Book Title: The Oxford History of World Cinema. Contributors: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith - editor. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: Oxford. Publication Year: 1997
Independents and Mavericks
The Hollywood studio system in its heyday was much admired abroad both for efficiency and quality of product and for its ability to match supply and demand. Other national industries did their best to copy it, hoping to gain strength and competitiveness from its tight industrial organization and forms of market control. From the late 1940s onwards, however, the complex structure developed in the 1920s and 1930s was beginning to fall apart. This was a world-wide phenomenon, though the causes were not everywhere the same. In Germany and Italy, for example, it was an effect of the dismantling of the state-controlled structures of the Fascist period. In India it came about as one of the many consequences of Independence and the arrival of a new entrepreneurial class. In America itself the causes were complex. One pillar of the system, the vertical integration of production, distribution, and exhibition, which provided a crucial linkage between supply and demand, had been knocked out by anti-trust legislation confirmed by the Paramount case in 1948. On the demand side, audiences were falling, while on the supply side the smooth mechanisms for harnessing creative talent to audience-oriented production were showing severe signs of strain as artists at all levels rebelled against being made cogs in the studio machine.
Even if the causes were different, the results were the same: a change in the pattern of production and a greater independence of film-makers from, or within, the system which both nurtured and confined them. This was apparent not only in much quoted cases like Italy, with the pullulation of neo-realism and its offshoots, but even in Britain, where J. Arthur Rank had taken the bold step of devolving production to independent units, and in Hollywood itself.
Contested and much derided though it was, the classic Hollywood production system, with its minute division of labour, had in the 1930s produced impressive results on the creative as well as the industrial side. Individual creativity sometimes appeared to be suppressed, but it could also be fostered, as the careers of many great artists showed. Comedy flourished especially well under the studio system-and indeed not only in Hollywood but in other countries as well.
It was always recognized by the studios that comedy could not be produced to order. But comedy also thrives on formula, and finding and sustaining a successful formula was exactly what the studios were best at. In the early sound years Paramount in particular had a whole stable of comedy stars brought in from theatre and vaudeville,
including the Marx Brothers, Mae West, and W. C. Fields, and carefully nurtured and developed their different talents. It was at Paramount that the Marx Brothers made what are generally agreed to be their best and most anarchic films, culminating in Duck Soup ( 1933, directed by Leo McCarey); enticed to MGM by Irving Thalberg, they scored a great hit with A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935) but thereafter their comedy became tamer. It was also at Paramount, a decade later, that playwright and script-writer Preston Sturges was enabled to make the switch to directing his own screenplays, beginning with The Great McGinty ( 1940), and following it with (among others) such idiosyncratic classics as The Lady Eve ( 1941), The Palm Beach Story ( 1942), and Hail the Conquering Hero ( 1944). It was when he let himself be seduced away from the studio, to become his own producer under the aegis of aircraft industry millionaire Howard Hughes, that Sturges's career went into decline.
The studio system also provided a favourable environment for the growth of other formula-dependent genres, such as the Western and horror film. But it was suspicious of films which sought to get away from formula and were therefore regarded as a market risk, and its strict division of labour militated against films for which either the writer or the director insisted (for whatever reason) on a high degree of creative control crossing the boundaries between specialities. Writers and directors with clout could get round the restrictions, sometimes by becoming their own producers. Howard Hawks, for example, directed a few films for independent producers like Samuel Goldwyn or David O. Selznick but otherwise produced most of his films himself from Tiger Shark ( 1932) onwards, and consequently enjoyed a degree of creative control denied to the majority of contract directors.
LOOSENING THE BONDS OF THE SYSTEM
In the 1940s there was a general loosening of the bonds that tied the system together. Producers, directors, writers, and actors found working in the studio context increasingly irksome. The studio managements for their part found it harder to exercise the smooth control that had characterized the system in its heyday. Gaps grew up in the interstices of the system. While the studios struggled to find new formulas with which to retain an audience which was dwindling year by year, the American cinema subtly began to change. Well-crafted, machine-produced films, though numerically still the majority, came to seem less important as new directors emerged with rawer, more distinctive styles.
The 1950s is often seen as a great decade of auteur cinema. French critics in particular saw in the work of directors such as Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk, and others who emerged or re-emerged in that decade qualities of authorial presence
Opposite: Orson Welles as Falstaff in his late masterpiece Chimes at Midnight ( 1966) that had been less easy to locate in any but a handful of the directors of the previous generation. It was not just the John Fords and Howard Hawkses who seemed to be in a full sense authors of the films they directed, but directors lower down the Hollywood scale who previously would have had less chance of self-expression. In fact the new directors did not enjoy huge amounts of creative freedom, and when they tried to exercise more freedom than was granted them they often ran foul of the system. But the fact that they were able to run these risks, with whatever result, was a clear sign that times were changing.
