Will the whole continent go Hollywood?
HUTCHISON IN HOLLYWOOD II
Movie-makers for fifty years have mesmerized themselves with their own make-believe, Now they're beginning to drug millions of TV viewers every night—and even national leaders are being rated by their showmanship and photogenic charm
Since first sighting Los Angeles from the air — an infinite galaxy of lights like the Milky Way turned upside down and spread beneath me—I had been nagged by the obvious question: What made this monstrous agglomeration and civic botch perhaps the most potent force in North American life? What is that force, loosely called Hollywood and now in tinsel Renaissance, doing to all of us?
No sooner w'as I on the ground than James H. Richardson, the ex-Canadian w'ho has known his town, as reporter
and editor, for nearly half a century, gave me part of the answer by telephoning to ask. in breathless anxiety, if I were still in my right mind.
“Don’t go out of doors." he cried, "till I come and get you. Don't talk to anybody. Stay off the streets. The very air is full of madness."
Richardson wasn't joking. The air is full of madness. But a very special madness, unknown anywhere else. It will soon produce the world's largest
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“A certain wild splendor ... a workshop of art . . . the focus of a revolution”
city. It has already produced, in an explosion of celluloid, the Empire of Euphoria, the High Forum of the Phony, the Mecca of the Mediocre. And yet, for all its unequaled triumph of vulgarity, it has produced a certain wild splendor, too, a magnet of genius, a mighty workshop of art and the focus of a social revolution.
All this, and much more, has been achieved by a combination of three things —climate, soil and a cunning arrangement of photographic images on a screen. Of the three, the images are by far the most important for America and the world; also, the least understood.
Not since the invention of printing has the human mind been exposed to the kind of pressure which Hollywood is now beginning, and only beginning, to exert with a new and more penetrating image. Will the effect of the current motion-picture revolution on the larger revolution of society be good, bad or indifferent?
That question, more than any other, had brought me here and Richardson knew where we should get a full answer. Next afternoon, therefore, we repaired to the awesome home, office and battle headquarters of Hollywood s most influential, or at any rate most feared, personage.
Miss Louella Parsons, erratic arbiter of motion pictures, confessor of stars, tattletale-in-chief of America and high priestess of a mysterious arcanum since the hair-pant days, had installed herself in a fitting temple, bathed its stucco walls with orange floodlights, filled it with unbelievable gilt trappings, equipped it with a gaudy barroom in black and white leather; and, just outside a huge window in clear, accusatory view of her drinking friends, this teetotaler and devout Catholic had erected a marble, life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, also floodlighted.
Though not far off seventy. I guessed, and long a sorrowing widow, she was still a handsome woman, skilfully preserved. Her angular, well-shaped face had been made up with expert precautions, her hair convincingly tinged in something like the orange floodlight color that she seemed to favor, and her long, Chinese dress of vividly embroidered silk made her stand out like a scarlet flower against the black-and-white barroom.
As she talked 1 found I liked her and 1 pitied her. Uneasy lay the orange head that wore the crown of celluloid—the tyrant of the trivial, the mastermind of everything that doesn t matter, the dedicated prophetess of the banal. Hollywood incarnate.
What. I asked, had been the net effect of the motion picture on society? Had it been constructive or the reverse?
A simple question but Miss Parsons melancholy eyes looked at me as if I had asked something more complex than nuclear physics. No such question, I felt sure, had ever entered that busy mind before. Her reply was astounding in its irrelevance.
“Well,'' she said, after some moments' thought, “we're very proud to hear that Jimmy Stewart may be made a general, and Irene Dunne was once a delegate to the United Nations.”
She couldn’t think, nor could Hollywood, of the motion picture as a massive social phenomenon. She could think of it only as a collection of personalities,
a family portrait, an endless frolic, a perpetual premiere.
There were good movies and bad. She went on in such a listless tone that I could no longer believe her reputation as a very hell-cat of pugnacity. She deplored
the newer pictures on such themes as homosexuality. Some of the movie advertisements were suggestive and might harm adolescents.
With a forlorn sigh Miss Parsons confessed that she couldn't answer my ques-
tion. She just didn't know. In nearly four decades of scoop and scandal it was plain that she had yet to find out what the motion picture was about. And she was too honest to say she had.
