Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Melancholia, Lars von Trier, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden 2011

The above image may be a still from Lars von Trier's film, but Kirsten Dunst's facial expression approximately mirrors mine while watching it. Put differently, half the time I was fighting severe attacks of sleepiness, and the other half I was racked with the question as to why anyone would shoot such a pointless film and worse, why anyone would invest their own good money into such a venture. This being a European offering and thus largely financed through subidies, the thought that millions of tax-payers' money were spent on this - excuse my French - latter-day masturbation effort is enough to get my back up any time. Especially at a time when half of Europe appears to be on the brink of bankruptcy.

Kirsten Dunst's above facial expression and the alleged topic of the film notwithstanding, Melancholia leaves you not so much depressed as angry - angry at having wasted nearly three hours of your time (to say nothing of the 10 quid spent on the ticket!) sitting through a film which is in dire need of a plot and as a result has nothing whatsoever to say, let alone offering some redemption.

To make matters worse, besides the opening sequence - which, admittedly, is visually stunning - one of the film's biggest disappointments are that it totally lacks von Trier's usual visual artistry. All of it seems as uninspired as the film does as a whole. And though I could live with a film that's visually uninspiring or visually conventional, the least one could expect of any film, is a hint of a plotline which, alas, is wholly absent!

Therefore, there are countless more fruitful ways to kill three hours of your time than sitting through a film that is as unnecessary as it is boring and pretentious.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Blast From The Past: The Go-Between, Joseph Losey, UK 1971

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there".

Thus begins L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, which was first published in 1953 by Hamish Hamilton, setting the tone for the rest of the novel. The tone, to be sure, is one of nostalgia, though nostalgia in the best of senses for it is to his credit that Hartley refrains from the trait that seems to be inherent to nostalgia: glorifying the past. Glorifying the past is exactly what Hartley does not do. Rather similar to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, the memory of The Go-Between's main character, Leo, is also being unlocked by a particular incident, in this case it is discovery of an old collar box in which he comes across a diary, written some fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1900, the time when the novel's events unfold.

In its essence, The Go-Between is a critical observation of the British class system such as it was at the dawn of the Victorian age. Hartley's novel is much more than that, however, for it is also a coming-of-age story; a story about the loss of innocence and awakening sexuality.

Coming from a lower middle-class background, Leo receives an invitation to spend the summer at the elegant mansion of his friend Marcus. Leo's encounter with Marcus' beautiful sister, Marian, triggers his sexual awakening, though it must be mentioned that Hartley knows better than to lose himself in tedious analysis and explanations, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The adult Leo travels back in time, reminiscing on the events that would come to shape his life.

Taking advantage of Leo's growing obsession with her, Marian uses Leo as a go-between to take messages between her and her lover, Ted Burgess, a farmer who lives in an outhouse on the grounds. That Leo is putty in Marian's hands is considerably aided by the fact that Leo's background is decidedly middle-class and that he's far less sophisticated and worldly than, perhaps, his upper-class equivalent would be.

Unaware of what really goes on between Marian and Ted, it nevertheless begins to dawn on Leo that it is something untoward, particularly as he finds out that Marian is supposed to become engaged to the wealthy Viscount Trimingham. Just like mercury's rising on the thermometer as the weather gets hotter and hotter, so Leo's duties as mercury also become ever more frequent, urgent, and dangerous.

Things eventually come to their tragic head, with - perhaps predictably - Leo and Ted as their primary victims as the members of the upper class use the subordinate status of both to mend their chipped facade in order to keep up appearances.

Hartley's book is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is elegiac, nostalgic without ever falling into the trap of glorification. It is a reminiscence, a reflection, and full of symbolism, written in beautiful, elegant English that aptly captures the stimmung at the turn of the century.

Julie Christie as Marian in Losey's The Go-Between (UK 1970)

Later turned into a film, The Go-Between was released in the US well-nigh 30 years ago, in November 1971. It was to be one of Losey's best films and, perhaps, one of the best films ever to come out of the UK - and that is saying a lot. Losey's adaptation of Hartley's novel can hardly be improved upon. Though two entirely different entities, I myself can't help thinking of the film when reading the book. The film's images have burnt themselves into my memory since the visual language, the imagery, Losey chose for his adaptation are quite simply flawless for he captured the spirit and tone of Hartley's novel to perfection.

Alan Bates as Ted Burgess, Dominic Guard as Leo

Similarly the casting. In hindsight it seems of course inconceivable that Losey should have picked anyone but Julie Christie and Alan Bates for the leading roles. Still, there were plenty of other actresses and actors about whom Losey may have chosen over Christie and Bates. Yet, both are the epitome of their respective characters. Christie's sheer beauty, her ability to convey the subtlest hints of arrogance and condescension all fit Marian to a 't'. The same goes for Alan Bates who exudes a masculine, carnal, sexuality which makes Marian's longing and desire for him more than understandable.

While Gerry Fisher's cinematography may be considered conventional, the images, frames, and colours nevertheless match Leo's nostalgic reminiscence something which is highlighted by Michel Legrand's score. Interestingly, a year later Legrand would write the score to Summer of 42, another film that revolves around the remembrance of a male adult whose mind travels back to his childhood.

