In 2010 Turner Classic Movies aired an ambitious project, “Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood,” a seven-part, seven-hour documentary on the history of Hollywood movie stars and equally famous studio heads from 1889 to 1969. The documentary does not attempt to be comprehensive, and it shows its obvious limitations, but for anyone interested in film, it’s a good place to start.
Let’s begin with the limitations first, though: For one thing, you have to remember that this is a history of Hollywood only. It does not try to cover the film industries in Germany, France, England, Italy, Sweden, Japan, India, or anywhere else that has had a profound influence on the development of motion pictures. For another thing, even as a seven-hour documentary, it could not hope to cover everything that’s ever happened in Hollywood in over eight decades, even limiting itself to studio heads and stars. As a result, well-informed film fans may not glean as much new information from the project as they would like.
Nevertheless, even the most well-educated film buff will probably find out a little something new from the documentary or get some insights he or she hadn’t known before. Besides, even though Warner Bros. did the lion’s share of the work on the film, they got plenty of help from their fellow studios, making the documentary’s archival footage plentiful and broad. You can’t help be entertained by it from beginning to end.
WB present the seven episodes on three DVD’s. Disc one starts with “Peepshow Pioneers” (1889-1907). This might be the hardest sell of all the episodes because it is the most-obvious history lesson of the bunch, with fewer movie excerpts than the other segments. The reason: There were few movies at the time and no Hollywood. Narrator Christopher Plummer tells us mainly about the early history of the motion picture business, which sets the stage for the later narrations about “a driven generation of entrepreneurs,” the studio chiefs.
This section actually begins in 1659 with the invention of the Magic Lantern, followed by such other inventions as the Stereopticon, the Kinetoscope, the Cinematographe, the Vitascope, and the Nickelodeon theaters. “The movies did not just come from nowhere,” after all. So, we get information on Muybridge, Edison, Dickson, Eastman, Melies, the Lumieres, and the like, as well as the coming of the early Jewish immigrants who started as theater owners and wound up as studio moguls: Adolph Zukor, Marcus Lowe, Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, and their ilk. We see the first center of the movie industry in the East, in New York, New Jersey, Fort Lee; some of the first directors, like Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith; and some of the first movie stars, like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.
It’s all fascinating, naturally, but there is a lot of talk involved, with film critics and historians putting in their two cents every minute or two. What else to do when the longest actual films of the day were seconds-long snippets of everyday life, leading to “A Trip to the Moon” and “The Great Train Robbery” among the first “story” films. “Peepshow” Pioneers” ends with the movie industry’s move from the East Coast to sunny California.
Disc one continues with “The Birth of Hollywood” (1907-1920). Here we learn that the aforementioned theater owners decided to market their own product, with a migration West to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and, eventually, Hollywood. Broncho Billy Anderson, filmdom’s first Western hero, located his studio, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, in Niles, not far from where I live in Northern California, and lured Charlie Chaplin and other big names to work with him. But it’s Hollywood where the “Dream Factories” would end up, with more big shots like Jesse Lasky and Cecile B. DeMille moving there.
In this episode we get “The Squaw Man,” Hollywood’s first feature-length movie; early animation like “Little Nemo”; comedy from the Mack Sennett studios; comic stars like Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle; more Western stars like William S. Hart and Tom Mix; and Chaplin, the highest-paid movie actor of his day. Carl Laemmle established Universal City in 1915, where even then the doors were open to the public. Their inexpensive productions created the first serials and cliff-hangers, which were enormously popular.
At about this point the documentary makes a halfhearted attempt to show the importance of women in the movie industry, both in front of and behind the camera. Unfortunately, this small portion of the proceedings seems more like a nod to political correctness than anything else, since filmmaking was clearly a male-dominated industry despite a few exceptions, and it would continue to be to this day.
We also get the birth of the star system here, with “Photoplay” and similar magazines creating worldwide celebrities out of actors who had heretofore been merely players, often unnamed in the first movies. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and others would become the country’s first true stars. The movies grew at this time more rapidly than probably any industry on Earth; “Birth of a Nation” became the first true epic, for all its controversy; and people started making money hand over fist.
