Monday, October 13, 2008

The American Cinema of the 1930s

The American society of the 1930s was shaped by several powerful factors. The stock market crash of 1929, and the economic depression which ensued, created the greatest amount of social unrest since the Civil War. Widespread poverty and unemployment in the early 1930s re­sulted in an increased sense of cynicism and a heightened disrespect for authority throughout American society. Further, the global spread of fascism and the increasingly belligerent posture of Germany and Italy in Europe during the 1930s added to the anxieties of the period.

The Hollywood film industry attempted to grapple with the social and political problems produced by the Great Depression, although Hollywood itself was not severely affected by the Depression.

Likewise, the film industry was feeling the effect of technical changes. The new technology of sound recording in the cinema was sending the film industry through its own very intensive crisis. In the 1920s, the silent cinema had reached a highly developed level of visual aesthetics and had produced a generation of extremely well-known stars. By 1930, the unique conditions of the sound cinema, including the very sensitive microphones on the sets, had forced the camera to assume a static role in film production, and an entire generation of silent era stars became, within a few years, unemploy­able hacks because of their unimposing voices. In the wake of this "mass extinction," new performers began to emerge. Now that the cinema could talk, Broadway stars who had previously been disdainful of the silent cinema began boarding Los Angeles-bound trains. Even writers who had held Hollywood in total contempt found it easier to complain while basking in the California sun.

Broadway-trained directors, such as George Cukor and Rouben Mamoulian, made the westward journey. The effect that these new filmmakers would have on Hollywood, as they made the transition from stage to screen, would be widely varied. Cukor would make the stage, directly or indirectly, the central concern of his films. In contrast, Mamoulian would embrace the camera with a giddy fascination for its unique visual possibilities.

Though the theatre itself is only directly invoked in a sub-plot of Dinner at Eight, the theatrical nature of life is Cukor's subject matter. The film is rigidly divided into a series of tableaux, with the chiming of a grandfather clock periodically interjected as a coda. Cukor keeps his camera at a slight distance from the performers and maintains a sense of the proscenium arch throughout the film.

The narrative of Dinner at Eight presents an understated but provocative view of societal collapse. The film suggests that the Jordans, the film's old money family, have lived lives built upon illusions and, in the aftermath of the stock market crash, those illusions have proven false and pathetic. They belong to an age that has ceased to exist and the world is about to be dominated, the film suggests, by such new barbarians as Wallace Beery's vulgar industrialist.

The fall of the old order presented in Dinner at Eight represented the degree to which American society had developed both a fear and a fascination with anarchy in the 1930s. Hollywood found an appropriately violent and primordial forum for anarchy in the gangster genre. Though the gangster genre only retained its enormous popularity for a brief time (roughly from 1929 to 1933), it rapidly evolved an interesting set of codes and meaning.

In an early gangster film, such as Mamoulian's City Streets(USA 1931) a sense of moral integrity and innocence could still be viewed as a strong oppositional force to the urbanized corruption of crime. In The Public Enemy (USA 1933), there is no innocence and the gangsters' violence becomes an extension of the society around them. In City Streets, Cooper's character is a superb shooter who must be seduced into killing. In The Public Enemy, Cagney portrays a killer who is enamored by his own remarkable capacity for violence.

While the gangster film was expressive of the anarchistic impulses of the 1930s, the screwball comedy genre attempted to use momentary chaos as the means toward achieving a new democratic vision. In many screwball comedies, such as It Happened One Night (USA 1934), the social class structure is turned topsy-turvy. This comedic upset was especially overt in the comedy films of Frank Capra as he attempted to articulate his own concept of popu­lism. In Capra's It Happened One Night, as well as in his other films of the 1930s, the common man is presented as the exclusive bearer of common sense while the wealthy, the intellectual, and other members of "privileged" society are presented as having lost touch with the basic core of humanity. Often, Capra's populism depended upon a raw and very overt appeal to sentiment--yet the decade which gave us the toughest of hoods also relished "Capracorn" and the emotional catharsis which it provided.

Throughout this period, the film studios remained one of the largest employers in Southern California and, while the price of a movie ticket was low, box office receipts were at an all-time high. The massive social unrest caused by the Depression did, however, worry many of the studio moguls. Some even feared the possibility of a revo­lution and felt that the film industry had a moral duty to avert political catastrophe. Many studio moguls became supporters of Herbert Hoover. Others, such as Harry Cohen of Columbia Pictures, became admirers of Benito Mussolini.

