Monday, October 31, 2016

Young Frankenstein (2016)

by Mel Brooks

The first time I heard there was going to be a book about Young Frankenstein was on The Tonight Show when Mel Brooks came out to promote it. The large, coffee table format of the book make me think it would be short on text, but I ordered it anyway. Sure enough, even though I lingered over the pictures, it took less than an hour to get through it. It’s unfortunate, because a film of this magnitude deserves a far more detailed historical analysis than the People magazine sized remembrances about each actor and crewmember of the film. The text of Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film, even with the huge font and including the pictures, barely comes in at a disappointing 200 pages. And yet, because there really isn’t anything else out there, one can’t be too critical. Most of the text is written by Brooks himself, telling about how he cast the picture and vital role played by the rest of the major crew members. The book is also augmented by sections of an article by Loraine Alterman—the future Mrs. Peter Boyle—that she wrote for Rolling Stone magazine. The rest is mostly pictures, and there are some good ones.

Some of the photographs are clearly filler, screen shots that are accompanied by “scenes” from the film, really just tiny bits of dialogue with shots on either side of the page. The behind the scenes photos are really what the book is worth getting for, that and the text by Brooks. What I didn’t really know is that Brooks and Gene Wilder began working on the screenplay for the film while they were shooting Blazing Saddles. Rather than taking their hot hand from that film and rolling it into the next one, they hadn’t had any real box office success beyond The Producers, and had no guarantees that Young Frankenstein would even be produced. One of the things that could have enhanced the book is the original screenplay, which is actually more similar to the farce of Blazing Saddles than it would be the carefully crafted satire of the eventual film. And it was also surprising to learn that it was Brooks who reined in Wilder’s more excessive gags. But that is absent from the book as well. What there is about the way Brooks hired his cast and crew is ultimately satisfying if somewhat brief. Something else that it was good to hear Brooks admit is that this was his proudest creation. I’ve never liked the over-the-top, broad comedy of his other films, but Young Frankenstein was so lovingly created that it deserves the status of classic.

The way the principal cast came together was because both Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle were represented by the same agent as Gene Wilder. And of course it turned out that they were perfect together. I had heard some time ago that Brooks himself had thought about playing Igor, but he made no such reference in the book. Brooks lucked out that Alan Ladd Jr. had just been hired to run 20th Century Fox, and simply believed in shooting black and white the way the director wanted. His cinematographer, Gerald Hirschfeld had experience with the medium and was the perfect choice for director of photography. And I was also pleased to read Brooks heaping praise on one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the film, the score by John Morris. His main theme, the “Transylvanian Lullaby,” is one of the greatest horror music cues of all time. Coming off of the unexpected success of Blazing Saddles, the film was a smash at the box office and was ultimately responsible for making Brooks a bankable name in Hollywood. While he would never again reach the heights he achieved with this film, it is a testament to the genius of Brooks and Gene Wilder that the film has stood the test of time. Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film, while certainly not the book fans of the film would have hoped for, is still a loving tribute to one of the greatest horror-comedies of all time.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Greatest Gift (1943)

by Philip Van Doren Stern

The screenplay for Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life was cobbled together by no less than four writers, plus the director himself. That makes sense because of the nature of the source material written by Philip Van Doren Stern. The short story The Greatest Gift was originally published by Stern himself as something of a Christmas card for family and friends. The brevity of the story required a lot of fleshing out to provide background on the characters, as well as injecting a host of peripheral characters and a villain for the film. Still, the original story provides all of the basic material for the film. Stern’s agent was unable to sell the story for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was incredibly short, and the second is that it was considered a fantasy story. That’s when he had the idea to have it professionally printed and send it out as a Christmas card. What his agent was able to do, however, was sell the movie rights. It was originally purchased as a vehicle for Cary Grant, but it didn’t translate well in screenplay form. Finally Frank Capra bought the story with Jimmy Stewart in mind. Though the film was not initially a hit, Stewart personally thanked Capra for allowing him to appear in the film and recognized its timeless message. While the story took a tortuous route to get to the screen, Philip Van Doren Stern wound up writing one of the greatest stories ever told.

