City of Nets
by Otto Friedrich
Heroes, Villains, and Overlooked Writers
A review by Joshua David Stein
Otto Friedrich's City of Nets is littered with bodies: somebodies, nobodies,
congressional bodies, bodies of work, and even corpses. Hollywood from 1939 to
1950 -- the period covered in this 20-year-old book -- had scandals that
make US Weekly and Star seem school-marmish by comparison. A few examples: Errol
Flynn Flings with Fifteen-Year-Old Aboard Yacht, Calls Boss Jack Warner 'Jew Bastard';
Great Dictator Charlie Chaplin Held at Gun-Point by Stalker Starlet, Sued for
Paternity; Wm. Faulkner and MGM Exec Found Drunk in Okie Camp after Ten-Day Whisky
If all this sounds Brechtian in its lurid hedonism, thatís because it
is. Friedrich drew the inspiration for his account from Brecht's description
-- his fictional, California Sodom -- as a "city of nets." With a
moral and physical landscape that caters to the whims of moguls and starlets,
Hollywood ensnares all those who enter. But ominous overtones aside, Friedrich,
an old newspaper man, gives a lively anecdotal tour through the trials -- both
literal and figurative -- and triumphs -- commercial and personal -- of Hollywood's
golden era players. The book is a pasticcio of personal accounts, diaries, and
news clippings. Friedrich's genius lies not in revelation but in organization,
as he creates a taxonomy of the twelve years and their many narratives. Nineteen
thirty-nine is entitled "Welcome," while 1940 is "Ingatherings;"
but the third chapter (1941) is "Treachery" and the next nine years
get only darker, culminating in "Prejudice," "Expulsions,"
It's no wonder that Thomas Mann wrote Dr.
Faustus while living in LA, or Brecht, Galileo. Hollywood pits souls against
money. The lure of the silver screen in this gilded age enticed many a brilliant
mind, and the resulting frisson was breathless and grand. Where else but in
Hollywood could one find such surrealist scenes as William Faulkner, Howard
Hawks, and Clark Gable on a hunting trip; Mickey Mouse canoodling with Leopold
Stokowksi; or Ayn Rand chatting with Cecil B. DeMille in a parking lot? Sadly,
other Hollywood stories -- the 1943 violence against Mexicans, the HUAC pogroms,
and the raging anti-semitism -- extend beyond the city, reaching deep down into
the larger story of America.
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