The Books: “Goldwyn: A Biography” (A. Scott Berg)

Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

Goldwyn: A Biography, by A. Scott Berg

I made a mistake and skipped ahead to “Grant” ahead of “Goldwyn” and now must go back. It would have haunted me otherwise. I have a ton of Cary Grant books, and my OCD would not allow me to pretend any longer that “Gr” came before “Go”.

Besides, this is a terrific book, and I highly recommend it. Hard to imagine any other biography needing to be written, after the detailed analysis of A. Scott Berg’s book. (On a sidenote: I would like to be A. Scott Berg. I would love to be a biographer who hits it huge and then gets to just choose which subject interests him next. His Lindbergh biography is a high-water-mark for biography in general, but this book on Goldwyn is up there as well). He uses the same tireless research methods on Goldwyn that he used on Lindbergh – and the results are amazing. There is nothing about Goldwyn (nothing important, anyway) that is left out of this giant book. Read it.

Born in Warsaw in 1879, Schmuel Gelbfisz made his way to the United States (a circuitous route) and worked in the clothing business for a while, making a nice success for himself before throwing his hat into the ring with the brand new motion-picture business. Involved in vaudeville and film (which was then based in New York City), he already put his focus into forming partnerships – some more successful than others – but eventually, of course, he became his own corporation.

(Naturally, he had changed his name from Gelbfisz – to Goldfish – and then to Goldwyn).

The man died in 1974, so his career and influence spanned decades, the entire birth of the motion picture industry. Goldwyn was a notorious tyrant, cold, calculating, and jealous of his power. He held on tightly to what he had, and manipulated events to the best of his ability. He was not just a businessman. He also had a desire to make good pictures and be given a stamp of approval (which is why the worldwide uproar – all positive – about The Best Years of Our Lives was so emotional for him). When Best Years swept the Oscars in 1947 – well, it was one of THOSE years … when no other film (and there were same damn good ones that year) stood a chance. There’s an anecdote told in the book by A. Scott Berg which really struck me. Goldwyn was well into his career by the time of Best Years. He had made a reputation for finding and developing new talent (he really is responsible for Gary Cooper getting his start – but there are many others) … and for ruthlessness in his business dealings. We have gotten to know Goldwyn, through Berg’s book, and we feel we understand him, or perhaps can anticipate his reactions to things. But there was a moment that really surprised me. After the Academy Award ceremony, when Best Years won everything … Goldwyn went home, sat down, clutching his Oscar, and sobbed.

Always a bit of an outsider, as so many of those penniless Jewish immigrants were at the time, he made it his business to not only assimilate, but dominate. He was terrifying, could be cruel, did not suffer fools … and a visit to his office was something people trembled about beforehand. There’s a VERY funny story of Billy Wilder going to his office to pitch a story-idea to Goldwyn, a movie based on the life of ballet dancer and notorious madman Nijinsky. Berg describes the meeting:

“Mr. Goldwyn,” [Wilder] said at the meeting, “why not do a picture about Nijinsky?” Goldwyn looked puzzled. Wilder explained that Nijinsky was the single most famous ballet dancer in the world, a Russian witih a “marvelous, touching story.” Wilder proceeded to talk about this peasant with a passion to dance who met Diaghilev, the impresario of the Bolshoi, and of their becoming homosexual lovers. “Homosexuals! Are you crazy?” Goldwyn interrupted. But Wilder proceeded, insisting the story got better. He told of Nijinsky’s going insane, and that every day, while exercising in a Swiss asylum, he believed he was a horse. “A homosexual! A horse!” Goldwyn interrupted again, rapidly losing interest. But Wilder plowed through to the end of the story, detailing Nijinsky’s marriage to a woman, Diaghilev’s revenge, and Nijinsky’s neighing for the rest of his life. Goldwyn shooed Wilder from the office, shouting at him for wasting his time on such a miserable story. On his way out the door, Wilder poked his head in with an afterthought, “Mr. Goldwyn,” he said, “you want a happy ending? Not only does Nijinsky think he’s a horse. But in the end … he wins the Kentucky Derby.”