Not all the directors now hailed as auteurs had the same relation to the system. Some, like Welles, were uncontainable and after a number of brushes with the system ended up working outside it entirely. Others, like Preminger, followed the traditional route of carving out a niche as producer-director. Joseph Losey, now best known for his later collaboration with playwright Harold Pinter, made most of his early Hollywood films as a lowly contract director; his brushes with the system had to do with his politics, rather than his artistic aspirations. Fuller flourished as a maker of low-budget action films, which he wrote, directed, and generally produced himself, exploiting the freedom that came with not being held responsible for too much studio money to spend.
Increasing variety in the production system was signalled by the emergence of independent production companies in which creative artists held a great degree of control. A number of such companies had come into being in the mid-1940s, and though their rise was temporarily checked in 1947 by unfavourable tax legislation, the momentum proved unstoppable. The great independent producers of the 1930s and 1940s, Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick, gave way in the 1950s to less ambitious operations. There were changes inside the studios, too, as producers negotiated themselves positions as 'in-house independents', with more freedom of manéuvre than they would have enjoyed under previous forms of contract.
As well as directors, many leading actors of the period set up production companies in association with career producers outside the studio. While they often did this to increase their bargaining power with the studio, the actor-producers were also instrumental in assisting directors and writers, both new and established. The most famous of these actor-producer companies was probably that formed by Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht (later joined by James Hill). Although partly devoted to creating starring roles for Lancaster himself, the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company helped to bring in new directors from theatre and television to the Hollywood cinema.
Perhaps the most distinguished figure in the field of independent production in the 1950s, however, was John Houseman. Co-founder with Welles of the Mercury Theatre, he played an important role in the production of -455-
Citizen Kane. Returning to Hollywood after war service, he produced films of Max Ophuls ( Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948), Nicholas Ray ( They Live by Night, 1948; On Dangerous Ground, 1952), Fritz Lang ( Moonfleet, 1955), and John Frankenheimer ( All Fall down, 1962). During a spell working in-house for MGM in the 1950s he was also responsible for redirecting the career of Vincente Minnelli, best known as a director of musicals. Although Minnelli continued to make musicals for Arthur Freed's unit at the studio in the early 1950s, Houseman's tutelage enabled him to break new ground with two reflexive films about the film industry, The Bad and the Beautiful ( 1952) and Two Weeks in Another Town ( 1962), the sophisticated Freudian drama The Cobweb ( 1955), and the remarkable film biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life ( 1956).
The story of They Live by Night is an interesting example of how the system began to be opened up in the post-war period. Its director Nicholas Ray, like Welles and Losey, had a background in New York's radical theatre and had worked with Houseman in both theatre and radio before and during the war. They lived by the night produced by Houseman for RKO in 1948. But it was not properly released for over a year, and then more because of the critical interest it had generated on both sides of the Atlantic than because the studio had any confidence in it. During the 1950s Ray went on to make a number of unorthodox and off-beat genre films -- mainly crime films but also Westerns-notable not only for their visual fluidity but for the edgy intensity of their character portrayal and their rejection of the prevailing conformist ethos. He reached a peak of success (or notoriety) with his direction of James Dean as the tormented teenager in Rebel without a Cause ( 1955), but two films on either side of it, the Western Johnny Guitar ( 1954) and the family melodrama Bigger than Life ( 1956), were in many ways more typical of his harsh approach to the dilemmas of masculinity and the omnipresence of violence in American life. Ray showed a particular mastery of the wide screen, adapting it to domestic drama as well as to films on a larger scale. But when, on the strength of his skills at mise-en-scéne, he was offered the opportunity to direct a biblical epic, King of Kings ( 1961), and a historical spectacular, 55 Days at Peking ( 1962), his distinctive talent was -- perhaps inevitably -- diluted. Though his more fervent admirers (for example on the British magazine Movie) continued to see signs of individuality in his work, Ray himself suffered a deep crisis of confidence, and gave up feature film-making entirely, resurfacing as an actor when invited to take part in Wim Wenders 's The American Friend in 1976.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Ray's films, whether produced within the system or on its fringes, was the intensity of their criticism of American life, all the greater for not being expressed as a propagandistic 'message'. Although films critical of aspects of American society had been made in the 1930s, they mostly exuded a general air of long-term optimism and a sense that wrongs were superficial and could be righted. Radical scripts were easily toned down and, with the possible exceptions of Fritz Lang and Erich von Stroheim, few directors were able to impose an overall vision deeply at odds with the prevailing ethos.
Douglas Sirk was another director with a deeply pessimistic view of American society. As Detlef Sierck he had enjoyed a successful career in Germany, first in the theatre and then in the cinema, before emigrating in 1937. In Hollywood he at first found little outlet for either his political radicalism or his sense of stylistic refinement. But he found a niche at Universal, making low-budget films of various kinds. In the 1950s he came under the control of producer Ross Hunter, who specialized in cranking out sentimental melodramas. In these unfavourable conditions he learnt to exploit the basic implausibility of the genre with an irony that laid the films open to conflicting readings. His best films of the period, however, were those in which he did not have to use irony as a subterfuge to undercut the pieties of the genre: The Tarnished Angels ( 1958), and Written on the Wind ( 1959). Significantly, both these films were produced not by Ross Hunter but by Albert Zugsmith, who had earlier overseen Orson Welles's only studio film of the 1950s, Touch of Evil.
