The Siren has been a bad girl. Not only has she neglected her blogging, but she neglected to link to MovieMan0283's blog when she embarked on her part of the Movie Books meme. Anyway, let's continue this one.
City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich
When the Siren is asked to name a favorite movie book, this is the one she always picks. The late Otto Friedrich was a journalist and historian with a marvelous prose style, and City of Nets is made unique by his perspective, wit and discerning eye for an anecdote. As Hollywood was and remains a company town obsessed by the movies, the book has plenty of studio stories, but Friedrich is after a more complete account. He also looks at society and politics, including race riots, the aircraft industry, vicious labor disputes featuring corruption on both sides, gangster shootouts, and the bewildered European intellectuals--refugees just trying to figure the damn place out. Although, it must be said, some of the emigres didn't try all that hard. Arnold Schoenberg is shown taking a 1935 meeting with Irving Thalberg and announcing to the flummoxed boy wonder that if he were to compose the score for The Good Earth, the actors "would have to speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in. It would be similar to Pierrot Lunaire," the composer explained, adding reassuringly, "but of course less difficult."
This isn't a book of criticism; it is history, many sources knitted together by a talented man to give you as complete a picture of Hollywood high and low as exists anywhere. In the same chapter that describes how a shy young Spanish dancer named Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino went into the studios and came out as Rita Hayworth, you will find Sergeant Marcario Garcia. Fresh from being decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor, Garcia entered a restaurant and tried to purchase a cup of coffee, only to have the owner threaten him with a baseball bat.
Friedrich's withering description of the origins, proceedings and consequences of the HUAC hearings is still the best the Siren has encountered. Here is his tale of how Hollywood Ten members Ring Lardner Jr. and Lester Cole acquired an unexpected colleague in the federal prison at Danbury, many miles from Hollywood:
'There are rumors already here in advance of your arrival,' said the parole officer, 'that both you and Lardner are prepared for violent revenge if you can get away with it.'
'Who the hell could have said that?' Cole wondered.
'Will you swear,' the parole officer insisted, 'that you are not planning some sort of revenge against J. Parnell Thomas, who is in this institution?'
It was no secret that the crusading congressman had been indicted in 1948 for padding his congressional payroll and taking kickbacks from his employees...But Cole and Lardner had not realized that they and their grand inquisitor would be locked up in the same federal prison.
'He must have started the rumor himself,' Cole said. 'Kill him? My greatest pleasure will be seeing him here with his own kind, petty thieves.'
...Lardner was being given the same warning by another parole officer, and when the two writers next met, they both burst into laughter. 'What luck!" said Lardner. 'There's got to be a way, a dozen ways, to make the bastard miserable.'
When Lardner finally saw the frightened congressman in the prison yard, however, he could not bring himself to speak to him. 'He had lost a good deal of weight,' Lardner recalled later, 'and his face, round and scarlet at our last encounter, was deeply lined and sallow...Neither of us made any social overtures to the other.' Cole was more combative. He said that Thomas 'scurried at least fifty feet away when he saw us coming,' but they finally met at work. Cole had been assigned to cut grass with a sickle, and that brought him near the chicken coops, where Thomas was engaged in scraping up dung with a hoe.
'Hey Bolshie, I see you still got your sickle,' Thomas jeered from behind the chicken fence. 'Where's your hammer?'
'And I see just like in Congress, you're still picking up chickenshit,' Cole shouted back.
City of Nets is full of uproarious stories, from Joseph Mankiewicz's best quip ever, to Dimitri Tiomkin composing orgasm music for David O. Selznick, to Walt Disney watching dailies of cupids, fauns and nymphs in Fantasia and observing, "Gee, this'll make Beethoven." And Friedrich's careful research makes this book one of the few that points out, for example, that the dubious old tale of John Barrymore's corpse being exhumed for one last drinking session exists in at least three different versions.
But it is ultimately a sad book, an elegy for a system wrecked from within and without. Whenever the Siren picks up City of Nets, she is always drawn to the heartbreaking account of the final days of John Garfield, as the great actor, in exile in New York, types up a "confession" for Look magazine and spends hours on the phone, "trying to find somebody to talk to." Days pass as he neither sleeps nor eats. He tries to connect with Hildegard Knef, on her way back to Frankfurt after a failed attempt at a Hollywood career, but she has a party to attend and they never manage to meet that night.
Garfield had gone to see a new friend, Iris Whitney, who had an apartment on Gramercy Park. They went out to dinner. They sat in the park. Garfield said he felt sick. Miss Whitney took him home and put him to bed. There later were entirely unsubstantiated rumors that he died in the midst of wild fornications. Perhaps. But the official version is, for once, more plausible--that after three days of anxiety, drinking, sleeplessness, and wandering through the wreckage of his life, John Garfield simply collapsed. Miss Whitney put him to bed with a glass of orange juice on his night table. When she woke up the next morning, she found the orange juice untouched and Garfield dead.