The Tarnished Age

Richard Mayne

  • David O. Selznick’s Hollywood by Ronald Haver
    Secker, 425 pp, £35.00, December 1980, ISBN 0 436 19128 8
  • My Early life by Ronald Reagan and Richard Hubler
    Sidgwick, 316 pp, £7.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 283 98771 5
  • Naming Names by Victor Navasky
    Viking, 482 pp, $15.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 670 50393 2

Fourteen inches by 11, and weighing six pounds 13 ounces, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood is less a coffee-table book than a coffee table without legs. Its credits ape a blockbuster movie’s: ‘Executive Producer: Robert Gottlieb – Associate Producer: Martha Kaplan’, etc; and its first page opens like cinema curtains on a wider-than-Panavision main title modelled on Gone with the Wind. A good half of the book is pictorial – playbills, posters, designers’ sketches, views of Hollywood, facsimiles of memoranda and old newspapers, publicity stills and frame enlargements, pages of shots from David Selznick films. All it lacks is a disc in the binding with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin.

And yet, despite the hype, the book repays the muscular effort of reading it. (Stonemasons’ Weekly: ‘I found this book hard to lay down.’) Selznick’s progress – through Paramount, RKO and MGM to independent production and post-war decline – makes his career emblematic. Recounting it, Ronald Haver chronicles Hollywood’s tarnished golden age, teeming with cut-throat movie moguls, touchy stars, voluptuous ‘discoveries’, toxic columnists, frenzied press-agents, writers in gilded cages, directors on assembly-lines. It’s the world of Garson Kanin’s artful factoid novel, Moviola – a glittering kitsch dream-world of overblown extravagance, ruthlessness, sentimentality and greed.

David Selznick came of age in that world. His father, Lewis Selznick, was an early, unsuccessful mogul. In a line not quoted here, he allegedly told his sons: ‘Live expensively! Throw it around! Give it away! Always remember to live beyond your means. It gives a man confidence.’ But if father was a joker, he was also a pedagogue, urging his children to read the classics and encouraging David, plump and studious, to write analyses of them – the germ of future ‘treatments’? By 14, the boy was already reporting for father on the work of assorted film-makers (‘Tourneur is one of America’s greatest film directors. He came here from France ...’). We next see Selznick in Hollywood, at the wheel of an open roadster. Aged 24, he looks a dyspeptic 60.

What he brought to films was ferocious energy, fuelled perhaps by a passion to expunge his father’s failures. He first scored by cutting costs on low-budget quickies: but before long he was known as a lavish, relentless perfectionist, intent on shaping every detail himself. This upset ambitious directors. When Alfred Hitchcock made Rebecca, Spell-bound and The Paradine Case, he was told to stop ‘cutting in the camera’, and to shoot enough film for Selznick to control the editing. Not surprisingly, these were three of Hitchcock’s feebler films.

Much of Selznick’s work was inspired by his boyhood reading. Apart from the freakish King Kong, his most characteristic Thirties productions were lovingly middlebrow adaptations of books. The best was probably David Copperfield (1935), with W.C. Fields as Micawber; one of the worst, three years later, was a plodding Tom Sawyer. Was Selznick wary of greater challenges – Bleak House or Huckleberry Finn? When he tackled Anna Karenina, also in 1935, he turned it into a glossy vehicle for Garbo; and his very last film, A Farewell to Arms, was an over-reverent flop. The best picture he produced, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, was the one in which he interfered the least – although he had the gall to re-edit it for the United States. To this film Ronald Haver alludes only in a caption.

Where Haver spreads himself is on Gone with the Wind. He admits to having seen it nearly a hundred and fifty times; and his account of it is a mine of superfluous information. But critical evaluation it’s not. ‘Steiner’s music for Gone with the Wind is one of the most superb scores ever written for any picture at any time ... It stands as a testament to his spirit as much as the picture itself does to Selznick’s genius.’ Amid the hyperbole it’s refreshing to hear that one Selznick employee thought Margaret Mitchell’s novel ‘ponderous trash’ and that another, John Van Druten, was sacked after calling it ‘a fine book for bellhops’.

