Gabler is a uniquely erudite cultural critic. This is the third book I have read by him and I am deeply impressed with the unusual breadth of his coverage. In this case, he writes about the founding fathers of Hollywood, the dictatorial dreamers and shapers of its golden age (to the late 1940s}. In his telling, they are all Eastern European Jews, striving to become part of the American dream and at the same time providing many of the images that entered the American psyche. They all started with the penny arcades at the beginning of the century, and built empires in which they exercised total control of content and creation.
This book is less about the economics of the studio system - cartels that manufactured films on lots, virtually owned the "talent" via long-term contracts, dominated the distribution of their films, and controlled many of the theatres that played them - than about the culture and ethos they were trying to create in their dictatorial domains. The era passed with the Supreme Court trust-busting ruling, political attacks during the McCarthy era, and the rise of independent talent in actors, producers, and writer-directors.
As Gabler sees it, these founders were fairly secular Jews, who wanted to fit into the American ideal of pseudo-aristocratic entrepreneurs (from poverty). This was the source of their maudlin, sentimental style and crude american ideals, each studio with its own peculiar character. I must admit, I find this angle of analysis, with all the objections one can make for its subjectivity, quite fascinating and given their power to shape things, dead on the mark.
Gabler tells the story in the form of serial biographies. It is a wonderful flowing narrative, superlatively written and with a genuine depth of historical understanding. Indeed, while I think this early book is somewhat weaker than his later books, Disney and Life" the Movie, I will read any book that this critic writes.
Warmly recommended. This is not my usual domain of interest, so the reading is often hard going for me, but I have learned an immense amount from this critic, who is a real intellectual.