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TCM launches its biggest documentary series yet
NEW YORK (AP) - Turner Classic Movies, that bastion of old films, is making its most dramatic foray yet into original programming.
TCM will broadcast a seven-part documentary series, "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood," beginning Monday. The series, narrated by Christopher Plummer, will run for seven weeks and cover Hollywood's history from 1890-1970.
For the charmingly sleepy and movie-obsessed TCM, the series is an ambitious anomaly. The cable channel is also sponsoring a touring exhibit of Hollywood memorabilia that will travel through Atlanta, New York, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"We haven't done anything this big before," says Robert Osborne, host and face of the 16-year-old, commercial-free Turner Classic. "I think it's very appropriate because we are all about movies."
The project was the brainchild of executive producer Bill Haber, who turned to documentary filmmaker Jon Wilkman to write and direct it. He spent 2 1/2 years on the film, which he says is about "how Hollywood became Hollywood."
"There have been other histories, which are sort of highlights, scenes from the great films," says Wilkman. "The underlying theme of this series is essentially Hollywood power: Who had it, how did they get it, what did they do with it, and how did they lose it."
While the series covers the history of the movie business through evolving technology, artistic progress and commercial drive, the dominant feeling one gets is that the engine of Hollywood was its ambitious moguls: Men, mostly immigrants, who built an empire of celluloid.
At the end of the second episode, "The Birth of Hollywood," Plummer intones: "In hardly more than 20 years, the American motion picture business had evolved from a cheap novelty to the country's fifth largest industry, after agriculture, transportation, oil and steel. And it seemed to happen in less than the flicker of a frame of film."
It's very much a rags-to-riches story, from the invention of moving images to the industry's early foothold in New York and Fort Greene, N.J., and finally to its California home. Especially vibrant are the early moguls: Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox and others.
Where possible, Wilkman turns to descendants of those founders, interviewing producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., the son of Samuel Goldwyn; Daniel Selznick, the son of David O. Selznick; actor Bob Balaban, whose father, Elmer Balaban, was an early movie theater owner; and, who Wilkman calls his "great find," Carla Laemmle, the 101-year-old actress and daughter to Carl Laemmle.
"We wanted as direct a connection to the people, the main characters, the environment that we're looking at," says Wilkman, who compares the founders of Hollywood to the characters of a Dickens novel. "In some cases, the American dream as we know it is a creation of these immigrant moviemakers."
The series takes the story until the `60s and early `70s, when counterculture icons and maverick directors began shifting the power of the studios. Wilkman, though, sees the series as very current.
In examining how the movie business was forged, "Moguls & Movie Stars" reflects many of the issues of today's Hollywood, where questions brought on by the Internet and technology _ digital distribution, 3-D filmmaking _ are causing many to reconsider basic questions of moviemaking.
"In many ways, today we are back in 1890," says Wilkman. "This whole world of the movies is being rethought and rebuilt: How are movies made? Who makes them? How are they distributed? What's the subject matter?"
Osborne is quick to caution that the series doesn't represent a change in programming philosophy for Turner Classic.
"I don't think we're a channel that should do a lot of original programming just for its own sake because I think people come to us because they really want to see movies," says Osborne, who adds "Moguls & Movie Stars" is a worthy exception.
Aring along with the series will be panel discussions with Osborne, Wilkman and others. Films discussed in the series will also be broadcast after each episode.
The conversation _ as it always does at Turner Classic _ will lead back to the movies.
By Tom Fitton
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