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!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

My Father, Charlie Chaplin: Geraldine Chaplin In Conversation With David Robinson, Babylon Cinema, Berlin

Geraldine Chaplin

As part of the Babylon Cinema's Charlie Chaplin Retrospective - CHAPLIN COMPLETE - the Babylon Cinema's director, Timothy Grossman, invited Chaplin's daughter Geraldine and film historian and Chaplin biographer, David Robinson, to talk about the life and work of the artist in question.

I should mention that apart from being a great admirer of the films of Charlie Chaplin, I'm an equally great admirer of his daughter. Hence, seeing Geraldine Chaplin live for the first time was an opportunity not to be missed. And I must say that I wasn't disappointed. Seeing and listening to Geraldine talking about her childhood and upbringing and what it meant to grow up as the daughter of one one of the greatest film artists who ever lived, was as entertaining as it was fascinating and insightful.

Very often, coming face-to-face with someone you've always admired from afar can be an anticlimactic experience, to say the least. In Geraldine's case, however, it was different for she turned out to be one of the most gracious, radiant, authentic, and also the nicest, celebrities - for lack of a better word - I've ever encountered on a panel or a press conference.

Asked about if her name was of any help when she herself decided to become an actress, Geraldine Chaplin openly admitted that her name didn't just open doors, but that because her father was widely admired in the film industry, not just for his films but also for his political stance, the admiration for her father extended to her, making her start in movies relatively easy. Or easier than it would have been otherwise.

Here, Geraldine Chaplin talks to a 95-year old audience member who met Geraldine's father when he visited Berlin in 1931 to promote his film, City Lights

I'm tempted to add that Geraldine more than lived up to the somewhat preferential treatment she may have received in those days, and one of the most remarkable things about her is the fact that instead of embarking on a career in mainstream Hollywood, she managed to keep her name out of the blockbuster business and always opted for young, new, or independent, directors and films. As a result, she became a great actress in her own right. Her collaboration with her former partner Carlos Saura resulted in a number of memorable masterpieces, notably Cria Cuervos and Ana y Los Lobos. Moreover, because she chose a different career path - and because she wisely never underwent plastic surgery - she is still going strong today, now in her mid-sixties, when many other actresses of her generation can no longer be cast because they look like freaks. In fact, she's just completed another film, set in a retirement home, of all places, in which she stars alongside Daniel Bruehl and Jane Fonda. Apparently, it's Jane Fonda (at 70!) who gets the boy, and not her ...

Asked about her father's reaction to her collaboration with Saura plus the fact that they'd become lovers, Geraldine Chaplin admitted that her father wasn't all that happy at first, but once he saw Peppermint Frappe (Geraldine's and Saura's first film together), he wrote Saura a postcard, saying, "You're a poet!".

The panel: on the left, Timothy Grossman; in the middle, David Robinson, and to the right: Geraldine Chaplin

Considering that Charlie Chaplin was politically left-leaning, to say nothing of him being expelled from the US for allegedly being a Communist (Geraldine calls him "a humanist", which is aptly put), it was surprising to learn that as a father he was rather strict ("Victorian"), which most probably was a result of his own upbringing, which was spent in utter destitution with no education to speak of. Growing up in the US and in Switzerland as well as in English boarding schools, Geraldine not only enjoyed a privileged upbringing, she also grew up bi-lingual. I was surprised to hear that apparently, her father never mastered French properly, despite the fact that following his expulsion from the US, he spent the remainder of his life in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, in Vevey, which Geraldine still calls home to this day.

Geraldine Chaplin in her element

Geraldine Chaplin is a fascinating personality and a captivating raconteur, and I could have gladly sat there all afternoon listening to her. Additionally, she's done her father proud with the films she made and last but not least, it is wonderful - as well as reassuring - to see how she keeps the memory of her father alive. As far as I'm concerned, Charlie Chaplin's work should be included in the UNESCO list of
"world cultural heritage".

Friday, 15 July 2011

Charlie Chaplin Retrospective, Babylon, Berlin-Mitte

From tonight until August 7, the Babylon in Berlin-Mitte is hosting a Charlie Chaplin retrospective, showing all of his films in the original version with German subtitles. For silent films, live music will be provided by an orchestra or an organ player.

The Chaplin retrospective kicks off tonight at 7.30pm with Gold Rush. Charlie Chaplin's wonderful daughter Geraldine will be in attendance. Later, at 10pm, there's a - free! - open-air screening of The Great Dictator in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Tomorrow, Saturday, there's a conversation between film-historian David Robinson and Geraldine Chaplin about the work and influence of her father at 2pm, also at the Babylon.

