History Note:
Cheerful When Wet
25 July 2019

Picture is reminding me that Hollywood has two film histories, the actual one, which is known to very few, and the sequence of its estimable productions, which every film buff knows. The actual Hollywood history is not particularly interesting to people who like movies (by which I mean people who will see the same movie twice or more, watch a film that wasn’t made during their adolescence, and sit through a black-and-white movie without complaint) because most of the movies that Hollywood turned out are not — well, they’re not Casablanca

But it’s salutary to be reminded that many of the shows that have been consigned to oblivion might very well have outsold Casablanca when they were new. Lillian Ross does so when she quotes, on page 167 (in the NYRB edition), the very same producer, Arthur Freed, whose reference to Thoreau I mentioned yesterday. Let the first sentence reverberate in your mind while you read what follows. 

The biggest money-making star at M-G-M, Freed told me, was Esther Williams, and he told me why. “She’s not only good-looking, she’s cheerful,” he said. “you can sell cheerfulness. You can’t sell futility. Take John Huston. A great talent. I’d like to make a picture with him myself. He makes a picture, Treasure of Sierra Madre, and it’s a success with the critics, but it’ll take years to get its costs back from the public. Why? It’s futile. Even the gold disappears at the end. … Fundamentally, a picture is not complete unless an audience is out there. Without an audience, you don’t know where the laughs are. This is show business. You need laughs. You need cheerfulness. That’s the whole reason for show business in the first place.”

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