We gave it a B
It is not often one gets to paraphrase the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes in the pages of this magazine (you know, the fellow who claimed he could move the world if only he had a lever big enough), so it gives me particular pleasure to announce the formulation of a new Archimedean principle applicable to the broadcast of Hollywood On Hollywood: Give me a film archive big enough and I can make a clip-filled documentary about anything.
That’s because nifty, bite-size clips for people with short attention spans are the Krazy Glue of entertainment, Hollywood’s most creative contribution to the recycling movement. Without access to film clips, there would be no That’s Entertainment!, no tolerable opening production numbers on Academy Awards telecasts, no charm to HBO’s Dream On. With them, writer-producer-director (and veteran Time movie critic) Richard Schickel (he produced the series The Men Who Made the Movies) is able to piece together smooth, appealing, all-American, middlebrow TV pieces — his latest being this somewhat airless proof of his thesis that ”the idea of Hollywood is the most original idea Hollywood ever had.”
And viewers get to snack for an hour, bob along happily with the recognizable snippets (oooh, Sullivan’s Travels! Sunset Boulevard! The Player!), puzzle out the more obscure oldies (Lucille Ball in Annabel Takes a Tour!), feel affection for a great American institution, and not have to think very much.
Ron Howard, the talented, popular boy actor (The Andy Griffith Show) who grew up to become the talented, populist director (Splash, Backdraft), is the host, which makes sense. Howard himself is a walking clip, an archive of American popular culture with performance ties to The Music Man, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, American Graffiti, and its TV counterpart, Happy Days. Yet, Howard says, he appears in this documentary to represent ”the reality principle in a program made up entirely of exaggerations.” We are to think of him as our friendly down-to-earth guide, our pal with the backstage pass who knows how things really work in The Industry.
This is, of course, artifice: Howard is performing his role of friendly guide. But never mind, we buy it — this is the movies. The real question is, what do we learn? Well, we learn that in Hollywood, ”people didn’t just dream dreams here, they actually went out and built them.” And that one of the place’s advertised attractions was that it ”so obviously wasn’t Kansas. Or Wisconsin.” And that ”the movies are not a reasonable business.”
Schickel organizes his material into themes: movies about fictional aspiring stars on their way up (e.g., Janet Gaynor in the 1937 A Star Is Born), stories about stars on their way down (inevitably Gloria Swanson in the 1950 Sunset Boulevard), moguls, directors, press agents, etc. One intriguing section is devoted to movies that glamorized how such glamour queens as Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino helped the war effort in the 1940s, with scenes from, among others, Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Follow the Boys (1944). Too bad no mention is made of Hollywood’s more complicated, more recent self-adulatory involvement in fashionable anti-war efforts and other social and political issues of the micromoment.
The best chunk of Hollywood On Hollywood is the segment about the on-screen image of moviemaking after the war. In the 1950s, as Schickel puts it, the industry that congratulated itself on winning the war lost the peace and underwent a fascinating, bitter, cleansing period of self-hatred. Out of the cynicism came such powerful portraits of Hollywood destruction as Clifford Odets’ 1955 movie The Big Knife (whose themes of creative sellout were echoed nearly 40 years later in Barton Fink), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Paddy Chayefsky’s The Goddess (1958), inspired by Marilyn Monroe.
Hollywood On Hollywood steps only briefly into the present, primarily in clips from Grand Canyon (1991) and The Player (1992). But maybe Schickel is saving contemporary Hollywood for another documentary (check the archives). Such a thing, ideally, would contain something of the spiky, irreverent commentary dished up by British journalist Clive James on the recent PBS series Fame in the 20th Century, for which a topic like the movies is so deliciously suited. But, oh hey, maybe that’s a British thing. And we starstruck Americans wouldn’t understand. B