Where Gilded Ages Go to Die: Hollywood Returns to the 1930s and ’40s
By J. T. PriceMarch 17, 2021
IN CALIFORNIA IN 1934, as dust clouds across the plains drew migrants westward in droves, an outspoken socialist writer, Upton Sinclair, donned the mantle of the Democratic Party to run for governor. The new film Mank, David Fincher’s latest directorial effort, suggests that Sinclair was favored to win the race, at least until the movie studios had their say. Thanks in large part to a series of faux-documentary shorts purporting to give newsreel testimony of voter preferences, Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPiC) movement fell short, and a revanchist attitude took hold: circle the wagons against the unwashed hordes.
Today, under the shadows of California’s highway overpasses, tent cities lurk, visceral evidence of a crisis in affordable housing, even as a new studio system has emerged under the banners of Disney, Netflix, Apple, and Amazon. Those inside the studio gates earn salaries sufficient to buy property, driving up the cost of housing and forcing the less fortunate from their homes, while those trapped in the gig economy are stuck in rental apartments. A housing system vested widely in rentals allows those who can afford it to become rentiers, perpetuating a vicious cycle in which much of the population can’t afford to own the floor beneath their feet.
Maybe we should not be surprised, in our own time of radical inequality, that storytellers would turn with renewed vigor toward the 1930s and ’40s. In our collective anxiety about what comes next, it makes sense to grapple with an era when the last gilded age gave out and radical politics came roaring to the fore.
Perhaps no single figure holds more sway in convincing Americans that This Is Just the Way It Is than a sitting US president. Philip Roth intuited as much in his celebrated 2004 novel The Plot Against America. Set in the immediate lead-up to what would have been the country’s involvement in World War II, this fiction charts an alternate course wherein Charles Lindbergh, “that little man in the plane,” runs a successful campaign for president as the Republican nominee. The six-part HBO adaptation by The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns is an impressive expansion of Roth’s tightly conceived narrative, with more developed parts for two supporting characters at the opposite poles of a nuclear family: aunt Evelyn Finkel, whose every quaver of uncertainty plays out on Winona Ryder’s brow, and cousin Alvin Levin, the firebrand whose righteous indignation is communicated through Anthony Boyle’s gaze.
Perhaps in recognition of the blending of Simon & Co.’s vision with Roth’s, the family surname is no longer “Roth,” as in the novel, but Levin, and it is through the Levins that we experience the creeping changes to American norms under President Lindbergh, a prejudiced man dressed up as a media hero. In The Plot Against America, initially subtle shifts in what the middle of the country will accept soon pitch toward the precipitous; simply seeing, through digital magic, President Lindbergh shaking Adolf Hitler’s hand — “like he’s any other fella,” as a friend of the family’s patriarch, Herman, puts it — immediately makes the skin crawl.
The American Jewish family, middle class with hopes of a better tomorrow, is the heart and soul of the story, and the dramatic arc traces the way child can be turned against parent, sister against sister, the prosperous against those who identify with the victimized. Nearly every episode opens with a bravura sequence: chalk on asphalt outlines a child’s understanding of the war; Lindbergh’s aircraft zips across the skyline of a New York City rewound 80 years in time; a series of American presidential stamps transforms into an endless succession of Hitlers. The signature systems-not-individuals storytelling technique that worked so well in The Wire takes more than an episode to get rolling here; the first episode, especially, lags, as the viewer grasps for a focal point among the profusion of characters they do not yet know. But things pick up.
Through its depiction of an alternate 1940s USA, the miniseries comments all but directly on our past four years. Lindbergh’s celebrity as a pilot is rendered as a sort of prototypical version of television stardom. “There’s a lot of hate out there,” says Herman Levin, “and he knows how to tap into it.” “They keep putting it on the radio,” says Bess Levin, “no matter how many times he says it.” The centrality of the newsreel in establishing mass narrative is played to the max, starting with actual historical footage before sliding into digital alterations, and climaxing with the well-cast Ryder’s confused yet flattered Evelyn dancing in black-and-white with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi ambassador to America.
Ironically, the intra-family tensions the Lindbergh presidency brings out in both versions of the story are the same that Roth spent nearly his entire career exorcising from his own psyche: the brimming confidence, and recursive neurosis, of the midcentury secular Jewish belief that America was homeland enough, all anyone could ask for, in contrast with an older generation’s intractable sense of otherness, the need to cling to kin against the great assimilating tide of the mainstream.
Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, Hollywood, comes at the viewer fast with its own vibrant take on the tensions between image and reality. Adopting the swagger of high camp, the series delivers the clean and well-lit interiors of Musso & Frank’s and Schwab’s Pharmacy, sites of Tinseltown infinite return. This alternate vision of Hollywood’s Golden Age posits a scenario in which the right circumstances and creative chutzpah suffice to explode the color and gender barriers that prevailed on screen (then and, arguably still, now). “Sometimes I think,” opines a first-time director to the studio executive on whose good graces his career depends, “folks in this town don’t understand the power they have. Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be. If we change the way movies are made […] I think you can change the world.” Change the content of the newsreel and the world will follow suit.
One moment you’re at the bar consoling yourself over your failure to make it as an actor when a guy named Ernie (who looks a lot like Dylan McDermott) proudly declares, “I have a very big dick”; blink, and you’re a high-class gigolo answering the needs of high-powered grand dames with erotically disinterested partners, precocious overworked women in junior administrative roles, and, whoa, who’s that — Cole Porter? “I tried sleeping with the help,” declares Patti LuPone as the studio head’s wife, Avis Amberg, a turbaned lady-in-charge. “This is easier. Less complicated.” In response, Jack Castello, earnest and plain with Superman looks, asks from Amberg’s bedroom entryway, “You think I got what it takes to make it in this town?” Or, as seen through the eyes of proprietor-pimp Ernie West, the guy for whom Castello does his energetic business: “In a way, I’m no different than Louis B. Mayer!”
Difference, though, is the name of the game, and while the creators have fun with the distinctions between two ostensibly identical, white-bread, would-be male leads (David Corenswet’s Castello and Jake Picking’s Rock Hudson — i.e., the one we know makes it, right?), those two play second fiddle to the rest of the cast, at least dynamically speaking: LuPone’s regal Amberg; Joe Mantello’s suave, high-minded, torturously closeted exec Dick Samuels; Jeremy Pope’s omni-talented, radically incoherent, always on-the-make Archie Coleman; Jim Parsons’s gleefully vicious proponent of tough love, power agent Henry Willson; Darren Criss’s charmed boy-genius director Raymond Ainsley; Laura Harrier’s walks-on-rose-petals starlet of color, Camille Washington; Samara Weaving’s slim beauty set on evading, via stage name Claire Wood, the embarrassment of being the studio head’s daughter; and Holland Taylor’s smoky mid-Atlantic-accented casting director Ellen Kincaid.
Archie wants to get his script produced, but finds himself running lines, and more, with the unknown Hudson; Willson represents Hudson, alternately building him up and dressing him down (literally); Samuels greenlights Ainsley’s picture based on Archie’s script about Peg Entwistle, the real-life actress who jumped from the Hollywoodland sign in agony over her stalled-out career; Claire conspires with Camille over how to fake tears for the camera; Camille puts her sexual majesty to negotiating use to score an audition from her boyfriend Ainsley for the starring role in his first picture as director, which development sets everyone into a frizzle. All these plot lines converge on the key question: Is it a good idea, in 1947, for a Black woman to play the lead in what must, for the sake of everyone involved, become a motion picture hit?
You commend the ambition. Admire the verve, the refusal of any inkling of shame. Indeed, shame is the enemy over which Hollywood means to triumph, and for more than a minute it looks like the kid might make it. From John Schlesinger’s classic Midnight Cowboy, where homoerotic inklings lurked on the margins of urban squalor, we have arrived at Brennan and Murphy’s Hollywood, where gay desire is central, luxurious, and vehement (“I’m not ashamed,” says Archie, “I know who I am”); where the desires of women of a certain age are insisted on, with immaculately coiffed hair and a sparkle in the eye; where heterosexual unions are slam-bang propositions that crash past with brute force or, alternately, in the show’s one truly loving scene between a husband and wife, immediately followed by death.
There’s a wicked humor to it all, inverting the tropes and expectations of the (straight) hero’s journey: when the production of “Peg,” which turns into “Meg” after Camille lands the leading role, hits a budgeting snag, the guys team up with a plan to turn tricks to fund a soundstage recreation of the Hollywood sign. Addressing blowback from more culturally conservative quarters, and the threat that he will be run out of town, McDermott’s West declares, with a crooked grin and ironclad confidence, “I am this town.” We recognize that he’s speaking beyond the frame for a newly ascendant orthodoxy decked out in the vestments of power, an orthodoxy that is a heterodoxy, a heterodoxy that celebrates every way there is to be, while throwing shade on white-bread normalcy, the tried-and-true universal mold that couldn’t keep all this reveling difference down.
