Wisdom Note:
Thoreau in Hollywood
24 July 2019

ΒΆ Never having read it before, I’m enjoying Lillian Ross’s Picture, recently reissued by NYRB Books. I’m quietly astonished by the number of books about Hollywood that carry on as though Lillian Ross had never filed her report. Picture purports to be a soup-to-nuts account of the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, which, as I think we all know, was not a hit and has not been rediscovered. 

L B Mayer, the MGM studio boss, foresaw as much. He put up as much resistance as he could to the enthusiasm of his rival at the time, Dore Schary. Then Nick Schenck, who really ran the studio (from New York), came down on Schary’s side. Early on, Lillian Ross visited Mayer in his office, where she found him in converse with Arthur Freed, who produced musicals for MGM. Mayer put on quite a show for Ross. He got down on his knees and imitated Andy Rooney, playing Andy Hardy praying outside the door of the room in which his mother (Hardy’s) was dying. That must have been something to see. To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever asked Mayer to star, or even play, in any movies, not even Irving Thalberg. That’s Hollywood for you. As Mayer says (mocking those who want “art” from the movies): “No heart!” Ross names this particular chapter after Mayer’s idea of how artists would make a movie. They’d drag Mrs Hardy from her sickbed and “throw the little old lady down the stairs!” 

Somewhere in all of this, Freed throws in his two cents. “Thoreau said most of us lead lives of quiet desperation. Pictures should make you feel better, not worse.”

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