Although the title implies a hard focus on Hollywood’s premiere movie moguls – the chieftans who built the American film industry – this original TCM mini-series is really an overview of Hollywood, as it evolved from the visions and determination of three specific groups - Jews, women, and immigrants – who were largely shut out of other industries, but found a different climate in La-La Land.
The studio bigwigs were largely tough immigrants from Europe, many of whose families escaped the racially inflammatory of Germany, Poland, and Russia and basically hustled and worked their asses off trying to support their families if not themselves. At some specific juncture during their youths, each mogul or brotherly band of moguls discovered the potential cash in making film loops and later feature films, and the goal during the twenties was to set up shop and become one’s one master via a production company with a classy logo.
It’s actually quite funny how vital the logo became for each mogul, but it’s also indicative of their desire to utterly obfuscate if not bury their poor pasts. The moguls were corporate presidents, money men, and incredible visionaries who saw the potential of product marketing, promotion, technical advancements, and the occasional allowance towards an arty film to ensure the use of “art” in something like the MGM logo banner wasn’t just b.s.
Through the introduction of sound and widescreen formats, the fostering of stars, sequels, and franchises, and maintaining that tumultuous marriage of art and commerce, Hollywood succeeded far beyond its European and Asian competitors, and remains one of the most influential industry towns on Earth.
Some viewers are likely to give TCM’s series short-shrift because the focus isn’t on just a handful of movie moguls; it is an over-ambitious series made over 3 years (hence the inclusion of interview subjects such as the late Gore Vidal), and certain areas are given perfunctory attention while others (where’s Technicolor?) are largely ignored. It’s also a menagerie of interviews from sons and daughters of moguls, historians, critics, filmmakers, and a plethora of stills and archival film clips that can seem bewildering, but the series writers manage to pull of the near-impossible by crafting an epic overview of Hollywood’s development from 1889-1969.
As a primer on Hollywood, it’s a smartly written series which should push viewers into doing their own research, trying out films, printed biographies, and additional documentaries that are equally concerned with facts over fancy montages. There’s simply no way to cover everything when each period scoped out over seven episodes has several extant books.
For heavily read film fans, Moguls & Movie Stars still offers some choice interviews, but there are segments that breeze by too fast, including the finale that covers the demise of the studio system, and rise of indie hippy filmmakers.
The series is better-suited for mid-level fans, as well as newcomers to Hollywood history, curious of how studios such as Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, MGM, United Artists, RKO, Disney, and Columbia were founded, their respective in-house styles, and the colourful figures who ran them almost single-handedly rather than by a committee of lawyers and former agents.
Attention is also given to indie filmmakers and producers such as Stanley Kramer, David O. Selznick, and David Brown & Richard Zamuck, but Otto Preminger and the rare indie producer / directors of the twenties are either missed or reduced to mere mention. While the existence of Poverty Row studios is acknowledged, there's no mention of Allied Artists, nor Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures. And although Hal Roach is spotlighted, there's no mention of Laurel & Hardy - an omission that's addressed in the DVD's bonus panel discussions.
That’s actually fine, because it’s impossible to present an hour-long episode by being all-encompassing. The series is well-written and carefully ordered, and besides the quick intros and outros that share some overlapping info, there is little repetition. Some characters later figure more prominently in subsequent episodes (such as Kramer, who produced a series of racial dramas in the fifties and sixties), and the evolution and financial dilemmas of the studios serve as launching points for examinations of the industry’s own stepping stones (sound, wide film formats, the disintegration of the 7-year contract, and the Production Code, to cite a few).
Bonus Panel Discussions
Warner Home Video’s 3-disc set comes in a DigiBook packaging with compact episode overviews, and each episode is accompanied by roughly 10 minute Q&As between TCM host Robert Osborne and several of the historians and series advisors, adding some further, looser discussions.
In the first Q&A, writer / producer Jon Wilkman explains his reasoning for focusing heavily on pre-cinema inventions in France, as well as Thomas Edison's commercialization of his devices, augmented with rarely seen stills of the Edison labs. Wilkman is joined by film historian and series advisor Cari Beauchamp in Part 2, and their discussions include D.W. Griffith's relevance today,weighing the racism in Birth of a Nation (1915) and his advancement of film techniques still in use; the shift in women's roles after a creative and corporate wave up to 1925; benefits Los Angeles offered early film industry proponents; and engaging family members of the original moguls to share their memories.
Wilkman and Beauchamp are joined by film historian / series advisor David Thomson in Part 3, and the group addresses aspects of the twenties which made movies such an important component of people's lives, including stars, fan magazines, films reflecting daily lives in America, and the power of advertising. In Part 4, film historian Jeanine Basinger joins Beauchamp and Wilkman on the selection of stars and moviemakers to address hot topics such as censorship, star system, and the introduction of sound; and some industry figures who couldn't be included in the series.
In Part 5, Wilkman, Basinger and Thomson talk about the studios' fear of losing the foreign market as Nazi Germany was asserting itself via anti-Semitism and building its war machine; the few figures in Hollywood who made the first efforts to criticize the Nazis; and Hollywood's involvement in wartime propaganda as well as diversions and escapist fodder. The group also reiterate the looming assaults on the moguls' power, such as TV, the Paramount Decree, and the Blacklist. The same guests return for Part 6 to discuss Hollywood's penchant for foolishly resisting new mediums (such as TV), Method actors, and efforts to bring a kind of naturalism to screen stories and performances.
Basinger and Thomson return for Part 7, and their final discussion focuses on the radical changes that challenged the remaining moguls, and the end of the studio system, the Production Code, Hollywood's struggle to reach new audiences, and the current cyclical nature of technological challenges. Neither panel discussion offers up anything new, but they offer more personable environments for the guests to elaborate on topics outside of the tightly edited episodes.
Wrap-Up & References
The DVD transfers are first-rate, and the soundtrack is a lovely mix of score, source cues, and foley for the newsreel extracts.
The best docs on film history have viewers craving more, and Moguls & Movie Stars is right up there. Related to Hollywood moguls and specific studios, there are the documentaries Hollywood the Golden years: The RKO Story (1987), The Desilu Story (2003), MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992), Star Power: The Creation of United Artists (1998),Twentieth Century-Fox: The First 50 Years (1997), Twentieth Century Fox - The Blockbuster Years (2002), The Universal Story (1995), You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (2008) and Here's Looking At You, Warner Bros.: The History of the Warner Bros. Studios (1991).
No less interesting are Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream (1998), Naked Hollywood (1991), Kevin Brownlow’s nostalgic examination of the silent film era, Hollywood (1980), and Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee, N.J. - Early Moviemaking in New Jersey (1964 / 2003).
More specific mogul documentaries include Biography: Louis B. Mayer (1987), The Brothers Warner (2008), Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul (1993), Goldwyn: The Man and His Movies (2001), and The Last Mogul: Life and Times of Lew Wasserman (2005).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan