Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 25, 2011)
An ambitious Turner Classic Movies series called Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood offers an overview of the film industry started and evolved. It offers seven episodes, each of which handles different eras. Christopher Plummer hosts all of these.
Peepshow Pioneers (57:49) spans 1889-1907 and includes comments from magic-lantern historian Terry Borton, Thomas Edison historian Paul Israel, film historians Richard Koszarski, Cari Beauchamp, Robert S. Birchard, Steven J. Ross, Anthony Slide and Charles Musser, critic/film historian Leonard Maltin, sleight-of-hand artist/entertainment historian Ricky Jay, Adolph Zukor’s grandson James, Carl Laemmle’s niece Carla, Jack Warner’s grandson Gregory Orr, film historian/photo archivist Marc Wanamaker, William Fox’s great-granddaughter Susan Fox-Rosellini, Louis B. Mayer’s grandson Daniel Mayer Selznick, and actor/director Bob Balaban.
“Pioneers” examines the invention of moving pictures as well as the development of “peep shows” and then projectors that allow mass audiences to watch a film. These broaden from shorts into longer movies that tell narratives; we also learn of early directors and moguls like Adolph Zukor and Carl Laemmle.
The Birth of Hollywood (1:00:28) goes over 1907-1920 and provides notes from Zukor, Birchard, Beauchamp, Koszarski, Laemmle, Slide, Lasky, Selznick, Ross, Balaban, Samuel Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg, producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Jesse Lasky’s daughter Betty, film historian/archivist Richard Roberts, film historians Scott Eyman, Donald Bogle, Tony Maietta and Jeanne Basinger, Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, film historian/novelist Mollie Gregory, and critic/film historian Molly Haskell.
“Birth” takes us out west and shows the early days of California movie studios. It also depicts the further development of actors, directors and producers as well as the origins of animation and various genres. Social elements appear as well, such as the use of other media like magazines to promote movies. The Birth of a Nation receives special attention due to its controversies and success.
The Dream Merchants (1:00:29) looks at 1920-1928 and features Fox-Rosellini, Ross, Wanamaker, Beauchamp, Maltin, Basinger, Selznick, Slide, Maietta, Goldwyn, Berg, Eyman, Vance, Roberts, Balaban, Orr, director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich, producer Richard Zanuck, journalist/film historian Robert Osborne, author Gore Vidal, film historian David Stenn and Thomas Schatz, Irving Thalberg biographer Mark A. Vieira, Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne, actor/producer William Wellman, Jr., and screenwriter Marc Norman.
“Merchants” covers the growth and power of the studio system, censorship and other social issues of the era. It also discusses the period’s most successful filmmakers and actors as well as some of the bigger movie releases. The origins of the Oscars comes near the end of the program.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dream? (1:00:05) runs across 1929-1941 and boasts remarks from Eyman, Orr, Fox-Rosellini, Stenn, Beauchamp, Osborne, Maltin, Vance, Norman, Maietta, Haskell, Berg, Zukor, Selznick, Vieira, Wanamaker, Zanuck, Goldwyn, Basinger, Bogle, Laemmle, film/theatre historian Miles Kreuger, film director Andrew Bergman, Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, journalist/film historian Aljean Harmetz, producer Stanley Jaffe, and film historian David Thomson.
“Dream” examines the arrival of “talkies” and the demise of silent films plus the impact of the Great Depression on the studios and other financial changes. The program also delves into the threat from the “radio revolution”, the development of the movie musical, and info about the period’s most popular filmmakers, actors and flicks. We also get additional details about censorship and some controversies/political areas.
Warriors and Peacemakers (1:00:15) occupies 1941-1950 and throws in statements from Zanuck, Bogdanovich, Vidal, Thomson, Vance, Giddins, Goldwyn, Berg, Harmetz, Osborne, Norman, Basinger, Bergman, Selznick, Maietta, Bogle, Ross, Orr, Schatz, producer George Stevens, Jr., director Sidney Lumet, Lew Wasserman biographer Kathleen Sharp, Dalton Trumbo’s son Chris and actress Marsha Hunt.
