Archive for the 'B films' Category
Design by Christina King.
DB and Kristin here:
Two years ago DB reported on the gathering in Brussels of the Screenwriting Research Network (here and here). This year, thanks to our colleagues J. J. Murphy and Kelley Conway, our department hosted the conference. Again, it was chock-a-block with stimulating papers. We also introduced our visitors to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, which houses thousands of screenplays. It wasn’t all work, either. Participants were spotted lingering at our lakeside terrace or making their way through the cafes and saloons lining State Street. We believe it’s fair to say that a hell of a time was had by all.
Since there were simultaneous sessions, nobody could attend everything, and we can’t run through all the papers we heard. (So do consult the program for more information.) Herewith, some highlights that set us thinking.
In the key of keynote
Larry Gross and Jon Raymond.
The four keynoters encapsulated the conference’s very wide range. In a workshop keynote Jill Nelmes, Editor of the Journal of Screenwriting, offered a historical survey of screenwriting research in all media, with special emphasis on television. The Big Hollywood Movie was covered by Kristin, whose paper, “Extended How?” examined the ways in which directors’ cuts and extended editions handle the multi-part structure she posits as a foundation of contemporary Hollywood. We won’t say more here, since she may turn it into a blog for this site.
Larry Gross had already started off the conference with a bang by taking us to Japan. Larry has written 48 HRS, Streets of Fire, Geronimo, True Crime, and other mainstream studio pictures, as well as television episodes, TV mini-series, and independent films like Prozac Nation and We Don’t Live Here Anymore. He also writes outstanding film criticism for Sight and Sound, Film Comment, and other journals, and he teaches screenwriting at New York University. Scott Macauley’s informative March interview with Larry is at Filmmaker Magazine.
Larry’s keynote, “The Watergate Theory of Screenwriting,” tackled the question of how filmmakers decide to share story information with the audience. What do the characters know and when do they know it? What does the audience know, and when? Storytelling, Larry suggested, develops out of the interplay of these two sets of questions. He added, perhaps hoping to provoke purists who consider film to be sheer self-expression: “Thinking about the audience is not always reactionary.”
He illustrated his ideas with an in-depth examination of Kurosawa’s Ikiru. He had long thought the film “an official liberal-humanist classic,” until a course with Annette Michelson at NYU showed him that there was a lot to ponder there. Specifically, Kurosawa starts by telling the audience the end of the story: Watanabe will die of cancer. But he doesn’t know that, and neither do all the people he encounters. The strategy denies us a lot of suspense, so to hold our interest Kurosawa must engross us by delineating his relations with his colleagues, with the mothers petitioning for the neighborhood sump to be drained, and with the stray people he meets casually on his night out.
Larry showed how carefully Kurosawa played off the characters’ indifference, misunderstanding, and lack of awareness. In particular, the neighborhood wives display to Watanabe what Maurice Blanchot called “the ignorance and spontaneity of true affection.” Ikiru’s refusal to explain what it means typifies a kind of cinema that asks the audience to share the burden of understanding. “Ikiru understands how a screenplay can be composed with the audience.”
Jon Raymond’s keynote carried things to independent US film. Jon has become famous for a novel (The Half-Life) and short stories (Livability), as well as for his screenplays for Kelly Reichardt’s features. The most recent, the forthcoming Night Moves, is currently in competition at Venice. The teaser title of Jon’s address, “Screenwriting as Earth Art,” turned out to be a reference to the fact that most of his stories take place in the vicinity of his home. He has found satisfaction by composing on familiar ground.
In younger days Jon tried painting and filmmaking; a Public Access feature based on the comic strip Crock turned out to be “a movie best experienced in fast forward.” But he found that writing offered the most creative satisfaction. At the same time, while assisting Todd Haynes on Far from Heaven, he met Kelly Reichardt, who was looking for a property to adapt on a small budget. The result was Old Joy, “a New Age western,” in which two men display the violence latent in the new passive-aggressive masculinity flourishing on the Coast. Jon believes that Reichardt’s handling created a cinematic parallel to the dense intricacy of a short story.
In later collaborations, Jon mapped his patch of Portland in other ways. Seeing the annual migration of workers to Alaskan canneries, and hearing the train whistles wafting through his neighborhood, he created the story that became Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (above). Reichardt began adapting the story to film before he had finished writing it. Similarly, Jon merged the booming housing market of the 2000s and the history of the Oregon Trail into a project that paralleled today’s gentrification with nineteenth-century colonization. Reichardt turned his screenplay into Meek’s Cutoff, a “desert poem” that completed what some have called their Oregon Trilogy. For Jon, the trilogy constitutes an alternative regional history, one that traces the process of “sowing the land with failure, betrayal, and humiliation.”
Plots and no plots
The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984).
More than most areas of filmmaking, screenwriting reminds us of the institutional framework surrounding most creative work cinema. Scholars studying the screenplay are naturally often pursuing the endless revisions, refusals, and rethinks that a film goes through in the preparation phase. It’s easy to see this as a one-versus-one struggle, but in many cases the process takes place within a social environment possessing its own roles and rules.
Ian MacDonald offered an excellent example in his study of the work processes behind the UK television soap opera Emmerdale. He proposed that we replace model of industrial film production as an auto factory with that of a carpet factory. Instead of the TV episode being seen as a discrete unit, like a car, it should be conceived as an ongoing fabric woven of many threads. In Emmerdale and other series, the unit of production isn’t the episode but rather the story line. Each episode is sliced out of a much bigger stretch of ongoing patterns. Ian illustrated this with the writers’ planning chart that was mounted on the wall.
The vertical column represents scenes, marked off as episodes. The characters are color-coded cards connected by solid liness that weave their way through the scenes. These waves are the melodies; the scenes are the bar-lines. In each episode, two or three characters are given prominence, while the subordinate ones contribute their harmonies. Ian’s discussion reminded me of how Hong Kong filmmakers did much the same thing in the 1980s: plotting films reel by reel and color-coding certain elements—gags, fights, and chases—to make sure that each reel had its share of attractions. This is the sort of insight into structure that institutional research can yield: Structure is these people’s business.
