I grew up listening to my mother talk about the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when people all over the U.S. were suffering in the Great Depression and needed the lift they got from their version of royalty anyone could aspire to become, Hollywood stars. All that glitz and glamour gave them hope their lives could improve. Bestselling author Kate Alcott has written a tribute to those days in A Touch of Stardust. It’s the story of a young woman dazzled by Hollywood dreams who ends up in the kind of situation that can only happen in Hollywood. Having lived in Southern California for years, I know those kinds of things do happen although they’re much rarer than most people think.
When we reviewed Kate Alcott’s bestselling novel, The Dressmaker, I was struck by her ability to place everyday people in the heart of extraordinary events and to make those events come to life in a way they don’t in history books. In that novel, it was the story of the Titanic. She’s done it again with A Touch of Stardust. Whether you like historical novels, tales about bygone Hollywood eras or are a Gone With the Wind fan, I’m betting you’ll want to read A Touch of Stardust.
Julie Crawford’s parents had all kinds of plans for her life, none of which she had any interest in whatsoever. They finally reluctantly agreed to give her one year to do what she dreamed of doing before settling down to live the life expected of her. Little did they know that when she left Fort Wayne, Indiana, she had no intention of ever going back. And that’s how Julie ended up in Hollywood, the city of her screenwriting dreams.
Although she doesn’t see it as lucky at first, Julie manages to land a job in David O. Selznick’s 1938 studio publicity department. It’s not screenwriting but at least she’s working at a studio, right in the thick of things. It’s a tense time on the studio lot because Selznick, a perfectionist, is prepping for a film everyone is sure is going to be the bomb of the century, Gone With the Wind. He’s run through enough screenwriters, directors, and high-ranking crew members to populate the entire town. He’s also run screen tests on every actress he can find in search of the perfect Scarlett. The whole thing has disaster written all over it and it’s making everyone who works at the studio nervous as hell. And then just as she’s getting settled in her job, in a quirk of fate, the great man himself fires her.
Before she gets fired, Julie finds the whole process absolutely fascinating. She can’t resist popping over to the set to watch its construction or its destruction when Atlanta burns, and is amazed at what she’s learning about making movies and the industry just by being there. The whole thing feels magical and wonderful, and she knows coming to Hollywood was the right decision.
December 10, 1938
Atlanta was exploding right on schedule.
Small darting figures were dancing across the lot, lighting fuses, jumping back…
‘God, look at it burn!’ yelled a man in a Confederate uniform. The sky above Selznick International Pictures was now a frighteningly brilliant, ferocious orange, and while men in business suits on a high platform above the fire cheered, residents of Culver City, California, huddled in their houses, wondering briefly if it was Armageddon.
Julie Crawford kept running, stumbling every few feet…She tried to turn her face from the blaze as she ran, but her skin felt seared from heat anyway. She risked a quick glance upward, toward the observation tower. David O. Selznick, bathed in searchlights, stood like a king, surveying his flaming domain.”
“’Damn, if that wagon thing don’t look pretty good,’ said the fake Confederate soldier in high excitement, pointing. ‘Old Sherman ain’t getting those munitions now!’
A roar of whooping and hollering grew as people clapped each other on the back and laughed, relieved – though still casting nervous eyes at the fire engines encircling the lot.”
Andy, an assistant producer on the film, is almost too good to be true; a genuinely sweet and kind man. Because Julie’s screenwriting career is her top priority, she’s reluctant to get seriously involved with any man who might steer her away from that but, if she did want a serious relationship, it would be with a man like Andy. She is, however, completely clueless about the private struggles and nightmares Andy is going through as Hitler’s reign of terror gains traction in Europe. And if they do get serious, who cares if her parents might not approve that he’s Jewish. The two of them couldn’t possibly be that different from each other, could they?
“…’How about her helping you and Clark?’ [asked Andy.]
She shrugged, ‘If you can sneak her past David.’
‘Maybe in a black wig?’
She laughed, “That’s a guaranteed disguise; do it.’
‘I don’t want to wear a – ‘ Julie began, confused.
‘Just a joke,’ she said.
‘Okay,’ Julie said, now thoroughly embarrassed.