In Stern’s version the protagonist is George Pratt, and the story begins with George on the bridge considering suicide. Quietly, an older man tells him he shouldn’t be thinking about that, and should consider Mary and his mother. At first the impetus for his death seems fairly innocuous, that he’s stuck in a small town while other men his age have gotten out. But George also mentions that the Army wouldn’t take him, something that caused a lot of young men to take their lives at the beginning of World War Two. Then George wishes he’d never been born, to the delight of the old man who seems to feel this is the solution to everything and grants George’s wish. When the old man gives him a salesman’s sample case full of brushes, George tries to give it back and discovers the old man isn’t there. Heading back through town to go home, George sees that the bank where he works is closed and for sale. Across the street he sees a friend of his still at work in his office, but of course the friend doesn’t know him anymore. The friend tells him that the bank closed because the young man who applied for the job the same time that George did stole most of the cash and ran off, nearly bankrupting everyone in the small town. The thief’s brother, it turns out, married George’s girl, Mary Thatcher.

The most significant change to the story comes at this point in the tale. In the film there is a moment toward the end that never made a lot of sense to me. The angel, now named Clarence, has taken George Bailey on a tour of the crime-ridden town, showing George what things have become because of his absence. Finally, George wants to know what has become of his wife, Mary. Clarence doesn’t want to tell him and the audience fears the worst, especially after Clarence tells George he’s not going to like it. Then when George grabs him by the lapels the angel blurts out that she’s an old maid who never married. Rather than being a bad thing, in the context of the film this seems like a huge relief. I suppose that never finding love would have been bad for her, but it’s not nearly as bad for George as seeing her with another man. But that, of course, would be much more realistic, and that is exactly what Stern writes in his story. George knows that he can’t just blunder into her house first because it will be too upsetting for him, and so he goes to see his parents to find out a little more about her. While they tell her that she has two children, George can’t get his mind off of something that is different in the house, and that’s when he learns that his kid brother Harry had died at sixteen because George hadn’t been there to save him. He makes an awkward departure and then heads for Mary’s house.

George puts on his salesman’s act for her and she invites him in, where he’s barely able to speak because of his longing to be home with her as his wife. He meets the kids, who are brats just like her husband, and then the belligerent husband comes home and George leaves to save Mary any trouble with him. When George finds the old man back at the bridge he begs him to have his life back. Not for himself, but for the others in the town who are suffering because of his absence. The old man takes pity on George and the rest plays out like the film, with George visiting all of the places he had gone to and seeing them back to normal. In looking at what the screenwriters did on Capra’s project, it’s impressive. While the bank is still there in the original, the idea of the building and loan run by his father, and the father’s death keeping him trapped in town, is inspired. This allows for George’s uncle to lose the deposit money and create a genuine reason for his desperation and thoughts of suicide. The film even retains the title of Stern’s story, when Clarence tells George that he’s been given a great gift, to see what the world would be like without him. The book form of the story, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the film, is a beautiful volume with woodcut pictures and an afterward by Stern’s daughter. Like its title, Stern’s story could be said to be The Greatest Gift in cinematic history.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Caine Mutiny (1951)

by Herman Wouk

Though I have watched and enjoyed the 1954 film version of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Caine Mutiny, for years, I never took the time to read the original novel until recently. It was quite a revelation. As good as the film The Caine Mutiny is there’s a lot to admire in the original work, especially in the depth of character Wouk is able to achieve. Based on his personal experiences during World War Two, the novel was published in 1951 and author goes to great pains to assure the reader that the character of Captain Queeg is not based on a real person, and that certain events and their timing were manipulated for dramatic purposes. The novel veritably drips with a fifties sensibility in the writing, both in the dialogue and the way the characters are drawn. Wouk was also apparently fascinated by the profanity used onboard ships during wartime, and writes about trying to capture the ubiquity of its use without actually writing it out. His reasoning is that it, “is largely monotonous and not significant, mere verbal punctuation of a sort, and its appearance in print annoys some readers.”

