A Portrait of Hollywood

in the 1940s

By Otto Friedrich

University of California. 1997 reissue. $24.95.

This summer I finally caught up with a book I've been meaning to read for almost 20 years. "City of Nets" (University of California, 1997 reissue, $24.95 paperback), by the late Otto Friedrich, is one of those books that smart friends have often recommended, but it always seemed to disappear under a stack of novels or the biography du jour.

Well, it was well worth the wait. Subtitled "A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s," "City of Nets" does indeed draw a factual picture of what formed and informed the movie industry during its Golden Age. But Friedrich, who before writing "City of Nets" in 1986 penned "Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s," does much more than relate what is by now the well-known story of how Hollywood went from heyday to sharp decline. Instead he makes "City of Nets" (the title is taken from Bertolt Brecht's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny") a tour through his own personal, highly idiosyncratic version of the mythical city, weaving together otherwise random-seeming factoids and anecdotes to create a fascinating tapestry of cultural history, cautionary tale and pure, delicious gossip.

In just the first two chapters Friedrich, who died in 1995, renders indelible scenarios of Hollywood at its most naive, tacky and cutthroat, including a wonderful stream-of-consciousness segue from Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust" to a meditation on Hedy Lamarr, a mordant recounting of how MGM's otherwise visionary producer Irving Thalberg passed on "Gone With the Wind," and an excruciating account of how Walt Disney and the conductor Leopold Stokowski tortured the music of Igor Stravinsky for "Fantasia" (you'll never watch the "Sacre du Printemps" sequence again without wincing). Then there's Ernest Hemingway's encounter with Louis B. Mayer, Stravinsky's rivalry with Arnold Schoenberg, and Groucho Marx hiring the Los Angeles Philharmonic to play in Ben Hecht's living room after the latter declined to invite the mandolin-playing Marx to join his weekly musical group.

-- Ann Hornaday, film critic