Other Hollywood studios envy Pixar for to its appealing, carefully structured stories. Richard Neupert showed how that tradition goes back to the earliest years at Pixar. Even in demo films which were made to show off technological innovations, the makers tried to reveal how computer animation, even in its early, simple form, could create engaging tales. At a period when computer animation could only render smooth, simple shapes, the Pixar team found appropriate subject matter, with highly stylized characters in The Adventures of André and Wally B and Luxo, Jr.
Remarkably, these tiny films have balanced “acts.” Each is 80 seconds long and has a key action at exactly 40 seconds in: the entrance of Wally B and the moment when the little Luxo lamp jumps on a ball. Similarly, Red’s Dream‘s parts run 50-100-50 seconds. This care in timing continued with the features: Toy Story’s midpoint comes when Woody finally shifts strategies, realizing he has to work with Buzz. And what about Pixar’s perceived slump in recent years? someone asked during the question session. Neupert pointed out that Pixar’s founders have aged, and there may no longer be quite the sense of excitement and discovery pushing the team to surpass others and themselves.
Sometimes institutional traditions come into conflict. Petr Szczepanik’s talk traced in meticulous detail how screenplay development in Czechoslovakia was altered in the years from 1930 to the 1950s. Czech filmmakers developed their own system of moving from theme and story germ to final screenplay. But with the Communist takeover there came the demand to add the Soviet model of the “literary screenplay,” a detailed specification of scenes, dialogue, and the like. Filmmakers resisted this, preferring the customary and more flexible “technical screenplay” that was largely the province of the director. Petr mentioned new screenwriting trends pioneered by Frank Daniel that gave directors the authority to modify the literary format. By the late 1950s, filmmakers had found ways to make the literary screenplay a less rigid blueprint for filming.
Back in the USSR, the screenwriting institution found even the literary screenplay a difficult basis for mass output. Maria Belodubrovskaya’s talk focused on “plotlessness” as a rallying cry and term of abuse in the 1930s-1940s Soviet film. There were long debates about whether “themes” sufficed to make a film or whether you needed strong plots in the Hollywood vein. Film-policy supervisor Boris Shumyatsky urged the latter course, and the popular success of Chapayev (1934) seemed to support his case. By the late 1930s, though, Shumyatsky was purged and the tide turned against strong plots. Film executives found a concern with plot too “Western” and “cosmopolitan,” and annual film production became based on themes rather than stories. Most provocatively, Masha suggested a lingering influence of Soviet Montage storytelling, which based films on vivid but loosely linked episodes. She illustrated her case with an analysis of Pudovkin’s In the Name of the Motherland (1943), with its diffuse lines of action and sudden reversals and omissions.
Back we go
Naturally, Madison wouldn’t be Madison without strong papers on the history of cinema, and many conference presentations suited the tenor of the joint.
Stephen Curran offered an enlightening study of one of the least-known but most colorful figures in early American screenwriting, a man with the dashing name of Captain Leslie T. Peacocke. He was credited with over 300 screenplays, including Neptune’s Daughter (1914). He acted, directed, and wrote novels too. He was one of the first script gurus, writing magazine columns on the craft and eventually the early manual Hints on Photoplay Writing (1916).
Stephen surveyed Peacocke’s contribution to the emerging scenario market. Peacocke believed that successful screenwriting couldn’t be taught, but he could give hints about developing original stories, thinking in visual terms, and practical craft maneuvers like snappy names for characters. During the Q & A, Stephen added that a great deal of Peacocke’s rhetoric was aiming to raise his own profile in the industry. In conversation afterward, Stephen praised the Media History Digital Library and Lantern (flagged in an earlier blog) for immensely helping research into early film. Here, for example, is Peacocke’s 216-item dossier on Lantern.
Andrea Comiskey argued that for the same period, we can study scripts and extrapolate craft practices that otherwise go undocumented. Her focus was the disparity between what manuals like Peacocke’s said and what actually got jotted down in working scenarios. Studying several screenplays from the American Film Company of Santa Barbara, she found that the manuals’ recommended stylistic approach was revised in the course of shooting.
The manuals proposed that each scene would be built out of a lengthy single shot (called, confusingly, a “scene”) which could at judicious moments be interrupted by an “insert.” An insert was usually a letter or piece of printed matter read by the characters, but it might also be a detail shot of a prop, hands, or an actor’s face.
In preparing scenarios, the writers assigned numbers to each “scene,” as the manuals recommended. But Andrea found that in the filming, the director and cameraman added shots, breaking down the action into more bits. This was, in effect, a move away from the strict scene/insert method and a shift toward what would become the classical continuity system. To maintain a paper record for the editor, the interpolated shots would be recorded and labeled in fractions. Instead of a straight cut from 6 to 7, the filmmakers might wedge in 6 ½, 6 ¾, and so on. Here’s an extract from Armed Intervention (1913), courtesy Andrea.
Strange as this sounds to us today, it was preferable to renumbering the shots, which could cause confusion. (Is shot 17 the original 17 or the later one?) The fractions kept the footage consistent with the scenario across the production process. So it turns out that (as usual?) filmmakers were a bit ahead of the screenplay gurus, even back in the 1910s.
Lea Jacobs asked a question about the transition from silent to sound film: How did filmmakers manage the pacing of dialogue? Silent movies had great freedom of pacing, while the shift to talkies seemed to many filmmakers to slow things down. Lea’s research indicated that two strategies for speeding things up emerged: creating shorter scenes and shortening dialogue passages within them. She reviewed how these ideas emerged in Hollywood’s own discourse in the 1930s and in certain films. In the first years of sound, scenes were rather long (often because they were derived from stage plays) and speeches were similarly extended. But in the 1931-1932 season, she argued, short scenes and quicker repartee became more common.