Goldwyn was very interested in Billy Wilder, since he had written the screenplay for Ball of Fire (bestill my heart!) – one of Goldwyn’s pet projects, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, an endearing sexy romantic comedy. But as that anecdote suggests, Goldwyn was not one to sit around being polite if he thought an idea was shit. And often Goldwyn missed the mark. He was baffled by what Hollywood had become at the end of his life. His fights with the Breen Office earlier in his career (detailed below) were now in reverse. He wanted more censorship, more limits … He was out of touch with the times. I guess that’ll happen when you live to be 546 years old.

Berg details this fascinating man’s life journey and in its way it becomes one of the classic American narratives. All of those guys who created Hollywood – the early moguls – were Jewish immigrants, hard workers, determined to create something out of nothing, and profit from it. They were the smartest guys in the room. Always. Goldwyn had no education (a fact he was quite touchy about), and people tell stories of his terrible table manners, and rude jokes. He was not polished. He was rough. He could be brutal. But for 40 years, people tripped over themselves to get involved with Samuel Goldwyn, to be discovered by him, to be under his protection. He was that powerful.

He also wasn’t afraid to be gobsmacked by something. So often when someone is in a position of great power, they are impervious to change … perhaps they fear admitting they are wrong, perhaps they begin to believe their own persona … who knows. Goldwyn certainly had a little bit of that himself – but when his eyes were opened to someone, to someone’s talent, even an unknown … he made it his business to step in and take that person under his wing. He was known for it. William Wyler probably wouldn’t have had a career if it weren’t for Samuel Goldwyn. And then of course there is the famous story of the “discovery” of Gary Cooper, and Goldwyn’s no-nonsense summing up of the work of the glorified extra: “That kid is the greatest actor I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The excerpt I chose below has to do with the filming of The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler, and starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright. Oh, and Dana Andrews, too, in his big break. It was a phenomenal success. Way too long – but nobody felt they could afford to cut any of it … the audience response was so emotional … and Goldwyn backed up everyone on that. He screened it privately, and thought – well, it’s a risk, but we’re going to send it out into the world as is.

It was an enormous risk. It paid off tenfold. It is one of the biggest hits in Hollywood history (not just critically, and in terms of the awards it won, but in box office receipts).

Here’s the excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM Goldwyn: A Biography, by A. Scott Berg

Even Goldwyn, who was never interested in the mechanics of filmmaking, understood that Toland’s cinematography in this picture was exceptional. He rewarded him with his own full frame in the credit titles, and he displayed Toland’s name in most of the advertising posters.

Yet another moment in the film captured the spirit of the entire nation as it came home from the war in all its pain and glory: It practically summed up the decade. Fredric March arrives at his apartment, his children answer the door, and he shushes them, asking where their mother is.


It is small, but attractively, comfortably furnished.

We are looking out through open French windows to a small terrace, where MILLY is setting the supper plates on a card table. It is just about sunset. There are three chairs. Milly looks young and alluring and very much alive.


Who was that at the door?
(she turns to look in the living room)

Peggy! Rob! Who was …

Suddenly, instinctively, she knows. Throughout these years, Al has always been there, in her mind, and she has been thinking of the moment when he would walk in that door.

She puts down a plate, hard, and goes to the French windows leading into the living room. She sees Al, as he comes through the door from the corridor on the other side of the room.

For a while, both of them just stand there, looking at each other appraisingly, almost suspiciously, as though they were strangers. Their silence is strained, intense …

Wyler recalled his own reunion with his wife at the Plaza Hotel, their walking down the corridor toward each other, and he staged it exactly that way. The emotion of every wife awaiting her husband’s return could be read on Myrna Loy’s face. Teresa Wright told the actress she thought it was so effective a moment because there was “real love in that scene”. Later Miss Loy revealed the “motivation” that made it work. She said, “They just can’t wait to get into the sack.”

