Commentary : 'Legend and Reality' Lacks Hollywood Magic

Thomson is a former London film critic and the author of "Suspects" and "Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes." He is now working on the official biography of David O. Selznick.

It is worth the trip to Exposition Boulevard to see "Hollywood: Legend and Reality" at the Natural History Museum for a number of gems: Tom Mix's white hat, as looming as a mesa, as grand and simple as the idealism of early Westerns; the thrill of touching what seems to be young Charlie Kane's sled, the "Rosebud" model--so long as you can forget how that vital toy burned on the screen; a Salvador Dali drawing of Harpo Marx; and Edward Hopper's "New York Movie," where the weary usherette reclines against the side wall of a movie palace that is all brown plush and amber warmth, save for the moon glow slice of black-and-white screen that serves as the usherette's dream.

The overall exhibit is not good enough, not adventurous or witty. I'd guess that it's one streak of humor--arranging People magazine's portraits of today's stars around an atrium that houses the skeletons of dinosaurs--is accidental. But there are drabber and less intriguing afternoons for kids or adults in the holiday season.

There's just a chance that a hitherto indecisive 10-year-old might look up at the stark, 10-foot-high German poster of Marlene Dietrich in "Blonde Venus"--magnificently irrelevant to that film, but hauntingly suggestive that her filmy gown is simply the flash point of light and skin--and feel the possibility of obsession. There is enchantment too in attending to one screen, with the gunfire and screams of "Scarface," while hearing Bette Davis hiss the name of "Addison De Witt" from somewhere else in the museum. The myths dealt with here are too insinuating, too cunning, to yield to the tame scheme of the exhibit. A needy child could catch the fever.

That said, it is a constrained, confined show, born in Washington at the Smithsonian, and now at last, arrived in Los Angeles, too unimaginative to appreciate that its own unfelt title is not just a slick caption for Hollywood, but an account of Los Angeles' tortured destiny. "Legend and Reality" will never look or feel more complacent and inert than it does in this city. Still, its coming offers an opportunity to wonder why Los Angeles does not yet have some permanent museum, so much larger, bolder and more theatrical, and so discerning of Los Angeles' total, heartfelt confusion of concrete and decor, history and scenario, that the Smithsonian could have taken it for granted, at the outset, that there was no reason to urge this modest display on Los Angeles.

It is not just in scale that this show misses the point: There is not one place where the visitor risks getting lost in the flux of dream and materiality. The magic is not managed. It is neither captivating nor dangerous; no one will forget to go home. Instead, there is a cramped trail of connected areas through which the explorer may, very roughly, follow the progress of American pictures. Most of what there is to see is flat, and on the walls--posters, script pages, design sketches, paintings and the obvious stills.

There are a few three-dimensional things--costumes; a mink-covered miniature ape, allegedly one of King Kong's ancestors; the Oscar that David O. Selznick won for Best Picture for "Gone With the Wind"; and an attempt to re-create the cafe set from "Casablanca" that focuses on an upright piano said to be Sam's original (are the letters of transit still inside?). There are no sets that one may physically enter or inhabit; there is not the space for that. Similarly, the several places where one can stop to look at film clips are only cursory gestures toward real theaters. The drive-in version has two fin-flashy cut-outs for adjacent autos; and there is a row of old seats in a couple of the other booths, but they are too close to the screen to be inviting.

Moreover, the screens present not films, but video loops. It had to be so, you can hear the organizers explain. But only if one abides by the premise that nowhere in such an exhibit do we deserve a huge screen and a bright light, a wall on which what Jean-Paul Sartre once called "the frenzy" might play.

I do not quarrel with the film clips chosen by curator Michael Webb as examples of American movie. Rather, I wonder why the clips are so short and why there are not entire movies playing somewhere in some more compelling form than television. And in an exhibit as serious and self-proclaiming as this, why are we expected to tolerate the atrocious color in clips from "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?" Where is the passion of Technicolor? Why is "Rebel Without a Cause" not in CinemaScope? Why is there no mention of its betrayal by pan-and-scan? And if we are right to expect a museum's standards for information and provenance, why not admit, in the "Put the Blame on Mame" scene from "Gilda," that it is not Rita Hayworth's voice we are hearing? What better instance of legend and reality is there than Hayworth's nervous lip-syncing amid that famous song's abandon?

