A. Scott Berg
Sphere. 1990.
Pbk. 579 pages. £5.99.

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A Sight and Sound article on Lindsay Anderson quoted Samuel Goldwyn's advice to the editors of Sequence: "Get a pretty girl on the cover ...feature a gossip column." The author sees these ideas as an affront to everything the Free Cinema stood for, but it's irresistible to think of the hard-bitten Goldwyn dispensing such commercially shrewd advice and winding up the intellectuals. 

Originally published in 1989, A. Scott Berg's biography is worth another review because it's turning up in a lot of bargain bins at the moment and is a good buy at any price. 

Goldwyn's life story seems to be the epitome of the American dream - although the author reveals he entered the country illegally before adopting Samuel Goldfish as his American name (he later re-named himself after his first film company). 

His life spanned the whole history of the cinema up to the late 1960s, and Berg paints vivid pictures of Hollywood as a community: discovering the possibilities of the medium, going back to square one and re-discovering them with the advent of sound, surviving a depression, pulling together in wartime and being torn apart by McCarthyism (against which Goldwyn was one of the few powerful producers to stand up). Memorable anecdotes abound, and though some of the best loved Goldwynisms turn out to be apocryphal (e.g. ‘Messages are for Western Union‘), there are less well-known ones to take their place: deciding to shoot a western on authentic locations, he reasons that Indian extras can be hired "right out of the reservoir". 

The central question to be asked about Goldwyn is whether he was genuinely talented or just had a big enough cheque book to sign major talents. Perhaps it's impossible to decide conclusively, but the evidence in this book is that Goldwyn was adept at finding and developing talent. Vera Zorina says: "He knew good advice when he heard it. That takes talent - to surround yourself with great talent and not be threatened." Ben Hecht says Goldwyn "filled the room with wonderful panic and beat at your mind like a man in front of a fruit machine shaking it for a jackpot". There are dissenters, such as William Wyler, who wanted to know: "Which pictures have 'the Goldwyn touch' that I didn't direct?" But, inevitably, Goldwyn has an equally memorable rebuttal: "I made Wuthering Heights. Wyler only directed it. " 

Darren Slade
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