What Hollywood’s Ultimate Oral History Reveals

Images of the cast of Ox including Gale Sondergaard  Judy Garland Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger.

For all the clouds of publicity, the dream machine is actually a craft business. Have we asked too much of it?

What exactly is an “oral history,” and why would we need one? Most history begins and ends with personal witness, and even written documents, after all, were very often once spoken memories, with many of the best histories depending on recollected conversation, from Boswell’s life of Dr. Johnson to the court memoirs of Saint-Simon. Yet the term has become so much a part of our book culture that it tells us to expect something very specific: a heavily edited chain of first-person recollections, broken into distinct related bits, about a place or a system or an event. Although the contemporary version has roots in the oral histories compiled by the W.P.A. in the nineteen-thirties, it seems to derive, in form, from documentary films of the sixties like those of D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, in which testimony is offered in sequential counterpoint, without explicit commentary.

The significant promise of oral history, as opposed to the obviously written kind, is that the parade of first-person witnesses, unimpeded by editorial interference, might, at last, tell it like it is. Though oral history from below produced blue-collar pop masterpieces in Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times” and “Working,” the genre now mostly amplifies history very much from above. So, after Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s fine oral history “American Journey” (1971), a chorus of voices speaking on the train bringing home Bobby Kennedy’s body, their subsequent and even more successful one, “Edie” (1982), was devoted to the Warholite-socialite Edie Sedgwick. That may be a clue to the form: an oral history works best as a series of impressions made on other people’s minds, and someone like Edie was only the impressions she made on other people’s minds. That’s broadly true of show people, too. Peter Bogdanovich’s two good collections of interviews with directors and actors, “Who the Devil Made It” and “Who the Hell’s in It,” are not, strictly speaking, oral histories, but they become so in their intricately self-conscious sequencing and broad panoramas of people. In the past few decades, there have been notable oral histories—in the form of books or magazine features—about the making of films including “Deliverance,” “Urban Cowboy,” “Goodfellas,” “Clueless,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

What makes Bogdanovich’s books matchless bedside reading is the sense that everybody counts. A similar oral history of Abstract Expressionism would doubtless contain a constant series of old quarrels about Pollock, de Kooning, Mitchell, and other luminaries. In Bogdanovich’s interviews, the Dodo’s rule rules: everybody has a part and everybody gets a prize. Although Howard Hawks and John Ford are given particular attention, the big figures are respected the way football coaches respect other football coaches, knowing that their success has much to do with the constellation of talent that happened to form around them. Because the intentions and the creation are so nearly simultaneous, Bogdanovich’s interviews with even third-rank directors make more satisfying reading than any number of critical biographies do. Most artistic biographies are studies in premeditation. Writers such as Henry James or Virginia Woolf can be found brooding on a “problem” that they share with their circles, agonize over in letters, and then attempt to resolve. This never happens with a Hollywood filmmaker from the classic period. There are no letters from Howard Hawks saying, “I feel often these days the need to make a Western, but not a Western in the conventional manner, of the kind that so many of our generation have labored with too long, but rather—and how to explain this?—one somehow underlit by elements of tragedy, almost, one might say, Greek, though Hesiod perhaps more than Homer, as yet unrealized in the form.” He just makes “Red River,” which is that.

Only when movies are discussed in retrospect, paradoxically, does some version of intention emerge. Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson’s “Hollywood: The Oral History” (Harper) now seeks to render the process of moviemaking, from the silents right up to today, genuinely transparent. Basinger, a film historian and archivist possessed of a love of movies (and for whom this writer did minor editorial chores many decades ago on a book about “It’s a Wonderful Life”), and Wasson, a former student of hers and the author of books about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Chinatown,” and “Fosse,” tell us that much of the testimony in their pages derives from the Harold Lloyd Master Seminars, which were held, during the past half century, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

