In the documentary series Birth of Hollywood, Paul Merton travels to the United States to explore how the early pioneers there laid down the blueprint for today’s cinema industry.
In the first film, Hollywood is still a sleepy California backwater of orange groves about to be transformed by film-makers from the East Coast in search of sunny locations and wide open spaces.
The film concentrates on the career of DW Griffith, one of Hollywood’s most influential and controversial directors during this explosive early period.
Within the space of a few short years in the 1910s, he went from making short “cliffhangers” to three-hour epics as Hollywood cinema became the world’s dominant entertainment medium.
The second film tells the story of the rise and fall of the lost comic genius of silent Hollywood, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle – who was charged with the murder of a young actress after an illegal drinks party went wrong.
Paul Merton makes a powerful case that Arbuckle was an innocent man, an unfortunate victim of a new type of fame created by the Hollywood studios which had been turned against them. In their rush to clean up their act they were prepared to make the genial Arbuckle a sacrificial victim.
In the third and final film of the series Paul Merton traces the rise of the studios through the story of MGM, the biggest dream factory of them all, which boasted of “more stars than the heavens”.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s studio system was perfected by its young producer Irving Thalberg, the boy genius of Hollywood’s silent era. The documentary shows how he challenged the power previously wielded by the director of a film, taking on a much more creative role as the producer.
This involved dealing with some of the most notorious egos in movie-making, such as that of flamboyant director Erich Von Stroheim. It was famously said of Thalberg that he didn’t just make movies – he “re-made” them.
He may have turned MGM into what Paul Merton calls “re-take valley”, but Thalberg never put his name on any of his films, even the original Ben Hur or Mutiny on the Bounty – which may explain why you might never have heard of this remarkable man who did more than anyone to steer 1930s Hollywood from the silent to the sound era.