Halfway through filming Best Years, Wyler panicked. His doubts this deep into the picture started to rub off on Goldwyn. They both liked everything that had been filmed so far, but they feared that the scenes were not building to a climax. They grew anxious for Sherwood to write new pages that would punch up the end of the movie. Sherwood was not concerned. He believed all the characters arrived at dramatic and logical conclusions and that the three men meeting at Homer’s wedding to Wilma, with the suggestion of Fred and Peggy pursuing their romance, was a resounding finale. For day,s frantic communiques between the two coasts filled Goldwyn with qualms. Wrestling with the script one midnight, he instinctively reached for the phone and dialed Sherwood in New York, oblivious of the time differential. As soon as Sherwood picked up the receiver, Goldwyn started in with his latest thoughts – stopping only when a groggy Sherwood asked, “Sam, do you have any idea what time it is?” The next thing Sherwood heard was Goldwyn’s calling out, “Frances, Frances … Bob wants to know what time it is!”

Sherwood stood by his script as written, talking Goldwyn and Wyler through the remaining scenes so they might appreciate the impact of the simple ending and all its implications. What Sherwood could not convince Goldwyn of, the Breen Office could. It found the film’s ultimate message more than potent. It was poison.

The Production Code Administration, under Joseph I. Breen’s iron hand, had many objections to the script of The Best Years Of Our Lives. They suggested that the scenes having to do with the breakup of the marriage between Fred and Marie be rewritten, “in order to get away any suggestion of a condonation of this tragedy.” A subsequent letter from Breen’s office said that Peggy’s home-wrecking intentions would have to be eliminated. The rest of the Breen Office litany cited such cinematic sins as a “passionate” kiss between Milly and Al, a “vulgar” belch after Al downed a Bromo Seltzer, and any scenes involving alcoholic beverages. Producers were “free to accept or disregard any observations or suggestions” made by the Breen Office, but the Motion Picture Association fined a producer $25,000 for releashing any picture without the seal of approval of the Production Code Administration.

As late as sixty days into production, the Breen Office was still trying to impose its morality on the film – what Ben Hecht called “Mother Goose platitudes and primitive valentines … [where] there are no problems of labor, politics, domestic life or sexual abnormality but can be solved happily by a simple Christian phrase or a fine American motto.” Goldwyn replied that he would make no alterations – “since we believe this ending is honest, true, and within the bounds of decency and good behavior.” When it realized Goldwyn had no intention of backing down, the Breen Office retired its objections, leaving an irreparable chink in the code.

Best Years wrapped on August 9, 1946 – with 400,000 feet of film “in the can”. While the Goldwyns vacationed at the Moana Hotel at Waikiki Beach, Danny Mandell, in concert with Wyler, assembled a rough cut of the film that was 16,000 feet, about twice the length of most movies. Goldwyn knew that two hours and forty minutes of motion picture was too long to release, but when he watched it upon his return, it never felt long. On October 17, they sneak-previewed the film in a small neighborhood house, the United Artists Theater in Long Beach, hoping the audience would indicate where they might cut an hour out of the film. Goldwyn’s staff sat in the back of the theater with stopwatches, at first timing between audience responses, then discovering long patches of rapt silence. Danny Mandell said “people stopped chewing their gum”. There was a pregnant hush after the lovers’ clinch at the finale, then a burst of applause that did not quit for several minutes. The audience’s response cards were overwhelmingly favorable, almost unanimous in unqualified praise. Out on the curb, the Godlwyn staff held its conference – Sam and Frances, Mandell, production head Leon Fromkess, and a dozen others. Wyler approached them and asked if they could release a film that long. Goldwyn said they had no choice, that there seemed to be but one hundred feet to trim at most. After each test screening that followed, someone would timidly suggest a scene that might be sacrificed. “If I’d listened to them all,” Goldwyn commented later, “the only thing left would have been the credits.”

Goldwyn’s decision to release the film in its entirety was more than a $2.1 million gamble. Theaters would be naturally loath to exhibit the film not only because of its unusual subject matter but also because its length would dictate half the number of usual screenings. He secured a booking at the Hollywood Pantages Theater for January 1947 and looked forward to opening it in New York shortly after that. When Wyler learned of these plans, he lit a fire under his producer. He suggested that Best Years would almost certainly get nominated for some Academy Awards, and they stood a better chance if they opened in Los Angeles before the year-end deadline for qualification, rather than waiting until the following year and risking its being forgotten.