As in the film, Ensign Willie Keith is still the protagonist and still the focal point of the story, but his experience is much richer and fuller than the limitations of film allowed, and the extensive detail given to his girlfriend, May Wynn, as well as those aboard the Caine, add immeasurably to the reader’s understanding of motives and decisions those characters make. One of the major differences, at least in the beginning of the book, is with Willie himself. While he is the Everyman character in the film, the lens through which the viewer understands the events in the story, Wouk infuses much more of his privileged background into the character of the novel, imbuing him with a mild sexism and racism that were part and parcel of the day. When he meets may Wynn, he’s the piano player at a club where she is auditioning. She keeps her coat on during the audition and it’s not until she goes out with him later for dinner that he finally coaxes her into taking it off:

          May Wynn rose, almost as reluctantly as if she were being compelled to strip. “I'm beginning
          to think you’re very silly-- Well,” she added, her face flushing, “stop looking at me like that--”
          Willie had the appearance of a startled stag--for good enough reason. May Wynn’s figure was
          glorious. “You have a figure,” said Willie, taking his seat in slow motion. “I thought you proba-
          bly had elephant thighs or no chest.”

He’s just as crass later, after finding out that May is Italian. “They were mostly poor, untidy, vulgar, and Catholic. This did not at all imply that the fun was at an end. On the contrary, he could now more safely enjoy being with the girl, since nothing was going to come of it.” And he is equally racist, in his own condescending way, after he meets May’s manager, Marty Rubin. “He was quite sure Rubin was a Jew, but thought no less of him for that. Willie liked Jews as a group, for their warmth, humor, and alertness. This was true though his home was in a real-estate development where Jews could not buy.”

Another element of the story that is far more extreme than in the film is the genuine filthiness and disrepair of the ship he is stationed on. The Caine in the film looks almost sanitized in comparison. And Willie’s relationship with the first captain, DeVriess, is equally intensified. In the film it is more disappointment than anything else. In the novel, however, “Willie’s accumulated resentment, weariness, and disgust coagulated at that moment into hatred of Captain de Vriess . . . He had fallen into the hands of a bullying stupid sloven.” And this is an important character trait of Willie’s as it will come into play during the mutiny. Another character who benefits from increased development is Tom Keefer, because Wouk is able to make his motivation much clearer early on in the novel. While he was a young writer, he isn’t actually an author yet, as Keefer himself admits to Keith upon their first meeting, “I was trying to be one before the war.” And while in one way he sees the war as an interruption of his attempt at a career, viewed another way it also presents him with the possibility of dramatic things to write about--if he were to be given the opportunity. Unfortunately Keefer is stuck on the Caine, and there seems to be no way out.

          Hell, I just want to see some war, as long as my sands are running out uselessly . . . The nub
          of this Pacific war is the duel of flying machines. Everything else is as routine as the work of
          milkmen and filing clerks. All uncertainty and all decision rides with the carriers . . . War is
          ninety nine per cent routine--routine that trained monkeys could perform. But the one per
          cent of chance and creative action on which the history of the world is hanging right now
          you’ll find on carriers. That’s what I want to be part of.

This dissatisfaction, then, is the seed that grows into the conspiracy, and is reflected in a line tossed off by Keefer over desert one night, that “sin is relative to character.” Because of who he is, Keefer doesn’t think of his acts as wrong. At the same time, Willie becomes overly impressed by Keefer’s academic inclinations and the fact that he’s writing a novel about his wartime experiences which, along with Willie’s inexperience, explains how he is able to be pull the young ensign into his conspiracy so easily. But before the new captain takes command, Willie meets the officious captain of another minesweeper and has what should have been a revelation.

          He had considered De Vriess a tyrant; but compared to Iron Duke Sammis his captain was
          lazily benevolent. Then, the Moulton was model of naval order and efficiency, the Caine a
          wretched Chinese junk by comparison. Yet the smart ship had dropped a paravane; the rusty
          tramp had led all the ships in minesweeping performance. How did these facts fit together?

Unfortunately Willie isn’t there to hear De Vriess explain those facts to the new captain, Queeg. When talking about the dedication of the men aboard the Caine, De Vriess says, “The strange thing is, most of the crazy bastards like it. Damn few of them put in for transfers. But they have to do things their own way. It’s the hooligan navy, to look at them. But give them a chance, and they deliver.” This on its own, however, is not the real key to the conspiracy. That is the first officer, Steve Maryk. Unlike the film, here he is only introduced gradually into the story. And where Keefer’s dislike of Queeg mirrored the rest of the crew’s, in the book Keefer is far more insidious, going so far as to argue with Maryk about how necessary a strict captain like Queeg is for the Caine, this after being dressed down by the captain earlier that same evening. But eventually even this gets under Keefer’s tough exterior and after the Yellowstain incident he practically dares Maryk to tell the captain to court-martial him. In actual combat Queeg’s deficiencies are clear: he is deathly afraid of being killed, and he punishes the men for small infractions in order to compensate for his lack of bravery.