Of all the Hollywood studios, Warner Brothers maintained the most consistent approach to the production of social protest films. Budgets, more than politics, dictated the film production schedule at Warner Brothers and many of their films of the early 1930s were inexpensively made. Further, the films were usually about controversial, and highly exploitable, subject matter — a guarantee for quick returns at the box office. Many of these films, such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (USA 1932) and Wild Boys of the Road (USA 1933). were among some of the finer productions of the period.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang remains one of the most uncompro­mising social protest films ever produced by a Hollywood studio. The film was adapted from the real life experiences of Robert E. Burns, a man who was wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to a Southern chain gang from which he repeatedly escaped. The film successfully invokes a nightmarish world in which an entire state's legal system is seemingly intent on destroying one man and, in the process, it delineates the means by which a man is ultimately forced to become the thing he is accused of being.

Likewise, William Wellman's production of Wild Boys of the Road attempts to present a vivid portrait of one of the major social problems of the Depression-era. Unemployed, homeless youths were, by the early 1930s, drifting across the country by the thousands. Forming into loosely-netted gangs, they would hop trains and hobo from city to city in search of jobs and their next meal. At its best, Wild Boys of the Road captures the dangers and unique despair that beset its characters.

While Warner Brothers articulated the anger that was rampant during the Depression, Columbia Pictures attempted to appeal to feelings of populism and patriotism. In a film like Washington Merry-Go-Round (USA 1932), Columbia attempted to merge fictional narrative with news-reel footage of one of the major events of the early 1930s, the Veterans Bonus Marches. In these marches over 20,000 veterans of World War One marched on Washington, D.C., demanding their army bonus pay. After a series of riots and takeovers of federal parks and buildings, President Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to break up the tent cities and other encampments erected by its own veterans. Machine guns and tanks were used to clear out the marchers. Somehow, in Washington Merry-Go-Round, this event becomes the basis for patriotic reaffirmation.

In American Madness (USA 1932), the bank runs of the 1930s are presented as being caused by human weakness and individual villains, not by the collapse of the economic system. Likewise, the heroic efforts of a single man could, in the film's view, prevent and alter the problems of the period. Despite the fact that both America and the world at large were in the grip of complex and enormous historic forces, Hollywood still clung to the myth that heroic individual action is the catalyst for economic and social stability and growth.

The belief that a single individual could change and cure the problems of the Depression fostered many illusions among Hollywood moguls and other prominent Americans, especially the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, along with certain other powerful Americans, became an admirer of the Italian Fascist dictator Mussolini and felt that the United States could learn from Il Duce's model. Although Hearst was not directly involved in the production of Gabriel Over the White House (USA 1933), his nation­ally published editorials did influence the values purveyed in the film. Its vision of a benevolent American dictator, who is possessed by the arch­angel Gabriel, presents one of the more extreme, but by no means inauthentic, manifestations of a deeply troubled and volatile era.

One of the most influential directors of the 1930s was Frank Capra, and his films, especially his comedies, seemingly reflect the realities and illusions of the Great Depression era. His work, however, has long been the subject of intense controversy, and modern critical estimations of Capra1s films range from extreme reverence to respectful loathing. Despite this critical debate, Capra has retained an enormous popularity with many audiences and his film It's a Wonderful Life (USA 1946) has become a virtual institution in its own right. But it is the 1930s that stand as the period during which Capra as a filmmaker seemed to have been completely in artistic and mental union with his audience.

Capra was born to a Sicilian peasant family in 1897 and immigrated to the United States at the age of 6. His early career was divided between studies at the California Institute of Technology, work as a ballistics instructor during World War One, as well as time as a pool hustler and occasional con artist. He essentially bluffed his way into the film industry during the silent era and quickly became one of Hollywood's more successful comedy directors — especially with the films he made with the silent comedian Harry Langdon. The critical debate as to who was the more important creative force behind these films is presumably resolved by the fact that after Capra and Langdon ceased their work partnership, Capra's career flourished while Langdon's did not.

By the start of the sound movie era, Capra was already a well established director with a polished technical style, and because of the commercially successful track record of his films he was allowed a remarkable degree of directorial freedom as he became Columbia Pictures' most prominent filmmaker. With an unusual degree of artistic control, Capra began to shape his own distinctive cinema.

