Movies are one of America's greatest contributions to culture, and that's what makes "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood" (TCM, 8 tonight), so wonderful.
The rise of "Hollywood" is the story of immigrants, ingenuity, creativity and big business; in other words, the history of movies has all the elements for great storytelling.
The seven-part series (each only an hour) looks at the industry from its very beginnings, through the ground shifting that occurred via the 1960s film auteurs.
The scope and depth of the documentary, narrated by the regal Christopher Plummer, is impressive. There's rarely seen and never-before-seen footage, but more than that, it's packed with facts presented in an agile way.
I screened two parts; the first, "Peepshow Pioneers," introduces such great names as the Warner Brothers (who opened their first theater, the Bijou, in a storefront using borrowed chairs from an undertaker), Louis B. Mayer and Carl Laemmle. Thomas Edison, who invented moving picture machine, comes across as a genius, not above using thuggery to protect his intellectual property. (Penny arcade films, by the way, sound a lot like an early version of YouTube.) We learn Fort Lee, N.J. was the first Hollywood, and D.W. Griffith was a stage actor who worked for Edison's movie company, then went to a competitor for more money, somewhat reluctantly, to work as a director. And there were women involved in those early years. One, Alice Ghee, was a secretary who made films after work.
The second part "The Birth of Hollywood," covers 1907 to 1920 when films went west and films starting to become full-length and diversified in genre -- animated, comedy, Westerns all sprung up. We meet Charlie Chaplin, and learn about the rise of Mary Pickford and the star system. Indeed, women are highlighted in this part; it's interesting that women played a major role in Hollywood's development, as artists and audience, (one historian says the industry was built by 'immigrants, women and Jews'), and nowadays, women struggle to find roles on screen and as directors. Griffith's controversial "Birth of a Nation" also undergoes clear-headed analysis.
Besides film historians, the documentary includes descendants of some of these great pioneers, so you get a more personal sense of them.
TCM is following each hour with films that reflect the period covered in the hour. At 9, after "Peepshow Pioneers" the network will air the films of Thomas Edison, 30 narratives shorts and documentaries. Then at 11, the documentary airs again, followed just after midnight with eight shorts by D.W. Griffith (before "Birth of a Nation"), and then at 2:10 a.m. there are 16 shorts by French filmmaker Georges Melies, who incorporated special effects into his films.
After you watch, check out the website with a fun quiz to see if you've retained all you've learned.