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!