Old Hollywood is rewritten in Ryan Murphy‘s latest endeavor, which employs a group of minority underdogs for a fictional success story set in 1940s Los Angeles. The Netflix limited series Hollywood follows a gay African-American screenwriter (Jeremy Pope), an Asian director (Darren Criss), and an African-American actress (Laura Harrier) as they work on a movie that aims to shake up the prejudices of the industry.
Although the plot of Hollywood is absolutely made up, the show references real films of the time and features dramatized cameos from famous Hollywood filmmakers who often take the spotlight from the invented main characters. Whether you like the show and are looking for more from the era or you hate the show and need some redemption viewing, here are my recommendations of 12 essential movies to watch afterward:
Thirteen Women (1932)
In the series, Archie Coleman (Pope) writes a screenplay telling the story of Peg Entwistle, an unknown actress from Hollywood’s pre-Code era whose dramatic death made headlines in 1932. She jumped from the Hollywoodland sign just before the release of her only film, Thirteen Women. Entwistle had a very small role in the film, which also stars Irene Dunne, Kay Johnson, and Myrna Loy, who plays (in yellowface) a half-Asian woman who embarks on a revenge killing spree against her former classmates at an all-girls school.
There were more lesbian undertones in the film before scenes were cut for its theatrical release, but the themes are still apparent when you watch today. Thirteen Women is considered one of the first female ensemble films and also one of the earliest slasher films. It’s a shame Archie’s movie never got made in the fictional world of Hollywood, but Entwistle’s story is at least brilliantly told in an episode of the podcast You Must Remember This.
Murder in Harlem (1935)
Hollywood accurately depicts the relative lack of people of color in major motion pictures during the 1940s, but it fails to recognize the history of black cinema, or “race films,” outside of typical viewers’ periphery. There were African Americans making and starring in movies since the silent era, such as the very prolific Oscar Micheaux. He wrote, directed, and produced the first feature with an all-black cast — The Homesteader in 1919 — but sadly the film is lost.
Many of Micheaux’s other films are available to watch, though, including Murder in Harlem, a murder mystery based on a real murder case against a Jewish man named Leo Frank that resulted in his lynching death in 1915. Murder in Harlem was actually the second time Micheaux used Frank’s story, with the first being his (also lost) 1921 silent film The Gunsaulus Mystery.
The Women (1939)
In Hollywood, one of the biggest scenes is set during a scandalous party at the home of director George Cukor (portrayed in the series by Daniel London). Cukor was known to have parties where guests could openly enjoy to company of the same sex without judgment or prejudice. Cukor himself was gay and is often referred to as “the woman’s director” because of his tendency to no only direct women’s pictures but direct them well.
One of Cukor’s best films is The Women, which features a glorious cast of female superstars including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Lucile Watson, Mary Boland, Florence Nash, and Virginia Grey. The movie famously features no men — nope, not a single one (of the 120 roles listed on IMDb, including uncredited performers and those in deleted scenes, all are female, even the dog) — despite the plot being focused around a husband’s affair with another woman. It also famously contains a singular Technicolor fashion show scene.
Bombs Over Burma (1942)
One of the best performances in Hollywood is by Michelle Krusiec as Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, whose greatest disappointment is depicted in a flashback in the show as it really happened. MGM gave Wong’s dream role in The Good Earth to a white actress (Luise Rainer), despite the character being Chinese and the fact that Wong had a wonderful audition.
She starred in B-movies after that, including Bombs Over Burma, in which she plays a Chinese spy during World War II. For the first few minutes, the characters exclusively speak Mandarin, a rarity for films of the 1940s. Even though Anna May Wong never got the big roles in mainstream movies she deserved, her reputation for depicting Chinese women faithfully outlasts anyone’s consideration of The Good Earth.
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
When he directed this film featuring an all-black cast, legendary director Vincente Minelli was an unknown in Hollywood. He adapted the Broadway play of the same name into a movie musical, but not without consulting black leaders first. He was determined to depict the fable the way the black community wanted, and he even made sure the NAACP approved of the script before production.
The musical is about Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) and his second lease on life with his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters). Although the Devil does all he can to tempt Little Joe, especially with his former mistress Georgie Brown (Lena Horne). As discussed by the studio executive characters in Hollywood, many Southern movie theaters refused to show Cabin in the Sky because it was considered “a race film” and not suitable for white audiences. The cast was never awarded for their acting ability, but Ethel Water’s song “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” was nominated for an Oscar.
Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
In Hollywood, Hattie McDaniel (wonderfully portrayed by Queen Latifah) talks about how Hollywood let her down after her Oscar win for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel never got a larger role in a film after the 1939 classic — that is, apart from Disney’s incredibly tone-deaf Song of the South. Hear that story in another must-listen episode of You Must Remember This.
The actress was mostly still cast in the same kinds of maid and servant roles despite (and perhaps in spite) of her Academy Award. Thank Your Lucky Stars is one of those films made during World War II that contains an ensemble cast of a studio’s hottest players, including McDaniel. She sings one of the movie’s best musical numbers, “Ice Cold Katy,” which also features only black performers. This is one of the only times McDaniel is in a mainstream movie without playing a maid and gets to have a glorious time.
As portrayed by Paget Brewster, actress Tallulah Bankhead makes several — yet sadly brief — appearances in the series, including one scene in which she jumps into a pool dressed in a lamé gown. Brewster brings Bankhead’s spitfire wit and sexual fluidity to life for Hollywood, but you must also see the real actress at work.
Bankhead gained her stardom in both theater and film, but she actually made just a few film appearances throughout her career. One of them, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, finds her among a tight ensemble of players stuck on the titular craft, playing one of the victims of a ship torpedoed by Germans during World War II. During filming, she refused to wear underwear and fought with her co-stars about politics. Her off-screen persona is what made her so interesting, but her talent is obvious in this movie.
Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947)
In Hollywood, a fictional film ends up winning Best Picture at the 1948 Oscars. But Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement won at the real Oscars that year. The film illuminated the anti-Semitism still present in the United States even after seeing the horrors of World War II. Gregory Peck plays a reporter who pretends to be Jewish to write an article about anti-Semitism and experience the prejudice he didn’t think existed in our country. The film’s themes were part of the reason the FBI investigated Kazan and actor John Garfield for “Communist subversion” following its release.
Fighter Squadron (1948)
Rock Hudson (portrayed by Jake Picking) gets a fictional start to his acting career in Hollywood thanks to his screenwriter boyfriend. In our universe, Rock Hudson’s first film was actually this World War II movie about an anti-authoritarian soldier who’s promoted to commander. Hudson has a very small role, but he looks gorgeous in his screen debut. According to his biography All That Heaven Allows by Mark Griffin, Hudson had to have thirty-eight takes to get his one line right for the film (he kept saying, “You’ve got to get a bligger backboard,” instead of “you’ve got to get a bigger blackboard”), which is similar to his audition for Meg in Murphy’s series. His most remembered films are after Hudson got used to Hollywood, so his uneasiness in the film is a rarity to see.
A Street Car Named Desire (1951)
In one scene in Hollywood, actress Vivien Leigh (portrayed by Katie McGuinness) talks about the next role she is preparing for: another Southern belle like her infamous Gone With the Wind character, Scarlett O’Hara. She’s referring to Leigh’s real-life role as Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. Her performance as a lonely spinster, who is staying with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her boisterous brother-in-law Stanley (Marlon Brando), landed her an Oscar.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Hollywood shows a black actress starring in the lead role of a mainstream film in the late 1940s. The truth is that it took almost a decade more than what is shown in the series for such a performance to occur. Carmen Jones is the real film that broke boundaries in the film industry for black actors in Hollywood. The title character, played by Dorothy Dandridge, is the object of desire for every man in an army camp, but she has her eye on one man she cannot have. The movie became wildly popular and Dandridge became the first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)
Finally, this documentary tells the story of Alice Guy-Blaché, the legendary female silent filmmaker, and shows the studio she started with her husband Herbert in 1910. In Hollywood, Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) declares herself the first woman to run a studio once she acquires Ace Studios from her husband. That statement undoes what Guy-Blaché accomplished 30 years before Hollywood takes place.
Unfortunately, most viewers watching Hollywood probably don’t know about Alice Guy-Blaché or that she was the artistic director for her studio. Her position gave her most of the power over the films made at Solax Studios, many of which she directed herself. This documentary uncovers her story and finally gives her the recognition she deserves. And, of course, after watching the doc, you’ll want to actually see her films, some of which are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.