• Three novels about Hollywood under the studio system
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Last Tycoon. 1941.
Schulberg, Budd. What Makes Sammy Run? 1941.
West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust. 1939.
Fitzgerald’s last novel, a roman à clef about Irving Thalberg, the MGM head of production, focuses on the great power the studio heads had to make things happen and to control people’s lives, and that power’s limits. Schulberg’s book centers on the careerist Sammy Glick as he steps on others and works his way up in the studio hierarchy, starting as a screenwriter. West’s novel, perhaps the most complete picture in literature of the apocalyptic undertone of life in Los Angeles, shows us the hand-to-mouth life of extras as seen through the eyes of a rookie art director.
• Histories of Hollywood and descriptions of the picture business
Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. 1986. Especially valuable for its depiction of European, mostly German, émigrés in Hollywood, during WWII. Some of the more surprising southern California residents were Igor Stravinsky and Bertolt Brecht.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. 1988. As opposed to earlier film historians who viewed the studio system through the French auteur theory, in which the director conceived the film and was author of the entire work, Schatz confirms what participants in the studio system knew all along, that the films produced were the work of a team and not of an individual.
Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. 1988. The men who headed the studios were almost all Jews, almost all European immigrants, and almost all built their businesses from literally nothing in the first two decades of the century. Gabler also gives a useful précis of studio style – what makes a Warner Brothers, or a Universal, or a Paramount picture look like that.
Thomson, David. The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. 2004.
Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films. 2008.
Thomson understands the movies and their link to dreams, he understands how films get made and what gets in the way of films getting made, and he can discourse intelligently on the financial side of the picture business, both in the studio age and in these times, when projects are primarily agent- and star-driven. All in all his books present an introduction to the movies as creative works as well as a business.
• Autobiographies and as-told-tos
von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. 1965.
Capra, Frank. The Name above the Title. 1971.
Flynn, Errol. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. 1959.
Marx, Harpo with Barber, Rowland. Harpo Speaks! 1962.
When you start to read Hollywood autobiographies you enter a funhouse mirror world of half-truths. Some stories are true, others may be true, others are inventions. Hollywood figures used the autobiographies to settle scores, burnish their reputations as geniuses, buttress their position in the pantheon, and many other self-serving goals. Von Sternberg reminds everyone that Marlene Dietrich’s early great performances were directed by him. We are supposed to draw the inference that her art as an actress was created by his genius alone. It is quite a mercurial, not to say crazy, book, but an entertaining read. Capra’s is pretty much a straightforward life story, by the Republican who improbably made the series of films that reflected the spirit of FDR’s New Deal so faithfully. Flynn’s book is an early tell-all classic that records the life and times of this sexual athlete. Marx’s story is of his, and his brothers’ career from vaudeville through movies and the times that followed. For another view of some of the same times and places, read S.J. Perelman’s memoirs of his stint as a screenwriter on Marx Brothers movies, “I’ll Always Call You Schnorrer, My African Explorer” collected in Most of the Most of S.J. Perelman, 2000, and “The Marx Brothers” in The Last Laugh, 1981.
• An exemplary Hollywood biography
Callow, Simon. Orson Welles. Volume I The Road to Xanadu. 1995. and Volume II Hello Americans. 2006.
British actor Callow has taken on the task of constructing a truthful biography of this larger than life figure. Welles spent a good deal of his life explaining his failures. In the process he managed to deftly invent many facts, which Callow dismisses with the repeated phraseology “there is no evidence that…” The first volume takes Welles through his 1930s theater and radio career and the miracle that was Citizen Kane. The second volume ends with Welles leaving for Europe in the late 1940s, and covers most of his Hollywood film projects. The books are fascinating, loving, and ultimately exacting in their apportionment of blame for all the more or less flawed films that followed Kane in the 1940s. I await the end of the story in subsequent volumes.