Thursday, April 28, 2011

MOGULS & MOVIE STARS: A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD (Ostar Enterprises 2010) Warner Home Video

The rise and fall of Hollywood's golden age is the stuff that dreams and legends are made of. That era of innovation and ingenuity, modernization and mechanization that transformed mere 'dumb show' into celluloid art produced on an assembly line scale was as epic and memorable for its tumultuous back lot backstabbing as it became internationally revered for its surface sheen glitz and glamor. To understand and truly appreciate all that the movies achieved in this relatively short period of time it is important to recognize how the industry itself was conceived. This latter ambition is at the crux of TCM's seven part documentary Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood (2010); an elaborate deconstruction of the studio system and the often maniacal creative geniuses behind the camera who made everything possible.
Divided into seven one hour episodes, this series attempts to explain away the myth and mystique of Hollywood's greatest period in critical and financial growth and evolution; without a doubt, a daunting task. The humble birth and mounting aspirations for movies as both an art and viable commerce are well documented in the series first two episodes (contained on Disc One): Peepshow Pioneers 1889-1907 and The Birth of Hollywood 1907-1920. Here we see the men before they became moguls; immigrant dreamers with stardust in their eyes and sawdust in their veins; part showmen/part hustlers. They migrated from New York to Los Angeles in search of riches but became some of the most acclaimed storytellers of the 20th century in the process. These 2 episodes chart the rise to prominence of independent creators, both in the fields of technology (Thomas Edison) and the burgeoning art of storytelling on celluloid (D.W. Griffith).
Disc Two features 3 episodes (The Dream Merchants 1920-28, Brother, Can You Spare A Dream? 1929-41, Warriors and Peacemakers 1941-50) that celebrate the acclaim and prestige of the studio system, its glittering assemblage of star power unprecedented before or since, and, the monopolistic supremacy of its star makers as undisputed monarchs in the realm of entertainment. It's here that the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and Sam Goldwyn, among others, are given their due; their determined ruthlessness to outdo each other at the crux of achieving a personalized quality and level of sophistication that belied their 'cookie cutter' dream factory assembly lines. Through sheer effort and occasional blind faith profits soared throughout the terrible years of WWII.
The last disc in this set features the final two episodes (The Attack of the Small Screen 1950-60, Fade Out, Fade In 1960-69). Here, we witness the last gasp of the establishment. As the old moguls are bought out, die off or are forced into ceremonial posts and retirement, the system they fostered begins its slow sad decline into oblivion. Television captures the public's fascination and with it, forty percent of the dream merchant's potential audiences. The government's involvement, first with HUAC's communist 'Red Scare' and later its monopoly-dismantling 'Consent Decrees' cripple a once vibrant industry and reduce its legendary status to mere auction house rubble. Free agents, changing morays and shifting cinematic tastes bring down the curtain on an age once thought of as impervious to even the most daunting of outside influences (WWII, The Great Depression, censorship).
Moguls and Movie Stars marks an epitaph to Hollywood's golden age that regrettably has not given rise to anything more promising or nearly as lasting within the industry during its last 40 years. The documentary is ambitious, but rather curiously short on indulging us with vintage clips from some of this period's best loved movies. Realizing, of course, that the documentary's tag line is "A History of Hollywood" not "...of the movies" it still seems rather incongruous to make a biography about the industry without jam-packing it full of priceless and memorable nostalgia that, after all, was Hollywood's stock and trade. Yet, except for the briefest of clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and His Girl Friday, there are virtually NO film clips from any movie that does not already belong in the Warner library (presumably due to exorbitant licensing fees from other studios). This, in itself is a shame and a considerable oversight for a documentary that reports to be about all of Hollywood.
