You can measure David Thomson's ambition by his title. "The Whole Equation" is the famous phrase from the first page of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon," in which the narrator insists that only "half a dozen" men have fully solved the higher (or possibly lower) mathematics of moviemaking. With this volume, Thomson intends to elbow his way into their company.
You can measure the originality of his approach on his book's first page. Not for him that dreary slog through the prehistory of cinema, with its dutiful allusions to "Fred Ott's Sneeze" or "The Kiss" or "Life of an American Fireman," with which most movie histories begin. No, his first chapter is about "Chinatown," inarguably, I think, one of the great Modernist gestures of contemporary cinema. This is in medias res with a vengeance.
You can measure the extent of his failure to live up to the large promise of his subtitle, "A History of Hollywood," merely by noting that his 22 chapters are, in fact, a collection of linked essays on a historical theme -- episodic, idiosyncratic, often rather lazily researched -- not by any stretch of the imagination a coherent work of history. Which is a way of saying that "The Whole Equation" is much more a literary production than a historical one, perhaps predictably so from a man who, in his introduction to everyone's favorite movie cheat sheet, "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," confesses, "I love books more than films."
This is not necessarily a bad thing. So much writing about the movies is sub-literate piffle of either the academic or the journalistic kind. The sheen and sparkle of Thomson's prose, the way it gracefully asserts his particular sensibility, deserve celebration. That said, however, I think the conceit driving his book -- Fitzgerald's romantic belief that there actually is a "whole equation" that will explain the movies -- is nonsense.
There is no "whole equation." And there never was one. Or, rather, there have been many of them that worked for a while and then failed to work -- a fact that Fitzgerald himself more or less acknowledged when he wrote that Hollywood could be understood "only dimly and in flashes." What Thomson has given us -- and I'm not sure he's fully conscious of his own limits and bias -- is one of those flashes, a bright flicker of lightning illuminating a darkling plain, the monuments of which are almost universally of a particular kind.
What the man likes in movies is literacy of a very traditional sort -- witty dialogue, novelistic structure and (much harder to come by) intensely explicated characters. He is not particularly concerned with purely visual -- or "cinematic" -- representations of reality. His taste in films of this kind is impeccable, ranging as it does from "His Girl Friday" to "Letter From an Unknown Woman" to "In a Lonely Place," all of which are, in differing ways, wonderfully written films. On the other hand, his bias toward conventional literacy in film flaws his consideration of other aspects of "the whole equation."
It is not exactly news that American movies, besides being presumptively an art form, have always been a furiously chugging economic engine. A movie historian has an obligation, nearly as intense as any studio production chief's, to acknowledge the bottom line. But Thomson's attention to that matter is, putting it mildly, highly selective. He scarcely mentions, for example, Adolph Zukor, who, more than anyone else, organized the industry along the lines that prevailed in the days of its highest power -- that is to say, as a vertical oligopoly. Similarly, he pays relatively little attention to the raffish, fractious Warner brothers, whose studio produced most of the American movies of the 1930s and 1940s that still matter. The same is true of his cursory treatment of the monstrous (and very smart) Harry Cohn at Columbia. And he has nothing pertinent to say about William Fox, who lost control of his studio in complicated legal wranglings that predicted, in primitive form, the mergers and acquisitions frenzy of a later day.
Of the traditional major studios, only Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer much interests Thomson -- he writes well about the way its sainted head of production, Irving Thalberg, model for Fitzgerald's highly romanticized "last tycoon," applied the reins to movie-mad (or ego-addled) Erich von Stroheim on "Greed"; about how Thalberg got his comeuppance a few years later from his boss, Louis B. Mayer; and on the tangled relationship among Mayer, his daughter Irene and her husband, David O. Selznick, producer of the elephantine and (to me) virtually unwatchable "Gone With the Wind."