Hollywood speaks easy

by Greg Waller

from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 36-37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2005

Richard Koszarski, Hollywood Directors: 1914-1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) 364 pp., $3.95.

"It is always difficult," wrote William Dieterle (dir. ZOLA, PASTEUR) in 1939, "for a man [sic] to speak about his own work." And for the majority of Hollywood directors during the "golden age" it was not merely difficult but almost impossible to write anything concrete and critical about their own films. For instance, Richard Schickel's TV series, THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES, was interesting only when Wellman, Hawks, and the rest strayed from the boring and embarrassing interview format and offered entertaining anecdotes and personal reminiscences. But even the most purebred auteurist would be hard pressed to incorporate these flickering bits of autobiography (or pseudo-biography) into an analysis of THE PUBLIC ENEMY or HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

Unlike Schickel's interviews and in fact almost all printed statements of Hollywood's past masters, Richard Koszarski's Hollywood Directors: 1914-1940 is not a collection of conversations recorded years after the fact. Rather, it is an anthology of brief articles written between 1914 and 1940 by 50 different Hollywood directors. Only one or two of these pieces are available in any currently published anthology, and Koszarski (who has also catalogued Hollywood camera people for Film Comment has ranged beyond Andrew Sarris' "Pantheon," even beyond Sarris "lightly likable" directors, to include a broad sampling of Hollywood filmmakers. Most important of all, this anthology reprints articles written during what is arguably the most interesting and surely the most lively period of English and American film criticism and theory. Contrary to popular belief, serious discussion of film didn't begin with Bazin, nor did Arnheim, Pudovkin et al pitch tents in some previously unexplored wilderness. Almost any attempt — outside of nostalgic scavenging — to bring early film criticism and theory back into the public domain seems to me worthwhile. And in this sense, at least, Hollywood Directors is valuable.

Still, Koszarski shares with Schickel two basic assumptions. First, the very organization of the book and the central message of François Truffaut's "Foreword" ("All the secrets of the cinema lie there, in what happens in the mind of the director between action and cut") suggest that Hollywood films are best understood in terms of directorial signatures. Second, Koszarski explicitly claims that the comments of these directors will somehow enrich or "inform" our understanding of their films. As would be expected, some of the essays in Hollywood Directors do attempt to describe the "art of direction," although the most informative of the descriptive essays is William Cameron Menzies' discussion of the "art director" — not the director per se, but what is today usually referred to as the set designer or production designer.

However, two other noteworthy essays on direction, by George Cukor and John (THE PRISONER OF ZENDA) Cromwell, will make any defensive auteurist snicker, "I-told-you-so." For while Cukor and Cromwell emphasize the collaborative effort involved in above-B quality Hollywood production, they both ultimately posit as the summun bonum the director's control over a film's "mood" (Cukor) and the finished product as the director's "individual expression" (Cromwell). Perhaps even more interesting is Cukor neatly corroborates Noel Burch's discussion of the "zero point of cinematic style" (in Theory of Film Practice); Cukor affirms that "directorial style must be largely the absence of style."

But even if one prefers to categorize and understand Hollywood movies in terms of major and minor auteurs, only a handful of these essays could possibly further serious criticism of directors or specific films. Actually, many of the articles in Hollywood Directors do not touch on directing or individual films at all, and the ones that do treat such topics are most often vague or dull or mere press-agentry. Similar problems also plague several of the autobiographical essays Koszarski includes, although there are some noteworthy touches in the self-portraits by Keaton and Harold Lloyd and the firsthand reminiscences of Thomas Ince and J. Stuart Blackton (the central figure in the Vitagraph studio).

In general, the few comments that struck me as provocative seem to be almost randomly tossed out and left undeveloped — like Harry Langdon's belief that "the four greatest stimuli to laughter are rigidity, automatism, absentmindedness, and unsociability" (No wonder this seems provocative; it's a one-line précis of Henri Bergson's Laughter) or Mack Sennett's contention that "Shetland ponies and pretty girls" are not "fair game" for pie throwing while "coppers" and "elegantly dressed elderly men" are. (Perhaps the beginnings here of a structural typology of slapstick characters and an ideological study of the pie as social leveler?) And by far the best essay in the book, William de Mille's "Mickey vs. Popeye," is more about film criticism than film direction. For in a superb parody of all simplistic and solemn studies of the relationship between movies and society, de Mille "analyzes" the victory of Popeye over Mickey Mouse in a 1935 popularity poll and concludes that "the Mickey Mousians of today will be the New Dealers of tomorrow, whereas the Popeyesians will breed a race of Fascists."