Richardson and 1 retreated into the hellish neon night of Los Angeles without an answer to our question.
On the following day, however, we faced, in an opulent office, among a medley of Oscars and other mementoes, a man who must know all the answers. Yet again even this powerful and highly intelligent figure could give me nothing
more than a threadbare party line.
"Of course,” he said, with an unconvincing air of confidence, “the motion picture has been a good and wonderful influence on society. It has done more for democracy in America than any other thing of our time. It has advertised democracy everywhere else in the world. Go to Europe or Asia or Africa and you’ll see how the people envy us after they see our pictures. They see America and the chance of a better life. That is the message of the motion picture.”
Privately I doubted, from my own travels, that envy and a harsh contrast of living standards were the best method of making friends for American democracy; but I was here only to ask questions.
Did the motion picture give a true picture of American civilization? Well, not exactly, the great executive admitted. Necessarily the motion picture gave a "heightened” version of life—not distorted. just "heightened.”
"It gives," he said, “a dramatic image. So it must. And don't we all? Why, every man must make a dramatic image of himself part of the time or life would be no fun. That’s all the motion picture does and that’s its proper business.”
I thought a much better defense could be made of his craft but the executive didn't make it. My questions seemed to disturb him, as if he had never faced them before. He was one of the most educated, intelligent and sensitive men 1 had everunet and a fellow of infinite jest. Nevertheless, the more 1 questioned him the more I realized that he had never reasoned through the real meaning and consequence of the machine now moving smoothly all around him.
"When you speak," he said, "about the motion picture as a social force—whatever that may be—you have to remember that we’re dealing here with the unknown and gambling our shirts on it every day."
“Because we never know what we've got. We invest a fortune in a picture or a star hut we can’t tell whether the deal will pay off. Often it doesn’t.”
“Take Katharine Hepburn, for instance. We saw the first rushes of A Bill of Divorcement and thought we might have something. We decided to build Hepburn up with publicity. We planned to show her in a bathing suit, and eating her breakfast and brushing her teeth. We figured it would be a tough job to build a star who had no measurements, no looks, nothing you could call sex.
“See what happened! She'd no sooner hit the screen than the world went crazy about her. She had everything. Yes, but what it was I’m damned if l know to this day."
It was ridiculous, he protested, to assume that he or anyone could make a star by spending money on build-up. and equally ridiculous to suppose that a woman could become a star merely because she had a pretty face and a voluptuous body.
"Do you suppose.” he asked, "that Monroe has nothing but her looks and figure? Why, we could take ten thousand better-looking women, with better figures, and we couldn't do anything with them. No. there’s something else. Don't ask me what it is. Nobody knows. It's just a Something that comes through and sets the public on fire."
"The fact is,” he affirmed, “that a star must stand on his own feet. Oh, there are a few tricks all right, mostly defensive. You remember how Monroe was haunted in her early days by her nude photograph on a calendar? the studio licked that problem in one sentence. When she was asked why she had posed naked she
simply said, ‘Because I was hungry.’ There you had a masterpiece of public relations. Because she was hungry! The public understood in a flash. The nude picture did her no harm. Even real scandal rarely does a star any harm.
“The morals of actors and actresses.” he declared judiciously, as if he were analyzing the virtues of some commercial product like a new car or washing machine, “are average. They behave like everybody else. The publie doesn t expect them to be better than it is. Did scandal hurt Lana Turner? Not a bit."
Then, discussing the stars rather like children who must be treated kindly but never taken seriously, he laid down an interesting dictum: "The public likes to hear that the stars are human and fall in love and sometimes turn up in the wrong bed. Their love life is a positive asset at the box office. But it’s a very different thing to be caught in some little act of meanness. If a star does something malicious, some dirty little trick to harm somebody else, that can be ruinous.
From his mental card index the executive pulled some exhibits for my information. Susan Hayward, for instance, had no sex appeal but she had talent. Miss Debbie Reynolds had neither in significant quantities but she had something else—she w'as the nice, clean-cut, lovable girl next door. Mr. Gary Cooper had made a career of practiced shyness, he w'as the image of a simple cowboy with heart of gold—whose hands were always in the way, whose feet shuffled awkwardly but, oh. so effectively on the ground—"the best dirt kicker in the business."
