Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Auteur! Auteur! - Herbert Biberman

Herbert Biberman was born in Philadelphia to an artistic family; his brother was famed American artist Edward Biberman. Herbert, however, found his way to Hollywood. Mr. Biberman was anti-war, opposing the United States' entry into World War II right up until it was obvious that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped. Because of this, the FBI originally suspected him of being a Nazi despite his Jewish faith.

After the war, Mr. Biberman's actions ran afoul of HUAC and he was imprisoned alongside the Hollywood Ten on contempt charges. After his release, Herbert found himself blacklisted and his membership in the Director's Guild was stripped from him. Despite this, he decided to work independently, directing a film about Mexican-American workers and their fight against a greedy company. The film initially earned him few plaudits, with the government trying to ban the movie. Pauline Kael would castigate the film, painting it as a communist plot. The film would eventually find a wider audience, becoming a film archived by the very same government that sought to block it years before.

Biberman passed away in 1971 and his membership in the Director's Guild would be restored posthumously.

Friday, September 17, 2021

That Guy/Gal: Skelton Knaggs

The quintessential “That Guy” before the term had been coined, Skelton Knaggs was the go-to guy when filmmakers were looking for a hideous henchman or small time hood. Born in England, Skelton moved to Hollywood in search of stardom. He did find it, to some extent, but despite his professional training and Shakespearean roots, he was unable to find the leading roles he really wanted. 

Skelton would consistently book a steady stream of work until he died at the too young age of 43 from cirrhosis of the liver.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Hollywood Superstars: Marilyn For Equality

Marilyn Monroe is often depicted as a bubble headed bimbo whose untimely death cemented her legend. She was actually much smarter than that, though she cultivated her dizzy image to attract and retain her male fans. The real Norma Jean (her given name) was smarter than she seemed and had a heart of gold to boot.

One of Marilyn's favorite places to dine and dance was Hollywood's famed Mocambo Club. It was the perfect place to enjoy a night on the town- except for one huge thing- African Americans were not allowed to attend or perform there. This angered Marilyn, so she decided to do something about it.

$5.50 for Filet Mignon?!? Is it made out of gold?

While show business was always considered more progressive than the real world, performers would encounter a hard reality when they went on the road. Many top night clubs wouldn't book African-American performers and even if they did, they often had to use separate restrooms, entrances and facilities. Even Marilyn's favorite singer, the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, was not welcome at these clubs. Marilyn would change that.

Out of the blue, Marilyn called up the owner of the Mocambo Club to ask him to integrate and book Ella Fitzgerald. He refused, so Marilyn promised that she would attend every show that week, sitting in the front row. Since she was one of the biggest stars in the world, this would bring every paparazzo to Mocambo and a tidal wave of attention. He quickly agreed. The week was a smashing success and Ella soon found herself booked into the biggest clubs in the country. Ella was forever grateful to the woman who used her star power to help change the world.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Hollywood’s Golden Age: The Studio System

While the studio system is often derided as giving too much control and wealth to Hollywood’s moguls instead of the actual creative types, the system actually provided a stable source of income for below the fold types.

B-List types and character actors often have to hustle these days for work. “That Guy” and “That Girl” actors often frequently pop up on television and in movies these days because they have to work to put food on the table. During Hollywood’s golden age, however, most everyone in the studio lot was a full time employee of the studio. Everyone from A-List movie stars to utility actors received a weekly paycheck and benefits. A contract player at MGM would sign a seven year contract which guaranteed him or her a steady paycheck regardless of whether they worked that week or not.

Today, most talent is hired on a contingency basis. If an actor wants to get paid, he or she must hustle for work. Back then, they were salaried employees for the studio. The studio didn’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts; during Hollywood’s golden age, the major studios could sell pretty much anything they could produce. As a result, the production of motion pictures had been turned into an assembly line process. Having a ready to go stable of actors who could be called upon at a moment’s notice to act in a picture was a cost effective way to keep movie production going.

While this provided a stable income for many, some of the biggest stars chafed under this system. In order to stay on the good side of the powers that were, they had to do as they were told. If they didn’t want to make a particular picture, it was too bad; if they wanted to keep working they had to do it. Studio titans could punish big names by denying them the opportunity to make another picture. As long as the studio kept issuing the paychecks and were following the terms of the contract, the actor had no recourse. The collapse of the studio system put power into the hands of the big name talent.