Posted by Susan Doll on November 1, 2010
Tonight begins TCM’s original documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, a seven-part series that will air every Monday till December 13, with each episode repeating on the following Wednesday. An ambitious, meticulously crafted interpretation of the history of American film, Moguls & Movie Stars focuses on the famous (movie stars) and the infamous (the moguls) as the threads that tie this history together.
While I have been anxiously awaiting the series since I first heard about it months ago, I feel especially eager because I have already seen the first two episodes, and I know the quality and level of detail to expect. At the Telluride Film Festival, director John Wilkman presented Episode 1: “The Peepshow Pioneers” and Episode 2: “The Birth of Hollywood.” Another reason I am excited about Moguls & Movie Stars is because I got to contribute in a small way to the terrific-looking website that supports the series. I wrote four of the site’s biographies of the legendary moguls: Sam Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse L. Lasky, and Irving Thalberg. I urge everyone to peruse the website for the wealth of historical information it provides. However, I can’t help but wonder if the other writers experienced the same difficulty that I did in paring down the anecdotes and stories about the moguls into just a few paragraphs. Some of the information and insight I uncovered but discounted will pop up in the program’s interviews with the moguls’ relatives and offspring, including Carla Laemmle, Daniel Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. But much information I came across will be left out. I thought it might be fun and enlightening to offer a few extra facts and details on these larger-than-life moguls who, for better or worse, shaped the Hollywood industry.
Of the four moguls I researched, I knew the least about Sam Warner, who was arguably the most historically significant Warner brother because he pushed the studio to adopt sync sound. I had problems with Warner from the beginning, because I couldn’t verify with absolute accuracy where and when he was born. Sam and his brothers were the sons of poor Jewish immigrants with the Americanized names of Benjamin and Pearl Warner, and tracking down their story was a window into the struggles of immigrants at the turn of the century. When Benjamin and Pearl left Krasnashiltz, Poland, the area was part of Czarist Russia; eventually the family ended up in Ohio by way of Baltimore and London, Ontario. In trying to feed his growing brood of kids, Benjamin worked at a variety of jobs, from shoemaker to fur trapper to shopkeeper. Sam may have been born in Poland, or it could have been Ontario, Baltimore, or Sandusky, Ohio in 1884, 1889, or 1887, likely the latter. The family’s original last name may have been Varna, Wonsal, Wonskolaser,or Eichelbaum. Unsure of which source was the most accurate, I perused the Internet just out of curiosity, though I rarely rely on the ‘Net for definitive information regarding film history. I discovered a web source that pieced together info from ships’ manifests, the 1900 census, and the Warners’ draft information to claim that Sam Warner was born Schmul Wonsal in Poland. While some or all of this info may be true, I lacked faith in these resources, because they were dependent on newly arrived immigrants facing life and death struggles trying to remember and relate information in a language that was not their own. Given the pogroms and prejudice against the Jews in Czarist Russia in the early 1880s, I wonder if the Warner family mysteries are the result of a desire to hide identities, a general distrust of official tallies, and an overall desire to live under the radar of official record-keeping. Unable to verify any of the details in more than one source, I generalized the information regarding Sam Warner’s birth.
Unlike his birth, the death of Sam Warner was widely covered. During the mid-1920s, when Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. was going strong after investor Waddill Catchings helped the studio raise $500,000 in cash, Sam pushed hard for the studio to invest in sync-sound technology. He was the driving force behind the first sync-sound feature, Don Juan, and supervised the production of The Jazz Singer. It was Sam’s decision to retain star Al Jolson’s unscripted dialogue during the middle of the “Blue Skies” musical number. This turned out to be the scene that delighted audiences the most, and word of mouth about Jolson’s humorous ad-libbed monologue had fans lined up around the block to experience it. Sadly, Sam did not live to see the success of his efforts. Like something out of an old Hollywood movie, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 5, 1927—one day before the commercial debut of The Jazz Singer.
Sam did not marry until 1925—two years before his death. He wed actress and Ziegfeld Girl Lina Basquette, and the couple had one child, Lita. Basquette experienced one of those colorful lives in which you don’t know whether to feel sorry for her because of her many tragedies or to envy her her many adventures. Apparently, the Warners did not think Basquette a great asset to the family, and they wrenched guardianship of little Lita away from her after Sam’s death. Lena eventually married seven times and had other children, including a son by boxer Teddy Hayes. The high point of her acting career was a starring role in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Godless Girl in 1929. Eight years later, she appeared in her last major film role, Ebb Tide. Basquette liked to claim that Hitler counted her as one of his favorite actresses and once invited her to Germany. When she visited him, he made a pass at her, and she kneed him in the groin. However, that sounds too much like personal myth-making to me, so I wouldn’t stand by the anecdote’s veracity. Basquette settled down to become a well-known breeder of Great Danes at Honey Hollow Kennels in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, becoming the single biggest winner of Great Dane events in dog history. After retiring from breeding dogs, she served as a judge for the American Kennel Association. She died in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1994. She certainly “out lived” Sam in more ways than one.