A New York tycoon named Robert Dowling owned the Astor, which prided itself on screening prestigious films; his approval was needed before he would run a film. Goldwyn took a print to New York to show to him. In exchange for a pair of theater tickets, he rented Ben Sonnenberg’s Gramercy Park house for the night and ran the film in his private screening room. When the Sonnenbergs returned, they all drank champagne to celebrate the November 22 opening of Best Years at the Astor. While Dowling was still awestruck by the film, Goldwyn finagled one of the best rental agreements out of him he had ever gotten from any theater – 40 percent of the gate. The producer used that to finesse other favorable contracts across the country.

In his $400,000 worth of advertising, Goldwyn created an air of distinction about Best Years. Certain theaters, like the Astor, would sell tickets only on a reserved-seat basis, some for as much as $2.40. Goldwyn arranged a screening of the film for Norman Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and got him to promote the film in the paper’s news section if the first night’s Los Angeles proceeds were turned over to charity. The managing editor of the rival Hearst paper, the Herald-Examiner, said it would do the same if Marion Davies’s pet charity was the recipient. The Reader’s Digest announced a symposium – “Which are the Best Years of Our Lives?” – and Lynn Farnol lined up a team of famous writers to contribute responses. A representative from Louisiana took the floor of the House and said The Best Years of Our Lives should be “required seeing for every American. It is a credit to the United States, and I should like this made a matter of record in Congress.” Virginia Mayo and Teresa Wright were photographed for covers of Life. Hoagy Carmichael plugged the film on his radio show; and it seemed as though all the other radio stars in America wanted Myrna Loy or Fredric March or Dana Andrews to appear on their shows.

Bob Hope wanted Goldwyn on his show. A few days before his appearance, Goldwyn asked one of his writers, Harry Tugend, what he ought to say on the air. Tugent wrote an exchange that Hope’s writers liked. The comedian would say, “Well, Mr. Goldwyn, how have things been going since I left your studio?” Goldwyn would reply, “I’ll tell you, Bob. Since you left, we’ve had the best years of our lives.” Exactly as rehearsed, Goldwyn stood before the NBC microphone and Hope fed him his line: “Well, Mr. Goldwyn, how have things been going since I left your studio?”

“I’ll tell you, Bob,” he said confidently, “Since you left, things are better than ever.”

The Best Years of Our Lives opened as scheduled at the Astor in New York and Christmas week at the Beverly Theater in Los Angeles. Goldwyn was petrified after the first noon show at the Beverly, which played to an almost empty house. For reasons he never figured out, a crowd gathered three hours later, and the evening show was packed. “The public doesn’t know what they want until they see it,” Goldwyn often said; “but it’s a mystery to me [why they’re drawn in the first place] – they smell it.” In selling a picture, Goldwyn was ultimately certain of but one thing: “You can’t beat the word of mouth.”

He received unparalleled notices. Abel Green of Variety called the film “one of the best pictures of our lives”. The New York Times said the film “sets the highest standards of cinematic quality and meets them triumphantly.” Newsweek spoke of it as “epic” art; Time said Goldwyn had put together a “sure-fire hit … with good taste, honesty, wit – and even a strong suggestion of guts.” James Agee grudgingly doled out words of praise on a story he found inherently pat and timid. He granted that “this is one of the very few American studio-made movies in years that seem to me profoundly pleasing, moving, and encouraging.” In a follow-up article two weeks later in The Nation, he wrote: “I can hardly expect that anyone who reads this will like the film as well as I do … But it is … a great pleasure, and equally true, to say that it shows what can be done in the factory by people of adequate talent when they get, or manage to make themselves, the chance.” After the film had its Christmas-week qualifying run in Los Angeles, Goldwyn pulled the picture until its nationwide opening in the spring – at which time he hoped to garland the advertisements with Oscar nominations.

Best Years grossed close to ten million dollars in its first year of release. It became the second-biggest moneymaker in talking-picture history to date, bettered only by Gone With the Wind.

For months, letters both adulatory and congratulatory crossed Goldwyn’s desk – from Rene Clair to General Omar Bradley, who told Goldwyn, “You are helping the American people to build an even better democracy out of the tragic experiences of this war.” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said it was “a credit to both you and Industry.” War correspondent Bill Mauldin said it was “the first real, honest-to-God sincere thing I’ve seen about the war and its aftermath.”

