City of Nets


Scarcely ten years after David O. Selznick had triumphantly opened Gone With the Wind, he was walking along a deserted street at dawn and saying to a companion:

“Hollywood’s like Egypt. Full of crumbling pyramids. It’ll never come back. It’ll just keep on crumbling until finally the wind blows the last studio prop across the sands.”

Another subtitle for Otto Friedrich’s superb, (comfortingly lengthy) and detailed book on the American entertainment industry City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s could have been The Secret History of 40’s Hollywood.  

Judging from the clear-eyed commentary hidden within, that may have been a better idea, if only to embrace the “let’s put the show on right here” commercial attitude that underlay the Hollywood community before, during, and after World War II. I think he may have sold more copies with the latter title, but it’s still a wonderful read.

Friedrich (born in Boston in 1929, he died in New York in 1995 from lung cancer) dedicates the narrative of his sparkly, honest reappraisal of “old movies” born of the 1920’s to the 1950’s and what they still mean, many years later, repeated on TV in a junk food culture that doesn’t still have the context to understand them anymore, or screened at revival houses by snobby academics who don’t respect the craft, only the theory. That said, Friedrich was an academic, devoting years to careful historical research and a thesis that decided interviews were meaningless on a topic this vast and convoluted. Like almost all academic books on cinema, what lies at the heart of City of Nets is conspiracy theory, and historical revisionism, this time Friedrich makes a point in his introduction that the main research for his book is in over 500 books already written on, or by, Hollywood stars.

The son of a famous political theorist, Friedrich graduated from Harvard in 1948 with a Degree in History. Working for The Saturday Evening Post for many years, he graduated to a cover story writer for TIME magazine, contributing to more than 40 front cover stories. In his long career, he published 14 books, on topics as various as Nazi Germany, Hollywood, and his award winning Decline and Fall which told the story of the self combustion of The Saturday Evening Post which he witnessed first hand in the 1960s.

Juicy vignettes about the sex lives of the rich and famous, the drug addictions of former child stars like Judy Garland (Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz), the encroaching spectre of the House Un-American Activities Committee as WW2 ended, the underlying antisemitic and anti-black philosophy in self loathing Jewish mogul producers, the malevolent actions of gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, the drunken abysses that ended so many promising acting careers, all of these sordid tales and more are entertainingly disseminated within Friedrich’s grand narrative. Seemingly every classic (and flop) made from the late 30’s onwards is given its own historical description. Masterpiece movies like Double Indemnity, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Third Man, High Noon, The Maltese Falcon are here explained with a novel, journalistic objectivity which makes the book’s adult approach to 40s cinema refreshing and still valuable. Notorious Hollywood biographies like Kenneth Anger’s classic, still disturbing Hollywood Babylon can only really work from a magical, occult perspective. Very clearly Friedrich was a dependable critic whose motives are less shady than other writers on the sludge of movie lore.

City of Nets was originally published in 1986, and later reissued several times until its present form. In the post-digital age, the complexity and scope of its vision sustains any reader who still has a fascination with old Hollywood and its true nature and secrets. Friedrich’s witty, sensitive prose brings out the character of movie stars from the past, in an age when there still seemed to be a community of sorts in the movie industry, a still successful, working studio system that kept actors in a strange, capitalist caste system, and in an age when the Oscars in Tinseltown still meant something.

If you are looking for a good, long book on old movies to devour during the festive period, you could do far worse.