And last but not least it must be mentioned that the screenplay to The Go-Between was written by none other than the long-time Losey collaborator and future Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter. Pinter came up with a very clever device to underscore the relevance events in a person's childhood have for their future and to demonstrate the bearing our past has on the rest of our lives.

The Go-Between deservedly won the Palme d'Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. In the BFI list of the Best British Films of all-time it currently ranges at Nr. 53 while Julie Christie remains the only actress who appears in a total of 6 films on that list.

Julie Christie, Alan Bates in The Go-Between

The Go-Between is available on Amazon.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 10

Read the last instalment of my series on Hollywood, the studios, and the studio era. For all previous posts on this series, please refer to the archives on the bottom of this page!

If anything, through advantageous and synergic takeovers and mergers like Time/ Warner/ AOL, Viacom/ Paramount, and Sony/ Columbia, the studios, and films in general, even benefited from those new media, at least financially.

As for the quality of the films, I can’t help thinking that although not all that glittered was gold in Hollywood’s golden era, what the moguls brought to their jobs was a proficiency and a profound love for the industry they created. A buccaneer-spirit paired with the vigour and pluck of the pioneers they were.

But the Hollywood of the studio era is irrevocably gone.
And after all, it probably never was much more than one huge, gigantic factory of dreams spread out over various parts of The City of Nets as Otto Friedrich referred to Hollywood in his autobiography.

I for my part, however, choose to think of it as another world, another universe, created by Hollywood’s founding fathers and inhabited by one big, enormous, dysfunctional, royal family, in the form of the big studios, with the moguls as the powerful patriarchs of the family’s various branches.

City of Nets by Otto Friedrich is highly recommended reading for anybody interested in Hollywood's golden age. Though very anecdotal, it is a first hand account by someone who lived and worked in the studios but not on the front lines, but rather in the background. Friedrich was a brilliant observer whose scrutinising eye escaped nothing.

For more books on Hollywood there's no better place than Larry Edmunds legendary bookshop on 6644, Hollywood Boulevard.

Click HERE to visit their website!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 9

Pauline Kael

The all pervading atmosphere of terror, brought on by the committee’s shenanigans did nothing to nurture what remained of Tinseltown’s creative spirit, which is exactly what Hollywood needed most to win the battle against television and in its struggle to get audiences back to the big screen.

Today, agencies have replaced the big studios, setting up package deals between writer, director, producer and star, who tend to be all under contract to the same agency. Studios are reduced to a mere distributing role, and to letting space to independent producers, who usually consist of the film’s director or star. As an independent production they rent space, or other studio facilities, at a particular studio over a certain amount of time. And even though studios still produce -or co produce- films, the better part of the activity on the lot is dedicated to television.

Francis Ford Coppola

Alan J. Pakula

Martin Scorsese

Hal Ashby

Re-emerging after the sorry years of the 1950s, Hollywood entered a second golden age towards the end of the 1960s, or, to quote famous film critic Pauline Kael, Hollywood’s only golden age. With the Old Guard gone, the Production Code abolished, and the studios mostly run and owned by huge conglomerations, in which the studio itself was but a minor asset, a new herd of film makers entered the scene, who, with their verve and idealism infused Hollywood with a string of remarkable movies. Influenced by the Vietnam War, the rise of Women’s Lib, and a new sexual freedom, film makers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, William Friedkin, Alan J. Pakula, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, and Hal Ashby led the way to what would later be dubbed as the New Hollywood, producing films that went beyond mere entertainment, analysing, scrutinising and dissecting human behaviour and society as a whole. Steven Spielberg changed all that.

When his film Jaws (1975) was released nationwide and subsequently breaking all box-office records, the age of the blockbuster was born, as studios and producers realised that given the right product and an adequate marketing and distributing strategy, millions of dollars could be made with just one film. Spielberg, who had astonished cinema goers with two remarkable, off-beat, low-budget films, done well before he entered blockbuster territory , Duel (1971) and Sugarland Express (1974), went on to become commercially the most successful director of all time.

Entering the 1980s, it is interesting to take a look at the Academy Awards, whose significance as indicator for the excellence of films has greatly diminished, but which have assumed the role of a magnifying glass for the zeitgeist: In comparison to the 1970s, where films that won the Best Picture award were commercial as well as critical successes, the 1980s presented a different scenario, as hardly any of the top box-office grossers were awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. In that respect, the 1980s, the business-orientated politics of the Reagan notwithstanding, reflected the Hollywood of the past, where the Academy tended to value quality higher than box-office returns.

But with society changing constantly, and with a world-wide shift towards the political right, accompanied by an ever-increasing hunger for profit and economic growth, during the 1990s grosses took precedence over quality, and the Academy Awards for Best Picture was usually bestowed upon films that were box-office winners, with little or no regard to their artistic merits. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1993), and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994) being an exception to the rule inasmuch as both works were artistically as well as commercially triumphant.

This trend continues to the very day, and Hollywood today is indeed the factory of films it was thought to have been during the studio era. A lot of money is lavished upon the production of a major studio release, but other than the fact that yet another box-office record was once more broken, the finished result is mostly forgettable. As a reaction to this trend, a new, independent cinema has emerged, producing low budget films with a focus on the story and, luckily, quality, and some studios even set up an independent branch, such as Warner Brothers’ New Line to counterbalance its big budget releases.

