Friday, July 10, 2009

10 Books From a Cinephile's Past: City of Nets

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.


dri said...

I read this book and loved it... is really good.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It is indeed a marvelous book, with much to say about the eurpopean emigre community that fled to Hollywood in the wake of Hitler's rise. The marvelous documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story is full of home movies of the emigres (who were all friends of Isherwood's) at play.

As for Garfield it's obvious from his last film, John Berry's teriffic He Ran All The Way, that he's dying. The creatures who destroyed this great man are the embodiment of Evil.

And their like are still very much around today.

One of them just stepped down as Governor of Alaska.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Nice photo of Rita. I wish I could remember the title of a more recent book I had read on Los Angeles which mentions Chester Himes being chased out of Warner Brothers by Jack Warner.

Dare I ask how your foreign language film resolution is going?

The Siren said...

Peter, I am behind but still going. As soon as I get everyone well I should be able to update it again.

Lady Spiggott, welcome, and I am glad you loved the book too.

David, the descriptions of the Europeans trying to cope with Hollywood are sometimes sad, mostly hilarious. It's way too long to quote, but the whole story of Bertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton putting a production of Galileo together is particularly delicious.

Arthur S. said...

Brecht mentioned in his account of the production(where he doesn't even mention Joseph Losey, the ostensible "director") that Laughton insisted on hiring a truck full of ice to vent through the theatre so that audiences could "think".

It was a legendary production and a great moment in American theatre. It's a pity there aren't video records of Laughton as Galileo. In Losey's later recording in the 70s wit Topol, you get a sense of Laughton' phantom over the edges. Though Losey had a grudge against Laughton for some reason.

Yojimboen said...

100 years ago Julie Garfield (née Garfinkle) insisted to me that her father had died ‘on the job’. Of course she may have been shining me - a naïve young European (anything-but-intellectual) émigré fresh off the boat - or she too may have bought the ‘print the legend’ aspect to his demise. Pity, really. Wherever the truth lies, in the minds of most people (of a certain generation) John Garfield will forever remain the leader of the pack of that select group of famous and infamous: Attila the Hun, a Pope or two, Nelson Rockefeller and, now it seems, David Carradine who, to put it as crudely as it’s possible to put anything, thought they were coming when they were actually going.

Vanwall said...

What Hollywood could not understand or manipulate, it destroyed with a ruthlessness that almost makes salting Carthaginian ground seem like a gardening tip - they wanted you gone, and "never able to work in this town again". How sad that they controlled what we saw for so long, with the only caveat being you can get caught in bed with a live boy or a dead whore, we'll protect your ass cause then we'll own it, but for Christ's sake, (a loosely adhered-to maxim for H'wood - lip service only) don't get caught having a conscience.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Losey obviously recognized Laughton's power and authority -- just as Sternberg did. Laughton was a born director. A shame he only got one shot at directing. But what a shot!

Arthur S. said...

Well Sternberg's I CLAUDIUS ended up becoming one of the sad abortion cases of motion picture industry so don't know anything about authority there. Laughton was a forceful personality but he got along well with other directors, especially Renoir, McCarey, then Preminger, Hitchcock and Lean. A truly great actor and artist and that's the case even without the film he made, with it, of course he's one of those special blessed ones like Vigo or Parajanov, who didn't get long careers but who are treasures of a rare sort.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is one of the supreme American artworks, I think. It's also very Brecht-inspired, the use of folk music like those kids singing "Hing-Hang-Hung" then that lyric when the kids sail away into the swamp and most important of all the hymn, "Waiting on the Everlasting Arms" when Lillian Gish and Mitchum duel by singing in the dark. Above all the way it portrays community functions critically like that annoying nauseating society folk in that village and in that final scene when the boy flings that money in the Evil Preacher' face. It's very much in the Brechtian tradition of subversive use of morality plays and themes to deal with the insuffiency of a capitalist system or in Laughton's case, the pillars of family and democracy which are key targets in his film.

Samuel Wilson said...

Friedrich's is one of the great Hollywood books and a great companion piece to, as well as (to an extent) a continuation of BEFORE THE DELUGE, his treatment of the Weimar Republic.

