Bright Lights Film Journal

Fifty plus Fifty: The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood Reconsidered: The Sorrows of Ezra, as Told by Himself

He worked for Time; that can do things to a man

Fifty years ago, every Saturday afternoon I would do something that very few people in America did: I would spend four hours in the basement of the Falls Church, Virginia public library. While virtually every other 15-year-old boy in Falls Church had better things to do on his weekend than shelve books and stamp “Property of Falls Church Public Library” in new acquisitions, I did not.

One of the few benefits of my job, other than looking at the semi-nudes in Popular Photography, was getting first crack at the new books the library purchased. When I first saw the cover of Ezra Goodman’s The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood I felt disquieted, even threatened by the title. Hollywood had been declining and falling for fifty years, and I didn’t even know about it?

I am often the sort who backs down from challenges, but I didn’t back down from this one. The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood was the first “inside” book I had ever read. In fact, the book wasn’t that inside — Goodman held back almost all of what he could have written — but it was the tone rather than the content that caught my attention. An adult was telling me secrets. Scary, but interesting!

Recently, the random firing of a dying synapse triggered a recollection of Goodman’s haunting title, and I tracked the book down via the Internet. Now that I’ve glanced through it again, it would be nice to report that FYDFH is a forgotten classic, a time capsule of classic Hollywood in its last overripe years of innocent excess, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Ezra Goodman had an interesting story to tell, but he just wasn’t much of a writer. A dedicated social historian could dig through FYDFH and find a few gleaming nuggets, but most of the text is overwritten payback, bile, and gossip about such forgotten characters as columnist Sidney Skolsky, once famous for biting Louella Parsons on the arm.

Ezra himself started out in New York doing publicity for the Fifty-Fifth Street Playhouse Theatre back in the thirties, but the pay was surely terrible, and one can’t blame him for looking for something a bit more commercial. As a kid, he’d always loved the movies. Imagine getting paid to hang out with legends! And Ezra managed to do just that. In the early forties, when a lot of young men were marching off to war, Goodman obtained a gig as Hollywood columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph — a job he described as “almost utopian.”

According to Ezra, Telegraph‘s purpose for existence was to cover horse-racing, at that time the only real opportunity for legalized gambling available to the American public.1 To fill up space, and because they had the cash, the Telegraph was willing to pay Goodman a decent salary to write pretty much anything he damn well pleased.2 A no-pressure job, a decent paycheck, and the warm California sun — you can’t complain!

At least you shouldn’t. But Goodman’s eyes, sadly, were bigger than his stomach. Not content with being a little frog in a big, sunny pond, Goodman sought to make a splash. He wanted to get himself noticed, and he did, by getting, and printing, a long interview with still-legendary director D. W. Griffith, in which Griffith predictably and loudly complained that Hollywood had gone slap-damn to Hell, with nothing to show for it.

But be careful what you wish for, eh? Goodman got his visibility and he was hired by none other than Time Magazine, then perhaps the most powerful publication in America.3 And that was his undoing, because of course Time wanted Goodman to cover Hollywood as no one else did, as only Time could. And the studios, of course, resisted.

It is not too much to say that Goodman’s spirit was crushed between the upper and nether millstones of Hollywood and Time. Endless interviews with stonewalling studio hacks; endless demands for the story behind the story, the story that the other publications missed; and then, of course, in the grand Time tradition, endless rewrites of what he had written, up an endless food-chain of Manhattan geniuses who didn’t give a damn about the grunt in the field.

I missed all of that the first time around. What I got out of The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood was one thing: Humphrey Bogart was cool.4 I started watching his films on TV, suffering through flicks like Brother Orchid and The Battling Bellboy before striking gold with To Have and Have Not — Betty n’ Bogie as Slim n’ Steve,5 exchanging sexual badinage6 the likes of which I had never heard:

Slim: You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and . . . blow.

Slim: Give her [some other chick] my love.

Steve: (eyeing Betty’s dress) If she had that on I’d give her my own.

Slim: (kissing Steve a second time) It’s even better when you help.

“It’s even better when you help”? “It’s even better when you help”! Are there really girls who talk like that? O brave new world!

A couple of years after FYDFH came out, Goodman published a biography of Bogie. I hope he made a lot of money off it.

Afterwords

Goodman devotes a full chapter to his struggles to provide Time with a cover story on Marilyn Monroe. Since he was writing about her in 1960, pre-Kennedy and pre-suicide, we might have gotten a clear-eyed picture of her, but no such luck. Ezra tries to shock us by telling us that Marilyn often “used” people (selfishness in Hollywood! Imagine that!), to little effect. He gives us the full text of his original draft, a sarcastic, overwritten portrait of Marilyn as a rather tedious diva (maybe that part’s true) that reflects his frustration with the endless stiff-arming he received from Marilyn and everyone around her. To compound his woes, Time tossed his entire piece and replaced it with Marilyn-friendly, Hollywood-friendly kitsch. I remember reading the Reader’s Digest version, for which Ezra received $400 in reprint rights, which claimed, among other things, that when Marilyn went to Japan she was described as “honorable, buttocks-swinging actress,”7 which is just about par for Time‘s reporting back in the day.

  1. As films like The Sting have recorded, illegal betting on horse races was huge as well. So there was a substantial chunk of the male population that was willing to read just about anything written about the races. []
  2. Goodman says he produced his “most incisive” work while at the Telegraph, but he doesn’t bother to say what that was. He does say that the Telegraph refused to publish one column, complaining about Hollywood’s failure to provide decent roles for black performers like Lena Horne. Ezra’s heart was in the right place, most of the time, but he works too hard letting us know about it. []
  3. If Time wasn’t the most powerful publication in pre-TV America, then its sister publication Life was. []
  4. Bogart, who apparently enjoyed drinking with writers as long as they picked up the tab, always got great press. He fed them his on-screen bad-boy image and they fed it right back to the public. []
  5. Like fellow super-nerd Joseph Cornell, I developed a monster crush on Betty, although, unlike Joseph, I didn’t fill up scrapbooks with pictures of her cut out of Life, nor did I write precious essays on her jeune fille-itudiness. To Have and Have Not (1944) was really Bacall’s only film in which she was totally adorable, although she was still pretty cute in The Big Sleep (1946). Jeune filles grow up fast, just like the rest of us. []
  6. To Have and Have Not was based on a fairly lame novel by Ernest Hemingway, 90 percent rewritten to become a Caribbean version of Casablanca. By a striking coincidence, William Faulkner was one of the screenwriters, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Bill enjoyed ripping off Papa in this manner. Learn all there is to know about the making of To Have and Have Not in this excellent BL piece by Ed Krzemienski: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/25/tohave1.php []
  7. Oh, those Orientals! They’re sooo funny! []