Billed as “the only comprehensive first-hand history of Hollywood,” Basinger and Wasson’s book is firsthand history in its Sunday best, with all the witnesses speaking formally to a public eager to have the shiniest face put on things, a pressure felt throughout its pages. Though occasionally enlivened by tales of sexual and professional jealousy—we learn that Mae Busch clobbered Mabel Normand over the head with “a vase or something” when she was discovered in flagrante with their mutual amour, Mack Sennett, thereby putting an end to the high period of Keystone comedies—it is not nearly as enlivened by tales of sexual and professional jealousy as one suspects a comprehensively accurate history of Hollywood would have to be. Most stories here are positive, most people decorous, most collaborations happy. Notorious bullies, thugs, and couch-casters like Darryl Zanuck and David O. Selznick emerge as good company men, “rough” and “tough,” perhaps, but also “confident and bold” executives devoted to making good movies. Frank Capra appears here as a benevolent overseer—a very different Capra from the narcissistic dictator-director one encounters in, for instance, the fine recent memoir by Victoria Riskin, the daughter of Capra’s indispensable screenwriter Robert Riskin, which tells of Riskin’s marriage to Fay Wray, of “King Kong” fame, and his attempts to escape from Capra’s grip. (The memoir is distinguished by its portrayal of a beautiful actress who preferred a Jewish wit to a giant ape.) For a fuller, stereoscopic view, we might read with this book in one hand and Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” in the other.

Nonetheless, it is, as people used to say before books were turned on rather than picked up, a hard book to put down. The special virtue of Basinger and Wasson’s work is its seamlessly sequential organization, so that talk about cinematographers flows neatly into talk about writers, which flows into talk about actors, almost all of it magically mucilaged part to part. With a net cast this wide, many glimmering fish are drawn up. We get wonderful testimony from Hannah Sheeld, a onetime “script girl”—what we would now call a continuity supervisor—detailing how electric the mundane job of making certain that everything is the same from scene to scene can be. “She is the only one whose eyes are riveted at all times,” Sheeld tells us, and she can make an editor’s life much easier if she takes specific notes on each take (e.g., “Take one was NG”—no good—“because of fluffed lines throughout”). Elia Kazan explains that, having come from the theatre, he had to learn to trust the sustained long shot and resist the urge to cut into it. “The whole thing with a theatre-trained person is to jump in and see the facial expression,” Kazan says, but Ford taught him that it was often best to leave it a mystery. Cinematographers seem on the whole happy—they were the ones on set who actually communed most intimately with the stars, lighting away lines and fixing facial angles—and composers on the whole not: Elmer Bernstein recalls having to write, for Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” specific set themes for Moses, evil, God, and Exodus. (“All of these things worked in a rather literal way.”) Nobody who loves old movies won’t be tickled to discover that Clark Gable’s jackets in “Gone with the Wind” had padded shoulders, in an anachronistic, nineteen-thirties style, which differentiated him from the rest of the nineteenth-century Southern gents. On the other hand, Joan Crawford, though she always seems to be in shoulder pads, never needed them. “Her shoulders were naturally square,” the designer Jean-Louis announces. Of such winning details is the book built, often delightfully.

The good cheer that “Hollywood: An Oral History” exudes extends down past the shoulders and into areas where one finds it hard to credit all the geniality. The producer Pandro Berman says blandly, “While I can well understand the anguish that writers suffered during the days when there were four and five and six writers on a film, I must say I also understand the predicament of the producer who time after time would find he couldn’t get a good screenplay from a writer and had to get certain values from other writers.” This shrugging defense of the assembly-line system is not, to put it mildly, the way that the writers saw the thing; nowhere in the book is there anything resembling Raymond Chandler’s once famous diatribe: “It is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens—when there is any to destroy.”

Old Hollywood has by now become so enshrined that we strain to recall the cynical, disgusted view of it that used to be taken for granted among high-minded people. For decades, S. J. Perelman, a veteran of the system, got terrific comedy in these pages out of sending up the inanities and the grotesque pretensions of Hollywood producers—while also guying the pretensions of the art-house cinema, with its relentless festivals of “Battleship Potemkin” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” These days, Erich von Stroheim’s “Foolish Wives,” whose absurdities of story and style Perelman mocked, is played, in worthily restored form, in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, as though it were, well, “Battleship Potemkin.” Who now remembers that Raymond Chandler also called Hollywood “an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion”?

And yet an important quaver rises: most of us know Chandler best through his screenplay, brutally extracted by Billy Wilder, for the peerless “Double Indemnity.” The contrast between work with integrity that no one notices and compromised work that everyone has seen has dissolved with the passage of time. How this happened, the uprating of prewar Hollywood until it stands with the New England transcendentalists and Eighth Street-school painters as an obvious reservoir of American aesthetic value, is in itself a worthy subject for an oral history. That story would involve critics like Manny Farber and his disciples, who took the actual experience of movies to be more important than any desiccated analysis of them, and who recognized that B movies, the low-budget bottom half of a double feature, had a kind of sensuous immediacy, an enveloping quality previously known only in dreams and nightmares, that made them matter as much as “Battleship Potemkin.” This indigenous candor was met by a French wave of enthusiasm that, in the French manner, maniacally systematized and theorized the same effect—producing the idea of noir from what had been regarded as a bunch of unrelated suspense movies, and then coming up with auteur theory, by fastening on the particularities associated with various directors. In short, journals like Cahiers du Cinéma argued, something big was happening, and it wasn’t happening by chance.