This one examines the effects of World War II on Hollywood as well as continuing effects of the Depression. It also digs into the impact of Citizen Kane, the aftermath of the War, social issues of the time such as the blacklist and the era’s biggest stars and most important films/producers/directors.
The Attack of the Small Screens (1:00:01) features 1950-1960 and delivers material from Schatz, Orr, Goldwyn, Berg, Selznick, Maietta, Lumet, Vidal, Norman, Stevens, Hunt, Kreuger, Maltin, Stenn, Thomson, Haskell, Osborne, Vance, Bergman, Bogdanovich, Bogle, Sharp, Lasky, Zanuck, producer/writer/director Paul Mazursky, producer/director Roger Corman, journalist/film historian Mark Harris, producer Walter Mirisch, and art director Robert Boyle.
As the title implies, “Screens” looks at the threat created by the loss of viewers to TV along with technological attempts to fight it such as widescreen and 3D. It also digs into other societal changes that impacted movies plus the nature of 1950s Hollywood, the decline of the Production Code, changes in the studios and the period’s biggest genres. As usual, it also discusses the decade’s most prominent movies/actors/filmmakers.
Fade Out, Fade In (58:56) lands us in 1960-1969 and ends with info from Norman, Trumbo, Ross, Sharp, Schatz, Haskell, Stenn, Maltin, Harris, Zanuck, Osborne, Mirisch, Bogdanovich, Stevens, Ross, Corman, Orr, Balaban, Selznick, Goldwyn, Eyman, producer David Brown, former Sony Pictures chairman/CEO Peter Guber, writer/directors John Sayles and Robert Benson, journalist/film historian Peter Biskind, and screenwriter Buck Henry.
“Fade” follows remnants of the blacklist and the era’s social upheaval. It also digs into the decline of the studio system and the rise of independents that culminated by the decade’s end. Of course, we get more about popular/notable movies and creators from the period.
As I noted at the start, Moguls certain doesn’t lack ambition. It follows the development of Hollywood across much of its existence and covers many social bases. But does it do so in a satisfactory manner?
For the most part, I’d say yes, though I think it bites off a bit more than it can chew. Even with seven hours at its disposal, Moguls often feels rushed and abbreviated. It can’t dig into any specific areas with much depth; it needs to fly from one subject to another with such alacrity that we never get more than a superficial take on the topics.
When I went into the movie, I really only absorbed the first part of its title and thought the documentary would concentrate on the “moguls” side of things more than anything else. To some degree, that’s true; the series tends to focus on the studio chiefs and their rises/falls more than other areas, so you’ll learn more about them than other filmmakers. However, this isn’t a strong trend, which means the series casts a wide net.
Given its goals, I think Moguls succeeds. What it loses in detail, it gains in scope and ambition, and it becomes a consistently entertaining historical overview. If you go into it with little understanding of Hollywood, you’ll certain be much more educated by the time you leave, and even those with a better knowledge of movie history seem likely to learn some new facts.
Still, it seems doubtful that the more educated film fan will get a lot from Moguls, as it feels much better suited for a casual viewer. And there’s nothing wrong with that, though I wonder if less involved movie buffs will want to spend seven hours with the series. That’s the rub, I guess: Moguls is too superficial to do a lot for the more dedicated film fans, but it’s too long for the casual viewers.
Which means I wish the show had gone with a more specific focus, as a seven-hour documentary based on a more specific area of Hollywood history would be more satisfying. If we’d gotten that much material about the studio chiefs, we could’ve found something with real depth and potential insight.
As it stands, though, I think Moguls is consistently entertaining, and it offers a good general take on things. Of course, fans can quibble about its specific shortcomings, as it barely touches on some notable genres/films/actors/directors. During the DVD’s extras, we get a few thoughts about how the series’ producers chose the subjects, so there’s clearly a method at work here, but viewers will still feel surprised and disappointed at some of the omissions. For instance, horror and sci-fi get very little air, and even in the 1950s, we don’t hear a ton about westerns.
Quibbles aside, I do like Moguls for the most part. I would prefer something deeper and more detailed, but it acts as a good “Cliffs Notes” overview of Hollywood history. It delivers an enjoyable experience that will be educational for many.