Into the Archives: On “Letters from Hollywood”

Chris Yogerst reviews a revealing collection of letters from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

By Chris YogerstJanuary 2, 2020

Into the Archives: On “Letters from Hollywood”

Letters from Hollywood by Barbara Hall and Rocky Lang. Harry N. Abrams. 352 pages.

WHILE ON THE SET of Anthony Mann’s 1954 film The Far Country, Jimmy Stewart was approached by an old man who wanted to compliment him on his work in an earlier movie. The man couldn’t remember the title or release date, but there was one scene that stood out for him, which he proceeded to describe. The film, Stewart realized, was Come Live with Me, from 1941; and while the man had forgotten the title, a small part of the story had stuck with him for over a decade. As Stewart later told Peter Bogdanovich, movies seem to give people “little tiny pieces of time that they never forget.”

Any film historian will appreciate Stewart’s observation, especially those who have had the privilege of working in film archives around the world. There is no better access to those “little tiny pieces of time” than flipping through original documents written by the great performers, producers, writers, and directors. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to take that journey — until now. Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking, edited and annotated by Barbara Hall and Rocky Lang, escorts readers through the history of Hollywood by way of the personal letters of famed Hollywood legends.

Each letter is presented exactly as it sits in its archival folder. Many letters are typed, but many others are handwritten (though the editors have kindly typed them up for us, since the aged cursive is often difficult to decipher). With each new exchange comes a brief overview of the parties involved, which adds useful historical context. The journey begins in the early days of Hollywood, in 1921, two years before the famous “Hollywoodland” advertisement sign was built.

The first letter is from renowned illusionist Harry Houdini, soliciting business from Adolph Zukor, an executive with Famous Players-Lasky (a precursor to Paramount). Houdini was sure that his latest film, The Man from Beyond (1922), would rival the excitement of D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) — the film where Lillian Gish dangerously rode an ice floe down a river. The letter was to no avail, however, and Houdini wound up distributing the film himself.

That same year, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, recently released from jail, sent a letter to studio executive and personal friend Joseph Schenck. Arbuckle hosted the infamous 1921 Labor Day weekend bash in San Francisco where actress Virginia Rappe was raped (she would die shortly thereafter). In this letter, written in longhand, Arbuckle maintains his innocence while understanding the difficult position he had put the studio in. While Arbuckle was never convicted of the crime (two trials ended in hung juries and the third finally acquitted him), he never returned to his previous stardom.

Another letter — a 1922 thank-you note to Zukor — comes from Mabel Normand, a silent-film comedienne who had starred alongside Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. Mabel’s wit is on full display, complete with her special brand of self-deprecating humor (“Lest I forget to tell you about my hair — it is exactly like Sid Grauman’s”). The letter opens with her lightheartedly promising that, if Zukor doesn’t read the letter, she will never again see any of his movies. Her words leap off the page, just as her performances jump from the screen into the audience’s hearts.

Other amusing letters include MGM executive Irving Thalberg firing the notoriously difficult director Erich von Stroheim for insubordination and actor Ronald Colman outlining his reservations about “the talkies.” Readers familiar with Stroheim’s tendency to drive studio heads crazy will not be surprised by Thalberg’s stern dismissal. Another humorous missive features Henry Fonda writing to director William Wyler, after his daughter was born, to assure the famous director that Jane is ready for work because “her father was an actor.” Wyler responded in jest, informing Jane that Henry Fonda “was never an actor.”

Censorship problems are discussed in an alarmed correspondence from Atlanta censor Zella Richardson, writing to Hollywood censor Jason Joy about the 1932 film Red-Headed Woman. In the letter, Richardson calls the film’s star Jean Harlow a “hussy” while assuring Joy that this is the first time she has ever used the word. Such letters show the prudishness of some viewers at the time, as well as their frustration over Hollywood’s willingness to tackle controversial themes such as adultery. Letters from Hollywood also includes a lengthy memo detailing the censorship issues surrounding the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944).

Also included are a few important, if rather infuriating letters, such as Dorothy Arzner trying to drum up work from Preston Sturges in 1944 after other offers to dried up. Arzner directed many important Hollywood films in the 1920s and ’30s, but she found it difficult to sustain her career in an increasingly male-dominated profession. Very few women directed for Hollywood studios in the 1940s, with Ida Lupino (also a successful actress) being the exception that proved the rule. Even more maddening is a letter from Fox production head Sol Wurtzel telling actress Madge Bellamy to lose weight. Editors Hall and Lang place next to this letter a cover from a 1929 issue of Photoplay featuring Bellamy, with a headline that reads “Diet, the Menace of Hollywood.”

In another significant letter, Samuel Goldwyn refuses to give Orson Welles free rein on a picture, regardless of Welles’s argument that he has already proven himself on stage and on radio. Yet RKO studios would indeed give Welles complete control of his first Hollywood film, Citizen Kane, in 1941. Later in the book, we read Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper dishing on an early screening of Welles’s movie, calling it “foul.”

In the late 1930s, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle wrote a letter pleading with Wyler to help the Nazis’ victims in Germany. You can feel the desperation in his words, as he knew intimately the dangers that were growing in Europe. The mogul spent the last years of his life fighting to help the victims of Hitler’s Final Solution. Laemmle would not live to see Charlie Chaplin’s satire of fascism The Great Dictator (1940), though he would have thoroughly enjoyed it. One person who did see that movie was acting coach Constance Collier, who promptly wrote a response to Hedda Hopper. After discussing the overwhelming audience appreciation for Chaplin, Collier writes that “[h]e is the uncrowned king of the world and I think the message of the picture will have a deep and vital effect on every one who sees it.”

Letters from Hollywood compellingly shows why film historians love spending so much time in the dusty archives. Barbara Hall and Rocky Lang have produced a joyous collection that permits readers to experience the thrill of flipping through primary documents. The collection furthers the tradition that the late Rudy Behlmer popularized in books like Memo from David O. Selznick (1972), Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck (1993), and Inside Warner Bros. (1985). Behlmer understood the joys of digging through film archives, and he worked to share the fruits of that process with film enthusiasts around the world. Anyone who has spent time in an archive knows the droves of stories that remain untold and the wealth of underappreciated material calling out for reexamination.


Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication in the department of arts and humanities at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His next book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into War Mongering in Motion Pictures, will be published in September 2020 by the University Press of Mississippi.

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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