As much as things change, much of it remains the same. Or so the saying goes. It applies very neatly to the seven-part groundbreaking documentary series, Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood by writer/producer Jon Wilkman (airing on Turner Classic Movies). The documentary does an exceptional job of providing the who, what, when, why and how Hollywood began.
Of particular note, are the parallels of what’s happening in the industry today vs. when it all started in the early 1900s. Back then, the country was in the midst of tremendous social and economic change, immigrants were migrating to our shores in record numbers, a new industrial age made it possible for large quantities of average denizens to access what was only possible for the fortunate few. It was a time of change, uncertainty, and in some cases, outright fear.
Today, entertainment has grown exponentially. In all forms. It can be accessed on every conceivable device. Technology has democratized the process, giving more people the opportunity to participate. Just as it did back in the early 1900s. That’s how the entertainment industry began.
According to Wilkman, “America was a growing country and mass communication was just starting to happen. Up until that time, information was local, accessible by a few. As entrepreneur and innovator Thomas Edison invented moving pictures, it was a gateway for the masses to learn and be entertained. Typically that meant theatre – the arts were for the elite. Yet movies, moving pictures brought theatrics to the masses and into tiny towns. The finest performers were on the screen, for very little money. Movies were a new phenomena entirely and had compelling power. The industry ramped up fairly rapidly.”
As the pervasive power of movies traveled around the globe, its influence was understood by some of the very immigrants who came to America to start a new life. The pioneers. Carl Laemmle, Louie B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, William Fox, Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, The Warner Bros., Mack Sennett, etc., — all understood what this new medium could do. It gave them — these scrappers from different parts of the world, the chance to shape the way people thought, allowing for an idealized version of America. Their America. They were empowered to explore and exploit this new platform.
And exploit it they did.
The proliferation of peep shows encapsulated the first 20 years of this nascent industry, as did innovation. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation while considered a racist, propagandist portrayal of African-Americans, nevertheless set the technical bar for a mass audience, and established paying a premium to watch a two-hour narrative feature film as the standard for storytelling. In the documentary, film historian Donald Bogle calls the film a “racist masterpiece.”
The film was a commercial success and possibly lead to the creation of “Hollywood”.
Birth of a Nation also sparked outrage, and ideas, in the community it so derided. This imagery, those stereotypes of African-Americans and black men specifically, were acceptable, and accepted at the time. Not so for African American director Oscar-Micheaux, the son of a freed slave. He was a novelist, farmer, and incentivized. He turned to filmmaking. Partly produced in response to Griffith’s decidedly biased vision, Micheaux made Within Our Gates in 1920. This film dealt with the issues of racial purity and the horrors of lynching.
Says Wilkman, “Micheaux was an entrepreneur who saw a need. He wanted to make movies for African Americans. Micheaux was inspired to tell stories for a niche audience. Just like Tyler Perry. As it was for mainstream movies of the time, these films were the framework for a vision of a country changing and evolving.”
A self-made man of his time, Micheaux — through deed and his movies, encouraged other people of color to lift themselves up.
The films Micheaux made were called “race movies”, and he made 42 during his time. Bogle states Micheaux was “charismatic, driven.” He re-imagined America onscreen, exposing the injustice and unfinished business of the American Dream.
Another group often ignored in the movies were women. Women comprised a large percentage of the audiences attending movies at the time. Says Wilkman, “Other niches were served as well. Just as women were important to the process in the early days of filmmaking, and as the business model became so financially important, they were pushed aside. Audiences are being entertained but are also gaining a greater understanding of what the moguls wanted them to see.”
It’s unfortunate names like early contributors Alice Guy Blanche, Lois Weber, Frances Marion and Pearl White — writers and directors, and actresses like Clara Bow and Mary Pickford aren’t as well known as their male counterparts, but their achievements were just as important as the movie moguls in creating stories and setting precedent.
While telling the history of Hollywood, the series also tells the story of America. And as the film industry matured — the advent of sound, the Great Depression, both World Wars, television, the Civil Rights Movement, the amazing turbulent 1960s, the political and social upheaval of the ‘70s and beyond, have all left an indelible imprint. The industry today thrives because of it.
Yet at its core, the movie industry has been and always will be about telling stories and uniting large quantities of people around a common escape.
Moguls & Movie Stars debuts November 1, 2010, at 8 pm (ET) on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).