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Published by EH.NET (October 2001)

Bernard F. Dick. Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of

Corporate Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. x +

269 pp. Notes, index. Photographs follow p. 118. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN

0-8131-2202-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET and H-Business by Jonathan Snyder, Department of History,

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Bernard Dick’s Engulfed recounts the demise of one of the studios that

helped give defining shape to Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age.” This breezy

and informative six-reeler about the “engulfing” of the once proud studio by a

mega-conglomerate to which film art was merely another commodity, exhibits

tender-eyed affection for classic Hollywood and the luminaries that glowed

there. Dick’s vivid romp through the backlots should make the book a

box-office winner with the popcorn crowd fascinated by the fabrication of

fantasy, or for those with a special interest in the popular pics and

personalities of Paramount.

Dick sees Paramount as a purveyor of quality films thanks to the enlightened

tastes of the men who founded it, beginning with Adolph Zukor, one of the

immigrant-tycoons who would eventually preside over the studio system of the

1920s, 30s and 40s. Starting his career in the fur trade, Zukor became one of

the very first film impresarios to envision a higher caliber of film

narrative, one that would appeal to middle-class values and thereby raise the

prestige of this “faintly disreputable” industry, then in its infancy [1].

Zukor teamed with Jesse Lasky to form Famous Players Film Company, an outfit

that specialized in filmed stage plays. Independently, W. W. Hodkinson, an

entrepreneur with aesthetic preferences comparable to Zukor’s, launched

Paramount Pictures Corporation as a distributor for films a cut above standard

nickelodeon-type fare; Famous Players would become Hodkinson’s main client.

Displaying the characteristic acquisitiveness that spawned all the great

studios, Zukor elbowed aside Hodkinson in a stock-acquiring coup for the

distributorship. Soon after, Zukor procured a string of exhibition companies,

and by the mid-twenties ruled over a film empire that integrated production,

distribution and exhibition. Throughout all of his acquisitions, Dick insists,

Zukor’s original emphasis on a higher-level art remained intact. Thus at its

height Paramount denoted the aesthetic and artistic sophistication embodied in

such stars as Marlene Dietrich or in films such as Double Indemnity.

By the early years of the depression, Paramount’s stock was skidding inversely

to its debt. The studio was rescued from insolvency by new corporate directors

Dick labels “Wall Street types” (p. 21) who knew little about movie making but

much about moneymaking. The ascendancy of East Coast money people over the

West Coast creative people (including the studio tycoons themselves) is one of

the key features of the Golden Age studio system, but Dick’s narrative

interest lies elsewhere, mainly in Paramount’s stable of talent. This approach

is fairly arbitrary, especially since the book’s later reels have Dick

railing at the modern-day corporate media moguls who were supposedly

eviscerating Paramount. Nevertheless, Dick’s highly readable critical survey

of legendary depression-era film artists such as Cecil B. DeMille, Leo

McCarey, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and actors such as Mae West, Cary

Grant, and the Marx Brothers, comprises a valuable component of the book. It

was artists such as these who forged Paramount’s brand-name comedic oeuvre,

exemplified by West’s double entendres, the romantic comedies of Ernst

Lubitsch, the Hope-Crosby road movies and, toward the end, Jerry Lewis. Dick’s

own light and winking narrative touch replays this style of sophisticated

comedy that he calls “the Paramount tradition,” and his engaging overview of

Golden Age Paramount reminds one of the subtle graces of wit and the

well-crafted line.