He said the motion picture not only had been vastly improved to compete with television but had been basically altered in method. “The system is dying. Today the play’s the thing, as it should be. If your script is no good no star can save the show. So we're doing better shows, putting more money into them, more thought, more talent.
"We used to figure the audience was fourteen years old. Now we aim at an imaginary group mentally between the ages of eighteen and thirty. The audience has grown up very fast, along with the picture. And look how the old taboos are breaking down. We can now discuss homosexuality, for example, a social problem, a legitimate theme. We re getting closer to life all the time.”
He ended on a hopeful note: "People who say television will kill the motion picture forget that tomorrow morning, maybe, down the street will come another great story or another great star and we're off to the races again. Besides, television is the motion picture. Go and see for yourself how it’s made.
Before accepting his invitation into the holy of holies I heard a much better defense of motion pictures from a scholarly. nervous man who had been waiting them since 1920 and had long since been graduated in his art cum laude and the required stomach ulcer.
"Sure, we turn out a lot of sorry stuff." he said, "but some good stuff comes through, more and more of it. I think of our product as candy but we manage to put some vitamins into it and they're swallowed unconsciously.”
As an illustration, he told of hunting every year in Montana where the natives used to talk of nothing but game, cattle, weather and crops. Last autumn, however. he had entered a bunkhouse in the mountains to find the cowboys arguing about the ballet. They had seen it. of course, on television.
"They’d never have seen ballet and many other things without the film." the writer said. "Now they’re seeing the
whole world and everyone in it. That’s disguised education but it’s education just the same. Or culture, if you like. We hoke it up all right but so did Shakespeare. You have to, if you’re going to reach the groundlings. Still, something useful rubs off. And it’s only a beginning.”
Another writer agreed that it was just the beginning and he was terrified of the end.
“The important thing,” said this man of brilliant talent and troubled conscience, “is not whether shows are good or bad but the fact that they’re always a show. What's the effect on a society that lives several hours a day not in life but in a show? I’m not worried about sex and bustlines and bedroom scenes—the public will get bored with them. What worries me is that we’re making America into one continual show—always with a happy ending. We’re keeping its mind off the hard facts of life that don’t usually end that way. The show used to be an occasional hour of harmless entertainment. Now we’ve made it a way of life.”
Government, he protested, was becoming a show, statesmen were judged mainly as actors, businessmen were hiring public-relations experts to give them an image like a Hollywood star, housewives looked into the mirror hoping to see Elizabeth Taylor, teen-age girls expected some handsome male like Bill Holden to father their children, boys wanted a wife built like Mansfield, newspapers were crammed with movie and TV gossip.
“We like to pretend,” he added, “that we’re opening a window on life. No, we're pulling down the blinds and turning out the lights and converting the whole damn human species into a pack of gaping morons in a dark room. How long can democracy stand that drug? Nothing like that has ever happened to man before. The invention of printing had no power like this. I tell you society is in a flight from itself and we’re providing the womb for it to pop back into. Technically Hollywood represents an advance. Spiritually it represents a retreat, a rout.”
(As this disenchanted and quite untypical American was speaking, a purely Canadian notion crossed my mind. If we are worried in Canada about American penetration perhaps we should be watching the studios of Hollywood more than the Pentagon or Wall Street.)
Before I had finished this rather futile enquiry I spent an evening with a man who has been one of Hollywood's greatest stars for thirty years. You know his face as well as your own. What surprised me was not that he neither drank, smoked nor philandered and in his sixties was still an athlete but that he had never paused to think what he and his kind might be doing to the life of America.
The question was new to him. he admitted, and because he was a thoughtful man it troubled him. He regarded his craft, he said, only as entertainment, a legitimate business though not very important. He was an entertainer not a statesman, psychologist or sociologist. To be sure, he said, a little defensively, the motion picture didn't present life as it really was but "dramatized.” What harm could that do anybody?
