- GONE HOLLYWOOD
- By Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz
- Doubleday & Company, Inc.
- Garden City, New York 1979
Here is a different kind of Hollywood book. Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz look behind the legends to discover what it was really like to live and work in the movie colony during the Golden Age of the studio system. Gone Hollywood is a book about moguls and mobsters, about parties and politics, barroom brawls and boardroom bargains. Never before has a book dealt so comprehensively with both the surface glitter and the often startling world that lay beneath it, a world that stretched from the stars dancing at the Mocambo to desperate extras living in shanties between jobs. Gone Hollywood looks at the way glamour was created and disseminated, how much the stars earned and how they spent it.
In those early days, the movie colony was a tight-knit group dominated by people in their twenties and thirties. In 1924 Betty Bronson was eighteen, Colleen Moore was twenty-one, Marion Davies and Gloria Swanson were twenty-seven, and Lillian Gish was twenty-eight. Harold Lloyd was thirty-one, Buster Keaton was twenty-nine—as was Rudolph Valentino—and Ramon Novarro and Irving Thalberg were both twenty-five. Bebe Daniels, who had been a star for almost a decade, celebrated her twentythird birthday that year. (In the teens, producers had sought out fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls because the camera, prior to the diffusion lens, was a pitiless instrument and women were often over the hill by the time they reached their early twenties.)
Few of the people in movies had had much formal education. Actors, directors, writers, cutters, cameramen, and lab technicians had acquired their skills on the job by a process of trial and error. For all its spectacular success, though, Hollywood was snubbed by most of the nabobs of the legitimate theater and by polite society. As late as 1931, when the City of Los Angeles celebrated its first 150 years, movie people were treated as pariahs. The industry raised thousands of dollars for the celebrations and staged a spectacular electrical parade, but the committee which organized the culminating Fiesta Ball decided to exclude all Hollywood personalities.
George Folsey—who received his first screen credit in 1919 and was for many years a mainstay at M-G-M—states, quite succinctly, “I have devoted my whole life to thinking about light.” As a boy he had a job delivering groceries and remembers studying the way that gas lamps cast shadows in dim hallways. As a young cameraman in New York he took note of everything that might be of possible value:
There were no schools then, so you learned as you went along. When I’d get on the subway, I’d look at the people and ask myself, “How are they lighted?” Wherever I was, indoors or out, I’d ask myself that question. . . .
I’d go to museums and photographic galleries. I’d stop by at Perry MacDonald’s salon. He photographed only men—he refused to photograph women—and he always had great character in those faces, and great skin texture. And nearby there was a man called Albin who had huge blowups of Dorothy and Lillian Gish. I’d study those and I’d look in the magazines and learn the names of the fashion photographers and watch what they did.
Nothing could benefit a star more than this particular obsession. By orchestrating key lights and filters, reflectors and diffusors, the director of photography could make a beautiful woman seem more beautiful, or he could bring out the character in a man’s face. The distribution of light and shadow can, of course, also be used to create drama and tension or frivolity, to give a film a look of stark realism or deliberately evoke an ambience of artifice. Given the Hollywood system, however, much of the cinematographer’s energy was likely to be devoted to servicing the stars. As far back as 1919, Billy Bitzer was photographing the twenty-two-yearold Lillian Gish through a fine silk net, in order to make her appear younger—the first step toward the development of the rejuvenating diffusing lens.
Lillian Gish arranged for Mary Astor to test for D. W. Griffith. When John Barrymore saw photographs of her, he requested that she be considered for his leading lady in Beau Brummel (whispering to her during the test, “You are so goddamn beautiful, you make me feel faint”). Barrymore was responsible for giving William Powell his start and was repaid, years later, when Powell refused to replace him in Romeo and Juliet.