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!