It’s easy to see why the novel was so popular. The Korean War had just begun and Wouk’s descriptions of his experiences aboard the minesweeper are a unique window into armed conflict. At the same time he has a certain skill as a writer that is both engaging and creative. When Willie goes aboard a large supply ship to have some communications decoded, he instantly notices a distinct difference between the men on the large, well-equipped vessel and his own: “They looked different from his own crew; generally older, fatter, and more peaceful; a species of herbivorous sailor, one might say, as contrasted to the coyotes of the Caine.” And with the expanded length of the book, there are more incidents of cowardice for Queeg and much more of a feeling of concentrated tyranny over the officers and men that make the eventual mutiny seem even more justified than in the film. One of the other interesting aspects of the story is the wartime view of the enemy from Willie. In describing the Japanese he seems oddly detached, especially given the extremes of the propaganda about them.

          There was nothing at Kwajalein but a few thousand Japanese soldiers to face the monstrous
          fleet rising out of the sea . . . Since the Japs appeared illogically unwilling to surrender, the
          naval bombarders set about annihilating them with an oddly good-humored, ribald ferocity
          . . . Willie enjoyed and applauded the spectacle with no thought of its fatality . . . Like most
          of the naval executioners at Kwajalein, he seemed to regard the enemy as a species of animal
          pest.

This, however, is juxtaposed with a view of the Germans in which he seems almost personally bitter toward them. It happens when Queeg decides that there is a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox and he strips all hands in order to find it. “The process of stripping the sailors rasped his nerves; it seemed to him an almost German rape of their personal rights.”

The typhoon, which precipitates the mutiny, is rendered similarly in the film, with one notable exception. In the novel, after Maryk has taken command and Willie has backed him up, the crew actually sees the hull of one of the capsized ships in the water. This could only serve to reinforce the decision by Maryk in the novel, but is only mentioned in passing in the film. Another difference between the two versions is Willie’s relationship with May. In the novel Willie is the one who breaks off the romance, and his assessment of her is not a kind one. “May Wynn was bright, yes, unbearably attractive . . . She was also vulgar, brassy and overperfumed . . . She seemed a little soiled to him, a little cheap; and in every way jagged and wrong for his planned future.” In the film, however, May is the one to break it off with Willie for the very reason they joke about in the novel. When he tells her about the mutiny, confessing his worries about the punishment, she replies, “Willie dear, you couldn’t mutiny--not even against your mother, let alone a ship’s captain--” But there’s also another minor difference that seems to be a major one in retrospect. During the court-martial the prosecutor goes to great pains to elicit from all the witnesses that Queeg was never raving or acting insane. What he did, though, was freeze in the middle of the typhoon, and in the film it never comes out. It’s a point that certainly should have been in the film, as Willie states in his testimony in the novel. “He froze to the engine-room telegraph. His face showed petrified terror. It was green.” Maryk supports this when he says that Queeg’s response to his questions were “mostly a glazed look and no answer.”

The major difference in the court-martial is that in the novel the charge of mutiny isn’t even made. It turns out that Maryk’s invocation of article 184 of Navy Regulations, and his subsequent above-board disclosing of the act to proper authorities does not, legally, constitute a mutiny and therefore Maryk is not in jeopardy of receiving the death penalty. In the film, however, the charge is mutiny. The other nice thing that the novel is able to do, is demonstrate the way that the panel of judges is gradually swayed by the work of Barney Greenwald against Queeg, so that by the time he cracks under Greenwald’s cross-examination, the judges are already predisposed to rule in Maryk’s favor due to the abundance of evidence about Queeg’s questionable behavior as captain of the Caine. Greenwald’s drunken speech in which he accuses Keefer of being the real author of the Caine munity, is actually better in the truncated version in the film. In the novel there’s a disappointing sense that Keefer isn’t quite as culpable for what happens as he should be, while the film makes it unmistakably clear that it was Keefer all along who was angling for Maryk to do something he could write about in his novel. In fact, Keefer actually becomes captain of the Caine and Willie his exec afterwards, and Wouk doesn’t humiliate Keefer until a kamikaze hits the Caine and in a frightened panic Keefer jumps overboard

