Books postsFriday August 19, 2016
When You Wish Upon a Star
I'm reading Neal Gabler's bio of Walt Disney, and it's good if long; portions could've used an editor. But the preface is breezy, a synopsis/analysis on the ying-yang of Disney—his love of nostalgia and the future, for example—and it includes this thought from Gabler:
... the most powerful source of his appeal as well as his greatest legacy may be that Walt Disney, more than any other American artist, defined the terms of wish fulfillment and demonstrated on a grand scale to his fellow Americans, and ultimately to the entire world, how one could be empowered by fantasy—how one could learn, in effect, to live within one’s own illusions and even to transform the world into those illusions.
I think this is true and it's in now way a positive. It's the forerunner to Ronald Reagan and Karl Rove and now Donald J. Trump. How thin is the line between the Big Lie and Hollywood wish fulfillment? Isn't the Big Lie just wish fulfillment? Aren't politicians and moviemakers both giving the people what they want? To get over their troubles? The movies just do it for two hours; the politicians we're stuck with for four years.
The real problem is when people can't distinguish between the two. I think we're in that territory now. I think a portion of the populace has been in that territory all of my life.
Famous Last Words: Fred Quimby
“Walt had gone to see Fred Quimby at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the hope, at the very least, of getting a competing bid to put pressure on [early Disney distributor Charles] Mintz, but Quimby told him that 'Cartoons [were] on the wane' and said he was not interested.”
-- from Neal Gabler's biography “Walt Disney.” The above meeting took place in Feb. 1928. A few weeks later, Disney did the first sketch on the character below. This is like the Decca exec saying “Guitar groups are on the way out” to the Beatles in 1962. Better.
The Last Word on the Hollywood Blacklist*
Another Lillian Hellman quote from “Scoundrel Time.” She's writing about the moguls, the Eastern European Jewish men who came to power in Hollywood:
Certainly they had force and daring, but by the time of McCarthy they had grown older and wearier. Threats that might once have been laughed about over a gin rummy game now seemed dangerous to their fortunes. Movie producers knew full well that the Communists of Hollywood had never made a single Communist picture, but they were perfectly willing to act as dupes for those who pretended that was a danger.
That's the key, really. There were Communists in Hollywood, and many of them pushed to get their ideas into their screenplays (as every writer does), but they didn't come close to succeeding. You could argue that the most pro-Communist movie during this period was “Mission to Moscow,” directed by a non-communist, written by a non-communist, based on a memoir by a non-communist, and produced at virulently anti-communist Warner Bros. As for communists like John Howard Lawson? He wrote action movies for Humphrey Bogart. The blacklist was paranoia, or a power grab, or a pogrom.
* Not my last word, mind you.
The Bravery of the Staircase
Lillian Hellman stood up to HUAC better than most, and risked a lot (and lost a lot) in doing so. But in her 1976 memoir “Scoundrel Time” she felt she didn't risk/do enough. This is what she wished she'd said to HUAC committee members:
There is no Communist menace in this country and you know it. You have made cowards into liars, an ugly business, and you made me write a letter in which I acknowledged your power. I should have gone into your Committee room, given my name and address, and walked out.
Many people have said they liked what I did, but I don't much, and if I hadn't worried about rats in jail, and such. ... Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it's all over, the bravery of the staircase.
Lillian Hellman Sells the Farm
Recently read Lillian Hellman's 1976 memoir, “Scoundrel Time,” about her days being blacklisted and testifying before HUAC as an unfriendly witness. It's good but apparently not good enough to get its own Wikipedia page.
Blacklisted, and with her lover, Dashiell Hammett, also blacklisted, Hellman must sell her farm and move on:
I am angry that corrupt and unjust men made me sell the only place that was ever right for me, but that doesn't have much to do with anything anymore, because there have been other places and they do fine. If I had stayed on the farm I would have grown old faster in its service. There are not many places or periods or scenes that you can think back upon with no rip in the pleasure. The people who worked for us must feel the same way, because each Christmas we still send each other gifts, but we do not meet because all of us fear, I think, the sad talk of a good past. Benson, my farmer, is dead, but his wife lived to raise a good son, and whenever I talk to her I remember the picture of her fat, cheerful little boy sitting on the terrace steps with Hammett, a bitter ex-Catholic, who was taking the boy through his catechism and explaining with sympathy the meaning of the ceremony.
A moment of grace in a graceless time.