Mother talking to daughter about wearing bellbottom flare jeans.

Still, old habits and big names die hard, as Basinger and Wasson’s book makes plain. We hear much, and most of it reverent, about “legends” like Selznick and Irving Thalberg, while the remarkable director and designer Mitchell Leisen is reduced to being a sort of Thersites figure in the margins, making catty comments about Edith Head’s taking credit for dresses she didn’t design, and putting down Orson Welles. (Leisen, perhaps the first more or less openly gay Hollywood director, made “Death Takes a Holiday,” in its day a very big hit, and later the terrific Barbara Stanwyck noir “No Man of Her Own.”)

In general, the book doesn’t fully register the big reversal of taste in American movie sensibility, by which the B movies are experienced as more vivid and revealing than much of the A-list stuff seems today. We hear a lot about M-G-M in the thirties, though it was barnacled by now unwatchable prestige projects (Luise Rainer as O-Lan in “The Good Earth”), and rather less about Paramount in the forties, when much of that great noir got woven. The critic Richard Schickel appears to explicate a version of auteur theory as a way of praising famously independent-minded directors, like Capra and Welles. Yet the more original point of the French theory was to suggest that otherwise obscure filmmakers might have had personalities and points of view that they were able to smuggle onscreen, against the grain of genre moviemaking. Edgar Ulmer and Joseph H. Lewis, who don’t appear in the book, along with directors like Leisen, became heroes of an “underground” cinema that didn’t know it was one. Whether the directors of hypnotically absorbing forties and fifties movies like “Gun Crazy” and “Detour” were fully self-aware artists or not is a much labored question; the real lesson is that America was so invested in stories of crime and illicit passion that it made the movies burn through even when they seemed, on the surface, formulaic. Just as there are many great songs and hardly any bad songs in the R.K.O. musicals of the thirties, the form being so flowing and strong from the jazz atmosphere around it, so there are very few dull B-movie thrillers of the forties, this form being buoyed up by the tides of tabloid headlines and pulp fiction.

But there was so much schlock in the system that seeing past it was often hard. Indeed, “Hollywood: An Oral History” makes clear that the shimmering masterpieces and the schlock disasters often rose from the same system and the same people, one after another. This happened most memorably in the case of the 1939 films “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.” Both were made by more or less the same people, the crowd at M-G-M—even though the musical gets richer and stranger with subsequent viewings, while the Southern saga gets more ridiculous (and, in its way, repellent) with every passing year.

The underlying material is part of it: a progressive-minded allegory is better than a regressive-minded racial melodrama. But so are the bits and pieces of chance, recollected in the book, that made both movies. The relentless artificiality of the sets and backgrounds, so much a feature of the M-G-M style—Elia Kazan writes, in his memoir, of his shock at discovering that the Western he had been brought out West to make would mainly be shot indoors—works beautifully for a fairy tale and has a creepy effect in what is meant, in “Gone with the Wind,” to be some approximation of verisimilitude. (A kind of tacit six-inch proscenium space exists in which no cyclone blows or fire spreads, eerily separating the camera from the artifice.) Turning these pages and listening to the testimony of the moviemakers, one sees that what matters most, in an assembly-line production, is who happened to be on the assembly line as the contraption was assembled. Judy Garland got the part of Dorothy over Shirley Temple; Yip Harburg wrote the lyrics to all the songs, and is credibly asserted to have been the guiding genius behind the dialogue and dramatic moments leading into those songs. Then there are the makeup people (led by Jack Dawn) who created the frightening masks for the winged monkeys, and the set decorators (led by Edwin B. Willis) who created Munchkinland as a kind of premonitory Jeff Koons fantasy. This assemblage of largely unknown artisans made the movie great, while the presiding “auteur”—for both movies, the charismatic director Victor Fleming—seems largely secondary to the impact of the whole. Indeed, we learn that the most memorable movie moment in “Gone with the Wind,” the famous crane shot pulling away from the wounded Confederate soldiers outside a train depot, was apparently the work of a production designer. This is a story not so much of seamless coöperation among well-orchestrated parts as of the proverbial counterfeiters in prison somehow making real money. They really were working against the grain, just as they told their friends back in New York. (The one thing the studio wanted to do with “The Wizard of Oz” was to cut “Over the Rainbow.”)