The 1950s represented a long era of decline. By the end of the decade the

quality of Paramount offerings had slumped badly, and the studio was not

developing new talent. Audiences clearly preferred the stars and spectacles of

other studios, like MGM’s Ben Hur or United Artist’s Some Like It

Hot, though even these were exceptions to the general downswing. Dick

glosses the usual suspects for the deterioration of the Golden Age: the

break-up of the monopoly studio system, HUAC and the blacklist, television,

competition from foreign films, the dissipation of sanctioning censorial

authority, generally more educated audiences (an often neglected factor, in my

view), and new niche genres that tried vainly to compensate for the loss of

the lucrative mass audience of the Golden Age. In a succinct turn of phrase,

he summarizes Hollywood’s problems by remarking that now instead of going to

*the movies*, people went to *a movie* (p. 69). Unfortunately, Dick notes

these developments merely as backdrop for Paramount’s special problems,

concentrating instead on Paramount’s run of sub-standard offerings in the

1950s. In his account, Paramount suffered because the quality of its pictures

began to depart from the Paramount tradition. He does not adequately place the

deterioration of the Paramount tradition in the political, social, and

demographic developments of the decade. It was these factors that had a far

greater impact on audience than any aesthetic evolution at one studio.

By insisting that Paramount drove away its audience, rather than judging that

audience to have left on its own, Dick inadequately gauges Hollywood’s

problems in those years. It is clear why Dick doesn’t more firmly ground

Paramount’s troubles in the larger history of studio-system decline: by

focusing on the dissolution of the Paramount tradition, Dick can celebrate the

Golden Age as he laments its passing, and thereby transfer agency and credit

to the studios and their glamorous personnel for the making of the Golden Age.

Had Dick rooted Paramount’s sinking fortunes in the difficulties that beset

all the studios in the 1950s, he would have had to conclude that the

“Paramount tradition” itself was the residue of particular historical

developments, like the studios’ monopoly, and cultural institutions, like the

Production Code, rather than the genius of entrepreneurial artists. In Dick’s

account, the studio no longer had the creative momentum in the 1950s to hold

together its audience (“The pictures were the problem,” p. 50), but the

opposite seems more accurate: that for reasons the studios had no direct

control over, there was no longer an audience to fund a continuation of the

Golden Age.

Engulfed is stronger on Paramount’s business practices in the later

fifties, as George Weltner takes the reigns of the crumbling empire. Readers

interested in that space of the film business between distribution, on the one

hand, and audience reception on the other — that is, marketing — will be

rewarded by the insightful distinction Dick makes between distributing a film

and marketing it. The latter is a particular development of post-Golden Age

Hollywood, when a large audience was no longer assured. “Getting fifteen

hundred prints of a film into theaters is one thing; getting 15 million people

to see it is another,” he writes. But here again he memorializes the old

studios, arguing that modern-day marketing has made the sizzle, not the steak,

important. Before the Madison Avenue types got their claws in Hollywood, back

in the glory days, Dick seems to be arguing, “the film was the thing” (p.

150). But one wonders what Zukor would have thought of modern-day marketing

techniques.

Dick’s main storyline is the acquisition of Paramount by Gulf + Western. Here

the focus shifts from nostalgia over lost talent to rage against the corporate

machine. The heart of his thesis is thus: “[Herbert] Siegel and [Charles]

Bluhdorn [the corporate chiefs who maneuvered Paramount’s takeover]

represented the new movie mogul — someone interested not so much in making

movies, as the previous generation had been, as in making money through

movies. To both of them, filmed entertainment, movies and television, was just

the name of a division on a little rectangle within a company’s organizational

chart — a box linked to other boxes that, in turn, are connected to a

central one” (p. 100). In 1966 Paramount was acquired by Gulf + Western.

Whatever remnants of the tradition that Zukor had nurtured and Weltner had

gamely tried to protect was now commodity fodder for corporate sharks who had

neither a sense of history nor a concern for art.

Dick credits Paramount’s short-lived renaissance under the new regime to the

production team of Peter Bart and Robert Evans who greenlighted classics like

The Godfather, Chinatown, and Nashville. But Dick draws

sharp distinctions between these honest-to-goodness movie men and the

corporate black-hats for whom the only art is the art of the deal. The

theatrical quality of the narrative surfaces as Bart and Evans, artistic

knights-errant protecting the creative impulse, battle the bottom-line

denizens of “the corporate dungeon” (p. 121). Engulfed soon reads like

one of the melodramas Hollywood has always excelled at, as Dick denies true

personae to the corporate executives who figure prominently in the Gulf +

Western part of the story. They are types, thinly drawn characters Dick

presses into a didactic tale. Bluhdorn is referred to as a megalomaniac (p.

