"OFTEN, WHEN I AM asked if I was born in Hollywood, I have to pause and think because Hollywood's growing up and my own are inextricably bound together. For me, Hollywood was a way of life, indeed the only way."
The writer is Budd Schulberg, author of fiction (What Makes Sammy Run?, The Disenchanted) nonfiction (Loser and Still Champion: Muhammad Ali) and, appropriately, screenplays (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd). Even more apt is the title of his latest work, Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince, which chronicles the author's first 18 years, from his birth -- in Harlem -- in 1914 to the threshold of his college career at Darmouth.
Moving Pictures is, on one hand, the story of an Everyboy who lvoes racing pigeons, playing Halloween pranks on a neighbor, attending the Friday night fights with his dad and identifying with the Jewish fighters. He experiences the rigors of a high school freshman, feels anguish at his parents' separation, undergoes a growing social awareness as he observes the world around him. For instance, he writes with compassion about the dilemma of Wilma, his light-skinned nurse, a black woman alone in a lily-white world.
But young Buddy is no ordinary American boy. He is the boss' son, the privileged child of Hollywood nobility. And that boss is B. P. Schulberg, film pioneer and vice president in charge of production at Paramount Pictures; his mother Adeline, "Ad," built the first house in Malibu and later became a successful movie agent. As a boy, Schulberg played in the studio backlots, living in a "world of date palms and klieg lights." He grew up in the compnay of Chaplin and Zukor, Frank Capra, Gary Cooper and Erich von Stroheim. At the age of 4, he was kissed by Mary Pickford.
Thankfully, however, Moving Pictures is not yet another sordid, salacious, self-serving Hollywood memoir, with sex passages on page 3. Schulberg does not brag about his Tinseltown conquests, youthful sexual exploits both real or imagined; he was, after all, a prince, not a playboy. Indeed, throughout his childhood he was a chronic stammerer and wallflower. He remained a virgin, painfully shy with girls, panicked by all the young starlets and extra-hopefuls who might be available to the son of a mogul -- an "emotionally retarded Buddy-in-Wonderland," as he describes himself.
While he obviously loves and favors his parents, Schulberg paints them intricately, with a knowingly realistic, three-dimensional brush. His father was a genious (he dubbed Pickford "America's Sweetheart"), more humane than other studio heads, but he was insecure, with a penchant for drinking, gambling and womanizing. Ad, more self-assured than her husband, was always right but always nagging, a culture maven and self-secribed socialist who was nonetheless a practical, practicing capitalist.
Schulberg ofer delicious observations about Hollywood and its populace. He describes film as "the only art to become an industry and the only industry to become an art"; director Edmund Goulding was "half artist, half charlatan (the ideal Hollywood mix)." At 14, a hopeful attempts to seduce the shy Schulberg because he's B. P.'s boy: "She edged so close to me that I could smell her perfume -- or maybe her ambition." He adds, "The phonies and the four-flushers and the wheeler-dealers are there [in Hollywood] to this very day, in their Cardin suits, their dark locks looped over their foreheads, their eyes roving and their minds spinning."
He is particularly fascinated by the famous who topple into obscurity, most specifically Hollywood celebrities and boxers, a theme which runs throughout his other work (chapters in Moving Pictures could be titled The Harder They Fall). Last year's glimmering stars dim today and burn out into anonymity tomorrow. Most memorably, Schulberg describes gum-chewing Clara Bow, "an adorable, in fact irresistible, little know-nothing" who grew up poor and abused on the streets of Brooklyn, became the It Girl, a national institution, and was washed up at 26; hulking, thick-headed George Bancroft, star of the original gangster movie, Underworld, who was consumed by pretention, made unreasonable salary demands, and ended up a supporting player, a footnote in film history; and an obscrue, one-shot director named Marcel DeSano who eventually committed suicide.
Schulberg may be forgiven for his occasional lapses in spelling and fact. Joan Crawford was originally Lucille Le Sueur, not Laeseur or Laseur; John Wayne was born Marion Michael (not Marshall) Morrison; Pat O'Brien played Knute Rockne in Knute Rockne -- All American, not The Spirit of Notre Dame; Theodosia, not Theodora, Goodman became Theda Bara. And he sometimes is annoyingly redundant, as when he notes his youthful disdain for girls, gambling and gin for the umpteenth time.
Some of what Schulberg describes has been oft-told -- the Fatty Arbuckle case, for instance, or bullving parents abusing their pint-sized movie star offspring, or Von Stroheim ordering silk underwear for the extras in The Wedding March. But he writes from memory, from his parents' recollections, from the vantage point of an insider; he recalls Arbuckle from a personal perspective, remembering his impressions of the fallen Fatty from the eyes of a 10-year-old.
Moving Pictures cries out for a sequel; if not Superman II, then More Faces in the Crowd.