She [Carole Lombard] turned to Julie. ‘Don’t despair sweetie. Everybody gets fired by David sooner or later, but Andy is his right-hand man, and he’ll get you fixed up. At the rate our Mr. Selznick is going, this movie might provide all of you with lifetime jobs of one sort or another.’
‘Doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want,’ her companion interjected.
The blonde shrugged and gifted him with a tender smile. But that didn’t stop her from casting a scornful glance at Selznick. Not quite daggers but definitely scorn.”
Carole is like a godsend for Julie in more ways than one, including that she’s a hometown girl who’s proved anything is possible. When she gets a job as Carole’s personal assistant, Julie is determined to prove her worth even if it’s not a writing job. Lombard and Clark Gable are having a rough time of it. They have been having an affair for several years. The only way Selznick is able to get Clark to agree to take the role of Rhett Butler is to agree to do whatever needed to finalize his divorce from his second wife so he and Carole can be married.
That’s an arrangement that makes the studio censors happy since affairs or any potentially scandalous behavior is verboten under the 1930 Hayes Code. Carole’s language, which has earned her the nickname The Profane Angel, is already scandalous enough. What saves her from their wrath is her immense popularity. The public loves her outspoken, fun-loving personality, making her box-office gold. What is amazing to Julie is learning Carole is exactly who she portrays, a fun-loving and generous authentic person in the midst of a town built out of manufactured images and facades.
It isn’t long before they became fast friends, not just employer and employee. Julie becomes very protective of Carole and Clark’s private lives as tensions mount on the turbulent Gone With the Wind set. It’s a real fight to get free of Clark Gable’s second wife so they can marry and move to their dream home, an Encino ranch. They just want a quiet, settled life with the animals they love away from the glitz and glamour. It’s a much better fit for Clark’s shyness and Carole’s love of nature, and Julie is determined to help them get it. Julie does her best to protect them from the sometimes vicious Louella Parsons and other celebrity reporters anxious for any real or made-up juicy tidbits to feed the public’s thirst for Hollywood gossip.
Carole is a great role model for Julie in her desire to break from the traditional role Julie’s parents want to force her into. She teaches Julie much about how Hollywood really works and encourages her to write. But can she find the courage to follow in Carole’s non-traditional footsteps or will she cave in to her parents’ wishes when her one year is up?
Julie is an Everywoman who comes to Hollywood with her eyes filled with glitter and stardust. That she isn’t disillusioned when she learns it’s a business first, and art incidentally, says a lot about her adaptability. A lot of serendipitous things happen to put her in the middle of movie-making history, which plays right into the Hollywood myth of how such things happen. Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, David O. Selznick, Olivia de Havilland, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, the Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel, William Powell, break-out female screenwriter Frances Marion, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, even famed directors George Cukor and Victor Fleming – all appear in this novel. Even the shy, reclusive Margaret Mitchell makes a cameo appearance. And the author’s Epilogue gives details of what happened in real life once the film was made. These characters come of life on the page as real people, not just the star-like images studio PR people projected at the time. That alone made A Touch of Stardust worth reading.
If you’re looking for an insider’s tour of how Hollywood worked in the late 1930’s, or a backstage tour of how Gone With the Wind was made, you couldn’t get a better glimpse than this one. Kate Alcott, whose real name is Patricia O’Brien, may have had an insider’s scoop in writing about Hollywood’s Golden Age since her late husband was the son of legendary Hollywood screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, who was a member of a very influential Hollywood family. Whatever research she did, she’s once again made us flies on the wall – this time spying on the history of a film that has achieved a level of immortality never expected when it was being made. In fact, there were bets about whether this film would ever even be completed. Beyond the epic film and the larger-than-life celebrities, this is the story of several couples in love during unsettling times: Clark and Carole, Vivien and Sir Lawrence Olivier, and Julie and Andy. So whether you love insider Hollywood stories, historical novels, or stories about relationships and friendships then I predict you’re going to love A Touch of Stardust. I know I certainly did!
Can’t wait to read it?
A Touch of Stardust was published on February 17, 2015, so it’s available now in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). If you download it as an e-book, you can have it to read tonight. And now both Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer free apps to do that even if you don’t have an e-reader. (See the right column ads for those free apps.) Whoot!
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