Gloria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gloria said...


I don't own a copy of this book, even though I once read the bit you probably suspect, heh. I've had it for years on the "to get-to read" list but I always had something getting ahead of it. So this post has been a helpful reminder.

Arthur S.: you'd be interested in knowing that there is actually a film from the 1947 production of galileo. Ruth Berlau shot it from a distance with a home-film camera, and I understand it's kept at the Brecht archives in Germany. It's silent and I don't know if it covers the whole production. Also, I understand that Berlau also chronicled the whole play with photographs (even though the constant "click-click drove Laughton crazy)

As for Losey, who as Eric bentley, seemed to have a grudge against Laughton, I think the main reason was that Laughton was possibly the closest associate of Brecht in America (and the one who fought to actually get a big production of his work on stage in America, As official members of the Brecht Franchise, so to say, they may have snickered a bit against Laughton in order to get a bigger paragraph in the Story if Literature books.

Another possible reason? Hum, Elsa Lanchester wrote how, back in the early thirties, she went on a date with Losey, there were even oysters in the menu and I suspect that Elsa looked forward on the occasion as to perform a bit of retaliation on Charles. However, the date, according to Elsa "fell flat" (something to do with Elsa not enjoying the oysters)

mndean said...

If Laughton was driven nuts by the clicking of the camera, he must have had awfully good ears. Not that many cameras were very noisy back then (especially when compared to a cine camera). Most leaf-shutter cameras you could barely hear a tick. I guess if she used a Graflex or Speed Graphic or something, that'd be annoying. Those things are really loud. But if she was using a Leica or Rolleiflex, I'd think that Laughton was just irritated that the play was being photographed.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"O oysters come and walk with us,"
Charles Laughton did beseech. . .

The Siren said...

"Laughton's Belly," by Bertolt Brecht:

Here it was, not unexpected, but not usual either
And built of foods which he
At his leisure had selected, for his entertainment
And to a good plan, evidently carried out.

MikeT said...

This is one of my favorite books, too, about Hollywood. I wish someone would write an account with just as much verve about Motown in the '60s.

For anyone interested, Friedrich had a wonderful article in AMERICAN HERITAGE (Feb. 1988--you can find it online) about Sgt. William Walker, an African-American soldier executed in the Civil War for mutiny. The real offense: his protest against blacks being paid less than white soldiers in the war.

mndean said...

I wish someone could write the Motown story, but all I ever found was hagiographies with the exception of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. Berry Gordy may not have been as crooked as, say, Syd Nathan, but he wasn't exactly the best person to work for, either (unless your name was Ross). The smartest person in Detroit was Eddie Wingate, who created a strong competitor to Motown and then sold the whole works to Gordy for a nice profit. Funny thing was outside of Edwin Starr, many of the acts ended up working for Holland-Dozier-Holland's labels after the buyout.

Humphrey Bogart said...

MN, have you read Kingsley Abbott's 'Calling Out Around the World; A Motown Reader'? It contains some very interesting interviews with the likes of Gordy, Norman Whitfield and Florence Ballard, and while the quality of the articles is variable, and annoyingly Britcentric, it contains plenty of information I had never read elsewhere.

For one thing, I had never heard elsewhere that it was the Wrecking Crew (Phil Spector and Brian Wilson's favoured team of LA session musicians) rather than the Funk Brothers playing on My Guy, Bernardette, Get Ready and dozens of the other mid-sixties classics. Or is that common knowledge?

mndean said...

Oh, I believe the stories of the Wrecking Crew about as much as I believe Santa Claus. I know some Motown acts were recorded in LA (Brenda Holloway for one, but not for her Smokey Robinson written and produced hit When I'm Gone), but it's hardly likely that Bernadette was done in LA. There's a lot of BS about this and some of it seems to come from England. And Carol Kaye. The woman ought to be proud of what she did, but she wants to take credit for more than she did.

The Funk Brothers basically moonlighted in a lot of places, like Chicago (Take a close listen to Jackie Wilson's hits from '66-68) Gordy fined them, mostly for working for Wingate, but he had no legal right to do so since he didn't even have them under contract until '68. They got paid by the session, so they got fined for nothing. Now why would he go to LA where it would be more expensive in every way to record? He was doing fine with the Funk Brothers (even the ones who were more erratic, like drummer Benny Benjamin were backed up by Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen), and I think his LA excursions (with himself and Frank Wilson producing mostly) were experiments for an eventual move there. He had bigger ideas in mind (film, television), and he knew he'd have to go there eventually.

The LA recordings I've heard have a different feel to them than the Detroit recordings. For one thing, listen to the bass on the songs - if you hear a pick being used (being a bass player, that's easy for me to detect), that's a signal that neither James Jamerson nor Bob Babbitt were on the recording, which signals it's not a Detroit session.

Humphrey Bogart said...

Oh, that's very interesting. As it happens, the source of the information in the book is an interview with Carol Kaye; it didn't occur to me that she might have an agenda to push (partly, as you say, because she has a decent enough legacy already)

Clearly, to borrow a phrase from Viv Stanshall, I'm credulous as hell and need to do more research.

I also didn't know the Funk Brothers played on on Jackie Wilson's mid-60s sides. I Get the Sweetest Feeling is a killer, but then, I've never heard anything by Jackie that wasn't. (I've never heard his tribute to Jolson.)

mndean said...

I Get The Sweetest Feeling was one I ID'ed as being a Funk Brothers track. I believed for years Whispers (Gettin' Louder) was also one. It's said Higher and Higher is, but my ear isn't really convinced. The Funk Brothers worked for Carl Davis on the side, and since Berry and Jackie were friends, I don't think it led to much friction. There are a few other tracks out there I have an inkling were done in Chicago by the Funk Brothers, but I don't have much to go on but my ears, so I won't ever ID a track unless I see a call list. Call lists for sessions that old aren't exactly easy to come by or always that accurate, either.

Oh, and just to clarify why I call BS on songs like Bernadette, think of what it would mean to do that track in LA. You either have the producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier travel to LA and lead an instrumental session out there, then come back to Detroit to have the Four Tops and the Andantes record the vocals. I find that unlikely. HDH were much too valuable to the company to be making junkets like that.

Alternately you send the whole kaboodle down to do the session, singers and all. Neither sounds economical or sensible, especially when it's the third of the trilogy (Reach Out I'll Be There, Standing In The Shadows Of Love, Bernadette), which wouldn't have a great likelihood of being a huge hit.

One other thing to note is that some album tracks differ markedly from the singles, which can lead to a morass and misidentification.

But that's kind of the way I do research - experience, intuition, and hard logic. I'm not always right (hoo boy, have I been embarrassed a couple of times), but my track record isn't bad.

Humphrey Bogart said...

Fascinating stuff, MN. I'll have to bow to your expertise on this matter - I love the records, but cannot profess to have listened to them a tenth as closely as you have.

To re-rail this thread a tad, I must say, Campaspe, that I'm thoroughly enjoying these posts. I got the Vanity Fair book out from the library last week, am enjoying the whole thing immensely, from the great Dorothy Parker pieces all the way down to the dopey proto-photoshops of what Bernard Shaw would have looked like as a child.

mndean said...

I'll tell you a funny story about this. It was in the early '80s when I was listening to the song Just Like Romeo and Juliet by the Reflections (I haunted old record shops). I thought the song was, well, mediocre for a top ten pop song, but the backing band made my ears sit up and take notice. I felt to my core it was Motown's band (the Funk Brothers name I didn't know about until soon after). I asked a few major rock music critics about the possibility of it being so (who I *snicker* figured should know their music) and got answers ranging from "are you kidding?" to "who cares?" from those who deigned to answer me. I dropped the matter, since I was a young college student and I felt I basically got slapped down. If I'd known how to contact the principles, I might have gotten farther.

Musical archaeology just wasn't a field of interest then like it is today. It's almost beside the point that I was right, since it led to nothing.

surly hack said...

I guess I should read this and watch Los Angeles Plays Itself.

