|Much like fellow Brit Noel Coward, Edmund Goulding was a true ‘renaissance man’ in the arts: variously an actor, writer, composer and director. But unlike Coward, Goulding’s considerable talents have largely been overlooked by history, and his accomplishments in Hollywood seemingly forgotten. This, from a man who directed and produced Greta Garbo in MGM’s Love (1927), wrote the screenplay for the early talkie success The Broadway Melody (1929), directed the star-studded Grand Hotel (1932), and helped guide Bette Davis to two of her best performances in Dark Victory and The Old Maid, both of 1939. Matthew Kennedy’s new biography of Edmund Goulding is out to correct this oversight in the first book-length look at this forgotten director and his dynamic career.
Born in England in 1891, Edmund Goulding grew up the son of a butcher, but deserted the trade as a young man for London’s West End. Bright and personable, Goulding easily found work on the English stage, though his accomplishments were fairly minor.
He instead took his fortunes to America, where it didn’t take him long to jump from the stage to the fledgling motion picture business. Despite only modest schooling, Goulding was a talented writer, gifted with an imagination that could conjure up photoplay plots seemingly at will. This was a distinct advantage in early Hollywood, where a well-connected writer could earn huge sums simply by pitching story ideas, with nary a word committed to paper. It was a creative atmosphere that suited Goulding’s talents, and he began racking up story and screenwriting credits with Famous Players and Selznick Pictures, among others.
In 1921, his career received a significant boost with the release of Tol’able David, starring Richard Barthelmess, which Goulding scripted along with director Henry King. The success of this picture, considered today one of the period’s gems, brought him a higher profile and, eventually, the chance to direct. This first occurred with Sun-Up (1925), starring Pauline Starke and Conrad Nagel, followed shortly thereafter by Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), a film that offered Joan Crawford one of her important early roles. But it was in directing Love, Frances Marion’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, that cemented Goulding as one of Hollywood’s premier directors.
Beginning with Love and extending through his sound era work, Edmund Goulding was primarily known as a ‘woman’s director,’ denoting not only his sensitivity in handling female performers (including the volatile Davis), but also his ability to depict romantic and ‘weepie’ subjects in a thoughtful and intelligent manner. Yet Goulding didn’t just specialize in ‘chick flicks.’ His handling of Grand Hotel, the event movie of the Depression, his 1938 remake of the war film The Dawn Patrol (with nary a woman in the cast), and a venture into film noir with Nightmare Alley (1947) proved that Edmund Goulding was every bit as adept directing outside his genre specialty, and often with considerable box-office success.
Matthew Kennedy does a fair job of illuminating the stage and screen work of this forgotten talent, though Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory can hardly be considered the definitive work on the subject. The author gives considerable space to Goulding’s major accomplishments — Tol’able David, Love, Grand Hotel, as well as his work with Bette Davis — though other, lesser movies are discussed only briefly. For those with an interest in Goulding’s silent films, Kennedy gives many of these works short shrift, showing a distinct preference for films that Goulding personally directed (Tol’able David being the notable exception).
Kennedy also treads lightly on Goulding’s legendary penchant for booze and bisexual orgies, both of which got him into trouble on more than one occasion, particularly when the director worked under Louis B. Mayer at MGM. In a book subtitled “Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy,” one might have expected the biography to focus more on how Goulding’s excesses may have affected his films and his career, but this is not the case.
Where Kennedy scores, however, is in pinpointing where Edmund Goulding failed to secure a lasting name for himself. Unlike directors of similar stature, Goulding did not necessarily have a signature style that he carried from film to film. Rather than impose a particular vision on his projects, Goulding was more apt to work directly with his actors (in particular the women) to get the key performances he was looking for. This approach put the performances front and center, and while it resulted in some memorable screen work over the course of his career, Goulding’s own contributions were (by his own design) pushed to the background. Perhaps this is why, despite an impressive resume of box-office successes and starmaking turns from his actors, Goulding himself was never nominated for an Academy Award.
Although there is still room for a more in-depth look at the life and career of this neglected figure, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory provides a welcome look at a man whose career deserves reexamination.
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