From Ezra Goodman’s marvellous The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood ~
‘Director King Vidor’s story, in his autobiography, A Tree is a Tree*, about how [M.G.M. executive Irving] Thalberg coolly conducted a story conference during a funeral, is a hair-raising tip-off to the man’s character. The funeral was Mabel Normand’s, and the screen story under discussion was that of the homicidal Billy the Kid. The busy Thalberg did not have any time to waste. The conference between him and Vidor started in a limousine on the way to the funeral, continued intermittently through the services (“Too many murders,” Thalberg whispered of the movie plot at one point), and was concluded by the time the car reached the studio again. Thalberg bounded up the steps to his office, told Vidor “I’ll call you,” and, as Vidor noted, “the story conference was at an end.”‘
Goodman’s book is full of such insights, drawn from many other sources but also from his long experience as a Hollywood press-man. The lack of respect shown by Thalberg to Normand, a key figure of the silent era (she’s rumoured to have thrown the screen’s first custard pie) is horrifying. On the very next page, Goodman gives us:
‘Thalberg’s successors never enjoyed the esteem he did. It has been said that the imposing M.G.M. executive building, named after Thalberg, is air-conditioned and hermetically sealed “so that the ghost of Irving can’t get in to see what they are doing.”‘
Lovely. And he’s good at demolishing the myth of Thalberg’s genius: ‘For sheer bad taste and bad movie-making, it would not have been easy to beat some of the pictures Thalberg turned out,’ — I’m inclined to agree. Then as now, the pursuit of “quality” in Hollywood is usually an alibi for middlebrow tedium and/or vulgarity. The really interesting work is made by people who are aiming for something more, or less.
*I haven’t got this book and I WANT IT! But I do have A Cast of Killers, by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, which details Vidor’s retirement project: investigating the 1922 murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, a case which involved numerous Hollywood greats — including Mabel Normand. Film directors don’t like unsolved murder cases, especially when the victim is a film director: it’s what you call a vested interest. Plus they tend not to like inconclusive endings in Hollywood. Anyhow, Vidor, being a storyteller, convinces himself of a massive conspiracy, which may well be true but is just the story you’d expect from him. Fiona and I love the idea of Vidor as detective. He could carry a badge with the M.G.M. lion on it and say things like “Freeze! King Vidor!”