Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Weekend '33, by Bob Thomas
May, 1973 Dell Books
(Original hardcover publication, 1972)
I love Golden Age Hollywood movies, especially what's now known as Pre-Code cinema; ie films made between 1929 and 1934 which became progressively more "adult" in nature. I was certain some novel had to have been written about this era of Tinseltown; I knew of course about Harold Robbins's The Carpetbaggers, but I wanted to find something else, something more obscure. And the way these things happen, I eventually found what I sought -- Bob Thomas's novel Weekend '33, published in hardcover in 1972, then again in 1973 in the mass market edition shown here, and then promptly forgotten.
In the '60s and early '70s Thomas had scored a trio of best-sellers with his bios of three movie moguls: Thalberg, Selznick, and King Cohn. So it's safe to say he's in his element here, in a novel about Hollywood personalities converging on a palatial residence in Central California during Labor Day weekend, 1933. Other than a puzzling gaffe -- Thomas mentions Joseph Breen and his Nazi brethren in the Hays Office a few times, stating that they would not give approval to various "saucy" scenes, when the Production Code in fact wasn't enforced until June, 1934, nearly a year after the events of this novel -- Weekend '33 is a perfectly-rendered trip back into a long-lost era of Hollywood glamour.
This is a long-simmer novel very much in the vein of Burt Hirschfeld -- and in fact, Hirschfeld's novel Acapulco is given a full-page advertisement in the back of the book (another full-page ad is given to The Millionaires, by my man Herbert Kastle). Thomas employs the same method as used by Hirschfeld: he takes a large cast of fabulous people with fabulous wealth, places them in a fabulous setting, and lets them simmer for a few hundred pages. And just as in Hirschfeld there isn't much "trashy" material here; the novel is mostly dialog and thick blocks of narrative.
Weekend '33 in fact could've been published a decade or two earlier and wouldn't have caused a stir. It's almost chaste in a way, which is surprising given the era it was published -- what I wanted was a trashy novel of Hollywood personalities sitting around in their art deco apartments and sipping High Balls while scheming against one another, with the occasional coke-fueled orgy to spice things up. Instead this is a slow-brewing tale that's more focused on character; and one could argue that there are too many characters here. That's not to say however that it is an uninvolving tale. I was actually quite caught up in it, and it worked the same magic on me that Hirschfeld's own novels have.
Rather than use real figures from the era, Thomas instead delivers analogues of them. This is a bit underwhelming, as the novel therefore lacks the impact it otherwise might have: Thomas recreates '30s Hollywood, creating a variety of studios that didn't exist, stating that they are the top of the heap, and only gives real studios like MGM and Paramount minor mention. And the only real actor I recall being namedropped was Kay Francis. But I guess the idea then is a roman a clef sort of aproach, a la Robbins; only whereas Robbins would've created one or two "new" characters and placed them in the "real" world, Thomas instead recreates Hollywood itself.
As mentioned, there are a damn bunch of characters. Here they are, with who I think they're supposed to be in paranthesis: Harrison Stembridge (William Randolph Hearst) and his mistress Anita Farrell (Marion Davies) invite a host of Hollywood personalities to their castle-like domain Excalibur (basically Citizen Kane's Xanadu) in Central California. Stembridge has ulterior motives in who he has invited; the money-makers of the industry, basically, and he refuses to tell Anita his intentions. Anita however convinces the old man to allow her to invite some of her own Hollywood friends to spice things up -- her fear is all of these fuddy-duddy "business types" will spoil Labor Day weekend.
