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The hidden history of music and movies


Tinseltown’s past has been picked over ceaselessly, from star biographies to academic studies. A new book takes a sideways look at Hollywood with reminiscences not just from directors and stars, we also hear from lighting camera operators, make-up artists, best boys and continuity girls - now called assistant chief lighting technicians and script supervisors respectively.

The authors describe these people as ‘Hollywood’s day-to-day working insiders, the men and women who represent the complete life of Hollywood throughout its history. All are experts in their fields. Some are famous, others obscure. They speak with the attitudes of their own time, but they speak with authority’.

Hollywood: the Oral History, edited by academic Jeanine Basinger and film historian Sam Wasson, is a 600-page tome (drawn from thousands of hours of interviews stored in the vaults of the American Film Institute) that reveal the filmmaking process in the words of the people on the set. According to the publishers it’s ‘the only comprehensive, first-hand history of Hollywood’.

The golden age of Hollywood is long gone. Today’s digital greenscreen CGI is a different kind of magic. But one thing remains the same. For every maverick, visionary director – from Welles to Scorsese – there is an army of unknowns: the gophers and grips, stunt co-ordinators and stand-ins, animal wranglers and casting agents who keep the show on the road.

This is Hanna Sheeld, a one-time script girl, on who does what: “your production manager very rarely shows himself on the set. He takes care of all of the preproduction. Then you have two assistant directors, the first is the director’s alter ego to the point that he goes and informs the stars that they are wanted on the set. The assistant director very rarely gets to direct. The second assistant is just there to keep track of the extras, when they were called… when they broke for lunch...”

As Adam Gropnik wrote recently in the New Yorker: ‘Hollywood: the Oral History seeks to render the process of moviemaking, from silents right up to today, genuinely transparent.’

There are heaps of quotable quotes from the book. Steven Spielberg: “I thought Universal was the prime rib of movie studios. I kept remembering Orson Welles’s famous line that a movie studio was the best toy a boy could ever have, and I began to function at Universal as if it were a giant sandbox.”

Long before the Beatles, Bjork or Bruno Marrs the pop song was the soundtrack of the 20th century. It’s odd to think that once – a time way before the smart speaker and Spotify – there was no recorded music.

In Victorian times if you wanted music at home you had to have a piano in the front parlour (providing you had the means to afford a piano, or a parlour for that matter). Everything changed with the advent of the phonograph (the record player) and radio.

The quality of the first 78rpm (revolutions per minute) discs was ‘painfully poor’ according to Bob Stanley in his recent book Let’s Do It, a fascinating and encyclopaedic history of pop from the turn of the century until the dawn of rock’n’roll.

Ever since the first scratchy shellac 78s there has been a quest to improve the quality of the sound and make innovations to the means of delivery – from the Victrola to vinyl and from 8-track, to the Walkman.

Many early records were maudlin ditties, barbershop quartets or rousing marches. Then came the revolutionary ragtime which was popular from the 1900s until it was eclipsed by jazz in the 1920s.

Stanley calls the tragic pioneer of ragtime Scott Joplin the Kurt Cobain of his times. Joplin was desperate to be taken seriously and was horribly thwarted. He wrote an opera which no one wanted to hear, was committed to an insane asylum in 1917 and died at the age of 47, buried in a pauper’s grave. Forgotten until the 1970s his music was unexpectedly revived when his ‘The Entertainer’ was used as the theme for the movie The Sting.

In 1925 Western Electric vastly enhanced record technology reducing the appalling hiss and crackle. But it wasn’t until 1948 that the much-improved 331/3 rpm vinyl long player (LP) was introduced.

With a cleaner sound it heralded the way forward for future developments such as stereo, the concept album and that new vehicle for graphic art, the album cover.

The development of the carbon microphone in the mid-192os saw the arrival of the crooner, that smooth-voiced balladeer that can be traced from Michael Bublé and Sinatra back to Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee.

Writes Stanley of the new, sensitive recording equipment ‘all shades of singing beyond just tearful caterwauling could be accommodated. You heard subtlety, softness and sensuality on record for the first time’.

Singer Vaughn De Leath caressed the microphone rather than just bellowed into it. In 1927 she recorded ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ some 30 years before Elvis. You can hear it beautifully cleaned up on YouTube. ■

Info: Hollywood: the Oral History, Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson and Let’s Do It: the Birth of Pop, Bob Stanley (both Faber & Faber £25)

Twitter: @KenWilson84

Carole Lombard and John Barrymore on set of Twentieth Century


Scott Joplin was the Kurt Cobain of his time. Desperate to be taken seriously, always thwarted


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