Cinema attendance has been soaring for the past twenty years, disproving prophets of doom who, at the onset of the 1950s and the sorry time that followed, predicted the death of cinema and the end of motion pictures. The reverse is true, however. American cinema, after having survived HUAC, successfully battled the onslaught of television, videos, DVD players, and home computers.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 8

John Garfield

The very disappointing stance of the studio heads led to a ten year unofficial blacklist, which was implemented in the most insidious way, as free lance writers stopped receiving assignments from the studios and actors were told that they “were too good for the part”. Blacklisted actresses Anne Revere and Kim Hunter were out of work for years. John Garfield, one of Hollywood’s most outstanding actors, couldn’t get a job because of his steadfast refusal to co-operate with HUAC and to name names. He died under mysterious circumstances in May 1952. Director Abraham Polonsky, whose film, Force of Evil (1948) is now considered a classic, was a victim, and so were Joseph Losey and Charlie Chaplin, who were both forced to leave the Unites States and subsequently settled in Europe. Over 200 film workers were inspected and lost their jobs as a result of the blacklist for their alleged connections to the Communist Party.

Elia Kazan

HUAC’s second wave of investigation in Hollywood took place between 1951 and 1953, this time headed by the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. Over a hundred film workers were subpoenaed, Orson Welles, Lucille Ball, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, among them. Fifty eight of them gave in to McCarthy’s demands to name names, such as directors Elia Kazan, Robert Rossen, and Edward Dmytryk and even acclaimed writer Budd Schulberg, who would later write On The Waterfront(1954), which, directed by Elia Kazan, was their joint vindication for their decision to fink on their colleagues.

Clifford Odets

Clifford Odets, who had known Kazan during their time at New York’s Group Theatre in the 1930s, also resorted to take the easy way out, naming names and firmly denying his former affiliations with the Communist Party, claiming that he was merely harbouring sympathetic feelings towards the working class. Thus, Odets avoided being blacklisted, and went on working unhindered in Hollywood, unlike many of his colleagues. Although naming names enabled people to continue working, Kazan stated in his autobiography that his decision to rat on his colleagues wasn’t based as much on that, as it was over his aversion towards the Communist Party, of which he had been a member during the 1930s, when he was part of New York’s Group Theatre.

As Katherine Hepburn, a life-long liberal, once said, “I can’t blame anyone for saying things so that he can keep working. But when somebody says things to keep other people from working, he has crossed a line”. The truth was, that some of the blacklisted screen-writers did in fact continue to write. But in order to so they had to work under an assumed name, for their real ones were not supposed to appear on screen. Oscar winning screen writer Howard Koch, for instance, who was blacklisted after writing The Thirteenth Letter (1951), which was a thinly veiled attack on the blacklist, wrote under the pseudonym Peter Howard. This privilege, however, logically, didn’t extend to other professions, least of all acting, as changing their names would have done little to hide their true identity, as their faces would still have been visible on screen.

Dalton Trumbo

Otto Preminger, who was the first one to break free from the shackles of the Production Code, was also a trailblazer when it came to openly hiring blacklisted writers, when he asked Dalton Trumbo in 1959 to write the screenplay for his film Exodus (1960). Preminger, whatever his merits as a film maker may be, was a trailblazer in other ways, too, as he also broke new ground by being one of the first directors to work with an entire black cast for his musical Porgy and Bess (1959), and later, in 1962, being the first Hollywood director to tackle the subject of homosexuality in his film Advise and Consent (1962).

The Communist witch hunt, which befell America in the years after the Second World War, was a dark chapter not only in the history of Hollywood but in the history of the country as a whole, and one that changed the film community forever. The saddest part being, that it brought out the worst - and in a few cases – the best in people, and all over a cause that in a country set out to be the world’s arbiter of democracy should never have been an issue in the first place, for the primary principles of any democracy are freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. Sadder, still, is the fact, that by succumbing to HUAC’s demands and playing by HUAC’s rules, the studio chiefs headed straight for the disaster, which they so desperately wanted to avoid.

>>> check back in next week to learn more about Hollywood and the demise of the studio era!

Monday, 22 August 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 7, Witch-Hunt In Hollywood

Among the friendly witnesses called up to testify were Gary Cooper, Jack Warner and novelist Ayn Rand, who was Russian by birth, but who had moved to the US in 1926, and whose subsequent commercial success as a writer turned her into a staunch anti-Communist, leading her to heavily attack MGM’s film Song of Russia (1944), which was in fact nothing but a harmless romance between an American soldier and a Russian peasant girl. Song of Russia was filmed in the light of the two countries’ short lived alliance in their war against Nazi Germany, which had prompted President Roosevelt to encourage the studios to paint a somewhat friendlier picture of Russia to make Americans feel more at ease with their erstwhile enemy-turned ally.

Ayn Rand

The studio heads, always willing to comply with the Government’s requests, produced a number of pictures between 1943 and 1945 that were indeed pro-Russian, such as Mission to Moscow (1943), The North Star (1943), and Tender Comrade (1943) as well as the abovementioned Song Of Russia. Little did they know, however, that once the war was over, they would find themselves under attack for something they merely did at the Government’s instigation.