For the full programme of the Charlie Chaplin retrospective, please click HERE!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 2

The first film crew to set up shop in the Los Angeles area was the Chicago-based Selig Company. They shot outdoor scenes for their film The Count of Monte Christo (1907). A year later, in 1908, they erected a small film studio on what was then Alessandro Street (now Glendale Boulevard) in Edendale (now called Glendale). Their first film entirely shot in California was called The Heart of a Race
(1908). Selig was joined a year later by the New York Motion Picture Company, who built their own studio on a nearby lot, but eventually relocated to Santa Monica in 1911, after fusing with film pioneer Thomas Ince.The New York Motion Picture Company’s deserted Edendale studio changed hands and was used by Mack Sennett for his Keystone productions, founded in 1912. Keystone’s most famous member of staff would later be Charlie Chaplin, who joined the company in 1913, but left to sign up with Essanay in 1915, before enlisting with Henry Aitken’s Mutual Company the year after.

Thomas Ince

In 1910 the Biograph Company sent their own David Wark Griffith out to California to take some outdoor location shots for The Thread of Destiny. Griffith returned to New York, only to come back for more the next two winters, until, in 1913, he was here to stay, shooting his first feature film(four reels), Judith of Bethulia (1913) in the San Fernando Valley.Having started out as an actor for Biograph in New York, Griffith was also known as somebody who would supply the odd idea for what is now known as a screenplay, but what, back then, were just synopses or summaries of a plot that would serve as a basis for the final film. It quickly became obvious that his true vocation lay elsewhere than acting, and so it happened that little by little Griffith began directing the one and two reelers Biograph specialised in, until he came into his own as the company’s chief director, in charge of Biograph’s entire output.

Without being able to pinpoint what it was, everybody who watched a Griffith film immediately realised that they were seeing something new and altogether different, something out of the ordinary. Over the years, Griffith has been credited with various inventions in movie-making, which we now take for granted, but which substantially revolutionised the film industry, dragging it out from the back yard into the drawing room, by elevating it into an art form. Close-ups, panorama shots, back-lighting, the process of editing a film, aptly called montage by the French, are all attributed to Griffith.

Eventually, Griffith quit Biograph to join Henry Aitken’s Mutual Company.
Mutual eventually took over Charles Urban Kinemacolor studio at 4500 Sunset, which is where Griffith shot his seminal The Birth of a Nation (1915) and a year later, Intolerance (1916). The famous Babylonian set of Intolerance had been standing there for many years, but was torn down eventually, and the site now houses the Vista movie theatre, whose oriental interior décor pays homage to Griffith’s masterpiece.

In 1916, Henry Aitken founded Triangle, joined by Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett and David Wark Griffith. Later they erected a lavish film studio in Culver City, which would eventually be taken over by Samuel Goldwyn, who threw the studio into the package when he merged his company with MGM in 1924, which subsequently turned it into their headquarters. That year, after just having been put in charge of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions, Thomas Ince fell mysteriously ill on board of Hearst’s yacht, and tragically died a few days later in his house in Benedict Canyon.
Legend has it, that Ince was shot over a lovers’ quarrel involving Hearst, his mistress, Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin. However, in his biography Chaplin claims to have not even been on the yacht. However, speculations about the tragic incident persist to the very day, and gained again momentum when they became the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s film The Cat’s Meow (2001). Triangle, however, proved to be a short-lived experience, when after a couple of expensive box-office disasters the company was dissolved, and Aitken vanished into oblivion.

Kalem and Essanay, two smaller companies, previously based in New York, both arrived in 1910 and also settled in Edendale, which was on its way to become the first Hollywood. Even though accounts vary, it was the Nestor Company, owned by William and David Horsley, who is said to be the first film troupe to ever set foot on Hollywood proper in 1911, building their modest film studio on the intersection of Sunset & Gower. Following Nestor’s example, an influx of yet more film companies set in, led by Pat Powers, the Éclair Company, and Lux, to name just a few, all flocking to the promised land.