After Jesse L. Lasky of Paramount became a mogul, his life was not all that colorful. However, prior to getting into the film business with his brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Samuel Goldwyn), Lasky had worked in a traveling medicine show, joined the Alaskan Gold Rush but failed to find his fortune, served as a reporter for the San Francisco Post, and played in an orchestra in Honolulu, Hawaii, long before it was a vacation resort. In 1906, he and his sister Blanche worked up a vaudeville act playing dueling cornets, before sis quit the act to marry Goldfish the glove salesman in 1910. After Goldfish saw a Broncho Billy short in New York, he needled his brother-in-law to go into the picture business, to which Lasky replied, “Films are the last thing I intend to get into.” His good friend, ambitious theatrical director Cecil B. DeMille, convinced him otherwise, and the three launched the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., achieving their immortality in film history by producing one of the first important features in Hollywood, The Squaw Man (1914), playing on TCM on November 10 at 2:00 AM.
In addition to brothers-in-law Jesse L. Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn, there were other familial connections, friendships, and prior business relationships among the moguls that surprised me. Louis B. Mayer had unsatisfactory business dealings with David O. Selznick’s father, Lewis, during the early days of the business in New York; Selznick later married Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene; Irving Thalberg (top photo with L.B.) dated but did not marry Carl Laemmle’s daughter Rosabelle; and, Louis B.’s other daughter, Edith, married William Goetz, who cofounded 20th Century Pictures before it merged with Fox Film and then later headed International Pictures. It reminded me of members of European royalty who used to intermarry in order to consolidate alliances.
There were also running feuds between the moguls that dated back to the old days. Back in the 1910s, when Mayer was head of Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corp., he shared studio space with B.P. Schulberg. The two belonged to different companies but shared the rent for the studio space, becoming friends along the way. When Mayer merged his company with Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures Corp., he did not inform Schulberg, simply moving out and leaving his friend to pay the expenses on the studio. Schulberg never forgave him, a friction coupled by Mayer’s disapproval of his former friend’s liberal politics. They remained enemies until the death of B.P., who instructed his son, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, to have his body cremated, then the ashes delivered to Mayer’s house. The messenger was supposed to ring the doorbell, wait for L.B. to come to the door personally, and then blow B.P.’s ashes in the old mogul’s face. I have to say I admire a person with a long memory for payback.
Mayer’s feud with Samuel Goldwyn went back even further—to 1910, when L.B. advised Jesse L. Lasky not to allow his sister to marry the glove salesman then known as Goldfish. A few years later when Goldfish, Lasky, and DeMille released The Squaw Man, Mayer, who owned a couple of theaters at the time, failed to pay the Lasky Co. all the money he owed for exhibiting the film. Samuel Goldfish split from Lasky and DeMille, formed Goldwyn Pictures Corp., changed his last name to Goldwyn to match his studio, and then sold his part in the company that now bore his name. In 1924, after Goldwyn Pictures merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer’s Picture Corp., L.B. unsuccessfully tried to prevent Samuel from using the name Goldwyn at all because he thought it would be confusing. After that point, the two became mortal enemies. They were known to get into shouting matches at industry functions, and in one notable incident, they launched into a fistfight at the Hillcrest Country Club.
Jack Warner lasted longest of the old moguls, remaining active in his studio till his retirement in 1972. His tenure as head of production at Warner Bros. survived the coming of sound, the Depression, World War II, the enormous popularity of television, and the rise of the Film School Generation. Though an unlikable man, who ousted his own brothers, Harry and Albert, from the company in 1956, Jack Warner was a character. Before joining his brothers in exhibition and then production back in the early 1900s, he had appeared in vaudeville as a hoofer and comic. Still considering himself an entertainer years later, he would tell the worst jokes imaginable with the worst possible timing at important industry functions . Yet another side of Jack Warner was revealed during the late 1930s when he and his brother Harry became concerned at the rise of Nazism in Europe. When a Warner salesman working in Berlin was attacked and beaten to death by Nazi hordes, Jack produced an anti-Nazi drama called Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), which landed the studio in hot water with the U.S. Secretary of State. Warner stepped back from producing additional message movies until World War II was declared, and then his studio produced more anti-Nazi movies and more war dramas than any other.
I remember when many of the Golden Age movie stars were still alive and appeared on the old talk shows. Stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Joan Blondell, Judy Garland, and many others appeared regularly on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, and Jack Paar, and not one of them had a kind word to say about the old moguls. That’s because many were tyrants who ruled their studios with an iron hand and micro-managed their stars’ lives both onscreen and off. Still, these moguls were responsible for some of the best American films ever produced. Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood offers insight into how many managed to do this despite poverty-stricken childhoods, very little education, and abrasive personalities. I hope the studio executives of today’s versions of Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Columbia will be watching.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
Popular terms3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fan Edits Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs Guest Programmers HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Leadership Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival Tearjerkers Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood The Russians in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies