The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine (2005) E. J. Fleming
McFarland & Company
Paperback, 315 pages
(includes photos, notes, selected bibliography, index)
Anyone who’s done even a small amount of research on the private lives of Hollywood stars knows that the off-camera shenanigans often run deep. What you may not know is that, in many cases, what you’ve been told is just the tip of the iceberg. The Fixers not only shatters the tip, but also obliterates the surface, middle, and everything down to the lower recesses.
After a compact and impressive history of the origins of Hollywood, author E. J. Fleming gives readers the story of Eddie Mannix (above) and Howard Strickling (below), the “fixers” who worked for Louis B. Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). If you’ve never heard of these guys, that’s the way they wanted it. (I wouldn’t have known of them if I hadn’t heard Eddie Muller mention them at a Noir City festival a couple of years ago.) Hired as “production assistants,” Mannix and Strickling were controllers of information. For decades, any public or private act from any MGM celebrity was under the tight control of these guys, which meant (for starters) keeping any incidents or actions that would shed a negative light on the studio out of the newspapers. But that was just the beginning.
Some of the shenanigans Mannix and Strickling controlled were less damaging than others. Restaurant owners and bartenders were instructed to call the Fixers as soon as Spencer Tracy stepped into their establishments, before he could even order a drink, knowing that once Tracy got a good head of steam going, there was no stopping him. Gay and lesbian lifestyles were covered up with “lavender” marriages. Unwanted pregnancies were taken care of, changing them to “European vacations” or “minor surgical procedures” for newspaper reporters, gossip columns, and movie magazines. It’s hard to us to understand what things were like in the early days of Hollywood, but the movie studios literally owned their stars. Fans loved their movie idols, and the news of scandals meant the loss of dollars.
Fleming gives much more space to the 1930s than any other decade. Once you start reading that chapter (over 100 pages), you’ll understand why. It’s no coincidence that the pre-Code era accounted for an almost constant level of scandalous activities that kept Mayer up most nights. (And make no mistake, Mayer was involved in plenty of shenanigans himself.) The ‘30s was a showcase of Hollywood’s illicit loves, sexual practices, substance abuse, cover-ups, payoffs. Some of these activities were more serious than others. Some were minor inconveniences, but some ruined careers. A few resulted in tragic deaths. It’s astounding what happened that fans never knew about until years later.
Many of these names and stories are familiar, but even those who've delved deep into the scandal pool will learn something new. (I challenge anyone to read Judy Garland's story and not feel totally crushed.) Even some of these familiar tales we still don’t know about fully. A couple of famous cases, such as what really happened in the mysterious death of George Reeves (star of the TV show The Adventures of Superman), are addressed in the book, while others are given only a brief mention. Since neither Mannix nor Strickling talked much, and neither wrote books, there must be countless stories (or at least the details of stories) that we’ll never know. But what we have here is impressive.
The Fixers presents a wealth of information, but it suffers from a few problems. The tales of cases (presented mostly by decade) often vanish unfinished in favor of other cases, only to reemerge later, sometimes with the same details we’ve already encountered. A closer editorial eye would have helped the focus of several of these stories. I have read several books from McFarland, some of which are superb, and others plagued by editorial, spelling, and punctuation problems. Unfortunately, The Fixers belongs in the latter category. Yet for all its problems, The Fixers is an important volume in the history of Hollywood, one that can go from humorous to dark very quickly. It may not be for everyone, but for anyone wanting to understand publicity during the first several decades of Hollywood, it’s essential.
McFarland Books is currently having a sale on their Pop Culture and Film books (which includes The Fixers), but act quickly. Through Sunday May 17, you can get 40% off the list price with the code POP40.
Photos: McFarland, Wikipedia, Calisphere