During the 1930s, the elements of Capra's ambivalent attitude began to manifest themselves loudly in his films. A disdain for the wealthy class appears in many of his films, especially in Ladies of Leisure (USA 1930), Platinum Blonde (USA 1931), It Happened One Night (USA 1934). and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (USA 1936).On the other hand, Capra could present quite agreeable portraits of individual members of this same class, such as Ralph Graves in Ladies of Leisure and Walter Connolly in It Happened One Night. In each case, the characters' capacity for sentimentality rather than the sum of their bank account is used to determine their virtue. Even Capra's caustic presentation of spoiled heiresses in both Platinum Blonde and It Happened One Night seems more determined by his sense of masculine prerogatives rather than the characters' social status.

While Capra was a proponent of the wisdom of the common people, he also dis­trusted them anytime they assembled into a group numbering more then 12. In such films as The Miracle Woman (USA 1931), American Madness and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the people are viewed as a mindless mob that can be goaded into action by lies and chicanery. This message is most overt in The Miracle Woman in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a radio evangelist who views her flock as being ripe for financial shearing and who manipulates them through the irrational forces of blind faith and emotionalism. In these instances, Capra views the people as an angry rabid crowd ready to perform either a hanging or a cruci­fixion. Likewise, the crowd can only be controlled by a strong, determined man (e.g., Walter Huston in American Madness and Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) who can withstand public humiliation and the threat of potential violence. The implicit message seems to be that the greatest virtue of the common man is that he can be led by a decent, sentimental leader.

Capra's attitude toward the common man is in sharp contrast to his defiantly anti-intellectual bias. Even when his heroes are writers, such as Robert Williams in Platinum Blonde and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, their working method is more intuitive than analytical and their concerns are emotional rather than rational. Byproducts of intellectualism, such as the law and psychoanalysis, are viewed by Capra as either nonsense or a crooked scheme. Despite the fact that the main character in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is something of a rustic philosopher, he is untainted by any overt education and his philosophy appears to have been gathered by osmosis while sitting in a New Hampshire woods. In turn, his adversaries are lawyers who resent his natural intelligence almost as much as they envy his money.

The contradictory messages and attitudes in Capra's films are neither strengths nor flaws. Rather, they are some of the very elements of his work which reflected the emotional and mental composition of his audience, Capra's popularity was based upon his ability to identify and portray the inherent beliefs and subconscious concerns of his period. His films did not so much express the physical realities of the 1930s, but rather they articulated the apprehensions and mythic constructs of that era. The contradictions and confusions found in his films were not just his, but were also those of his viewers. Capra represented his time, for both better and for worse, to a degree unparalleled by any other filmmaker

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Harold Lloyd: Slapstick and the American Success Story

"Comedy comes from inside. It comes from your face. It comes from your body."
—Harold Lloyd

The cinema of the 1920s is often referred to by historians as the Golden Age of comedy. It was during this time that three extremely talented film comedians were at the height of their popularity and prowess. This trium­virate of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd reflected in their films the changing social conditions of the period. Chaplin's Little Tramp appealed to the large population of newly arrived, and often impoverished, immigrants who were forming the manual work force of an expanding industrial society. Keaton represented the new class of the technocrat and many of his finest films concerned the battle between man and machine. Lloyd, however, did not concern himself with either poverty or machinery. He was the clown prince of America's first generation of aspiring managers.

The 1920s was a time of economic growth and the aggressive expansion of business. The Horatio Alger myth, in which the right combination of hard work and good luck would result in great financial reward, prevailed in pop­ular culture. Lloyd's films embodied this belief and their humor is derived from the increasingly bizarre means by which his character achieved success.

The archetype of Lloyd's films is perhaps Safety Last (1923). Lloyd's character is that of a young man from a small town who has gone to the big city to achieve his fortune in the world of business. His job, however, is that of a clerk in a department store and his only chance for advancement is through a death defying promotional stunt for the store. Lloyd's hero ultimately achieves his dream of success, but he achieves it through guile and
extraordinary good luck rather than hard work.

In spite of their belief in the American success story, Lloyd's heroes rarely succeed through merit. A polite degree of deceit and trickery is pre­sented as a moral necessity for his characters' survival. At the climax of Safety Last, for example, Lloyd's hero is the one who finally climbs the sky­scraper when his plan to secretly change places with a professional building climber backfires. He scales his way to the top, but only because he is tricked into doing the stunt himself.

This idea of deceit as the means to success appears in many of Lloyd's films. The world of boxing presented in The Milky Way (1936) is one of fixed fights and tightly scripted bouts. Further, Lloyd's milkman-turned-pugilist is launched on his career due to a feat he didn't actually perform. The hero of The Milky Way has only one vital move as a boxer, an incredibly fast abil­ity to duck, and it is on the basis of this minor skill that he attempts to win fame.