Among the guests are Arthur J. Bryant (Louis B. Mayer), head of the biggest studio in Hollywood; Sam Green (Harry Cohn, on the way up), straight-shooting owner of a struggling, nascent studio; Kay Caldwell (Gloria Swanson), silent era screen queen now determined to keep her (aging) star from fading; Roger Carlisle (Herman Mankiewicz), a screenwriter with flashes of genius who despite it all is too busy getting drunk and pissing people off; Melody Lee (Jean Harlow), a street-smart but innocent bombshell who's the next big thing; and Curt Zimmer (Erich von Stroheim), hulking German director who cares only for his art. In addition there is a husband-and-wife producing team; the wife, Laura Mason, is a former silent star and good friends with Kay Caldwell; the husband, Bobby Redmon, is a comedian in the vein of Buster Keaton. There's also Henry Stockton (Joseph Kennedy), another studio owner, but one who has just entered the business; an industry leader, Stockton figures that a film studio can be as easily run as say a steel factory -- and like Kennedy, who was in love with Gloria Swanson, Stockton is in love with Kay Caldwell. Finally there's Don Howell, another fading star who is looking to Sam Green for his next film; I'm not sure who he's supposed to be.
Thomas takes his time with the narrative. We meet each of our characters just before Labor Day weekend, as they go about their business in Hollywood. And by the way, for a novel about Hollywood there's very little movie-making action. Instead we see our characters in between projects, and so get little insight into the movie-making machine. Stembridge sends out his invitations and the panoply of characters descend en masse to Excalibur. This is another well-rendered scene as some of the guests converge in rented limosines, others in private planes, and others in trains, riding in Stembridge's own luxuriously-appointed private cars. Along the way various characters meet and talk and talk. No one understands why Stembridge has called them to Excalibur.
Another sequence which seems to acknowledge Citizen Kane is when the guests first arrive; part of the ritual of Excalibur is Stembridge escorts his guests on horseback down into the valley and there they have dinner. It's all just like the outdoor party sequence in the latter half of Citizen Kane, when Kane is entertaining guests in that awesome backlot of a forest (complete with what looks to be Prehistoric birds flashing by in the skyline -- keep your eyes open for them, next time you watch the film). After dinner Stembridge talks privately with the men he invited to Excalibur, and we finally learn his intentions: he wants to buy their studios.
Of them all, Sam Green emerges as the hero of the piece, as he's steadfastly against it, even though he's not a moneymaker and indeed is behind on a note he owes...to a bank owned by Stembridge. The old man claims he's merely buying the studios as a plaything for his mistress Anita Farrell, but Green puts the pieces together: Stembridge is an anti-Semite -- indeed he seems very interested in the doings of Adolf Hitler over in Europe -- and his goal is to take Hollywood away from the Jewish moguls and recreate it in his own Aryan image.
This has the makings of a helluva plot, but it all boils over in lots of dialog and argument. And what's worse is the anti-Semite insinuations are clouded over. Green works as a cog in Stembridge's plan, but not enough to foil him; after various melodramatic incidents (for example, Bobby has a quick fling with Melody Lee before being discovered by his wife Laura), several of the characters decide to sell their interests to Stembridge and therefore be done with the whole damned Hollywood business.
Bu then -- and this paragraph is a spoiler, so skip it if you want -- Thomas undercuts all of the drama. After learning that his plan is a success and that all of the owners (except for Green) will sell him their studios, Stembridge is informed that he doesn't even have the money to buy them! Due to the newly-inflated cost of paper (like Hearst, Stembridge's fortunes have been created by his many newspapers), Stembridge's resources are now too swamped to even go forward with his plan. To say it's an underwhelming finale would be, well, an understatement.
Just as frustratingly, Thomas then skips forward to a few months after Labor Day weekend, with the opening of Green's new film, which was written by Carlile. We get a glimmering of what's happened to each of the characters as they converge on their way into Mann's Chinese Theater, being interviewed on-air by a radio personality. And with that Weekend '33 comes to an end.
It appears that Thomas wrote only one other novel, the impressively-titled The Flesh Merchants, from 1959. Before that though I think I'll check out some of his mogul bios. And I should discover more Golden Age-era novels posthaste: I have the comprehensive sourcebook The Hollywood Novel by A. Slide on the way via Interlibrary Loan.