Still, our talk of six hours seemed to shake him somewhat. He agreed that American society was in a bad way and, indeed, he argued as a keen amateur farmer and conservationist that his country was destroying its resources and going the way of many civilizations now dead. Perhaps the rage for entertainment had something to do with this madness.
Next morning, when I saw him again,
gardening in torn overalls and patched shirt, he told me he had thought overnight about Hollywood’s impact on his country’s disordered mind. But what could he do about it? He was only a cog in a gigantic machine. At least he had been thinking of these things, apparently for the first time. Among many able and artistic men I found few others who had ever thought about them.
I decided to take the executive’s advice and talk to some of the men who manage them as a practical business. But in the crowded restaurant where they entertained me at lunch it was impossible to escape the air of make-believe.
Listening carefully to expert instruction, I was distracted by the most celebrated faces of our time, actors who agitated the female heart, actresses whose beauty and anatomy lighted the male libido the world over. Yet there was something wrong with make-believe at close quarters.
All these men and women, so glorious and superhuman on the screen, looked quite ordinary over a bowl of soup or a hamburger. If you hadn't seen their faces twenty feet square and technicolored on celluloid you wouldn’t give them a second glance.
As I watched them out of the corner of my eye, eating, talking and behaving like anybody else. I remembered J. B. Priestley’s acute verdict on Hollywood— its shadow is larger and more real than its substance.
It seemed to me, in fact, that its shadow was its substance. The dreams so cleverly built for sale to others had become the builders’ own reality. They had constructed a make-believe world and now believed it themselves. More than their customers, they were the captives of their myth. That restaurant was their private planet.
Crosby shows his age
Hollywood, my host told me, had lately cut its production of motion pictures for the theatre by about half, and theatre attendance had dropped last year to about forty million a week from sixtysix million ten years ago.
“That’s hard to take,” he admitted, "but it’s a transition phase. The future of the motion picture is not in the theatre. It’s in the home, through television. That raises interesting problems.”
(Mr. Bing Crosby entered the restaurant but no one seemed to notice him. Seating himself at the table next to ours, he drummed on it nervously with his fingers and hummed a little tune. His rather sad face, under its buff grease paint, was tense and bore traces of age. Among his fellow workers it was unnecessary to maintain his professional posture and registered trade mark as America’s Blithe Spirit.)
"Our problem.” the expert went on, "is technical and economic. Technically we need and we’ll soon have a completely new kind of television. There'll be a screen rolled down to cover the livingroom wall. Its image—in color, of course —will be as true as the image in a theatre. The living room will be the theatre — better pictures, a far bigger audience, more time spent looking at the screen, more impact on everybody. But the economic revolution is more difficult.
“Television,” said the expert, “is already at a standstill, in its present form. It can’t get any more money from advertising and the money it gets isn’t nearly enough to make a good product. We put a million, five million or ten into a motion picture. The average budget of a television show is about thirty thousand dollars, and when you've paid the star
maybe four thousand dollars and the writer fifteen hundred there’s not enough left to make a good show. We need a lot more money and we’re going to get it.”
(Mr. Henry Fonda came through the door, well disguised in a white plaster cast covering his entire head. He had not been in an accident, only in. a hospital scene.)
"Television must get its money from the viewer, direct. That means pay TV, inevitably. How soon it'll come we don’t know but it must come and we’re banking on it. When you drop a quarter in the slot for an evening’s program, or maybe a dollar for a big production, that'll be cheap entertainment for the whole family, cheaper than the theatre, and it’ll put television on its feet. That’s Hollywood’s future—the same industry but selling its product through a new and richer outlet, and selling it to everybody in the world.”
(The economist paused to inform me that the gentlemen who had joined Mr. Crosby were Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen and several other song writers who represented, at one table, assets worth many millions. Mr. Crosby was not impressed. He patted a passing small boy on the head and kept humming nervously to himself.)
“Last year fifty-four percent of Hollywood’s earnings came from foreign countries. Exports were a life saver when television hit us. To sell them we have to make a global product, as acceptable in London, Paris or Bombay as it is in America. That takes planning.”
(Some radiant creatures wove their way through the crowd, clad in evening gowns, ski suits, nurses’ uniforms and Japanese kimonos. I seemed to recognize their faces but could put no names to them.)