She traced the process in three films of Howard Hawks, from the stagy Dawn Patrol (1930) through The Criminal Code (1931), which opens in the new style but then turns to longer sequences, and then to Scarface (1932). The gangster film shifted toward shorter scenes and more laconic dialogue than did other genres, and Scarface displays this in full flower. Tony Camonte’s takeover of the South Side beer trade is presented in six harsh, violent scenes that add up to little more than three minutes. Workers in the sound cinema, it seems, were soon pushing toward that rapid tempo we identify with the 1930s.
Storyboards have now entered academic studies. Chris Pallant and Steven Price offered some historical insights by comparing some early storyboards by William Cameron Menzie with those of early Spielberg films. When Menzies was storyboarding Gone with the Wind, he called it “a complete script in sketch form” and “a pre-cut picture.” Selznick’s publicity director characterized it: “The process might be called the ‘blue-printing’ in advance of a motion picture.” The striking revelation was that the storyboarding was not done after the script was finished. Menzies worked from the book, and the storyboard and script were created in parallel. Menzies’ storyboard for the 1933 Alice in Wonderland revealed a similarly elaborate process. It was 624 pages long, with one page per intended shot. Each page contained a sketch at the top, a paragraph describing the planned technological traits of the shot (such as lens length), and the traditional screenplay dialogue at the bottom. It’s hard to imagine many people other than a genius like Menzies being able to provide such a comprehensive plan for a film. (A sketch for Alice is on the right here. DB has written about Menzies here and here.)
Spielberg used sketches in addition to a screenplay from the start. Duel, surprisingly enough, was supposed to be shot in a studio, but the director insisted on working on location. The sketches he made for it do not resemble a traditional storyboard but instead are like pictorial maps framed from an extremely high angle. He also plotted out the paths of the vehicles with overhead views of the roads. The storyboards for Jaws were done from the novel at the same time that the script was being written, just as Menzies had done with Gone with the Wind. (The same thing happened with Jurassic Park.) Storyboards were vital, among other things, for telling the crew which of the four versions of the shark would be used. One fake shark had only a right side, another a left, and which one was needed depended on the direction the shark was crossing the screen. The speakers distinguished between the “working” storyboard and the “public” one. The public one is what sometimes get published, but it usually has each image cropped to remove the information about the shot (e.g., who will work on it) noted underneath.
Brad Schauer contributed to a roundtable on the American B film back when The Blog was in its infancy. He has been researching the role of B’s in the industry for many years, and he brought to our event some new ideas about them in the postwar period. His paper, “First-Run and Cut-Rate” showed that there were still plenty of theatres showing double bills in the 1950s and 1960s (DB can confirm it), and the market needed solid, 70-90 minute fillers. One answer was the “programmer,” or the “shaky A” that featured somewhat well-known talent, color, location shooting, and familiar genres (Westerns, swashbucklers, horror, crime, comedy, and science fiction). Shot in half the time of an A, with budgets in the $500,000-$750,000 range, programmers fleshed out double bills and sometimes broke into the A market.
What does this have to do with screenwriting? Brad decided to test whether Kristin’s ideas about four-part structure (here and here) held good with programmers. Looking at several, he came up with a plausible account that films like Battle at Apache Pass and Against All Flags simply compressed the four parts into short chunks, typically running fifteen to twenty minutes. In The Golden Blade, Rock Hudson formulates his goal (revenge) two and a half minutes into the movie.
Too few things happen?
La Pointe Courte (1955).
In most films, Agnes Varda said, “I find that too many things happen.” How can screenplay studies move beyond Hollywood’s jammed dramaturgy to consider the more spacious sort of storytelling we find in “art cinema”?
Colin Burnett offered a general overview of art-cinema norms that is somewhat parallel to our and Janet Staiger’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema. To a great extent, of course, “art films” differ from classically constructed films. They can be more ambiguous, more reflexive, more stylized and at the same time more naturalistic. They often replace a tight causal chain with episodic construction and nuances of characterization. The protagonists may have complex mental states; they may have inconsistent goals, or no goals at all; they may be passive; they may have shifting identities.
Yet Colin argued against claims that art films lack narrative altogether. “Art films offer reduced scene dramaturgy, rarely its complete absence.” They possess structuring devices comparable to Hollywood acts. A film’s large-scale parts may be based on a character’s development, on changes in space or time, or on variations of action and/or reaction. A question was raised as to whether such a broad category as art cinema could be characterized in such ways. Given the enormous range of types of films made in the Hollywood tradition, however, it seems possible that the art cinema could be described in a similar fashion. (For our thoughts on the matter, go here and here.)
A great many art-film strategies can be seen as stemming from modernism in literature and the other arts. As if offering a case study illustrating Colin’s argument, Kelley Conway focused on La Pointe Courte. Varda’s first film is now coming to be considered the earliest New Wave feature. But Varda wasn’t the prototypical New Waver. She wasn’t a man, she wasn’t a cinephile, and she took her inspiration from high art, not popular culture. A professional photographer who loved painting and literature, she brought to this film (made at age 26) a bold awareness of twentieth-century modernism. The result was a striking juxtaposition of stylization and realism, personal drama and community routine. In La Pointe Courte, we might say, neorealism meets the second half of Hiroshima mon amour.
Inspired by Faulkner’s Wild Palms, Varda braided together two stories. While families in a fishing village live their everyday lives, an educated couple work through their marriage problems in a long walk. Remarkably, Varda had not seen Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. After supplying background on the production process, Kelley focused on matters of performance. She explained how Varda, well aware of Brechtian “distanciation,” made the couple’s dialogue deliberately flat. By contrast, the villagers’ lines, through scripted, were treated more naturalistically. La Pointe Courte emerges as an anomie-drenched demonstration of how little you need to make an engrossing movie.
