For home consumption Hollywood’s plots ceased to be dangerous explorations of subliminal desires. They became instead nostalgic evocations of small-town virtues, treacly affirmations of New Deal values. This was fair enough in the sense that most movie-goers had no wish to be purged with pity and terror. They wanted release from care and pain, “fairyland” pictures which would “supply the lacks in their existence.” They craved short cuts to Nirvana. Still, it suited the government that too much reality did not appear on the screen. President Roosevelt was doubtless familiar with the lines of New Yorkers who gathered as early as 8:00 A.M. under the lights of Broadway, Times Square and 42nd Street to take refuge in theatres showing three features. Certainly he prescribed the celluloid anodyne. “During the Depression,” he said, “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and . . . forget his troubles.
Hollywood manufactured optimistic myths to cheer a depressed civilisation. The movie magnates dispensed tinsel and glitter, as befitting their flashy emblems-Columbia’s torch of liberty, the star-circled mountain peak of Paramount, the questing searchlights of Twentieth Century Fox. Hollywood sold a “gaudier version of religion,” said writer Ben Hecht, in the shape of “Mother Goose platitudes and primitive valentines.” It transported audiences to Shangri-La and the Land of Oz. Often, they found, the balsa-wood Wild West was more substantial than the asphalt jungle outside the doors of the picture palace. The gimcrack underworld became more solid than the world of flesh and blood. Once enter “the dark of the theatre,” said director Josef Von Sternberg, and “the thin line dividing what is real and what is imagined is severed.” Fact blurred into fantasy like images dissolving on the screen. Authentic grief and joy carried less conviction than the glycerine tears and the orthodontic smiles of film stars. True lovers paled beside Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. Genuine thugs had less charisma than Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. Even monsters like Boris Karloff and Shirley Temple did not seem incredible. Everyday life was eclipsed by the glamour and melodrama of films such as Gone with the Wind. The cinema provided a ==== gate existence for many people. They spoke like Humphrey Bogart. They vamped like Marlene Dietrich. They postured like Errol Flynn. Life imitated Hollywood.
Nowhere was this more true than in Hollywood itself. Los Angeles’ most celebrated suburb occupied a gigantic proscenium between sepia mountains and technicolor coast. Nature herself sometimes provided authentic dramas-flood, drought, fire and earthquake. But in all other respects the place, which housed only some of the film companies, seemed artificial. The sunshine appeared to have been switched on by Warner Brothers, thought]. B. Priestley. The gardens (with their scentless flowers) and the orchards (with their tasteless fruits) looked like the work of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The streets resembled a vast junkyard of studio sets, all “slapdash cheap picturesqueness.” Oil derricks punctuated the skyline like exclamation marks, while the foreground was a jumble of white apartment buildings, stucco bungalows, Himsy stores, hamburger stalls, petrol pumps, blinking signs and lurid hoardings advertising such enticing amenities as “Los Angeles’ fastest growing cemetery.”33 Freak buildings turned up like the lost properties of some bizarre spectacular. Restaurants were constructed to resemble ice-cream cones, brown bowler hats, monstrous women. And film stars throwing parties in them accomplished further metamorphoses, transforming them into cardboard ships or papier maché cathedrals. Beyond the fringe of Hollywood, in gilded enclaves like Pasadena, Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Santa Monica and Malibu, architectural mimesis ran riot. Houses were not houses but Art Deco palazzos, Mexican haciendas, Gothic castles, Tudor manors, French Chateaux, Swiss chalets, Japanese temples, Tuscan villas, Samoan huts or any combination of such styles. Greta Garbo lived in a green-shuttered Algerian monastery. Charlie Chaplin inhabited a red-brick colonial mansion. Marion Davies’s beach house was a “white-pillared manse, huge as a railway terminal.”34 Everything was sham and fantasy. No wonder that film director James Whale exclaimed, “All the world’s made of plaster of Paris!”
It was a pardonable exaggeration. From the vast studio hangars came a cascade of scenery as substantial as a Dadaist delirium. Here, in painted canvas and plywood, mocked-up lath and plaster, was a cyclorama featuring the entire history and mythology of mankind, NO one caught the chaos of conflicting images more vividly than Nathanael West past flapping marble porticoes and cellophane waterfalls, his hero (in The Day of the Locust) encounters :
the skeleton of a Zeppelin, a bamboo Stockade, an adobe fort, the wooden horse of Troy, a flight of baroque palace stairs that started in a bed of weeds and ended against the branches of an oak, part of Fourteenth Street elevated station, a Dutch windmill, the bones of a dinosaur, the upper half of the Merrimack, a corner of a Mayan temple.
Like these evanescent tableaux, the costume drama overflowed from the studio lots. Sunset Boulevard and its surroundings witnessed a perpetual masquerade, a strutting procession of mimic men and women dressed for their parts. Females wore mink coats over purple lounging pyjamas. Males sported green trousers, orange sneakers, pastel handkerchiefs. Stars concealed themselves behind dark glasses with large white rims, “a triumph of conspicuous anonymity.”37 Extras competed in exhibitionism. Hollywood attracted a huge company of supporting players-small-town beauty queens and vaudeville midgets, cabaret dancers and circus strong men, burlesque comedians and opera soubrettes. Following like prospectors in a gold rush came barkers, mountebanks, swamis, “healers,” beauticians, morticians. Of all the make-belief merchants none were more extraordinary than the so-called “cinemoguls” or cellulords.”
Almost without exception these men-they were all men, many of them Jewish-had risen from humble beginnings. Sam Goldwyn had been a glove salesman, Louis B. Mayer a rag-picker, Harry Cohn a furrier, Eddie Mannix a bouncer in an amusement park. The Warner brothers were butcher’s sons. The Schenks had owned a drugstore. Marcus Loew and Adolph Zukor had run penny arcades. Most had come to Hollywood via the slums of show business: flea circuses, theatrical agencies, nicke elodeons, vaudeville. Once established as the rulers of movie-land they became, as often as not, a prey to fantasy, vanity and megalomania. They confused cinema with ve’rz'té: Walt Disney reckoned that the centaur sequence in his cartoon film Fantasia would be the making of Beethoven. Monarchs of the “marzipan kingdom” moved in “an aura of greatness,” said Ben Hecht, “and reports of their genius would have embarrassed Michelangelo.”38 Like royalty, Sam Goldwyn never carried money. The film producers became pocket dictators.
Goldwyn and his kind were particularly smart when it came to defending their fiefdom against the only man of letters who ever seriously threatened it. This was Upton Sinclair, who sought election as Governor of California in 1934 on the Democratic ticket and a utopian socialist platform. “What does Sinclair know about anything?” growled Louis B. Mayer. “He’s just a writer.”