Shortly after arriving out west, the witty, brilliantly prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Scarface, Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred) began referring to Hollywood as “The land of mink-lined swimming pools and plastic palm tree,” and defining “starlet” as the name for any woman under thirty who is not actively employed in a brothel. Not to be outdone, the equally witty Dorothy Parker (A Star is Born, Saboteur, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman) noted that the only ‘ism’ Hollywood believes in is plagiarism. The two were by no means alone in their lowly, utterly sarcastic assessment of the world’s film capitol. William Faulkner called Hollywood A place where a man can get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder. And then there was Fred Allen, who claimed You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer's heart.
When it comes to having a jaundiced view of the movie industry, nothing and no one is more jaded – or funnier – than Hollywood itself. And when Hollywood makes films about Hollywood . . . watch out!
What follows are a handful of Golden Age films which, in my humble opinion, are among the greatest (though not necessarily best-known) exemplars of classic Hollywood’s disdain for the very industry which, in the words of Marilyn Monroe will pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and a nickle fore your soul . . .
On September 24, 1930, a new play, the first collaboration of two young writers named George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, opened on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, which was co-owned by Sam Harris and Irving Berlin. It was called Once in a Lifetime, and went on to have a run of 406 performances, which in the early 1930’s was tremendous. This was a farce based on what took place in Hollywood just after the introduction of sound. For many great stars, sound meant the end of their Hollywood careers. Many did not speak English; many had voices and/or accents which simply didn’t go with their onscreen images. Hollywood’s response was to import as many Broadway actors - masters of proper diction - as possible along with a strange crowd who called themselves “elocutionists.” It was their job to teach the formerly silent how to speak. The play was an absolute hoot. And because it savagely prodded both Hollywood moguls - many of whom could barely speak English themselves - and director, it was widely assumed that no studio would ever dare turn it into a motion picture.
They were wrong. Universal’s diminutive “Uncle”Carl Laemlle not only bought the rights from Kaufman and Hart; he turned it into a howl of a movie which began with a self-serving crawler which proclaimed:
When I bought the moving picture rights to “Once in a Lifetime,” the stage play which so mercilessly and hilariously poked fun at Hollywood and its motion picture people, the critics said I would not dare make use of its best material on the screen. It was too funny, they said, and it would make the world laugh at us! I pity the man who cannot enjoy a laugh at his own expense. So I decided that if I could make the world in times like these, it would be a great thing to do. I now leave it to you to judge whether I have spared the movies in translating the great stage success to the screen. Carl Laemmle, President Universal Pictures.
Laemmle’s picture, which starred Jack Oakie, Sidney Fox, Aileen McMahon and Gregory Ratoff as the Goldwynesque producer Herman Glogauer, (What did they have to go and make pictures talk for? Things were going along fine. You couldn't stop making money - even if you turned out a good picture you made money!), the film brought in a fortune at the box office. Almost unknown today, it is worth a look. Its satiric look at a Hollywood in transition from silence to caterwauling is more than worth the price of admission. (You can watch the movie on YouTube below)
One of the most oft-filmed yarns about Hollywood is once again up for an Academy Award: A Star is Born, this time starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott. And while most film buffs consider the 1937 version starring Janet Gaynor, Frederic March, Adolphe Menjou and Andy Devine to be the original (followed by the 1954 reprise and 1976 musical starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, what they likely do not know is the true original was 1932’s What Price Hollywood? produced by 30-year old David O. Selznick, directed by the 33-year old George Cukor and starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman. The Oscar nominated screenplay by Jane Murfin and Adela Rogers St. Johns (it lost to Frances Marion’s The Champ), tells the story of waitress Mary Evans (Bennett) who is discovered by - and turned into a top-flight star - by the dipsomaniacal director Max Carey (Sherman), only to see her career soar as his hits rock bottom.