To script or not to script (or to pretend not to script)
The SRN embraces research into the absence of a script as well. At one limit is the work of avant-gardists like Stan Brakhage. John Powers’ “A Pony, Not to Be Ridden” discussed how non-narrative filmmakers used paper and pencil to organize their work, much as a poet might make notes on a draft. John’s examples were three films by Brakhage, each developed out of sketches and jottings assembled after shooting but before editing. Unconstrained by any script format, Brakhage had to invent his own version of storyboarding and screenplay notes.
Compilation filmmakers also discover their structure in the process of collecting and sifting material. Documentarist Emile de Antonio, whose collection resides in our WCFTR, had to build his screenplay up after he had assembled some material. “A script won’t be ready,” he remarked, “until the film is finished.” Vance Kepley’s paper showed that In the Year of the Pig was the result of a massive effort of “information management.” De Antonio sought out press clippings, sound recordings, and news footage and then had to create an archive with its own system of labeling, cross-references, and easy access.
De Antonio started with the soundtrack, which was itself a montage of found material, and then created a “paper film,” cutting and pasting vocal passages and descriptions of images. At the limit, he charted his film’s structure with magic-marker notations on large strips of corrugated cardboard, as Vance illustrated.
One panel session took a close look at improvisation in fiction features. Line Langebek and Spencer Parsons gave a lively paper with the innocuous title “Cassavetes’ Screenwriting Practice.” Explaining that Cassavetes did use scripts (“sometimes overwritten”), and he relied on actors to help create them in workshop sessions, they proposed thinking of his work as exemplifying the “spacious screenplay.” Their ten principles characterizing this sort of construction include:
Write with specific actors in mind. Use a “situational” dramaturgy rather than a rise-and-fall one. The work is modeled on free jazz, with moments set aside for specific actors. Even minor actors get their solos. Shoot in sequence, so that emotional development can be modulated across the performances.
Line and Spencer’s precise discussions cast a lot of light on the specific nature of Cassavetes’ creative process and pointed paths for other directors. They added that the spacious screenplay is really for the actors and the director; the financiers should be given something more traditional.
Norman Mailer called Cassavetes’ films “semi-improvised.” He tried to go further, J. J. Murphy explained in “Cinema as Provocation.” Mailer wanted his three films Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and Maidstone to be completely improvised, utterly in the moment. “The moment,” he proclaimed, “is a mystery.” Mailer opposed the “femininity” he claimed to find in Warhol’s films, so he encouraged his male players to indulge their machismo playing gangsters, cops, and aggressive entrepreneurs. J. J., whose book on Warhol stressed the psychodrama component of the films, finds Mailer no less devoted to having his players work out their problems through unrestrained behavior. The climax of Maidstone, in which an enraged Rip Torn begins to strangle Mailer, becomes the logical outcome of Mailer’s needling provocation of his actors. How ya like the mystery of this moment, Norman?
Within the Hollywood industry, improvisation is identified strongly with Robert Altman’s films, but Mark Minnett‘s “Altman Unscripted?” shows another side to his work. Focusing on The Long Goodbye, Mark finds that the film doesn’t vary wildly from the script. The principle plot arcs aren’t changed, although Altman decorates them by letting minor characters inject some novelty. He encouraged the guard who does impressions of Hollywood stars, and he gave latitude to Elliott Gould, whose improvisation elaborates on the issues of trust and bonding that are embedded in the script. Some scenes are condensed or altered, as often happens on any production, but the Altman mystique of freewheeling, anything-goes creativity isn’t borne out by the film. Altman’s characteristic touches are built around what’s “narratively essential,” as laid out in the screenplay.
We learned a lot more at the conference than we can cover here. For example, Jule Selbo brought to our attention Sakane Tazuko, a woman screenwriter-director in 1930s Japan. Rosamund Davies explored the ways in which transmedia storytelling could enhance historical dramas. Carmen Sofia Brenes traced out how different senses of verisimilitude in Aristotle’s Poetics might apply to screenwriting. We learned of a planned encyclopedia of screenwriting edited by Paolo Russo and a book on the history of American screenwriting edited by Andy Horton. Not least, there was Eric Hoyt, whose “From Narrative to Nodes” showed how digitized screenplays could be used to graph character action and interaction over time. (A nice moment: When asked if his analytic could be rendered in real time, he clicked a button, and the thing moved.) Once more we’re in the x-y axes of Emmerdale and In the Year of the Pig, but now in cyberspace. Eric’s results on Kasdan’s Grand Canyon appears here on the right, but only as an enigmatic tease; he will be contributing a guest blog here later this fall.
In other words, you should have been here. Next time: October in Potsdam, under the auspices of Kerstin Stutterheim at the Hochshule für Film und Fernsehen “Konrad Wolf.” DB was at this magnificent facility last year for another event, and we’re sure–to coin a phrase–a hell of a time will be had by all.
Thanks very much to J. J. and Kelley, as well as to Vance Kepley, Mary Huelsbeck, and Maxine Fleckner Ducey of the WCFTR. Special thanks to Erik Gunneson, Mike King, Linda Lucey, Jason Quist, Janice Richard, Peter Sengstock, Michael Trevis, and all the other departmental staff that helped make this conference a big success.
Thanks also to Noah Ollendick, age 12, who asked a smart question.
P.S. 4 Sept: Thanks to Ben Brewster for a correction!
J.J. Murphy and Kelley Conway, conference coordinators.
The first quarter of the year is the biggest slump time for movie theatres. (1) Holiday fatigue, thin budgets, bad weather, the Super Bowl, and the distractions of the awards season depress admissions. If people go to the movies, they tend to catch up on Oscar nominees, and studios don’t want to release high-end films that might suffer from the competition. But screens need fresh product every week, so most of what gets released at this time of the year might charitably be called second-tier.
