Sad to say, Sunday nights won't be the same anymore, with "Masterpiece Theatre" moved out of its comfy PBS home after 30 years. (It's been exiled to Mondays.) But not-unhappy to say, the network moves in the 16th season of its generally fine "American Masters," commencing with a quite-excellent lifelook at the quixotic Samuel Goldwyn.
"Goldwyn" will be followed in subsequent weeks by similar chronicles of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ella Fitzgerald, then a rerun of its great turn of "Vaudeville." Later studies of Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday, Preston Sturges, Georgia O'Keeffe and on and on. We've got a lot American masters to pick from.
Schmuel Gelbfisz -- later Samuel Goldfish, then Samuel Goldwyn -- had a legendary life. He kept reinventing himself, almost since he left a grim childhood in his native Poland and, at age 16 in 1895, actually walked 500 miles to get to Germany, then finagled his way to a ship to America.
He was a true character. Writer-producers Peter Jones and A. Scott Berg (he wrote the book "Goldwyn: A Biography") note that the young immigrant had serious trouble with the new language and never mastered it, even though he lived to 94. Among his more-dubious achievements was entry into the colloquial dictionary as an earlier-day Yogi Berra. He once raged at a bungling employee that if he wanted to send a fool on a mission, he'd go himself.
About 1910, two seminal events directed his career. One was seeing a flicker of first celluloid cowboy Bronco Billy Anderson. Young Goldfish was entranced with the movies. His marriage to Blanche Lasky proved fortuitous -- because he talked her brother, vaudeville producer Jesse L. Lasky, into investing in the movie business.
In 1913, Goldfish produced the first feature movie shot in Hollywood: "The Squaw Man" directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Within a few years, Goldfish was ousted by partner Lasky (and later was divorced from Blanche) and partnered with the Broadway producing Selwyn brothers to form a company combining their names. Sel-fish seemed inappropriate; they settled on Goldwyn, which Goldfish later took for himself.
Goldwyn was a gambler, including high-stakes card games with Hollywood cronies. He also gambled on film properties, but he always pursued top talent and paid top dollar. He split with several partners -- or they split with him -- and he set up his own studio.
Among his screen contributions: "Stella Dallas" (the 1927 silent and the Barbara Stanwyck remake in 1937), "Wuthering Heights," "The Little Foxes," "The Pride of the Yankees," "The Best Years of Our Lives" (his first Oscar)," "Guys and Dolls" and "Porgy and Bess."
The producers do fine detailing on Goldwyn's life: his love-hate with Judaism, an odd second marriage with a much-younger Catholic woman, his tortured relationships with his two children, tyrannical fits of temper. He was a tough independent spirit. Even during the heat of the House Un-American Activities Committee hunt for Hollywood Commies, Goldwyn raised the too-rare voice of angry protest: Nobody could tell him whom he could hire and whom he couldn't.
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