This contradiction in Lloyd's films was repeatedly expressed by the dual nature of his characters. His screen persona was that of a basically lik­able, average man who contained a striking degree of optimism and innocence about the world. This same man, however, was also capable of conman ship and his repeated display of ingenuity was concerned with avoiding the legitimate ways he was supposed to perform his tasks.

This recurring narrative pattern, in which the hero must deceive in order to win, is a major theme in such fairy tales as Cinderella, which was the original inspiration for Lloyd's The Kid Brother (1927). The family of women in Cinderella is changed to a family of men in The Kid Brother. The bucolic landscape presents a world that is almost as remote to the urban sensibility as the mystical kingdom of the original story. Unlike the fairy tale, how­ever, Lloyd depends upon his wits rather than magical intervention in order to claim his new position within the rural society of the film.

The Kid Brother
creates a highly romanticized statement on the American success story and it was one of Lloyd's personal favorites. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1946) attempted a more satiric, critical look at the assumptions which under lied his screen persona. Not surprisingly, it was one of Lloyd's least favorite films.

Certainly, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock represented an unusual collabora­tion between two very different comic minds. The film was written and directed by Preston Sturges and his more flippant, caustic sense of humor contrasted with Lloyd's image of eternal optimism. Despite their use of deception and guile, Lloyd's heroes viewed society as being essentially good. Sturges did not particularly believe in goodness and his characters knew how to lie, cheat, and steal and then argue that anyone who didn't lacked ambition. Lloyd was like a shy smile and a glass of milk; Sturges was more like a leer with a scotch chaser.

Sturges's viewpoint is best represented by the opening and ending scenes of the montage sequence which begins The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. At the be­ginning, a young Diddlebock sits at the desk of his new job with his hands poised, eager to start working on an account ledger. His eyes are fixed on a calendar portrait of President Warren G. Harding. The year is 1923, the year Lloyd made Safety Last. At the end of the scene, twenty-two years later, an older, extremely frayed Diddlebock sits at the same desk with the same ledger and stares in shock at the calendar portrait of President Harry S. Truman. No longer an aggressive young man, Diddlebock has been stuck in the same posi­tion for his entire career.

Despite his slapstick presentation of the American dream, Lloyd was an idealistic believer. Sturges was not and he seemed to have been interested in Lloyd's persona primarily to discredit it. The tension between these two opposing views in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock created a strange, and not un­interesting, battle concerning the myth of the American success story.

The Hollywood Screenwriter

"Writers are a necessary weasel."
--comment allegedly made by Harry Cohen, chief of production at Columbia Studios

"Help! I'm being held prisoner in a Chinese laundry."
--Anonymous note thrown out the window of a screen writer's office building in Hollywood

The role of the screenwriter is one of the more mysterious parts film making process. The fact that the screenwriter works in a medium that is visual rather than literary seemingly marks him as an odd wheel, yet his work is the essential first step that must be taken before a director or cinematographer is hired. Historically, the the screenwriter has been treated as a dispensable part of the creative process and it was not unusual for one screenwriter to find himself rewriting the work of another screenwriter who was, likewise, ghost writing another writer's script. In short, the Hollywood screenwriter was an all important part of the film industry and nobody in their right mind would admit to being one.

The plots of Hollywood films were not, however, magically invented during the film's shooting. Likewise, the actors did not make up their own dialogue. Without the screenwriter, many directors would have wandered lost through their narratives and countless "stars" would have mumbled incoherent, monosyllabic lines. While the history of the Hollywood screenwriter would fill many volumes, this festival tribute at least pays homage to some of the major writers whose wit, vision, and sheer determination has shaped the American cinema.

As both a writer and director, Preston Sturges redefined the American comedy film during the 1940s. His unique combination of broad slapstick and verbose verbal humor allowed him to create a series of cinematic portraits of America in which an energetic sense of naivete was mixed with a well seasoned cynicism. As a hyphenate (that is, a writer who became a writer-director), Sturges achieved virtually total control over his films and was able to pursue his most idiosyn­cratic of whims.

Sturges first directorial effort, The Great McGinty (USA 1940), amply represents his view of American politics as a lively bag of hooey. In lampooning both political corruption and reform movements, Sturges surveys the gap between democratic ideals and the realities of American society. Further, Sturges maintains a curious sympathy with corruption and the superficial impression of worldly knowledge attached to the corrupt.