Ambitious filmmakers fight to keep out of this zone of death. You could argue that the January release slot of Idiocracy told Mike Judge exactly what Fox thought of that ripe exercise in misanthropy. Zodiac, one of the best films of 2007, opened on 1 March, and even ecstatic reviews couldn’t push it toward Oscar nominations. You can imagine what chances for success Columbia has assigned to Vantage Point (a 22 February bow). [But see my 4 Feb. PPPS below.]
Yet this is a flush period for those of us who like to explore low-budget genre pieces. I have to admit I enjoy checking on those quickie action fests and romantic comedies that float up early in the year. They’re today’s equivalent of the old studios’ program pictures, those routine releases that allowed theatres to change bills often. In their budgets, relative to blockbusters, today’s program pix are often the modern equivalent of the studios’ B films.
More important, these winter orphans are often more experimental, imaginative, and peculiar than the summer blockbusters. On low budgets, people take chances. Some examples, not all good but still intriguing, would be Wild Things (1998), Dark City (1998), Romeo Must Die (2000), Reindeer Games (2000), Monkeybone (2001), Equilibrium (2002), Spun (2003), Torque (2004), Butterfly Effect (2004), Constantine (2005), Running Scared (2006), Crank (2006), and Smokin’ Aces (2007). The mutant B can be found in other seasons too—one of my favorites in this vein, Cellular (2004), was released in September—but they’re abundant in the year’s early months.
By all odds, Cloverfield ought to have been another low-end release. A monster movie with unknown players, running a spare 72 minutes sans credits, budgeted at a reputed $25 million, it’s a paradigm of the winter throwaway. Except that it pulled in $46 million over a four-day weekend and became the highest-grossing film (in unadjusted dollars) ever to be released in January. Here the B in “B-movie” stands for Blockbuster.
I enjoyed Cloverfield. It starts with a sharp premise, but as ever, execution is everything. I see it as a nifty digital update of some classic Hollywood conventions. Needless to say, many spoilers loom ahead.
If you find this tape, you probably know more about this than I do
Everybody knows by now that Cloverfield is essentially Godzilla Meets Handicam. A covey of twentysomethings are partying when a monster attacks Manhattan, and they try to escape. One, Rob, gets a phone call from his off-again lover Beth, who’s trapped in a high-rise. He vows to rescue her. He brings along some friends, one of whom documents their search with a video camera. It’s a shooting-gallery plot. One by one, the characters are eliminated until we’re down to two, and then. . . .
Cloverfield exemplifies what narrative theorists call restricted narration. (Kristin and I discuss this in Chapter 3 of Film Art.) In the narrowest case of restricted narration, the film confines the audience’s range of knowledge to what one character knows. Alternatively, as when the characters are clustered in the same space, we’re restricted to what they collectively know. In other words, you deny the viewer a wider-ranging body of story information. By contrast, the usual Godzilla installment is presented from an omniscient perspective, skipping among scenes of scientists, journalists, government officials, Godzilla’s free-range ramblings, and other lines of action. Instead, Cloverfield imagines what Godzilla’s attack would look and feel like on the ground, as observed by one group of victims.
Horror and science fiction films have used both unrestricted and restricted narration. A film like Cat People (1942) crosscuts what happens to Irena (the putative monster) with scenes involving other characters. Jurassic Park and The Host likewise trace out several plot strands among a variety of characters. The advantage of giving the audience so much information is that it can feel apprehension and suspense about what the characters don’t know is happening. Our superior knowledge can make us worry about those poor victims oblivious to their fate.
But these genres have relied on restricted narration as well. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is a good example; we are at Miles’s side in almost every scene, learning of the gradual takeover of his town as he does. Night of the Living Dead (1968), Signs (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005) do much the same with a confined group, attaching us to one or the other momentarily but never straying from their situation.
The advantages of restricted narration are pretty apparent. You can build up uncertainty and suspense if we know no more than the character(s) being attacked by a monster. You can also delay full revelation of the creature, a big deal in these genres, by giving us only the glimpses of it that our characters get. Arguably as well, by focusing on the characters’ responses to their peril, you have a chance to build audience involvement. We can feel empathy and loss if we’ve come to know the people more intimately than we know the anonymous hordes stomped by Godzilla. Finally, if you need to give more wide-ranging information about what’s happening outside the characters’ immediate situation, you can always have them encounter newspaper reports, radio bulletins, and TV coverage of action occurring elsewhere.
People sometimes think that theoretical distinctions like this overintellectualize things. Do filmmakers really think along these lines? Yes. Matt Reeves, the director of Cloverfield, remarks:
The point of view was so restricted, it felt really fresh. It was one of the things that attracted me [to this project]. You are with this group of people and then this event happens and they do their best to understand it and survive it, and that’s all they know.
For your eyes only
Restricted narration doesn’t demand optical point-of-view shots. There aren’t that many in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the other examples I’ve indicated. Still, for quite a while and across a range of genres, filmmakers have imagined entire films recording a character’s optical/ auditory experience directly, in “first-person,” so to speak.
Again, it’s useful to recognize two variants of this narrational strategy. One we can call immediate—experiencing the action as if we stood in the character’s shoes. In the late 1920s, the great documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens tried to make what he called his I-film, which would record exactly what a character saw when riding a bike, drinking a glass of beer, and the like. He was dismayed to find that bouncing and swiveling the camera as if it were a human eye ignored the fact that in real life, our perceptual systems correct for the instabilities of sensation. Ivens abandoned the project, but evidently he couldn’t get the notion out of his head; he called his autobiography The Camera and I. (2)
Hollywood’s most strict and most notorious example of directly subjective narration is Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947). Its strangeness reminds us of some inherent challenges in this approach. How do you show the viewer what your protagonist looks like? (Have him pass in front of mirrors.) How do you skip over the boring bits? (Have your hero knocked unconscious from time to time.) How do you hide the inevitable cuts? (Try your best.) Even Montgomery had to treat the subjective sequences as long flashbacks, sandwiched within scenes of the hero in his office in the present telling us what he did next.
