Friday, December 03, 2010

Chollychaplum and others in Garson Kanin's Hollywood

It isn't often that I chortle loudly twice while reading the first page of a book, but Garson Kanin’s 1967 memoir Hollywood (And the People Who Made It) - an ancient copy of which I picked up from the Blossom Book House in Bangalore last month - had me right from its opening sentence, which reads “Mr Samuel Goldwyn and I sat alone in his throne room, looking at each other.”

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?"

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.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how some iconic movies start to get made.


  1. Nice post.
    By the way, Samuel Goldwyn was the producer of arguably two of mainstream Hollywood's greatest films - William Wyler's Dodsworth and The Best Years of Our Lives.

    I'm also reminded of one of his much quoted "Goldwynism" in reference to The Best Years of Our Lives :

    "I don't care if it (his new picture) doesn't make a nickel. I just want every man woman and child in America to see it."

    To my mind, that quote is so much more than an amusing line. It is a spirited defence of "commercial culture". It is an articulation of a belief that art and commerce need not necessarily be at odds with each other. Great Art with a broad popular appeal is more often than not, an unintended outcome of commercial considerations.

    Ofcourse it can be argued that Goldwyn has produced his fair share of mediocre films. But so do indie film producers!

  2. Shrikanth: there's a funny story in the book about Lillian Hellman telling Kanin, "You must realise that Sam regards himself as a nation!" Kanin discovers the truth of these words during a subsequent encounter with Goldwyn, when they are discussing a script about Americans being drafted for the Korean War. This is what Goldwyn says:

    "With The Best Years of Our Lives I brought the boys home. And now - now I've got to send them away again!"

  3. Sorry for digressing.
    Jai: I was looking for books related to cinema and cricket (cheap buys - used books will do).

    Could you direct me to any place in Delhi where one can find them

    Here are some authors I'm looking for : Sarris, Farber, Robin Wood, Neville Cardus, Jack Fingleton, Ray Robinson among others.

  4. Shrikanth: I've never really spent any time exploring second-hand stores in Delhi (apart from the outdoor stalls one finds at the local PVR complex, and maybe a couple of trips to the Daryaganj Sunday market a long time ago). Some of the rare books I've bought (Robin Wood and Cardus among them) have been chance finds at various firsthand stores or the annual book fair at Pragati Maidan. But yes, I wouldn't mind locating books by Sarris or other not-so-accessible movie writers, so if you find out anything let me know!

  5. Sounds very interesting. Should check if Blossoms has another copy lying around somewhere!

  6. Jai, coming back to this blog after a long time, was delighted to read this review.
    I think you have captured the mood of this book perfectly , as much that the transition from the quotes to your review appears seamless.