MGM’s Louis B. Mayer himself was summoned before the Committee to justify the making of Song Of Russia, which was deemed Communist propaganda by the Committee, a view ardently shared by Ayn Rand. Ronald Reagan, once a member of the Democratic Party, was also asked to testify in his position as President of the Screen Actors Guild. His disgust with Communism made him one of HUAC’s keenest supporters, and subsequently turned him into a Republican.

Of the nineteen unfriendly witnesses, eleven were called up to take the stand. However, only one of them, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, did. Making a brief appearance before the Committee, during which he denied all ties to the Communist Party, he boarded a plane back to Europe shortly after and based himself in East Berlin, where he went on to become the pride and joy of East Germany’s Communist Government. The remaining ten (writers Alvah Bessie, Dalton Trumbo, Samuel Orvitz, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Adrian Scott, John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz, and director Edward Dmytryk) refused to testify and claimed their Fifth Amendment Rights. They were held in contempt and had to serve prison terms between six and eight months. Their studio contracts were suspended, and after being released from prison they found themselves blacklisted.

Herbert Biberman

Ring Lardner

Alvah Bessie

Edward Dmytryk

Bertolt Brecht

Dalton Trumbo

John Howard Lawson

Alarmed by the Committee’s findings, and fearful of the damage it could do to Hollywood’s reputation, not to mention the already unstable box-office returns, all studio heads and some executives gathered in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on November 24, 1947, to discuss the situation and think about a unified response. The following statement was released to the press:

“We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force, or by any illegal or unconstitutional method”.

Read today, the moguls’ response seems ridiculous and unfathomable. Yet, the hysterical fear of Communism led to a fanatical witch hunt which made red baiting the new National Religion.

To read more on HUAC and the witch-hunt in Hollywood, log on again to FILM-TALK this Saturday!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 6

Trust Hitchcock to find his own way of getting around the two second restriction that the code put upon a kiss by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman briefly interrupting their endless kissing scene in Notorious (1945) after every two seconds.

Otto Preminger

It would take the hard-headedness of an Otto Preminger to defy the restrictive rules of the code in 1954 with his film The Moon is Blue, in which he dared showing an ex-marital couple living under the same roof - which is something that was still strictly verboten. United Artists, the film’s distributor, decided to release the film without the production seal, thus setting a trend that gradually spilled over to other directors and studios. But after Preminger’s film proved to be a major box-office hit, studios had to face the fact that with the onslaught of television, and cinema attendance in rapid decline, the general public expected to be shown something that the family orientated TV didn’t yet provide. The result was an increasing disregard of the Production Code, until it eventually became obsolete altogether. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, however, that the Production Code entirely lost its impact and control over American film, to be replaced by a rating system, modelled on that of Great Britain.

1950 marked the end of the studio era and Hollywood’s golden age, and the beginning of the free-wheeling age, where independent producers and agents called the shots. The film moguls who had ruled the studios for three decades had grown old, had to face the fact that their own studios had outgrown them. They withdrew from the film industry, and in some cases were even forced into retirement, like Louis B. Meyer. The ones who stayed put, like Jack Warner, who was the last one of the first generation’s moguls to step down in 1967, were simply overwhelmed by the turning tides, and found it difficult to keep up with the ever more unpredictable tastes of the fickle public.

Jack Warner

1947 saw the dawn of television, which by 1950 had become a veritable threat to the big screen, resulting in slipping cinema attendance, which the studios, already weakened by the Government’s Consent Decree, forcing them to divest themselves of their theatre chains, found difficult to stomach. The vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition, in which Paramount’s Adolph Zukor once pioneered, was ruled illegal by the government by setting up strict anti-trust laws, which led to the disintegration of the studio system. Studios like Columbia, that didn’t own any theatres, had an easier time, as the Government’s ruling obviously didn’t affect them.

In addition to Hollywood’s considerable travails, the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) had started its hearings in Hollywood in 1947 and resumed them in 1951, sending shock waves through the film community, and the resulting atmosphere of fear that descended over Hollywood was a death knell to what it most needed to survive: art and creativity. As it turned out, the HUAC hearings were akin to the kiss of death of the already battered film industry. Founded in 1938, HUAC’s aim was to investigate all areas in American society with public exposure for their possible ties to Communism and the Communist party. Needless to say, the film industry with their millions of viewers posed an obvious target for HUAC. HUAC’s fervour cooled down during the Second World War when Russia and America became temporary allies in their war against Nazi Germany, only to resurge after 1945, which, with the world map once more reshuffled, marked the beginning of the Cold War, subsequently turning Russia from ally to enemy.

J. Parnell Thomas

HUAC, headed by J. Parnell Thomas, began its hearings in October 1947, probing the film community’s involvement with Communism and Hollywood’s possibility to insert Communist propaganda into its films. HUAC polarised Hollywood, splitting it in two – the right wing, conservative circle around Robert Taylor, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, Adolphe Menjou, Ginger Rogers, and Sam Wood, who avidly supported its doings and purpose, and the liberal, left wing group around John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall, John Garfield, William Wyler and Myrna Loy. Consequently, when HUAC picked certain film workers to take the stand, the field was divided in friendly witnesses, who were willing to co-operate with HUAC’s requests, and unfriendly ones, who refused.

Read more on HUAC and its impact on Hollywood next week!

