The late Otto Friedrich enlivened the pages of many newspapers and magazines with his vigorous prose. His journalistic ability to convey complex material in a vivid, accessible manner is evident in City of Nets, a mordant portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. (Originally published in 1986, it's the middle volume in a trilogy of superb urban histories that also includes Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s and Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet.) Friedrich drew on his voluminous reading of everything from celebrity bios to trade-union history to create a unique synthesis that, for a change, depicts Tinseltown not as a dreamland floating above American reality, but as a city subject, like any other, to economic and political forces. Friedrich mingles enjoyable gossip with hardheaded analysis of Hollywood's often unsavory industrial underpinnings, including studio heads' willingness to rely on gun-wielding gangsters to solve their labor problems. There's no other movie book quite like it; Rita Hayworth's divorce proceedings against Orson Welles follow hard on the heels of a gruesomely detailed description of Bugsy Siegel's execution. The '40s were the decade of Hollywood's decline: a blacklist prompted by anticommunist hysteria shut out some of its best talent, while a 1948 antitrust consent decree ended many of the business practices that made the studio system so profitable. Friedrich's brilliantly selective use of colorful anecdotes and revealing details perfectly captures a decaying, but still glamorous, culture. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
In 1939, when 50 million Americans went to the movies every week, Louis B. Mayer was the highest paid man in the country and Hollywood produced 530 feature films, among them Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz. A decade and 5000 movies later, the studios were tottering, Ingrid Bergman and Charlie Chaplin were exiled, the Hollywood Ten went to prison and millions were watching Milton Berle at home. What happened in those 10 years is as rich and colorful a story as can be imagined and Friedrich has more than done it justicethis is his liveliest book since the popular Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920's, and certainly one of the best books ever written about Hollywood. Taking his title from Brecht's Mahagonny, that "city of nets" where everything is permitted, Friedrich tells the familiar story of Hollywood's heyday and decline as part of a sweeping social and cultural history that takes in everything from Rita Hayworth's electrolysis (to give her a higher hairline) to union corruption, the Zoot Suit riots, the gangster Bugsy Siegel inventing Las Vegas. He is particularly good on the European refugee communityMann, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Brecht, et al.who produced some of their most distinguished work while their neighbors turned out Betty Grable musicals, and whose encounters with the studio moguls are among the most richly comic moments in our cultural history (Schoenberg, asked to score a movie, told a startled producer he would have to control the dialogue as well, so the actors would "speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in"). The moguls themselves, semiliterate, comfortable with racketeers but lusting for respectability (and in no way the "showmen" legend has made them) could be Preston Sturges characters. Friedrich avoids the cliche Goldwynisms, but has unearthed a good Disneyism: when Walt saw what the Fantasia animators had done to the "Pastoral" Symphony, he said, "Gee, this'll make Beethoven." Friedrich mixes all these elements (and more) in a narrative that is often funny and remarkably even-handed (e.g., his concise account of the HUAC hearings) a must for movie buffs and a rewarding read for everyone else. Photos not seen by PW.
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Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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