That’s why it makes sense to have the many-voiced chorus tell this many-handed story: in truth, everyone’s voice counted. Things get stickier for “Hollywood: An Oral History” when the nineteen-sixties pass and we are in the midst of all the big changes brought about by independent production and the demise of the old studio system. That’s not to say that indie production was ever quite as indie as it seemed. Given that even a small movie could still cost millions of dollars and you couldn’t get a film widely distributed without the support of a studio, those studios retained a lot of power. A memorable and telling moment emerges when the film editor Donn Cambern recalls an aging Leo Jaffe, the president of Columbia Pictures, screening “Easy Rider,” and then announcing, “I don’t know what the fuck this picture means, but I know we are going to make a fuck of a lot of money.”

Still, the old system was certainly lamed as the seventies arrived, and before long readers turn, for the same kind of energy and entertainment, to oral histories not of the moviemakers but of their agents. “Powerhouse,” James Andrew Miller’s oral history of Creative Artists Agency, from 2016, is a touchstone here. The Perelmanesque absurdity of devoting countless serious pages to the rise (and partial fall) of a booking agency no longer seemed at all absurd. Normal people were expected to know who Mike Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg were and to have an opinion about their characters. Yet packaging and bargaining, too, are guild crafts. We would rather know that Ovitz negotiated with the Scientologists over Tom Cruise’s future than have a cultural study of “Top Gun”; the negotiation is the cultural study.

For all the clouds of publicity, moviemaking is an artisanal business with a craft base. How you light, shoot, edit, even make deals—all these things have more in common with candle-making and knitting than they do with creating art in the romantic, visionary sense. Crafts, being communal, are mysterious to those who aren’t in the communes. No one outside the vineyard can really know who put what in the glass you hold. The grapes are grown, crushed, blended, and bottled, and every player along the way, from the owner of the terroir to the person who stuck the label on the bottle, has a part.

And so we’re used to seeing the steady, pained smile and middle-distance gaze of a moviemaker being told by a movie lover how movies are made: we praise the dazzling dialogue of the screenwriter (whose draft was never used, but who won the credit through arbitration, while all the good lines were written the night before by the director’s pet script doctor) and the mastery of the film editor (though the scene of the helicopter swooping down the canyon of buildings was storyboarded by the second-unit art director, while the editor’s real work was managing to excise the cough of the leading man without damaging continuity) and how sensitive the director was with the women leads (whom he could barely stand to be in the same room with). In truth, we don’t know who did what. That’s why we are so drawn to the kind of guild knowledge that oral histories sporadically supply.

Movies are an accumulation of mundane tasks that support improbable fables. Closing the book, one wonders if American entertainment has reached its end as a collection of myths and legends suitable to a secular society. God knows it has served that function long enough, and filled enough books: Orson Welles as Prometheus, who gave fire to man and had his liver ever after eaten by producers, and Ida Lupino as Artemis, independent woman pathfinder, and countless Phaethons, from Thalberg to James Dean, departing young only to live on as stars, celestially. Even in the past generation, we’ve wanted more than an account of how all those agents got jobs for their clients; we want a series of moral fables, usually either an Icarus myth (Mike Ovitz rose higher and higher before plummeting to earth) or an Adonis one (Miller devotes many pages to the legend of Jay Moloney, the brilliant young agent who self-destructed at thirty-five). The prosaic, alternative story—that booking agents are booking agents, forever susceptible to changes in fashion and audiences, and that all the I. M. Pei buildings and Lichtenstein murals in the world can’t cover this up—is too banal to hold our attention.

The mythmaking imagination seems now to have migrated north from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, where Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos more quickly summon up mythopoeic types for our era, with Jobs as the classic returning hero who dies before his time and Bezos as our Daedalus, with a hand in all manufactured things. These days, people know these names and the outlines of these lives as they once knew those of stars and directors and even agents. The glow and the gleam of Hollywood are fading. The collected testimony of witnesses is inevitably a kind of group elegy for something loved and gone. We wouldn’t need to speak if we could see it still.

All Rights Reserved for Adam Gopnik

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