Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923)

Samuel Goldwyn (born Samuel Goldfish in Poland) began as a film producer in 1913. Nine years later, he wrote his first book, Behind the Screen. In it, he devotes chapters to many of the famous silent film actors and directors that he had come to know and work with. I found it a fascinating look at the silent movie world in its peak years. So many careers were taking off. Reading about the actors was kind of eerie, because I knew what happened to these people. And because my own mysteries are set in 1924 and 1925, Goldwyn’s account almost exactly gives the perspective of “my” characters. For example, the chapter on Rudolph Valentino (whose name Goldwyn spells Rodolph) predicts a great future for the young Italian actor, who died two years later at the age of 31. And the many pages about Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks contain no hint of their impending divorce. He shares his experiences with Charlie Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Wallace Reid (who would soon be dead of a drug habit), Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, and many who were everyday names at that time. 

Because my Roaring Twenties mystery series features the real-life actors Pickford and Fairbanks and Chaplin, those were the parts I found most useful. He writes: “She never calls him ‘Doug’–indeed, I have an idea she doesn’t much like to hear his name thus shorn by other people–and somehow into her utterance of the ‘Douglas’ you find, no matter how casual the speech, the way she really feels about him.” Also, some of the details about money are priceless: “Eight years ago [1915] the twenty thousand dollars which the Lasky Company expended upon ‘Carmen’ was considered a vast sum. To-day the Goldwyn Company is investing nearly a million in its production of ‘BenHur.'” I can use facts like that in my novels.

However, I must say I don’t believe for a moment that Samuel Goldwyn wrote this book. The man was born in Poland. He didn’t come to American until he was 14 and he always spoke with an accent. He was also famous for malapropisms–that’s no criticism, it’s quite natural for a foreigner. But the man never spoke English like a native and certainly not like an educated native. He grew up poor, with virtually no schooling. I believe he dictated these stories to someone who wrote them up in a flowery way to flatter his vanity. (He was known to be very vain.)  The writing style is heavy, pompous, and unnatural, even for the 1920s. Words like therein, whereby, and ergo would not have made their way into the everyday speech of a rough man like Goldwyn. Phrases like “I quote this last as a testimony to the almost unerring acumen which Mary Pickford displays,” and “the figure with which I started falls short of conveying the full effect” don’t sound like they could come from his mouth. The ostentatious name-dropping is, I think, meant to show a familiarity to literature, opera, and other high culture that a poor orphan would never have experienced. “Many screen favorites heave in sight as slowly as Lohengrin’s swan.” “One can as easily imagine De Musset or Verlaine mowing the front lawn of his suburban home . . . ” as if he read the French poets in his spare time. 

So who wrote Behind the Screen? I believe it was Miss Corinne Lowe, the woman Goldwyn cites in his “Notes” as having helped him “prepare these articles.”So thank you, Miss Lowe. Your book gives me many contemporary details that I would not have discovered anywhere else.

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