X. Trapnel said...

Being in the early stages of house moving, I'm unable to lay hands on my copy of City of Nets I'm wondering if it's the source of two of my favorite Hollywood emigre stories: (1) the noxious philosopher Theodor W. Adorno shrinking in horror on being introduced to Harold Russell (at Chaplin's house, I think); (2) Arnold Schoenberg, shortly after the publication of Doctor Faustus, spotting a fellow emigre in a Hollywood supermarket, shouting accusatory invective down the aisle against Thomas Mann, climaxing with "and I don't have syphillis!" (AS suspected Mann had based his composer hero on him.)

"In America, one does not make a scene"--Arnold Schoenberg to his Austrian son-in-law

Joel Bocko said...

Well, here I was accepting the fact that I had merely provoked a great post, and now this!

It will be added to the master list I just put up, along with your other titles (and those of the other bloggers who are participated), which can be found here:

By my count this makes 7 so far. Keep going; I'll keep adding them to the list, and don't stop at 10 if you don't want to - these are great...

Joel Bocko said...

Also, that picture of Louise Brooks from your first post is simply devastating. I'm not sure why...she always looks great...but something about the eyeshadow and slightly sad countenance...

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Alas, never read "City of Nets," which I think I owned at one point. But this thread seems a good opportunity, nonetheless, to quote some words from the Cy Coleman/David Zippel/Larry Gelbart musical "City of Angels."

(Aside: I've been recommending it to theaters for years, no one's attempted Down San Diego Way ... until a decidedly fifth-string organization's announcement this year.)

Sings a '40s producer (Buddy Fidler) to a novelist-turned-screewriter (Stine):

"Don't cling to the words to which you gave birth,
"Remember how many a picture is worth,
"The odds are a thousand to one, so get used to it, Stine,
"The book may be yours, baby, trust me the movie is mine."
"Ya learn from Von Sternberg,
"Ya grow from Von Stroheim,
"And so I'm the heir to their skill.
"This town has more nuts than Brazil
"Let's face it, I've been through DeMille."

Lyric is by David Zippel, the producer with the name similar to Buddy Adler is played by Rene Auberjonois.

Vanwall said...

There's a nifty interview with Laszlo Willinger in Kobal's "People Will Talk", (I know, I know, but I love that book), and his run-ins with stars, and not so incidentally, the photographers guilds! Both in Europe, and especially H'wood, where it seemed to exist to keep great photographers out, especially in the slicks. Willinger had to use his wits just to stay in the country so the bean counters wouldn't be able to ship him off to the Old Country and save paying his salary, but also to keep his Guild card - they had a man literally waiting to tell him he was out as soon as his visa was gonna expire; Willinger outsmarted 'em and nipped over the border to the US Consul in Mexico and got an extension, clever rascal! Good interviews with poor June Duprez & funny Dagmar Godowsky among other Europeans in Fantasyland.

Guy Budziak said...

For anyone with a serious interest in cinema this book is a must-read. In large part because it does attempt to be so all-encompassing. It covers what is my favorite decade in classic film-making, the Forties. From the electrolysis performed on the forehead of the young Latina Rita (Margarita) Hayworth to the deliciously spontaneous "F*** you!" uttered by Wilder Billy to Louis B. Mayer after his indignant dissing of BW's SUNSET BOULEVARD, this book is full to the brim with info and anecdotes from all aspects of film-making.

Guy Budziak said...

For anyone with a serious interest in cinema this book is a must-read. In large part because it does attempt to be so all-encompassing. It covers what is my favorite decade in classic film-making, the Forties. From the electrolysis performed on the forehead of the young Latina Rita (Margarita) Hayworth to the deliciously spontaneous "F*** you!" uttered by Wilder Billy to Louis B. Mayer after his indignant dissing of BW's SUNSET BOULEVARD, this book is full to the brim with info and anecdotes from all aspects of film-making.

Happy Miser said...

Just bought a beautiful condition hard cover copy of City of Nets off eBay. Can't wait to read it! I'll be reading you often!! THANKS!

cgeye said...

I was blessed to have read this book when it was published, and it taught me there was so much I didn't know about what refugees of all sorts contributed to Hollywood, a place, more or less, Hitler created in its golden age.