Hollywood: The Oral History

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Hollywood: The Oral History

Hollywood: The Oral History

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Time does a lot to memories, and events that recently happened are usually fresh on your mind, but I have no idea when Frank Capra, Edith Head, Alan Dean, Katharine Hepburn, Billy Wilder, Lillian Gish, William Wyler, King Vidor, Elia Kazan, Fritz Lang, or any of the other contributors were being interviewed. To make matters even trickier, the rules were applied differently in each state, with the result, says Blanke, that “you never recognised the picture you had made from one state to another.

But first: The savory opening chapter draws on anecdotes from some of the now-gone greats of classic Hollywood, including Raoul Walsh, Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks and Lillian Gish, schmoozing about their starts in the business.

In their massive, easily readable and entertaining book, Hollywood: The Oral History, film historians Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson have imaginatively woven together excerpts of some 3,000 transcripts from the American Film Institute’s archive of industry interviews. But the idea that the only way to make good movies was under the studio system where 4 or 5 studios monopolized every aspect of movie making was somehow better and produced better product than any other time in moviemaking history is idiotic. They had, of course, also been through hell and yearned to build an alternative moral universe where good trounced evil and there was always a loyal, pretty girl waiting patiently at the end.

Marilyn Monroe gets a few pages; Gary Cooper a few; Humphrey Bogart one or two; the blacklist years, a few; often there are accounts given that take up several pages, and these are often entertaining but just as often contain a majority of hearsay and defensiveness regarding the Hollywood we "think" we know. In between, seminar guests talk about budget bloats and business trends, changing acting styles and changing audience tastes. Perhaps that's the point: that a mighty beast was ripped to pieces, and the vultures moved in; that once it was at least partly about art; but this might have been brought to life in a less tedious way.You can have the best performers in the world, but without the support of those whose names zoom by in the closing credits, who would know? From the beginnings, up until the current era, everything is covered from the films, directors, producers, actors, and even make up and camera people.

Hollywood also clearly delineates the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system, and what replaced it after the dream factories collapsed. Most who spoke of his relationship with Judy Garland scoffed at the idea that he drove her to a troubled life. I didn't know how little I cared what Mervyn LeRoy or Bronislau Kaper thought about anything until reading this book. The cinematographer George Folsey (1898-1988) remembers parties at San Simeon with Marion Davies at which Theda Bara’s husband compensated for her poor eyesight by whispering in her ear, “Coming up on your right is Mary Pickford, and over here will be Joan Crawford. And the idea that the movies made under the studio system, which monopolized the industry from top to bottom, from the writing to the theaters, weren't first and foremost about making money is probably the stupidest thing I've heard all week.What wasn't so great was the way the interviewees talked about the studio system and the studio heads and producers. The material, which was assembled by the veteran film scholar and professor Jeanine Basinger and her collaborator, the movie journalist Sam Wasson, comes from the deep resources of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Some of the more surprising passages were those about Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland- two women who were undoubtedly a victim of the Hollywood system- but were not remembered fondly by some people who had to deal with them in moment.

Basinger and Wasson have gathered figures critical to the film industry's development far beyond mere stars (think directors, some producers and a raft of technicians/artists) who made it all work.The award-winning costume designer Edith Head (1897-1981) describes getting a foot in the door by showing a portfolio of drawings that weren’t hers.

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