Originally meant to star “The It Girl,” Clara Bow, by 1932, she was going through too many psychological traumas to handle the role, thus it went to Constance Bennett. Originally based on the relationship between twenties’ megastar Colleen Moore and her then husband, director John McCormick, the film did not make back its investment. Nonetheless, it did manage to portray Hollywood’s seedy underbelly in a way almost never before seen or screened. The only real difference between this film and the various A Star is Born repeats is that here, the young, up-and-coming star does never marries the drunk, who, rather than being a star losing his career to alcohol, is rather her director. Regardless, it portrays Hollywood cupidity - success at any price - as hauntingly as any film ever made.
In 1936, Paramount producer Adolph Zukor and director Robert Florey came out with Hollywood Boulevard, which dealt with the extraordinarily destructive power of Hollywood gossip magazines. Starring John Halliday, Marsha Hunt (our longtime neighbor who is still alive and now going on 102 years old), Robert Cummings and more than a dozen down-on-their-luck former silent screen stars, Hollywood Boulevard is an expose of scandal-and-gossip magazines of the era, in which has-been actor John Blakeford (John Halliday) agrees to write his memoirs for a magazine-publisher. One review of the film was entitled The Dirt Brigade, which just about says it all. Hollywood Boulevard, which also contains a murder mystery sub-plot, is mostly an attack on the cruelties of Hollywood in the manner in which the town turns its back on former stars. Many of the film’s supernumerary and bit actors (e.g. Frances X. Bushman, Charles Ray, Maurice Costello, Betty Compson, Mae Marsh, William Farnum) were, at one time, among the most popular and highest paid “superstars” of the silent era . . . many earning in excess of $10,000 a week (at a time when a decent annual income was $1,250.00). For this film, few of them were listed in the credits, and were paid no more than $5.00. That’s Hollywood; that’s Hollywood Boulevard.
Then there is the best, most spot-on Hollywood novel ever written: Bud Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? The novel, first published in 1941, tells the rags-to-riches story of Sammy Glick, the conquistador of the gutter, who steps on and over any- and everyone in his path in order to make it to the pinnacle of Hollywood success. Inspired partly on the life of his father, early Hollywood mogul B.P. Schulberg (1892-1957) and partly on the thousand octane writer/producer Jerry Wald (1911-1962) this ultimate Hollywood novel follows Sammy from the Brooklyn to Beverly Hills. Sammy is an amoral narcissist who is quick to pilfer and plagiarize the work of others, adapt novels he’s never read, and rip the heart and guts out of anyone who gets in his way. Most every character in the novel - writers Al Manheim and Julian Blumberg, producer Sidney Fineman, Sammy’s brother Israel - are Jewish. Nonetheless, at the time the novel was in its final stage of rewrites, so the story goes, producer Samuel Goldwyn offered Schulberg a lot of money to not have it published because Goldwyn felt that the author was "doublecrossing the Jews" and perpetuating anti-Antisemitism by making Sammy Glick so venal.
Despite the fact that What Makes Sammy Run? is a seminal Hollywood novel which was turned into a smash Broadway musical (starring Steve Lawrence as Sammy, Robert Alda as Al Manheim and Sally Ann Howes as Al’s girlfriend Kit, it has yet to be made into a theatrical film. There have been two television presentations: in 1949, there was a live version (the Philco Television Theatre) starring Jose Ferrer, and a two-part 1959 television treatment starring Larry Blyden, John Forsythe Barbara Rush and Dina Merrill.
According to a 2001 article in Variety, DreamWorks paid US$2.6 million to acquire the rights to the novel from Warner Brothers for a proposed movie version starring and/or directed by Ben Stiller, although production was never begun. Budd Schulberg, who died in 2009 at age 95, told The Jewish Daily Forward in 2006 that he doubted a film would ever be made, saying "I still think there's a sense that it's too anti-industry." In a 2009 newspaper interview, Schulberg quoted Steven Spielberg as saying that the book was "anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed."
The quintessence of Hollywood’s historic hate for itself can be summed up in two marvelous quotes, plus a final thought from Sammy Glick:
From Walter Winchell: Hollywood is a place where they place you under contract instead of under observation.
From Johnny Carson: In Hollywood, if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.
Sammy Glick: Going through life with a conscience is like driving your car with the brakes on.
Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone