Judge Roman Martel wonders if TCM host Robert Osborne is ever allowed out of his little room.
The history of Hollywood from Edison to Kubrick. If anyone can pull this off, it has gotta be Turner Classic Movies.
What is the best way to approach the history of American movie making? Where do you start? Where do you stop? What do you leave in and what do you leave out? While it's not as imposing as attempting to summarize the Roman Empire in seven hours, it's still an intimidating prospect.
Actually the title tells you the angle that TCM takes on this subject: moguls and movie stars. We follow the stories of the men and women who started the business, grew in power and forged the industry. We see them at the height of their skills, and watch as that influence wanes and disappears as the '60s come to a close.
Some of the most interesting material occurs in the first two episodes, spanning 1889 to 1920. The documentary starts with the evolution of the motion picture camera, and how the idea of sitting in a darkened theater watching projected images had actually been pioneered by a device called The Magic Lantern developed in the 1600s. It goes through the inventions of Thomas Edison, who not only created some of the first motion pictures, but was instrumental in causing the hub of the industry to shift to California.
We also join the moguls in their humble roots, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe. They came to America and saw the economic possibilities in film making. In these early days, motion pictures were considered trashy entertainment. Legitimate performers and promoters felt it was a fad and had no problem letting immigrants take the lead. But as time went on, men like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer went from merely owning a few theaters to getting in behind the scenes, making the films and distributing them.
To ensure they got the most bang for their buck they used movie stars. As the 1920s rolled along some of the biggest stars of all time appeared, or were invented. It's amazing to see how much influence these actors gained in such short amount of time. As a communication medium, movies were almost unstoppable. If your film did well, everyone worldwide knew your name. For the moguls it meant more money to have a star like Charlie Chaplin under your employ. But the stars had their own ides, and the 1920s also begins the struggle between the men behind the scenes and the men and women in front of the camera.
The series follows the moguls power through the high points of the 1930s and 1940s, linking Hollywood to political and cultural aspects of American life. But the end of World War II changes everything. Audiences now have a different perspective on the world and this alters what they want to see in films. On top of that the Communist black listing has its roots in the end of the '40s and carries right on into the 1950s.
It's television that becomes one of the most confusing challenge to the moguls, instead of embracing it, they attempt to fight it. The result is that many of the big studios begin to lose money. Giants like RKO are sold off and by the 1960s most of the moguls have lost their kingdoms to larger corporations.
This series is jam packed full of information about the moguls lives, their power plays and the way they used and abused their stars. For anyone curious about the old studio system of Hollywood, you'll find this series to be an interesting primer. But the scope of the series has to limit its detail. Many elements are briefly touched on but never delved into. For example we learn that Universal was having a tough time in the 1930s and the success of their classic monster films saved them. But thats it. There's no discussion on why audiences were drawn to those films at that time, or what Universal did to market them. This documentary does spend a little time covering all the outsiders who managed to make a splash like Howard Hughes, Joseph Kennedy and Orson Welles. Even Walt Disney gets a bit of a mention, but is never considered one of the classic moguls.
My disappointment in the series comes from the fact that the focus on the moguls and stars ends up eclipsing the films. Yes, many films are mentioned and shown, but you never get a good dissection of why they are important—other than they were a success or failure for mogul or star. Part of this is my expectations. The series stays true to its premise, but I was hoping for a bit more in depth examination of some classic movies along the lines of Visions of Light or the excellent A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.
The series contains mainly archival photos and footage mixed with interviews and clips from films being discussed. The interviews range from noted film scholars, to relatives of the moguls, and even some of the folks who worked with the stars and moguls in the '50s and '60s. Christopher Plummer provides solid narration. Because of all the information, the series clips along pretty quickly, and juggles all the players fairly well.
Warner Bros. offers a good package for movie fans. All seven episodes are on three discs. The images are clear and manage to show off some of the films to great affect. The sound is well balanced. The discs are housed in an attractive book style case, containing a bound booklet filled with photos and a brief essay on each decade by the writer and producer of the documentary, Jon Wilkman. You also get a panel discussion for each episode with TCM host Robert Osborne providing the questions. He is joined by Wilkman and usually a couple of the other film scholars interviewed in the series. They run about ten minutes and cover items not discussed in the documentary, or provide more depth to certain points. I really enjoyed listening to these folks talk and bounce ideas back and forth.
For a mogul-centric look at the history of Hollywood, you can't do much better. There's a lot of information presented in a great way. It's an easy recommendation for anyone who's interested in old Hollywood.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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