Monday, 8 August 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 5

However, there were others, directors who established a very close bond with their respective writers with whom they worked hand in glove, such as John Ford with Dudley Nichols or Frank Capra with Robert Riskin. Their repeated collaboration resulted in profoundly personal films which unmistakably bore the director’s trademark.

Orson Welles

And there were those like Orson Welles, who had never been anything but an auteur, for he produced, wrote, directed and even starred in his own films from the moment he set foot on Hollywood. Therefore, strictly speaking Alfred Hitchcock, who had a tendency to change his writers from project to project, didn’t really fall into the auteur bracket. Yet, since he possessed the rare gift of visualising the finished film long before the writer got a chance to take down even a single word, it was he who greatly influenced the screenwriter, steering him in such a way that left the writer little room for manoeuvre. Thus, in François Truffaut’s eyes Hitchcock was the epitome of the auteur, the quintessential director-cum-artist, who managed to turn his obsessions and visions into a work of art.

Ida Lupino

The profession of a film director in Hollywood -as much as elsewhere- was still pretty much a man’s prerogative. But two women broke that tradition, successfully asserting themselves in a world dominated by men. One was Dorothy Arzner, who had been under contract to Paramount between 1927 and 1932, but worked independently afterwards, and who is best known today for her film Christopher Strong(1933), done at RKO, in which she directed a young and aspiring Katherine Hepburn. Some years later, Ida Lupino followed her footsteps. Starting out as an actress at Warner’s where she was unflatteringly nicknamed “the poor man’s Bette Davis”, reflecting the unsatisfactory assignments she was given which, more often than not, were handed-down roles Davis had rejected. Arguably her best film as an actress was in Raoul Walsh’s atmospheric and sinister High Sierra (1941), where she played alongside Humphrey Bogart. Her assignments failing to improve, together with her husband she founded their own production company, aptly called The Filmmakers, and Ida went on to blaze new trails by becoming one of the most respected B-movie directors, and the second woman in Hollywood history to be admitted to the Directors Guild of America. Her modestly budgeted films had a tendency to deal with -at the time- controversial subjects, such as rape (Outrage, 1950) and bigamy (The Bigamist, 1953), which the restrictions imposed by the Production Code made difficult to tackle on screen. In a pun to her earlier nickname, Lupino jokingly referred to herself as “the poor man’s Don Siegel”. She continued to appear in front of the screen, albeit sporadically, and among her most notable assignments as an actress during the 1950s are Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), which included a meaty part for her playing a blind woman, and Jack Palance’s wife in the film adaptation of Clifford Odets’ corrosive take on Hollywood, The Big Knife (1955), directed by Robert Aldrich.

Will Hays

The Hollywood of the studio era was really a time when a director who wanted to express anything to do with sex, morals and gender found himself on slippery ground.
A certain artistic genius was indeed required to get around the censors and to widen the narrow margin the Hays Code imposed upon the film makers and screenwriters.
Although the Hays Code was officially introduced in 1934, Will Hays had been the spokesman for the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association since 1922, when the former Postmaster General was summoned to Hollywood to represent the studios to the outside world. His job was Hollywood’s answer to a public outcry following a number of scandals -notably the Fatty Arbuckle rape case- which shook the fledgling film community in the early 1920, making it vulnerable to criticism and attacks by the press as well as various religious organisations. However, by 1930 first steps were taken by Hays to set up a code that would regulate and determine what could be shown on screen, and by 1934, the Production Code -or Hays Code, as it is usually referred to- became operational with Joseph Breen as director.

The Production Code was also supposed to exclude violence from the screens, and “to use popular entertainment films to reinforce conservative moral and political values”, which to some extent, was like a prelude to the events that later wreaked havoc in Hollywood, when the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) started investigating the film community for possible Communist infiltrations, as the Production strictly forbade any depiction of radical or socially critical behaviour.
The code stipulated that every screenplay had to be submitted to the Breen Office for approval. And without Breen’s seal and blessing, sending a script into production was pointless for if the Breen office deemed the contents morally offensive, it would have been impossible to release the finished product. It was not by accident that Mae West’s films after 1934 were harmless, almost bloodless, comedies that lacked the bite and vigour of her previous efforts (I’m No Angel, She Done Him Wrong, both 1933), whose innuendo and double entendre would have never found the approval of the Joseph Breen.

Mae West

The Production Code didn’t tolerate any mention of homosexuality, nor unmarried couples living together. And a woman, who even to the most clueless viewer couldn’t be anything but a hooker, became a ‘woman of leisure’ or, at best, a showgirl, as no allusions whatsoever could be dropped to the woman’s true profession. Double Indemnity (1944), Wilder’s masterpiece based on James M. Cain’s novel, was considered un-filmable for years because of its subject which was deemed debauched and depraved. That it found Breen’s approval -and its way to the screen- is due to the genius of Wilder and his collaborator Raymond Chandler, who both managed to find a way of expressing everything by saying and showing nothing.

Thus, subtlety became an art-from in itself.

And, I’m inclined to add, Hollywood, became all the richer for it, for certain directors like Berlin-import Ernst Lubitsch, whose skill and finesse made him Hollywood’s uncrowned king of innuendo, seemed to bloom and flourish when it came to beating the code at its own game and turning the code’s confinement to his advantage.