109), a man obsessed with acquisition who “appeared to have bypassed youth, as

if residing in a no-man’s-land between birth and death” (p. 149). Dick’s

Bluhdorn is the mustachioed villain of countless melodramas, black cape

motivation enough for his evil doings. There is little evidence presented that

Bluhdorn’s was a special case of corporate philistinism, beyond the

thoroughgoing ambition that characterizes all successful corporate men,

including men like Zukor. Other executives fare little better: it is enough to

know that Ned Tanen used to “hurl sharpened pencils at members of his staff”

(p. 202) and that for Sumner Redstone “arrogance was his forte, not hubris”

(p. 228).

For Dick, the universe of the giant media conglomerates is an arena of

personal battles, of a Redstone pitted against a Barry Diller and a Rupert

Murdock or Seagram’s Edgar Bronfman Jr. Business is never only business, it is

always personal and relentless, merely an extension of the CEO who is, by

virtue of his operation in the corporate world, a destroyer of the soul of

art. “To Bronfman and Redstone,” Dick writes in a characteristic passage, “USA

[Network] ownership was never the real issue. The issue was who could flex

more muscle, who had the higher testosterone level, and, ultimately, who

would be crowned victor” (p. 232). Such spotlights make for freakishly

entertaining characters, but offer little insight into real people. As Neal

Gabler has so ably shown in An Empire Of Their Own, the great studio

heads of bygone years felt keenly engaged in vicious competitions of their

own, both with each other as well as with the culture itself, for acceptance

as ethnic outsiders. Dick’s attempt to characterize the latest generation of

media mogul as a special exhibition of corporate depravity seems misbegotten.

Dick has nothing but scorn for the Paramount production executives in the

Barry Diller-Michael Eisner-Jeffrey Katzenberg era. Unlike Bart and Evans, who

could negotiate the corporate minefield and still produce art, this next

generation is blasted as bottom-line neurotics who derived their aesthetic

sensibilities wholly from television; they may have produced hits, but they

cared nothing for the kind of cinema that had once made the studio great.

Their success merely hastened the corporate trend by making Paramount valuable

again. By the mid-eighties, Bluhdorn was dead and much of the sprawling

conglomerate that he founded, and which had once made Paramount just a

step-child in a variegated family of financials, raw materials, consumer goods

and so forth, had begun to wither away with the exception of, ironically,

Paramount studios. Under the Diller-Eisner team and successors, Gulf + Western

morphed into a next-generation media empire with Paramount the centerpiece of

a publishing and entertainment giant. Gulf + Western eventually passed away in

favor of Paramount Communications, which was in turn acquired by Sumner

Redstone’s Viacom. But this new Paramount had been thoroughly stripped of the

sensitivities that had once inspired Zukor, and the new commercial success of

Paramount Communications only hinted at the cinematic sophistication that had

once been its stock-in-trade. Again as elsewhere, Dick offers a useful

synopsis of the mergers and acquisitions, corporate shenanigans and

contractual malfeasances of Paramount in the early 1990s. It is useful for the

interested reader to have this in one place, but little of it is fresh or new

since nearly all of Dick’s sources are secondary accounts. [2]

Like the history Hollywood sells, Engulfed is earnest and entertaining

but languishing in nostalgia. In Dick’s account, there was a Golden Age when

studios, run by creative people, gave great movies to the masses. But Dick

seems to have confused what was a Golden Age for Hollywood studios with what

was a Golden Age for movies. It is not at all clear why one should prefer

Paramount’s old pictures to those it distributes today. They may have had

charm and sophistication, but when sophistication was a ruse to foil censors,

it hardly seems an enduring hook on which to hang critical judgment. They had

social significance, surely, but it would take a new audience and a maverick

generation of directors challenging the Production Code to get serious

political and social themes treated maturely. Positive developments such as

this only happened after the passing of the “Golden Age.” The collapse of the

autocratic studios and their Production Code permitted a wider (though still

too narrow) ideological range of movies to be seen, a more diverse generic

repertoire to develop, and iconoclastic talents to flourish. We may lament the

passing of the Lubitsch touch, but the Kubrick touch seems at least a fair

trade.

