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June 1994


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Shawn Levy <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 4 Jun 1994 12:31:28 -0700
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On Sat, 4 Jun 1994, Patrick B Bjork wrote:
> *In this age of media sensationalism, how did the major studios succeed
> in covering up  the antics and maladies of its performers?
As it happens, I'm writing a thick biography of Jerry Lewis, who entered
show biz during the final years of the Studio Era and continues to lurk
around its periphery into the age of tabloid journalism.  I've spent a
lot of time thinking and writing about this question, particularly in
showing how received stories about Lewis or Martin & Lewis couldn't
possibly be true even though they'd been reported as fact for decades.
The studios did indeed have publicity machines that were able to squelch
bad press -- much as personal publicists such as Pat Kingsley or Marion
Billings do today.  They would trade an exclusive story on some hot star
or film or topic for cooperation from the press about something they didn't
want to leak out (Rock Hudson's sex life, for instance, or Lionel Barrymore's
drug and drink habits).  The 'approved' columnists -- Hedda and Louella
-- worked in much the same way.  David Niven wrote a nice passage about
his efforts to reach detente with the two of them in one of his
There was also, though (and much more so than today), a puppy-dog
press more than eager to present only a positive and glowing account of
performers (or, for that matter, politicians and athletes -- compare the
whitewashings of Babe Ruth, FDR, John Kennedy).  The contemporary
newspaper and magazine accounts of Martin & Lewis, for instance, are
almost always appropriate for including in a press kit, so rarely do they
ever do anything but toe the studio line.  Dean and Jerry had very
marketable angles -- the playboy and the monkey -- and every story about
them from 1946-54 presents them as exactly that.  There *was* a tabloid
press running parallel to the mainstream entertainment press (as there is
now), but they almost NEVER coincided.  When Dean and Jerry broke up, for
instance, the mainstream press attributed it solely to Jerry's ambition
and his desire to work more often; the tabloids ("Confidential," "On the
QT," "Lowdown," "Top Secret," "Uncensored" -- great names, eh wot?) wrote
strictly about more sensational reasons:  jealousies, bickering wives,
unexcused insults.  There was a clear, unperforated line between these
sorts of publications.  Today, with magazines like "Vanity Fair,"
"Movieline," "Premeiere" and "Entertainment Weekly" regularly crisscrossing
between the two modes of reporting, the distinction between
Ally-to-the-Stars and Rat Fink isn't so clear.  I know in my own work I
am always caught between the postures of Cultural Historian and
Sensationalist (this, of course, brings us closer to the current mode of
thought *against* biography -- Janet Malcom, the NY TIMES book reviewer
(whose name I can never remember correctly -- it's Japanese), etc.).
Don't forget, of course, that the stars of old were paid employees of
large companies and had the backing of those companies in keeping their
private lives private.  The free-agent movie stars of today don't have
the same luxury.
An interesting inverse test case of this is the Hearst Publications'
reaction to "Citizen Kane," and the deliberate effort of Hearst employee
Hedda Hopper (or was it Louella?  I can't ever distinguish them) to freeze
out RKO and Welles unless she had something bad to say.  It's the one blatant
instance where the aggrieved party was the press and not the studio and a
nice negative instance of how it all worked.
Anyway, I'm very interested in the notion of a book on La Lake:  I just
taught "Sullivan's Travels" last winter and my students all loved her,
and I've got a long-term interest in "This Gun for Hire" (through Borges,
as it turns out -- if we ever have beers together I can make it make
sense!).  Tell us more (or write me off-list)!
All best,
                     |  "Here lies New Critic, who would fox us
    Shawn Levy       |   With his poetic paradoxes.
 [log in to unmask] |   Though he lies here rigid and quiet,
                     |   If he could speak he would deny it."