November 8, 2010

Celluloid Heroes: 'Moguls & Movie Stars' Tells the Story of Hollywood

Early in Episode One of the new seven-part series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood now airing on Turner Classic Movies, there is a photograph of a man peering into one of Thomas Edison's kinetoscopes and listening to sound via tubes in his ears."You could replace that box with an iPhone," says documentarian Jon Wilkman of the connection between that 1890s-era photo and today's technology options for viewing films. "It's one person looking at a little screen."

A four-time Emmy Award-winner and former IDA President, Wilkman scoured film archives and private collections, and interviewed 70 subjects--many of them direct descendents of Hollywood's founding moguls--in writing and directing his comprehensive history of the motion picture industry spanning from 1889 to 1969.

 "Today we are really back in the 1890s," says Wilkman. "Who makes movies? What equipment do they use? How are they distributed? Those are the questions that Edison was asking. We are rethinking the business of making movies."

 

Edison Nickelodeons on display, circa 1900s. From Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, which airs Monday nights on Turner Classic Movies through December 13. Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

 

Executive Producer Bill Haber approached Wilkman a few years ago with the idea to do an original series about the people who built Hollywood. "It was a mix of immediate enthusiasm and, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be hard,'" Wilkman recalls of accepting what he considers the project of a lifetime. "The real difficulty, and what I didn't want to do, was essentially make it a clip show where you show clips from the great movies. This is a different approach."

Instead, Wilkman opted to tell Hollywood's history by paralleling it with America's story. Using the common link of the immigrants who built a better life for themselves literally one penny and one nickel at a time, Episode One introduces viewers to Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, Carl Laemmle, William Fox and other dreamers whose vision formed the cornerstone of the movie business. Those men and others form the connective thread through all seven of Wilkman's episodes.

 "I don't think any of this is common knowledge," Wilkman says of the interesting factoids and surprises that pop-up in each episode. "Our goal is to enlighten you in different ways. You may know this, but you don't know this."

Episode Two, for example, explains that Samuel Goldfish, one of the founding moguls, arranged a business partnership with Edgar Selwyn that ultimately led to Goldfish adopting a surname that would become synonymous with motion pictures: Goldwyn. As told in the series, the name Goldwyn had a nicer ring to it than the alternative combination: Selfish.

 "The idea of transformation runs throughout the series," Wilkman says. "How a Samuel Goldfish can become a Samuel Goldwyn. We look at Humphrey Bogart and how he started in movies as a thug and transformed into this romantic leading actor: a movie star."

Episode One, which premiered November 1, shares that when the four Warner brothers opened their first theater in Newcastle, PA, and named it the Bijou, they borrowed chairs from the nearby undertaker and had to return them each day for funerals.

Also in the premiere episode is the story of how William Fox fell off the back of a dairy wagon and broke his arm in several places. Because his parents were too poor to afford proper medical care, Fox lived with the resulting deformity the rest of his life. The experience had a profound effect on the boy who as a man founded the studio that still bears his name--something we learn from Fox's granddaughter, one of many descendants Wilkman interviewed for the series.

 "I try to have our storytellers be as credible as possible," Wilkman says of featuring family members, including 101-year-old Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle. "I'm a very people-oriented storyteller. I try to find characters that people can identify with."

 

Left to right: Harry Rapf, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg; circa 1924. From Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood. Photo: Bison Archives; courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

 

Exploring the personal family photos of Laemmle and delving into the studio archives was made possible in part because of Turner Classic Movies' reputation of celebrating classic films. "This is the biggest thing they've ever done by far," Wilkman says. "Turner Classic Movies wanted to be, and rightly so, at the center of the discussion and the center of the appreciation of great movies."

That appreciation for films and the men and women who made them likely influenced the ultimate decision not to employ Fair Use doctrine in acquiring the clips. Instead, according to Wilkman, they purchased the rights to everything included in the series "It's just the way they like to work," Wilkman says of Time Warner and Turner Classic."Their philosophy was, we need to find the copyright-holder and pay for it."

Among the impressive finds included are footage of Alice Guy Blanche directing a sync-sound film in 1905--some 22 years before the release of The Jazz Singer; the construction and grand opening of Universal City; Eadweard Muybridge's technique of capturing a horse's gait using a series of cameras; and some of Thomas Edison's earliest test films.

The series even shows viewers samples of the forerunner of motion pictures such as the magic lantern of the 1650s and the colorful glass slides used to entertain people gathered in a dark room to view them. "Before the movies arrived there was a quarter of a millennia of screen entertainment--250 years," says historian Terry Borton in Episode One. "The movies did not just come from nowhere."

Airing in December, Episode Six explores the impact television had on the film industry, how Hollywood fought back against the small screens, and how the post-World War II political climate led to the creation of the infamous Black List of alleged communist sympathizers.

 

Orson Welles (center) on the set of Citizen Kane. From Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood. Photo: Photofest; courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

 

The final episode explores the landmark films of the 1960s including the five Best Picture nominees of 1967--The Graduate, Doctor Doolittle, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and eventual winner In the Heat of the Night.

 

Mark Harris' 2008 book about those five 1967 films, Pictures at a Revolution, and Peter Biskind's 1999 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls are just two of the countless books on the personal bookshelves of film lovers everywhere--including Wilkman--that examine the birth of Hollywood's modern era. "The founding generation that created the movies--D.W. Griffith, Chaplin--they were really doing it off the top of their head," Wilkman explains. "Those who followed--Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg--these are guys who really know the history of the movies. They have a historical context for what they're doing."

Likewise, Wilkman found historical context by tying the founding moguls, studio bosses and stars to the rise of new independent-minded filmmakers and stars in the 1960s and 1970s. "We bring back Clara Bow and her comment about Marilyn Monroe's death in the final episode," Wilkman says. "[Bow] understands how hard it is when you're afraid and disillusioned."

Wilkman also sought out an ideal voice for the series to guide the audience as narrator throughout the seven hours. "You desire a narrator that exudes a hint of credibility; he is certainly one of the great voices," Wilkman says of the Oscar-nominated and Tony and Emmy Award winning actor, Christopher Plummer. "He becomes your companion. You can believe that he knows the stuff that he's telling you."

Although there are no plans for additional episodes, TCM has launched an expansive website in support of the series (airing Mondays at 8:00 p.m. through December 13) at www.tcm.com/moguls.

 "The great thing about documentaries is they can have a long life," Wilkman says. "Hopefully it will inspire and inform a new generation of filmmakers, a generation of filmmakers that will create more great films--documentaries included."

 

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Christopher Bosen is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN, where he lives with his wife and two children. Previous articles for IDA include last year's look at The Good Soldier, and a cover story on The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

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