Dick is a fine storyteller, but his preference for narrative over analysis

limits Engulfed’s scholarly value. He engages in no systematic

aesthetic or ideological comparison to justify his preference for the old

black-and-whites over today’s extravaganzas. “It is easy to say that none of

Paramount’s films of the 1990s — hits or flops — rank artistically with

anything from Paramount’s classical past” (p. 233), he writes, and yet it is

precisely because this statement is false that the studios employed such

monopolistic devices as block-booking, to move all that second-rate product.

Today’s cinema is not worse than the old, though on balance it may not

necessarily be better either. There is certainly a great deal of consistency,

the new films pouring the old wine of special effects (Hollywood always

embraced technology) into the old skins of classic storylines. Titanic,

after all, may be only the jazzed-up ideological flipside to countless

screwball comedies of the thirties, both of which affirm the ideal of romantic

love and attempt to efface class as a legitimate social barrier. And it does

not take long to speculate what Zukor would have thought of that film.

Dick does not set out to demonstrate the corroding influence of commerce on

art; rather, this is his starting point, the moral that drives his narrative.

Thus art is ennobled when it is protected by sympathetic guardians like Zukor,

Weltner, and Evans; and degraded when imperiled by usurpers like Bluhdorn. But

this approach, which takes its conclusions for granted, can tell us little

about the relationship of art to commerce, or of the still unfolding role of

the corporation in sponsoring media. Dick would like us to believe that art,

especially of the kind that Paramount once made, has been disjointed by the

corporation. But good art has always needed patrons, a perspective the strict

story line keeps him from appreciating. His savaging of the so-called Second

Golden Age of movie makers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich,

and William Friedkin, who supposedly dissipated their talents on “drugs, sex,

and, worst of all, self-absorption” (p. 156) as products of the corporate era,

seems misplaced. After all, the era of the giant media conglomerate also

produced Scorsese, Spielberg, and Lucas, who combined the screen fantasy of

“Golden Age” cinema with technological wonder in worthy emulation of

Hollywood’s best escapism. That at least two of these have also reinvested the

capital of celebrity into movies of enduring consequence, like Schindler’s

List, suggests that the “Golden Age” is a historical designation of

limited critical significance, and fretting over corporate influence is well

belated.

In the fate of Paramount Dick aims to provide a synechdoche of what Alan

Trachtenberg called “the incorporation of America,” where independent nodes of

American culture, society, politics, and even business, become aligned in

support of large concentrations of corporate power. The irony here is that

Paramount itself was always one such corporation. Well before Gulf + Western

came on the scene, Paramount had already established itself as a media empire

incorporating not only film, television, and a record label, but also

independent producers like Pine-Thomas and Hal B. Wallis. Gulf + Western’s

acquisition of Paramount was not so much a turning point in movie history as

it was a continuation of the processes of acquisition and consolidation that

defined Hollywood from the beginning. However worthy may be Dick’s suspicion

of a corporate America that seems to subsume artistic values to the bottom

line, finding tragic the swallowing of a big fish by a bigger fish needs

stronger ground than the narrative he provides.

[1] Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented

Hollywood (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), p. 5.

[2] One happy exception is Dick’s use of the George Weltner papers, housed in

the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. The Center is an

oasis of valuable scholarly materials in the fields of entertainment and

popular culture, ironically set against Laramie’s formidable landscape.