Previewing History: The Dream Merchants, Episode 3 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.
Oscar watchers should prepare to have their illusions shattered in Episode 3. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, founded in 1927, was organized not to promote art and excellence but to hedge against unions, by giving AMPAS members an industry-run option to settle their workplace disputes. Jack Warner felt so little about its “Academy Awards” he suggested his biggest male star, Rin Tin Tin, as a Best Actor nominee.
False fronts are a dominant theme in this installment, which covers the shortest period of time, from 1920 to 1928, and can spare only a sentence or two for seminal productions like Greed (1924) and The Crowd (1928). By 1921, when 854 features were released to studio-owned movie palaces across the country, movies were the fifth biggest business in America. But the business, whose new stars were gossiped to carry on as if Prohibition didn’t apply to them, was vulnerable to scandal. Comedian Fatty Arbuckle was ultimately acquitted of sensational manslaughter charges in the death of bit player Virginia Rappe, but the media maw chewed him up and spat him out, much to the dismay of the comic genius he discovered, Buster Keaton. Stars who were determined to have “it,” that indefinable quality that made Clara Bow “the It Girl” in an age where the advertising and marketing industries roared along with the movies, were allowed their personal and romantic peccadilloes, which made for hot copy. Those who transgressed too flagrantly, however, paid the price in the court of public opinion. The moguls had to keep their audience on their good side, which meant stepping in to clean up messes and preserve certain illusions about an industry built on illusion.
Away from the spotlight, money talked more loudly than propriety. While consolidated in Hollywood (whose famed sign, originally reading “Hollywoodland,” was a real-estate gimmick that came to encapsulate the dream factory), the studios were beholden to East Coast finance, and their streetwise bosses wowed by the clubby Harvard connections wielded by newcomers and interlopers like Joseph Kennedy. His speculative ventures got him acquisitions that brought together movies, radio, and TV under the RKO Pictures banner—and a star, the spendthrift Gloria Swanson, with whom he carried on an affair that lasted through the disastrous Queen Kelly (1928). Also felt is the influence of William Randolph Hearst, the married newspaper and newsreel magnate who had a star of his own, Marion Davies, by his side.
“The Dream Merchants” is also starry, with Gore Vidal and Peter Bogdanovich opining on a firmament of players that includes Greta Garbo (a star “beyond categorization,” says Vidal), Lon Chaney, and the great silent clowns. Richard Zanuck shares reminiscences of his father, Darryl, when he worked on Rin Tin Tin pictures for Warner Bros. The elder Zanuck is one of several notables still looking for their niche as the decade ended, a period where fame could come and go as fast as it had for Rudolph Valentino, dead at age thirty-one—then to become immortal.
But 1928 has been chosen as the endpoint of this episode for a reason. After three installments of silent footage and talking heads it’s a mild shock when the clips begin to talk, too. With silent filmmaking at its creative apex the development of sound would trigger an earthquake. “Just when we figured it out, it changed,” remarked a rueful Charlie Chaplin.
“The Dream Merchants” begins airing Monday, Nov. 15, at 8:00 p.m. EST. Next week: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dream?,” 1928-1941.
Episode 1, “Peepshow Pioneers,” 1889-1907, linked here.
Episode 2, “The Birth of Hollywood,” 1907-1920, linked here:
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