A lot has been written, said, and speculated about Thomas Edison, to whom by 1907 all American producers were under licence, save one, Biograph, which had a patent for a camera of their own. Edison’s attempt to sue Biograph for patent infringement was rejected, and subsequently the two companies negotiated a truce, which in turn resulted in the Motion Picture Patent Company (= MPPC), or Trust, of which ten companies were members (Edison himself, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Pathé, Méliès, Biograph and George Kleine), founded in 1908, and held 16 patents:
one for film, two for cameras, thirteen for projectors. What’s more, the MPPC reached a shrewd agreement with Kodak, at the time the only American manufacturer of raw film stock, limiting sales to licensed producers only, who then in turn could rent their product to licensed exchanges(= distributors) alone. It goes without saying that the exchanges were not supposed to deal with exhibitors, showing unlicensed product.

Thomas Alva Edison

However, there was a cluster of independent companies that grew stronger and more confident over the years. Unlike the MPPC, which largely produced one or two reelers (= films that consist of only one or two reels, which translates into roughly ten, or twenty minutes respectively), the independents began focusing on feature films of three reels and more. Luckily for the independents, the MPPC controlled only around fifty to fifty-five percent of all theatres in the US, which made it easier for them to stand their ground.

Carl Laemmle was the biggest among the independent distributers, and in dire need of (unlicensed) films, which were difficult to obtain, he was supplied by the International Projecting and Producing Company, which specialised in importing films of Trust-excluded European producers. When the French brothers’ Lumière film stock became available in the US, Laemmle founded IMP (= Independent Moving Picture Company) and henceforth started to produce films himself. He lured Mary Pickford away from Biograph by doubling her salary, and she quickly became known as the Imp-Girl.
As a result of Laemmle’s success, other independents sprang up, like the New York Motion Picture Company (founded by Adam Kessel, Charles Baumann, Fred Balshofer in 1909), which cranked out westerns, under their Bison trademark, Defender, founded by Edwin S. Porter (of The Great Train Robbery-fame), who defected from Edison, Nestor, and Pat Powers.

Bison, IMP, and Powers emerged as the biggest among the independents.
Apart from using Lumière film stock, the independents operated with non-infringing European cameras. But, as results were sometimes unsatisfactory, they began using licensed machinery, which got them into trouble with Edison, who went to great lengths in his efforts to track down anybody who didn’t comply with his rules.

To protect their equipment, not to mention themselves, the independents covered their cameras, hired bodyguards, and some of them even fled to places which were out of the Trust’s reach, like Cuba, Florida, or, eventually, California, in order to continue with the shooting of their films. In 1910 Laemmle, Kessel, and Baumann set up the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company, which became the sole exchange for independent films, offering an average of 27 films per week, and by 1912 the independents’ share of the total film production rose to fifty percent. In tandem with the independents ascent, the Trust’s power began to be on the wane, as the valiant Laemmle was poised to beat Edison at his own game by challenging him in court, and it seemed that it was just a matter of having enough staying power to defeat him.

That same year the independents split into two rival camps, the Aitken/ Mutual Corporation which included ten companies, and Universal, which consisted of seven companies, headed by Carl Laemmle, who opened Universal’s West Coast branch in the same year by swallowing the Nestor Company and taking over their studio at the southwest corner of Sunset & Gower. However, in 1915, the year Edison’s hold over the infant film industry swiftly subsided when the Federal Court ruled that the Trust was an illegal conspiracy in restraint of trade, Laemmle moved to the San Fernando Valley, where he purchased a large parcel of land, erected a new studio and called it Universal City. The first to desert Hollywood in favour of the relatively undeveloped hinterland behind the Hollywood Hills, Laemmle allegedly was somewhat uneasy that his adventure might prove to be a failure.

But as we all know, he needn’t have worried!

Film historian Robert Sklar claims, that it wasn’t so much the Trust the film pioneers intended to escape by their exodus to Southern California, rather than the bad weather conditions in both New York and Chicago where the bulk of the film companies were based at the time. On top of that, unlike New York, which would always remain what it is, and could never be mistaken for anything else, Los Angeles had all the makings of a film metropolis, providing the film pioneers with ample space and a variety of sceneries, which were not unlike all the world’s landscapes rolled into one: an ocean with a jagged and cliffy coast-line; lush, subtropical vegetation, resembling anything between Turkey and the south of Spain; nearby lakes; deserts; and even snow-capped mountains could be found in the not too distant vicinity of Los Angeles.

And as if this wasn’t enough, the Los Angeles of those days also was a free-for-all, inasmuch as it was a city where unions were next to nonexistent, thus supplying the filmmakers with cheap labour galore.

