Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Hollywood: The Oral History
(February 4, 2023)

Hollywood: The Oral History edited by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson (Harper, 2022)

Over the years, many people involved in film production have spoken at the American Film Institute. The bulk of this book is their words. It is organized by topic, with excerpts from various speakers addressing each one. The topics range from the silent era through the period long after the decline of the studio system, though the book doesn't make clear what its end date is.

The strength of the book is that it doesn't limit itself to high profile job categories, though it certainly includes them. It offers words from art directors, script girls, office boys, make up and hair stylists, casting directors, composers and agents. While the book is an enjoyable read, the editing handicaps the book in several ways.

Most obvious is the lack of an index. If you are interested in reading all the quotes from Billy Wilder, George Cukor or Raoul Walsh, you are forced to search through 700 plus pages to find them. Another problem is that no dates are attached to any interview. This is not much of a problem for speakers who are reminiscing about the studio system, as the American Film Institute didn't exist until long after that system ceased to exist. In the latter portion of the book, about Hollywood beyond the studio system, it is impossible to tell if the speakers are contemporary with what they're commenting on or if they're looking back. Another problem with the lack of dates is that it's impossible to tell if consecutive speakers are commenting at the same time or if their comments are separated by years. There's a comment by producer David Puttnam followed by a comment by story editor Sam Marx. Their careers were separated by decades, but were their comments?

The lack of footnotes or corrections are also a problem. Director George Seaton speaks of directing Montgomery Clift in The Search, a film that was directed by Fred Zinnemann. It's clear that Seaton is actually referring to The Big Lift which he did direct, but there is no correction in the text.

The editors accept their subjects' words without question. Director Frank Capra's comments on comedian Harry Langdon are debatable, but they are here without editorial comment. Ray Rennahan, a Technicolor consultant, worked on John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk and his comments are problematic. He claims that "Ford didn't compose anything. He left it to me...I'd pick the compositions, and figure out the action and the color...John Ford was a great director of actors and not too involved with anything else." Anyone with a passing knowledge of Ford's films knows how excellent he was at framing shots. As early as 1917, with his film Straight Shooting there are striking compositions. Ford's typical on set behavior didn't include taking suggestions from actors or the crew, so it is hard to believe that he would defer to Rennahan.

The subtitle "The Oral History" is too definitive. It's an AFI oral history, but other oral histories could be compiled using completely different interviews. The lack of an index and dates makes this book useless as a research tool. The casual reader will enjoy it but anyone with more than a superficial interest in American film history will ultimately be frustrated by the editors' decisions.