More “Hollywood Boardroom” than “Hollywood Babylon,” Bernard F. Dick’s corporate biography tracks Paramount Pictures from a gleam in Adolph Zukor’s eye to a state in the Viacom nation. While looking back in (Kenneth) Anger would have added spice to the scholarly tone, “Engulfed” does a fine job of detailing the death of a studio and its reincarnation as a subsidiary of a conglom. Dick’s forensics peel back history, revealing the passions, politics and power plays of filmmakers and dealmakers that culminated in the dissolution of a Hollywood empire.
Dick was the first researcher granted access to the personal papers of George Weltner, the last president of Paramount prior to Gulf+Western, who documented each twist and turn of the studio’s fate during his years in distribution and production.
Add to this interviews Dick conducted with such notables as Billy Wilder and Peter Bart (Variety‘s editor in chief, who rose through Par’s ranks in the 1960s and ’70s), heavy secondary research and Dick’s knowledge of Hollywood (he has authored books on Harry Cohn and Universal Pictures ). The result is a research-heavy tome that weaves scores of individual lives into the tapestry of Hollywood history.
“Engulfed” is not intended as a complete account of Paramount, but Dick lays out almost 100 pages of studio history before arriving at Oct. 19, 1966, the day Paramount Pictures Corp. became a subsidiary of Charles Bluhdorn’s Gulf+Western. This chronology is important not just as background information, but to explain how Paramount had become a gerontocracy at the time of its buyout, a company where 63-year-old Weltner was considered the younger generation next to an elderly guard (such as Zukor, the 93-year-old chairman emeritus).
Zukor’s notion of a combined production, distribution and exhibition company that dealt only in feature films was a grand dream in early Hollywood, at a time when Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Co. would send employees to non-member movie sets to destroy cameras. (The 1948 “Paramount decision” would force studios to choose between production and exhibition.)
As Paramount took shape in the first half of the 20th century, it became known for its comedies (Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder), its “white look” and its ability to turn radio personalities (Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen) into movie stars. While there were some rough spots, there were also some amazing runs, such as when Paramount scored a best picture Oscar nom every year from 1949 to 1955. (It won in 1952 for “The Greatest Show on Earth.”)
But soon Par’s fortunes slid, and Weltner was brought in from Par’s distribution arm to tighten the corporate belt, fight the factionalism and unwittingly document the changing of the corporate guard.
In 1965, Paramount was ripe for a takeover. Ernest Martin and Herbert Siegel spearheaded one attempt, only to be met with opposition from both inside and outside Paramount (including Sumner Redstone, then-president of the Theatre Owners of America).
That’s when Bluhdorn stepped in, with Gulf+Western swallowing Paramount whole as it had previously done with so many agricultural, auto parts and metals companies. Bluhdorn soon installed actor-turned-producer Robert Evans as Paramount’s VP of worldwide production; Evans in turn brought in journalist Bart. Thus began a reign that created a string of classics (“The Godfather” (parts 1 and 2), “Chinatown,” “The Conversation,” “Serpico”).
Dick devotes an entire chapter to “The Godfather,” based in part on the recollections of Bart (who burned his notes after a Mafia-related attorney reminded him that silence is golden — and healthy). The chapter ends with questions about whether a financier’s death was suicide or a Mob hit.
The next 25 years would see Paramount host such executive talent as Stanley Jaffe, Frank Yablans, Barry Diller, Frank Mancuso, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dawn Steel, Stanley Jaffe (again) and Sherry Lansing. Martin Davis, who had been at Paramount since 1958, eventually ascended to vice chairman and CEO of Gulf+Western but never achieved the fame he desired.
In chronicling these later years, it would be nice if Dick lightened the pace, allowing the reader some mental breathing room. Another 50 pages would have allowed the author to showcase a few more faces (Jonathan Dolgen is barely mentioned) and given the readers time to process the information already presented.
“Engulfed” ends with Vivendi’s purchase of Universal and Dick’s meditation that “exhibition is all that matters.”
Covering 127 years and a seemingly endless cast of characters, “Engulfed” is a solid read that occasionally comes across as episodic, even pedantic. While it’s fascinating to see how the players are interconnected, keeping track of all the names and relationships can be stupefying. The density of his factual, straightforward prose is, however, occasionally leavened with a witty aside.