Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.
Saturday, February 07, 2009
No Happy Endings: City of Nets by Otto Friedrich
City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich
City of Nets begins with Sid Grauman, ends with Ronald Reagan, and in between, drops in on nearly every historical personality, event, and movement that figured into the tumultuous and transformative decade.
The title comes from Bertolt Brecht's libretto for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, about a town of "gin and whiskey, girls and boys" that begins as a hedonist's paradise, but ultimately falls to destruction. Brecht himself turns up periodically in City of Nets, and his own Hollywood story is detailed by Friedrich. It's a doozy -- flight from Nazi Germany, various unsuccessful turns as a Hollywood screenwriters, and finally, a summons before HUAC.
There aren't very many happy, Hollywood endings for the people Friedrich writes about, but there are some great stories -- Bette Davis running the Hollywood Canteen; Olivia de Havilland's battles with Warner Brothers; the madcap life of Preston Sturges; the sad decline of Charlie Chaplin.
The book is also packed with stories of happy accidents, near-misses, and half-truths turned legend. Casablanca became one of the best-loved pictures of all time, despite the fact that no one involved with the film really wanted to be there. George Raft's inability to recognize a good role if it bit him on the face gave us Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Fred MacMurry as Walter Neff. And it will probably never be known who really stole the body of John Barrymore and propped it up in Errol Flynn's favorite chair, but Friedrich tells both versions of the story.
And then there's the labor battles and the Hays Office, the War and the war at home, the Red Scare and HUAC. Chandler, Faulkner, and Billy Wilder's awesome telling-off of Louis B. Mayer.
There's never a dull page, and chances are you'll be loading movies into your Netflix queue the entire time. City of Nets provided my happy introduction to Preston Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is a smart-assed finger in the eye of the Hays Code and just about the funniest thing I've ever seen besides.