This month’s Atlantic features late Budd Schulberg’s Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince:

A Hollywood legend’s vivid and honest portrait of the studio era

by Benjamin Schwarz

The Prince of Paramount

Budd Schulberg, who died last summer, was a Hollywood prince in Hollywood’s golden age. The son of B. P. Schulberg, the head of Paramount Pictures, and Adeline Schulberg, who would emerge as one of Tinseltown’s most powerful agents, Budd had the run of the town. His playground was the back lots of Paramount and MGM, where he’d pelt Greta Garbo with ripe figs; his after-school entertainment was to sit in on story conferences and watch the daily rushes. Movie stars coddled him. He grew up to write screenplays (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd), boxing reportage, some first-rate short stories (such as “A Table at Ciro’s,” in which a doomed studio chief, obviously drawn from B.P., is chronically beset by the town’s desperately striving hat-check girls, telephone operators, and waiters), and a clutch of novels, including that brilliant, hard portrait of Hollywood chutzpah, What Makes Sammy Run?In 1981 he wrote Moving Pictures, a finely wrought 500-page memoir of his childhood (the book has been reissued; coincidentally, I read it the week before Schulberg’s death). It’s a dryly elegiac chronicle of a privileged youth in the California sunshine, when the moguls’ kids attended the public high school, half of Hancock Park was empty lots, and Malibu was really a colony. It’s also a discerning and cold-eyed history of the emergence of the picture industry (B.P. was a macher at Famous Players, in New York, before the creative side of the industry moved to the West Coast, leaving the money boys in Manhattan) and the flowering of the studio system—B.P.’s command of Paramount, the most artistically sophisticated of the dream factories, bridged the silent and sound eras. And, not least, it’s a collective portrait of horribly flawed but not unsympathetic people: the monstrous but heroically ambitious Louis B. Mayer; the broken, vulgar, and vulnerable Clara Bow, the It Girl (she was drawn to Budd, a shy and stammering boy, and his memories of that sad sex symbol achingly balance affection and pity); and above all, Budd’s parents.

Writing as an old man of his emotional state as a boy, Schulberg likes and even admires—but is never taken in by—his father. A charming, literate man whose competitors and cohorts were almost exclusively louts, one of the half dozen or so geniuses capable of “keeping the whole equation of pictures in his head” (to quote Fitzgerald), B.P. was also a chronic philanderer (in reaction, Budd developed into an extreme prude, eschewing the phalanx of starlets the father’s position put at the son’s disposal), a caring though neglectful father (a recipe for his son’s tortured ambivalence toward him), a compulsive gambler (then again, all the studio chiefs had to be, to triumph in such a colossally expensive and chancy business), and a man all but pathologically driven to professional suicide. As for Budd’s emotionally remote, culture-vulture mother, Adeline was intensely—even extremely—loyal to her son, as he was to her. But in his consistent stance of wry fondness toward her, there’s little resembling love. In this and many ways, Moving Pictures is a plangent and honest book, rendered all the more affecting by its modulation and detachment.

No matter how you feel about e-books, the above comparison chart will probably get a laugh. But while the artist’s intention was clearly to take a wry dig at the technical limitations of the iPad as an e-book reader, I cannot help but see another inherent problem beneath the surface of this joke, a quiet threat to human knowledge that goes hand-in-hand with the digital revolution. Consider the following scenario: if there were a book—the next great American novel perhaps—contained solely within the three devices above, then in twenty or fifty years there would probably be only one accessible copy left. Unfortunately, not too many people are backing up their documents on stone tablets these days.

In their recent article “Digital doomsday: the end of knowledge” in New Scientist, Tom Simonite and Michael Le Page contemplated the possible fate of our collected human knowledge after a major natural disaster or other apocalyptic event. Their conclusion is grim but not surprising: in the digital age, information is more delicate and vulnerable than ever before. Hard drives and microchips (the components of such devices as the iPad and the Kindle, not to mention our computers) are easily damaged, prone to decay, and were never really intended for the long-term storage of information.

