Christopher Plummer salutes studio moguls in new TCM miniseries

CelebritiesMovie IndustrySamuel GoldwynEntertainmentCompanies and CorporationsMovies

Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer are movie studio names, but they also reflect the names of colorful individuals who helped get them started.

Those legends are saluted by the most appropriate network for that, as Turner Classic Movies launches the weekly seven-part miniseries "Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood" Monday, Nov. 1.

Veteran actor Christopher Plummer ("The Sound of Music") narrates the program that offers memories of Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor (a founder of Paramount Pictures), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Harry Cohn (Columbia) and Darryl F. Zanuck (20th Century Fox), among many others.

Each hour of "Moguls and Movie Stars" covers a specific theme and range of years, properly starting with "Peepshow Pioneers" and the period from 1889 to 1910. Among interviewees commenting on the studio system and those who sired it are directors Peter Bogdanovich and Sidney Lumet, author Gore Vidal, and moguls' sons Samuel Goldwyn Jr. and Richard Zanuck, who followed in their fathers' footsteps as film company chiefs themselves.

"I think he would have enjoyed it," Goldwyn Jr. says of his late dad's likely reaction to the miniseries, "but he would have had quarrels with it: 'That wasn't exactly the way it happened! So-and-so had always been a liar!' What's interesting to me is seeing how it all adds up. The first picture theaters were just people putting photographs on a screen, and others paid to go and see them.

"It's also particularly interesting to see this (program) at this moment in time," Goldwyn Jr. adds, "when the film industry is going through enormous changes and doesn't know which way to turn. They're groping at everything; this digital thing has confused everybody the same way (the introduction of) sound did, and the 3-D business now is an attempt to solve it. These changes take place constantly."

With his vocal gifts evident in such recent animated movies as "Up" and "9," Plummer -- an Oscar nominee earlier this year as novelist Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station" -- also narrated the 1988 documentary "The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind" for Turner Classic Movies. He brought his personal history with one filmmaking titan to his "Moguls & Movie Stars" work.

"I knew Jack Warner," Plummer reports. "I remember going to dinners at his house, including one that honored Lord Louis Mountbatten. I think that because he thought I was British, I should be invited." (Plummer actually is Canadian.)

"He was a terrible snob, Jack Warner," Plummer maintains. "He wanted me there whenever a British celebrity was in town. He was a killer personality ... sort of a rough diamond out of the past, but an extraordinary character."

Plummer appreciates "Moguls & Movie Stars" for its feel of, and for, the "old" Hollywood. "I got there myself in the late '50s," he recalls, "so there was still an atmosphere of the studio system alive at that time. It was much more fun then, because it was like an overgrown village.

"Los Angeles was not the huge parking lot that it has become since. It had more charm. It was much more free and easy, and it gave one a hint of what the '30s must have been like there. I would have loved to have been a part of that."

Despite having his imprint on the studio with his name, plus the Leo the Lion trademark that his Goldwyn Pictures company originated, Samuel Goldwyn ironically wasn't a big player at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He'd been forced out of his firm by the time of that merging of several studios; he then produced such screen classics as "Wuthering Heights," "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Guys and Dolls."

Goldwyn also was famous for his malaprops on the order of, "That's our strongest weak point" and "Gentlemen, include me out." The biggest entertainment shift during Goldwyn's Hollywood tenure, says his son, was television.

"He was thrown aback when that came in and really became a force," he says. "It was hard for him to accept that people would want to see pictures on a little screen like that."

While studios born during the movie industry's infancy still exist, today's brand of mogul can differ, suggested by crossovers from such other professions as lawyer and accountant. Major studios today also belong to bigger conglomerates, as with Sony's ownership of Columbia and News Corporation's holding of 20th Century Fox.

"What a lot of people have a problem realizing," Samuel Goldwyn Jr. reflects, "is that this isn't the kind of career where you work hard, move up the ladder and get a gold watch one day. It doesn't work like that, and that was one thing my father was very good about. What fascinated me about him was (his emphasis on) the importance of survival as a human being.

"These guys came to a place where they had no identity and no future," Goldwyn Jr. concludes about his father and other moguls of the same era. "They understood that, and they did everything by their gut."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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