Well, there must be lots of bellhops. The world sales of the novel now total some ten million; and the film had already grossed $62 million by 1950. Not until the Sixties was it overtaken by The Sound of Music. Both Mrs Mitchell and Selznick seem to have touched key nerves in American sensibility: romantic regret for a ‘gracious’ past, a ‘heritage’ to replace the slums and ghettos of Europe from which so many had really come; suppressed fear of violence, past as in the Civil War, contemporary in World War Two, and endemic in a gun-toting society; a celebration of the against-all-odds individualism that was and is a dominant American ethos; post-Victorian fascination with the unleashing of sex, in this case through domesticated rape; and grudging, conniving admiration for an unscrupulous New Woman, a more cosmetic version of the pushy dames lampooned by Thurber, and a preview of the ruthless, raunchy Women’s Libber who was on her way.

Selznick might have warmed to her. Soft-faced and fastidious, he seems at last to have broken out of the dutiful son’s mould. Married first to Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, he was the original butt of the gibe: ‘The son-in-law also rises.’ But when he was in his forties, his marriage failed. He ‘discovered’ the 21-year-old Phyllis Walker, née Isley, renamed her ‘Jennifer Jones’, and suggested her as the saintly heroine of The Song of Bernadette. Later, he recast her – as the sultry Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun, otherwise ‘Lust in the Dust’. Finally, he married her. Perhaps, behind all the business acumen and concern for production values, something simpler and more sympathetic was beginning to stir.

With more self-analysis, might David Selznick have made better movies? Ronald Haver asks no such question. He spends as little time exploring Selznick’s feelings as he does evaluating his films or examining why Gone with the Wind wowed Middle America. When he does refer to anyone’s private life, he adopts gossip-writers’ phrases like ‘romantically involved’. And although the book’s subject is Hollywood as much as Selznick, we only incidentally glimpse what else was going on: the rise and fall of the big-studio system, the injection of new talent and style from Europe, the emergence in the Screen Directors’ Guild of film-makers who wouldn’t brook nit-picking producers. Nor do we learn much of the political pressures that culminated in McCarthyism, or the competition from television that gave the golden age the coup de grâce. Selznick himself was more perceptive. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a long memo about the changes that were coming. One was the rise of the blockbusters, based on the hope that high costs would bring high profits, and modelled, if only unconsciously, on Gone with the Wind. That film, despite everything, remains Selznick’s monument. The title could be an epitaph for his world.

Ronald Reagan is one of its survivors: he got out while the going was good. His book, first published in 1965 as a campaign autobiography, tells some Hollywood stories: but Reagan lacked the glamour, and perhaps the single-minded self-absorption, to be a superstar – he’s had to be content with the White House. How much his self-portrait owes to his co-author is hard to tell. The tone is that of practised self-deprecation, modest, sincere and common-sensical – a more articulate version of Mr Deeds’s gee-gosh folksiness. Guile sometimes shows through, as when the future President cheats his eye-doctors by squinting at the chart between nearly-closed fingers and is passed as 20/20: but on the whole he seems honest and likeable, as he was meant to seem.

British readers will probably skip the hermetic accounts of American football games, as earnest as Sportsnight. They may enjoy Reagan’s tales of his beginnings in radio, including the inadvertent signing-off of Aimée Semple McPherson, the evangelist, with a Mills Brothers record of ‘Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day’. And they’ll wince at his verdict on filming The Hasty Heart (1950) at Elstree: ‘English picture-making is a strange combination of tremendously talented, creative people and incredible inefficiency that makes everything take longer than it should. Our set was a marvel of design and perspective, our cameraman without a peer, the cast truly professional to the smallest bit part, but we could spend half a day getting a simple dolly shot because no one could eliminate a floor squeak on the most important line in the scene.’

As a member, an official and later the president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, Reagan explored the labyrinth of union politics; and he soon found, by hearsay, how rough a game it could be.

