Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reviewing TCM's Moguls and Movie Stars

From: Big Hollywood: TCM's Documentary On Hollywood History Wildly Misses the Mark

by John Nolte 
Over the past few weeks I’ve been catching up with the Turner Classic Movies’ original documentary “Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood,” which aired in seven one-hour installments and reportedly took two-and-a-half-years to produce. Which is a shame, because it was uniformly awful. Trying to cover the history of Hollywood from Thomas Edison to “Bonnie and Clyde” in just seven hours is a recipe for disaster to begin with, more or less guaranteeing that your Hollywood history lesson will be as surface and shallow as a middle school film strip about the American Revolution. In those seven hours, there was nothing new to be learned for anyone who’s ever taken Film 101 at a community college, much less someone who’s enough of a TCM fan to dedicate that kind of time to one of their original productions.

There were also a number of eye-rolling moments. The series found it impossible to mention John Wayne without also mentioning he didn’t serve in WWII and went so far as to remind us that while Ronald Reagan served in the Reserves during the war he never left American soil. Naturally, they failed to mention that much to the future President’s frustration, he was disqualified for combat due to extreme near-sightedness.

Furthermore, as though there isn’t one today, the documentary covered the political blacklist of the 1950s and spent an inordinate amount of time arguing against the dreaded Hollywood Production Code, a set of self-imposed guidelines created by industry moguls that spelled out what was and wasn’t acceptable content in motion pictures. According to TCM, any film ”brave” enough to buck up against the dreaded Code was to be celebrated as some sort of moral victory. If you didn’t know any better, you would think the arrival “Bonnie and Clyde” — the film that pretty much marked the end of the Production Code — was as important and liberating as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hollywood has finally arrived, the documentary seems to say.

I hate censorship as much as anyone, but I’m not blind to the idea that maybe movies were better under those restrictions, that maybe forcing artists to find more creative ways to telegraph sex, violence, adultery and the like forced them to create better art. The fall of the Production Code did create a new Golden Era of filmmaking during the 1970s, but it was an awfully short-lived one, nothing like the decades between the late ’20s through the late ’50s. Maybe you can’t blame a lack of censorship on the poor quality of films over the last few decades, but I’ll take the results of any one of those awful, stifling years under the dreaded Production Code over any five years post-1970.

The point the documentary appeared most determined to make was that the moguls (and we are repeatedly reminded that they were political conservatives) — Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck, Sam Goldwyn, Harry Cohn, Adolf Zukor, etc. – were in the way; that they were meddling micro-managers blocking artistic progress, little more than ruthless businessmen eager to consolidate their power and boost their bottom line all at the expense of what could’ve been had they not been so darned conservative.

Yes, they were tough businessmen, but other than an increase in hypocrisy nothing’s changed in Liberated Hollywood. But these moguls were also the men who oversaw four decades of unparalleled artistry, who understood how the motion picture industry worked (because they created it) and who knew from their own backgrounds as impoverished immigrants what the everyday American was looking for up on that screen. These were the men who created immortal screen legends through a movie star farm system and did the same with directors, screenwriters and other behind-the-scenes artists who frequently toiled for years making cheap quickies before a famous title reached their resumes.

Most importantly, these were the men who created, oversaw, guided, and managed an industry that earned the affection of the free world for decades through the bringing together of all the arts — performance, design, dance, music, lighting, the written word — into works that still capture our imaginations. Compare that to today’s Hollywood, an industry that’s now a culturally divisive punchline in jokes about sequels, remakes, spoiled celebrities, and self-importance.

Maybe in this arena I’m being too hard on TCM (the “Film 101″ criticism stands), too defensive on behalf of those I credit with bringing so much joy into my life. The series did recognize much of what these moguls accomplished, but there just seemed to be this running subtext that as the era of the moguls came to an end, things got better! As though these incredible men were somehow in the way of unleashing the full potential of their own creation. Well, maybe that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that the full potential of their creation is more attractive than the more disciplined one.

And I would like to ask TCM what their thoughts are on the New Production Code? Where was the closing warning about the self-imposed censorship happening today in motion pictures; where you can show all the sex, violence, torture and drug use you want, but cigarette smoking is a big no-no. What about the fact that in movies today you can make attractive such deadly habits as loveless sex and crime, but the gay jokes have to stop? How is the New Censorship any different from the old Production Code?

Is Hollywood really more liberated and tolerant today? Are the leftists who run the entertainment industry today any less ruthless in their thirst for power than the moguls, any less artistically censorious with their PC commands than the Production Code, any more tolerant of those who disagree with their politics than the Blacklisters?

No. In many ways they’re worse, especially for women.

The only thing that’s different in today’s Hollywood is the political ideology of those who run things, and that in comparison to the conservative, America-loving moguls who started with nothing and changed the world … their movies suck.

That’s the real history of Hollywood.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Kevin, and I agree. I've seen a few documentaries on PBS about Hollywood and the Moguls. They ruled with iron fists.
    The movie biz has not improved for women much either, IMHO!

    You have a great blog, thanks for following mine. I enjoy movies alot and do the occasional movie review. Happy New Year, Bunni


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