John Russell Taylor, film critic for The Times of London and a prose stylist of most agreeable wit, has taken on in "Strangers in Paradise" a singularly interesting subject: The story of those European writers, artists and intellectuals who, fleeing Naziism and war in the 1930s and '40s, found themselves improbably in the lotus land of Southern California. He begins his account with an inviting observation:
"What first fascinated me, appropriately enough for a study that concerns itself in large measure with the Hollywood dream-factory, was an image. This bizarre image of Central European intellectuals set down with a bump in the sunshine of Santa Monica, having to deal with the day-to-day problems of living in a strange country, speaking a strange language, and integrating themselves (or deciding not to) into a community that was notorious, even within the strange and dangerous United States, for being without culture and without roots."
It is indeed a bizarre image, which only provides further proof that life is stranger than art. Into the land of Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer trooped a band of cosmopolites whose members included the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, the forbiddingly dignified novelist Thomas Mann, the politically radical playwright Berthold Brecht and the psychedelically inclined writer Aldous Huxley. They had been, as Schoenberg handsomely phrased it in the title of a lecture he delivered, "Driven Into Paradise," drawn there by the prospect of making an income off the movie industry and basking in weather that evoked memories of the Riviera. As John Galsworthy put it:
"How beautiful! when the wood smoke goes up straight and the pepper trees stand unstirring, and behind the screen of tall Eucalyptus trees, the fallen sun glows, a long slow fire over the sea, and the lavender colour mist rises between. How beautiful the mountains, behind us, remote in the late light, a little unearthly! The loveliness of these evenings moves the heart; and of the mornings, shining, cool, fragrant. There is something in it all of that dream as of Paradise . . ."
Not at all surprisingly, paradise proved a chimera for many of them. For the most part the foreign actors found themselves thrust into stereotyped roles from which they could not escape (viz., Bela Lugosi) and many of the writers and directors were stymied by a "factory system" of production that stressed collective rather than individual efforts. Although Los Angeles proved a somewhat more cultured environment than its reputation suggested, most of the serious artists found precious little in the movie community to encourage their creative labors; some sold out, some stubbornly nursed their flames and lived penurious existences.
Yet what Taylor found is that surprisingly many of them thrived amid the sheltering palms. Thomas Mann enjoyed a period of prolonged productivity and became a best-selling author in America, notwithstanding the length and difficulty of his books. Aldous Huxley found "two major universities, libraries like the Huntington Library in Pasadena, and many inhabitants who had nothing whatever to do with movies and lived their own versions of the cultivated, intellectual life." And as Taylor notes, "It was ironic that of them all it was Schoenberg, in most respects the least approachable musically of any composer in the 1930s, who should have lived there longest and settled in best." He made a comfortable if not lavish career for himself "as a first-rate teacher, even to those who could not begin to understand his music, and he accepted his lot philosophically."
Taylor makes a convincing case that although the e'migre's by and large managed to adapt to Hollywood and its system, they did not have an influence on the movies comparable to their intellectual powers. He believes that "the major contribution of the German cinema to the American during the 1940s" was film noir, or "dark psychological drama" such as "The Lost Weekend" or "Laura." In sum he argues that "through the whole tangle of political and professional conflicts, public complacency and private anguish (or vice versa), some good has come, and not so much bad as has generally been supposed."
Taylor tells this story gracefully and engagingly, and he has many perceptive observations to make. Unfortunately, though, he has been unable either to locate or invent a cohesive strategy for the book, so that it moves along from one figure to another, one phase to another, with no evident sense of direction. One comes to the end of "Strangers in Paradise" pleased to have been there, and grateful for an intelligent tour, but still not entirely sure as to the exact nature of the journey.