Tuesday, June 20, 2017

One Summer at the Movies: Bill Bryson Looks Back

What’s the big deal about 1927? Bill Bryson, my favorite pop historian, devotes an entire book to the events between May and September of that year. The book is called One Summer: America, 1927. Bryson makes a great case for the fact that the personalities who came to the fore during that six month period—aviator Charles Lindbergh, baseball great Babe Ruth, President Calvin Coolidge, anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti—helped make the United States into the 20th century powerhouse it would soon become.

Naturally, the subject of movies crops up. Movies were evolving back then from a cheap attraction for the lower classes into a full-fledged art form, and their use in capturing reality can’t be overstated. When Lindbergh made the first successful aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, newsreel cameras were in Paris to greet him. Manhattan’s huge new Roxy Theatre showed an exclusive Movietone newsreel of Lindbergh taking off from Roosevelt Field, in which sound was an integral component. As Bryson describes it, “loudspeakers were set up in the theater wings, and a technician with good timing played a separate sound track so that the engine’s initial sputters and final triumphant roar matched the image on the screen.” The combination of sound and visuals brought six thousand patrons to their feet at every screening.

Feeding on the excitement generated by this new era of aviation, Walt Disney released a new Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Plane Crazy.” And after his flight the triumphant but very private Lindbergh was offered $500,000 and a percentage of the profits to star in a cinematic version of his life. According to Bryson, he could have earned as much as $1 million if he’d agreed to be filmed while searching for and finding the girl of his dreams, culminating in a Hollywood-style wedding.

Meanwhile taciturn President Calvin Coolidge was discovering how much he liked appearing on film. Having shown up at a South Dakota hunting lodge for a long summer vacation, he insisted that his whole entourage reload their luggage into cars and drive 200 yards down the road so they could re-enact the presidential arrival for the newsreel cameras.

In Los Angeles, home of movie magic, the big sign in the hills still read Hollywoodland, advertising a local housing tract. But studios were churning out 800 feature films a year. Movies were now the country’s fourth largest industry, but few individual pictures made much profit. Early film moguls looked for answers in new stars (like the sexy “it” girl Clara Bow), new cinematic expertise (the aerial stunts in Wings were spectacular by any standard), and new technologies (this was of course the year of The Jazz Singer and the advent of the talking picture). Meanwhile, exhibitors tried to elevate the moviegoing experience by building extravagant movie palaces. Bryson mentions the kitschy Orientalism of Grauman’s Chinese but especially the bejeweled Roxy on 50th Street and 7th Avenue in New York City. It seated 6,200 moviegoers, but could also accommodate elaborate stage performances. Fourteen Steinway pianos were at the ready; the Roxy also boasted air-conditioning and push-button ice-water dispensers. A New Yorker cartoon of the era showed an awed child asking her mother, “Mama, does God live here?”

Bryson laments, as so many cineastes do, the fact that talkies swept in as silent film was reaching its aesthetic peak. But he makes a fascinating statement about the impact of sound in movies. With a few exceptions, Hollywood’s stars spoke with American voices. “With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American humor . . . America was officially taking over the world.”

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