Ernst Lubitsch

This series continues on Saturday! Be sure to be back!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 4

Nathaniel West

To stock up on talented writers, studio executives started raiding New York’s Broadway and the publishing industry, and lured by Hollywood’s tempting salaries -which far exceeded Broadway’s - the writers came in droves. The Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s reads like the Who’s Who in American literature, as virtually every major American novelist passed through Hollywood at some point, having been snatched up by one of the major studios: F.Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Raymond Chandler, Clifford Odets, Budd Schulberg, among many others, all tried their hand at screenplays, some of them being more successful at it than others. However, only a few among them ever took to Hollywood. Most of them despised the town, deploring its lack of high culture as well the working conditions. These working conditions notwithstanding, being a so-called studio slave inspired some writers to turn their experiences and observations in Tinseltown into their best work.

Budd Schulberg

Nathaniel West’s scathing The Day of the Locust paints a dark picture of Hollywood’s gold-digger years, while Budd Schulberg’s gripping What Makes Sammy Run tells the story of a fast and furious parvenu with a fire in his head, determined to become a big-time Hollywood producer whose burning ambition is a direct result of him having been born into an impoverished Jewish family living in New York’s Lower East Side. Like the majority of the moguls, the book’s hero - Sammy Glick - also wants to keep his Jewish origins under wraps, changing his name from Glickstein to Glick as he's assimilated to the point where his Jewish heritage is all but erased.

Jerry Wald

Ever since Schulberg’s novel was first published in 1941, it has been widely known that Sammy Glick’s character is but a thinly veiled portrayal of a real-life Hollywood personality and rumour has it that Jerry Wald, the producer of Key Largo (1947) and The Best of Everything (1959) was in fact the model for Schulberg’s hero. Schulberg himself was born into one of Hollywood’s foremost families, and consequently he knew the film business inside out even before he started out as screenwriter himself, his father, B.P. Schulberg, having been the head of Paramount for a short period during the 1920/ 30s.

Raymond Chandler

Although Raymond Chandler never wrote a book about Hollywood other than an essay, titled Oscar Night in Hollywood, published in Atlantic Monthly in 1948, Chandler's hard-boiled crime novels struck a chord with war audiences, resulting in a contract with Paramount for which he wrote a couple of screenplays which stood at the centre of what eventually became known as Film Noir.
Having lived and worked in Los Angeles for the better part of his life, when Raymond Chandler followed Hollywood’s call he was already well into his fifties. Akin to his fellow writers he found it difficult to adapt to life in the film community and as a result, he had frequent run-ins with his directors.

Film Noir, "where the streets are dark with something darker than night" (Raymond Chandler)

The term Film Noir originated with a number of young French film enthusiasts during the mid 1940s who were in the process of rediscovering and reevaluating the Hollywood films of the war years, namely the long list of thrillers and crime movies which, drenched in darkness and perfidy, reflected the disquieting effect the war had on America.

Some time later, French directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard would become very influential in establishing the Nouvelle Vague, which injected new life into the French film industry. Their admiration for American Cinema was boundless, for they saw and read meanings into those films that so far had been invisible to the ordinary cinema-goer. It surely is no exaggeration saying, that had it not been for people like Louis Malle, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, André Bazin, and Claude Chabrol, film criticism would be the poorer for it, for even though they all eventually became directors in their own right, they were conducive in the foundation of Cahiers du Cinéma, a periodical which unlike the better part of most film magazines around today, doesn’t resemble a publicity pamphlet from a film studio.
It all culminated, of course, in Truffaut’s book about Alfred Hitchcock, How Did You Do It, which has become a milestone in film theory.

Francois Truffaut

After Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Hollywood’s impressive stable of writers was joined by an ever increasing number of film working immigrants from Europe - many of whom writers - who began arriving in Hollywood following the Nazi-takeover, thus adding to Hollywood’s already well established list of ex-patriots, like Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Lubitsch, Maurice Chevalier, Bertolt and Salka Viertel, Greta Garbo, Wilhelm and Charlotte Dieterle, and many others. Aided by the European Film Fund, writers like Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Doeblin, Heinrich Mann, and Walter Mehring, all ended up getting a job in Hollywood’s film industry, but found it wearisome to adjust not only to the working methods, but also to having to write in a foreign language of which most of them had little knowledge.

Bertolt Brecht

Billy Wilder on the other hand, who also spoke hardly any English upon his arrival in the US in 1934, wound up with a command of the English language which far exceeded that of his compatriots, enabling him to turn into a full-fledged screenwriter, and in time, director, thus joining a select group of talented film workers who made the successful yet difficult transition from writer to director: Preston Sturges, John Huston and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, also were among them. A writer-turned-director would later be dubbed auteur by the same group of French film enthusiasts who were also responsible for the re-discovery of the films which they classified as Noir.

This series continues next week!

