A Visit to Hollywood's Glory Days

A new blockbuster documentary presents the history of Hollywood through the lives of its great movie stars and moguls. Michael Korda relishes the outrageous characters and wild stories.

10.31.10 11:42 PM ET

Just to be upfront, it is only fair for me to admit to the reader, right from scratch, that I was, for a time, a Hollywood brat myself.

I attended first a military academy, then a public school in Beverly Hills, where we lived, and many of my classmates were the children of movie stars and studio executives. My uncle, Alexander Korda, briefly attained control over United Artists (his fellow board members included Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Sam Goldwyn, and Douglas Fairbanks) and was a trans-Atlantic movie mogul himself. I once attended a birthday party where Danny Kaye dropped in to entertain the birthday boy and his guests; I was sometimes taken for lunch on Saturdays by my father to The Brown Derby; and my favorite meal is still the Cobb salad in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I will conceal nothing: My aunt was Merle Oberon, and I attended boarding school in Switzerland with Warner LeRoy and Irving Thalberg Jr., my uncle Zoltan made The Jungle Book and Sahara (the latter starring Humphrey Bogart, the former starring Sabu) in Hollywood, and my father won the 1940 Academy Award for Art Direction, for The Thief of Baghdad, which was presented to him by Darryl F. Zanuck. I cannot therefore claim to be an altogether impartial audience or a disinterested bystander for a seven-part TCM documentary on the history of Hollywood, or indeed for anything about the history of Hollywood.

My wife Margaret, who loves movies but didn’t grow up in the movie business, found the first hour or more of Moguls & Movie Stars boring, but perked up as it moved into the '50s and '60s, whereas I was fascinated, riveted to my seat and chortling with laughter at the sight of people I had known as admittedly formidable adults as they were at the very dawn of the silver screen. “Adolph Zukor!” I would cry. “He was a glove merchant, he gave my uncle Alex a job offer in 1919, to leave Budapest and come to work for Paramount in Hollywood! I met him when he must have been a hundred years old, and was still on the Paramount board of directors, still had a Hungarian accent...There’s Louis B. Mayer as a scrap merchant, Sam Goldwyn as...”

But you get the idea. If your family was part of the movie business, then watching Moguls & Movie Stars is like looking at the family photo album, hilarious to members of the family, numbingly boring to those outside the family circle. Although the documentary is narrated by the incomparable Christopher Plummer (who does a wonderful job), what it lacks almost completely is a recognizable point of view. Again, it’s like the family photo album: the snapshot of Uncle Sid on the beach staring past the camera with his eyes shaded by his hand is only funny if you know he was notorious lecher, and is clearly trying to get a good look at some young bimbo 50 yards away without his wife Aunt Sarah noticing.

In 1934, Shirley Temple is signed to Fox and given a special Academy Award. (AP Photo)

Moguls & Movie Stars, au contraire, tends to take people at their face value. It does not linger over things like Harry Cohn’s sheer brutality at Columbia—he once put Rita Hayworth in her place during a contract dispute by sticking a fat, blunt finger hard into each of her breasts and saying, “Never forget, baby, all you got going for you is those two big things and Harry Cohn.” Or Joe Mankiewicz’s famous remark when Cohn told him that he could tell when a scene worked because his ass twitched—“Just think of it, the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!” Or, when Mankiewicz was told how many people had showed up for Cohn’s funeral: “They wanted to make sure he was dead.” It does not linger on the unlovable side of Louis B. Mayer: the ego, the paranoia, the sinister control he maintained over his child stars like Judy Garland, the sweetheart deals with studio unions, the studio gonivem, thugs, ass-lickers and enforcers (Go read Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?), the raging temper tantrums and tearful sentimentality, the venomous denigration of his supposedly beloved Wunderkind production chief Irving Thalberg as “the Vine Street Jesus.”

In 1935, Mae West become the highest paid woman in the United States. (AP Photo)

The studio moguls were certainly bigger-than-life figures, but they were also tough and unforgiving street fighters to a man, redeemed only because they were also the butt of so many Hollywood jokes. When David O. Selznick married one of Mayer’s daughters, the joke immediately made the rounds of Hollywood: “The son-in-law also rises.” Sam Goldwyn was reputed to have made the famous remark, “In two words, ‘im-possible’,” Darryl F. Zanuck’s favorite actor was said to be Rin Tin Tin, an Alsatian dog who was briefly a rival to Lassie, and Jack Warner was alleged to have said, “Dress British, think Yiddish.” They were also union-busters, anti-FDR right-wingers, and ruthless exploiters of their employees and their stars, to a man. You wouldn’t, frankly, get a hint of this watching these seven episodes about the history of Hollywood.

Moguls & Movie Stars makes the point (but lightly) that the movie moguls went into the entertainment business not because they loved it, but because the lucrative professions were for the most part closed off to them as Central European and Russian Jewish immigrants. The nickelodeon was a new business, a novelty, something between a circus and a peep show. Who needs it, was the view of the WASP bankers and businessmen; on the other hand, “From this,” as Adolph Zukor once remarked, “a Jew could make a living.” After all, the WASPs or the Irish weren’t already in control of it, the way they were with everything else, like politics, banking, railroads, and the law. So, the thinking went, your mother doesn’t speak English, she can count in Yiddish, Hungarian, and Polish, you put your her in the ticket booth (Never let anyone except blood relatives near the cash!), you sent your brothers or your weightlifter cousins from Minsk or Debrecen out to hustle up films, or set up “film studios,” or find pretty girls to “act” in the movies, and you were on your way.

In 1950, Marlon Brando arrives in Hollywood. (AP Photo)

I enjoyed the first two episodes of Moguls & Movie Stars a lot, especially the technical stuff about how the movie business emerged from the laboratories of people like Edison and Lumière, (with all due respect to the Wizard of Menlo Park, the place where the movie industry got its real start was Paris, and the series gets this right) and how the nickelodeon was transformed into the movie theater. Even from the very beginning, the technology of movie-making advanced far more rapidly than any notion of what to put on film. The first movies were science fiction, Westerns, and romances, and that mix hardly changed over the decades, despite the giddy progression of marvels: sound, color, 3-D, Cinerama. The wisdom of the moguls was to stick to what they knew worked—“Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl!”—and many of the snippets of film in this series are proof of that formula, and the fact that it still works. Frankly, however, what Moguls & Movie Stars needed was the unerring eye of a Thalberg or a Mayer for storytelling. No attempt is made to create a real impact with the great moments of movie-making, like the creation of sound, that historic moment when Al Jolson sang on film, which ought to be a triumphant scene, but is merely presented as yet another piece of technological evolution.

In 1955, Grace Kelly wins an Academy Award for The Country Girl. One year later she marries Prince Ranier of Monaco and retires from acting at age 26. (Getty Images)

There is no sense of irony, either, or the sheer oddity of the movie business, like the fact that Erich von Stroheim was actually a bit player in D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation and went on to a career that ended in his playing Gloria Swanson’s husband/chauffeur in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, surely ironic ultimate tribute to the history of the movie business (To von Stroheim—who should have known, goes the credit for the final truth about the movie business: “You’re as good as your last picture.”)—and its self-absorbed fascination with itself, which is played out once a year on television in the Academy Awards.

The TCM documentary is better about the moguls and the movie business than it is about actors, but its gets in all the right names and faces, it simply lacks verve and fun, which, given the subject, is a pity. The material is there, scads of it, but somehow, by the middle of it or before, you know that Harry Cohn’s ass wouldn’t be twitching if he were alive and watching it.

In the end, I think you’d learn more about the movie business from watching Sunset Boulevard, and have a better time, too.

New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.