Even when the producers of this documentary turn to the vast Warner library for inspiration the results are less than satisfactory. We get mere snippets from The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain. Bette Davis is briefly glimpsed unloading her gun from the opening scene of The Letter. Cagney is seen dodging a bullet in The Public Enemy (but no grapefruit scene). Busby Berkeley gets a momentary reprieve with a blurry shot of his kaleidoscopic efforts in Wonder Bar - one of his lesser artistic efforts. But there are no epic shots of the burning of Atlanta from Gone With The Wind, no 'frankly my dear...' either. Such filmic colossuses as Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur (1959) are not even mentioned!
Cecil B. DeMille gets scant play time with no clips from any of his films - not even The Ten Commandments! Alfred Hitchcock's legacy is distilled into a 10 second snippet of Cary Grant being hunted down by the crop duster from North By Northwest. No reference to Hitch' and Selznick, or Hitch's tenure at WB, Paramount or Universal. The Marx Brothers are the only comedy team briefly afforded a place in this history. How anyone could do an overview of Hollywood in general and not at least provide footnotes on the other brilliant comedic teams of Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges is beyond me!
Marilyn Monroe's death and funeral get more coverage than her work in films - not a single clip from a Monroe movie is included herein. We get one clip from John Wayne's The Fighting Seabees - a minor programmer - yet, no clips from The Searchers or The Alamo, arguably his two most enduring masterworks. The 1950s widescreen revolution, beginning with Cinerama is glossed over in a sentence or two in episode six.
Even more curious are the incongruities that do appear. For example, one black and white still image from The Sound of Music is followed by color film footage of Rex Harrison as he prepares to shoot Fox's disastrous Doctor Doolittle. Yet which musical has more historical significance? Liz Taylor's Cleopatra, the film that arguably 'changed Hollywood' and damn near ruined 20th Century-Fox is glimpsed from an out of focus B&W home movie rather than inserts from the film itself. The rise of youth culture in the early fifties is reduced to a 10 second clip of James Dean arguing with his parents in Rebel Without A Cause and another clip of Glenn Ford attempting to diffuse a harrowing knife fight in The Blackboard Jungle.
If anything, that comprehensive quality essential and so evident in other documentaries about Hollywood, like MGM: When The Lion Roars, The Making of A Legend: Gone With The Wind, and, Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood is wholly absent herein. At 419 minutes Moguls and Movie Stars can hardly cover all of the ground it needs to, making it a monumental mouse rather than an all-encompassing saga about Hollywood and the film industry. The film historians (Leonard Maltin, Jeanine Basinger, Molly Haskell, Robert Osborne, among them) gathered together to provide filler commentary all have something valuable to contribute, yet rarely do their comments seems to dig deeper than the surface narration by Christopher Plummer. In the final analysis, Moguls & Movie Stars is a superficial look at Hollywood's first 60 years.
Warner Home Video's 3 disc DVD set is a modest offering at best. First of all, image quality is well below par. Vintage clips are inconsistently framed with a goodly number of originally full framed 1:33:1 aspect ratio images reformatted for 1:75:1 TV screens. As example, a clip of Gene Kelly singing in the rain is cropped from its full frame aspect ratio to conform to the 1:75:1 video screen while a clip from The Sweet Smell of Success, originally shot in 1:66:1 is presented non-anamorphic and centered with very thick black bars on both sides and thin ones at the top and bottom of the screen. There's also a rather disturbing amount of video noise present throughout this presentation, particularly - and oddly - on disc two, perhaps because, unlike discs one and three, it houses 3 episodes rather than 2. The final snub comes when viewing the 'panel discussions' that have been shot in widescreen as an extra feature to augment the series and provide additional information from some of the documentary's historians.
These extras, one per episode and hosted by Robert Osborne have NOT been anamorphically enhanced either. Stretching the image, via changing the aspect ratio on one's DVD/Blu-ray player only serves to cut off part of the image. The audio is 2.0 Dolby and adequate for this presentation. Parting thoughts: Moguls & Movie Stars left me wanting more. It plays like a preview for something else; a 'coming attractions' trailer for a finished product that will never come!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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