Previewing History: Brother, Can You Spare a Dream?, Episode 4 of TCM's Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood
Reviewed Robert Cashill

Oscar Micheaux, impresario of the race films that offered an alternative to Hollywood stereotypes

Oscar Micheaux, impresario of the race films that offered an alternative to Hollywood stereotypes

Produced and written by Jon Wilkman; camera by Neal Brown and Neil Smith; narrated by Christopher Plummer. Color and B&W, 57 min. (each episode). An Ostar Productions presentation on Turner Classic Movies.

I read a review once of a biography of a famous individual. I recall neither the title of the biography nor the person, but something in the review stayed with me. Prior to this posthumous bio the VIP had penned an autobiography, which caused him great frustration. “Why did I do so much?,” he muttered to friends, as he tried to get his life in order on the page.

Wilkman and company probably said the said the same thing as they arrived at Episode 4: “Hollywood, why did you do so much?” The Hollywood that existed in 1928, when the show opens, had been razed and replaced by 1940 and the onset of World War II. Sound killed off the silents, 80% of which disappeared as the studios, with no eye toward posterity, simply dumped them. It hurt the studios, which had to spend two to three times more per picture on sound movies in the Depression era, when revenues and attendance plummeted. And it brought a quick end to silent stars found wanting for talkies, or for other reasons—consumed by the sort of trumped-up scandals she had weathered in the Twenties, “The It Girl,” Clara Bow, lost it, and was washed up by age 28. But Greta Garbo, with her husky accent, extended her career into talkies with the hit Anna Christie(1930), which took advantage of her foreignness.

Curiously the show doesn’t take the opportunity to contrast Garbo’s rising star with lover John Gilbert’s falling one, if only to disprove the myth that an unappealing voice ended his career. But Plummer’s calm and unhurried narration can’t disguise that there’s a lot of cutting to the chase here, and some of your favorite lore is likely to be glossed over or omitted; Universal’s horror-fueled renaissance, for example, has to settle for a mention.

There is, however, the introduction, finally, of a compelling theme. I’m watching the show episode to episode, so I have no idea what the “big picture” will be, or even if there will be a big picture. Moguls & Movie Stars has been compared to Ken Burns’s documentaries for its scope; what it lacks, however, is a strong point of view, and thus far it’s conformed to the definition of history as one damned thing after another. There’s not much takeaway from its entertaining smorgasbord of clips, personalities, and talking heads.

In Episode 4, however, the title is finally fused. Previously the moguls and movie stars had commingled in their brave new world; in the Thirties they are codependent. Despite the handicap of a withered arm William Fox had a mean golf swing and a killer business instinct that might have made him the emperor of the worldwide movie business had not the Depression hobbled his chain of heavily mortgaged movie theaters and his own vaunted ambition; it was a little girl, Shirley Temple, who got the studio he founded off his knees. Warner Bros. had a troupe of troublesome stars, including Bette Davis and James Cagney, whose box-office clout was worth the effort (she pressed for better contracts, while he, speaking Yiddish, embarrassed the brothers by eavesdropping on their private conversations). Walt Disney had Mickey Mouse, and aspirations toward color filmmaking (realized at feature length in 1937’s landmark Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) that would again convulse the industry’s bottom line. Ragtag Columbia, whose “lady” logo was laughed off the screen by audiences savvy about its low-rent product, silenced naysayers with a string of award-winning smashes directed by Frank Capra, the sentimental can-do auteurof the era. Such marquee clout wielded by a director was a far cry from early in the decade, when the all-important soundman overruled directorial decision making in theSingin’ in the Rain days of talkies.

As is customary Moguls & Movie Stars is at its most interesting (or at least less familiar) when it concentrates on personalities who were neither big studio moguls nor stars. Here it’s African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose popular “race films” for black audiences provided an alternative to the creaky stereotypes still offered up by Hollywood. The artists were trying; not wanting Birth of a Nation-type controversy David O. Selznick elected not to film Ku Klux Klan passages from the novel on which his blockbuster-to-end-all-blockbusters Gone with the Wind (1939) was based. The business, however, pushed back: its Oscar-winning “Mammy,” Hattie McDaniel, was ordered not to attend its Atlanta premiere, should her presence rattle the Southern market. World War II would spur a reckoning on several fronts.

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dream?” begins airing Monday, Nov. 22, at 8:00 p.m. EST. Next week: “Warriors and Peacemakers,” 1941-1950.

For more information about Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, click here. Click here for an episode guide, including airdates and a list of films to be shown with each installment.

Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.