Because of these problems, a sustained first-person immediate narration is pretty rare. The best compromise, exploited by Hitchcock in many pictures and especially in Rear Window (1954), is to confine us to a single character’s experience by alternating “objective” shots of the character’s action with optical point-of-view shots of what s/he sees.
What I’m calling immediate optical point of view is just that: sight (and sounds) picked up directly, without a recording mechanism between the story action and the character’s experience. But we can also have mediated first-person point of view. The character uses a recording technology to give us the story events.
In a brilliant essay on the documentary Kon-Tiki (1950), André Bazin shows that our knowledge of how Thor Heyerdahl filmed his raft voyage lends an unparalleled authenticity to the action. Heyerdahl and his crew weren’t experienced photographers and seem to have taken along the 16mm camera as an afterthought, but the very amateurishness of the enterprise guaranteed its realism. Its imperfections, often the result of hazardous conditions, were themselves testimony to the adventure. When the men had to fight storms, they had no time to film; so Bazin is able to argue, with his inimitable sense of paradox, that the absence of footage during the storm is further proof of the event. If we were given such footage, we might wonder if it was staged afterward.
How much more moving is this flotsam, snatched from the tempest, than would have been the faultless and complete report offered by an organized film. . . . The missing documents are the negative imprints of the expedition. (3)
What about fictional events? In the 1960s we started to see fiction films that presented themselves as recordings of the events as the camera operator experienced them. One early example is Stanton Kaye’s Georg (1964). The first shot follows some infantrymen into battle, but then the framing wobbles and the camera falls to earth. We see a tipped angle on a fallen solider and another infantryman approaches.
He bends toward us; the frame starts to wobble and we are lifted up. On the soundtrack we hear, “I found my camera then.”
The emergence of portable equipment and cinema-verite documentary seems to have pushed filmmakers to pursue this narrational mode in fiction. One result was the pseudo-documentary, which usually doesn’t present the story as a single person’s experience but rather as a compilation of first-person observations. Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1967) presents itself as a documentary shot during a nuclear war, and it contains many of the visual devices that would come to be associated with the mediated format—not only the flailing camera but the face-on interview and the chaotic presentation of violent action. There’s also the pseudo-memoir film, pioneered in David Holzman’s Diary (1967). Later examples of the pseudo-documentary are Norman Mailer’s Maidstone (1971) and the combat movie 84 Charlie MoPic (1989). (4)
As lightweight 16mm cameras made filming easier, directors adapted that look and feel to fictional storytelling. The arrival of ultra-portable digital cameras and cellphones has launched a similar cycle. Brian DePalma’s Redacted (2007), yet another war film, has exploited the technology for docudrama. A digital equivalent of David Holzman’s Diary, apart from Webcam and YouTube material, is Christoffer Boe’s Offscreen (2006), which I discussed here.
Interestingly, Orson Welles pioneered both the immediate and the mediated subjective formats. One of his earliest projects for RKO was an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, in which the camera was to represent the narrator Marlowe’s optical perspective throughout. (5) Welles had more success with the mediated alternative, though in audio form. His “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast mimicked the flow of programming and interrupted it with reports of the aliens’ attack. The device was updated for television in the 1983 drama Special Bulletin.
Sticking to the rules
Cloverfield, then, draws on a tradition of using technologically mediated point-of-view to restrict our knowledge. Like The Blair Witch Project (1999), it does this with a horror tale. But it’s also a Hollywood movie, and it follows the norms of that moviemaking mode. So the task of Reeves, producer J. J. Abrams, and the other creators is to fit the premise of video recording to the demands of classical narrative structure and narration. How is this done?
First, exposition. The film is framed as a government SD video card (watermarked DO NOT DUPLICATE), the remains of a tape recovered from an area “formerly known as Central Park.” This is a modern version of the discovered-manuscript convention familiar from the nineteenth-century novel. When the tape starts, showing Rob with Beth in happy times, its read-out date of April plays the role of an omniscient opening title. In the course of the film, the read-outs (which come and go at strategic moments) will tell us when we’re in the earlier phase of their love affair and when we’re seeing the traumatic events of May.
Likewise, the need for exposition about characters and relationships at the start of the film is given through a basic premise. Jason wants to record Rob’s going-away-party and he presses Rob’s friend Hud into service as the cameraman. Off the bat, Hud picks out our main characters in video portraits addressed to Rob. What follows indicates that Hud will be amazingly prescient: His camera dwells on the characters who will be important in the ensuing action.
Next, overall structure. The Cloverfield tape conforms to the overarching principles that Kristin outlines in Storytelling in the New Hollywood and that I restated in The Way Hollywood Tells It. (Another example can be found here.) A 72-minute film won’t have four large-scale parts, most likely two or three. As a first approximation, I think that Cloverfield breaks into:
*A setup lasting about 30 minutes. We are introduced to all the characters before the monster attacks. Our protagonists flee to the bridge, where Jason dies. Near the end of this portion, Rob gets a call from Beth, and he formulates the dual goals of the film: to escape from the creature, and to rescue Beth. Along the way, Hud declares he’s going to record it all: “People are gonna know how it all went down. . . . It’s gonna be important.”
*A development section lasting about 22 minutes. This is principally a series of delays. Rob, Hud, Lily, and Marlena encounter obstacles. Marlena falls by the wayside. They are given a deadline: At 0600 they must meet the last helicopters leaving Manhattan.
*A climax lasting about 20 minutes. The group rescues Beth and meets the choppers, but the one carrying Rob, Hud, and Beth falls afoul of the beast. They crash in Central Park, and Hud is killed, his camera recording his death at the jaws of the monster. Huddled under a bridge, Rob and Beth record a final video testimonial before an explosion cuts them off.
*An epilogue of one shot lasting less than a minute: Rob and Beth in happier times on the Ferris wheel at Coney Island—a shot left over from the earlier use of the tape in April.
