Hollywood: The Oral History

  • By Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson
  • Harper
  • 768 pp.

A chatty, affectionate ode to Tinseltown.

Hollywood: The Oral History

“HOO-ray for HOLLY-wood” rings out like cathedral bells in the familiar Johnny Mercer tune. Now make way for Hollywood: The Oral History, which lumbers in like a heavy-duty print encore to that musical chestnut, ushering in a cavalcade of filmland’s dream-makers celebrating the lineage and artistry of American popular film. And it’s all thanks to the voluminous archives of the American Film Institute (AFI).

For the most part, this treasury of oral snippets — culled from the AFI’s public programs over the last half-century or so — focuses on what’s arguably the studio system’s Golden Age, from the 1930s into the 1950s. There’s also some coverage (though not a lot) of the great achievements of the silent era and of the last 60 years, too, including both traditionally crafted films and CGI-fortified blockbusters.

A massive volume, this, assembled by venerable film historians Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson (Janet Maslin has called the latter “one of the great chroniclers of Hollywood lore”). The two editors line up enough captivating, firsthand insights to satisfy both the random chapter-dipper and the voracious film enthusiast.

But don’t expect detailed criticism; the revelations are mostly anecdotal and tersely analytical. The individual voices — nearly 400 of them, with most piping up in multiple appearances — come from actors and actresses, directors, screenwriters, film editors, directors of photography, producers, studio execs, and an impressive array of behind-the-camera contributors. Both the renowned and the lesser known speak in these pages, occasionally at some length (Charlton Heston, rest in peace).

For this reader, the book delivered a thrilling aural immediacy as these hands-on craftspeople describe the big-screen worlds they’ve created and the professional ecosystem they inhabit(ed). The tone is frequently funny and sometimes gossipy, but it’s consistently trenchant, evocative, and revealing. One instance: the extended exchange among the half-dozen pros who describe the years-long vagaries of making “Gone with the Wind” (1939), that gorgeous potboiler.

Among the directors we hear from are Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, Frank Capra, George Cukor, Clint Eastwood, Blake Edwards, Nora Ephron, Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks, Ron Howard, John Huston, Fritz Lang, David Lean, Spike Lee, Penny Marshall, Leo McCarey, Mike Nichols, Jordan Peele, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler. The roster may seem long, but at least twice as many directors weigh in as the remarkable crew cited above in my stab at not leaving any truly deserving ones out. You’ll see how far I’ve fallen short if you dig into the book.

For fans of classic movies, there’s a big bonus in these recollections — especially those from the old-timers. They often invoke the work of the pioneering luminaries who’ve passed on before them: Chaplin, Ford, Hitchcock, Keaton, Lubitsch, Sturges, and Welles.

So, too, with the actors who participate, including a passel of icons: Henry Fonda, Olivia De Havilland, Bette Davis, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, and Fay Wray. Also present is a boatload of writers, cinematographers, producers, and even a few critics. It’s a stirring triumph of reminiscence, with more than a few surprises slipped in. To wit: the two prominent apostates — each a storied Golden Age director — who comment on Orson Welles (“a very boring person,” says one; “Citizen Kane…I never could understand what the whole thing was about” replies the other).

There’s also a remarkable colloquy among actors Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper, joined by low-budget maestro Roger Corman (“Swamp Women,” “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The Wild Angels,” plus many other drive-in classics). Two of the three actors broke into the business via Corman’s shoestring features, as did several directors quoted in the book. You can almost see Dern’s grinning spasm of faint praise for Corman’s low-budget ethos as he offers this assessment of the genre:

“You knew you were going to be ripped off by everybody. The gaffers knew it, and the prop people knew it, and the electricians knew it…[even] Roger knew it.”

Corman agrees. Then Hopper, presumably by way of defending his mentor, adds, “Corman, if he trusted you, he would give you film and let you go out and shoot on weekends, second-unit stuff. He wouldn’t pay you but he’d give you the camera.”

And then, maybe, you might imagine Hopper leaning back, blowing out a narrow cylinder of fragrant smoke, and saying, “Those were the days, man…know what I mean?”

We get it, man.

Bob Duffy, a retired ad executive and a former college instructor, is a writer/reviewer and a lifelong student of the movies.

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