Joe Kennedy – The Hollywood Years

Joseph P. Kennedy.
Joseph P. Kennedy.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
February / March 2013

Movie columnist Tom Deignan examines David Nasaw’s book The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy with an eye to Kennedy’s time in Hollywood.

The year was 1926, a year before Charles Lindbergh would make his heralded flight across the Atlantic.  And so, when a 38-year-old Joseph P. Kennedy made his first trip to Hollywood, a train would have to do.

Kennedy’s grandparents, Patrick Kennedy and Bridget Murphy, had also traveled thousands of miles to chase a dream, from New Ross,  Co. Wexford, to Boston. But they had traveled in dire conditions, at a time when treacherous vessels were called “coffin ships” and cholera was referred to by some in Boston as “the natural death of the Irish.”

Joseph P. Kennedy knew little of such conditions. He was a successful and wealthy businessman with extensive political connections.

And yet, as David Nasaw makes clear in his brilliant new biography The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (The Penguin Press), Kennedy was no stranger to anti-Irish bigotry in Brahmin Boston.

“As an Irish Catholic from East Boston, Kennedy has always known that he would have to forge his own path into Boston business and banking circles,” writes Nasaw, who was granted unprecedented access to Kennedy family archives in order to write this book.

A True American
Though Kennedy attended Boston Latin School as well as Harvard (where less than 10 percent of the students were Catholic, according to Nasaw), upper-crust “proper Bostonians” still looked down upon Irish Catholics like him, especially those whose fathers made a fortune in the disreputable businesses of saloons and Democratic ward politics.

Perhaps this is one reason Hollywood beckoned for Kennedy. Whereas Boston was a rigid town, stratified by class and ethnicity, Hollywood had no established order. In fact, as Nasaw notes, Holly-wood was one place Kennedy could seem unimpeachably “American.” And Kennedy was more than willing to exploit this fact, even if he was playing on the kind of bigotry native Bostonians employed against the Irish.

Either way, the publication of Nasaw’s magisterial biography presents a valuable opportunity to revisit Joe Kennedy’s years in Hollywood.

As Cari Beauchamp wrote in her 2009 book Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years, “Precious little was mentioned [in Kennedy’s 1969 obituaries] about his time in Hollywood, let alone his unique impact on the film business.”  This even though by the time Joseph P. Kennedy had made a name for himself in Tinseltown, he was a millionaire, had em-barked on a notorious love affair with one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies, and led film companies through an era of unprecedented social and technological change.

“Drawn to Show Business”
“From childhood, when he put on patriotic pageants in his backyard, through Harvard, where he and his classmates spent as much time as they could at the theater . . . Kennedy had always . . . been drawn to show business,” Nasaw writes.

In 1917, while trying to make a name for himself in banking, Kennedy was introduced to comedy star Fred Stone, whose films were flopping at the box office. Kennedy helped fund and organize a new production company designed to reverse Stone’s fortunes.

“Kennedy had found the perfect vehicle for his ambitions as a banker and financier, the picture business,” Nasaw writes.

Early attempts by Kennedy to produce films starring beloved Red Sox baseball player (and future Yankee) Babe Ruth failed, so Kennedy focused on distributing and exhibiting films, forming Columbia Films in 1919.

“As you know, I have made a particular study of this motion picture business, with the idea that sooner or later the motion picture companies would need someone from the banking business who was familiar with the motion picture business,” Kennedy later wrote, positioning himself as the perfect mogul, with experience on both the financial and artistic side of the film world.

At this point, the movie business still had a heavy presence on the East Coast, with film companies centered in New York, Boston and elsewhere.

“While the movies were produced in Hollywood . . . it was in New York City that the major decisions were made,” Nasaw writes, later adding: “With no ties to Hollywood or Broadway, Kennedy had figured how to use his outsider status to his advantage.”

Ethnic Tensions
In Hollywood, Joe Kennedy proved he was not above exploiting the ethnic suspicions of middle America – the very people who, at times, viewed Catholics as suspect. (The Ku Klux Klan would become a major political factor in the later 1920s, spreading fear of a papal takeover of America if Al Smith won the presidency in 1928.)

The early 1920s saw cries for reform in Hollywood, which was seen as a pit of obscenity and indecency. (Sound familiar?) Films with titles such as The Restless Sex and Luring Lips led critics to view films as a corrupting influence.  Many, as Nasaw writes, “felt the industry was not to be trusted because it was controlled by unscrupulous, money-hungry, immoral Jews.”

Many Jewish immigrants did indeed play prominent roles in the film business, partly because they, too, had faced discrimination in other fields.

Either way, a fine upstanding Mid-western Protestant named Will Hays had been hired to upgrade the morals of Hollywood. The infamous “Hays Code” laid down the guidelines for Hollywood in the decades that would follow. For now, Kennedy viewed the show biz morals crisis as “a godsend because it gave him the opportunity to ride to the rescue as a white knight,” Nasaw writes.

