FILM JANUARY 11, 2010
by Henry E. Scott
Pantheon, 240 pp., $26
Do you really want to be shocked by Hollywood? All right: in the good old days when stars were stars for half their lives, there were goddesses so desperate to keep their slim figures that they swallowed worms which feed on the body. You want more? All right—but this one is harder to digest (I never promised you good taste): In the long, drawn-out battle between the U.S. government and the household-name studios over whether the latter had an unfair monopoly, the studios incurred heavy fines which were dropped or fudged at the very moment when those studios were required to play ball with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Too obscure? All right, try this for simplicity: every day, and every six months, revenues due to filmmaking talent—artists and artistes—are shaved away by “accounting.”
Or would you rather settle for the allegation that Frank Sinatra could keep screwing available female receptacles if he had a bowl of Wheaties between sessions? Perhaps you prefer the rumor that June Allyson, America’s hoarse-voiced sweetheart, had to go to bed with every man she acted with? Or, what’s that, you say—who was June Allyson?
Henry E. Scott tells us he was on a plane from New York to Istanbul one day in 1997, reading James Ellroy’s novel, L.A. Confidential. In his hotel room, he ignored the city to finish the book. This is not a good start. He goes on to say that he knew little about Hollywood before he began the book under review—and I believe him. Despite his lengthy bibliography, I’m not sure how much of it he has read. Or how deeply he has considered the history of scandal in the American picture business. (If you want to talk about scandal, you could begin with how this flimsy book emerged from Pantheon!)
Confidential was a magazine of the 1950s that purported to deal in shocking revelations, though “Shocking True Story” is more the warning of a genre than the promise of unshaded facts. It was run by a man named Robert Harrison and it relied on leaks more than reporting—the former cop, Fred Otash, was one of its leading informers a few decades before he was a source for James Ellroy. Satisfied readers of Ellroy will know how little concern their author has with facts (as opposed to atmosphere), and the word and title “Confidential” in the '50s was more reliably taken as a measure of insincerity than hard truth. But the public enjoyed its cheeky style and seemed invigorated by the notion that June Allyson might be a slut.
Mr. Scott’s way of proceeding is to quote a fat chunk from some Confidential story, and then to place the story in a historical context. Take Chapter 14: “Robert Mitchum … the Nude Who Came to Dinner!” This is from the July 1955 Confidential and it involves a party where Mitchum strips naked, picks up the ketchup, and “ liberally sprinkled himself with the stuff as he retreated. After thoroughly spattering his six-foot-two-inch frame with the thick red goo, he stared haughtily at the assemblage and inquired,
“This is a masquerade party, isn’t it?” The rest of the customers, who had come as themselves, just giggled. "Well, I’m a hamburger," Mitchum observed, forgetting to add, "well done."
The audience for this prank was Charles Laughton and Paul Gregory, director and producer, respectively, of The Night of the Hunter, a film starring Mitchum. Now, I am prepared to believe that something of this sort happened—Mitchum did get drunk and he had violently mixed feelings about acting. Scott comments on his own story by giving Ellroy’s version: Otash really said that Mitchum offered his penis to be sucked off by gay colleagues. Another version is supplied in Preston Neal Jones’s Heaven & Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (2002)—not in the Scott bibliography—which has the actor peeing on Paul Gregory’s car.
You can take your pick, but the most important thing that Scott omits is that this incident occurred towards the end of shooting on The Night of the Hunter—an extraordinary project on which Mitchum held the highest esteem for his director, and did the best work of his life. If you doubt that, go see The Night of the Hunter and wonder at the storm of feelings there may have been inside Mitchum—and how far Laughton played on that deliberately. In other words, “Shocking True Story” can be the mere threshold to something out of the ordinary in a creative undertaking. Later on, according to Jones, Laughton telephoned Mitchum and told him to quit acting up. “You’ve simply got to stop brandishing your skeleton,” the director told him. Self-destructive bravado was impeding Mitchum’s career. We learn in another chapter that Mitchum sued Confidential—Was it over this statement? We don’t know—but there is no mention of how the suit turned out. In the laziest way, Scott has enlisted the easy example of Mitchum to spread the jam of scandal, while missing the strange mess the man made of his life.
So Scott blunders on. He has Lana Turner being socked in the jaw by one husband, but he doesn’t think to mention the night that Lana or her teenage daughter Cheryl put a knife in the bullying gangster Johnny Stompanato. The whole silly book is lit up with the superficial melodrama of scandal. Whereas Hollywood is so much more level-headed. Not long ago I was talking with a man who hires out camera equipment in Los Angeles. We discussed the O.J. Simpson case. “Oh sure,” said the guy. “It got people thinking all the worst things about L.A. But I tell you, that case was a godsend. For well over a year there were crews from all over the world shooting here and hiring equipment. Conservatively, I put on over two hundred thousand dollars in business just because of that case.”
A history of Hollywood scandal that employed this dry, businesslike tone might make a useful book. Years ago, in a strange mixture of sensationalism and poker-faced calm, Kenneth Anger wrote a book—Hollywood Babylon—that exulted in the sleazy undergrowth. Scott has done nothing to rival or advance that book. He generally omits the two-faced participation of the studios and their publicity departments. When people discovered Paul Bern’s corpse in Jean Harlow’s home in 1932 the first calls they made were not to the police but to the MGM director of publicity, Howard Strickling, someone who ought to be the evil genius of this book—it’s a George Sanders or John Huston role.
It was the studios that put the notorious “morals clause” in most contracts as a way of intimidating wild kids with more money than advice. They sometimes set up careers they were ready to end. They could handle the local police and the courts when it suited them—both Clark Gable and John Huston allegedly killed pedestrians in driving accidents and never served time. Don’t say anything, Jake—“It’s Chinatown.”
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.