In 1926, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz sent a famous cable to his friend Ben Hecht: "WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES? ALL EXPENSES PAID. THE THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON'T LET THIS GET AROUND."
But, of course, word did get around, and it wasn't just New York writers like Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald who came west; it was everyone. From a Bryn Mawr-educated New Englander named Katharine Hepburn to a Viennese son of a Jewish hat maker named Erich Stroheim, who added a "von" to his name to sound more aristocratic.
From the very beginning, Hollywood was a place where making large sums of money was not only possible but the whole point of being there, as David Thomson argues in his new book, The Whole Equation (the line is from Fitzgerald's Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon).
Thomson's purpose in writing The Whole Equation is not to say whether greed has been good or bad for film, but rather to point out how it helped shape the medium. Primarily, however, he's interested in showing how the struggle between directors, producers and studios over the ownership of films occasionally produced some of the most memorable movies of the so called Golden Era, from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life to John Ford's Red River. But compromise cuts both ways, as Orson Welles, among others, knew well.
The Whole Equation feels like a book that doesn't just describe Dreamland's compromises but embodies them as well. There's a startling ambivalence in this book about whether the form is art. Dodging this question is a way of avoiding the most important dilemma surrounding film's ascendancy, though. Can a popular form of entertainment also produce art? Anyone who has flipped through Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film can appreciate that this man surely has opinions, so why is he holding back here?
The answer might be found in the fluctuation of Thomson's narrative "we." At the beginning of the book, "we" refers to the audience. Then, as the book progresses, "we" begins to mean "we in Hollywood."
Coming from a man who has articulated the good and the bad in film as sharply as Thomson, this gesture at collusion is a creepy transformation, and it says something about how hard it is for Hollywood ever to get a true reckoning. "I believe that for decades moviegoers have been encouraged to overlook the elements of business," writes Thomson. After this book, they will have little excuse for continuing to ignore them. But what Thomson has neglected to realize in the process is that for the millions of Americans who support the industry by going to the cinema, the question of who owns a film is only part of the equation.
By David Thomson (Alfred A. Knopf, 402 pages, $27.95)