This second episode ends at the close of World War I, with America overtaking a war-torn Europe in international filmmaking. The documentary goes by pretty fast, with brief snippets here and even briefer excerpts there, none of it very penetrating but most of it lightly enlightening and always entertaining.
Disc two contains three segments: “The Dream Merchants” (1920-1928), “Brother, Can You Spare a Dream?” (1929-1941), and “Warriors and Peacemakers” (1941-1950). They follow the same pattern, with their titles self-explanatory. “The Dream Merchants” covers the silent era, narrator Plummer telling us that “By the 1920’s, making movies was the fifth-biggest business in America and about to become bigger. By 1922, nearly forty percent of Americans went to a picture show every week.”
Here, we get some repetition, but mainly we see the rise of the studio system and the growth of the star system, the two not always mutually compatible. Newspaperman William Randolph Hearst becomes an important figure in the moviemaking business, and Rudolph Valentino, Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, and Rin Tin Tin become some of the biggest stars of the decade.
The Twenties were also years of scandal, with the Fatty Arbuckle controversy, the William Desmond Taylor murder, and Prohibition practically never touching the movie capital, giving Hollywood a bad rep. As a result, the industry would establish the Hayes Office to help set new standards for in moviemaking.
It was also an era of art vs. commerce, stars vs. moguls, and changing tastes and times. Fox, Paramount, and Lowe’s among others created their own theater chains, thus cornering the market on production and distribution, while movie palaces flourish. In 1923 a land-development company erected a sign in the hills proclaiming “Hollywoodland.” Years later, the last four letters would fall away, and the rest is history.
Part three ends with the coming of the sound age and the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (actually a way to circumvent the newly forming film unions). By this point in the documentary, we’re also getting the idea that it can’t hope to be entirely comprehensive. It’s barely covering most of the major film events of the time, skimming over the details of actors and moguls alike.
As the documentary continues, it seems to get more superficial. Part four, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dream?” (1929-1941), covers the Depression years but does so more casually than the previous segments. Maybe it’s because there is more happening than ever in the movie business–more important movies being made, more important actors and filmmakers involved–that it’s harder to encompass all of it in a mere hour’s time. The four big genres–gangster films, monster movies, screwball comedies, and musicals–barely get their fair due.
So, of necessity, the documentary barely touches the Great Depression and its effects on Hollywood, the coming of the sound era, the financial troubles of the studios, the growth of radio, and the industry’s virtual takeover by New York banks. What it does make clear is that the moguls now had to answer to the real money men of Wall Street.
The segment briefly covers such stars as Bing Crosby, the Marx Brothers, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, and Judy Garland; and such filmmakers as David O. Selznick, Irving Thalberg, Darryl F. Zanuck, Howard Hughes, Harry Cohn, Frank Capra, and Walt Disney. Plus, it touches upon the rise of personal agents, the conservative politics of the Hollywood studio heads, African-American moviemakers, Technicolor, and the importance of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.”
Disc two concludes with “Warriors and Peacemakers,” which covers the War years and postwar years, 1941-1950. It begins with “The Grapes of Wrath” and ends with the blacklisting activities of the McCarthy era, with Orson Welles and World War II in between.
The Forties framed the beginnings of artist cinema, director’s cinema, independent cinema in Hollywood, “cinema that flies in the face of the studio system,” as film critic and historian David Thomson says. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin stood almost alone in repudiating Hitler, most of the Jewish moguls in Hollywood, concerned about their image, being afraid to say anything. All that changed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. “Casablanca” became the symbol of the American spirit, and Bogart became an established star, along with John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Joan Crawford; and filmmakers and agents Preston Sturgess, Frank Capra, John Ford, and Lew Wasserman became more prominent. Moreover, films with social messages and films about racial injustice come to the fore. Discussion of the moguls falls further into negative territory as the segment finishes with the government’s hunt for Communists within the Hollywood community, and most of the studio heads cowardly fail to stand up for their own. Add to these things the fact that the studios’ monopoly on theater distribution started to decline and that television was becoming a serious threat to the movie industry, and you get a pessimistic outlook for movies in general.
