Leo Verswijver. Movies Were Always Magical: Interviews with 19 Actors, Directors, and Producers from the Hollywood of the 1930s through the 1950s. McFarland, 2003. 264 pages; $35.00.
Verswijver's "interviews" are really more than that. Eliminating his own prompting questions from a series of conventional interviews (conducted from 1999 through 2002) and arranging his subjects' commentary into memoir-like reflections upon a generally coherent set of concerns integrated with his own accounts of their career highlights, Verswijver manages to create profiles of considerably greater depth and interest than generally possible in conventional (and usually tedious) interview dialogues. Unfortunately, the full value of this virtue is a bit compromised by the volume's arrangement of its subjects in simple alphabetical order. Ordering them thematically or according to an echelon of some sort might have lifted these profiles into something like a broader coherent vision of Hollywood's golden era. As things stand, with Pat Boone at one end and Fred Zinnemann at the other, we are left with just miscellaneous glimpses of it. Nonetheless, these are glimpses worth getting, especially for their cultural value. Take Boone, for example.
There may not be much cinematic value in knowing the pieties that guided Pat Boone's career decisions as a film-idol though the fifties and sixties, but certainly there is some cultural value to knowing them. As a true anti-Elvis, Boone's authentic Christian wholesomeness was (and remains) famous, and it will surely be astonishing to most present and future readers to discover the tolerance the Hollywood studios of Boone's day had for his scruples. Defying the obligations of his contract with 20th Century Fox in adamantly refusing on moral grounds to play the part of a wayward Catholic priest (probably more for the Papist association than the moral questionability), Boone managed through his sheer stubbornness to win a concessionary assignment to Journey to the Center of the Earth-which he also refused until being won over by the award of fifteen percent of the film's revenue and the promise of having Verne's science fiction tale turned into a bit of a musical!
Incredible as it may seem, there was once a time in America when wholesomeness could be big box office, and in fact (at least according to Boone), the wholesome Boone-suffused Journey was so successful that it literally saved Fox from the bankruptcy-threatening production disaster of Richard Burton's and Liz Taylor's steamy Cleopatra. It is no wonder that Boone's view of contemporary film is deeply fixated on what he considers the regrettable moral and marketing error of passing up G-rated entertainment. However skeptical most of us might now be of such a view (as simply quaint or falsely nostalgic), the sheer authenticity and intensity of the extended pontification that constitutes the bulk of Boone's profile makes it impossible to imagine that he and Hollywood could have collaborated as successfully as they did on any but his terms. Apparently, it was once really true, not just imagined, in America that wholesomeness sold. This is a revelation worth documenting and preserving against the glib erasures of our ever-increasing jadedness.
Similarly valuable testimonies come from others. …