Of course, provenance is a tricky matter. In one glass case there is a life-sized image of Gary Cooper coming down the street in "High Noon." Beside it, there hang boots, gun belt and hat, as if worn by an invisible man. It's a nice idea, but the hat that is supposedly the one is self-evidently not the hat Cooper wears in the blow-up.

This is another version of the riddle of Kane's sled. The Natural History Museum's "Rosebud" model, I am told, is on loan from a Hollywood luminary who prefers to remain anonymous. As well he might, if he cherishes the belief that this sled belonged to Kane.

What is most fascinating about this sled is that it looks badly and hurriedly repainted. There is white wood grinning through the red paint. Perhaps we are seeing the slapdash work of the RKO prop shop in 1940, rushing to meet the order, "Give us a dozen Rosebud sleds." That which Hollywood means to destroy for a story it must have in replicate form--and "Kane's" sled, like Kane himself, offers up answer (or question) only as it dies. It takes a moment for the alert spectator to recognize a con here, or a kind of subterfuge inherent to film making that eliminates or undermines "true" relics.

Not that curators and exhibit designers should give up on authenticity or stop scrutinizing their own captions. There is a white-and-green dress on show here which purports to be the dress Scarlett O'Hara wore to the barbecue at Twelve Oaks--in other words, which Vivien Leigh wore in the barbecue scene from "Gone With the Wind." The dress is loaned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and it does look old enough to be the real thing. Yet I am told by sources outside the exhibit that the true dress, the Walter Plunkett creation (if there was only ever one version of it), was destroyed long ago. And that this is a copy.

Horror? Not necessarily, for even the real dress, made in 1938 or 1939, never knew the light of Georgia during the Civil War. The movies are always fake in the first place.

What do we need instead of this show? What do we, and all the tourists in Los Angeles, deserve? Well, is it really outrageous to think that Los Angeles might have an institution as large as, say, the Pacific Design Center dedicated as a Museum of Movies, a Xanadu of Hollywood? It could offer half a dozen theaters playing whole movies as they were meant to play. It could have studios where films were being shot, cutting rooms at work--it might all have the flexibility to absorb young visitors, everyone going away with their own piece of movie. And it might have the real floor space of the cafe in "Casablanca" (a working bar with look-alikes serving there), instead of a pretty, posed alcove. It could have back lot streets, studio tanks and low-key graveyards.

Such hopes have been expressed before, and ignored. But with every year, the films themselves perish or pale; and the chances of re-creating sets dwindle. Earlier this year, I happened to be at the Laird Studio in Culver City where, on one of the old stages now kept as a prop shop/dumping ground, I saw pieces of scenery from "Gone With the Wind," the cannibals' cooking pot from "King Kong" and empty wooden crates still addressed to Charles Foster Kane, Xanadu, Florida.

Who knows whether they are there still, or broken up, or spirited away to unknown, private collections? For lack of a true archive, Hollywood has been prey to all kinds of theft and rescue. And surely those secret collectors take care of what they have better than the studios that once owned them. One of the prizes of the Smithsonian show--maybe its purest example of a kind of beauty derived from pictures--is a neon sign, proclaiming RKO, that is loaned by Kenneth Anger. He may have bought it, or found it--who knows, or cares?--but he has treasured it because he felt what it means. The picture business has never had that faith.

There is a good argument that this museum I am proposing does already exist--on a much larger scale: It is all of Los Angeles, a real city and a fictional metropolis; a place where artifice soars above nature, urged on by the great longing for fiction. Any real devotee studies the shifting, shifty city, and that takes a lifetime. But we need a proper museum, and who can doubt that it would cost less than a handful of the dreadful movies we make this year and next.

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