But the best line in the book is from Wouk’s luxurious denouement. After the captain abandons ship, Willie stays onboard and saves the Caine and afterward, in his bunk, thinks about the changes that war has wrought in him.

          Willie passed to thinking about death and life and luck and God. Philosophers are at home
          with such thoughts, perhaps, but for other people it is actual torture when these concepts--
          not the words, the realities--break through the crust of daily occurrences and grip the soul.
          A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime.

He was no longer even the Willie Keith who began thinking these thoughts, says Wouk, “That boy was gone for good.” It’s only then that Willie realizes he wants to spend the rest of his life with May, and writes a lengthy letter to her. This leads naturally to the last discrepancies between the two stories. Unlike the happy ending of the film, the end of Wouk’s novel is a literary one, unresolved but with knowledge that whatever happens in the future it is a future that is more rife with possibility than could have ever happened to for these characters in the beginning.

After reading the novel, the screenplay for the film seems even more impressive. With the success of his novel, Herman Wouk adapted the final section of the book into a play called The Caine Mutiny Court Martial which debuted several months before the film was released, and has gone on to be filmed itself. He was the natural first choice to write the screenplay, but director Edward Dmytryk didn’t like his treatment and looked around for a suitable replacement. Stanley Roberts was primarily known for writing comedies, but the skill needed here was not one of invention but adaptation, knowing exactly what to keep from the original story and what to emphasize to make the film version its own entity. For his work, Roberts was nominated for an Academy Award on the film. But he had kept too much of the original and refused to edit down his screenplay in order to keep the film under two hours. For that, Michael Blankfort was brought it. A veteran of more dramatic films, Blankfort trimmed the story down to the film version that finally came to the screen. As with all original source material for the movies, a lot was changed and in some ways Herman Wouk’s war novel The Caine Mutiny is a vastly different experience from the film, making it a worthy expenditure of time for those who were as captivated by the film as I have always been.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nosferatu: BFI Film Classics (2013)

by Kevin Jackson

I once wrote about a book called Blue Note Records: A Biography, by Richard Cook, that it broke no new ground, had no new interviews, and unearthed no new facts about the label. Any assiduous reader of Blue Note liner notes would have known nearly all of the information presented in Cook’s book. And yet I also argued that the book was necessary. What Cook had done was to synthesize all of the existing information about the label, its history, and it’s most prestigious records and artists into a cohesive narrative, something that had never been done before. The same can be said about most of the books on classic films in the British Film Institute’s series. If one thinks of them as a very thorough DVD booklet, they’ll get the idea. The series doesn’t usually contain information that isn’t available elsewhere, but it’s nice to have it all in one convenient place. Kevin Jackson’s volume on W.F. Munau’s silent classic, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, is a case in point. After a brief introduction about the critical and historical success of the film in the wake of works by Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, he begins by placing the film in the historical context of the Weimar years and the still looming shadow of World War One.

One of the topics that comes up in the pre-history of Murnau's Nosferatu that is usually never mentioned at all in other works is the influence of German mysticism, still firmly in place during the Nazi years, and recounted wonderfully in the film Invincible by Werner Herzog. All of which explains why the Weimar years were so rife with films of supernatural content. Unlike many directors who worked their way up from cameramen, Murnau was born into a wealthy family and was a scholar in his youth, studying what would today be called comparative literature. But even with this academic bent, he was still a practiced outdoorsman at his father’s insistence. He dropped out of school to join Max Reinhardt’s acting company, and flew as a fighter pilot in the First World War, accidentally flying into Switzerland and spending the remainder of the war putting on productions with the other prisoners. Once the war had ended he created his own production company and made several films prior to being contacted by Albin Grau, an avowed occultist, to direct an unauthorized version of Dracula.