  Pat Somerset ... related a conversation to us that he had with one of the labor leaders, and he was still a little wide-eyed in the telling. The man had been in a reminiscent mood, and he was telling anecdotes of a painters’ strike. ‘You know,’ he said in his heavy voice, ‘we used to catch those scab painters being sent home in trucks. I didn’t have any trouble getting guys to stop the trucks, or even to hold those scabs down, but when it came to breaking their arms I was the only one with guts enough to do it.’ He went on: ‘They’d hold one of ’em down for me and I’d put his arm over my knee and break it, so he couldn’t paint any more. It made a goddamned satisfying noise when it broke, too.’ Then he laughed and added, ‘I’ve often wondered how many of ’em might have been left-handed, and there I was always breaking the right arm.’

This may have been a former Al Capone enforcer: several had muscled in on IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The Actors’ Guild was a different matter. It won the battle for recognition, and better pay for supporting players, by persuasion in preference to force. It tried to mediate in technicians’ strikes which lost everyone time and money. Under Reagan in particular, it opposed plans for a single ‘umbrella’ organisation to represent all workers in the industry – supposedly for fear that Communists might grab the umbrella.

Reagan takes quite seriously what he calls ‘the Communist putsch for control of motion pictures’. His union experience coloured his suspicions: but his main evidence comes from the reports of Congressional Committees on ‘Un-American Activities’ – hardly the tablets of the law. Nowadays, in fact, the pendulum’s swung so far that parts of Reagan’s book read like a time capsule from a vanished age. Even a liberal like Arthur Schlesinger prefers to be called ‘anti-Stalinist’ rather than ‘anti-Communist’, while the original witch-hunters have long since gone to ground, to seed, to their graves or to jail.

Revenge is sweet, but seldom judicious. Surviving victims of HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, are understandably bitter: few could be as forgiving as the late Dalton Trumbo, one of the original ‘Hollywood Ten’. HUAC’s interrogations, its use of hearsay from virtually professional informers, its ritualistic insistence that witnesses ‘name names’ as Communist suspects or sympathisers, even when the names were already known – all this made it contemptible: but those who showed their contempt were indicted for precisely that. Careers were ruined, marriages wrecked, lives blighted, friendships betrayed, in a blaze of political publicity with no respect for the rules of evidence, the rights of the accused, or the dictates of justice. Bullying opportunists like J. Parnell Thomas, later jailed, and Joseph McCarthy, together with such men as John E. Rankin and Richard M. Nixon, posed as crusaders, hounding writers, actors, directors, and ordinary citizens whose political opinions were their only crime. The ensuing black list infected Hollywood like dry rot. The whole affair now looks like a pestilence, collective hysteria, an evil matching the Communist conspiracy it purported to undo. Lillian Hellman was right to call her memoir of the period Scoundrel Time. Today, no decent person could side with Parnell Thomas’s Committee. And yet, even so, true understanding requires more than taking sides. Not all the anti-Communists were dupes, bigots or villains; not all the witch-hunt’s victims were innocent, high-minded artists; not all the ‘friendly witnesses’ were venal, cowardly or disloyal. HUAC-beset Hollywood was as much an ethical labyrinth as Nazi-occupied France.

Three years ago, David Caute wrote a brisk, simplistic, ‘revisionist’ account of ‘the anti-Communist purge under Truman and Eisenhower’ called The Great Fear. Its chapter on Hollywood was barely 34 pages long. Now, using published and unpublished sources, with more than a hundred and fifty interviews, the 48-year-old Victor Navasky has devoted a whole book to the dilemmas of those caught up in the ritual of Naming Names. This has already enjoyed great celebrity in the United States. Navasky is a graduate of the Yale Law School, has worked on Monocle and the New York Times, and became editor of the Nation in 1978. Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, Studs Terkel and Tom Wicker are among the admirers quoted on the dust-jacket; and, as if that weren’t enough, Navasky himself twinkles out on the back flap in a checked open-neck shirt, a beard, wiry glasses, and an engine-driver’s cap which suggests he’s about to pull in to the Finland Station.

