Beauchamp (Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, 1998, etc.) uncovers the largely untold story of the Kennedy patriarch’s adventures in the early days of Hollywood.
Kennedy demonstrated preternatural business instincts, ambition and self-promotional flair in his hometown of Boston, winning fame as “America’s youngest bank president” by the age 25 before being seduced by the spectacular profits to be made in the movie business. Employing his enormous personal charm, financial acumen and public-relations savvy, he quickly moved to the head of three movie studios and began amassing a personal fortune that would help establish him as one of the richest men in the country. Beauchamp’s exhaustive research details Kennedy’s every stock manipulation and cost-cutting measure, but the meat of the story is in the tyro’s ruthlessness and single-minded pursuit of the bottom line. This approach led to, among other things, the death of vaudeville, as Kennedy’s purchase of the K-A-O theater chain left that medium’s performers without a venue for their art; the ruined career of cowboy star and Kennedy friend Fred Thomson, who represented competition for Kennedy’s new hire Tom Mix; and the spectacular career flameout of Gloria Swanson, superstar and Kennedy paramour. The section dealing with Swanson’s epic, uncompleted fiasco Queen Kelly, hemorrhaging money as out-of-control director Erich von Stroheim descended into autocratic perversity, is a riveting account of filmmaking in the nascent sound era. It also provides a welcome bit of color in a narrative that, owing to Kennedy’s relative lack of interest in the creative side of the business, tends toward a dryness in its dogged reportage of wheeling and dealing. Beauchamp doesn’t attempt a psychological investigation of Kennedy; he appears simply as a predatory animal, a grinning shark instinctively improving his position without sentiment for those suffering in his wake.
An engrossing, important forgotten chapter in the history of Hollywood and America’s premiere political dynasty.