Sunday, 24 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 3

In 1913, the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company, which included Lasky himself, Cecil B. DeMille, and Samuel Goldwyn, reached Hollywood by way of Flagstaff/ Arizona, to shoot The Squaw Man. The film has since been remade twice and on both occasions by DeMille himself. It is the filming of The Squaw Man more than anything else that we have come to associate with the dawn of Hollywood as the world’s Mecca of Film. But this, as we've seen, is not entirely true for there were a large number of film pioneers who beat Mr. DeMille to being the first filmmaker to discover Hollywood’s merits as a film location. The Squaw Man, however, was the first-ever feature film (= four reels or more) to be shot in Hollywood. Other feature films of that period such as Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (1913) having been shot in the San Fernando Valley while Adoph Zukor’s trailblazing Queen Elizabeth (1912), starring legendary actress Sarah Bernhard, was shot way back in New York!

The Lasky-DeMille barn, now the Hollywood Heritage Museum, located on 2100 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood

Initially bound for Flagstaff, in order to escape the Trust as well as New York’s whimsical weather conditions, they quickly made up their mind that the dry, deserted, flats of Arizona wouldn’t do and headed straight to California. To shoot their film, DeMille and his peers rented the barn of a German settler, Jakob Stern, located at the corner of what is known today as Selma and Vine, just a stone’s throw away from bustling Hollywood Boulevard, or rather, Prospect Avenue, as it was called then. The now legendary Lasky-DeMille barn is still standing, although not on its original location. Having been moved to its new site across from the Hollywood Bowl, the Washington Mutual Bank now occupies the barn’s former ground. In deference to Hollywood’s film pioneers and their film, The Squaw Man, the bank’s entire façade has been tiled in a mosaic that depicts various scenes from the landmark film that was shot there nearly a hundred years ago.

In 1916 the Lasky Feature Play Company merged with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players to form Famous Players Lasky, with Zukor as president, Lasky as vice president, Goldwyn as chairman, and DeMille as director-general. But, as Zukor’s biographer Will Irwin, puts it, “even this large company was too small, however, long to include four such able and positive characters”, and before long Goldwyn sold out to his partners and merged with Edgar Selwyn to found the Goldwyn Company, which eventually was fused into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. Goldwyn, obviously a free spirit, soon dropped out from the company that would thereafter bear his name to become the most charismatic of Hollywood’s independent producers. Zukor on the other hand, slyly merged his Famous Players Lasky Company with Hodkinson’s distribution company called Paramount, thus pioneering in the vertical integration of production, exhibition and distribution, a concept that would later be adopted by most other Hollywood studios.
As a name for his giant corporation Zukor opted for Paramount, which swiftly turned into the most influential and most powerful motion picture company, a position it held until the formation of MGM in 1924.

Things were developing at rapid speed when in 1915 William Fox founded his Fox Film Corporation, and took over the Selig studios in Edendale in 1916, joined by Louis B. Mayer in 1918, who became Selig’s tenant for a while, before building his own studio on Mission Road a year later. Metro rented its first studios in Hollywood in 1916, but was acquired by the cunning Marcus Loew in 1920, who four years later orchestrated the deal between Metro, Mayer, and Goldwyn, with himself as president, which led to the foundation of MGM, which in time, became almost a synonym for Hollywood itself.

Barbara Stanwyck, dressed by Edith Head, in Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944)

Film scholars generally name 1923/ 24 as the juncture the studio era began. All major studios were in place, except RKO, which joined the ranks of the majors a few years later- and literally all major studios followed the same pattern: the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition, which means that films were produced on the studio’s lot, distributed by the company’s distribution arm, and largely shown in cinemas owned by each respective studio. Not all studios were equally strong in each division, with some studios possessing a cinema chain smaller than that of other studios, while others had back lots and production facilities that were far superior to that of a rival studio.

Hedda Hopper, who wittily titled her autobiography From Under My Hat

Louella Parsons

In addition to that, all talent -from actors, directors, producers, to cameramen, set-designers, costume-designers and technical staff- was under contract to the studio. Again, not all studios equalled each other in their employment practices. Columbia, for instance, had scant talent under contract to the studio, and operated mostly by borrowing actors from other studios. A common practice, as it enabled the lending studio to, either make money on a contract player for whom no suitable project could be found. Or, in many cases, even a profit, as the asking price usually far exceeded the star’s salary, or else, punish a star who had gotten too big for his breeches by sending them off to a minor studio. Besides actors who were under contract to a studio, there were also a number of free-lancers like Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck. But free-lancing didn’t really become common procedure until the decline of the studio system gave rise to the more free-wheeling methods of the 1950s and 60s, when deals were struck between a studio, an independent producer like, for instance, Sam Spiegel, and a cast of bankable actors.

Travis Banton

Even though a lot of actors complained -and some famously even sued their studios for what they considered malpractice- to be under contract to a studio was in fact a blessing in disguise, as it meant steady work with a regular salary under the protection and guidance of a big studio whose aim it was to build up a face into a name and, eventually, into a star. Still, glorifying the contract system would be as wrong as flatly condemning it. Truth is, that it was a double-edged sword, since protection and a steady flow of work was only guaranteed as long as the star’s pictures continued to make money. While the duration of the contract was usually seven years -for that was the time the studios deemed necessary to build up a star-, the commitment on the studio’s side was only six months. This meant that a star, tied to a studio by a standard seven-year-contract, could be dropped by a studio with only six months notice.

