Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood -- TV Review

Turner Classic Movies
As history textbooks go, "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood" is a class act.

As history textbooks go, "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood" is a class act. TCM’s seven-part documentary, which unspools in hourly installments on consecutive Mondays beginning Nov. 1, is very much of a piece with the prevailing Turner Classic Movies ethos of sophisticated, informed fandom complemented by impeccable visuals within a sturdy frame.

As written and produced by veteran documentarian Jon Wilkman, this plushly upholstered panorama of film history from the predawn magic lantern era through 1969 is pretty straightforward and includes little to surprise anyone with a fair knowledge of the subject. Focusing on the studio titans and the famous players of many eras represents an entirely defensible yet thoroughly conventional choice, one that will make the series go down easily with a casually interested public.

Previewed here are the first three episodes: Peepshow Pioneers (1889-1907), The Birth of Hollywood (1907-1920) and The Dream Merchants (1920-1928). The subsequent four chapters will be reviewed in three weeks.

The very early days of the cinema’s invention — the technical innovations of Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies, the penny arcades and nickelodeons and everything else that predated narrative films as most people know them — can be difficult to make interesting to a modern audience. To his credit, Wilkman does not breeze through all this for fear of boring his audience; to the contrary, he spends a densely packed hour on it, bringing to life the earliest forms of “screen” entertainment as early as the 1700s, the vexing challenge of creating moving images, the attempted monopoly of Edison’s Trust over picture making, the arrival of the Jewish immigrant future moguls in the U.S. and, at the end, the earliest moves to Hollywood. And he makes it all interesting.

Similarly detailed is Episode 2, which begins with the formation of some of the first West Coast studios (Sennett, Ince, Carl Laemmle’s Universal), moves on to the emergence of the first major screen personalities — Chaplin, Tom Mix, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Theda Bara — and notes at length the importance of D.W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation while stressing little other than its Ku Klux Klan bona fides.

As elsewhere in the series, attention is accorded early-on to behind-the-scenes women of importance, including Alice Guy, Lois Weber and Frances Marion, with one of the interviewees positing that Hollywood decisively was shaped by “women, immigrants and Jews.” Hollywood is correctly presented as one of the chief victors of World War I in that the once-prolific European industries were now destroyed or in disarray, leaving the territory wide open for an invasion of American movies. After the war, Hollywood upped its share of the total international market to 80%.

Paradoxically, the third installment, which concentrates on the booming 1920s — the period when Hollywood really became Hollywood, actors became the most famous people on Earth, executives implemented the vertical integration of companies with production, distribution and theater ownership, and movies began being mass produced to the extent that they became the fifth-biggest industry in the U.S. — is the least satisfactory. So many fascinating stories — the manslaughter trials of Fatty Arbuckle, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and calls for censorship, the brief career meteors of Valentino and Clara Bow, the formation of United Artists and MGM — get such short shrift that they come off as ho-hum.

One gratifying note is that Adolph Zukor, founder and longtime head of Paramount who often is bypassed in Hollywood histories in favor of the more visible and colorful Mayer, Goldwyn, Warner, Zanuck and others, gets his due here as do some of the all-important theater owners.
As expected from TCM, the rare footage is fabulous.