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Film Flam
Hollywood has gone from helping fight World War II to churning out bombs and duds.

Reviewed by John DiLeo
Sunday, February 19, 2006

WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE THE MOVIES

American Cinema During World War II

By Robert L. McLaughlin and Sally E. Parry

Univ. Press of Kentucky. 357 pp. $40

FIASCO

A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops

By James Robert Parish

Wiley. 359 pp. $24.95

TELL ME HOW YOU LOVE THE PICTURE

A Hollywood Life

By Edward S. Feldman with Tom Barton

St. Martin's. 239 pp. $24.95

When channel-surfing old-movie stations, you can't mistake those World War II films made during the war, so identifiable is their blatant promotion of morale, unity and flag-waving, not to mention their widespread (and now startlingly casual) use of ethnic slurs in describing our enemies. Hollywood studios used their influence as never before (or since), doing their part to win the war by teaching Americans how to understand and process it. That's the assertion behind Robert L. McLaughlin and Sally E. Parry's We'll Always Have the Movies , an admirable survey of those movies whose aim was "to take the confusing and chaotic elements of wartime and make them knowable by turning them into narrative." Today many of the films seem naive, and some laughable, but their stirring urgency hasn't dimmed, and they provide a time capsule of social and cultural history.

The book begins with war-related films of the late 1930s and early '40s, movies designed to awaken stateside audiences to the mounting horrors in Europe (e.g., "The Mortal Storm"), some showing regular Americans politicized by first-hand exposure to the Nazis (Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent"), still others indirectly addressing the moral imperative of our intervention by invoking World War I as a just cause (Howard Hawks's "Sergeant York" ).

The authors astutely note a shift in Hollywood's emphasis, from a 1930s buildup of individual heroism to a post-Pearl Harbor glorification of teamwork. But as men were being told to become team players, women were instructed to be more independent, leading to a confusing postwar transition back to "normalcy." There's a perceptive account here of the discordant threads of optimism and pessimism coursing through "The Best Years of Our Lives," the greatest of the homecoming pictures, in which veterans are filled with hope while civilians display cynicism and anxiety.

This orderly book has an impressive dot-connecting clarity, and it never condescends to the films it dissects. In addition to discussing such mandatory films as "Casablanca" and "Mrs. Miniver," the authors wisely give equal space to lesser-known (yet superb) pictures like "None Shall Escape," plus some intriguing B films that made highly critical evaluations of home-front issues, including rising juvenile delinquency. I lament the omissions of such emblematic wartime movies as "Tomorrow the World" and "Watch on the Rhine," not because they're good (they're not) but because they belong in the conversation. However, this is a carefully thought-out book that serves its subject with confidence, lucidity and insight. It leaves you armed with valuable information for the next time you stumble upon one of these movies.

In Fiasco, James Robert Parish examines the ruinous decisions that created the industry's most notorious financial disasters of the last 40-odd years. Call it a how-not-to guide for ambitious filmmakers. Yet as Parish swiftly makes plain, the same delusional mistakes are made repeatedly, even as every penny (I mean million) spent makes box-office glory more elusive. The first of his 15 case studies is "Cleopatra," the mother of all the spendthrift mega-flops. (Apparently, Cleopatra herself had nothing on Elizabeth Taylor when it came to getting her way.)

While other selections -- "Ishtar" and "Waterworld" (quickly dubbed "Fishtar") -- seem inescapable, Parish resurrects "Shanghai Surprise" and "Town and Country" from our collective amnesia. Each of his offerings provides distressingly familiar variations on a theme: huge, insecure egos; unfinished scripts and countless rewrites; mindless waste and dwindling funds; weather-unfriendly locations; overwhelmed directors, too-powerful stars and inexperienced executives ruled by conglomerates. The stench intensifies in the post-production hell of test screenings, press rumors and mangled final cuts. Finally, all that's left is saving face and pointing fingers (though directors Kevin Costner and Paul Verhoeven, respectively, still really like their box-office debacles "The Postman" and "Showgirls"). No individual can shoulder all the responsibility for failure, though it's fun to play the blame game while you're reading. The inclusion of two films each for Costner and Warren Beatty seems more than coincidental.

Writing with informative dispassion, Parish avoids the easy temptation to turn his book into bitchy gossip. He even has you cheering for those who narrowly elude impending doom, as when Michael Douglas bows out of "Cutthroat Island" at the last minute. Some casting decisions -- Raquel Welch in the Merchant-Ivory drama "The Wild Party" or the musically bereft star trio in the atrocious "Paint Your Wagon" -- seem to have been inviting catastrophe, while Marlon Brando headlining Arthur Penn's Southern-fried drama "The Chase" still sounds like a good bet. Parish lets a William Goldman quote about Hollywood sum things up: "No one knows anything. No one learns anything." For further proof, wasn't it just last year that Hollywood gave us "Kingdom of Heaven"?

Producer Edward S. Feldman would say that it's his job to prevent fiascoes from happening, to "tame the risk of moviemaking." His Tell Me How You Love the Picture , co-written with Tom Barton, is breezy and upbeat, and Feldman's a likable guy, but does everyone with a Hollywood career merit an autobiography? If we've gotten to Feldman -- not even a name producer -- who's left?

Feldman recounts his rise through studio advertising and publicity departments in the 1950s and '60s, eventually to the status of a full-fledged producer in the '70s. But such a book depends on the interest generated by the films themselves. Aside from Feldman's two biggest successes, "Witness" and "The Truman Show," does anyone care about his work, which includes the likes of "The Other Side of the Mountain," "The Golden Child" and "Forever Young"?

More engaging is his account of his early days on the marketing end, including premiere parties for "Hercules Unchained" that conveniently omitted actual screenings of that turkey. How about his stunt of refusing admission to "Lolita" star Sue Lyon at the film's opening because she was underage? Feldman worked with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on publicizing "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" His recollections of those ladies are refreshingly respectful and admiring (despite their heated rivalry). But he botches the telling of a legendary incident at that year's Oscars when non-nominee Crawford upstaged nominee Davis by accepting the Oscar for absent winner Anne Bancroft. He erroneously reports that Bancroft was in attendance, claiming that Crawford's ploy backfired.

His movie-queen tales are outshone by anecdotes about his producer bosses, including Ray Stark and Joseph E. Levine, characters more egocentric and bratty than any superstar. Though his portrait of super-agent Michael Ovitz is positively Mephistophelean, Feldman mostly recalls his career in a genial, grateful fashion. It's a minor, mildly amusing addition to the towering heap of Hollywood stories. ยท

John DiLeo's most recent book is "100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember -- But Probably Don't."

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