Tribute By Monica Sullivan
Samuel Goldwyn was a one of a kind guy in a dime a dozen town. Between 1923 and 1959, he independently produced eighty films, including fifty released through United Artists between 1925 and 1940. Goldwyn, whose name still appears on every MGM release, lost control of Goldwyn Pictures in 1922. When the corporation merged with Metro and Mayer, Goldwyn played no role in the new studio. Every single one of Goldwyn's own films began with the credit "Samuel Goldwyn Presents." He paid for all eighty of his productions with his own money. Being accountable to no one, he made sure that his films were PERSONAL in every sense of the word. Who decided which movie to make? He did. Who decided which star to cast? He did. Who had the final word with the director? He did. Who was in charge of the ballyhoo? Samuel Goldwyn, that's who!
After his start in life as a Polish immigrant and a one-time glove peddler, many of Goldwyn's films showed individuals in conflict with the society that engulfed them. His first film for United Artists (which he re-made as a 1937 talkie and his son re-made in color as 1990s "Stella") was "Stella Dallas." Belle Bennett (1890-1932) played the part of a small town girl who married a rich man (Ronald Colman, 1891-1958) and became the mother of his daughter, Laurel (Lois Moran, 1907-90). Being of a lower social order, Stella soon realizes that she and Stephen are ill-suited and their separation follows, with Stella keeping Laurel. Since Stella's sexual tastes run to low-class horse trainers like Ed Munn (Jean Hersholt,1886-1956), her conscience kicks in about Laurel's environment. Learning that her husband wants to marry a Real Lady like Helen Morrison (Alice Joyce, 1889-1955), Stella gallantly divorces him. She is then self-sacrificing: She kicks her daughter out of her life so Laurel, too, can be a Real Lady under Helen's guidance. The heart & soul of the movie, during which every mother in the audience is presumably sobbing her way through six tissue boxes, occurs when Stella, who did not receive a wedding invitation, cries her eyes out in the rain watching Laurel marry Richard Grosvenor. (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) Yes, the narrative thread is on the side of Society, but who did the audience care about and identify with through all eleven reels? Not Stephen, not Laurel and certainly not Ed, Helen or Richard: Nope, Stella tapped into every woman's fear that she's not good enough, not smart enough, and doggone it, NO ONE likes her!
Goldwyn instinctively knew that America was a generation of immigrants, most of whom felt like outsiders their entire lives. Wealth and success undiluted by misery and tragedy were not subjects that moviegoers would turn out in droves to experience second-hand. When Goldwyn DID focus on a rich, "happily" married couple, as in 1932's "Cynara", the emphasis was on how, by taking his privileged life for granted, the husband (Colman again as Barrister Jim Warlock) destroys a young girl's life. The girl (Phyllis Barry as Doris Lea) is one of millions eking out a living. The attentions of the powerful Warlock quite melt her heart and turn her head. Warlock's wife Clemency (Kay Francis, 1899-1968) is complicit in Doris' fate because she leaves town just before a wedding anniversary in order to comfort her lovelorn sister. When Doris can not speak for herself, her roommate Milly Miles (Viva Tattersall) speaks for her, forcing Warlock to face how his casual actions have led to disaster. Again, Society remains intact, but the sharp social critique is obvious. In other films like "Bulldog Drummond," "Street Scene," "Dead End," Samuel Goldwyn, whose taste strictly reflected the movies he would pay to see, revealed American culture as he knew it, just as contemporary indie filmmakers reflect the world as they know it.
© 2001 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 10/17/01
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