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Recalling Hollywood’s best anecdotes and old grudges.

D.W. Griffith, c.1918.
D.W. Griffith, c.1918 © Granger/Bridgeman Images.

‘This is the true story of Hollywood. The most cruel, most despicable town in the world.’ That’s the opinion of Ridgeway Callow, who worked as assistant director on dozens of Hollywood films and TV programmes, writer and production manager on others. He’s not a household name, but his industry experience earned him an invite to the American Film Institute to deliver a Harold Lloyd Master Seminar about his experiences working in the world’s biggest dream factory. The seminars began in 1969, and everyone from movie stars to assistant directors was asked to hold forth on their Hollywood memories. Hollywood: The Oral History uses the transcripts of these seminars to create what the editors claim is ‘the only comprehensive firsthand history of Hollywood … the true story of Hollywood, told not by outsiders, academics, historians, revisionists, or fantasists prone to legend, but by those who are singularly qualified to understand it, the filmmakers themselves’.

We’ll return to the limitations of that claim. However, notwithstanding the considerable overlap between the categories of fantasist and filmmaker, this is a remarkable book and an estimable achievement. The reliability and accuracy of the testimony collated here may be debatable, but it is presented without mediation. The editors, film historians Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, interject occasionally to provide context, and the odd date, in between memories, but their interpolations are minimal. There are no footnotes or index either. This is a book of yarns, spun together into one century-long skein of movie lore. And these testimonies are not just unfettered but underlined. The invitees are playing to the gallery, delivering their best anecdotes and recalling old grudges. These are stories that the filmmakers are dying to tell, told to an audience that is all ears. The effect is less like being a fly on the wall of a soundstage and more like being a fly on the wall at a rowdy Hollywood wrap party, as the industry’s great and good put the world to rights over a martini. Which is to say, it’s addictively anecdotal and superlatively readable. You’ll see Quentin Tarantino expressing a fond wish to have worked with Bette Davis. It never happened, but they are both quoted in this book, which gleefully merges generations of Hollywood personnel into one gossipy group.

The testimonies are not separated. Excerpts from filmmakers’ memories are printed next to those from their peers, gathered under thematic headings. So for one animated chapter you’ll read insiders recalling the turbulence caused by the coming of sound (‘there was a streak of absolute panic’, says George Cukor), or the youthquake of New Hollywood in the early 1970s, from the rising importance of critics (in Billy Wilder’s opinion, because ‘today’s business doesn’t know what it’s doing. They need somebody to tell them’), to the amount of marijuana smoked in the editing suite. Other chapters break down the mechanics of the movie business, from the responsibilities of each trade on set, to bigger concepts such as ‘The Deal’, which rapidly becomes a chorus of agreement with Ridgeway Callow’s brutal assessment of the business. As George Lucas puts it: ‘When you make a film, you’re dealing with the largest group of psychotic, neurotic, difficult people you could ever imagine.’

Easy for him to say, you might think, having made a fortune at the helm of blockbuster franchises including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Would he have been so honest back in the early 1970s, with one flop film under his belt, scratching around to make American Graffiti and sketching together the idea for a ‘space opera’? Almost certainly not. In more serious ways, though, these testimonies are inevitably distorted by the date. Who was invited to speak and when, and which questions were they asked? There are pages here devoted to praise for the silent film director D.W. Griffith and to now discredited claims for the techniques he supposedly invented. There are many female filmmakers included here, though few directors, and nothing from trailblazers such as Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino. As the editors put it, the interviewees ‘speak with the attitudes of their own time, but they speak with authority’.

As a historical document, this book has limited value, but as an artefact of Hollywood history, it is priceless. The stories here burst from the page and the chance to read these people speaking about their own craft, about an industry built from orange groves and handcranked cameras that became a multimillion-dollar cultural empire is a privilege. Take Minta Durfee, another long-forgotten name, but a fine silent comedian and, as the wife of unjustly accused star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, someone who had a ringside seat to one of the biggest celebrity scandals of the century. As she reels off her truth, she emphatically repeats: ‘I’m the girl that knows what I’m talking about.’

Hollywood: The Oral History
Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson
Faber 768pp £25
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Pamela Hutchinson is a film historian and editor of Silent London. Her book on The Red Shoes will be published as part of the BFI Film Classics series in October 2023.