Why Hollywood Matters to History

This probably won't seem shocking to many of you, but a lot of what I try to add to an episode of History Impossible ends up on the cutting room floor, whether because it doesn't fit with the episode or, frankly, it's basically crap. I'm HOPING the latter is not the case with this first glimpse behind the curtain I'm providing you. This cut content is now in the form of a written essay on the importance of Hollywood in the historical, cultural context, which I felt simply dragged down the ending of the whole episode when I recorded it. Hopefully now you can see how this theme of Hollywood's place in American history and culture fit into this mega-episode.


You might be wondering and I don't blame you: why does all this about the covered up murder of William Desmond Taylor matter? This was a Hollywood scandal, like one of many. Big deal. Been there, done that. This doesn't move the ball, this doesn't inform us of anything apart from the fact that Hollywood has a few bad apples. Right?

You see, when it came time to start organizing my thoughts around this story, I had read pages and pages of information, comment thread after comment thread, theory after theory, and I could only keep coming back to my favorite phrase of this podcast: the more things change the more they stay the same. And then I started wondering if maybe that's just the nature of Hollywood—of the business we call show. Hollywood has never NOT been in the business of making money, and there's nothing wrong with that; more power to 'em. But here's the thing—and maybe I'm just an old softy, a grumpy left libertarian type who values artistic expression above everything else like a total tool—but here's the thing: isn't Hollywood—show business—ALSO in the business of making culture, that godawful term that's really hard, if not impossible to define? I mean, the sheer power of the motion picture is real. We know that. But I don't buy the old-timey, hand-wringey notions that media causes violent behavior—whether it's Doom and Marilyn Manson allegedly causing the shooting at Columbine to happen, or more to the point that highly-sexualized stereotypes of women in films is causing boys to simply want to rape them—I don't buy these notions because the psychological literature doesn't back it up (and this is the one time I'll throw my degree in your guys' faces since my thesis was all about the correlational links between media consumption and violent behavior and, spoiler alert, there isn't much of one). But here's the thing: the power of the motion picture is undeniable in terms of shaping our individual perceptions, our beliefs, and thus, our CULTURE.

A still from D.W. Griffith's 1915 Klan-propaganda film, Birth of a Nation

D.W. Griffith's notorious Birth of a Nation was released in 1915 and continued to be screened in cinemas even AFTER all the scandals of the early 1920s, and during this time, membership of the KKK allegedly swelled into the millions with people moved by the film, including members of Congress like Hugo Black and southern governors like Bibb Graves.

Leni Riefenstahl's equally infamous—but no less lauded for its technical prowess—Triumph of the Will not only legitimized the Nazis' place on the world stage to international audiences but also put the idea in a lot of people's heads that the so-called Aryan race was destined for sweeping victories in the upcoming 1936 Berlin Olympics (only for that racialist fever dream to be dashed by the victory of a one Jesse Owens).

Iconic scene from Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List

No less influential, but far less, well, evil, obviously, was Steven Spielberg's triumphalist vision of Oskar Schindler in 1993's Schindler's List actually managing to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive for yet another generation (despite the fact that two thirds of my own generation has supposedly doesn't even know what Auschwitz is).

In 2004, after polling several thousand adults who had just seen Mel Gibson's powerful-but-controversial The Passion of the Christ, six out of ten reported that of the films they had seen that had gotten them to examine their own personal faith more seriously, The Passion of the Christ was significantly among them.

And just to cap my examples off with something a little sillier, who could forget sensationalist Michael Moore's attempts to sway the 2004 election out of George W. Bush's favor with his of-course-manipulative-but-incredibly-well-made passion-play Fahrenheit 9/11. Whether that caused more people to vote for John Kerry or not is hard to say and probably pretty unlikely given the outcome of that election, but it certainly made the opposition to President Bush and the nascent War in Iraq all the more vocal.

The point is this: media in general—and films in particular—don't directly affect behavior, but there's very little doubt that they affect our emotions, our perceptions, our outlooks, our internal psychology. When we leave the darkened theater with our group of friends—or turn on the lights after watching a film on our 60 inch HDTV—we leave or finish as changed people, whether we're simply feeling elated at being entertained for anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes or completely deflated about wasting that same time, or whether we're in a sort of dumb-founded shock at our worldview being challenged or upended or just livid with rage for the same reason. And the effect this has when we go out into the world, interacting with our friends and family, who in turn interact with THEIR friends and family which in turn affects attitudes on the grandest of scales—THAT is how culture is made.