Wooing a Starlet
In February of 1926, Kennedy was part of a group that acquired the FBO film company for over a million dollars.

Months later, he touted the moral purity of his top star Fred Thomson (and his sidekick horse Silver King) in their next movie The Two-Gun Man. Kennedy went on to say he wanted to make “American films for Americans.”

He also used his Harvard connections to lure key Hollywood insiders to present a series of lectures at his alma mater. This was a classic Kennedy maneuver, in that everyone involved benefitted. The moguls, largely the undereducated children of immigrants, were welcomed at an esteemed university. Harvard, meanwhile, could surely count on donations from these wealthy men. Above all, Kennedy networked with industry big shots who had every right to be wary of this newcomer to Hollywood.

By now there were seven Kennedy children back home. However, Kennedy’s new role as Hollywood mogul meant he “spent most of the week away from home,” Nasaw writes.

In November of 1927, a Hollywood acquaintance called asking if Kennedy would be willing to meet a star whose career needed to be “placed in proper hands.” Her name was Gloria Swanson.

She’d recently been voted third top movie star, behind only Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Soon enough, Kennedy was wooing Swanson – who herself was married – and promising to make an “important picture” for her.

Kennedy, thus far, had made a name for himself as a shrewd handler of money, whose success generally came from low-budget genre movies. Now, he wanted to make the leap into prestige pictures, and he had his eye on one of the most prestigious – and notoriously difficult – directors: Erich von Stroheim.

Just as Kennedy was looking to pair Swanson and von Stroheim, another important film opened up. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, proved that sound films were the wave of the future.  Hollywood was undergoing a radical moral and technological transformation, and Joe Kennedy had to figure out how to survive.

A Multimillionaire
He certainly seemed well positioned. By 1928, he “was running three large entertainment companies,” Nasaw writes. All FBO films now proudly blared “Joseph P. Kennedy presents,” and in a two-week span that spring, the L.A. Times, Time magazine and the New York Times all ran lengthy, flattering profiles of Kennedy.

Among Kennedy’s great strengths was his ability to spot inefficiencies in order to maximize profits for his companies.

And Kennedy was not done wheeling and dealing. When bidders came along, looking to buy chunks of his entertainment properties, he was willing to sell for the right price.

Kennedy “had entered the industry a rich man, but he departed a multimillionaire with more than enough money in his and Rose’s accounts and the children’s trust funds to support them all for the rest of their lives.”

Even after the stock market crash in 1929, which brought on the Great Depression, Kennedy had amassed what would amount to over $20 million in today’s purchasing power.

Queen Kelly
But there was still the Swanson-von Stroheim picture to make. Filming began in November, 1928, and the working title for the silent film was Queen Kelly, in which Swanson was to play a poor Irish convent girl. Von Stroheim lived up to his reputation for difficulty, and in an ironic twist, Kennedy who was supposed to help clean up Hollywood seemed to be making a film that would offend many.

“Halfway through Queen Kelly,” Thomas Maier writes in The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, “it became obvious to both Swanson and Kennedy that their star director . . . had structured the film around scenes that would never get past [censors].” Maier adds: “Kennedy decided to fire von Stroheim and can the film.”

Different versions of the film would eventually be shown around the world, and later in the U.S. But perhaps the most famous scenes in Queen Kelly are those that appear briefly in Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. The film’s stars? Gloria Swanson, as an aging movie star, and Erich von Stroheim as her former director.

Kennedy and Swanson later had a hit with a film called The Trespasser. This one was a “talkie,” and it was clear that the era of the silent film was over.

By 1933, thanks to Jimmy Cagney’s Irish- American gangster epics and the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, the crackdown on Hollywood immorality had begun in earnest. Through all of this tumult, Joe Kennedy managed not only to survive but to thrive.

He had been a major player in Hollywood during this crucial period when show biz morals, technology and – thanks to Kennedy – business practices had changed drastically.

Did Kennedy ever intend to leave his wife for Swanson? Not likely. For all of his philandering, Kennedy was committed to his family. He also knew that, as a Catholic, divorce was unlikely. (As Nasaw writes, Kennedy “believed you could wipe the slate clean just by going to confession.”)

Swanson and Kennedy remained friends, though she turned bitter towards him later in life when she ran low on money, believing Kennedy had gotten much more than she out of their professional and personal relationship.

Meanwhile, for most of her life, Rose Kennedy chose not to acknowledge her husband’s wandering eye, and even sent gifts to Gloria Swanson’s children at Christmas in 1929.

By now, Kennedy “had no desire to go back to Hollywood and reestablish himself as a studio head,” according to Nasaw.

As the Depression worsened, Kennedy began to fear that the capitalist system under which he thrived was threatened. And even though he supported Herbert Hoover in 1928, he joined FDR’s cause in 1932. “Having joined the campaign,” Nasaw writes, “Kennedy fought to find a place for himself on the inside.”

Washington was calling. The next formidable chapter in Joseph P. Kennedy’s life was under way.

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