Saturday, December 5, 2015

Irving Thalberg wasn't an old man

Whenever I've heard the name "Irving Thalberg," I've imagined one of those ancient Hollywood guys who lived until he was 110 and continued casting votes for the most old-fashioned best picture nominees until the day he died. A studio system institution who meddled in projects decades longer than his input was actually wanted. That kind of guy.

As it turns out, Thalberg died when he was 37 years old, way back in 1936, when the Oscars were only seven years old.

And this is the reason I'm listening to Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This.

I'm only 26 minutes into the first episode of the "new" season -- er, latest season (it's been out for three or four months now) -- which is also the first episode of the whole podcast I've ever listened to. But I can already tell that I need this podcast.

You see, my knowledge of Hollywood's classic era is a lot more limited than I'd like it to be. For five years now I've been doing annual viewing series designed to improve my overall knowledge of older films, and though I've gotten sidetracked on things like flops and Australian films, these series have been pretty helpful. But I've still been slow to develop a good overall understanding of the studio era and the star system. I'd like to be one of those guys who refers casually and confidently to MGM musicals, for example, and have a good idea what I mean by that.

As luck would have it, this year Longworth is tackling MGM in particular. This season is called "MGM Stories," and the first episode is devoted to Louis B. Mayer vs. the aforementioned Mr. Thalberg. I now know a ton more about both of these guys than I ever did before, like the fact that Mayer cut his teeth in my hometown of Boston and pawned all this belongings (including his wife's wedding ring) to get the New England screening rights to Birth of a Nation -- a decision that ultimately made his entire career.

It seems I may be a bit of an auditory learner. I'm a slow reader, always have been -- I find myself having to read paragraphs twice sometimes, because my mind started wandering halfway through. In fact, a good example of my failure to learn through non-fiction books about Hollywood history is the fact that I abandoned the widely acclaimed book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood after about a hundred pages. This had more to do with where I was in my life at the time, as I still remember a lot of what I did learn from that book, and if I were reading it today I surely would have continued. But the fact remains that it daunted me at the time, and I don't dive into these types of books very readily.

If a podcast can teach me this stuff, though, I could really be in business. I like how audio books kind of drive forward the pace of reading by refusing to let you put down the book and get sidetracked on something else. Unless you're actually going to pause the audio, the pace is going to proceed forward on its own. It's rare that I have to "read a paragraph twice," as it were, when I am listening to something.

And I can already tell that Longworth might be the one to be my auditory teacher. She has a great delivery that is, in many ways, purely functional -- she doesn't have a lot of verbal flourishes, nor does she seem to be performing the material. However, there is a definite charisma in her style that prevents you from losing focus, and it helps that the podcast also contains music and other background audio, in addition to other speakers reading quotes from the people she's talking about. In this episode, for example, someone playing Mayer delivers a number of his typically saucy quotes -- not actually impersonating him, probably, but just setting off the quote from Longworth's storytelling in a way that makes it more dynamic than if Longworth just read the quote herself.

Will I emerge from this season of You Must Remember This an expert on MGM? Probably not. But at this point I just want to build up my framework for understanding this powerful studio and the influence it had on Hollywood at a particular time. (Also learned that MGM is now Sony -- my, how things change.) It's having a mature framework for understanding that allows you more easily to take looses pieces -- i.e., the tidbits of information that we learn on a daily basis -- and assimilate them into the overall framework.

Without that mature framework, those loose pieces just remain scattered on the floor of your brain.

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