CITY OF NETS: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1920’s

A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s

City of Nets by Otto Friedrich New 2013 cover by Harper Collins

In 1939, when 50 million Americans went to the movies every week, Louis B. Mayer was the highest paid man in the country and Hollywood produced 530 feature films, among them Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz. A decade and 5000 movies later, the studios were tottering, Ingrid Bergman and Charlie Chaplin were exiled, the Hollywood Ten went to prison and millions were watching Milton Berle at home.

What happened in those 10 years is as rich and colorful a story as can be imagined and Friedrich has more than done it justice. This is his liveliest book since the popular Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920’s, and certainly one of the best books ever written about Hollywood’s Golden Age. Taking his title from Brecht’s Mahagonny, that “city of nets” where everything is permitted, Friedrich tells the familiar story of Hollywood’s Golden Age and decline as part of a sweeping social and cultural history that takes in everything from Rita Hayworth’s electrolysis (to give her a higher hairline) to union corruption, the Zoot Suit riots, the gangster Bugsy Siegel inventing Las Vegas. He is particularly good on the European refugee community, Mann, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Brecht, et al. who produced some of their most distinguished work while their neighbors turned out Betty Grable musicals, and whose encounters with the studio moguls are among the most richly comic moments in our cultural history (Schoenberg, asked to score a movie, told a startled producer he would have to control the dialogue as well, so the actors would “speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in”).

The moguls themselves, semiliterate, comfortable with racketeers but lusting for respectability (and in no way the “showmen” legend has made them) could be Preston Sturges characters. Friedrich avoids the cliche Goldwynisms, but has unearthed a good Disneyism: when Walt saw what the Fantasia animators had done to the “Pastoral” Symphony, he said, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven.” Friedrich mixes all these elements (and more) in a narrative that is often funny and remarkably even-handed (e.g., his concise account of the HUAC hearings)– a must for movie buffs and a rewarding read for everyone else.

Publisher’s Weekly Review

“A City of Nets” is what Mr. Friedrich calls Hollywood in the title of his new social history, borrowing from Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – a city of liberation and license stretched like a net to snare whatever passes…Mr. Friedrich’s intelligent prose makes for fascinating reading.”

Neal Gabler, New York Times Book Review

“With its tough humor, profound cynicism, and unerring nose for corruption and hypocrisy, City of Nets offers a distinctly Brechtian vision of Hollywood….By mixing enjoyable gossip about the stars’ personal lives and behind-the-scenes maneuverings with a shrewd look at the film world’s often unsavory industrial underpinnings, Friedrich gives us a much clearer understanding of Hollywood’s reciprocal relationship with American reality.”

-Wendy Smith, Village Voice

City of Nets veers from social history to cultural documentary to celebrity eavesdropping in an eclectic blend of highbrow elitism (profiles of Schoenberg and Stravinsky) with low-brow populism (Hedy Lamarr, Ronald Reagan, etc.). All of this montage is cross-cut with forays into such redeeming topics as union racketeering, racial riots, Hollywood’s immigrant colony and passion for psychoanalysis.”

-John Nangle, Films in Review

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