Commentary Magazine


Five Books on Show Business

The Follies of Show Business

The Nine Lives of Mike Todd.
by Art Cohn.
Random House. 396 pp. $4.95.

Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur.
by Ben Hecht.
Harper. 242 pp. $3.95.

I Blow My Own Horn.
by Jesse Lasky, with Don Weldon.
Doubleday. 284 pp. $4.50.

Take My Life.
by Eddie Cantor, with Jane Kesner Arimore.
Doubleday. 288 pp. $3.95.

Fanfare: The Confessions of a Press Agent.
by Richard Maney.
Harper. 374 pp. $4.95.

 

Show business is a risky enterprise, and the biographies of its great men record mainly the chances they take. The qualities of the con man and the gambler provide the key to this little stack of show-business biographies. Two play up these traits; two play them down; the fifth views the matter from the sidelines.

In Art Cohn’s overwritten biography of Mike Todd, the philosophy of the con man and the gambler is stated, restated, overstated, methodized, apotheosized, and decorated with heavy thoughts from deep thinkers, including Shakespeare, Pascal, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Damon Runyon. At every step, Todd becomes Caesar at the Rubicon, facing a monumental choice—to follow one comedy flop with another, to produce a burlesque show on Broadway, to speed up Hamlet, to cast Mae West as Catherine the Great. The weightiest decisions require internal monologues (in which Todd may call himself “Avrumele”); the most internal of these occurs when the mob tries to move into his night-club: “It was a moment of decision, what Hemingway called ‘the moment of truth.’”

Ben Hecht’s life of his old collaborator Charles MacArthur is similarly gaudy in style, but its sparkle is more authentic. The biographer’s playful manner is obviously inspired by his subject’s playful life. MacArthur, an authentic pixie, was what Hecht called another playwright: “a fine high-wire act.” He was the prototype of many film heroes, a Cary Grant type—“a graceful and unpredictable hero, full of off-beat rejoinders; a sort of winsome onlooker at life, no matter how hysterical the plot.” Hecht considers MacArthur’s carefree existence the only way to live in a meaningless world, but he would be the last to use it as the text for a sermon. Cohn, by way of contrast, takes Todd’s wild career more solemnly; as a result, he creates the impression that no one ever chose his course more thoughtfully than the chaotic, eccentric, thoroughly confused Mike Todd.

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Two biographies back away from the wilder side of show business. Jesse Lasky’s story is told as casually as if he had been a barber. He tells how he turned out Zane Grey films as casually as if he were operating a pair of clippers. He makes a businesslike appraisal of the story of Joan of Arc: “It has decidedly questionable appeal as escape entertainment.” But once in a while the big incomes remind us that Lasky was not a barber. And we are struck also by the plain nuttiness of the decisions Lasky could afford to make in the days when every movie earned money. He assigned a new director to an expensive Western because he thought the novice had Indian blood. He hired the world’s greatest tenor to appear in silent films. He always took his secretary’s word on novels for filming.

Lasky’s ghost gives a cool account of this freakish world, but Eddie Cantor’s ghost specializes in warmth. Where the Lasky biography uses understatement to make its case for normality, the Cantor biography puts great hunks of hominess in evidence. In the midst of the mad world of show business is a banjo-eyed little innocent from home, a good boy, a devoted husband and father, a loyal Jew, a model citizen, as much out of place among his crazy fellow-entertainers as Zeppo always seemed to be among his fellow Marx Brothers. He tells us pathetic stories about his hard fight and everyone else’s. Everybody is very nice, or, if someone has been bad, he is sorry. John Barrymore in his sad, drunken last days becomes tame and cooperative, an avid drinker of cokes, when Cantor meets him. (Hecht describes a more manic Barrymore.) Even the critics are nice: “Most of them are pulling for you . . . if you listened to their suggestions and followed them you’d have a better show.” (Todd thought critics were fools and snobs. When they praised his Hamlet, he showed his scorn by quoting sportswriters in his advertisements.) And, of course, producers are wise. Sam Goldwyn’s only mistake seems to have been a turkey called The Unholy Garden: “Sam didn’t like the story, he didn’t like the rushes.” (Hecht, who wrote this film with MacArthur, quotes an enthusiastic endorsement from Goldwyn and his assistant.)

In his book, Cantor is silent on his comic techniques, evidently because he is not really interested in being a comedian. His real interest is in having been a comedian, so that he may reminisce about his past and apply his fame to good causes. He says nothing of the comic character he created on the screen—the feeble, timid soul whom accident puts in control of destiny. (His radio characterization was less distinct.) He makes no effort to explain the phenomenal popularity he enjoyed or its gradual decline. For three years he had the most popular radio program on the air, at the most desirable hour in the week. (On television, it is now a battleground for Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Maverick.) He was the nation’s favorite comedian, especially admired by children, who learned to quack-quack just as he did; now, it seems incredible that he was ever at the top. Did he have better writers then? (“Mike Todd heard him: I can write funnier than that, Mike said to himself . . . he wrote Cantor and asked for a job as a gag writer.” He was turned down.) Probably he succeeded so well because, in his heyday, radio was in its infancy.