Next, local structure and texture. It takes a lot of artifice to make something look this artless. The imagery is rich and vivid, the sharpest home video you ever saw. The sound is pure shock-and-awe, bone-rattling, with a full surround ambience one never finds on a handicam. (6) Moreover, Hud is remarkably lucky in catching the turning points of the action. All the characters’ intimate dramas are captured, and Hud happens to be on hand when the head of Miss Liberty hurtles down the street.
Bazin points out that in fictional films the ellipses are cunning gaps, carefully designed to fulfill narrative ends—not portions left out because of the physical conditions of the shoot. Here the cunning gaps are justified as constrained by the physical circumstances of filming. When Hud doesn’t show something, it’s usually because it’s what the genre considers too gross, so the worst stretches take place in darkness, or offscreen, or strategically shielded by a prop when the camera is set down.
Mostly, though, Hud just shows us the interesting stuff. He turns on the camera just before something big happens, or he captures a disquieting image like that of the empty Central Park carriage.
At least once, the semi-documentary premise does yield something evocative of the Kon-Tiki film. Hud has to leap from one building to another, many stories above the street. He turns the camera on himself: “If this is the last thing you see, then I died.” He hops across, still running the camera, but when a rocket goes off nearby, a sudden cut registers his flinch. For an instant out of sheer reflex, he turned off the camera.
Overall, Hud’s tape respects the flow of classical film style. Unlike the Lady in the Lake approach, the mediated POV format doesn’t have a problem with cuts; any jump or gap is explained as a moment when the operator switched off the camera. Most of Hud’s “in-camera” cuts are conventional ones, skipping over a few inconsequential stretches of time. There are as well plenty of hooks between scenes. (For more on hooks, go here.) Hud says: “I’ll walk in the tunnels.” Cut to characters walking in the tunnels. More interestingly, visible cuts are rare, which again respects the purported conditions of filming. Cloverfield has much longer takes than any recent Hollywood film I know. I counted only about 180 shots, yielding an average of 24 seconds per shot (in a genre in which today’s films average 2-5 seconds per shot).
The digital palimpsest
We could find plenty of other ways in which Cloverfield adapts the handicam premise to the Hollywood storytelling idiom. There are the product placements that just happen to be part of these dim yuppies’ milieu. There are the character types, notably the sultry Marlena and the hero’s weak friend who’s comically a little slow. There’s the developing motif of the to-camera addresses, with Rob and Beth’s final monologues to the camera counterbalancing the party testimonials in the opening. There’s the final romantice exchange: “I love you.” “I love you.” The very last shot even includes a detail that invites us to re-view the entire movie, at the theatre or on DVD. But let me close by noting how some specific features of digital video hardware get used imaginatively.
I’ve already mentioned how the viewfinder date readout allows us to keep the time structure clear. There’s also the use of a night-vision camera feature to light up those spidery parasites shucked off by the big guy. Which scares you more—to glimpse the pinpoint eyes of critters skittering around you in the dark, or to see them up close in a sickly green light?
More teasing is the fact, set up in the first part, that this video is being recorded over an old tape of Rob’s. That’s what turns the opening sequence of Rob and Beth in May into a prologue: the tape wasn’t rewound completely for recording the party. Later, at intervals, fragments of that April footage reappear, apparently through Hud’s inadvertently advancing the tape. The snippets functions as flashbacks, showing Rob and Beth going to Coney Island and juxtaposing their enjoyable day with this horrendous night.
Cleverly, on the tape that’s recording the May disaster something always prepares the audience for the shift. For instance, when Jason hands the camera over, we hear Hud say, “I don’t even know how to work this thing.” Cut to an April shot of Beth on the subway, suggesting that he’s advanced fast forward without shooting. Likewise, when Rob says, “I had a tape in there,” we cut to another April shot of Beth. As a final fillip, the footage taken in May halts before the tape ends, so we get the epilogue showing Rob and Beth on the Ferris wheel in April, emerging like figures in a palimpsest.
No less clever, but also a little poignant, is the use of the fallen-camera convention. It appears once when Beth has to be extricated from her bed. Hud sets the camera down by a concrete block in her bedroom, which conceals her agony. More striking is the shot when the camera, dropped from Hud’s hand, lies in the grass, and the autofocus device oscillates endlessly, straining to hold on his lifeless face.
In sum, the filmmakers have found imaginative ways of fulfilling traditional purposes. They show that the look and feel of digital video can refresh genre conventions and storytelling norms. So why not for the sequel show the behemoth’s attack from still other characters’ perspectives? This would mobilize the current conventions of the narrative replay and the companion film (e.g., Eastwood’s Iwo Jima diptych). Reeves says:
The fun of this movie was that it might not have been the only movie being made that night, there might be another movie! In today’s day and age of people filming their lives on their iPhones and Handycams, uploading it to YouTube. . . .
So the Dead Zone of January through March yields another hopeful monster. What about next month’s Vantage Point? The tagline is: 8 Strangers. 8 Points of View. 1 Truth. Hmmm. . . . Combining the network narrative with Rashomon and a presidential assassination. . . . Bet you video recording is involved . . . . See you there?
PS: At my local multiplex, you’re greeted by a sign: WARNING: CLOVERFIELD MAY INDUCE MOTION SICKNESS. I thought this was just the theatre covering itself, but I’ve learned that no recent movie, not even The Bourne Ultimatum, has had more viewers going giddy and losing their lunch. You can read about the phenomenon here, and Dr. Gupta weighs in here. My gorge can rise when a train jolts, but I had no problems with two viewings of Cloverfield, both from third row center.
Anyhow, it will be perfectly easy to watch on your cellphone. But we should expect to see at least one pirate version shot in a theatre by someone who’s fighting back the Technicolor yawn, giving us more Queasicam than we bargained for.
