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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Choice --- The Lion's Share

New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther wrote a book called The Lion's Share that was published in April 1957. It was first to attempt a history of the great Loews and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Variety and the author's own paper gave Crowther positive reviews. He was long recognized as kingpin of film reviewers, having reached a peak of influence by 1957. BC is remembered for later missing the boat on Bonnie and Clyde and being eased off his desk as a result. Now if he's talked about, it's usually in terms of having been out-of-touch throughout much of a long (over twenty-five year) tenure. Crowther worked when critics mattered more. His signing a studio history was gilt-edged so far as credibility. What stories he'd tell in The Lion's Share would become standard text and source for authors to follow. Metro myths to die hardest began or were propagated by Crowther. Still, I enjoyed his book. Of course, better and more accurate ones have been done since. Sometimes though, it's worthwhile to visit movie history as it was understood when shovels first dug into Hollywood past. What Crowther did have was access to near everyone living at the time who'd been at MGM. 1957 was soon enough after a Golden Age for participants to look back fresh and lots more alert than what death or old age would later cancel out. For this alone, The Lion's Share is must reading.

The book was targeted to a mainstream. Dutton published and $5 was the hardcover's price. Crowther's manuscript was trimmed by 50,000 words to get The Lion's Share user-friendly. The author was known enough for a public outside industry to give a look, and that they did to reward of multiple printings over years to follow. Crowther's rather dry meticulousness (a Times review) went down smooth with consumers eager for straight Metro dope. Execs in that company found the book an intrusion, corporate battling a background to first sales of The Lion's Share. Crowther tracked Loew's from nickel origins to then-recent ouster of production chief Dore Schary. The latter was a cooperative interview and got sympathetic coverage in The Lion's Share, while earlier deposed Louis Mayer, still alive in 4/57, was beast and boor to Crowther's mind. Did the old man, then plotting (unsuccessfully) to take back his studio chair, give thought to suing for published slams? If so, I found no ink to confirm, and besides, Mayer had but months to live (August his exit), so maybe LB's concern was more to basics. Few would challenge the book's accuracy. Clark Gable was asked for reaction, and he said The Lion's Share reflected truth pretty much as he remembered. Enough doors opened to Crowther to make his a more-or-less authorized history. New York chief Nicholas Schenck sat down with him, as did Schary, David Selznick, numerous staff and luminaries who toiled for the Lion. Biggest help was Norma Shearer, retired and talkative for perhaps an only time after stepping off stardom's ladder. No wonder then that Irving Thalberg emerged most heroic of Metro minions, the most brilliant executive producer ever to work in Hollywood, according to Crowther.

The Lion's Share is strongest where it tells of founding Marcus Loew and how he built an empire up from storefronts. Woven in/out of his story are dynamos who ran rival firms. It is easy to forget how linked these people were starting out. Commonest thread was willingness to work 24/7 toward dominion of an emerging industry. Crowther goes easy on Adolph Zukor and Sam Goldwyn, both hale/hearty in '57, while passed-on William Fox is tabbed a notoriously savage lone wolf. Reviewers noted such restraint and decorum as Crowther-applied in coverage of lions still roaring when his book was new. An author-updated (and unexpurgated) second edition would have been a welcome, possibly eye-opening read, as one can imagine what interview subjects had to say that Crowther dared not use at the time. Trouble with this book then, is the fact it does pull punches, aimed for light readership, thus no digging deep as we'd like into recesses of MGM. Still, it was heady backstage stuff in 1957, and a first revelatory peek behind scenes of a still-thriving studio concern.

I'd not take Crowther too much to task for untruths he repeated (or that originated with The Lion's Share). He was relying on what longtime personnel told him. Why would they lie after so many, even then, years? The Ben-Hur saga is related for probably a first time, emphasis on fact no lives were lost during its turbulent 20's shoot. Kevin Brownlow would revisit that topic in The Parade's Gone By eleven years later, some of his fresh interviews suggesting there were perhaps fatalities. There's a colorful recounting of MGM's struggle to get The Broadway Melody off starting lines. Early sound struggles are rich source here for triumph and tragedy. The John Gilbert "white voice" myth is hammered home persuasively. No wonder so many still believe that fable ... but who conveyed it to Crowther? Among those he interviewed was sound supervisor Douglas Shearer. Was this the culprit? There is odd reference to William Haines having had "a strangely high-pitched voice" as well, balderdash as any of his starring talkies will attest, but how much access did Crowther have to the films, and how much inclination to watch if he had? Trader Horn tales are told, including claim that Edwina Booth died within a few years of 1930 release, thanks to illness contracted on African locations. It would be decades before we learned that Booth was alive and did in fact make it to venerable age eighty-six. Such was content accepted as fact in 1957 thanks to Crowther's repute and his having palace keys. Historians latterly set records straight, but that need not diminish (by much) value of Bosley Crowther's pioneering work, still a worthwhile and entertaining read if one to approach cautiously.