The film had a healing effect on the wounds of the nation and, it seemed, of every citizen who saw it. No message moved Goldwyn more than the seventeen words Western Union relayed on the night of November 21: “I HAVE JUST SHED THE BEST TEARS OF MY LIFE. YOUR LOVING AND VERY PROUD DAUGHTER, RUTH.” “When it is all said and done,” Goldwyn wrote her back, “it’s what our own think of us that really counts, and I don’t mind admitting that I love being told you are proud of me, and I will always do my best to keep things that way.”

On December 14, 1946, he and Frances had sailed from New York on the Queen Elizabeth for England. The Goldwyns spent the holidays with Sammy and arranged the London bookings of Best Years. The film opened there in the spring and played to crowded houses for over a year, grossing as much in its twenty-second week as it did in its second. It became a similar phenomenon everywhere in the world, from Sydney to Rio de Janiero. It received the British Academy’s award for the best foreign or domestic picture of the year, and several international equivalents – the French “Victoire”, the Danish “Filmprisen”, the Japanese “Hannya”.

The Goldwyns returned to New York on the same ship, ringing in 1947 with the news that the New York Film Critics had voted Best Years the best picture of the year. On January 6, Goldwyn picked up a bronze plaque from the Newspaper Guild of New York, their Page One Award for his “outstanding presentation of the responsibilities of society to the returning servicemen.” The Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association presented him with their “Golden Globe”.

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Goldwyn learned that he was for the seventh time in the running for the one prize that still remained beyond his grasp. The Best Years of Our Lives led that year’s Academy Award nominations with eight – Best Picture, Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording, Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, and Best Film Editing. The Jolson Story received six nominations and The Razor’s Edge four, including Best Picture. The three other competitors for the top honor were Olivier’s Henry V, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Yearling. Goldwyn was not the favorite. The Yearling and The Razor’s Edge were products of major studios, MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox, which voted in blocks; and Darryl Zanuck had already made it known that he intended to campaign hard for his Oscar.

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7 Responses to The Books: “Goldwyn: A Biography” (A. Scott Berg)

  1. Ms Baroque says:

    What a great post. A great telling of the Nijinsky anecdote and it looks like a great book all round. I’ve been in a real phase of reading books about Hollywood lately…

  2. Jess says:

    Wow, so much to love in this post! I think you’ve convinced me to read this book..

    Thank you for posting that excerpt :) I love that movie–I love that scene so much. It took me a while to convince my family to sit down and watch it with me (since it’s so long) but it convinced them of Fredric March’s awesomeness, so it was worth the wait.

    Have you ever read any of Robert Sherwood’s film reviews from Life magazine (the first Life magazine)? His pans are highly amusing.

    Gregg Toland — I actually just watched another Fredric March film the other day, beautifully photographed by Toland. It’s The Dark Angel — another adaptation of a semi-cheesy 1920s stage melodrama (I keep running into these lately). I liked it a lot, though.

    Oh and that Nijinsky story! Hahaha. Have you ever seen that movie about Nijinsky from the 80s? It’s.. well, it has its problems, but it’s not as bad as I expected. Unfortunately Nijinsky and Diaghilev only kiss with a handkerchief between them (there’s a reason — but obviously people were uncomfortable with a real kiss). I’d be really really curious to see a film nowadays take a stab at capturing Nijinsky. There’s a recent (from 2000) ballet about Nijinsky that does very well, I think. But then, ballet was his medium, not film..

    (Oh my goodness, sorry for rambling!)

  3. southernbosox says:

    Did you read Scott Berg’s first bio of Max Perkins, the editor that set the mark for all editors to come? It was perfect. Pick it up when time allows-

  4. s.w.a.c. says:

    I should read this, he led a fascinating life (I’ve seen the feature-length doc on him). I was fascinated to learn that Sam Gelbfisz landed in the New World here in Halifax at Pier 21 (Canada’s answer to Ellis Island), and proceeded to head to New England–and a bright future in the glove industry–on foot!

  5. red says:

    swac – I haven’t seen the doc, really need to rectify that!

    He was in Nova Scotia for a while, if I’m not mistaken … before coming down to New York. Is that right? Do you remember?

    Really interesting man.

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