Sunday, June 28, 2020

Book Review: Martin Turnbull's "The Heart of the Lion": The Room Where it (Really) Happened

Hey movie lover - haven't you often heard behind the scenes conversations in your head? You know, the ones between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Or Garbo and Gilbert? Or maybe, just maybe, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer? Or better  yet, all those mop up men at the Harlow home discussing how to handle Paul Bern's death while he lay there cold as a cucumber? Well, imagine no more, because author Martin Turnbull takes you to all of those rooms where it all really happened (the rooms we really care about) in "The Heart of the Lion," his new novel about the MGM Boy Wonder, Irving Thalberg.

Anyone who is anyone makes an appearance in Turnbull's fictional telling of Thalberg's final years. Lillian Gish nurses a sidecar* at a Hollywood party, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. complains about Mary Pickford, foreshadowing the end of a fairy tale union, and Garbo is a sly minx who never has her head in the clouds. But the central stars of this tale are Louis B. Mayer, the crude but knowing head of the great studio, John Gilbert, the fading silent star who was one half of an unlikely friendship, and Norma Shearer, the determined star whose gentle love and patience brought great happiness to her boss, who also happened to be her husband.

The wedding. Irving's mom wasn't too happy, but Norma got her man
"The Heart of the Lion," covers the years 1925 though 1936, the year of Thalberg's death at age 37. A frail and sickly child, raised in fear by an over-protective and over-bearing mother, Thalberg's health was always precarious. The fact that he was not expected to live past the age of 30 was drummed into him as a child. Turnbull presents a young man who, believing himself to be living on borrowed time, feels compelled to achieve, achieve, and achieve. And achieve he did. You can almost hear the tick tick tick of time running out in Turnbull's prose, as Thalberg tries valiantly to grab the most life has to offer while all the while knowing that the shadow of death lurked nearby.

Turnbull paints a vivid picture of Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, the time when silent stars were gods, sound and the Great Depression shattered their west coast Mount Olympus and the subsequent rebuilding of MGM into a new kingdom that boasted more stars than there were in heaven. The sad demise of John Gilbert, Thalberg's great friend, is handled as a fate inevitable as it is heartbreaking. On the other hand, Joan Crawford is a brassy hoot and Harlow is a sassy charmer. It's great to spend time with them. However, the most important moments are reserved for those between Thalberg and Mayer, his feckless father figure who threw him over for son-in-law David O. Selznick, and Norma Shearer. The imagined scenes between Thalberg and Norma are beautifully done, with their intimate conversation at Carole Lombard's Mayfair Ball bringing a tear to my eye.

Oh yes she did! Norma (pictured here with David Niven, Merle Oberon
and Thalberg) did a Jezebel and wore red to
Carole Lombard's white-gown-only-please Mayfair Ball
For the record, this is a fictional biography, a novel, but the research is impeccable. Trust me: I consider myself a great repository of useless Hollywood history and detail and a few times I thought - aha! I spy a mistake! - only to find out I was wrong and Martin Turnbull was right. 

Irving and Norma: Happy
Thalberg's name never once appeared on screen as a film's producer, but as MGM's Head of Production from 1925 until his death, his was the unseen hand that built a dreamland that endures in the heart of every classic movie lover to this day. Leo the Lion might have been the face and the roar of the great studio, but Thalberg was its beating heart, a heart that was filled with love for the movies and one that was taken from the world much too soon.

You can purchase "The Heart of the Lion," as well as Turbull's Garden of Allah novels Here

*Since Lillian Gish is downing a sidecar at a prohibition era Hollywood party, she might just have been sipping it primly from a teacup, don't you think?

Sidecar Cocktail recipe
1.5 oz Dudognon Cognac
1 oz Cointreau
.5 oz Lemon juice
Lemon twist

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass, garnishing with the twist.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gatsby and Me and Hollywood and the Heartbreak of the American Dream

Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.

From the get-go, I was the perfect food for the Hollywood hunger machine. And from my first reading of that slim miracle, I knew the meaning of that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. I didn’t need an explanation because I felt it in my bones, the same way I instinctively felt the meaning of a Hurrell portrait of Jean Harlow or Doris Day’s twinkle.

Simply put: like so many adolescents, I did not want to be me. The wonderful thing about that green light is that we can all attach our private meaning to it, but it all boils down to the same thing: The hope and the lie of the American Dream. If you will it, it will come. If you work hard and commit yourself and believe, it will come. You are not bound by social class, ethnicity, name or the sins of the past. What a perfect message for 1925, the year of Gatsby’s publication. Everything seemed possible.

At the same time there was Hollywood, standing astride the world’s film industry that saw European markets devastated by World War I like a king. And what royalty they created! They had been working at it for years, but during the 1920s, they perfected the machine that produced glamour and dreams and fed off the dreams and desires it created in the hearts of the world.

Gloria Swanson, once a ribbon clerk, was now a real-life marhioness, or whatever you call someone married to a marquis. Did she ever scrape Chicago off of her shoes?  Did Clara Bow ever escape the Brooklyn girl who was uneducated and raped by her father just because she lived in a dream world and was adored by millions?

And, if your name didn’t fit the dream, you could change it, just as you could change your appearance or your back story. Name changing in the entertainment world wasn’t new. Mary Pickford ditched Gladys Smith before she ever stepped in front of a camera. In the early days of film, Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati became Theda Bara, the daughter of an Arab Sheik and a French woman, raised in the shadow of the Pyramids.  That kind of malarkey was purely for fun and probably no one really bought it, but it made for a good vamping story that bought folks to the theater. However, somewhere in the 1920s, it all got very serious. After all, millions were at stake and more and more people started really believing make believe.  Did Greta Garbo ever miss Greta Gustafsson?   Was Mary Astor able to shed Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke? Did Rodolfo Pietro Filberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella ever really feel like Rudolph Valentino?

It’s a beautiful dream, but it is a dream, a fantasy. And when you come to realize that, it is the ultimate heartbreak. That is why there is always a tender spot in my heart for Gatsby, for Clara and, later, for poor Norma Jean Baker. They believed and their hearts were pierced. As was mine, when I realized I could not become anyone other than myself. Yet the allure persists. It is powerful, this desire to alter the reality.

Daisy and Nick and Tom, those philistines, never had to long. They could graze in another pasture, sample the “other,” but they were secure in their beings. They did not long to be anyone other than themselves. Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.

The eternal truth of Gatsby smashes the lie of the American Dream, so well perpetuated by Hollywood – or what passes for a universal “Hollywood” these days. Jay Gatz could give himself a new name and fancy clothes and new wealth, but the truth was cloaked in the lie. Believing the lie is the mistake that leads to the heartbreak. Somehow, the truth always wins.

As a little girl I spent endless hours pouring through movie magazine and classic Hollywood photo books. My dreams were built on those images. Oh what magical lives Hayley Mills and Sally Field and Audrey Hepburn must have had!  I’m a big girl now and I have learned that who you are, at your core, is the only truth and your true identity. It’s fun to take flights of fancy and indulge in a little make believe, but the trick is to never believe it is real. Cary Grant famously said “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person.” Based on what we know, even the great Cary Grant spent endless hours trying to figure out the intersection where Archie Leach met Cary Grant.

And still, like so many, who continue to watch and watch and maybe hope and hope, I am spellbound by the magic of film, especially Hollywood films of old.
The green light at the end of the dock is no different than the thrill of the simultaneous darkening of the theater and the light of the projector and the hope, the excitement that we can enter a new world, if only for a short while. Unlike Gatsby, we don’t have to really believe it, unlike Marilyn we don’t have to run head first to the green light. A person could get burned if they linger there too long.