Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy

The writer, an anthropology and film teacher, balances scholarship with spice

By Matthew Kennedy

University of Wisconsin (2004), $35

In a world where film buffs can choose from among 15 biographies and critical studies of John Ford and an equal number devoted to George Cukor, a book about the life and work of Edmund Goulding, the underrated and multitalented director of, among others, Grand Hotel, The Dawn Patrol, and the Bette Davis weepies The Old Maid, The Great Lie, and Dark Victory, is long overdue. Goulding, born to a London butcher in 1891, became an actor, prolific writer, producer, and even composer (of such deathless tunes as 1929's "Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere" and 1952's "Cuddles"), as well as director of some 38 features. His five-decade oeuvre, ranging from the scripts for the rural silent Tol'able David and for the first talkie musical, The Broadway Melody, to directing Garbo in Love and Marilyn Monroe in We're Not Married, confounds auteurists: Goulding was always stylish, but without a discernible personal style. Matthew Kennedy, who teaches anthropology at City College of San Francisco and film history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has balanced scholarship with spice, unveiling the dark (alcoholism, drug-taking, and orgies) as well as the victories in the bisexual filmmaker's life. Goulding's brief marriage to tubercular dancer Marjorie Moss (Louise Brooks said he "filled the last three years of her life with beauty") is intriguing, in a De-Lovely way. His sordid side helps to explain his anomalous noir masterpiece Nightmare Alley, starring Tyrone Power, whose sleek beauty was just beginning to crumple around the edges: Now we know just how a guy could sink so low.

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