A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, February 18, 2008

Oscar Week cont'd: A Touch of Brass

People sometimes wonder what movie producers do, and the best answer I've ever heard to the question is: Anything they can get their hands on. Today's producers are usually more like committees, largely concerned with the problems of funding and distribution. That's why you'll see a phalanx of them storm the stage when the best picture Oscar is announced. They tend to be M.B.A.s and investment banker types.

In the old days, the Age of the Moguls, they were rugged individualists: tough old dudes who started out as scrap metal dealers and glove salesmen, and worked their way into the fledgling industry of motion pictures. And none of them better epitomized the type than Samuel Goldwyn. He won only one Oscar but he made his mark on Hollywood, even founding a minor Hollywood dynasty: His son, Samuel Jr., is a producer, as is his grandson John Goldwyn, while another grandson, Tony Goldwyn, is an actor best known as the villain in
Ghost and the voice of Disney's Tarzan.

This review of A. Scott Berg's fine biography of Sam Goldwyn ran in the Mercury News in 1989. The book is out of print, which is a shame, but you can still find copies of it for sale online and in used book stores. Anyone interested in so-called "Golden Age" Hollywood should read it.

GOLDWYN: A Biography
By A. Scott Berg
Riverhead, 579 pp., out of print but available

Why does Sam Goldwyn deserve a 500-plus-page biography?

That would have been a silly question 60 years ago, when the glow cast by his Oscar-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, still lingered, and people -- or at least press agents -- spoke admiringly of "the Goldwyn touch."

But today, if he's remembered at all, it's for the malaprop gems known as "Goldwynisms": "Include me out," "Directors always bite the hand that lays the golden egg" and so on. Or else people assume he was one of the heads of the most famous movie studio of them all, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

But although Sam Goldwyn almost certainly uttered a few genuine Goldwynisms, most of them were invented by Hollywood gag writers and publicists. And Goldwyn never had anything to do with MGM. That company was created by a merger in 1924 of Metro Pictures with a studio run by Louis B. Mayer and the studio Goldwyn had founded. But he had been ruthlessly elbowed out of Goldwyn Pictures two years earlier.

Those may be the central ironies of Goldwyn's life. He wanted to be remembered as a man of taste, but he lingers in popular history as a buffoon. And he wanted to leave a legacy in his name, but that name was appropriated by a more powerful institution. And irony upon irony, it wasn't even his name to start with, and he had to fight to keep it.

He was born Schmuel Gelbfisz, in Warsaw, probably in 1879. He became Samuel Goldfish when he left Poland for England in 1895. The name Goldwyn wasn't created until 20 years later in America, when Sam Goldfish formed a partnership with Edgar and Archibald Selwyn. As A. Scott Berg explains, "The partners realized that several portmanteau words could be formed from the names Goldfish and Selwyn. . . . In 1916 Goldwyn Pictures was incorporated. . . . For years, show business wags joked about the abandoned syllables of their surnames."

Just as Selfish Pictures wouldn't do, the appellation Sam Goldfish also failed to inspire the respect the company's head wanted. Those of us born to relatively euphonious names can laugh, but it makes perfect sense to me that, when a man named Goldfish receives mail and phone calls for "Samuel Goldwyn," he should decide to make it his legal name.

So in 1918, Goldfish became Goldwyn. Five years later, after he was ousted from Goldwyn Pictures, Sam Goldwyn tried to form a company called Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. Goldwyn Pictures Corp. protested that he had no right to the name, which had been the company's before it was his own. Eventually, Judge Learned Hand (who certainly must have known what's in a name) ruled: "A self-made man may prefer a self-made name."

And that ruling suggests why Sam Goldwyn is worth a biography -- and one by a writer who earlier won the American Book Award for his life of editor Maxwell Perkins. For there's no more quintessentially American tale than that of the rise of Sam Goldwyn, the epitome of the self-made man. It's a story that would have Horatio Alger goggling. Born in the poverty and despair of the Eastern European ghetto, through pluck and luck Goldwyn amassed an estate that was worth more than $16 million when he died in 1974. And he did it all in an industry that didn't exist -- was undreamed-of -- when he was born.

He was almost present at the creation: He produced the first feature-length film made in Hollywood, The Squaw Man, in 1913. He made his last film, Porgy and Bess, 46 years later. Without having a bit of education, talent or taste, he produced a long string of movies noted for their literacy, skill and finesse. Of course, he knew how to use the education, talent and taste of others -- up to a limit. It's that limit that makes Goldwyn's story so interesting.

Berg tells his story well, having been given access to several vaults full of the intimate details of Goldwyn's life. His portrait of Frances Goldwyn, who provided her husband whatever touches of class would stick, is particularly fine. Among other things, we learn that the first love of Frances' life was director George Cukor, who would never have made a satisfactory husband because he was gay. Frances' mother, who was quite mad, loathed Sam, and once tellingly gave her son-in-law a set of bookplates inscribed "Ex libris: George Goldwyn." When Cukor died, he was buried in the Goldwyn family crypt alongside Frances, Sam and Frances' mother.

