TCM’s ”Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood”

The New York Times

November 1, 2010 Monday

Late Edition – Final/

Section C; Column 0; The Arts/Cultural Desk; TELEVISION REVIEW; Pg. 3

Portraits of Hollywood’s Founding Power Players

By MIKE HALE

CORRECTION APPENDED

Those of us who hold Turner Classic Movies dear — who consider it the one indispensable channel among the 200 or 500 or 1,000 snaking into our televisions — don’t necessarily watch it very often. It can be enough to know it’s there, commercial-free and aspect-ratio-conscious, showing a silent movie in the wee hours of every Monday morning or classing up Halloween with ”The Leopard Man” and ”Cat People” (Jacques Tourneur, 1942, as if you had to ask).

That may represent food for the soul, but it’s not much of a business model for TCM. So you really can’t complain when the channel does something a little different to drum up publicity, exploiting the finite resource of its movie library — as in the mostly dreary 31 Days of Oscar programming stunt each February — or creating its own content, like original documentaries about Chuck Jones or Clint Eastwood.

Or when it does something a whole lot different, like ”Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood,” a seven-week series (beginning Monday night) that represents the channel’s most ambitious venture yet into original programming.

The prominence of the word ”Moguls” (it’s twice as tall as ”Movie Stars” in the program’s logo) is no mistake: this is a business history of Hollywood, and even more than that it’s a kind of family album of the men, mostly hard-driving Eastern European immigrants, who created the American film industry and dominated it well into the 20th century. The Bogarts and Hepburns make their appearances, but the important names are Zukor, Laemmle, Loew, Warner, Fox (born Fried) and Goldwyn (born Gelbfisz, later Goldfish).

Strengthening the all-in-the-family vibe is the fact that many of the interview subjects are in fact family members: Adolf Zukor’s grandson, Carl Laemmle’s niece (Carla!), William Fox’s great-granddaughter, Louis B. Mayer’s grandson and so on. Some are well-known producers in their own right. It all fits, since TCM is part of the family itself, a division of Time Warner.

As with most programs in the illustrated-lecture format (the lecturer in this case being the narrator, Christopher Plummer), the early material is the best. TCM, bless its soul, spends three of the seven hours just getting from Thomas Edison, Georges Melies and the Lumiere brothers through the silent era, and those first three episodes are a treat. Haven’t you always wanted to impress your friends by being able to distinguish among Kinetoscope, Vitascope, Cinematographe and nickelodeon?

After the late 1920s the history becomes more familiar and the anecdotes more well worn. The narrative also fragments, with the original studios splintering and changing hands and the outside world impinging, from the Depression to war to the blacklist to the counterculture. The later episodes begin to resemble laundry lists (Fred Astaire? Check; Shirley Temple? Check) or, as the original moguls and stars begin to die off, extended versions of those Oscar-night memorial montages. The series ends in 1970, with the surviving studios being absorbed by conglomerates and the traditional production system all but dead.

Joining the Hollywood scions and insiders in the ranks of the program’s commentators is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ”film historians,” shocking in their abundance during a time of high unemployment. Among the more recognizable are David Thomson, Molly Haskell, Mark Harris, the biographer A. Scott Berg and TCM’s own indefatigable host, Robert Osborne.

Film critics are not featured (though the final episode discusses Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and gives a condescending kiss-off to Bosley Crowther of The New York Times). When the series does dabble in criticism, or at least favoritism, you might wish it hadn’t. There’s a strange fetish for the films of Lon Chaney (”a majority of them were unforgettable,” Mr. Plummer intones) and penetrating statements like this, regarding Cecil B. DeMille: ”His use of light and shadow gave a visual elegance to his work.”

The real value of ”Moguls & Movie Stars” may lie less with the series itself than with the ancillary material — the extra reading, as it were — that TCM can provide. On Monday night, after the initial episode, the channel will show two hours of Thomas Edison shorts, two hours of D. W. Griffith’s Biograph shorts and two hours of Melies films. Anyone can make a history of Hollywood, but only Turner Classic Movies will show you ”The Kiss,””The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and ”A Trip to the Moon” in one night.

MOGULS & MOVIE STARS

A History of Hollywood

TCM, Monday nights at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.

Produced by TCM in association with Ostar Productions. Written and produced by Jon Wilkman; Bill Haber, executive producer; Christopher Plummer, narrator.

Correction: November 2, 2010, Tuesday

A television review on Monday about the series ”Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood,” on the Turner Classic Movies channel, misstated the given name of an early French filmmaker. He was Georges Melies, not George.

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