Production began in July of 1921 in and around the Baltic port city of Wismar to shoot the exteriors that would stand in for Bremen of a century earlier. A month later they moved on to Prague and traveled by coach to Dolný Kubín to shoot the Transylvania exteriors in and around Orlock’s castle. Making a couple of stops on the way back for specific shots, they went back to Berlin to finish the film by shooting the interiors. Murnau used the Ufa studio in the Johannisthal district, located in the southeast part of the city and named Jufa. The final element of the production was hiring composer Hans Erdmann to write a score specifically for the film--one of the first of its kind. The middle thirty pages of the book consist of a scene-by-scene analysis of the final film, complete with color tinted stills to emphasize specific examples--though it must be said that the contrast in the prints came out rather dark in the printing. One quote from Murnau that Jackson includes is his injunction to filmmakers to eschew “interesting” camera angles, as they “they only lower the dramatic interest of the story, because they are merely 'interesting' without having any dramatic value.” Samuel Johnson gave the very same warning to writers who they thought had written something great: “and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out,” for the reason that it won’t fit in with the rest of the work.

One of the nice things about Jackson’s analysis is the doing away with defining Murnau’s film as Expressionist. While there are sequences that have some Expressionist influence, the film as a whole is Romantically inspired--like its literary template--and follows a mostly classical style of filmmaking. The analysis uses Murnau’s own annotated copy of the screenplay, which is a welcome addition. Two other myths Jackson mercifully does away with, one of which is the idea that Orlock the vampire represents the “pestilential Jew” in anti-Semitic readings of the film, which in no way represents Murnau’s personal views. The other is the reading of the film as anti-gay, another incorrect interpretation given the fact that Murnau himself was gay and he certainly didn’t view his presence in society as a plague. While the film received mostly positive reviews in Germany, it was a commercial failure, Grau’s production company went bankrupt, and to add insult to injury, Stoker’s widow successfully sued and all existing copies and negatives were ordered destroyed. Fortunately history won out and multiple copies of the film were hidden away throughout the world. Ultimately Jackson’s book is a satisfying summary of most of the well-known aspects of the film, along with some lesser-known items, making BFI’s Nosferatu a welcome addition to any film library.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Screening History (1992)

by Gore Vidal

Screening History is a collection of three autobiographical essays by Gore Vidal that revolve around his experience of film. Reading the book is a one of a kind experience in itself. Vidal weaves the display of history on the screen with his own history during the Great Depression, then World War Two and finally, his own attempts at creating drama for the screen in television and film. It’s a fascinating mélange of topics that all relate to each other in a very conversational way and provide real insight on the true nature of society by a man who is utterly unafraid to tell it like it is, and at the same time seems to have no self-pity about it, which is not only refreshing but surprising. The through line however, remains history. “From earliest days, the movies have been screening history, and if one saw enough movies, one learned quite a lot of simple-minded history . . . In retrospect, it is curious how much history was screened in those days.” At the time his essays were written, films and television had seemingly abandoned history for contemporary themes and stories. But Vidal even managed to see that in a positive light as well. “Fortunately, with time even the most contemporary movie undergoes metamorphosis, becomes history as we get to see real life as it was when the film was made . . .”

The first essay is The Prince and the Pauper and it begins with Vidal as a child, growing up devouring literature but at the same time fascinated with the movies. But it is also a critical look at the anti-intellectualism of the time. Not only had literature gone out of fashion (as it has continued to do) but films had replaced literature as the connective tissue of the society: “Movies are the lingua franca of the twentieth century . . . Today, where literature was movies are . . . Art is now sight and sound; and the books are shut.” What really stands out about his reminiscences, however, is the way in which films were watched when he was a boy. “It must be recalled that in those days if you saw a movie once, that was that. Odds were slim that you would ever see it again . . . since we knew that we would have only the one encounter, we learned how to concentrate totally.” Vidal equates the film itself, a frothy Errol Flynn essay of the Mark Twain classic by Warner Brothers, with his own experience of the Depression. He himself was a prince who grew up in a privileged household and yet all at once became aware that there were others less fortunate than himself and his family, a country full of paupers. He ends the essay by looking at death, especially as the young prince is nearly executed, not for answers but for a reiteration of the idea of a satisfying acknowledgement of cessation of existence that is almost impossible for young children to understand.