As cheery camp, Hollywood is, at least in part, in on the joke of its own shortcomings: the original script for “Peg,” around which the entire story turns, is laughably awful, with a major bummer of an ending. The actress Anna May Wong, an actual early Hollywood player devastated when passed over for the lead in The Good Earth in favor of a white actress in yellow-face, is performed with beset dignity by Michelle Krusiec, even as Hollywood itself repeats Wong’s injury by sidelining her role (though, yes, Krusiec does get an acceptance speech at the end). The cringe-inducing final episode of the series takes place largely at the 1947 Academy Awards ceremony, where the creative team behind “Meg” wins award after award, giving speeches that celebrate what a difference their difference-making has made. “Think of what it might mean,” says Harrier’s Camille from the Oscar podium, “to a dirt-poor little Black girl living in a shanty in some cotton town, where she’s told she’s free but really her life is no better than that of her grandparents who were the owned property of another human being […] to see herself up there on that screen. Vaunted. Dignified. Valued.”
Here we have a recognizable depiction of the ascendant vanguard in the contemporary arts, and it’s in the felt connection between artifice and lived reality that the phenomenon is most affecting. I am thinking, to take a popular example, of the late Chadwick Boseman responding to his experiences getting to know a child with terminal cancer, someone for whom a viewing of Black Panther figured as the culmination of nearly every wish. This was beautiful, and beautiful in part for how it hurt to see the pathos between image-making and reality that tends to determine what we remember best. When such a connection is forced into a fiction, however, the takeaway can feel mawkish, at best.
Ultimately, it isn’t the series’s glaring ahistoricity that is damning, the fact that, most especially in the 1930s and ’40s, stars were, in effect, the owned property of the studio heads, who controlled not only which pictures they appeared in, but where they were to dine, at which film premiere or party they were to make an appearance, and who they were permitted to date, or even marry. The notion that a first-time director like Ainsley would have had a leg to stand on in resisting the studio’s decrees defies the reality of that time. Yet this reality is exactly what Brennan and Murphy’s alternate history wants to shake off in its fantasy of a watershed moment when all at once every barrier falls — including the actual history of those who suffered for their difference (like Wong, or Queen Latifah’s Hattie McDaniel, to say nothing of the studio heads themselves, mostly immigrant Jews from ghetto backgrounds) on the long hard road toward collective progress. That Hollywood’s creators are savvy to the toxicity that lurks within the prevailing orthodoxy is expressed early in the story when Avis, soon to be the studio boss, implores Castello, the actor-gigolo, as he is preparing to bed her, “Make me feel like I matter. Even if it’s a lie.”
This sentiment is a bedrock of the movie-making ethos, whose fine wording includes at least the possibility, no matter how far-fetched, that it isn’t a lie. Yet the true Fuck You, Hollywood! moment arrives when none other than Eleanor Roosevelt visits the Ace Studios lot to sway the deciders-in-chief into casting Camille as Meg. The widow of FDR, a woman who was no stranger to power or the potential for politics to effect real-world outcomes, she declares to the studio’s gathered dignitaries, “I used to believe that good government could change the world. I don’t know if I believe that anymore. However, what you do […] can change the world.”
The power these moviemakers wield, no matter how benevolently employed, is that of tyrants, not of politicians elected by a democratic vote. To imagine that Eleanor Roosevelt would see societal change as best effected by movies is a distortion well beyond the absurd.
There is no shortage of things to say about Perry Mason, the Robert Downey Jr.–produced reboot for HBO, which plays like a top-notch hard-boiled detective novel. Resolutely the yin to Hollywood’s yang, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones’s cool, slow-burning yarn vests itself in the seductive hues — and visceral horror — of Depression-era Los Angeles. From its top-of-the-bill actors Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, and Chris Chalk on down to the bit parts, each memorably scripted and performed, this immaculately well-cast series affirms that even the smallest detail matters in the never-ending tug-of-war between those with power and those without. Nobody comes through uncompromised — and it’s often knowledge of one’s own transgressions that serves as a driving impulse toward universal justice.
Subversive in its own fashion toward the tropes of noir, Perry Mason traces a sort of deranged and unconsummated romance between Rhys’s Mason and Tatiana Maslany’s Sister Alice McKeegan, an Aimee Semple McPherson type. It is the ghost of a bond between the dogged, self-destructive investigator and the exuberant, self-evading celebrity minister that turns the gears of a plot involving an infant’s horrendous murder. Hollywood’s Jack Castello claims brightly to have fought at Anzio, while looking as if he never saw a day of battle; Rhys’s Mason mentions the trenches of the Argonne, and one glance at his face appears testament enough.
When Mason seeks to cash in on compromising pics of a Fatty Arbuckle type making merry with an up-and-coming starlet (and various foodstuffs), the head of the fictional Hammersmith Pictures drops his mask of jollity to oversee hired thugs in torturing Mason. “People are desperate out there, Mason,” says the mogul (played by Howard Korder), “and for one little nickel, what do we give them? Two hours in the dark. Singing. Dancing. Laughter, tears, romance. Hope. […] What you wanna do is take these poor suffering people’s hope away? […] You need to decide what kind of person you wanna be.” The tension between a private awareness of ugly facts and the public vocalization of a popular narrative gives the ostensibly apolitical Perry Mason its quiet political torque.
