Hollywood: The Oral History by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson

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Reviewed by Harriet

Seven hundred and fifty pages sounds like a lot until you realise this book covers the entire history of Hollywood from its very beginnings to almost the present day. And, being an oral history, it does so through the voices of around four hundred people who were involved at every stage of its existence, carrying out a variety of occupations: cameramen, writers, costume, makeup, music, art directors, studio personnel, not forgetting directors and stars. Naturally a good many of these people are no longer with us, but their voices still exist, thanks to the American Film Institute who, in 1969, started gathering together interviews with as many of them as possible. Basinger and Wasson, both distinguished film historians, were granted unlimited access to the collection, which comprises three thousand speakers and nearly ten thousand hours of conversation. Distilling it all must have been an incredibly challenging job, but the result is a delight, which manages to give the impression of a room full of people engaged in lively conversation. Here’s how it begins:

RIDGEWAY CALLOW: This is the true story of Hollywood. The most cruel, most despicable town in the world. Ruthless, completely heartless.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: … or at least that’s the way people like to picture it…

STANLEY DONEN: …but it’s a myth…

GEORGE CUKOR: …there are all sorts of stories…usually untrue…

STANLEY DONEN: …because it was simply a group of people who kept working there in those pictures, going from one job to another…

Of course this in only the introductory chapter and once the book gets going, the stories get longer. And what stories they are. I went through the book highlighting, but I’d need a lot more space than Shiny allows to get through all the highlights. The book proceeds chronologically, starting with the very earliest practitioners – apparently they had headed for Flagstaff Arizona but when they got there it was raining so they moved onto Hollywood, which had no roads and thus no cars. Getting employed was very ad hoc. Costume designer Edith Head tells how she needed a portfolio to get her first job, but all she knew how to paint were seascapes, so she asked her drawing group to give her a picture each. ‘I’ve never seen so much talent in one person’, said the director. We learn that in the silent era, ‘women wrote, directed, produced, acted, starred, did stunts, whatever. But slowly, women disappeared out of the top ranks, both in front of the camera and behind it’.  The silent era was fun, obviously, but also a great deal of hard work: ‘We worked nights too, you know,  You stayed out there at Universal. If you got out there you weren’t sure when you’d get home hardly….You just stayed until they said you were done’. Stan Laurel, it turns out, got paid twice as much as Oliver Hardy, on the grounds that ‘I do twice as much as he does’ (which Hardy happily accepted).  There’s a lot of praise for D W Griffith’s innovation and inventiveness (and no mention of his racism). Then there’s Von Stroheim, who stopped shooting for three days in San Francisco so the crew could collect enough horse shit to make the street look authentic. During the silent era the actors could say anything they liked: ‘I was liable to take a pretty girl in may arms and say “Come here, you sweet little thing, and I’ll punch you on the nose”. Then I’d kiss her on the mouth’. This had to stop when letters arrived from deaf schools complaining about the swearing and inappropriate dialogue the pupils had been able to lip read.

And so we move forward. Hearing from so many familiar names is certainly a pleasure, but probably one of the most fascinating achievements of this remarkable book is the space that’s given to people you’ve probably never heard of: the Studio Workforce has a whole section devoted to it. And on we go, through ‘Sound!’, the Studio System, the End of the System, ‘Identity Crisis’, ‘New Hollywood’, and on to the final chapter, entitled ‘Monsters’. Hopefully this refers to the product rather than the contributors, who by now, as we’ve reached the 21st century, include Tom Hanks, George Lucas, James Cameron, George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and many more. Mainly everyone is saying what the movie business has meant to them. The book ends, as it began, with what has been skilfully edited so it sounds like a discussion:

DAVID PUTTNAM: American cinema formed what might be called my ethical understanding of the world.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Everything, every piece of film I’ve ever exposed, is both an adventure and an education. And its the greatest way of life imaginable. And it’s such a great medium.You know, there’s so much possible in it.

JOSEPH K. LEVINE: Shall we go home? Has anybody else got anything to say?

DAVID PICKER: The movies somehow always survive.

This is a book you could read from cover to cover over a period of some days, but also one you could dip into from time to time when the mood took you, an approach that would be guaranteed to uncover some gems. And don’t forget to read the Afterword in which Basinger and Wasson describe their editing process: the dreadful need for cuts and eliminations, the tragic absence of so many famous names, the cleaning up of the language (a shame, it seems to me) and the editing for clarity. It would be easy to gripe at any of this, and it would have been great if the extracts had some kind of references for date and origin, but that would obviously have made for an unmanageably huge volume. As it is, I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone who loves the movies (and who doesn’t?).

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books, and once had to teach a course on film history, about which she knew very little.

Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, Hollywood: A Oral History (Faber & Faber, 2022). 978-0571366941, 758pp., hardback.

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  1. I’ve had my eye on this book – I’ll be dropping hints for my birthday in s month! Fabulous review (and I agree there’s no need to have cleaned up the language – things like this, and these “trigger warnings” everywhere, seem determined to infantilise adult readers! *rant over!*)
    I’ve just got used to life after a serious attack by a burglar left my partially disabled, with only full use of one limb, so I’m delighted to see Shiny still going strong!

  2. Crimeworm, I knew you’d been in hospital, but I never knew any details. So sorry to hear of the attack and its awful consequences. I hope that you continue to improve – our very best wishes to you.
    Meanwhile, I agree re infantilisation re cleaning up language and trigger warnings – although there is probably a place for some form of the latter in some cases. A clever blurber would build them in perhaps.

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