To fully appreciate this situation, some context is required: Kanin was what one might call an artist with intellectual aspirations, a skilled writer who worked in many different capacities in the film and theatre worlds from the 1930s onwards; Goldwyn, on the other hand, was a Big Producer, the “G” in MGM, a face of the money-driven side of Hollywood. This is their first meeting. Any encounter between two such personalities has funniness inherently built into it, and the mood is set by Kanin’s carefully respectful “Mr Samuel Goldwyn” and his throwaway use of “throne room”.
But what follows is even droller. Kanin nervously begins telling Goldwyn an anecdote involving George Bernard Shaw, realises after a few seconds that the producer is looking distracted, but continues with the story anyway. (Oh, Christ. Goldwyn looked bored. I was flopping. My palms were moistening. Should I stop? Too late. I forged ahead.) When he’s done, Goldwyn nods sympathetically at him, pauses and says:
“Shaw is a real tough bastard. Hard to get along. To do business with.”
This is a running theme in Kanin’s Hollywood: creative people who hope to produce important and lasting work, being forced into the position of “doing business” with the men who pull the strings, and the many tentative relationships and great and mediocre films that emerged from these collaborations. This book isn’t a conventional history or study of the movie world. It’s unstructured, anecdotal, conversational – and just as affectionate as Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn (which I wrote about here). In fact, Hollywood reminded me a great deal of David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses, another book that appears, on the surface, to be not much more than a compendium of gossip and funny stories about Hollywood celebrities, but which ends up providing some very sharp and incisive sketches – and arguably revealing more than a self-consciously academic work would.
Sam Goldwyn is in some ways the central figure in this book (and as the narrative proceeds we gain an unlikely respect for him), and the other subjects of Kanin’s reminiscences include John Barrymore (who used little “blackboard” prompters with his lines scrawled on them while shooting a film, even though he could recite most of Shakespeare’s soliloquies on demand), Ginger Rogers (who determinedly continued using her old toilet at RKO Studios even after she had become a star at Paramount), Charles Laughton, Harry Cohn and Carole Lombard. But one of my favourite chapters is the one about Kanin’s relationship with Charlie Chaplin (or as he insists on calling him, “Chollychaplum”), specifically a passage where Chaplin is struggling with the idea of playing Hitler in The Great Dictator and Kanin goads him on:
Chaplin began to eat, unhappily. I took another swig. “Look,” I said, “I’m not a believer and anything even suggesting the supernatural gives me a pain, but once in a while there’s something in circumstance or in fate that’s absolutely shattering, and this is one of those cases […] here is a time in the history of man when the greatest villain civilization has ever known and the greatest comedian civilization has ever known bear a physical resemblance to each other. Think of it. It’s, well, unbelievable, but we have to believe it because it’s there. I took a deep breath and continued in an awesome tone, “Who but God himself could be capable of such an idea?"And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how some iconic movies start to get made.
Chaplin, a man not easily impressed, was impressed. Drama is frequently based upon a triangular structure, and one consisting of Hitler, Chaplin and God was not bad.
“Well,” said Chaplin modestly, putting down his fork, “I don’t know...”
“Of course you do,” I said, “You don’t have to decide about this picture. It’s all been decided for you. It’s inevitable. A foregone conclusion.”
There was a long pause. We finished dinner.
“You may be right,” said Chaplin.
The following day, he called the picture off for good. The subject became taboo for several weeks.