“People can’t live in New York, take part in the night life and still make pictures; it can’t be done!” opined Fox West Coast production head Sol Wurtzel in 1922, two years after his boss, William Fox, had opened a new, state-of-the-art studio in Hell’s Kitchen. This, even more than pesky unions, the weather, or the price of real estate seems to be the main reason why Gotham has played poor cousin to Hollywood ever since WWI. In a factory town like Los Angeles, studios had greater control over their employees, celebrated nightspots like the Troc’ or Ciro’s were playgrounds for the stars protected from the press, and everyone turned in early.
In his exhaustive survey, Hollywood on the Hudson (recently published by Rutgers University Press), film historian Richard Koszarski does his best to keep track of East Coast production facilities and their successive tenants — a bewildering shell-game provoked by strikes, fires, and the vagaries of the economy. Let’s just say that after 1918, when Los Angeles’ precedence was all but secured, New York studios rarely had the same occupants for more than two years at a time. Constantly rebuilt or reequipped, many of these facilities still stand today, including the Paramount studio in Queens (now the Kaufman Astoria Studios), the Talmadge block on East 48th Street, and the former studio (now a high school) on West 54th and Eigth Avenue that William Fox vacated only four years after its opening.
Koszarski’s book is both industrial saga and film-buff opium den: Not only does he includes all aspects of film production in New York (short subjects, animation, educationals, Vitaphone’s on-disk music reels, ethnic films), but also television (from “radiomovies” to “live, from New York”). The author also writes with such fire and detail about all these films that you quickly forget most of them are either lost, incomplete, or difficult to see at best.
Opening Friday, the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Hollywood On the Hudson-inspired film series can’t hope to do justice to the scope of Koszarski’s study, but the author will be on hand to introduce two 1929 films offering the two faces of the Twenties musical coin. Glorifying the American Girl is everything Hollywood hoped to achieve by opening studios near Broadway — the latest Ziegfeld review, filmed at Astoria during the day, the chorus girls shuttling back and forth across the East River. Applause, on the other hand, strives to show the tawdry side of show-business; it is also noted in film histories as the first movie to liberate talkies from the constraints of early sound-recording techniques. Director Rouben Mamoulian’s undisputed claims for innovation in his four first films have made him a favorite of historians, but meeting technical challenges doesn’t compensate for script and dialogue ineptitude, as well as (in Applause) an obvious disdain for the world — vaudeville — he depicts.
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Paramount’s efforts to maintain production in New York make for the book’s most interesting chapter, and successive “Queens of Astoria” Gloria Swanson and Miriam Hopkins are duly featured. The latter, a Broadway smash, was the only reason Lubitsch came to New York to make 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant (it also stars Maurice Chevalier at his most lubricous). Post-DeMille Gloria Swanson had gone East to flee vulgarian Paramount executive B.P. Schulberg at the Melrose lot, and made lively films with director Allan Dwan — her first, Zaza (1923), screens here. Dwan’s stated reason for the move (“I can’t work with kikes”), as told to his Jewish boss Adolph Zukor, brazenly summarizes the only feeling pushing people to New York: a desire for independence. Indeed, Gotham would become a nest for independent productions, and the rest of UCLA’s program focuses more on quirky artistic attempts than on studio product.
The four movies Oscar-winning screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur made in total freedom at Astoria between 1934 and 1935 would alone be enough to vindicate the studio system forever. Crime Without Passion (1934, starring Claude Rains as an uberlawyer engineering a murder) may be their least overbearing, which isn’t saying much. Charles Brabin, an interesting director, made scads of one-reelers in and out of New York for Thomas Edison before WWI and later worked for most of the studios before going to California in the mid-’20s. He made While New York Sleeps (1920) at the Fox’s studio in Hell’s Kitchen, but only the last part of the triptych features the actual city and comes to life with a thrilling tugboat pursuit on the nearby Hudson.
You can’t make them more indie than Exceptional Pictures, an outfit with only two features to its name that commissioned Gregory LaCava (then a cartoonist at Hearst’s animation company) to make a couple of shorts with comedian Chic Sale in 1921. LaCava, who marched to his own drum even then, kept shooting reels until he had five, and His Nibs became his first feature, a very ingenious story of a picture show in a backwater town, with Sale playing seven roles. The movie within the movie is called They Fooled Them All, and Colleen Moore, only two years away from Flaming Youth, plays the female lead. That just about makes up for the series’ slant towards the portentous and socially conscious. This, after all, was New York, where even a thing called Moonlight and Pretzels could hide songs like “Dusty Shoes” behind the tits and tinsel. This was 1933, and the song was by the same team who wrote “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” And who wouldn’t want to see something called Moonlight and Pretzels?
HOLLYWOOD ON THE HUDSON: FILMMAKING IN NEW YORK 1920-39 | UCLA Film & Television Archive | Through Saturday, February 7 | www.cinema.ucla.edu