06 July 2012

Summer Reading: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY PRESENTS the old Hollywood, same as the new Hollywood

Joseph P. Kennedy had a running start in life with a plum position at his father's bank and an alliance with the mayor of Boston's daughter. But that wasn't enough, he wanted to be bigger: he wanted Hollywood! And the more that the mini-mogul denied that he was in it for the renown, or anything above making money, the less convinced a figure he cut.  

As an outsider Kennedy was aided by the fact that the movie industry was going through huge changes at the time, from vaudeville and nickelodeons to "talkies," from the studio system of keeping directors, actors and writers on salary to job-to-job employment detached from particular studios. (Helpful note: Don't mention this last part to anyone working in the entertainment industry now because it will make him VERY angry.) Convinced that any studio could be fixed to turn a profit if it were put under his aegis, Kennedy outmaneuvered careerlong studio executives to get as full control as possible and moved through a series of troubled studios -- either streamlining or gutting, depending on your perspective. But in attempting to eliminate "unnecessary" spending and waste in his Hollywood, Kennedy met his match in two figures, director Erich von Stroheim -- infamous for his lavish productions and months-behind shooting schedules -- and actress Gloria Swanson, with whom Kennedy had an expensive affair for years.

This book illuminated for me a side of the Kennedy patriarch I had never seen, though his businessman's approach to the task at hand will seem familiar from any playbook of mergers or takeovers. He made his ascent with banking money, some of which was made under less than savory circumstances such as moving funds to shell corporations (Delaware!) and buying and selling among his holdings to profit, and largely got away with it. Author Cari Beauchamp gently suggests that Kennedy enjoyed his Hollywood exploits because he was, intellectually, right at the waterline -- it was his version of the stock market, and the stakes were satisfying. (Kennedy did fine on the real stock market, too -- too easy for him?) 

Kennedy, largely seen today as the thwarted politician pushing for his sons' success at all cost, is a fascinating character, but Beauchamp surrounds him with equally fascinating characters. Von Stroheim could be lined up against any number of "problem directors" today and give them a run for their money, and the saga of Frances Marion, one of the early successful female screenwriters who formed a power couple with Westerns actor Fred Thomson, illustrates how Kennedy used people whose expertise was valuable to him to move up in the film industry and then discarded their friendship as a tactic. In the end, it's hard to know whether Kennedy left satisfied by his Hollywood endeavors, because he did such an excellent job of pretending to be interested in his projects, not just the profits.

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