Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra is a lot of fun. I can’t say that it’s great literature, or that it has changed my life, but I had a terrific time reading it and I highly recommend it.
The story concerns the behind-the-scenes workers at a poverty row film studio in 1940’s Hollywood. Before the war the studio survives on money made from making Italian language versions of their movies filmed after the close of each workday using the same sets. The most well-known real-life example of this is the Spanish version of Dracula filmed each night after Bela Legosi and co. went home for the day. Many people consider this better version.
Mercury Pictures Presents is not the story of Hollywood stars. While Bela Lugosi does make a cameo appearance, he is the only famous character to take part in the novel’s action. The plot here is centered on outsiders, people not part of mainstream white America, especially those who fled various parts of Europe prior to World War II and ended up hanging on to the slight living they could earn making B pictures.
The main characters are Italian and German refugees. There is also a set of Jewish brothers who own the studio and a Chinese American trying to make it as an actor. Mr. Marra also works in the story of the Japanese internment/incarceration along with that of Black soldiers and the prejudice they faced during the war. It’s an ambitious project for an entertaining piece of historical fiction.
There is a lot to learn from reading Mercury Pictures Presents. At this time, I suspect most folks know about what happened to Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II. (I’m actually taking a class on this subject through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute as I write this.) What happened to Italian and German nationals, largely refugees, is not as well known. One character in Mercury Pictures Presents, an Italian photograher, is forced to turn in his camera as they were carefully controlled by the Army. A photograph forbidden to use a camera, he gets a job cataloguing German propaganda films for the U.S. Army. The foreign-born Italians in Los Angelos are not allowed to travel more than five miles from their homes during the war. Even in the 1940’s this made life in Los Angelos a challenge. It forces one main character to forgo visiting her mother for the duration becasue she lives seven miles away.
One German character, after fleeing her Nazi husband with little more than her life, works at the studio building miniature scenery for trick photography. She spends her Sundays watching reels of German propaganda films, looking for a glimpse of the son she left behind. She will take a job designing buildings for a fake Berlin in the Utah desert where the army is testing the chemicals needed to successfully fire-bomb the city. There she will recreate the home she left making it possible to walk teh streets of her old neighborhood once more.
I thought that this city in the desert was so outlandish that it had to be true. No author would insert such a scheme in a historical fiction unless it was real. But I once got very burned by an account of the tennis balls made from Anne Boleyn’s hair. There were five of them; one used in a fateful game of tennis played by Michelangelo Caravaggio and one which ended up in the main branch of the New York Public Library. I was going to visit New York that summer, so I called the library to see if I could make arrangements to view the tennis ball stuffed with Anne Bolen’s hair. The nice librarians at the New York Public Library checked their records thoroughly and couldn’t find it. After nearly 20 minutes on the phone, I had to admit that I’d read about it in Alvero Enrique’s wonderful novel Sudden Death. We agreed the tennis balls were not historical but historical fiction.
So, I looked it up the Berlin in the Utah desert. It’s true. The U.S. military really did build a near-exact replica of a Berlin neighborhood in the Utah desert only to firebomb it. (I’ve included a picture of one of the few remaining buildings.) Mike Davis even featured a chapter on it in his book Dead Cities: A Natural History. (Mr. Davis recently passed away so now is a perfect time to discover his work. I recommend City of Quartz which is on my re-read in retirement bookshelf.)
In the end Mercury Pictures Presents is a very entertaining, informative read that I highly recommend. It’s really a perfect “airplane book.” A lot of fun. Happy enough endings for everyone. The perfect book for a long winter afternoon.