Berg's book is full of such wonderful information. What it lacks is a coherent critical point of view. Berg says that when Sam Goldwyn Jr. read the manuscript of the biography, he "limited his comments to the correction of facts, not the shaping of opinions." But someone should have shaped Berg's opinions, for the book never comes to terms with the central fact of Goldwyn's career: that he was never as great as he wanted to be.

As an independent producer in the heyday of the great studios, Goldwyn challenged enormous odds. Until 1947, when the Supreme Court made them sell off their theaters, Paramount, Loew's (MGM's parent company), Warner Bros., Twentieth Century- Fox and RKO owned 70 percent of the first-run theaters in the nation's largest cities. This gave them an obvious advantage: an easy outlet for their own films. Independents such as Goldwyn had to wheel and deal to get their films distributed, and to secure the services of big stars, good directors and technicians, and the rights to plays and novels.

Goldwyn played this game longer than anyone else, and he played it better than everyone except, perhaps, David O. Selznick. Unlike Selznick, Goldwyn never produced a Gone With the Wind, never discovered a star of the magnitude of Ingrid Bergman or a director of the stature of Alfred Hitchcock. On the other hand, Selznick, 20 years younger than Goldwyn and the son of industry pioneer Lewis Selznick, got his start in the big studios before going independent. He also died, a burnt-out case, nearly a decade before Goldwyn.

And even Selznick didn't achieve "the Goldwyn touch," the reputation for excellence that his best films -- Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights and The Best Years of Our Lives -- deserve. Goldwyn did it largely by hounding and driving the people who worked for him, demanding precision and clarity in their films -- and by hiring director William Wyler, who was as persnickety as Goldwyn, often driving actors to tears and rage with his perfectionism.

''Tell me," Wyler asked in 1980, "which pictures have 'the Goldwyn touch' that I didn't direct?" But the Goldwyn touch was also cinematographer Gregg Toland's and set designer Richard Day's and composer Alfred Newman's. The debt Goldwyn owed to them was never acknowledged. Once Goldwyn overheard someone referring to a Goldwyn production as a Wyler film. "I made 'Withering Heights,' " Goldwyn retorted, mispronouncing the title as usual. "Wyler only directed it."

The trouble is, the Goldwyn touch hasn't worn well. His best films are still watchable, but they don't speak to us the way the greatest Hollywood movies do. Dodsworth is an absorbing, literate film, but a minor delight, a second-order classic like a novel by Trollope. Wuthering Heights grabs us with the sheer physical beauty of the young Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, but it never scales the demonic heights of Emily Brontë's great mad novel. The Best Years of Our Lives profoundly captured the experience of the generation that fought World War II, but one has to make an imaginative connection with its first audiences to enjoy it today.

What's lacking in Goldwyn's polished, glossy films is personality, the spark that brings to life the great Hollywood movies. They lack the gargantuan egotism of Orson Welles, the lively gregariousness of Howard Hawks, the spacious humanity of John Ford, the delicious perversity of Alfred Hitchcock, the slapstick cynicism of Billy Wilder, the loopy bumptiousness of Preston Sturges. Goldwyn's films try too hard to be perfect.

Goldwyn's perfectionism was of the kind that shades over into paranoia, a fear that underlings, unless they are watched and hounded constantly, will goof off -- or worse, intentionally screw up to embarrass the boss. In The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes a studio head "with a suspiciousness developed like a muscle." I can believe that he had Goldwyn in mind, for as Berg points out, Fitzgerald was brought in to labor on a Goldwyn film, and observed in his notes for The Last Tycoon: "You always knew where you stood with Goldwyn -- nowhere."

But more damaging in the long run is that Goldwyn couldn't trust himself. The self-made man can never go back to what he was before, a child of ghetto poverty, an illegal-immigrant glove salesman, a show-business hustler. Those who knew Goldwyn early were frequently surprised at what he became. His daughter, Ruth, estranged from him after his first marriage disintegrated, observed when she met him some years later that "he seemed almost manufactured." Ben Hecht caricatured him as an almost machine-like assemblage: "The yellow, billiard-ball head, the nutcracker jaws, the flossy tailoring, high-priced cologne, yodeling voice and barricaded eyes that were Sam Goldwyn greeted us en masse." What was barricaded behind those eyes? Perhaps a man whose experiences, whose energy, whose drive, if he had allowed them to be unleashed, could have made better pictures.

Berg provides a revealing anecdote about the making of the film Dead End. Sidney Kingsley's play, set in a New York street that divided elegant apartments from squalid tenements, was the kind of "prestigious" Broadway production Goldwyn could hardly resist. But when filming began, he was enraged when he found the set littered with garbage. The director, William Wyler, patiently explained that the picture was set in a slum. Goldwyn persisted in having it cleaned up. It's certainly not that Goldwyn didn't know what a real slum looked like. Realism was not the issue: "His pictures had a distinctive look about them -- a feel that was always tasteful, even in an East Side slum," Berg notes.

The trouble with Goldwyn, finally, is that he didn't have the courage of his own vulgarity.