Previewing History: The Attack of the Small Screens, Episode 6 of TCM's Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
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.
Talk about dashed hopes. I closed last week’s preview in anticipation of Marsha Hunt having something to say about her experience on the Hollywood blacklist during the Fifties, the period covered in this episode. And hear from her we do—not on the blacklist, but on the magnetism of decade-defining star Marlon Brando. This is a waste of a vital resource who can speak from direct experience about this turbulent time. Then again, outside of two brief mentions—one in relation to Charlie Chaplin’s difficulties, and the other to On the Waterfront and Budd Schulberg (Elia Kazan escapes notice, perhaps for the first time since his notorious testimony)—the show is silent on the subject.
This disappointment is not altogether unexpected, though. As we near the final hour the show is developing a sentimental streak about the good old days, which the usual minute or two on the blacklist could only muddy. It’s misty-eyed about some curious things, however. As weepy music plays the fate of Louis B. Mayer, cast out from MGM in 1951 as the studio foundered, is recounted; dying of leukemia in 1957 he hoped for a comeback from his hospital bed. A few minutes later the actual comeback of Judy Garland is discussed, in 1954’s A Star is Born. It was a difficult ascent, given her history of drug abuse—an addiction that we’re told was abetted by Mayer, who wanted to keep one of his cash cows happy in her youthful prime. We’re supposed to get out our handkerchiefs for a pusher?
The biggest failing of Moguls & Movie Stars is that it hasn’t brought us any closer to either. That’s less crippling for the stars, whose images take care of them—in this rapid-fire context I’m not sure there’s more that could be said about Brando or Montgomery Clift or James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who take their bows then quickly leave the spotlight, letting you revisit them at the stage door via the movies TCM has scheduled around each episode. But—where are the stars? Though the firmament has been greatly diminished surely the hale Eli Wallach or some other luminaries could have been asked to contribute a revealing anecdote or two about their costars.
One nice touch was having Alfred Hitchcock’s recently deceased art director, Robert Boyle, comment not on the filmmaker but on his power-behind-the-throne wife, Alma Reville, who shares this episode’s woman of achievement honors with Lucille Ball. If only a way had been found to illuminate the lives and achievements of the studio bosses. While the interview segments with the survivors of the moguls are appreciated, they’re too brief to humanize their larger-than-life kin, who never quite catch fire on their own. The hour-long episodes trot from studio to studio, making the rounds with the diligence of doctors, yet never linger to find out anything we couldn’t Google. That’s too bad for this turning-point episode, which finds them on the critical list with two major ailments: cash-poor after losing their theater chains to the Paramount Decree in 1948, and audience-starved as TV makes inroads.
Widescreen, stereo sound, and 3D (“A comeback? Forget it!,” says Plummer, in a humorous moment in the narration) were all tried, but in the episode’s most intriguing observation what saved the movies were the movies themselves, sold to television for tidy sums once the chieftains got over their suspicion of the tube—Jack Warner hated it so much he refused to allow designers to integrate TVs into their sets. Walt Disney and Columbia’s Harry Cohn were the first to befriend the enemy, to their mutual advantage. Television got valuable programming, and the movies had a new medium through which to advertise and perpetuate movie culture. It also got a new crop of filmmakers, brought up in the rough and tumble of live TV in New York—and Moguls & Movie Stars gets a shot in the arm from the candid remembrances of directors-to-be Paul Mazursky and Sidney Lumet.
But TV wasn’t the only blind spot the studios had (and continue to have, as we’ve seen in their fractious relationship with home video and the Internet). Dissatisfied with movies that skewed toward older viewers younger audiences fled to the drive-ins, where Roger Corman recalls being all to happy to serve them a diet of sex and violence in changing times. A new generation of independents helps bring the studio system, and Moguls & Movie Stars, to an end next week.
“The Attack of the Small Screens” begins airing Monday, Dec. 3, at 8:00 p.m. EST. Next week: “Fade Out, Fade In,” 1960-1970.
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.