To learn more about early Hollywood history, visit FILM-TALK again on Friday, July 22 when this series continues with City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 3, telling you all about Hollywood's first feature film, the birth of the studio system, and how Hollywood became the world's foremost hub for intellectuals during the 1930s!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Les Petits Mouchoirs (Little White Lies), Guillaume Canet, France 2011

It's one thing to have a film with an interesting premise and another to take this premise and turn it into a tight, coherent, screenplay.

While Canet succeeded in the first point, he failed utterly in the second. Although, to be fair, his film starts off on the right foot: For about 90 minutes or so Les petits Mouchoirs comes along as a latter-day version of Woody Allen's best soul-searching tragicomedies of the 1980s. But about one and a half hours into the film, Canet runs out of steam, and what until then was a witty, often funny, yet light attempt at dealing with the mishaps and shortcomings of today's city-dwellers, becomes heavy-handed, almost maudlin, conventional, family entertainment, one that ties up all the loose ends in the plot, making the direct opposite of Allen's films, where more often than not, no problems are solved; if anything, they've become worse over the course of the film. But then, that's life, isn't it?

I've wondered if it was the producers, with their eye forever on the box-office, who requested Les petits mouchoirs to have a more upbeat ending. The result however, is an ending that comes across as hopelessly contrived and unrealistic and, worse, tacked-on, so as if it was added as an afterthought.

And yet, Les petits mouchoirs was this close to becoming a French version of Hannah And Her Sisters - if only it ended after 90 minutes, as do literally all Woody Allen films. Well, it was Shakespeare after all who already knew that "brevity is the soul of wit" ... and I couldn't agree with him more.

Friday, 8 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 1

Films arrived in Southern California in 1907.

The completion of the Santa Fe railway in 1885 triggered a massive land boom within the Los Angeles area, and was fuelled by the subsequent discovery of oil wells, all of which had already begun to alter the nervous system of the prospering city prior to the arrival of the first film folk.

There can be little doubt, however, that the Pacific metropolis wouldn't be what it is today without its film industry.

The studio era officially began in 1923/ 24, a time that marks the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and the arrival of Joseph Schenk at United Artists. During its heyday, the Hollywood studios were divided into majors and minors. The so-called Big Five were MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, and RKO, the latter of which joined the ranks of the majors with the advent of sound. The three minors consisted of Columbia, Universal, and United Artists. One of the things all studios had in common is the fact that the corporate power was divided between the money boys in New York and the moguls who presided over the studios in Los Angeles. Not only was New York America’s, if not the world’s, financial hub as much back then as it is now, but before the centre of movie-making shifted from the East Coast to the West Coast, most of the companies were based in New York.

On the fringes there were a number of others, also-rans, like Republic, Eagle Lion and Monogram, film companies which operated on a much smaller scale, cranked out B-pictures, and whose company history was in many cases even more bumpy than that of their bigger brothers and sisters. In the pool of majors and minors, almost each studio had its own specific handwriting, serving as a signature or stamp, which made it relatively easy to identify a film’s birthplace.

MGM, with its impressive line-up of skilled technicians, its awe-inspiring roster of stars, and its charismatic production chief, Irving G.Thalberg, quickly established itself as the glamour studio and the proverbial dream factory, while Warner’s toiled mainly on the dark and gloomy side of the street, focusing on jailbirds, crooks, and gangster molls.

Fox, under the tutelage of Darryl F. Zanuck, for many years lacked a specific look other than being the studio of Sonia Henie and Shirley Temple, until later Zanuck acquired a certain reputation for producing message pictures. Columbia, with a tiny roster of stars, operating on a single block, and the miserly Harry Cohn at the helm, was simply known as the black hole of Calcutta, until, of course, the tremendous success of Frank Capra’s films changed all that.

Universal, besides being the home of Deanna Durbin, whose musicals saved the studio from ruin during the 1930s, also made a name for itself as the studio of horror movies. Paramount, referred to as the country-club of studios, had a wide range of European talent under its roof, and became known as the studio with the continental sheen.

Apart from the big dream factories, Hollywood also hosted a number of independent producers like David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn and Orson Welles Mercury Productions. United Artists, RKO, and Columbia would all become havens for independent producers. Lacking sufficient resident talent to keep their operations going, they rented out their facilities to independents, and often co-produced and distributed their films. With the onslaught of television, which arrived in tandem with the Hollywood witch hunt and the Government Consent Decree that forced the studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains, all of which spelling the end of the studio era, independent productions became the norm in Hollywood. As Billy Wilder once observed, “In the olden days you went to see an MGM picture. It had its own handwriting. Or you knew it was a Warner Bros.picture – Cagney and Bogart and the small actors that were under contract there. Now studios are nothing but the Ramada Inn – you rent space there, you shoot, and out you go”. Billy Wilder chose to ignore the fact that independent productions were precisely what -rightfully- made him the rich man he eventually became.

