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Back in December the Atlantic Monthly consulted various historians to come up with a list of the 100 most influential Americans of all time, and only two moviemakers made the list—Walt Disney (number 26) and Samuel Goldwyn (number 95). Everyone knows about Disney, or thinks he does (for a refresher course, check out Neal Gabler's solid new biography), but Goldwyn is another matter. Auteurist criticism and the generation that spawned it have allowed the great movie producers to slip into the shadows, leading to the popular cartoon of the director as a lonely visionary and the producer as a philistine who concentrates on signing checks and causing problems.
The reason for this isn't so hard to fathom: critics are mostly writers, and writers have it drummed into their skulls very early on that their words and ideas are sacred and inviolate. If they're successful in getting published, they might have to tangle with an editor or two at most, but the sort of broad artistic collaboration required to make a movie is far beyond their frame of reference. The idea that a strong vision might emerge from a partnership is personally threatening to a writer, not to mention much harder to address as a critic: like the "great man" theory of history, the cult of the director provides an easy out when you don't want to work too hard examining the many factors that contribute to make a great movie.
My curiosity piqued by the Atlantic article, I've been reading A. Scott Berg's 1989 biography of Goldwyn, which had been collecting dust in the Reader library probably since it was published. Berg made his name with a book about literary editor Maxwell Perkins, another man behind the curtain, so it makes sense that he would take on Goldwyn. I'm only about 3/4 through the book, not yet to the point of the producer's greatest achievement, The Best Years of Our Lives (neither of the Reader's two capsule reviews even mentions Goldwyn). But Berg has already covered the production of These Three, Dodsworth, Come and Get It, Stella Dallas, Dead End, Wuthering Heights, The Westerner, The Little Foxes, Ball of Fire, and The Pride of the Yankees, enough to get a sense of Goldwyn as an artist.
Strangely, I still don't have one; a notoriously inarticulate man, Goldwyn sometimes seems like a supporting player in his own biography, as Berg takes one side trip after another to consider the great directors (William Wyler, King Vidor, Howard Hawks, John Ford) and actors (Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea, Bette Davis, David Niven, Laurence Olivier) that Goldwyn hired. This could mean that Goldwyn was never an artist at all, just an art collector. Wyler, once asked about the famous "Goldwyn touch," cracked, "Which pictures have 'the Goldwyn touch' that I didn't direct?"
Yet who spotted Wyler's talent and gave him his first big shot, engaging a man known mostly for his westerns to direct an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's scandalous play The Children's Hour? Who discovered Cooper, Niven, and McCrea? Like many of the Hollywood moguls, Goldwyn was a vain, cold-blooded tyrant, yet most people in Hollywood fell all over themselves to work with him, because his track record spoke for itself. He knew great material and talent when he saw it, he'd spend any amount of money to get it, and he knew who to assign to a project to get the results he wanted. In a collaborative medium, managing artists can be the greatest art of all.