Best books on MGM history? I'd nominate Scott Eyman's Lion Of Hollywood and Mark Vieira's Irving Thalberg. Both are tops for research/accuracy/enjoyment.


Blogger Jim Lane said...

When I was a teenager a friend of mine referred snidely to this author as "Crowsley Bother," and that always stuck with me. A bit of a fuddy-duddy, I thought, even before Bonnie and Clyde, but must say his reviews, though a tad pompous, have stood the test of time fairly well. You've persuaded me about The Lion's Share; just got back from Alibris and ordering my own copy. Something to be said for reading a book written when the lion was still at the table.

As for your closing nominees, hear-hear to Scott Eyman's Lion of Hollywood. I haven't read Vieira's book on Thalberg, but now that I've read Harlow in Hollywood I think I oughta check it out.

10:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mails the following comment ...

More or less related, TCM is rerunning its "Moguls and Movie Stars" series
May 2-8. It's especially attentive to Mayer and the rest of the moguls. I
enjoyed it last time around; very interested to hear your take on it.

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

My current favorite book on MGM is M-G-M: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT. Really fascinating. Got it as a gift for my birthday a couple of weeks ago.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

For some of the later years of MGM (late 1960s through late 1980s), there's also Fade Out by Peter Bart, which I recommend.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

THey used to do tours of MGM ala Universal in the 60s.We took one in 1968..It was already looking pretty rundown then.At the time they were filming Marlowe(under the title The Little Sister)with James Garner and Heres Peggy Fleming,a tv special..remember seeing The Ester Williams pool and some of the planes from tv's Twelve O'Clock High..Banners were up for the film The Gypsy Moths along side ones for the re-release of Gone With The Wind...

12:32 AM  
Anonymous Malcolm Blackmoor said...

The stories about Ben Hur (1925) fed to Mr Crowther were doctored by the studio because I can confirm that in the full length interviews for The Parade's Gone By, people who had been close enough to know were convinced there had been deaths during the sea battle. Extras had to deposit their own clothes when given costumes and there were some outfits left unclaimed.........

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Jim Reid said...

There's also a book written by Sam Marx who was the story editor at MGM in the 20s & 30s. It's called "Mayer and Thalberg, the Make-Believe Saints". It came out in the 70s. I haven't read it in quite a few years, but I remember thinking that this guy really knew what was going on there.

2:21 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Sam Marx,(dear Sam), brought my writing partner and I out to Metro at the end (not for us, but their period). I originally had met Sam and had sold him on a concept for a re-make of "Libeled Lady", which he liked. David Begelman had brought Sam back to Metro to update some old properties in order to once again try to put the studio back on it's feet. It was a lovely idea but too late in the day, unfortunately. Sam's office, where we'd have our conferences, was located in what was called "The Writer's Building", located just inside the main gate.

The studio had just had a major (and much-needed) hit with "Victor/Victoria". Sam's idea was to use the same cast on "Libeled" -- after all, it had worked when Sam had been there in 1936, with Harlow, Tracy, et al. But of course all this never happened. After awhile, Sam read a script we had just done , with Clint Eastwood in mind, called "The Bright Side" and loved it (I thought it was nice but no great shakes myself). To sit there and hear his input on this and see his mind spinning creative ideas like a syphon, boys, I'm tellin' ya, it was like 1932 all over again! He had been a school friend of Thalberg's and Irving had brought him out to Metro as a story editor. He later became a producer and is the man credited with having discovered Elizabeth Taylor.

He asked me at one meeting, re. our script, "Bright Side", "Who do you see in the leads?" Without a second's hesitation I said, "William Powell and Carole Lombard". Without a second's hesitation he shot back, "Sorry, they're not available"!

"The Bright Side" was never made either, but who cares? For one wonderful moment I was a writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer! I'm tellin' ya -- it was like 1932. God bless you, Sam, wherever you are!


10:40 AM  

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