On its surface, the critically lauded Coen brothers movie Hail, Caesar! is a fantastical retro caper comedy (with musical numbers!) and a star-packed ensemble cast. On another level, it’s a meta-meditation on Hollywood and the dirty work that goes into the glossy final product. The biggest whitewash is splashed over the protagonist, Capitol Studio’s fixer Eddie Mannix, based on a real-life MGM executive with the same name, but with an important difference. While Josh Brolin's tightly wound but decent Mannix is played for laughs, the real Eddie Mannix wasn’t funny at all.
According to The Fixers, a scrupulously researched 2005 book by E. J. Fleming, a short but far-from-comprehensive list of Mannix’s misdeeds included being a wife beater and a philanderer. He injured a girlfriend, a young dancer named Mary Nolan, so badly she needed surgery to recover. When Nolan had the audacity to sue him, Mannix leveraged corrupt policemen to threaten her with trumped up drug charges. Mannix and other studio brass tampered with the evidence at the 1932 murder scene of Jean Harlow’s husband, producer Paul Bern, to make it look like suicide, because murder would introduce too many questions, including the inconvenient fact that Berne was still married to another woman.
“At his face, Eddie was a nice guy,” Fleming says. For the book, he interviewed scores of Hollywood old timers including Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman. Larson told Flemming he loved Eddie. “That being said,” Flemming says, “[Mannix] was a d***.”
Among his more infamous fixes: It is believed that Mannix tracked down and bought the film negative of a porno movie made by young dancer Billie Cassin, before she became Joan Crawford.
Hail, Caesar! follows the milder, fictional Mannix on a busy day and night in 1951 as he sorts out all manner of troubles involving a dizzying array of stars and movie genres: he brainstorms solutions to the inconvenient out-of-wedlock pregnancy of an Esther Williams-ish star (Scarlett Johansson). Hail, Caesar!’s Mannix also deals with the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney) the star of an epic (and epically expensive) biblical story who is being held for ransom by a group of money-hungry communist writers called “The Future.”
The characters are all inspired by real stars of the era: George Clooney is the handsome, blotto actor who could be a Charlton Heston/Richard Burton hybrid, but (aside from the alcoholism) mostly he seems to be playing a cartoonish version of himself, a handsome, charismatic star with a natural facility with leftwing politics. Tilda Swinton plays waspish identical twin sisters who are competing gossip columnists torn from the Hedda Hopper/Louella Parson page and Channing Tatum, a talented hoofer who kills it as a dancing sailor, a la Gene Kelly. Capital Pictures (also the company in the Coen’s 1991 Barton Fink) stands in for MGM.
As he runs from crisis to crisis, Brolin’s Mannix relieves stress by going to confession and smacking a couple of people.
The real Mannix was an Irish Catholic New Jersey tough who made his bones as a bouncer at East Coast amusement parks owned by brothers Nicholas and Joseph Schenck. Mannix followed Nicholas Schenck to Loew’s, a company expanding its entertainment offerings to the brand-new motion pictures, when Loew’s merged with MGM in 1924. Schenck sent Mannix west to be his eyes and ears. Mannix arrived in a Hollywood still making silent pictures and began working as a comptroller and assistant to star producer Irving Thalberg.
At the studio, Mannix met Howard Strickling, a young assistant publicist. According to Fleming, within a year of arriving, both Strickling and Mannix were part of MGM’s inner circle, specifically they were known as “The Fixers.” During Mannix’s career, which stretched into the 1950s, MGM made scores of classic films and shorts, everything from The Thin Man movies with Dick Powell and Myrna Loy, to Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and later classic musicals like Show Boat and Singing in the Rain. Under the old studio system, actors signed contracts and worked exclusively for one studio. Among MGM’s legendary stable were Greta Garbo, William Haines, Robert Montgomery, Judy Garland, Andy Rooney and Clark Gable.
The two were micromanaging control freaks. They compiled reports on their stars from studio drivers, waiters and janitors. They read private telegrams coming in and out of the studio and bribed police officers. They manipulated and hid information, going to great lengths to benefit the studio, including helping arrange heterosexual dates and even sham marriages for gay actors. For instance, Fleming cites a studio-fabricated affair between Myrna Loy and closeted actor Ramon Navarro. The author says Loy learned first learned of her love for Navarro by reading about it in the Los Angeles Times. Star William Haines, who went on to become a lauded interior decorator, was let go when he would not drop his boyfriend Jimmie Shields.
Under Strickling and Mannix, the studio made problems disappear. Clark Gable kept Strickling and Mannix very busy. They were either telling papers he had been hospitalized for stomach problems when he was instead having his teeth replaced by less-charming dentures or cleaning up car wrecks, including one in which Gable may have killed a pedestrian. Actress Loretta Young became pregnant after an encounter with Gable during the filming of 1935’s Call of the Wild (Young later called the incident rape.) Mannix and Strickling helped hide Young from view during her pregnancy and then arranged for her to “adopt” her own child, just as Johannson’s character does in Hail, Caesar!.
“Gable loved Eddie,” says Fleming. “He was like Eddie. He wasn’t very educated, he was a hard working guy, but he was completely amoral.”
Like Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen, the stars of Hollywood’s golden age were just as trouble prone, but society was less forgiving. “They were going to get in trouble and when they did Eddie Mannix helped get them out of it. They got in trouble and he fixed it.” Fleming says the stars seemed to appreciate that Mannix solved their problems and moved on. “You don’t get the impression from people who knew Eddie that he gave them shit for it.” Instead he made the case that they owed MGM their loyalty.
But Mannix’s dizzyingly list of suspected crimes goes beyond helping others and includes the mysterious death of his first wife Bernice, who died in a car crash outside of Las Vegas while trying to divorce him. Fleming says there is no way of knowing if Mannix was responsible, but “she divorced him for the affairs, the affairs were part of the divorce filing. He wouldn’t have been happy about that going public.”
His second wife, Toni, was the source of more controversy. She had had an affair with George Reeves of Superman fame. When Reeves was murdered in 1959, many thought Mannix was involved. Although never proven, Fleming believes Reeves’s newest girlfriend, society girl Leonore Lemmon, was responsible (the 2006 movie Hollywoodland takes that theory and runs with it.)
Personal scandal aside, Mannix’s and MGM’s fortunes faded together in the '50s. In United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc., the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the profits of big studios like MGM by breaking up their monopoly ownership of theater chains and the distribution of films to independent theatres. Likewise, actors and directors asserted their independence, asking for a percentage of profits, often in lieu of a salary. Television came on the scene, presenting a competing outlet for Americans’ attention. After years of ill-health, Mannix died in 1963.
But in Hail Caesar!’s 1951 all these forces are being felt, but the studio and its fixer Eddie Mannix are going full tilt, in a satirized Coen brothers universe where the art of movie making is simultaneously dirty and beautiful, but nonetheless meaningful. It all goes to show that the Coens have a great reverence for movies, past and present.