Also, building up a star included complying with the demands of the studio’s publicity department, which could include anything from having your teeth fixed or your hair dyed to changing your name and completely reinventing your background. In order to get a young, promising actress’s name into the papers, the publicity department often saw to it that she would occasionally be escorted by one of the studio’s top-ranking male stars to a movie premiere, some lavish party, or even the Academy Award ceremony, thus also fostering the possibility of a romance between two contract actors, which was deemed very advantageous for the studio.

Dietrich - in Sternberg's extravaganza The Devil Is A Woman (1935)

Romances between actors -and the break-ups thereof- were the territory of gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Feared for their sharp tongue and poison pen, they were among Hollywood’s most weighty figures as their columns - Parson’s in Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner and Hopper’s in the L.A. Times, and both columns syndicated in newspapers all across the U.S. - were read by millions of eager readers every day, and their word had the power to make or break a career.

With the stars at the mercy of two gossip columnists, the studios’ respective publicity departments implored their stable of actors to comply with the columnists’ every request and demand, something which was next to impossible, for trying to satisfy the hunger for news of one, automatically entailed falling out of the other one’s favour, for the simple reason that both columnists were arch rivals, and getting the story first first was what it was all about. Tell It To Louella, is the adequately named title of Parsons’ second volume of her autobiography, published in 1961. Rumour has it, that the ties between Parsons and her boss, William Randolph Hearst, were closer than one might think, for she is said to have witnessed the notorious shooting, involving Thomas Ince, Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies, during which Ince was fatally injured, and to silence her, the newspaper magnate offered her a life-long position at the Los Angeles Examiner, one of his many publications. Parsons was unrivalled in her station as the queen of gossip, until in 1937 Hedda Hopper decided to hang her acting career and throw her fancy hat into the gossip-ring.

Legendary Edith Head whose influence on fashion was as as far-reaching as Paris

In spite of their rivalry, both women had more in common than they cared to admit. Equally relentless when it came to squeezing out the gossip out of their victims, both also held extremely conservative convictions, about which they made no bones, and which rose to the surface during the red baiting, with both vigorously supporting the House Committee of Un-American Activities(HUAC). Both loyal employees, Parsons’ flagrantly slandered Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane(1941) for its thinly veiled portrayal of her boss, William Randolph Hearst. Hedda Hopper, whose dim career as an actress had ended after she started working for the L.A. Examiner, was offered a bit part in Billy Wilder’s landmark Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which she plays herself, wearing one of the flamboyant hats that became her trademark.

In the case of directors, being under contract to a studio could be particularly frustrating as their individual influence varied from studio to studio. Some studios like MGM, or Warner’s under Darryl F. Zanuck, were very producer orientated, leaving the director with little or no say over the finished product. Others, like Columbia or RKO, gave their directors a fair amount of freedom, relying on their vision and skill to come up with a film that was both beautifully crafted yet also successful at the box-office. It goes without saying that a visionary, strong willed producer can be as important to a film as a visionary, strong willed director, and as both positions were generally filled with in-house staff, it was in the studio’s interest to ensure their compatibility.

Bette Davis wearing one of Head's typical gowns of understated elegance in All About Eve (1950)

Like producers, directors and actors, costume designers and set designers, too, were a vital part of the intrinsically woven studio net. They substantially contributed to giving the studio’s output its distinctive look. To recreate a certain period, they had large research libraries at their disposal as well as a prop department, where furniture and interior decorations from all eras and countries were available to them. Most noteworthy among the set designers was Cedric Gibbons, who in his position as MGM’s head of the art department, supervised all releases, and no product would reach the screen without his approval. He was responsible for giving MGM’s films its glossy, luxurious finish, making them easily identifiable, even to the casual viewer, as an MGM product. Gibbons famously also designed the Academy Award statuette, known as Oscar, when his boss, Louis B. Mayer, together with 35 other dignitaries from the film community, founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, as a response to the growing power of the unions.

Art directors Lyle Wheeler at Fox, and Hans Dreier at Paramount, both held equally powerful positions as Gibbons, but in neither studio was the emphasis on a film’s look as high as it was at MGM. Gibbons’ sumptuous sets were highlighted by the extravagant gowns MGM’s chief costume designer, Adrian created for in-house stars like Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. Orry Kelly had a similar role at Warner Brothers, being responsible for Bette Davis’ wardrobe during her Warner Brothers period.

Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1953)

Paramount, however, was home to two of Hollywood’s most outstanding costume designers: Travis Banton was responsible for creating Marlene Dietrich’s extravagant costumes in the films she made for her mentor, Josef von Sternberg, most memorable among them, The Devil is a Woman (1935), in which Banton turned Dietrich into a sequined siren, replete with towering mantillas and veils. The young woman Banton had taken under his wing would later become the most celebrated costume designers of them all: Edith Head. Her trademark of pure, understated elegance would eventually earn her eight Oscars and thirty-four nominations. She went on to dress Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), and Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1953), to name only three.

Just like all other divisions, writers had their own building, working in tiny, adjoining, offices, expected to churn out stories, rewrite scripts, or add dialogue to an already finished screenplay. At times, more than one writer was assigned to the same project. The position of a screenwriter gained considerably in importance with the advent of sound, as the studios were in dire need of well-crafted stories, spiced up with meaty dialogue.

This series will continue next week, Wednesday. For previous blog entries on Hollywood and Hollywood history, please visit the archives at the bottom of this page!