“The motion picture has become a single package deal. You get a script, preferably a proved property like a bestselling book or a Broadway hit. You get a director and a star—he must usually be a male star, 1 don’t quite know why, before the bank will lend you a nickel. If the script is good and the director reliable the bank looks at the star and asks what his last picture grossed. No star is any better at the bank than his last picture.”
(My eye. like any normal male eye, wandered to that table of luscious womanhood. One of these ladies, 1 guessed, was Miss Leslie Caron because she resembled Gigi, and another must have been Miss Debbie Reynolds because she resembled the girl next door.)
"If the bank likes your package you get the money. And since the male star is in the driver’s seat a dozen or so of these fellows have held the industry up for unbelievable wages or a cut in the profits, it's been a sort of quiet, polite, unofficial strike. So far they've won but as a business proposition it’s crazy.”
After all this technical instruction 1 had yet to see the actors of Hollywood at work but they must wait. An even more notable actor from Washington, D.C., was in town that night and Richardson insisted that I meet him.
A few blocks from the studio my friend, though he had lived here since 1910, got hopelessly lost in a metropolitan maze more than five hundred miles square, the habitation of nearly six million people who will be ten million within two decades as the largest migration of human history streams into the nation’s catch-basin of southern California.
If it is not yet an organic city Los Angeles is already a tragedy for its older inhabitants, who watch their unique and happy civilization overwhelmed by mass invasion.
Finding myself at last in the Ambassador Hotel, I expected to see there a touch of reality. Nothing, surely, could be more real, practical, earthy and American than the vice-president of the United States. He wasn’t, though, not that night, not in Los Angeles.
Mr. Nixon entered the banquet hall, smiling, boyish and bashful, in the blue shirt required for television, a suit not too well pressed and (as 1 was assured by an expert) a slight, almost imperceptible make-up. He was ready for his act. But when I was introduced to him I found a warmth and attraction that I could never have believed possible from his photographs and legend.
Under the cameras and cruel klieg lights he put on a show of technical perfection, a truly stupendous feat of impromptu answers to unexpected questions from the newspapermen, a cold but dazzling summary of the real issues before the nation, all in flawless English and immaculate syntax. I had never seen the equal of this show.
There was the point of the whole occasion — it was a show, in method essentially the same show which Hollywood uses to make money and a contemporary statesman must use to make votes; in fact, just another and improved television show, a “heightened” version of politics. Nixon's listeners were clearly judging him as an actor in a contrived stage setting, and as an actor he did not reach their emotions, only their heads.
Despite his technical perfection his failure of stagecraft, not of mentality, may cost him the presidency, but as a foreigner I was not concerned with American politics. I was interested only in this local demonstration of a profound and new fact of our times: no statesman, in any country, can escape the terrible compulsion of a visual medium which tends more and more to make politics not a process of reason but a spectacle of entertainment.
What Hollywood has done to entertainment, as entertainment, may not be very important. What it is doing to government is rather terrifying. That night, at any rate, the play was the thing.
Even while Mr. Nixon was speaking cameramen prowled about the room to photograph the motion - picture stars in the audience. An actress close to me whipped the spectacles from her nose and grinned toothily as the flashlight bulb exploded. The second citizen of the land might be talking about peace and war but the show must go on.
When we reached Richardson’s house he showed me the early editions of tomorrow’s newspaper. The big news was not of international affairs, national politics or Mr. Nixon’s speech. Instead, the front pages were splashed with pictures of Miss Reynolds, Miss Taylor and Mr. Eddie Fisher who, in the usual grinry triangle, had that day arranged the latest Hollywood divorce.
During the peaceful night of Arcadia a burglar shot two policemen in the next block. That news was too common and routine to make the front pages but as we prepared to visit the sound stages where the motion picture is born, Richardson produced a final exhibit.
On the latest front page appeared a six-column photograph of Miss Lana Turner and the daughter who had previously dispatched the mother's gangster boy friend. Parent and child (undamaged by scandal as the executive had assured me) were shown "arriving for the press premiere of the star's newest picture.” And the title of that picture summed up in three words the mind, method and mystery of Hollywood. The title was: Imitation of Life, it