Hollywood on Hollywood: On Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson’s Oral History “Hollywood”

By Chris YogerstDecember 5, 2022

Hollywood on Hollywood: On Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson’s Oral History “Hollywood”

Hollywood: The Oral History by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson

LOOKING BACK AT the decades Hollywood studios operated with a self-regulating production code, famed director Billy Wilder said that “[t]here are times when I wish we still had it because the fun has gone out of it, the game that you played with them.” The Oscar-winning filmmaker continued, “We had to be clever. In order to say, ‘You son of a bitch,’ you had to say, ‘If you had a mother, she’d bark.’” Fans of Old Hollywood know exactly what Wilder was getting at. In a famous scene in one of his best films, Double Indemnity (1944), an insurance salesman is aggressively flirting with a married woman, to which she replies, “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff.” Those who lived and breathed this rich and complex history, and who survived to tell the tale, are featured in a new, nearly 800-page volume, Hollywood: The Oral History, edited by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, essential chroniclers of Tinseltown lore.

Basinger and Wasson have sifted through thousands of hours of conversations recorded by the American Film Institute, which began holding seminars with industry regulars in 1969. This true story of Hollywood is told by those who lived it, “not by outsiders, academics, historians, revisionists, or fantasists prone to legend, but by those who are singularly qualified to understand it, the filmmakers themselves.” There is something majestic about this book, something that could only be curated and presented by two historians who never put themselves in front of their own research. Their only goal is to find the real story — not the one that aligns best with contemporary mores but the one that most accurately represents the experiences of those who were there. Who better to tell this rich tale than those who spent hours on production lines in Hollywood’s dream factories?

Hollywood: The Oral History begins with origins. Voices ranging from directors Raoul Walsh and Frank Capra to costume designer Edith Head and character actress Gertrude Astor speak of the industry’s early years as well as their own introductions to Tinseltown. Walsh defined Hollywood with one word — “work.” Of course, many readers only want to hear the salacious stories: as Walsh sardonically puts it, people just want to know “who took off whose panties behind the piano while the director shot the producer in the head[.] People want to know stuff like that, even if it isn’t true.” There has always been a significant degree of mythmaking in Hollywood. After all, these dream makers were turning out tales for the big screen; why wouldn’t they also make up tales about themselves?

Astor recalled the first-of-their-kind tours at Universal: for 25 cents, one could get a walking tour of the lot. From a long balcony, the “spieler” explained how “thirty-six pictures [were] being made all at once,” she says. “[I]t was bedlam […] everybody screaming, battling. […] [I]t was a madhouse.” Reading these stories from Hollywood’s foundational years is similar to watching Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s magisterial 1980 documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (which needs a Blu-ray or streaming rerelease ASAP!), in which the industry’s founding players wax ecstatic about being on the ground floor of the invention of moviemaking. It was hard work, but it was fun. Many spoke of the freedoms enjoyed in Los Angeles in the 1910s and ’20s.

Of course, not every industry player intended to land in Hollywood. We learn that Head, the highly regarded designer, first intended to become a teacher. Capra went into engineering, which “seemed to be dream enough,” he says. Many people stumbled into the industry. Some tried temp work as an extra, only to become hooked on the fascinating process and culture of filmmaking. Regardless of how they got into the business, everything revolved around one thing — money. According to director-producer Alan Dwan, “Everybody got it, and everybody started spending it.” Those who were there recalled the transition Hollywood made from being a working town to a site of extravagant luxury during the 1920s.

The section that Hollywood: The Oral History devotes to studio heads is highly revealing. History has given us so many stories about the tyrannical nature of the big studio bosses, some of which are confirmed here, but we also see the more human sides of these men. The influential journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns said of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg: “I can remember sitting there in Irving’s office and there would be a pitter-patter of feet and Mr. Mayer’s head would come around the side, and he’d say ‘Irvie, do you have time for me?’” While Mayer was the face of MGM, Thalberg ran the show, and Mayer deferred to him out of a deep trust in the producer’s instincts. Yet Capra joked that Mayer was so towering a figure that “[m]en like Harry Cohn [cofounder of Columbia Pictures] took aspirin every time Mayer sneezed.”

One film critic for Time magazine, the late Richard Schickel, was quick to remind us that Hollywood shouldn’t be defined by the scale of MGM alone. We should remember that all studio heads were “blood-and-thunder guys.” Stories of Errol Flynn’s battles with Jack Warner, of Harry Cohn’s ruthlessness, and of the games directors had to play to get their way are abundant. Composer Harry Warren confirmed many of the Warner stories by saying that the studio boss “was not to be coped with. He was tyrannical, unreasonable, and didactic. At home, he was a prince and an angel, the greatest, kindest host in the world.” Such contradiction was true of many moguls. These men had fought their way up through poverty and anti-Semitic prejudice to create an entirely new industry, and the toughness this took didn’t always manifest in the best ways once they had achieved power and status.