Billy Wilder

After the studio system had become dust, Hollywood was up for grabs as independent producers were calling the shots, striking up deals between director, studio, actors and writers, each of whom was entitled to their share of the cake, whereas during the studio era, it was the studio that reaped the profits of other people’s labour, but it also shouldered the potential risks. Looking at Hollywood’s output today, it stands to reason that the quality of the films during the studio era was superior, and that today’s free-for-all atmosphere has turned Hollywood into a very shallow gold-mine. Not that all that glittered was gold, of course. And yet, it seems to me that every so often art was being produced not in spite, but because of the studio system. Outside the mogul’s genuine interest in film and their willingness to take risks, with an annual average of forty to fifty releases per studio, they could afford a few box-office duds without losing too much sleep over it. Besides, everybody involved in a film was usually under contract to the studio, which greatly minimised a film’s cost. The studio system’s finely wrought mesh of rules, regulations and restrictions were a safety net as well as a cobweb from time to time.

D.W. Griffith

Above all, the story of Hollywood and its studios is a story of immigration, and thus reflects the story of America itself, as a fact virtually all moguls had in common was, even though they chose to play it down, that they were all first or second generation Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, with the exception of Twentieth Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck and the founders of United Artists: Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith, and Chaplin.

Darryl F. Zanuck

The Tsar of all moguls, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, was born in Russia in 1885, but left his native village of Demre a mere three years later to settle in the US by way of Nova Scotia. He started his career by working in his father’s scrap iron business before selling tickets at a Boston cinema, and buying his own movie theatre as early as 1907.

Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, born in Ricse, Hungary, arrived in the US in 1888, and started working in the fur trade before investing in a penny arcade in 1904.

Coming from the Polish village of Krasnashiltz, the Warner family emigrated to the United States 1882, settling first in Baltimore, were the four Warner brothers eked out a living by doing menial work ranging from shining shoes and selling soap to cobbling. In 1904 Sam Warner opened up a nickelodeon in Youngstown, Ohio. Joined by his brothers, they eventually ran a larger cinema, until they gradually expanded into distribution.

Samuel Goldwyn

Also born in Poland, Schmuel Gelbfisz grew up in a Warsaw ghetto. At the age of twenty, in 1899, by way of Hamburg, London, Birmingham and Liverpool, he arrived in New York, where, changing his name to Samuel Goldwyn, he began working as a gloves salesman. Later, he got married to Blanche Lasky, the sister of film pioneer Jesse Lasky, with whom we would eventually go into business. In the eyes of Katherine Hepburn, Goldwyn was “the most compelling and colourful of all the movie moguls”. And, she added, “of all those pirates, and they were all pirates, he was the only one with a sense of humour”.

Goldwyn went on to enchant and amuse Hollywood with what was dubbed Goldwynisms, which were largely the result of his struggle with the English language. Not only did he refer to Miss Brontë’s classic as "Withering Heights”, when he was about to acquire the film rights to Lilian Hellmann’s The Little Foxes, he was cautioned by Edwin Knopf that "it is a very caustic play", prompting Goldwyn to reply, “I don’t care how much it costs. Buy it!”. In fact, Goldwynisms have become classics just like most of his films. When showing a painting he recently purchased to one of his friends, he proudly announced that this was his “new Toujours Lautrec”. During the House Committee of Un-American Activities(HUAC) hearings, Goldwyn was the only one of Hollywood’s producers to speak up against its activities, releasing a press statement that said, “…The most un-American activity which I have observed in connection with the hearings has been the activity of the Committee itself…. I assure you that as long as I live no one will ever be able to dictate what I put on the screen as long as I continue to honour and obey the laws of our country”.

Unlike most of his peers, Columbia’s Harry Cohn was born in the United States, in 1891 in New York, to a Russian-Jewish mother and a German-Jewish father. Having been a pool hustler and song plugger along the way, Harry Cohn wound up in Hollywood, where he started out on Poverty Row, a label which he didn’t manage to shake off for a long time.

Carl Laemmle

Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, was born in 1867 in the South-German village of Laupheim. Coming to the United States in 1884, he began his career as an errand boy, and by 1906 worked as a nickelodeon operator in Chicago.

