Picks and Pans Review: Goldwyn: a Biography

updated 04/10/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by A. Scott Berg

This biography is as meticulous, as sterling in quality and as large in scope as independent movie producer Samuel Goldwyn always (but not always very accurately) claimed his movies were. Berg, author of a highly praised 1978 biography of editor Maxwell Perkins, has drawn a thorough and seemingly fair portrait of one of Hollywood's shrewdest, most flamboyant and longest-lived figures. Goldwyn, who died at age 94 in 1974, made his first picture, The Squaw Man, in 1913. (The first feature-length movie that was filmed in Hollywood, it also marked the directorial debut of Cecil B. DeMille.) His last, Porgy and Bess, came in 1959. In between, he produced Stella Dallas (two versions), Withering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives and many other memorable films. Goldwyn was in many ways as much a creation as the movies he produced. Born in Warsaw in 1879 as Schmuel Gelbfisz, he came to the United States as a 20-year-old and rose through the ranks in the glove making business before entering the nascent film industry. Once he became a success there, he quickly set about fictionalizing his origins, affected British tailoring and married a second wife, Frances Howard, who was devoted to social convention.

He was soon hiring and firing the best writers and directors, signing such stars as Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper to long-term contracts (and then often squandering them in dismal vehicles) and always paying at least lip service to his instinct for quality. Although he was a master at publicity, Goldwyn became just about as famous for his funny sayings ("Include me out") as he was for the pronouncements he wanted recorded. Personally, Goldwyn was so obsessive even his slums had to be the best looking. When he was producing Dead End, he stopped by the film's set at the end of every day to clean up the carefully strewn garbage. Berg has been working on this book for nearly a decade, and his research and persistence show. Goldwyn's only son, movie producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., allowed Berg access to his parents' personal papers. Equally important, the author managed to sit down with such Goldwyn intimates as William Wyler, George Cukor and Lillian Hellman before their deaths. The accretion of detail and anecdote here, aided more than slightly by Berg's deft prose, ends up revealing a lot not only about Goldwyn but about the methods and mores of Hollywood in its Golden Age. (Knopf, $24.95)

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