Vidal’s second essay concerns the British film Fire Over England, but only in the way that England once again manipulated the United States into war. His larger aim is not only to recount his own memories of adolescence during the war but to look at the role of the media in shaping (Vidal would probably say creating) our view of everything outside our personal experience. “I may have given the impression that I was going to confine myself to those ninety-minute entertainments that were screened in the theaters of my youth. Actually, my subject is how, through ear and eye, we are both defined and manipulated by fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience of reality.” During the Depression Vidal notes how all of Hollywood seemed to be under the thrall of Britain. There were films in the very early thirties about American icons, like W.D. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln from 1930, or Warner Brothers’ Alexander Hamilton from the following year, but overall, “On our screens, in the thirties, it seemed as if the only country on earth was England and there were no great personages who were not English, or impersonated by English Actors.” As far as the film itself goes, Fire Over England is concerned with the ever-present Hollywood contention between the England of Elizabeth I and King Philip of Spain, a convenient substitute for the England of George VI and Hitler’s Germany. “Historical pieces could always conceal messages, since studios were certain that nothing that happened then could every have anything at all to do with now.”

In his essay on Lincoln, Vidal bemoans the lack of American icons in film and recounts his simultaneous obsession with the sixteenth president. And yet again, none of that really culminates in discussing his own novel, Lincoln, or the subsequent TV movie made of the book. Interestingly, his first real point is about Jefferson and his atheistic emphasis on the living rather than the dominant religious view in our country, “a sectarian society such as ours where we are expected to endure meekly our brief transit through a vale of tears en route to an eternity of bliss.” After that he reminisces about his army experience during the war and the death of FDR. This is followed by some of the television dramas and Hollywood screenplays he wrote but all overlaid with the inability of the motion picture industry to really delve into American mythology in any meaningful way. “The black population always got the point to the slave-owning Virginia founding fathers, which means that our history, properly screened, is a potential hornet’s nest.” Though HBO would go on to produce a remarkable series on the country’s founding, John Adams, the industry has yet to deal with Washington and Jefferson in any definitive way. Screening History is a remarkable reminiscence, and while Hollywood only figures into the narrative tangentially, it is a remarkable work and easily recommended.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Movie-Made America (1994)

by Robert Sklar

This book is not an easy read. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies by Robert Sklar contains a dense amount of research about film history and yet surprisingly few references to specific films. But that’s sort of the point. In fact, this could really be seen as a companion piece to Thomas Schatz’s book, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. Where that book really dealt with the studio moguls and the pivotal role of the producer in creating specific films, Sklar’s book deals with the audience and those who would attempt to control Hollywood’s immense influence over that audience. The subtitle really says it all, and the way in which Hollywood influenced and responded to American Culture is fascinating in its own right. What emerges is a portrait of an industry that, more than any other in the United States, expended the majority of its energy in responding to cultural taste in its audience rather than trying to create that audience. It’s a significant difference, and throughout the book those executives who were the most successful were the ones who understood this.

The biggest failure in the early motion picture industry in the United States was Thomas Edison. In attempting to emulate the nineteenth-century robber barons of his youth he tried to gain a monopoly over infrastructure rather than the audience. He claimed patents on motion picture cameras and film stock and through his organization known as The Trust, attempted to coerce every film distributor into working for him by the threat of lawsuits if they didn’t. Edison never really cared about his product, only about the control he could exert over it. One of the men who defied Edison’s trust was Carl Laemmle. He created his own distribution company called the Independent Moving Picture Company, which he aptly abbreviated as Imp. He was able to distribute films from Europe, which the Trust had no control over, as well as obtaining film stock from France and, along with William Fox and Adolph Zukor, effectively broke the trust. Laemmle would, of course, eventually found Universal Studios in California. He, along with the other moguls, quickly realized that their greatest potential for profits was to be found in production rather than distribution, and soon after the exodus from New York to California made the West Coast the new center of the film industry.

