Gelbfisz/ Goldfish/ Goldwyn: the face of a spink

[Samuel Goldwyn on the left]

I am 3/4 or so through (to 1942) A. Scott Berg’s 1989 biography of Samuel Goldwyn and loving it.  Really juicy, filled with great/hilarious/unbelievable tales about movie stars, directors, and producers of the 1910s-1950s (with an emphasis on the earlier decades), and offering a well-informed, panoptic history of early Hollywood– I’m learning a lot.

  • This is one of the best Americanized-name stories I’ve heard.  Born Schmuel Gelbfisz, Goldwyn became Samuel Goldfish in the ghetto of Birmingham, England in the 1890s. (If you’re going to Americanize your name, do you really want to choose “Goldfish”?)  In 1916, Goldfish and Edgar Selwyn formed a film distribution company they named “Goldwyn” (a portmanteau name combining Selwyn and Goldfish).  A few years later, audaciously, Goldfish changed his own name to Goldwyn.  What a power move.  His partner sued him, but a judge ruled that the name change was legal.  The now Samuel Goldwyn was subsequently forced out of Goldwyn Pictures, the company that now bore what was his name, and he was never (bizarrely) part of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Very weird.
  • Gelbfisz/Goldfish/Goldwyn’s emigration story from Poland to the U.S. (he arrived Jan 1, 1899) is pretty wild.  At age 16, “in 1895, Schmuel Gelbfisz walked alone, almost three hundred miles due West to the Oder River.”  After paying off border police guarding the German/Russian border, “he walked another two hundred miles to Hamburg.”  There he stayed with some family acquaintances who put him to work learning glovemaking, and then raised money from neighbors to pay for his ship fare to London.  “The next leg of his odyssey was the 120-mile walk from London to the Midlands.  He lived for two days on a single loaf of bread.”  He found his mother’s sister in Birmingham and became an apprentice to a blacksmith and then worked as a sponge salesman.  “By the fall of 1898, Sam Goldfish felt the urge to move on.  He journeyed another hundred miles, northwest to Liverpool and eventually got a boat that left him in New Brunswick.  “Once he had his legs back, Goldfish took to the road again…. Over the next month, he trudged through more snow than New England had seen in ten years.  Sometime in late January 1899, he arrived in Manhattan.”  Wow!  That’s a tough dude.
  • It’s just amazing how many of Hollywood’s biggest moguls were Jews from modest (or impoverished) backgrounds in Eastern Europe.  “In the 1880s alone, the  family of Louis B. Mayer left Demre, near Vilna, in Lithuania; Lewis Zeleznick (later Selznick) ran away from Kiev;  William Fox (formerly Fuchs) imigrated from Tulcheva, Hungary; the Warner family uprooted itself from Krasnashiltz, Poland, near the Russian border; Adolph Zukor abandoned Ricse, Hungary; and Carl Laemmle left Wurttemberg, Germany — gamblers with nothing to lose, all from within a five-hundred-mile radius of Warsaw.”
  • The first part of the book, about Hollywood prior to the advent of sound in 1927, is full of amazing stories about silent-movie stars I’d never heard of or knew almost nothing about.  E.g. Banky Vilma & Rod La Roque.  Or Mabel Normand:  “One interview for a family magazine [in 1917] went well until the reporter asked her hobbies.  ‘I don’t know,’ Mabel replied.  ‘Say anything you like but don’t say I liked to work.  That sounds like Mary Pickford, that prissy bitch.  Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs.  And get drunk.”
  • One of my favorite strands in the book has to do with Goldwyn’s famous malapropisms and vexed relationship to the English language.  During the editing of the 1929 Bulldog Drummond, Goldwyn noticed a line in which a colonel declares, “the eternal din around this club is an outrage.”  “Goldwyn asked his staff, ‘what is that word “din”?’  He was told it meant noise.  ‘Then why didn’t the writer say noise?'”  He insisted that the actors be called back into the studio and the set rebuilt in order to re-shoot the entire scene, until someone finally convinced him that “din” was a real word.   More Goldwynisms: of his Russian discovery Anna Sten, whom he thought would be the next Garbo (she flopped– that whole story is great, albeit slightly tragic): “She has the face of a spink.”  Or the time the Gershwins, Lillian Hellman, and George Balanchine were waiting for Goldwyn in his living room.  “Goldwyn appeared at the staircase in his bathrobe.  ‘Hold on, fellas,’ he yelled down.  ‘I’ll be right there.  And then we’ll get into a cuddle.”  “Include me out” was his most famous coinage.  “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist needs his head examined” another famous line.  William Wyler called him “a titan with an empty skull, not confused by anything he read, which he didn’t.”  Wyler still liked him, however.

Someone comments at some point that all of the studio heads, without exception, in this period were “monsters,”  but that Goldwyn at least could laugh at himself.  He was a terrible person in many ways (treated his children really badly, was always chasing starlets), but possessing a certain charm all the same… You have to admire him, to some degree, for his bald bull-headed energy & determination & hook or crook determination to get movies made (often by lying, cheating & stealing). He bet incredible amounts on cards (in 1940 he calls in a gambling debt from fellow mogul Jack Warner for $425,000 — imagine what that would be in today’s currency) and for much of his career was continually leveraging his own company such that a major flop at the wrong moment would have bankrupted him.  (“The only way he could tolerate a baseball game was by betting on every pitch”).  The whole enterprise was high-end, high-risk gambling based on bluff and bluster, and producing strings of masterpieces and great movies.

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