At first sight, the Westerns of Budd Boetticher look like the most classical products of the studio era, inexpensively made formula pictures recycling well-worn themes of solitude and revenge. But their consistency is far from mechanical or merely formulaic and stems in large measure from the imagination of their director and the collaborative conditions under which he was able to work. The first of Boetticher's late-1950s cycle of Westerns starring Randolph Scott was Seven Men from Now ( 1956), and was actually made by John Wayne's company, Batjac, for Warners. All the rest were made for Columbia by a company formed by Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown, known first as Scott-Brown productions and then as Ranown. With this structure in place, and with the regular use of either Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang as script-writer, Boetticher was able to devote himself single-mindedly to the making of films which exploited the potential of Scott's craggy physique and measured performing style to explore themes central to the Western genre. Elegant in their mise-en-scéne, the films of Boetticher's ' Ranown cycle' are also the profoundest commentary, alongside the work Jane Wyman as a lonely widow who falls in love with her gardener in All That Heaven Allows ( 1955), one of a series of 1950s melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk and produced by Ross Hunter
of John Ford, on the values represented by the Western and the mythic 'American West'.
Different though they are, the films of Ray, Sirk, and Boetticher, together with those of other auteurs of the period, have one thing in common. They all represent responses to changes in a production system which had become less powerful, more flexible, and less confidently geared to formula. And they all display an individuality which is that of the director, but which would not have flourished if the production system had not opened up to make room for its expression.
INTO THE 1960s
After 1960 (as is explained in more detail in Part III of this book) the production system opened up still further, and the generation of directors who entered the cinema around this time enjoyed a greater freedom than in past periods (while conversely enjoying less job security than the old-style contract directors had done). Lacking confidence that old formulas were paying off with the smaller and more segmented audiences that still chose to come to the cinema in preference to other forms of entertainment, producers and studios were necessarily open to experiment.
The 1960s saw a loosening of the categories of the genre film and a tendency towards self-reflexivity and a play with genre conventions. If the typical Westerns of the 1950s were those of Boetticher or of Anthony Mann ( Bend of the River, 1951; The Man from Laramie, 1955), the 1960s were marked by the arrival on the scene of Sam Peckinpah ( The Deadly Companions, 1961) and the first 'spaghetti' Westerns of Sergio Leon ( A Fistful of Dollars, 1964). Both Peckinpah and Leone are highly form-conscious directors and their films derive their power as much from the way they reshape the conventions of the genre as from their content. Even the old masters were affected by the new trend. John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ( 1962) is an elegiac reflection on the old West and on the Western itself.
Another director remarkable for his ability to turn genre conventions to his own idiosyncratic advantage was Don Siegel, who worked in and around a variety of genres in the 1950s and 1960s without attracting much attention before finding his niche with a series of films which converted the image of Clint Eastwood from that of Leone's lonely gunfighter to the rogue cop of Dirty Harry ( 1971). But perhaps the director who best typifies the new cinema of the 1960s was Arthur Penn. Trained (like many of his generation) in the theatre, and with professional experience in television, Penn made his name in the cinema with an unusual Western, The Left Handed Gun, in 1957. More admired in Europe (particularly in France) than in his native country, he had difficulty in establishing a
A scene from Night Moves ( 1975) directed by Arthur Penn and edited by Dede Allen steady career in Hollywood until Bonnie and Clyde ( 1967). Loosely and often episodically constructed, and held in shape more by the heroic efforts of his favoured editor, Dede Allen, than by conformity with the conventional Hollywood rules of dramaturgy, Penn's films, do not so much play with genre conventions as strain against them, extracting significance from the constant pressure of content upon form.
In other respects, however, the 1960s in America were a period of transition between 'classic' Hollywood and the new world inaugurated by the success of Francis Coppola's The Godfather in 1972. The distance between those two worlds can be measured by the difference between the comedy of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis in the 1950s and that of Woody Allen in the 1970s and 1980s. Tashlin, a former animator, directed Lewis (and Dean Martin, and Jayne Mansfield, and other popular entertainers) in a number of brashly hilarious films, released by Paramount or 20th Century-Fox but often produced by Lewis himself, in the 1950s and early 1960s. (From 1960 onwards Lewis increasingly became his own director.) His style is that of popular broad comedy, distinguished by an animator's flair for parodic gesture. Though highly sophisticated (again like the best Hollywood animation), it wears its sophistication lightly. Tashlin's films can be seen as the last fling of a popular culture formed by Hollywood in its heyday.
Eisenschitz, Bernard ( 1993), Nicholas Ray: An American Journey.
Garcia, Roger (ed.) ( 1994), Frank Tashlin.
Halliday, Jon ( 1971), Sirk on Sirk.
Houseman, John ( 1979), Front and Center.
Kitses, Jim ( 1969), Horizons West.