"Mercury Pictures Presents" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Anthony Marra has written an intelligent, witty novel about Hollywood Studios just before and during America’s participation in World War II. The story touches on the plights of German and Italian immigrants who escaped to California in the 1930’s as fascism began to spread in their countries.
Mercury Pictures, run by the eccentric Artie Feldman, employs Italian and German emigres who contribute greatly to his filmmaking. Marie Lagano, from Italy, and a main character from whom the story emanates, has the writing skills and charm to get Mercury Pictures propaganda films past the censors. This was a daunting task: film censors in the late 1930’s and early 40’s were opposed to movies that would rouse public opinion against the United States’ isolationist attitudes before it was forced to enter WWII.
Marie’s childhood contact from Italy gains fame filming Feldman’s movies. Eddie Lu, a trained Shakespearean actor, becomes famous for reluctantly acting as stock Japanese and Chinese movie characters. Anna Weber, an architect from Germany, designs miniature German towns for replication by motion picture set designers.
A host of fascinating characters populate the novel, all of whom have escaped persecution in their own countries. Their background stories are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the storytelling.
In a twist of fate, the characters become enemies in America as soon as Germany and Italy declare war on the United States in 1941. Americans fear that the immigrants are spies, an unreasonable fear since America is a refuge to this grateful group. Accordingly, their lives are upended once again in a place that was designed to be a sanctuary.
The author brilliantly interweaves serious issues with humorous descriptions and interactions among the characters. Resilient characters rise above tragedy, betrayals, and hopelessness. Clever dialogue and droll observations make the novel a captivating and entertaining book.
In the acknowledgment, Marra makes it clear that “Mercury Pictures Presents” and its characters are amalgams of MGM, the Warner Brothers, Irving Thalberg, and Frank Capra and John Huston’s movies. The author cites an extensive list of nonfiction books for further reading about this time period in which fascism interacts with immigrant life and Hollywood.
Marra has written two other novels and is a bestselling author and winner of literary prizes.