The clash of Old and New Hollywood, Part Four.
Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By BRIAN C. ANDERSON
By the mid-1930s, MGM stood at the apex of this system. At its peak, the studio employed 6,000 and sprawled across 167 acres, with sets that ranged from a Victorian street to a tangled jungle. It had its own barber shop, round-the-clock eatery, police force, and zoo (home to the lion that roared before every MGM production). Mayer may have demanded morality onscreen, but the MGM lot was more relaxed. Writers packed the studio opium den; a black man known as Slickum supplied hookers. Nor was Mayer himself--by 1937, the highest-paid salaried worker in America, worth around $1.3 million a year before taxes--all that upright in his personal life. He divorced his long-suffering wife, Margaret Shenberg, in 1944 (later remarrying) and used his authority to bed aspiring starlets. But as Eyman notes, he also inspired fierce loyalty: "To work at MGM in these years was to have a sense of security unparalleled in the movie industry--many employees were like enlightened Moonies, spouting a cult of MGM."
And the movies! A Night at the Opera, The Philadelphia Story, The Human Comedy--on and on the list goes. MGM's Golden Age reflected the energy and optimism of the American democracy that had lifted a poor Ukrainian Jew from peddling scrap to the pinnacles of wealth and power. "It was proper to tell stories of success and its importance, so others could achieve what he had achieved," says Eyman. But the studio's sophisticated classics could also carry a darker European subtext. A Greta Garbo tragedy like Camille, directed by George Cukor (the son of first-generation Hungarian immigrants), is as much Old World as New in sensibility. You often hear about American cultural imperialism, says the French writer André Glucksmann, but in Golden Age Hollywood, Europe "'colonized' the imagination of the New World."
Two factors helped bring down MGM and the studio system. First, the 1948 Supreme Court antitrust decision in U.S. v. Paramount et al. strong-armed the studios into giving up their theaters, weakening the moguls and shifting power to actors, independent filmmakers, and the agents who represented them. Then came television. In 1947, 136,000 sets illuminated American living rooms; a year later, 700,000. As audiences started staying home to watch the tube, MGM films began losing money. And Mayer was out, victim of a changing industry. He wandered about, seemingly forgotten, until his death in 1957. His funeral was like that of a head of state, with former President Herbert Hoover among the honorary pallbearers and all of Hollywood's glitterati in attendance. Spencer Tracy's eulogy evoked the end of an age:
The change was gradual, but by the 1960s the old moguls and the system they ruled were gone. Like so many American institutions, Hollywood was radicalized in the 1960s and '70s, and a new filmmaker elite emerged whose worldview--secular, anticapitalist, celebrating sexual liberation--was at odds with the bourgeois ethos that Mayer so loved. Enlightening, not entertaining, became Hollywood's mission. No movie captured the transvaluation of cinematic values more perfectly than Dennis Hopper's 1969 biker epic Easy Rider, "one of the worst acclaimed films ever made in America," in the words of David Thomson in The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. Its vision of America as corrupt to its core struck a chord with younger viewers, and it earned more than $160 million in today's dollars and two Oscar nominations.
Wowed by Easy Rider's box office, the industry rushed to install younger left-of-center executives who could replicate its connection with alienated youth. In the decade after Easy Rider, Hollywood films like Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H* questioned nearly every aspect of American life. Heroes disappeared, and the western, once a Hollywood mainstay, became the subject of mockery. Big business was the bad guy. Religious characters appeared in a harshly negative light, if at all. Explicit sex, violence, coarse language, and nihilistic storylines characterized Hollywood's product. New Hollywood exactly inverted Mayer's filmmaking philosophy.
Thomson looks back fondly on this period, Easy Rider notwithstanding: "I believe that there was a narrow window (from about 1967 to about 1975) in which the prospect of grown-up American cinema . . . came into being." Yet while it's true that some of the nervy films produced during these years stand up, others seem more dated--even less "grown up"--30 years on than do MGM's older masterpieces. If you don't believe me, try sitting through Altman's meandering Nashville.