

"Oh, do you write, Mr. Faulkner?" he asked.

"Yeah," Faulkner admitted. "What do you do, Mr. Gable?"
The kicker is that Hawks was not completely certain of Faulkner's sarcasm:
"I don't think Gable ever read a book, and I don't think Faulkner ever went to see a movie. So they might have been on the level..." (p. 240)

Faulkner received few actual credits for screenwriting although he apparently cleaned up quite a few scenes for Hawks. Faulkner did receive partial credit for Hawks' brilliant The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The plot of The Big Sleep is so famously tortuous that even Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel, couldn't figure out who had committed one of the murders. Watch it and see if you can spot the unsolved murder...

Hype & Glory: I've written a new entry on my Just A Song blog about Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man'.

Fred Kaplan writes that Obama did just fine in London:
Obama seems to be aware of the tension between interests and ideals without letting it paralyze policymaking. In this sense, he is like most presidents in American history—and his foreign policy, or for the moment his approach to foreign policy, signals a restoration of what was once called statecraft: literally, the art of conducting the affairs of state. The term has always implied a meshing of interests and ideals with reality while navigating the shoals of a dangerous world. Leaders can try to reshape an agenda, but they can't toss away maps or ignore laws of physics to get there. They have to deal with the world as it is, and that's what Obama seems to be doing...

Let My People Go: Don't miss Another Old Movie Blog's analysis of the gospel scene from Sullivan's Travels. Citizen K. featured that scene in his March 29 entry...

This makes me want to buy one of the guy's CDs. Or at least download "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone" and "Crystal Chandeliers"...

Just because it's Easter doesn't mean the party stops in New Orleans. It's time for Chris Owens' French Quarter Easter Parade, the Cocktail Film Festival, Easter on the Avenue, and the Gay Easter Parade...

R. I. P., Bud Shanks, West Coast jazz pioneer and improviser of the flute solo in "California Dreamin":


Ima Wizer said...

wishin' I was in New Orleans!

ZenYenta said...

Moving backward through this post: I love that flute solo! Somehow it captures the whole zeitgeist of the moment. Hearing it now is like a flash of time travel.

I'm loving the new blog.

City of Nets looks fascinating. I have to try to get hold of it.

K. said...

IW: I'm with you!

ZY: I forget where I heard about City of Nets. Amazon has plenty of used copies. It's really engrossing.

I like reading film histories, plus the 40's is my favorite era. Although the 50's had some wonderfully eccentric casts that I have great affection for, such as the 1951 cult spoof His Kind Of Woman, with Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price (as a ham actor), Marjorie Reynolds, Jim Backus, and Raymond Burr (as a Mexican gangster!). I don't know who pulled that group together, but talk about a touch of genius!

Renegade Eye said...

Really good post.

I think the McCarthy era, had less effect on actors, than writers. Overall writing was better in the 1940s, than the 1950s.

It seems like a great book.

K. said...

Ren, a serious critique of screenwriting eras is a dissertation waiting to be written. Certainly, a period that can boast Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht, and Charles Brackett has a great head start.

Incidentally, I learned in this book that Ayn Rand tried her hand at screenwriting -- pretty much unsuccessfully -- before writing The Fountainhead. Friedrich doesn't think much of her ability while at the same time chronicling a fascinating personal story.

Renegade Eye said...

OT: I think you'd like this blog.

The Clever Pup said...

Happy Birthday Citizen K!

Otto Friedrich is a good writer. I read a couple of his, Olympia, about one of my favourite subjects, Manet and his Muse and The Grave of Alice B. Toklas.

I'll keep my eye open for this one.

Happy Easter too.

K. said...

Thanks on both counts!

Friedrich also wrote a good short history of Auschwitz. It's been a while since I read it, but I remember thinking that it was good.

Sebina said...

Great review - made me want to read it!