George Feltenstein talks TCM’s Moguls & Movie Stars

The history of Hollywood is as fascinating and unexpected as the movies it creates.  The pioneering studio fathers – or “moguls” – set in motion one of the biggest industries in the world that began as a penny arcade pastime, watching “moving pictures” for a nickel. 

The flickers, motion pictures, the movies have entertained fans since 1888 a process that began by refining the disparate elements of filmmaking – production, casting, writing, art, technical and distribution – into a cohesive, far-reaching whole. 

Moguls and Movie Stars, a seven part documentary highlighting seven eras of Hollywood history starts with Peepshow Pioneers, runs through Brother can You Spare a Dream to the final installment, Fade Out, Fade In. 

It puts the movies into context in American and world history, sociology and anthropology, economics and ultimately, shared emotion, tied together by our universal love of movies.  TCM has put the series in a handsome new boxed set that, frankly, tells all with additional footage and a 40 page booklet.  

Monsters and Critics spoke with Warner’s George Feltenstein, Senior Vice President, Theatrical Catalog Marketing, and Warner Home Video about the series and its depiction of the dream factory.

M&C - This set is such a delight to a Hollywood history buffs like me.  I guess the success of TCM tells you the old Hollywood and its people and products are still widely loved.

GF: TCM has established itself as THE television destination for people who love classic movies, and they are known for wonderful original programming ABOUT classic movies.

They have produced dozens of original documentaries over the years, and the network has become as well-known for these original programs as they are for the great films that make up their daily programming.

They were approached by the producers of this mini-series with the idea of doing a HISTORY of HOLLYWOOD. Amazingly, it had never really been done before….at least to this scope.

In 1979, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill produced an amazing 13-part series for Thames Television called “HOLLYWOOD”, which was an amazing production that covered the history of Hollywood in depth, and brilliantly, but it was only about the SILENT screen. Their series stopped at 1929, so it was, and remains the definitive history of the silent Hollywood era but nothing covering the whole story was ever attempted in this fashion.

That is, I believe what attracted the producers who made the show, to bring their idea to TCM, and so a massive project began and finally came to life.

M&C - I’m amazed what you’ve done with the limited behind the scenes footage from that period. How did they producers find the more obscure stuff?

GF: The producers looked everywhere any anywhere for many years.  They were exhaustive in their research, going through every possible source around the world to tell their story. They knew they had to go the extra mile to make the show as captivating as it turned out to be.

M&C - It’s fascinating that the pioneering moguls all came from within 500 km of Warsaw, that’s a fun fact. How did that play a part in their shared careers?

GF: It’s hard to answer that in this kind of space. However film critic Neal Gabler wrote a superb book called “AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN” which covers the topic in depth. That was a ground-breaking work that analyzed the historical and socio-economic conditions of the time that brought together the elements which created that specific phenomenon.

I think MOGULS & MOVIE STARS did a great job of succinctly shining a light on that story

M&C - The moguls are stars in their own right. They had larger than life characters, presence, power and even personas.  Please comment.

GF: They were all different, and the degree to which they were different is reflected in the films that were made under their aegis. Some left their own indelible fingerprint, while others didn’t. For example, L.B. Mayer’s motto at MGM was “Do it big, do it right, and give it class!” 

And MGM films of the 30s and 40s have a sheen to them that is unmistakable. MGM’s B pictures looked like Paramount or Fox’s A pictures.  Mayer insisted that REAL imported furniture be used in historical pictures, not studio re-creations.  He also was a highly moral man, which was reflected in the higher-minded films MGM made.

Then you have Jack Warner, who was more hooked into the ‘everyman’ and the social issues of the day. Warner films had Jack’s own ‘zest for life’ operating at some level.  Harry Cohn and Adolph Zukor were moguls as well, as the documentary illustrates, but their studio’s films are more distinctive for the directors who made them.

CAPRA for Harry Cohn at Columbia or Lubitsch for Zukor at Paramount are examples of this. So it isn’t a cut and dry formula across the board but for some it was their evident lifeblood.

M&C - Does anyone have that today?

GF: The industry is so completely different today that you can’t really compare the two, and the documentary addresses that. The end of the Studio system, and the changes that came from that was the death knell to the old ways.

M&C - There aren’t any stars today the way they were.  Why not?

GF: There are many factors, and you can theorize from many angles. I think the primary reason that no longer exists is that the magic and the illusion of what made stars is gone. You didn’t have the weekend film grosses on the evening news in the 1950s, no less the 1930s. 

So there is a REALITY to the film industry that has replaced the glamour of ‘old Hollywood’.  The old days saw movie stars as gods and goddesses. They weren’t perceived as ‘real people’. Today, it’s different.

M&C - The segment titles are terrific, Peepshow Pioneers, Brother Can You Spare a Dime? etc … Any ideas about what they’d call the 80, 90s and 2000’s?

GF: An overwhelming question.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.

M&C - Do you think Hollywood has failed us in recent decades?

GF: Millions of people all over the world still pack into movie theaters every day to be entertained and enlightened by film. People laugh. People cry. Emotions are razed. Minds are made to think. Hollywood has changed, but an industry that continues to be so meaningful to so many people’s daily lives, all over the world, more than ever before has much to be proud of. 

M&C - Why is there such a craving for the old stuff?

GF: If something is well-crafted and well-done, it will live forever.  Those who grew up with great older films want to continue to see them, and new generations love to discover them.

M&C - Christopher Plummer narrates.  Why did you pick him?

GF:  Tom Brown is the great executive in charge of all TCM original productions.  I’m proud to say he is a dear friend, and we have closely collaborated on many very successful co-productions and documentaries. MOGULS, however, was truly a TCM-generated production, and we are pleased to have had a part in helping to bring it to fruition. So that question really goes to Tom or the production company.

I can say that I was thrilled when Tom told me that they were going to hire Mr. Plummer. He was the magnificent narrator for our landmark documentary THE MAKING OF A LEGEND: GONE WITH THE WIND, which launched Turner Network Television (TNT in 1988), and he also narrated our BEN-HUR documentary in 1994, so there is a history there with him, and his magnificent voice makes him a truly legendary figure in the entertainment industry.

M&C - And finally just a remark, I love the TCM / Warner collaboration.  Keep it coming!

GF: Thanks! We are!

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