No actor living does a look of deathly judgment as well as Charles Dance, and it is his withering gaze, as William Randolph Hearst, around which the drama in Fincher’s Mank turns. Mank is a great film, not because it is perfect but because it’s overabundant, deft in its commentary on the relationship between Hollywood and politics, and the kind of picture that doesn’t really get made anymore.
What begins as a standard postcard to Hollywood’s Golden Age soon resolves into a split narrative: a Beckett-like present-tense wherein a bedridden Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) scratches out his masterpiece on deadline for Orson Welles (Tom Burke, brilliantly channeling the voice) — a drama, Citizen Kane, about a man whose immense wealth and fame can’t satisfy him; and a remembered history of Mank’s rise and fall in the court of Hearst at San Simeon, which features Amanda Seyfried’s smarter-than-she-looks Marion Davies, Ferdinand Kingsley’s resolutely poised Irving Thalberg, and Arliss Howard’s bombastic, mercurial Louis B. Mayer.
The story grows more interesting by far when the focus segues from moviemaking to political campaigning, a shift in the script that culminates with the best send-up of a Republican Party celebration on screen since Hal Ashby’s Shampoo. Rather than sharp-edged satire issued from some imagined moral high ground, Mank offers a rueful observation of the state of play from a guy close to the nerve center of conservative politics, his deep misgivings finding expression only in his art. A dissolute screenwriting success whose satirical tongue can’t hide the fact that he’s a softie, Oldman’s Mank is one part Bryan Cranston in Trumbo, one part John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape, yet a sweeter and more freewheeling spirit than either of them, a fellow on whose shoulder Seyfried’s Marion Davies can rest her golden head for a minute, and to whom that loaded exchange will recur and recur and recur in memory. Blackout drunk, he awakens in yet another magisterial bed (the set designers who selected the beds for Mank deserve special recognition; these are beds of enormous character). The functionary assigned by Welles to keep Mank on schedule encourages the screenwriter to write down to his audience; his refusal to do so stands as heroism, or at least its facsimile. Any minor liberties with the facts here seem like fair play for a fictive work.
“This is a business,” says studio head Mayer, speaking not just to his screenwriter Mank in the mid-’30s but, why not, to the coterie of hopefuls in Hollywood convinced of moviemaking’s moral virtue, “where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies and don’t let anybody tell you different.” What Mank experiences leaves him only with the floundering wish to look after those who pass within his orbit. When he fails at that, an excoriating wind rises from his throat, alienating everyone at Hearst’s altitude — and driving the speaker into an exile from which, years later, he will draft his masterpiece.
Discussing the Upton Sinclair campaign among Hearst’s court at San Simeon, Mank teases, “Upton just wants you to apportion some of your Christmas bonus, Irving, to the people who clean your house.” As everyone laughs, Thalberg responds, “Nobody’s asking to hear you sing the Internationale.”
When Thalberg later prevails on him to contribute to Mayer’s fundraising campaign on behalf of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Mank refuses, in off-handed fashion, “You have everything it takes right here. You can make the world swear King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40. And yet you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear?” Taking the barb perhaps more literally than the screenwriter intended, Thalberg commissions a set of faux-documentary films featuring actors who pretend to be everyday American voters, a form of propaganda that sways public opinion not so much by the merits of argument as by how strongly the public identifies with the person speaking on screen. After this technique proved highly effective for the Republican Party in 1934, the step from defeating Sinclair to seeing Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion three decades later really wasn’t so great at all.
In between, from the Depressed ’30s to the Swinging ’60s, a period of widespread homeownership and prosperity took root. Notwithstanding the many excluded from the American Dream of the 1950s, the average CEO of that era made 20 times the salary of the average worker while, in our day, that ratio stands at 271 to 1. Rising roughly in parallel to CEO salaries were the earnings of movie stars as the original studio system crumbled into dust.
The politics of Mank are ambivalent, as perhaps are those of the greatest art. The screenwriter’s stance isn’t about political ends — we have no reason to believe he actually wants to see a candidate like Sinclair elected — but the means. His objection is to a breach of fair play, which turns out to be a deft message for our age of ever-more-fervent absolutes. Ultimately, it is the art of art, and not the bullhorn, that sways hearts and minds. The likeness to life we behold in fiction happens to be pure illusion besides. It is our own lives, at least for the present, that matter.
J. T. Price has recently completed a novel manuscript about Ronald Reagan’s time as an outspoken member of the Hollywood left. Visit him at www.jt-price.com.
Banner image: "Premier Night Grauman's Chinese Theater Hollywood California Vintage Postcard" by Phillip Pessar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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