What may be most surprising in Basinger and Wasson’s account, given the amount of misinformation spread about Walt Disney over the years, is the fact that there was great respect for the man from many in the industry outside of his animation studio. Director Mervyn LeRoy became good friends with Uncle Walt and spoke of the many nights Disney slept at the studio after staying up late drawing. Director Lewis Milestone felt that Disney was the most hands-on producer given his gifts with a pen (which differed from most studio heads who did not have the talent to write or direct). Disney’s former animator Friz Freleng, who often clashed with him, claimed that Disney was nothing short of a genius. “You never could look down on Walt,” said Freleng, because “he was always one big, long step ahead of you.”

The wealth of perspectives this book provides on the transition to sound, as well as on studio house styles, is staggering, beyond anything that could be covered in a brief review. One commendable section focuses on the studio system as a factory, which in many ways it was. Stories abound from camera operators, writers, editors, costume designers, makeup artists, music directors, art directors, and other studio personnel. The great cinematographer James Wong Howe tells a fascinating anecdote about his work on the 1943 movie Air Force. The crew was getting ready to film a squadron of B-17s landing, but when Howe set up the generator for his lights, it didn’t work. Director Howard Hawks was no help: “That’s your problem,” he said. So, Howe had the brilliant idea of lighting a bunch of flares and reflecting them with mirrors instead. This created a wonderfully dramatic effect, as the planes landed amid the flickers, with the propellers creating swirls of smoke. Sometimes the tough, assembly-line style of production fostered incredible creativity.

Much has been written about the so-called “New Hollywood” era that was born with films like The Graduate (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Easy Rider (1969). Basinger calls the decade between 1960 and 1970 a “limbo period” in which one system was “dying” while another was “trying to be born.” Jack Warner was still at Warner Bros. when Bonnie and Clyde was released, one of the last founding fathers of Hollywood still standing. He hated the film, of course. All around him the seeds of New Hollywood were germinating, waiting to blossom into a new era of filmmaking.

Basinger rightfully notes that the New Hollywood period is special because the younger filmmakers “arrived in time to cross paths with their predecessors, many of their heroes, as they were making their way out.” Peter Bogdanovich, for example, interviewed as many of his heroes as he could. Steven Spielberg directed Joan Crawford in an episode of the TV series Night Gallery (1970–73) while Ron Howard directed Bette Davis in a TV movie. William Friedkin helmed the final episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962–65), and William Wyler encouraged Barbra Streisand to direct. Hollywood: The Oral History is flush with firsthand accounts of this changing of the guard.

One quote that stood out to me came from Spielberg, one of my favorite filmmakers. Looking back at his early years in Hollywood, he said: “I thought Universal was the prime rib of movie studios. I kept remembering Orson Welles’s famous line that a movie studio was the best toy a boy could ever have, and I began to function at Universal as if it were a giant sandbox.” Many of us who grew up in the 1980s are grateful for Spielberg’s ability to take audiences along on his journeys of celluloid curiosity. In a film like E.T. (1982), it often feels as if the audience is in the sandbox with the director. Spielberg wants to see that bike take off as much as we all do.

Journalist and historian of Hollywood Aljean Harmetz has observed that the industry was completely changed by the 1980s. Harmetz saw a shift between 1978 and 1984, where “nobody wanted [to make movies for] adults, because not only could they [the suits] get a great deal of money from teenagers,” but these kids “would go see a movie two, three, or four times.” Wasson argues that, by this period, “box office draws — not necessarily stars — were yet another tail to wag the dog.” You can follow this shift in Hollywood: The Oral History as agents, journalists, stars, directors, and studio moguls talk about the industry’s changing landscape. This period also features many horror stories, including the fraught production of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), as well as legends surrounding this beautiful, overlooked film. Meryl Streep, who worked with Cimino on The Deer Hunter (1978), spoke highly of the misunderstood director: “He’s good. Everybody hates him. I don’t know why.”

Hollywood: The Oral History is a massive volume, one that can be read straight through, as if reading a transcribed conversation, or in short bursts, jumping between sections. It’s a must-have for any fan of Hollywood history and will remain a standard work of reference for many years to come. Basinger and Wasson have created a wonderful collection that documents the last 100 years of Hollywood from the inside. Anyone who wonders how Hollywood’s history continues to capture the imagination of new generations will find over a century of answers here.

Because I opened this review with Billy Wilder, it only makes sense to let him close it as well. Wilder lived until 2002, long enough to see where the industry was headed. Talking with the AFI about how Hollywood has changed during his lifetime, he pointed to the role of film critics, “who have become important because today’s business doesn’t know what it’s doing. They need somebody to tell them.”

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Chris Yogerst is an associate professor of communication in the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His latest book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2020.

LARB Contributor

Chris Yogerst, a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, is an associate professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. His most recent book is The Warner Brothers (2023). Chris is also the author of From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros. (2016) and Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures (2020). His writing can be found in The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post, The Journal of American Culture, and Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. Find him on Twitter @chrisyogerst as well as Instagram and Facebook @cyogerst.

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