Disc three contains “Attack of the Small Screens” (1950-1960) and “Fade In, Fade Out” (1960-1969), again the titles self-explanatory. In “Attack of the Small Screens,” we see Hollywood trying to fend off the onslaught of television. Again, almost everything this segment covers in two or three minutes could have had full-hour treatments of their own.
Television was the enemy in the decade of the Fifties. And why wouldn’t it be; it was free. The studios were no longer as powerful or profitable as they had been; the world was changing; there was a migration of people from the cities to the suburbs; and drive-in theaters were becoming more and more popular. What was Hollywood to do?
What they did was to make movies that were bigger and more realistic. They developed Cinerama, CinemaScope, Vista Vision, 3-D, and they made huge historical epics like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” along with new, gritty films like “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was a changing society, and the movies had to change with it. We got new stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Burt Lancaster, and Elizabeth Taylor, and filmmakers like Billy Wilder, Stanley Kramer, Roger Corman, and a renewed Alfred Hitchcock.
Eventually, the studios would learn to live with television and work with it, most of the studios producing TV shows of their own and selling their old movies to the new medium. But the days of the big studios and their monopoly on entertainment were coming to a close, and the studio moguls were passing with them.
The final segment, “Fade In, Fade,” covers the years 1960 to 1969, “a divided decade: half old, half new.” There was certainly a new generation, a new culture to contend with, a new sexual attitude, a new racial outlook, political assassinations, and that thing called the Vietnam War. Independent productions and uninhibited story lines came to the forefront. Kirk Douglas broke the Black List by including blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo’s name in the credits of “Spartacus.” The MCA talent agency under the guidance of Lew Wasserman became a major force in the movie and television industries; low-budget, big-name films like “Psycho” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” became popular; “Cleopatra” almost bankrupted Fox; and Stanley Kubrick captured the era’s rebellious spirit with “Dr. Strangelove.”
Ironically, longtime Hollywood filmmakers would inspire younger moviemakers in Japan, Italy, and France, the younger moviemakers calling the older ones “auteurs.” And these older American filmmakers largely would reject the accolades, professing to be mere craftsmen, not artists. Then, in a further irony, younger American filmmakers would begin imitating foreign moviemakers. And so the world went round and round.
This final segment even has a brief comment on the influence of movie critics like Pauline Kael on the industry. But, mostly, the Sixties were about change. As censorship rules lessened, films like “Bonnie and Clyde” broke the rules with new levels of violence, and “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” showed new levels of sex, humor, and openness. They epitomized the new anti-Hollywood. At the same time, more conventional projects like “Lawrence of Arabia” and the Bond films became international in scope.
By the end of the Sixties, the old moguls were dead or retired, and the old studios were selling off their back lots and merging with other corporations. In the next decade, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, and the like would revitalize the industry. Meanwhile, the times they were a changin.
WB video engineers offer the documentary in its original television aspect ratio, 1.78:1. Obviously, parts of the presentation are in color, while the majority is in black-and-white. The film quality varies with the examples and excerpts shown, some of the earliest footage now well worn, the newer stuff quite clean and vibrant. In all, it comes off pretty well and should not disappoint anyone who understands what they’re getting.
The documentary uses Dolby Digital 2.0 audio reproduction, most of it in monaural, as one would expect, and some of it, the latter material, in something like stereo. It’s primarily narration, though, and the midrange is fully up to the task, conveying clear, quiet vocals. Don’t expect much more, however. This is a documentary covering the early years of Hollywood, much of which didn’t even have sound.
Each segment includes a brief panel discussion, eight-to-ten minutes, wherein host Robert Osborne interviews the filmmakers who helped produce the series and various film historians. Each of the main segments themselves also contains several chapter stops but no actual chapter menu; English as the only spoken language; French subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The three discs come housed in a handsome Digibook, a forty-four-page, hardbound volume, fully illustrated, with the discs fastened one on the inside cover and two on the back cover.
There is no doubt “Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood” is a fascinating, informative documentary, even if it covers a lot of ground that the movie buff already knows pretty well and even if seven hours are still not enough to cover everything adequately. Nevertheless, having so much history in one place is the point, and keeping the history lively is the key. As an introduction to studio history, an overview actually, the set pretty much accomplishes its goals.