In Black and White: The World of Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT. By Hugh Fordin. Doubleday. 566 pages. $15.00.

By packaging and presentation, Hugh Fordin’s book is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The serious student of film might easily pass it by, seeing only the pseudo-MGM logo and the boldly lettered subtitle: HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST MUSICALS. You have to look closer to see the real subject, in a smaller italic: The Freed Unit at MGM. I begin with this caveat emptor in an attempt to convince even people who hate film musicals that Fordin’s chronicle of MGM in its glory and subsequent decline is important reading for us all.

A while back a friend suggested “Arthur Freed as auteur” as a potential book or thesis title. The comment was somewhat facetious, but it underlined a curious fact: not only are most film-lovers unaware of Freed’s huge influence on Band Wagon, Silk Stockings, Singinin the Rain, and the 40-odd other films produced by his unit, but the very roles of producer and production unit have been little studied by film historians, much less commented on by theorists and critics. A producer is only a producer, one might say, but a good director is an auteur.

The World of Entertainment benefits greatly from this seemingly unglamorous nature of its subject. Since Freed and others like him are decidedly non-mythic figures—and even more so their “stables” of writers, musicians, and so on—Fordin has not felt obligated to delve too deeply into biography or motivation. He gives us a narrative of film production itself as a process, as evolved in Freed’s “royal family of Hollywood.”

What went on in MGM’s Thalberg Building (nicknamed “the iron lung”) is virtually impossible to summarize. For that, you’ll have to read Fordin’s book. What I can comment on here is not what happened, but how Fordin relates it. An important point: the book is nicely documented (though, curiously enough it lacks an index…). Interoffice memos play an important part in this, such as Mamoulian’s color schemes for Summer Holiday or Freed’s script revisions for The Wizard of Oz. Equally important are Art Department diagrams, such as a blueprint for the rainy street used in Singin‘ in the Rain, complete with the exact locations of holes cut for “puddles” Kelly was to dance through. Perhaps the most amusing of these documents (some reproduced, others transcribed) are the Breen Office memos on censorship. An example, concerning On the Town:

Regarding the songs:
1. “New York, New York”: “It’s a helluva town” is unacceptable.
2. “Prehistoric Man”: “Lots of guys are hot for me” is unacceptable. “Libido—I love that libido” is unacceptable. “They sat all the day just beating their tom-toms” is unacceptable.

But the worth of World of Entertainment goes well beyond such loving attention to details, particularly through the use of selected anecdotes which produce an almost unconscious sense of “what it was like”:

Brown and Freed’s next assignment was a dramatic picture, The Pagan, for Ramon Navarro. One morning, at eleven o’clock, they were asked to write a title song for the film; at one o’clock that same day they delivered “Pagan Love Song.” Freed recalls publisher Jack Robbins asking him, “What the hell is a page-an? How the hell am I going to plug that song?” “That song” sold over 1,600,000 copies. (This, it may be remembered, is the same Mr. Robbins who thought “Over the Rainbow” was unsingable and opted for taking it out of The Wizard of Oz.)

I can’t resist mentioning my favorite of such anecdotes, which concerns Rouben Mamoulian and Summer Holiday. In one sequence, Mickey Rooney and Gloria DeHaven were to move to precise musical rhythms through an intricate “Persian” set complete with large parrots. Time and again the actors made mistakes. Twice, DeHaven herself stopped in mid-shot, and Mamoulian gave her an angry lecture on the function of the word “cut.” A pregnant silence followed, and then filming resumed. Most of the shot had gone well when an unknown voice called out: “Cut!” Mamoulian stormed off the set, saying “Production is closed—I’m leaving.” The explanation was soon discovered. Having heard Mamoulian say “cut” for three hours, one of the parrots had finally caught on to the lesson, and became for one shining instant the cinema’s first feathered auteur. The bird was replaced with a less gifted stand-in, and Mamoulian returned to the set.

In telling the story of the Freed unit, Hugh Fordin has given us a different way of grasping the complex process of film production which was practiced at the major studios. Different films have different patterns of development from initial idea to celluloid, and the intricate interaction among producer, director, writer, art director, and musicians must be charted anew with each production. For this reason, World of Entertainment is not merely a witty and competent account of the Freed unit, but also an important resource for talking about how films were made-back then when Hollywood was grand enough to have its own “royal family.”

Copyright © 1976 by Alan Williams

 


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