Previewing History: The Birth of Hollywood, Episode 2 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; editing by Brian Derby; narrated by Christopher Plummer. Color and b/w, 57 mins (each episode). An Ostar Productions presentation on Turner Classic Movies.
What a difference a decade or so makes. (There's a discrepancy between my screener DVD, which says this second episode transpires between1907-1920, and TCM's promotional materials and Website, which rounds the start date to 1910.) It's goodbye, New Jersey, and hello, Hollywood-and Chicago, and bandit-ridden Santa Monica, CA, and a few other short-lived dream factories-as the moguls head west, away from patent lawsuits, fickle weather, and other nuisances. The 1915 opening of Carl Laemmle's Universal City studio was a milestone event as the motley collection of Jewish immigrants who set up the new companies and the actors, writers, and directors who staffed them coalesced into "the industry," poised for global dominance as the First World War stilled its European rivals.
"The Birth of Hollywood" has a more clearcut story to tell than last week's episode, and it tells it confidently. There are fewer strands to follow, and they're interestingly bundled. Notwithstanding the change in locale the moguls looked to Broadway storytelling savvy to improve the product. To satisfy the growing need for the longer and more sophisticated movies by a voracious public the studios adopted mass production methods, which are compared to Henry Ford's in Detroit. (Another Ford who'll no doubt loom large in future episodes, John, is introduced, yelling his way into his first jobs.) Photoplay magazine starts in 1912, first retelling the stories of the movies-then telling the stories of the people in them.
There are many more sightings of movie stars this time: Chaplin, Fairbanks, Tom Mix. But Chaplins didn't come cheap-The Little Tramp, one of the movies' first recognizable brands, commanded astronomical sums-so it was necessary to mint new stars cheaply and roll them off the Hollywood assembly lines. The vampy Theda Bara is presented as the first product of the star-making machinery, transformed by William Fox into a woman of mystery. What might have startled her unknowing fans was reading that she was born Theodosia Goodman, in unglamorous Cincinnati, but the magazines played along.
"The Birth of Hollywood" is strongest when it concentrates on a single film for the first time, The Birth of a Nation (1915). TCM could commission a two-hour documentary about D.W. Griffith's endlessly controversial monument but the five or so minutes it receives here are sufficiently engaging. "Griffith boasted about his concern for historical accuracy, but not every American cheered as the Ku Klux Klan rode to the rescue at the film's stirring climax," Plummer says, opening a discussion of its epic technique andAvatar-like ballyhoo (live orchestras played every engagement at the new class of blue chip movie palaces that sprang up across the country), its presidential money quote at its White House engagement, the first film screened there ("history written in lightning," Woodrow Wilson), and its endorsement by Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward White, a former Klan member.
Also noted is the pushback by Jane Addams and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909. Film historian Donald Bogle (the show's scholars are also getting more boldface) makes an allowance for Griffith, but offers no apologies. The movie was only as far removed from the Civil War period as we are from the civil rights era, and the Kentuckian was reliving history from a "romanticized viewpoint" that fueled "a masterpiece...a racist masterpiece."
Another less heralded troublemaker in 1915 was the multifaceted Lois Weber, the first woman to direct a full-length feature, who brought frontal female nudity to the screen in that year's Hypocrites and took on muckraking topics like abortion and capital punishment in other successful movies. Even when they made money the studio chiefs hated these envelope-pushing dramas, which were sure to anger segments of the audience, but they kept censorship at bay with generous campaign contributions to Democratic and Republican politicians. There was plenty of money to go around in the new movie economy and many ways to perpetuate its growth.
TCM will be supplementing a bustling episode with films from the period, including Thomas H. Ince's western The Indian Massacre (1912), the prostitution-themed Traffic in Souls (1913), Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man (1914), and The Birth of a Nation. Year to year you can see a progression in technique and themes and scope. "The Birth of Hollywood" ends with a wistful recap of the first episode's luminaries, revisiting Edison, who soured on an industry that outgrew him, and Méliès, reduced to selling toys in a train station. Big business made their dreams look puny.
"The Birth of Hollywood" begins airing Monday, Nov. 8, at 8pm EST. Next week: "The Dream Merchants," 1920-1930.
Episode 2, "The Birth of Hollywood:1907-1920," linked here: 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 Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1