The Road to Hollywood
The Road to Hollywood. The mere name brings about a selection of fully articulated and imagined ideas, the visuals as optimistic and modernist as the films that the collection includes. Turner Classic Movies is presenting ten classic films all across the nation, featuring a guest speaker with each. In March, Royal Wedding came to Boston with Leonard Maltin, acclaimed film historian and author, hosting. Joining him was a starlet of the golden age of Hollywood, Jane Powell, star of the film.
The greatest difference between filmmaking then and now, the two say, is the lack of a studio system. The studio system was when a film production company would contract with a specific actor in order to continually produce films with that same actor. “For a young person, like Jane, they got schooled in everything,” Maltin explains. “Everything! Not just singing and dancing and acting, but guys would learn sword play, horsemanship, or how to give an interview.”
Powell, a child of the studios in the height of her career, speaks fondly about the system. “I do think the studio system was wonderful for people because you were given so many things that now, today, you have to go try and find. … I think we have wonderful actors today, but, if we had a studio system, you would see more of them.”
“Some people felt hemmed in or straight-jacked by a studio system. But a lot of other people thrived under it,” Maltin acknowledges. “Some people rebelled against that, and understandably. Other people sort of got the message and got life lessons out of it.”
“You do what you’re told to do and sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong, but usually they’re right. That’s their business,” Powell laughs. It is not only experience which has her so comfortable poised on a couch in the hotel, but her training from long ago.
“You see some actors on talk shows sometimes and your heart just goes out to them. They’re suffering terribly because they don’t know how to do an interview, work to their strengths.” Maltin speaks with a pain in his voice as if he, himself, has been in such a spot. “A studio would have … given him some coaching on that.”
When asked why Powell left the studio system, she laughs without any sense of self-deprecation. “They left me; I didn’t leave them.” She continues wistfully: “I didn’t realize that they weren’t going to do musicals anymore.”
Powell then admits that she was looking to do more comedy and more dramatic work. “That’s why I left the studio, because they wouldn’t allow me to do that. … They wanted to keep me a teenager and I was 25 or 27 years old with three children! I thought, ‘It’s time for me to get out of it.’”
As time progressed, studios moved away from the studio system and the loads of musicals they were producing to release films that were easier—and cheaper—to create. The original ideas fell away as the desire to reduce risk and increase profit grew over time.
“The problem with Hollywood now is that they’re making films that are going to play in China, Moscow. They’ve gotta have something they can sell easily,” Maltin explains. “It’s up to the little guys who are not burdened by hundred million dollar budgets to come up with something original.”
Yet, despite all the musicals with intense dance numbers, stage plays, and television that Powell has done, Powell says, “The hardest thing I’ve ever done is a soap opera.”
She laughs again, telling how most soap operas feature long pages of dialogue and many actors, but that actors can “flub their lines” and the show will keep filming. It’s the technical aspect that the creators worry about. “If the light wasn’t in the right place, they would stop.”
And this from someone who practically wrote her own lines back on those big Hollywood films. “They would write for someone else,” Powell says. “I think the reason why they kind of let me do that was because I was a teenager and they didn’t know how to write for teenagers. I could say ‘jinkies’ and ‘peachy keen’ and all those things.”
In Royal Wedding? Powell simply speaks fondly of working with Fred Astaire because he was an amazing dancer. Maltin, on the other hand, is not afraid to offer praise. “Everything about it just flows so beautifully. It’s a great showcase for both of them. You don’t think of Jane or of Fred Astaire doing comedy, but here they are and they’re great. They’re just great.”
With the showing of this film and her recent stint in the Stephen Sondheim production of “Bounce,” the 83-year-old woman shows that she is still a powerhouse of entertainment, even as she expresses a desire to focus more on family. When asked how she would like to be remembered, she tells a story that she says she never really talked about before in detail.
Powell used to do a variety show in theatres across the nation and, traveling with three kids and three dogs, was not too fond of the shows. One night, she was expressing this discontent to her manager and he told her: “Jane, do you realize how happy you make so many people?”
“And that got me through it,” she states simply. “I had to tell myself that every single night, that I’m making other people happy. … I still keep trying to do it.”
Turner Classic Movies has three more showings during April as part of the series, in Anne Arbor, San Francisco, and Albuquerque. Be sure to catch screenings of the films on their channel on cable TV to see all of the old Hollywood favorites and what it was to be a part of the golden age of Hollywood.