One key to Cantor is, I think, the religion he expounds. He seems uncertain whether it is Judaism, Christianity, or a faceless amalgam of both. I suspect it is really a new faith, the religion of public occasions. Cantor puts his finger on one of its epiphanies when, naming the glories of the theatre, he cites a single moment from a play: “Remember in the middle of South Pacific, when she [Mary Martin] walked downstage and said, ‘Oh, God, please see that he’s safe!’” I am not sure who the prophet of this religion is, but its John the Baptist is Skippy, a radio character who used to address “Mr. God” at great length.

Richard Maney’s autobiography tells a spectator’s story. As a press agent, Maney is a relatively sane and stable historian of the lunacy of show business. When he was told that Orson Welles and Jackie Gleason would co-star in Volpone, he wisely ignored the information. The story made the newspapers, but the venture withered. Maney devotes a long, sober chapter to mad decisions that were acted upon, and he thereby documents the element of luck in show business: Roland Young turned down the leads in Harvey and Life with Father, no one wanted to back Oklahoma!, Shirley Booth was almost fired during the rehearsals of Come Back, Little Sheba, Billy Rose found no promise in Mary Martin and Benny Goodman, and so on. In short, the masters of the box-office cannot tell what is box-office.

The other biographies offer further corroboration. Lasky was blind to the merits of Fred Astaire (“What could you do with the bald-headed boy?”), Judy Garland, and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Cohn credits Todd with a receptive attitude toward Oklahoma! (Maney differs) and other signs of sound box-office judgment but concedes his failure to hire Betty Hutton. Maney seems to have observed more misjudgment than anyone else, and, perhaps as a consequence, he is more concerned with taste and quality than any other author or subject of these volumes.

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Show business is a madman’s business; geniuses are ruined, and idiots succeed. The element of luck attracts the gambler, the luftmensch, the con man. Todd prepared for his career as a producer by cheating an employer who had a crooked game at a fair, running a crap game, selling bootleg liquor, founding a dubious “College of Bricklaying,” and promoting horse races. Only these experiences made him capable of the delicate juggling that permitted him to finance Around the World in Eighty Days. Lasky tells how one of the pioneer film producers got his start when he printed some stationery identifying him as president of a film company which was torn by litigation. Each faction assumed he was the other’s choice, and this misconception made him a real potentate. Lasky himself kited a check to finance Sergeant York and was able to make it good only when he sold Harry Warner on the film’s patriotic values. But the honest gamblers sometimes draw the line at the gangsters whom show business attracts. Todd got out when the mob moved into his night club. Maney refused to represent a play that was backed by Waxey Gordon.

Even if the gambler’s spirit dominates, someone has to exercise some taste. Some men have risen in show business on the basis of their presumably sound taste. Flo Ziegfeld, who was Cantor’s employer and in some respects the model for Todd and Goldwyn, is often given as an example. But the more I read in Cantor’s biography of Ziegfeld’s insistence on quality, the more it looks like insistence on quantity—the biggest sets, the most expensive drapes, the most girls. Still, Ziegfeld’s choice of comedians—Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, Bert Williams, in addition to Cantor—was masterly, though Cantor tells us that Ziegfeld “knew nothing about comedy.”

Todd, who called his first Broadway show Call Me Ziggy, also insisted on quantity. After taking over the Hollywood Bowl for a show no one could see or hear properly, he capped his past triumphs by making the longest (and most profitable) movie, starring the most actors, on the largest screen. Lasky’s favorite film artist seems to be Cecil B. DeMille, another master of size. Lasky is proud to proclaim himself a pioneer in quantity, as the maker of an early “epic” (a word roughly synonymous with “long patriotic film”) and the real unacknowledged developer of Cinemascope, which enlarged the nation’s screens if not its art. Lasky’s career, like Todd’s, is strewn with pointless, tasteless productions.

But the amiable gamblers have to look out for the squares, businessmen in double-breasted suits who are out to get them. Todd loses a fortune, amasses another, goes into bankruptcy, pioneers a new screen process, is thrown off his company’s board of directors, then makes the most profitable film of all time. Ziegfeld produces Broadway’s biggest hits and dies broke. Lasky founds a leading film studio, watches his partners Goldwyn and DeMille depart under pressure, and then is himself removed from his job. Cantor announces that he will retire at thirty-seven, then loses everything in the crash of 1929, which incidentally impoverishes the normally cautious Maney. Then the enemy takes over—the sober businessman.

Show business has its special camaraderie, the union of insiders who make a point of not being businessmen. They may call one another “darling,” or they may speak in their special language, Yiddish. The minority quality of show business is heightened by the prominence of many Jews, including Cantor, Todd, Lasky, Hecht, Goldwyn, and nearly every Broadway press agent except Maney. The patterns of Jewish identity tell a variety of stories and permit no sweeping generalizations; they include Cantor’s role as a Jewish spokesman, Hecht’s alliance with Israeli terrorism, and Todd’s various earnest, troubled Jewish gestures.

Perhaps the Jewish pattern here is determined by what might traditionally be considered the goyish qualities of show-business—the unsteadiness, the incaution, the unconventionality. The question is inevitable. What is a good Jew doing among all these madmen? Cantor answers that he is a very good Jew and, besides, these madmen are not madmen. The Jewish note is sounded more defiantly by Hecht and Todd who managed to outdo the lunatics at their lunacy. For Lasky and for others in Hollywood, both Jewishness and lunacy blend into a mild gray landscape that imperfectly disguises the antic atmosphere. Madness becomes them, however, and the show-business war against the greater lunacy of logic should survive any number of disasters to come.

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