The other major emphasis of Sklar’s work is what he sees as the continuing battle for control over content of film. The genius of the moguls in avoiding government control over the movies came in the form of Hollywood’s own production code. By putting in place their own censorship arm they were able to easily subvert complaints by religious groups and other would-be censors. In the early thirties, however, once the threat of government intervention had been avoided, the studios completely ignored the code and filmed stories of violence and gangsters, seduction and divorce, as much nudity as they could get away with, and anything else that they thought would titillate audiences. By 1934, however, the backlash from moralists was so great that even the Catholic Church weight in and recommended a complete boycott of motion pictures. The studios were unwilling to risk the fallout should that happen and allowed Joseph Breen to put teeth into the production code, and from that moment on the audience for films continued to grow until after World War Two.

Sklar’s book effectively ends when Schatz’s does, with the precipitous decline in production during the fifties, though Sklar has a couple more chapters that go into the eighties. During the post-war period gimmicks like 3-D and lasting formats like widescreen were interesting for a while, but were not a solution to dwindling audiences who were more widely dispersed in suburbs and wanted to stay home for their entertainment. Again, this was a result of the studio heads failing to realize what audiences really wanted. Studios like Universal, which embraced television production rather than seeing it as the enemy, continued to do well, where the rest of the studios became little more than distribution companies for independent productions. The book is a masterpiece of research and Sklar apparently left no stone unturned in looking at the way film influenced American culture as well as the other way around. Movie-Made America is definitely a fascinating book, and while I was never quite convinced of his underlying thesis, it contains so much valuable information that it has to be considered required reading for anyone interested in film history.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Genius of the System (1988)

by Thomas Schatz

This is a fascinating history of Hollywood. One of the most remarkable elements of The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era is the way that author Thomas Schatz structures his book. Rather than attempting to deal with all of the studios equally, instead he follows the growth of the systemic approach to filmmaking as it evolved, wherever it lead. In the first section of the book, for instance, the silent era begins at Universal with Irving Thalberg’s unsuccessful attempt to get Carl Laemmle to make more prestige pictures. It then moves with Thalberg to the consolidation of MGM and their hiring of Thalberg, who oversaw production as well as his hiring of David O. Selznick, who streamlined the story department before being fired after a confrontation with Thalberg. But that’s really all of the silent era covered. He then transitions to Warner Brothers’ embracing of sound and their hiring of Darryl Zanuck to run their film production.

One of the most interesting things that emerges from Schatz’s book is just how important these production heads were to the studios. Most film histories tend to focus on the studio heads, the moguls, like Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, William Fox and Adolph Zuckor, and their iron-fisted control of the studios they ran. But the reality is much different. While the studio heads primarily controlled finances, it was the heads of production who determined the kinds of films that the studios were making, from story ideas and scripts, to casting and direction, it was people like Selznick, Thalberg and Zanuck who were responsible for creating the “house style” that defined the look and the feel of the pictures produced at their studios. They were also the ones primarily responsibly for setting up the “system” that each studio used to produce their films, taking into account yearly budgets and the resources available to their particular studio.

Unknowingly, however, the machine that they created wound up working for the studios whether they were there or not. So, initially at least, while the moguls found their production heads indispensable once the depression was in full swing, Selznick, Thalberg and Zanuck found themselves being marginalized as the decade wore on. Thalberg succumbed to pneumonia in 1936, while Zanuck quit Warners to head the new 20th Century Fox conglomerate and Selznick bailed out altogether to form his own independent studio. But the studios themselves would not be immune for long. The common myth is that the breakup of their hold on talent began in the fifties with the introduction of television, but the reality is that it began much sooner than that. The war years saw increasing power shift to the stars and directors, aided by court cases that limited the studio’s dominance and, even without television it seems, things would have proceeded apace.

It’s a fascinating look at the history of American films precisely because of its de-emphasis on stars and studio heads. What emerges is a look at an industry that really flourished because of the artistic talents of producers and the assembling of production units that worked semi-independently to produce quality films at whatever studio they operated. Further, the development of production evolved to a point where independent producers like Selznick and Walter Wanger could make deals with different studios or work on their own and merely distribute through studios or independents like United Artists. Whatever your knowledge of film history is, The Genius of the System adds a new dimension to that history that can’t help but put it in a new light. Schatz has an casual and engaging that is never the less convincing for the massive research he put into it. It’s a great history and is highly recommended.