While Sturges sense of satire was thoroughly American, Billy Wilder retained his native Viennese respect for stylish decadence. Wilder was often fascinated by the American capacity for simplistic ideals, but he also viewed parts of the American sensibility has being both puritanical and a little bit crazy.

As a writer-director, Wilder was able to maintain, like Sturges, a strong control over his material. Unlike Sturges, his influence carried well past the 1940s and he was able to work equally well in both comedies and dramas. His comedies, however, represents some of his most important contributions as Wilder was most freely capable of flaunting the contradictions that existed between his sentimental tendencies and sophisticated appreciation for worldly delights. In the film A Foreign Affair (USA 1948), he plays havoc with these irreconcilable differences between America and Europe.

One of the major screenwriters of the 1930s and 1940s was Dudley Nichols. Though his work would range from farce to melodrama, his vision tended toward a moody and fatalistic view of the human condition. He often worked best as a collaborator with strong directors as demonstrated in John Ford's production of The Long Voyage Home (USA 1940) and Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (USA 1947) and in each film he successfully adapted himself to Ford's tragic sense of Irishness and Lang's Teutonic notion of predestination.

More often than not, a screenplay is a collaborative effort and the credit-line for some scripts reads like the starting lineup for a ball game. That is often especially true with a director like Alfred Hitchcock who traditionally viewed screenwriters as the people whose job it was to explain how the main characters ended up dangling from Lincoln's nose. For Hitchcock, the screenplay's main function was to make the highly improbable seem almost possible. The writing team responsible for Foreign Correspondent (USA 1940) consisted of two of Hitchcock's more trusted collaborators, Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, as well as James Hilton and Robert Benchley. While Bennett and Harrison were responsible for wrangling sense out of the film's wildly convoluted plot line, Hilton assisted with the extensive rewriting that took place during the filming as Hitchcock attempted to keep pace with the rapidly changing political conditions of Europe at the beginning of World War Two. Likewise, the humorist Benchley contributed to the film's jaundiced presentation of journalism.

Despite their importance to film making, screenwriters are largely ignored by the viewing public. During the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, and the industry blacklist that ensued, screenwriters were an easy target. Studio executives found it convenient to appease reactionary organizations by blacklisting the more anonymous figure of the screenwriter rather than an actor or director and nearly half of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of subpoenaed witnesses who refused to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee, were writers.

One of the original Ten was Albert Maltz, who was often responsible for creating tense thrillers such as This Gun For Hire (USA 1941). The overt political subject matter of the film, especially its critical presentation of a traitorous industry magnate, was as indicative of the film's time period as it was of Maltz's politics. While Maltz was later accused of "premature anti-fascism," Pearl Harbour took place during the film's production.

The blacklist, and the general degree of moral cowardice displayed in Hollywood during that period, was the basis for Carl Foreman's screenplay High Noon (USA 1952). During the time he was writing the screenplay, Foreman was himself being investigated by the House Committee and, after completing the film, was blacklisted from the industry. His sense of "standing alone" against over­whelming forces was fueled into the film's bitter observations on the failure of integrity.

One of the most notable victims of the blacklist was Abraham Polonsky. His two most important screenplays, Body and Soul (USA 1948) and Force of Evil (USA 1949), presented an overall scathing view of American society that led to him being dubbed "the most dangerous man in America" by a U. S. congressman. In turn, he was blacklisted until well into the 1960s. Yet his early screenplays represents a powerful legacy that details the betrayed hopes and ambitions of a generation.

One screenwriter who did "name names" was Budd Schulberg. Schulberg's brief membership in the American Communist Party was most notable for its acrimonious ending and, by the 1950s, he was welling to testify though his reasons for doing so are not quite clear. Schulberg would later claim that he didn't trust secret societies and felt that these names should be brought out into the open. Others felt that it was Schulberg's way of getting back at Party members who attacked his novel What Makes Sammy Run. A mix of both reasons is possible. Yet during the 1950s, Schulberg would both directly and indirectly provide the cinema with two extremely bitter attacks on the corruption and mercenary state of living in America during this time period. Both On the Waterfront (USA 1954) and The Harder They Fall (USA 1956) presents portraits of morality warped by greed and power. In this respect, Schulberg successfully created a more critical and nasty view of American society than most of the blacklisted screenwriters would have ever attempted and the contradictory nature of Schulberg's art and personal actions remains the subject of intensely heated debate.