Though few of the other 50 articles can stand without excuse as lively and intrinsically valuable film criticism and even fewer can buttress auteurist exegesis, Hollywood Directors is still a relatively useful anthology for anyone concerned with the development of film criticism and theory. Although none of the director/critics are in the same league as Eisenstein or even Pudovkin, they do return again and again to some of the topics that dominated the discussion of the photoplay / cinema / movies between 1908 and 1940. But don't expect any definitive or even challenging examinations of, for example, the status of the movies as a "popular art" or of the relation of stage to screen. The essays Koszarski reprints at best point us toward the questions that were being asked in countless popular periodicals, specialized journals, and little magazines of the period; they don't even hint at the variety of solutions that were offered. To say that an anthology of reprinted pieces like Hollywood Directors has "historical interest" is usually to write it off as a collection of outdated curios. But there is such a gap in our understanding of early film criticism and theory that essays that have a bonafide "historical interest" are the first step towards a fuller estimation of the climate of opinion (aesthetic, social, and economic) during the rise of the motion picture industry.

For example, the emergence and enormous popularity of the movies posed major problems for entrenched bourgeois conceptions of the artist, the art object, and the audience — blurring the hallowed boundaries between art and entertainment or commerce and between "human" and mechanical media. One result was a debate over the possibility of "popular" art and the defense of the movies as the "democratic" art par excellence. This motif runs throughout Hollywood Directors. In fact, the title of the Chaplin article that Koszarski includes is: "Can Art be Popular?" (originally published in The Ladies Home Journal, 1924). Predictably, Chaplin argues that "a slapstick comedy can be just as great a work of art as a Greek tragedy." For he believed, as Frank (MOONRISE) Borzage put it, that "real art can be understood by you and I and by everyone else." Even Fred Niblo — best remembered as the director of the silent BEN HUR — affirmed that movies must be not only for the "common man," but about him [sic] as well. Thus, "Mr. and Mrs. Everyman will be the stars of the future — the Epic of Everyman."

Easily understood and available to "Everyman," the movies were often assigned an exalted mission, especially by critics writing before 1930. F.W. Murnau and Cecil de Mille may have shared little, but they both reverentially saw cinema as a "world force." De Mille, however, was somewhat more visionary than Murnau (and a little Bazinian as well). After singing the praises of his latest release, KING OF KINGS, de Mille predicted that the movies "will make for unity and for a certain oneness in the world. Ultimately it may even be a oneness with God."

Most early critics who took a positive view of the movies were somewhat more mundane, although even schematic descriptions of film aesthetics generally included some opinion concerning the high purpose of film — see Munsterberg's The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916), for example. Theoretical discussions of the "nature" and unique "language" of the medium appeared in magazines as disparate as The Dial and Mac Fadden's Fiction Lovers Magazine as well as in film and theater journals. But judging from Koszarski's anthology, very little film theory originated in Hollywood. Yet an essay on the "proper language of cinematography" by Slavko Vorkapich, Hollywood's resident "montage" expert, does at least suggest the widespread attempt to formulate a "grammar" of "cinematics."

Many more articles in Hollywood Directors consider the relation of film to the established arts — de Mille, for example, mentions the "inspiration" he received from the "great paintings of the world — and this too was an obsession of the period, a means of establishing the legitimacy, heredity, or proper domain of the "mechanized muse. For instance, there were well over 250 articles, editorials, and publicity pieces comparing film and theater published before 1940.

But not many critics went as far as D.W. Griffith, who catalogued the "vastly greater potentialities" of screen to stage and enthusiastically announced: "the old stage is gone, the new stage is here." Edmund (GRAND HOTEL) Goulding went even further in an early piece on the sound film, and his paean epitomizes the tendency to discuss film in relation to the other arts. The film of the future, Goulding wrote in the National Board of Review Magazine, will be "the soul of Beethoven moving with those of Shakespeare and Rembrandt supplying the complete drama."

Koszarski draws quite a few essays from books like Opportunities in the Motion Picture Industry (1922) and Breaking into the Movies (1927), and they suggest a very different preoccupation of the early period. Proliferating photoplay correspondence schools, Horatio Alger-esque autobiographies, and the advice columns of fanzines and trade magazines all conspired to create the image of Hollywood as the ultimate land of opportunity, where furriers became tycoons and the kid next door a starlet or megaphoned director. "Success," Marshall (DADDY LONG LEGS) Neilan told aspiring actresses in 1922, "is on every bough" — within reach of anyone who had one of the "six essentials": beauty, personality, charm, temperament, style, or "the ability to wear clothes." But even if she lacked all of these virtues, a woman might become a director. For according to Ida May Park (a director for Universal in the late teens) and Alice Blaché (Koszarski calls her career between 1907 and 1914 "long and remarkable"), a woman is biologically equipped for directing because she is "naturally religious," innately superior in "matters of the heart," and unrivalled in the "emotional and imaginative faculties."

Hollywood in this beckoning vision is a Jazz Age New Frontier, as American as the land rush in Warner's THE OKLAHOMA KID — a "Mecca of the ambitious" (John Ford, 1929). The clearest expression of this is an essay by Edwin Carewe, written in 1927, before this director fell from high-class literary adaptations like EVANGELINE to what Koszarski refers to as "poverty row projects and religious pictures." Carewe's message echoes with both the favorite rhetoric of 19th century pioneer individualism and the sales pitch optimism of late-night TV commercials for computer programming institutes. "The movies are a challenge to youth," he declares, to the "enthusiasm of a pioneering spirit or a man with new ideas — a barber from Podunk or a school teacher from Oskaloosa may crash his way into the film plants of Hollywood with some fresh ideas and blaze a new and highly successful trail in movie-making."

The flip side to this long-playing spiel is of course Hollywood as cesspool, polluting the American moral climate, and/or Hollywood as factory, stripping the individual artist of soul and inspiration. Such increasingly popular images were promulgated mostly by highbrow critics and social scientists, defenders of decency, and disgruntled screenwriters on the way to the bank or back to the "legitimate — rarely by Hollywood directors in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet Hollywood Directors does include some insurgency, some blows, albeit feeble, against the empire. As early as 1914, Sidney Olcott complained about the exhibitor's rejection of his 1912 feature film, FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS (filmed, Olcott tells us, on location in the Holy Land, "an arid inhospitable country"). Later dissidents — Von Stroheim, Vidor, and Milestone, for example — offer little beyond the usual complaints: "machine-made stories," front-office interference, and the art-destroying cash nexus. As might be expected, the most interesting and/or representative essays attacking Hollywood are not by American directors but by critics who are seldom, if ever, anthologized. And the range of this critique was extraordinary, from the elitist sarcasm of theater critics like George Jean Nathan to the "scientific" Payne Fund Studies of the effects of movies on children to the politically and aesthetically sophisticated articles by Harry Alan Potamkin. However, because it is limited to the writings of Hollywood directors, Koszarski's anthology only skims the surface of anti-Hollywood sentiment.

Finally, none of the 50 articles in Hollywood Directors, except perhaps William de Mille's, are first- or even second-rate examples of pre-1940 film criticism and theory. Stanley Kauffmann's American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to CITIZEN KANE, a 400+ page anthology published by Liveright in 1972, gives a much broader and deeper sense of the period — although it is weighted heavily towards reviews rather than criticism or theory. Quite a few valuable early essays by Potamkin and Alexander Bakshy, among others, are included in Lewis Jacobs' Introduction to the Art of the Movies (Noonday, 1960), which is still in print and usually available at second-hand bookstores. Most other anthologies offer no pre-Bazin material except for selections from the "pantheon critics and/or truncated excerpts from lesser lights. Probably the best introduction to this period is The Film Index Volume I: The Film as Art, a massive and indispensable annotated bibliography compiled in the late 1930s.

By now my own bias should be apparent. Early film criticism and theory definitely needs to be rediscovered and reevaluated not only because we might discover some arcane texts that are "relevant" to current critical debate, but because a comprehensive investigation of this period should help us determine the effect of pre-1940 interests and assumptions on subsequent film study and clarify the complex relationship between the development of movie making and the development of film criticism and theory. Since so little of this material is readily available, Koszarski's Hollywood Directors — almost by default — deserves some attention.