Monday, December 12, 2016

Books: Moviola

I found Moviola purely by chance: digging through the bargain bins outside the Strand in Manhattan. It was night. I was on the phone with Vija, walking through the East Village until I headed west and stopped at the bookstore. I hadn't planned to go there; I just wanted to do something other than walk while I was talking. I told her about the book when I found it and she agreed with me that it was worth getting, especially for only two bucks.

Anyone familiar with Old Hollywood, not to mention old Broadway, will know the name Garson Kanin: screenwriter of such great films as Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, and It Should Happen to You, among others, some in collaboration with his wife Ruth Gordon; playwright of Born Yesterday, which made Judy Holliday a star; author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. His credentials are legit, is my point. Keep that in mind.

In 1979, he released a novel called Moviola, an alternate history of Hollywood through the eyes of a prominent film producer. Many superstar actors, directors and producers appear in the story, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer, Rene Clair and many more.

Ben, the protagonist, tells his life story as an old man to a younger man, sent as an emissary of a foreign businessman intent on buying Ben's studio. The film industry of the present, the late 70s - the so-called "New Hollywood" that, in the notorious words of Dennis Hopper, vowed to "bury" their predecessors - is held in contrast to its forebears as we follow Ben, from his beginnings as a Jewish immigrant to his modest career as an exhibitor to his move west to become a producer, and the many lives he touches along the way.

Garson Kanin
Kanin obviously knew many people within Hollywood. His knowledge is put to good use here. When he puts words into the mouths of people like Fatty Arbuckle, John Garfield or Joan Crawford, they have an air of authenticity. If Kanin didn't know these people directly, he knew their history, long before there was an IMDB or a Wikipedia for him to access. He combines fact and fiction, weaving Ben in and out of these people's lives, exerting his influence to various degrees, though not enough to radically change the history we know to be true.

That said, while I appreciated this dramatization of the lives of so many key Hollywood players, I didn't love this book. Kanin's writing style defies basic storytelling rules I've spent the last three years years attempting to understand as I'm writing my own novel. He switches tenses, past to present and back to past again, often within the same chapter. He switches point-of-view. At first, Guy, the man to whom Ben tells his story, narrates Moviola, speaking in the first person. Then the POV switches to that of Ben, in the third person, not just for the flashbacks, but for the present-day narrative too. Then there are scenes set in the past which presuppose knowledge Ben couldn't know firsthand, even though he's clearly the one telling the story. It made reading the book frustrating.

When I told Sandi about Moviola, she suggested no one called Kanin on these things because he was Garson Kanin, Hollywood screenwriter. I suppose that's possible. If so, that's unfortunate, but if not, I couldn't for the life of me understand why he chose to write this way. Sandi also said in plays and screenplays, such literary mistakes would not be easily caught. Does that mean he didn't know any better? I sincerely doubt that. Regardless, it marred what should have been a great read.

Moviola was adapted into a three-part TV mini-series in 1980. It was actually three two-hour movies, based on three sections of the book: Garbo and Garfield, the casting call for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, and Monroe. I can't tell from this article if the character of Ben even appears in the TV movies or not.

So that's that. Oh yeah, one more thing about my used copy of Moviola, found completely by chance in a bargain bin...

"2.xi.79 Dear Jill - Who took that goddam picture? Much love, Gar (?) NYC"'s autographed.

UPDATE 10.30.17: I've just read this and now I wish I hadn't gotten rid of this book because I have a feeling I should probably read it again.


  1. What an awesome find! I love serendipitous moments like that, especially with regards to books.

  2. Me too. I would buy used books regardless, but the possibility of finding a book with a visible history (underlined passages, notes, doodles) is fun.

  3. AUTOGRAPHED BY GARSON KANIN?! Awesome!! That is quite a find – especially for only $2.00. Nice going!

    From your description, the book does sound like a frustrating read. It drives me crazy when authors switch tenses without any apparent reason. It's so distracting. However, it does sound like an interesting story, and I'll pick it up if I ever see it.

  4. The more I think about it, the more I suspect no one had the nerve to call him on his grammar. I mean, it's plain as day to anyone with a high school education. But it's still a good story. Maybe that's all that matters? Dunno.


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