Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Harvey G. Cohen's "Who’s In The Money?"

Harvey G. Cohen is the author of Duke Ellington’s America, which the Washington Post called one of the best books of the year. He writes and teaches about US cultural and political history, especially the art, business and history of the music industry and film industry. He’s also a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London.

Cohen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Who's in the Money?: The Great Depression Musicals and Hollywood's New Deal, and reported the following:
Who’s In The Money? explores the "winner take all" economy of 1933 Hollywood from numerous vantage points. It connects the Warner brothers, their Busby Berkeley-led Great Depression Musicals (such as 42nd St) & FDR's New Deal programs. While the Warners were close friends and fundraisers for President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 election, and supported FDR’s New Deal in their film marketing during the first half of 1933, this book demonstrates how the Warners subtly undermined FDR’s dictates, doing all they could to ensure that the pain of the Great Depression was visited upon movie stars, chorus girls, technicians, screenwriters, etc and definitely not upon executives or owners of the studios.

Page 99 explores the most famous sequence in legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley’s career, and probably in the 1930s Great Depression Musicals as a whole: the “By A Waterfall” number from Footlight Parade, the key film in the book. Warner Bros. files revealed how big the water tanks were that the chorus girls jumped into, how much the sets cost, the sexual imagery employed in this surprisingly racy “pre-code” scene, the hundreds of men who worked on the sets daily, how notorious skinflint production chief Jack Warner tried (mostly in vain) to hold down costs, and more.

But Who’s In The Money? goes deeper into what was transpiring behind the scenes. Those gorgeous chorus girls created those effects with punishing efforts (you can see their tiredness and strain viewing the film closely), working 14 to 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week. They were being paid less money than they were on the previous two Great Depression musicals, 42nd St and Gold Diggers of 1933, even though those films were spectacularly successful, two of the top 5 grossing films of 1933. My book, as well as the first three Warner Bros Great Depression Musicals, focus on labor issues. Those films reflected what was happening in Hollywood at the time: punitive 50% temporary wage cuts for most employees (except owners and executives), fights and resistance over the studios’ exploitive contracts, the controversial birth of the first unions for Hollywood’s creatives (Screen Actors & Writers Guilds) and more. The book explores how Hollywood’s employees began rebelling against the way the oligarchical way the studio moguls preferred to do their business, and events got ugly on and offscreen, leading to the eventual breakdown of the all-encompassing power of the major studios after World War II.

Who’s In The Money? brings readers behind the scenes at Warner Bros. and the federal government during a period of profound tension. The national events surrounding the making of the Great Depression Musicals combine to depict a story of financial survival, political intrigue and backstabbing. Told through the lives and careers of movie stars and film executives whose names have echoed through decades of American culture, the narrative is one that resonates in today’s strange mix of politics and media.
Learn more about Who's in the Money? at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Duke Ellington's America.

--Marshal Zeringue