City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's

Otto Freidrich, Author, Otto Friedrich, Author HarperCollins Publishers $25 (495p) ISBN 978-0-06-015626-8
In 1939, when 50 million Americans went to the movies every week, Louis B. Mayer was the highest paid man in the country and Hollywood produced 530 feature films, among them Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz. A decade and 5000 movies later, the studios were tottering, Ingrid Bergman and Charlie Chaplin were exiled, the Hollywood Ten went to prison and millions were watching Milton Berle at home. What happened in those 10 years is as rich and colorful a story as can be imagined and Friedrich has more than done it justicethis is his liveliest book since the popular Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920's, and certainly one of the best books ever written about Hollywood. Taking his title from Brecht's Mahagonny, that ""city of nets'' where everything is permitted, Friedrich tells the familiar story of Hollywood's heyday and decline as part of a sweeping social and cultural history that takes in everything from Rita Hayworth's electrolysis (to give her a higher hairline) to union corruption, the Zoot Suit riots, the gangster Bugsy Siegel inventing Las Vegas. He is particularly good on the European refugee communityMann, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Brecht, et al.who produced some of their most distinguished work while their neighbors turned out Betty Grable musicals, and whose encounters with the studio moguls are among the most richly comic moments in our cultural history (Schoenberg, asked to score a movie, told a startled producer he would have to control the dialogue as well, so the actors would ``speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in''). The moguls themselves, semiliterate, comfortable with racketeers but lusting for respectability (and in no way the ``showmen'' legend has made them) could be Preston Sturges characters. Friedrich avoids the cliche Goldwynisms, but has unearthed a good Disneyism: when Walt saw what the Fantasia animators had done to the ``Pastoral'' Symphony, he said, ``Gee, this'll make Beethoven.'' Friedrich mixes all these elements (and more) in a narrative that is often funny and remarkably even-handed (e.g., his concise account of the HUAC hearings) a must for movie buffs and a rewarding read for everyone else. Photos not seen by PW. (November 12)
Reviewed on: 10/28/1986
Release date: 11/01/1986
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