None of the film industry’s founding fathers had much of an education to speak of, although not for want of trying but simply because they lacked the necessary means.
Having grown up in poverty, all of them shared a determination combined with an astute business sense and a willingness to take risks. Fascinated by the fledgling film industry, which is hardly what it could be called back then, through hard labour and foresight they slowly became part of it, and eventually shaped it and made it their own. As screenwriter Nunnally Johnson’s daughter, Marjorie Fowler, observed, “The Cohns and Mayers may have been tough sons-of-bitches, but they had instinct".

For Part 2 of City Of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, please log on to FILM-TALK on Tuesday!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks, US 2011

When I first saw the trailer to Larry Crowne, I had high hopes that Tom Hank's new stab at directing might actually turn out to be a feel-good movie with some relevance and, also, with some credibility. One that doesn't - as these films have a tendency to do - underestimate its audience by dismissing them with the felling that in actual fact, what they've just seen was yet another fairytale with a Hollywood ending.

Alas, I'm sorry to say, this is precisely what Larry Crowne is: A fairytale, and one that isn't even particularly well told.

It's a real pity, for a film that tackles the subject of economic depression and unemployment has long been overdue, but sadly, Hanks and his fellow-scriptwriter Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) have wasted a first-rate opportunity to comment on the world we live in, a world that is run by big corporations and where losing one's job is not just a dim possibility but a reality for many, including all its dire consequences.

Tom Hanks plays Larry Crowne, who is part of the security staff in a Walmart-like company. Because he has never been to college he is deemed expendable and so he is the first one to be let go. Eager to catch up on the college education he never had the privilege to enjoy, Larry enrols in a class that is supposed to teach him free speech. That is where the problem starts already. I would have thought that for a man in his early fifties, enrolling in such a class is of little help, if any. To succeed in the college-degree obsessed world of today - a fact which the film did well to point out - Larry would have been better off, in my opinion, to work towards a degree, one that offers a realistic chance of future employment. Julia Roberts plays Larry's teacher, Mercedes Tainot, and needless to say, they eventually end up falling in love. However, equally needless to say, they both have to go through the all too familiar ups-and-downs, required by the 'Hollywood-School-Of-Scriptwriting', before they're finally allowed their first kiss. This being a movie aimed at a somewhat more mature audience, a kiss is consequently all we get to see. Not that that would be of any importance. It is just another indicator of how predictable the screenplay is and to what extent it follows a pattern that has become at least as stale and as boring as Mercedes Tainot's marriage has become over the years - the perfect match, one should think, a disenchanted teacher and wife and a washed-up, middle-aged, security officer on the dole. Only that with all due respect to Julia Roberts - who to me remains one of the major attractions to come out of Hollywood within the past 25 years - theirs is not a relationship that's in any way believable. Unless you assume that following insult and humiliation by her husband, it is pure desperation that prompts Tainot to fall for Larry.

Tainot's marriage is thus another level where the film falls apart. While I concede that it may be possible to get bored with being married to even so beautiful a woman as Julia Roberts, accusing her, as her husband does, of not having 'big enough knockers' to hold his attention, is completely ridiculous. Since Larry Crowne never pretended to be a sequel to Scenes From A Marriage, the film can be excused for not delving into the marital problems of the Tainots, let alone discussing them at length. However, rendering these problems at least remotely believable is something that any film owes its audience. This lack of credibility is reflected in another sub-plot, involving a hip, trendy, 20-something girl, at least 30 years Larry's junior, he meets on his first day at college and who takes him under her wings to teach him how to dress, subsequently making him over entirely including even Larry's house. Stuff like this may happen in a fairytale, but I don't think I can be accused of cynicism if I say that this has little bearing on reality.

Having ripped this film apart, I have to say that Larry Crowne is at least entertaining - as long as you switch off your brain - and even has moments of which I simply wish there would have been more: interesting and also relevant comments on our society dominated by Facebook and Twitter rather than literature, as well as some scenes that expose the shenanigans of Larry's bank - or any bank, for that matter - which, his unemployment notwithstanding, still tries to squeeze a buck out of him. Unfortunately, the screenwriters either didn't think it worthwhile to make more of these points or else, didn't deem them 'box-office'. But focussing on these themes would have turned Larry Crowne from a run-of-the-mill Hollywood 'product' into an important social commentary.

And in times like these, an audience deserves those at least as much as fairytales.