BEFORE Joe Kennedy went to Hollywood for his short-lived affair with the movies in 1926, he was well off.
When he left five years later, he was rich. As the patriarch of what would become ‘America’s royal family’, the man who would later pull the necessary political strings to get his son elected as the first Catholic president of the US proved himself a natural for the film industry in the days between the silent era and the talkies.
“When he first arrived in Hollywood no one knew Joe Kennedy as the man he would become,” writes Cari Beauchamp.
“He was already more than well off, always meticulously dressed and chauffeured in his Rolls-Royce, but he had yet to accumulate his fortune. His wealth was estimated at a little over a million dollars and he would increase that tenfold over the five years he was immersed in the film industry.” When Kennedy left Hollywood, “he already had so much money that making the rest of it, which must have been many millions, was almost a routine affair.”
Having previously written Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, a treatise on the gender struggles within the movie community, Beauchamp chronicles the little known period when Kennedy brought his ruthless commercial wisdom to a then fledgling film industry and initiated a style of management still in use today. “Kennedy saw everything and everyone, from Gloria Swanson to Adolf Hitler, through a lens of dollars and cents,” she writes.
In his mid-30s when he came to California to test his skills in the emerging industry, Kennedy was already a successful corporate operator in his native Boston and on the US east coast. In Hollywood he found a place where his financial savvy and Irish charm opened a world of new opportunities beyond the canyons of Wall Street. He was “a wickedly handsome six footer, exuding vitality and roguish charm” impressing everyone he met. “You felt not just that you were the only one in the room that mattered,” recalls actress Joan Fontaine, “but the only one in the world.”
A mogul long before the term was invented, Kennedy at one point ran four film companies simultaneously – a feat still unmatched. Lauded by powerful gossip columnist Louella Parsons as “the coming Napoleon”, he straddled the industry during the challenging and groundbreaking period of silent films to sound. Bringing hard-nosed bottom line banking practice into what was up to then a loosely regulated industry, he killed off vaudeville through formatting new business paradigms that would eventually set up Hollywood for the Golden Age of the ’30s and ’40s. Fortune Magazine profiled the man behind the myth saying, “the legends are so luxuriant that when you see Joe Kennedy you are likely to be startled to find him plain and matter of fact. He is a good natured, sandy haired Irish family man – athletic, unperplexed, easily pleased, hot tempered, independent and restless as they come.”
With his proven banking background, Kennedy brought a corporate ethos to Hollywood which effectively saved many of the declining studios through mergers that incorporated ‘small pawns’ like Robertson-Cole, Pathé and Keith-Albee-Orpheum into “the queen of RKO” in less than four years. Unlike his banking colleagues on Wall Street, Kennedy was the first to see the potentially huge profits in movie-making and distribution. “Look at that bunch of pants pressers making themselves millionaires,” he observed of the predominantly Jewish community who were running the burgeoning studios. “I could take the whole business away from them.” As he later told his sons, “Fight like hell to win, but if you don’t, forget about it.” Always keen to squeeze more mileage from his productions, Kennedy frequently changed the titles of his films. A football story, The Halfback became One Minute To Play, similarly a Lassie-type feature, Always Faithful transformed to Flashing Fangs. When his studio made A Regular Scout, Kennedy marketed a tie-in with the Boy Scouts of America to further promote its cause – the first kind of brand marketing that is today an integral feature of the industry.
Over 100 films were released under the banner of ‘Joseph P Kennedy Presents’, during a period when he built the careers of Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and the cowboy stars Fred Thomson and Tom Mix. His tumultuous three-year affair with Swanson, carried on with the probable knowledge of his long-suffering wife Rose, proved one of his few commercial mishaps while in Los Angeles. Hiring the gifted but notoriously wasteful Eric von Stroheim to direct her in the eventually aborted Queen Kelly, Kennedy endured a rare financial hit – but nothing like the estimated $1.5m lost by the actress herself.
Having arrived in Hollywood in the chaos of a changing industry and shortly before the Great Crash of ’29, Kennedy took full advantage of his opportunities. Betty Lasky, daughter of pioneer producer Jesse Lasky, said, “Joe Kennedy was the first and only outsider to fleece Hollywood.” When he left in 1931, he was worth $15m and “the richest Irish-American in the world.” It became the core foundation for a fortune estimated at $400m when he died in 1969. While Joseph Kennedy taught Hollywood some lessons, it returned the compliment in making him aware of a motto he would often repeat to his children in later life. “It is not what you are that is important, but what people think you are that is important.”
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