THAT is the power of the motion picture.

And this is why, despite all of my mockery and the condescension and even at times contempt I feel for the censorious moral crusaders—both back in the days of Adolph Zukor and now in the days of Bob Iger—I can't help but allow myself a little, teeny-tiny bit of sympathy for where they're coming from after going through this story. Movies, like all media, ARE powerful. As William Randolph Hearst famously said in response to the handwringing by the artist Frederic Remington in 1897, “You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.” Criticism—deeply held cultural criticism—of any media, but especially movies, does have a nugget of truth in it when we consider their power. After all, doesn't a healthy, free society have people that speak truth to power?

The problem is that speaking truth to power only works when you're speaking to a government that has been elected by the people, for the people. What is the film industry if not a vast, unchanging, non-democratic state, accountable only to ticket sales? This doesn't make those crying for reform in the 1920s or the 2010s correct in their prescriptions that involve artists bending to their political will, but I think it's fair to say that they are most certainly onto something when it comes to their diagnoses.

Adolph Zukor and his cronies were absolutely correct that films were (and are) art and should be protected under both the legal and cultural banner of free expression. But the reformers were (and are) also absolutely correct that Hollywood was (and is) a den of iniquity and sin that's always trying to have it both ways, like any good profit-driven business that doesn't want to take responsibility for its cultural influence does. This eternal conflict birthed in our story—our story that was really just supposed to be about a murdered director of middling-quality films, remember—this conflict between the free speech absolutists of Hollywood and the fundamentalist reformers of middle America is what essentially created the norm of Hollywood continuing its (very profitable) business as usual while always being extraordinarily defensive to outside criticism of their own, internal crimes and misbehavior. Criticism to which they responded and continue to respond in the only way they knew and know: by performing.

Adolph Zukor (right of standing man) being honored

Looking at this story in the macro, I think it's hard to escape the notion that the revelations we've come to see about Harvey Weinstein and many other Hollywood power players, like the murder of William Desmond Taylor and its subsequent coverup, are and were not the diseases themselves; they were symptoms of something far greater, a true malady where the scandal brought about by a heinous crime is seen as worse than the crime itself. One could even sympathize with the notion that the scandals of old Hollywood placed a curse on this town that was never lifted. Is it possible, as impossible as it might seem, that in the end, the moralists—the reformers, the church ladies, Adolph Zukor's greatest enemies—that they were right all along? After all is said and done, it starts to seem that, like I was saying before, their diagnosis might have been right on the money; exploitation of desperate individuals willing to do essentially anything to be seen on screens everywhere; cases of blackmail, addictive drugs, and prostitution; rampant corruption that spread into government itself; and the obstruction of justice involving a murder that can never be officially solved. And considering how few power players in Hollywood who have been caught, outed, or even just accused of doing terrible things have seen any actual justice ever being done—usually due to justified fears that it could spell the end of the accusers' careers—it's hardly surprising and its even understandable that gossip, witch hunts, and cancel culture still rule the day, whether it's an angry Christian fundamentalist ripping a Fatty Arbuckle picture out of the projector or an angry Twitter feminist demanding that screenwriter Max Landis never works again. And when looking at the parallel after parallel that we have of the responses to scandal in the film industry, it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the fact that even the cold-blooded murder of a filmmaker loved by his peers wasn't enough to shake the foundations of the industry in any meaningful way and force upon its leaders any meaningful self-reflection. So while the censorious prescriptions offered by reformers driven by a sanctimonious moral imperative are very hard, if not outright impossible to defend ethically, also like I was saying before, the diagnosis still does indeed feel eerily accurate, no matter how you spin it: that Hollywood is a morally broken, rogue state. The only real question remains: can something that broken to its core ever be repaired?

There's a section that comes from the incredible Nathanael West novel The Day of the Locust from 1939 that repeatedly came to mind when I was researching this behemoth of a story and trying to organize my thoughts around the implications of the great Hollywood coverup. With this book, West wrote arguably the first truly vicious, nonreligious takedown of Los Angeles showbiz culture and he was vilified for it at the time, almost as if the showbiz-driven culture that he had grown up in, that had helped raise him, couldn't face itself. The book would eventually be canonized as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. But I have to wonder, especially in a post-Weinstein scandal, post-metoo world, if this recognition—of both West's work and the spotlight it shined on the shriveled heart of Hollywood—was perhaps too little, too late.

“Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”