Magazine | March 28, 2016, Issue

The Real Land of Illusions

West of Eden: An American Place, by Jean Stein (Random House, 368 pp., $30)

It is possible to gain perspective on almost anything after 70 years. Let us consider, then, Hollywood cinema as it was in 1946.

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives won plaudits and eight Academy Awards for its consideration of the lot of soldiers after World War II. The film still impresses with its stoicism and simplicity — the way, for instance, Sergeant Stephenson (Fredric March) wants his excited teenage children to quiet down in order to make his return a surprise to his wife (Myrna Loy). Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was no blockbuster, but its idea that one’s friends and family are to be prized above all else proved appealing over the long run. And it was a film from England — Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death — that best encapsulated the postwar mood: RAF pilot David Niven has steeled himself to die for God and country, but when a heavenly blunder causes him to retain his life, he determines to do so in the company of charming Kim Hunter.

These films had more than just production quality going for them. They shared a certain gravity — a sense that issues such as war and peace, love and kindness, were to be taken seriously. That does not mean, of course, that those who made these films were moralists, but that the spirit of the age — the West, triumphant in war, proceeding onward and upward at home — seeped into their handiwork.

A new oral history of Hollywood’s Golden Age, however, might leave some readers thinking that the sincere sentiments of many classic films masked a business (and a town) that was essentially amoral. In this book, Jean Stein — whose thin bibliography also includes oral histories of Robert F. Kennedy and Edie Sedgwick, both published decades ago — makes use of interviews with participants and observers to recount the fates of a quintet of California-based families (the Dohenys, the Warners, and the Steins — the author’s family, which included her father, Jules, a founder of MCA — plus the assorted relations of Jane Garland and Jennifer Jones).

The book’s prologue frames the picture: Mike Davis, now an author, recalls working as a driver for Gray Line Tours. Assigned to a route that snaked through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Davis elected not to buy addresses of celebrities, “so I just winged it,” he says. “I’d pick out a big house and lie about who lived there.” Occasionally, a savvy passenger called him out. “I remember one time exuding ‘Here she is — I Love Lucy! There’s her house. We’ll slow down so you can take photos,’” Davis says. “Then some lady in the back absolutely freaks out. ‘I’ve been on this tour enough times to know that’s not Lucille Ball’s house. She lives three blocks away.’”

The point, in case you missed it, is that the image Hollywood projects of itself is bogus, and that most are too dim to notice. Later, Davis wags his finger at passengers who have filed out at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre “to go venerate the footprints,” oblivious to homeless, drug-addicted, or otherwise unwell citizens around them. “Instead of being distressed by the huge moral discrepancy between the myth of Hollywood and its current reality,” Davis laments, “most of them only saw what already had been fixed in their minds.” To be sure, this episode is unfortunate, but in leading with it, Stein is saying: Forget all the hooey — here’s the real story.

The book certainly offers plenty of ghoulish stories — none more so than that of Jane Garland. In 1957, a group of young men are retained to serve as “special psychiatric attendants” to Garland, the twentysomething, schizophrenic daughter of a railroad and real-estate tycoon; the misbegotten goal is to acclimate Garland to supposedly normal outings. Walter Hopps, then one of Garland’s “attendants,” recalls an expedition with her to Disneyland while he was under the influence of marijuana. “To experience it stoned, in the company of a charming, totally delighted schizophrenic girl — that’s the only way to see Disneyland,” he says. As a portrait of local wreckage, this chapter would not be out of place in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

On the other hand, much of the material concerning Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner and his wife, Ann, is not half as ghastly as Salvador Dalí’s paintings of the couple (reproduced, a bit too gleefully, here). “As a child I was really frightened of that portrait of Mrs. Warner,” Stein says, and we can see why: She sits in front of an apocalyptic desert landscape and has a touch of the Crypt Keeper about her.

“Jack Warner was a great character, like all of them,” says producer David Geffen. “They were remarkable guys, but they were monsters.” But was Warner really so different from most effective businessmen? Son Jack Warner Jr. remembers his father pointing toward a “monstrous” (there’s that word again) water tower adorned with the words “Warner Bros.” as a kind of conversation-stopper during arguments with others. “He wanted to stress that he ran this company and by God, he did,” Jack Jr. says. Meanwhile, daughter Barbara Warner Howard speaks of watching dailies with her father at age eleven; when she observantly spots a mix-up in screen direction during one scene, the old man does not react favorably. “Two months later, I was sent to Switzerland,” she says. “They must have had the idea of sending me away before, but my outspokenness clinched it.” Readers will be forgiven if they shrug their shoulders at this point.

The chapter on Jennifer Jones is the book’s most absorbing. The actress who would later star in Duel in the Sun and Since You Went Away began life as Phylis Lee Isley in Tulsa, Okla., later taking the name of her first husband, actor Robert Walker. Neither Christian name nor surname passed muster with producer David O. Selznick, who dashed off memos on the matter. “Where the hell is that new name for Phylis Walker?” Selznick writes in 1942. “Personally, I would like to decide on Jennifer and get a one-syllable name that has some rhythm to it and that is easy to remember.” Selznick shepherded Jones’s career, becoming her second husband and father to daughter Mary Jennifer.

Innocent enough beginnings, perhaps, but what follows is bleak stuff. Psychiatrist Beatriz Foster says of Mary Jennifer: “She had this habit of going to high-rises, even walking on the roof, and together we tried to figure out her obsession with high places.” This rather understated remark foretells Mary Jennifer’s demise in 1976, when she died following a jump from a 22-storey building. Some years earlier, Jones herself made an attempt at suicide by drowning, and her sad tale may reach its nadir in an anecdote from hairstylist Tomoyuki Takei, who recalls that the actress never removed her makeup before retiring to bed. “She said it was ‘in case I get sick at night and have to go to the hospital. Somebody’s going to take a picture of me, and I don’t want to be without makeup,’” Takei says. “She did this every night.”

Stein does herself no favors in presenting this material as oral history; instead of supplying background about the speakers in the text, she gives readers brief biographical notes at the end (which many will find themselves referring to continually). Key facts and potent observations get lost amid the interviewees’ soliloquies; the book comes to resemble a telephone party line dominated by gossipy bores.

In the end, the laundry list of alternately tawdry and tedious tales is wearying. And it must be reiterated: No matter how strange, greedy, or ethically lacking a number of these long-departed people are, they often produced work that reflected higher values. The book bolsters the idea that it is best to distinguish entirely between the makers of the art and the art itself.

Consider an amusing, only mildly disturbing story told by Dennis Hopper’s daughter, Marin, about visits to the Malibu residence of Larry Hagman. “I remember going there, and it was so strange, because every Sunday he took a vow of silence, so he wouldn’t speak to anyone,” she says, adding that Hagman would dress up “in some kind of caftan with a hood” and parade about the beach with a giant flag.

Now, Larry Hagman was the son of Mary Martin, the all-American actress and singer who portrayed such paragons of virtue as Maria von Trapp in the Broadway production of The Sound of Music. (“Mary Martin is our ideal, our dream, our faith,” wrote theater critic Harold Clurman.) That her grown son partook in wacky weekend rituals does nothing to help us appreciate — nor anything to diminish — her legacy as a performer, or his.

To put it another way: Jack Warner might not have been the nicest guy in town, but he was still capable of producing My Fair Lady.

Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion, and The Weekly Standard. He is the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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