Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two innocents in Hollywood

We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, Emily Kimbrough

Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough published Our Hearts Were Young and Gay late in 1942.  It is a hilarious and endearing account of a trip they took to England and France in the early 1920s, when they were both 19.  Shortly after its publication, they received a call from Hollywood.  The book had been optioned for a film, and Cornelia and Emily were invited to come to California to write the dialogue.  Though neither had any experience in writing for films, they said yes - and then immediately regretted it.  As Emily wrote,
"And why should I think that I could go to Hollywood and run up a scenario - I must have been out of my mind - I would back out - Cornelia could do it.  I heard her voice, slightly hysterical in pitch, and apprehensive. 'Oh Lord, Emily, you and I are going to take another trip together.'  And I knew that nothing would induce me to back out."
We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood is the story of that trip.  Where the first book was a collaboration, told in Cornelia's voice, this second book was written by Emily alone, and she is the narrator.  It is the story not so much the physical journey, but of the five weeks they spent at Paramount Studios working on dialogue.  When they went through the gates onto that famous lot, they entered a completely new and alien world.  Though Cornelia once had a small part in a film her father the actor Otis Skinner made (a story she told in her memoir Family Circle), that was in 1920.  They knew nothing about the business of making films in 1943, but at Paramount they had a front-row view of the business. Cornelia and Emily could poke into every corner of the sets and watch every step of the process, including a visit to Edith Head's costume department - and they did.  And then there were the stars.  On their first day at work, they saw Bob Hope riding by on a bicycle and Ginger Rogers strolling past in a mink skirt, and they met Ray Milland over lunch.  But Emily observed that to film actors, Cornelia was theater royalty, and they could be just as star-struck to meet her as she was with them.  Being Cornelia and Emily, they also managed to wreak a bit of havoc from time to time.  Emily's account of her unexpected appearance as a Godzilla-like figure in So Proudly We Hail is particularly memorable - and hilarious.

I love classic films.  My television stays set to the Turner Classic Movies station, and I will watch almost anything with William Powell and Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Coleman, Claude Rains, or Dana Andrews.  I loved this tour of 1943 Hollywood, which includes a description of the Academy Awards complete with paparazzi (all of whom ignored Cornelia and Emily) and long boring speeches.

But this book is not just a travelogue or an account of their adventures in Hollywood; it has a serious side that I did not expect but found very interesting.  Emily used her experience as a magazine writer and editor to analyze the motion picture industry and to identify problems that she saw.  She also looked at the diversity of population in California, finding at least in Hollywood an "indifference to any race or nationality or color" that contrasted with the racist attitudes towards particularly Jews and African Americans that she found more prevalent in the east.  (I am not sure that the film industry was all that color-blind, or actresses like Butterfly McQueen would have had more roles available to them than maids and nannies.)  Emily also looked at Hollywood's role in World War II, in making patriotic films, in touring with the USO and selling war bonds.  She and Cordelia made time to visit the celebrated Hollywood Canteen, where Cordelia performed some of her famous monologues for the soldiers.

One day on the Paramount lot, Emily and Cornelia met a fellow writer who was struggling with a plot point: why a young man would want to buy a particular house.  Cornelia came up with a reason, and she went on to play a part in the film that resulted, The Uninvited (which I just recently watched, in part to see her).  Emily would also return to Hollywood, as a technical advisor on the film of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  I've never seen that film, but I really enjoyed reading about it and about the further adventures of Emily and Cordelia.

3 comments:

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

I read and enjoyed Our Hearts Were Young and Gay years ago but had no idea about this book!

gudrunstights said...

This sounds swell! I love old movies too and have recently become enchanted with films from the '40's. This era of Hollywood was so fascinating and such a different world from today's entertainment offerings. I would love to find a copy of both books by these ladies.

Lisa May said...

Claire, I only recently found out about it too. Someone mentioned that Emily Kimbrough wrote several books about trips she took with other friends. When I went looking for those, I came across this one.

Anbolyn, to me the late 1930s and 1940s are the Golden Age of films. This was a really interesting inside view from an outsider's perspective - if that makes sense - unlike some of the star biographies or autobiographies that I've read. And contemporary, published the same year (1943).