Previewing History: “Warriors and Peacemakers,” Episode 5 of TCM’s Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood
by Robert Cashill
Produced and written by Jon Wilkman; camera by Neal Brown and Neil Smith; narrated by Christopher Plummer. Color and B&W, 57 min. (each episode). An Ostar Productions presentation on Turner Classic Movies, www.tcm.com
Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic (1943), written by John Howard Lawson, one of the Hollywood Ten
Hollywood at war. The Willie Bioff extortion scandal. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Hollywood Ten. Big subjects, all worthy of their own TCM documentaries, but jostling for space with Mickey Rooney, Cary Grant, and Casablanca in the latest episode. By now I’m used to the show’s structure. Once again we proceed from topic to topic, with the usual sidebars on women (here the strong-wilIed actresses of the period, notably Olivia de Havilland and her successful crusade against restrictive studio contracts) and the progress of minorities (in films like the Stanley Kramer-produced Home of the Brave, with African-American actor James Edwards in the lead as a tormented war veteran). Yet it rarely connects its dots in a meaningful way. Early on we see the ascendance of Humphrey Bogart as a major star, in part to his roles in patriotic war movies. Toward the end he’s reintroduced organizing and leading the Committee for the First Amendment against HUAC’s harassment of screenwriters and actors, then backing down and criticizing the Hollywood Ten when his support puts his career on the line. The show is typically reticent about adopting a point of view. But tracing his entire professional and personal arc in a single segment might have sharpened a hazy portrait of one star who got caught in the crossfire.
Speaking of Bogart and Casablanca, the fifth episode rounds up the usual suspects in terms of commentators. The dashing and convivial A. Scott Berg gets a pass based on meritorious biographies and personal charm; TCM host Robert Osborne may want to watch his back when it’s time to renegotiate his contract. But why does the program lean so heavily on screenwriter Marc Norman? Granted he won a couple of Oscars for cowriting and coproducing Shakespeare in Love but he’s used indiscriminately, and Gore Vidal and Peter Bogdanovich don’t do much more than contribute bromides about Citizen Kane and Orson Welles (not that Vidal’s story about how “Rosebud” got its name isn’t satisfyingly salacious if you haven’t heard it before, and there is a wonderful color photograph of the twenty-five-year-old wunderkind in full bloom). Curiously Mickey Rooney, no shrinking violet, is not around to comment on the peak years of his stardom, where Louis B. Mayer promoted him as a paragon of American youth.
The image consciousness of the moguls is the throughline of the episode. Fearful that their Jewish roots would show they constructed an image of a fearless America, movie by movie and star by star, and strutted proudly about their turf in colonel’s uniforms when the government recruited them for the war effort. They recoiled, however, when the lens came too close. 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, with Gregory Peck as a reporter pretending to be Jewish to root out anti-Semitism, left them redfaced, and Home of the Brave was a break for Edwards because there was resistance to its featuring a Jewish lead, as in the play that inspired it. There was little resistance to HUAC, which gave them another opportunity to be good soldiers in the brewing Cold War.
New to the program is actress Marsha Hunt, a spry ninety-three, who is deployed on a number of subjects, including life as a contract player (she was only bankable once decreed sufficiently sexy by the powers-that-be) and her own involvement with the Committee for the First Amendment. I expect to hear her, I hope at greater length, on the blacklist next time, as Hollywood faces an enemy more insidious than communism.
“Warriors and Peacemakers” begins airing Monday, Nov. 29, at 8:00 p.m. EST. Next week: “The Attack of the Small Screens,” 1950-1960.