If you know anything about the real-life Eddie Mannix – the thuggish general manager at MGM during the studio's golden age – then you probably know that making a comedy about him seems ill-advised.
Yet, that's precisely the task that Joel and Ethan Coen have taken on in their newest feature, Hail, Caesar! Set in 1951, the film follows Josh Brolin as a likeable "studio fixer" who shares Mannix's name, and whose story is very loosely based on Mannix's life. Brolin's job is to protect movie stars from the vagaries of public scandal; to that end, he dashes around Hollywood sound-stages chasing kidnappers and fending off gossip columnists.
The Coens offer Mannix's day-to-day activities in the spirit of ironically light-hearted farce – one that obscures a dismal and unglamorous reality. For the real-life Eddie Mannix, who reigned at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1924 to 1962, covering up rape, abortion and potentially even murder were all a part of the job. While studio co-founder and mogul Louis B Mayer extolled the virtues of wholesome family entertainment, Mannix served as the muscle. He and the MGM publicity department were determined to maintain the studio's rosy public image at any cost.
Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast dedicates a whole episode to the man, discussing the worst of the rumours surrounding his career. In an article for Vanity Fair, David Stein alleges that he helped to quash rape charges against an MGM executive in the 1930s, even after the victim, Patricia Douglas, went directly to the district attorney with her case. Then there's the story that provides the plot for 2006 film Hollywoodland – the mysterious suicide of TV's original Superman, George Reeves. Reeves had been having an affair with Mannix's wife Toni before suffering a few nearly-fatal car accidents. He died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in 1959.
Hail, Caesar! nods to Mannix's careful handling of Loretta Young's unexpected pregnancy, arranging for her to adopt her own child and thus shielding her from the taboo of unwed motherhood. His list of "fixes" are almost dazzlingly reprehensible – from manipulating Judy Garland's worsening drug addiction and talking stars into terminating pregnancies, to pinning crimes on innocent parties. He even personally helped to recover the badly burned remains of mega-star Carole Lombard from a plane crash in 1942. One shudders to imagine his average working day.
Of course, the enormity of Mannix's job description took a great deal of complicity, and MGM helped to furnish that. Hollywood studios once wielded nearly feudal levels of power: backlots were essentially self-sufficient, from the Warner Brothers' colossal ranch to the palatial surroundings of the 20th Century Fox lot.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's was the biggest of them all; its backlot in Culver City spread over 176 acres, holding 200 permanent buildings that included a dentist and a barbershop. More transitory facades included an array of sets – jungles, ancient temples, New York streets and European villages. The lot had its own railway station to ship in lumber for set-building, and the commissary fed some 2,700 people per day.
These were practically self-contained moviemaking cities, with an according rule of law. As such, there were studio doctors and a homegrown police force, specially trained to recognise all contract players on the lot. If a crime or a scandalous medical condition popped up, these people were the first on the scene, well before the LAPD were informed.
Some of the better-known scandals "taken care of" by studio police are well covered in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. The apparent suicide of Jean Harlow's husband Paul Bern, the cold case murder of silent-era director William Desmond Taylor and the stabbing death of Lana Turner's abusive boyfriend Johnny Stompanato all have something in common: in each case, studio officials were at the scene of the crime for hours before police were called.
It's not surprising that someone like Eddie Mannix is relatively obscure now. MGM was home to Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, earning it the old boast "more stars than there are in heaven". No one wants to imagine that the purveyors of The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain could have carried out and covered up a murder with the same ease as a mafia don.
Mannix's embodiment of Hollywood gangsterdom had less explicit echoes throughout the first half-century of American film. The rise of the movie industry and organised crime in America had their own parallels. Both were enterprises helmed largely by Jewish and Italian immigrants, flourishing at the turn of the century. Both hinged on the outsider's dream of success in America. It seems fitting that a mutual fascination existed between them – Frank Sinatra emulating Bugsy Siegel, or Siegel's own starry-eyed wish for Cary Grant to play him in a movie.
Similarities abound everywhere. Take vicious LA gangster Mickey Cohen and head of Columbia Studios Harry Cohn, the so-called "meanest man in Hollywood". In fact, they had a remarkably similar background. Both were Russian Jews, poor immigrants from New York and self-made men who came to California early to seek their fortunes. One chose to trade in celluloid, the other in violence.
Maybe unsurprisingly, their worlds were not totally divorced from one another. The legend goes that Cohn, a notorious bully, enlisted the gangster when he learned the combustible news of a romance between Sammy Davis, Jr and his contracted blonde bombshell Kim Novak. In 1957, public knowledge of a planned interracial marriage might have ruined both careers. Supposedly, Cohen threatened to bar Davis from his nightclub circuit, which would have effectively ended his career. Other stories suggest the threats were more sinister. What is clear is that Davis was married to black singer Loray White within a year – likely at the behest of Columbia Studio's underworld associates.
Cohn's persona probably contributed to the cigar-chomping, egotistical stereotype of the studio head. But unlike Eddie Mannix, he also seemed to have his moments of magnanimity. He gave relative creative freedom to luminaries like Frank Capra and Orson Welles, and was fiercely loyal to studio employees – even paying hospital bills for some.
The moguls were largely men of little formal education but great imagination; hustlers with immigrant chutzpah. Their ugly tangles with politicians, police and mobsters are a crucial part of Hollywood history. In their efforts to make motion pictures an enduring art form, they might be admirable – but their methods left a lot to be desired.
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