Ostensibly, Navasky’s book is compassionate and even-handed. Discussing the ‘friendly witnesses’, it has somewhat the air of a Jesuit father forgiving human weakness but pleased that sinners get their comeuppance. If it quotes the Daily Worker’s vile invective against Elia Kazan, it quickly refers to ‘the Party’s ritualistic indignation’. It speaks of America’s and Russia’s ‘rival imperialisms’, scoffs at the notion that the Korean War was a UN ‘police action’, and professes to leave open the question whether ‘Truman rather than Stalin was the true father of the cold war’ – all these for starters, on pages three and seven. With that as a conceptual framework, it’s easy to assimilate American Communists as just another variety of ‘liberal’, a homely part of the ‘progressive’ Establishment, as if they didn’t defend the Moscow Trials, require the novelists among them to toe the Party line, or pretend (as did the Hollywood Ten) to be simple hickory-smoked Jeffersonian democrats.

In reality, of course, the Hollywood Communists were remarkably innocuous. Only a Muscovite functionary would suppose that Red writers could smuggle propaganda through the studio script factory – especially in such vehicles as Alvah Bessie’s The Very Thought of You, Herbert Biberman’s Meet Nero Wolfe, Lester Cole’s Romance of Rosy Ridge, John Howard Lawson’s They shall have music, Albert Maltz’s This Gun for Hire or Dalton Trumbo’s Our vines have tender grapes. Navasky himself describes the ‘weird coherence’ of ‘the red subculture’ – a personal network of artists working as hacks, swimming-pool owners with secret CP cards, dependents of the movie moguls taking refuge in courtiers’ mockery. But there are times in Navasky’s book when he seems to imply that the ‘friendly witnesses’ were most at fault when they broke up such cosy communities, setting friend against friend and sometimes husband against wife. Naming names, that is, was telling tales. The ultimate evil was to be a fink.

With Judas haunting the debate, it’s as well to be careful. E.M. Forster hoped that he’d have the courage to betray his country rather than his friend. But doesn’t it depend on the country and the cause? Finking on Jesus was a pretty bad idea, except as part of the Almighty’s inscrutable plan: but how about finking on Judas? If, like Elia Kazan, you’ve found in the USA a land of freedom and opportunity that welcomes the humblest if they’re prepared to work hard and be loyal, aren’t you troubled when some of your fellow-citizens seem to have more sympathy with Stalin? Is your adopted country not your true friend? Can you really feel that ‘the red subculture’ deserves your allegiance instead?

Kazan has never fully explained why he became a ‘friendly witness’, although he tried at the time: his best apologia is his and Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront, where union corruption is only defeated after Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, plucks up the courage to ... fink. Navasky pours scorn on this movie, as if sensing how much it damages his case.

There’s little point in enumerating some of the minor errors in Naming Names: its omission of Philip Dunne, who helped found the Hollywood Committee for the First Amendment, and whose memoir Take Two corrects some of Navasky’s bias; two mistakes in law; one confusion of identity; and any number of what struck me as unfair sneers. But the heart of the matter is that Navasky, for all his appearance of objectivity, has never understood the people he calls ‘cold war liberals’ – people who opposed both the witch-hunters and the Communists, and still do. The result is an uneasy blend of fascinating investigative journalism, meandering moral speculation and rapid political footwork which is either very naive or unpleasantly crafty.

How much did the great Red scare tarnish the golden age and hasten Hollywood’s decline? Navasky professes to believe, with Adrian Scott of the Hollywood Ten, that John Ford, William Dieterle, William Wyler, Nunnally Johnson and Elia Kazan all produced less good work after the black list took effect. He adds: ‘Although Scott’s somewhat mechanistic, ideologically culture-bound political aesthetic consigned clearly superior films like Waterfront and arguably superior ones like [East of] Eden to critical purgatory because he did not like their values, his catalogue if not his analysis usefully suggests the magnitude of our loss.’ Actually, it does nothing of the kind. Age, and television, were the real culprits; and even late in life John Ford was making ‘clearly superior’ films. But Navasky’s Mr-Facing-Both-Ways act, simultaneously disavowing and exploiting Scott’s claim, is characteristic of his strategy throughout Naming Names. I wonder how he would have answered J. Parnell Thomas.