JWR Articles: Book - Exiles in Hollywood (Author: David Wallace) - September 3, 2006

Exiles in Hollywood

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246 pages

ISBN 0-8791-032-99
Fade to Noir

Exiles in Hollywood is a fascinating chronicle of the lives, loves and labours of an array of foreign nationals who chose to settle in the land of dreams. Theirs had been either dashed or obliterated by dictators, despots and their admirers in various parts of Europe. Does that demonstrate the upside of calamity? Hard to say since the colonization of North America by the ancestors of citizens and newcomers alike caused considerable havoc, suffering and displacement when Native Americans were “liberated” from sin and ignorance (cross-references below).

David Wallace profiles filmmakers, actors, composers, conductors, musicians, writers and socialites in a chatty, often gossipy style (“It was rumoured that at about this time [Otto] Preminger had offered to marry [Dorothy] Dandridge, but walked out on her when she became pregnant, and she had an abortion.”). He prefers titillation over insight and suffers from moments of awkward language (“Bruno Walter … bought the house next door to the Bedford Drive residence in Beverly Hills to which the Werfels had moved a few months earlier.”). The twenty chapters are formula written, starting with some tantalizing anecdotes before taking a breath and sketching a Reader’s Digest biography. That techniquet solves the page limitation dilemma, but results in a series of columns rather than a book that has a “beginning, middle and end.” Instead, the volume simply stops.

Still, it’s hard to put down—especially by those who love Hollywood but wouldn’t want to live there. Was it the climate? The beauty (natural or manmade)? The excitement of pioneering both the actual landscape but also, and it seems more importantly, being a part of the growth and development of the movies? Imagine living through a nightmare in your homeland then migrating into an industry that is based on lies (wartime propaganda films), deceptions (studio sound stages miraculously morph into oceans, jungles and outer space) and greed (box-office success = a great movie). Most must have felt right at home.

Factoids abound:

  • Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is his darkest work (where does that leave the Ninth?).
  • According to one critic (David Denby), Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice is “an insult to both [Thomas] Mann and Gustav Mahler.” (60% of the Online Film Critics Society’s reviews rate it “fresh.”)
  • Stravinsky reports Metro Goldwyn Mayer had a stable of forty composers to “avoid reruns of music that already exists and … not to pay royalties.” He learned that lesson well, making many revisions to his own successful ballets to bring them under the protection of copyright law.
  • Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion was an attempt to share his pacifist outlook with the world. The film was deemed a great success (see box office, above), but WW II went ahead anyway.

Observations, although limited, pack some punch.

The demise of “home music”—particularly the de rigueur piano as a basic furnishing since the 1930s and ‘40s has led to a general dumbing down of the “hands-on” musical literacy of millions. John Cage would agree.

The wonderful image of Los Angeles as the epicentre of film noir works as a social and historical metaphor on many levels. These men and women who knew too much (or were born to the wrong tribe) found refuge and work in their adopted land; their talents were harnessed or exploited; some would be blacklisted by the very type of government they had so desperately wanted to flee. Only in America?

But when all is said and savoured, the reader will have another important take on the lure of Lies Always and be inspired to visit the classics section of either the nearest DVD shop or CD warehouse and let the artists speak for themselves. JWR

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Author - David Wallace
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