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Every Picture Tells a Story

HEARST OVER HOLLYWOOD: Power, Passion, and Propaganda in the Movies, By Louis Pizzitola, Columbia University Press: 526 pp., $34.95

January 27, 2002|DAVID NASAW

In March 1919, Adolph Zukor and William Randolph Hearst, the nation's two most powerful media barons, one in moving pictures, the other in newspapers, announced a joint venture. Hearst was going to build a motion picture studio in New York and produce features based on stories from his Cosmopolitan magazine. Zukor would release them. Suspecting that his partner, at age 56, might need some assistance in his new career as film producer and studio owner, Zukor offered to help. Hearst turned him down. "Making pictures," he wrote Zukor, "is fundamentally like making publications.... I think I have learned various things in the publishing business that will be of value in the motion picture business."

Hearst had been telling stories with pictures since 1887, when he took over as editor of his father's San Francisco Examiner. He had converted a moribund newspaper into the most vibrant paper on the West Coast by outbidding his rivals for their top reporters and editors and signing up the nation's best artists to illustrate their work. He would follow the same path in moving pictures.

His first step, after announcing his agreement with Zukor, was to offer fabulously inflated contracts to Frances Marion, who until then had been Mary Pickford's screenwriter, and Josef Urban, the distinguished Austrian artist and architect who was chief designer for both the Metropolitan Opera and Ziegfeld Follies. With Urban designing his sets and Marion writing the scripts, Hearst's Cosmopolitan Productions quickly established itself as one of the nation's premier studios. An early film, "Humoresque," based on a Fanny Hurst short story, won the Photoplay Gold Medal for best picture in 1920.

Hearst had not entered the business to make his companion, Marion Davies, a star. Still, by the early 1920s, she was appearing regularly in his films, several of which not only did well at the box office but also were warmly received by critics not on the Hearst payroll. Even though Orson Welles admitted that his cinematic creation, opera singer Susan Alexander, bore "no resemblance at all" to movie star Marion Davies, it has been difficult not to see Davies--and Hearst, her champion and producer--through the distorting lens of "Citizen Kane."

Of all the elements in Hearst's vast media empire--which by the late 1930s included 26 newspapers in 18 cities, 13 magazines, wire and feature services, radio stations, a newsreel company and a film studio--his career in moving pictures is least understood. In "Hearst Over Hollywood: Power, Passion, and Propaganda in the Movies," Louis Pizzitola attempts to recount the history of Hollywood as impacted by Hearst's presence and power while "telling Hearst's life story from a Hollywood perspective." If Pizzitola had stayed within the boundaries of this project, his book would have been much more successful--and useful--than it is. Even so, he has been able to fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge, especially in regard to Hearst's involvement in moving pictures before 1919.

It is apparent from the opening pages that Pizzitola has done a prodigious amount of research. His first chapter begins with a discussion of Tammany Hall corruption. Hearst is introduced on Page 8 as "one of the most prominent allies of Tammany Hall." From there Pizzitola makes his way to the Dewey Theater, which was operated by a Tammany stalwart, to a Hannah Willson, who, in 1895, lived with her daughters behind the theater and, according to Pizzitola, ran a brothel. Willson's daughter, Millicent, would later marry Hearst. Pizzitola's evidence that the future Mrs. Hearst grew up in a brothel owned by her mother is attributed to a "preponderance of circumstantial evidence" and an untitled 1913 "broadside" written to smear Hearst. What does any of this have to do with the story of Hearst and Hollywood? I'm not sure. But it is a fit beginning for what turns out to be more an indictment of Hearst than a case study of his association with Hollywood.

It is, of course, not difficult to condemn Hearst on any number of counts, especially after he veered to the hard right in the middle 1930s to become one of this nation's most vicious Red-baiters and an unabashed Hitler supporter. But Pizzitola also attempts to prove that Hearst was a bootlegger, that he informed on Zukor during a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Paramount for antitrust violations, that he was an "organizer of organized crime" in Chicago and that he so disappointed his own mother that "in one of her final and most severe acts of scorn," she banned his wife from visiting her deathbed.

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