Even in the absence of such a dramatic occurrence, however, the problem remains. We are still faced with the fact that we are, as the authors put it, “generating more information than ever before, and storing it in ever more transient media.” Time itself is a threat, both in terms of decaying hardware and, more inevitably, in new developments in technology that leave old forms of data storage in the dust.

The “book” format of data preservation has proven reliable, durable, and easy to obtain over the past few thousand years. We can still easily access and read books that were published in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and there are carefully preserved examples from far earlier. But if print media is indeed dead or dying, then curious readers in three hundred years will not be able to say the same. After all, how many of us possess the hardware needed to read a floppy disk? And that technology is outdated only by a decade. Electronic files, unlike paper copies, require an external display of some sort to be read, whether it’s a computer, a Kindle, a Nook, or an iPad. And even if the file is kept intact, if the technology required to display the e-book becomes outdated and rare, as it inevitably will, the file may as well never have existed.

Of course it’s easy to write off this kind of apocalyptic thinking and say that there will always be permanent paper copies, even if mass distribution goes entirely digital. But the increasing pressure placed on print publishing in recent years and months should remind us that no such guarantee can be made. This is a publishing revolution after all, and revolutions have casualties. With every new technological innovation that moves us farther away from the material world of paper and ink, our writings and our knowledge will become more transitory and perhaps eventually inaccessible to future generations.

It’s something to consider as we march ever closer to the seemingly inevitable brave new world of digital publishing and the reign of the e-book.

LS

Blue Notes

February 11, 2010

David Stricklin’s Louis Armstrong: The Soundtrack of the American Experience

The leaden beats and piping grooves of early New Orleans jazz can be heard underneath many of the more synthetic jazz tunes produced today, the likes of which often cozy up waiting rooms or drool out of coffee house speakers. Jazz music from the early twentieth century continues to provide a soundtrack for the contemporary American experience, and Louis Armstrong occupies a high but hard-earned niche among the genre’s founders. Through his contributions of such ubiquitous jazz/pop standards like “What a Wonderful World” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Armstong’s importance in the genre’s popular origins are rarely disputed. Few, however, know about the tumultuous life behind the swooning serenades, and David Stricklin’s biography provides a compelling historical overview of the rise of jazz as it paralleled the rise of Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong and many of his contemporaries, including Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald, crafted a sound that was new and exciting, but also one that was heavily raced and highly marketable to white patrons who were intrigued by a black sound. If strained racial relations in the music industry seem distasteful in our present mindset, one must remember that white patronage and uncited cultural poaching continue today: they taught Madonna how to vogue, allowed Miley Cyrus to cut a track with Timbaland, and gave Justin Timberlake a career. With the possible exception of modern hip-hop, jazz remains the only genre of African-American music not to be fully whitewashed, and though many of Armstrong’s hits have been catapulted into the American music firmament and have been covered by numerous other artists, his songs have retained their authenticity because, quite simply, no one has been able to perform them like Louis could. His powerful voice and unique improvisations have undoubtedly inspired, but they have not been replicated or copied.

One can trace Armstrong’s influence as it has trickled through the music industry for much of the past century: from inspiring classic vocalists like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra to forming the backdrop of more modern jazz/pop offerings like Norah Jones’s 2002 debut Come Away with Me and Janet Jackson’s 1993 “Funky Big Band.” To fully incorporate Armstrong’s musical offerings and lasting effects, David Stricklin’s biography includes a helpful section entitled “The Recordings,” which aids the reader in navigating Armstrong’s vast collection of songs and which includes information on various versions and historical contextualizations of them. Rather than a simple addendum of Armstrong’s work, this section complements his life story by providing the sonic experience one needs to get a full biographical picture—for Armstrong is a man whose legacy carries not just through words on a page, but through notes in the air.

-RW