(1) The only period that rivals this slow winter stretch is mid-August to October, when genre fare gets pushed out to pick up on late summer business. [Added 26 January:] There are, I should add, two desirable weekends in the first quarter, those around Martin Luther King’s birthday and Presidents’ Day. Studios typically aim their highest-profile winter releases (e.g., Black Hawk Down, 2001) for those weekends.
(2) Joris Ivens, The Camera and I (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 42.
(3) André Bazin, “Cinema and Exploration,” What Is Cinema? Vol. 1, trans. and ed. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 162.
(4) Not all pseudodocumentaries present themselves as records of a person’s observation. Milton Moses Ginsberg’s Coming Apart (1969) presents itself as an objective record, by a hidden camera, of a psychiatrist’s dealings with his patients. Like a surveillance camera, it doesn’t purport to embody anybody’s point of view.
(5) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Discovering Orson Welles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 28-48.
(6) For Kevin Martin’s informative account of the film’s polished lighting and high-definition video capture, go here (and scroll down a bit). For discussions of contemporary sound practices in this genre, see William Whittington’s Sound Design in Science Fiction (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).
PS: Thanks to Corey Creekmur for correcting two slips in my initial post!
PPS 28 January: Lots of Internet buzz about the film since I wrote this. Thanks to everyone who linked to this post, and special thanks for feedback from John Damer and James Fiumara.
Some people have asked me to comment on the social and cultural implications of Cloverfield’s references to 9/11. At this point I think that genre cinema has dealt more honestly and vividly with the traumas and questioning around this horrendous event than the more portentous serious dramas like United 93, World Trade Center, and the TV show The Road to 9/11.
The two most intriguing post-9/11 films I know are by Spielberg. The War of the Worlds gives a really concrete sense of what a hysterical America under attack might be like, warts and all. (It reminded me of a TV show I saw as a kid, Alas, Babylon (1960), a surprisingly brutal account of nuclear-war panic in suburbia.) Spielberg’s underrated The Terminal reminds us, despite its Frank Capra optimism, that the new Security State is run by bureaucrats with fixed agendas and staffed by overworked people of color, some themselves exiles and immigrants.
I think that Cloverfield adds its own dynamic sense of how easily the entitlement culture of upwardly mobile twentysomethings can be shattered. Genre films carry well-established patterns and triggers for feelings, and a shrewd filmmaker can channel them for comment on current events—as we see in the changing face of Westerns and war films in earlier phases of Hollywood history.
On this point, Cinebeats offers some shrewd responses to criticisms of Cloverfield here.
Finally: In the new Creative Screenwriting an informative piece (not available online) indicates that the initial logline for Vantage Point on imdb is misleading. Screenwriter Barry Levy planned to present the assassination from seven points of view, but reduced that to six. As for my speculation that video recording/replay would be involved, a production still seems to offer some evidence. Shall we call it the Cloverfield effect? The same issue of CS has a brief piece on the script for Cloverfield.
PPPS 4 February: A recent story in The Hollywood Reporter offers a nuanced account of how Hollywood is rethinking its first-quarter strategies. Across the last 4-5 years, a few big releases have done fairly well between January and April; a high-end film looks bigger when there is less competition. The author, Steven Zeitchik, suggests that the heavy packing of the May-August period and the need for a strong first weekend are among the factors that will encourage executives to spread releases through the less-trafficked months. I hope, though, that tonier fare won’t crowd out the more edgy, low-end genre pieces that bring me in.
PPPPS 8 February: How often has a wounded Statue of Liberty featured in the apocalyptic scenarios of comics and the movies? Lots, it turns out. Gerry Canavan explains here.
Echoing an earlier virtual roundtable on this blog, I want to write about my two favorite B film series, now available in handsome DVD boxed sets. Both series were mounted at 20th Century-Fox, both were adapted from genre fiction, and both seem very much of their time: lots of exotic Orientalia, and probably too many middle-aged men in tiny mustaches and broad fedoras. But to my mind these films offer brisk, unpretentious entertainment, solidly crafted and surprisingly subtle. They also allow us to trace some changes in the ways movies were made across the 1930s.
There’s another reason for this blog. Tim Onosko, a friend of Kristin’s and mine, recently died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Tim was an extraordinary figure, as you can find here. He was central to Madison film culture for forty years, and in his various creative activities, he shaped everything from The Velvet Light Trap to Tokyo Disneyland. He and his wife Beth also made a documentary, Lost Vegas: The Lounge Era. Tim and I enjoyed talking about the two series I’ll be mentioning. He loved these films, as he loved all films and popular culture generally, with a sharp-eyed dedication. So this is a small effort at an homage to Tim.
The Hawaiian and the Japanese
Charlie Chan, a Hawaiian police inspector of Chinese ancestry, became famous in a series of six novels by Earl Derr Biggers, from The House without a Key (1925) to The Keeper of the Keys (1932). Chan novels were brought to the screen at the end of the 1920s by Pathé and Universal, but for Behind That Curtain (1929) Fox took over the franchise. Warner Oland, a Swedish-born actor who had often played Asians, settled into the lead role in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). He played Chan up through Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), then fled Hollywood under peculiar circumstances and went to Sweden, where he died soon afterward.
The Mr. Moto films overlapped with the Oland cycle. John P. Marquand introduced Moto in the novel No Hero (1935) and made him more central to four novels that followed. Again, Fox bought the rights and launched the film series with Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937). It starred Peter Lorre as the mysterious Japanese, and I think it’s fair to say that the role made him a Hollywood star. The series ran for eight installments, ending in 1939 with Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation.
Each series echoed its mate. Tim claimed that in an early Chan, a character is reading a Moto story in the Saturday Evening Post, though I’ve never found that scene. When Charlie’s Number One Son turns up to help Moto in Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938) it’s revealed that Charlie and Moto are old friends. There’s a more elegiac moment in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939) when a theatre displays a poster for the Chan series—perhaps as well serving as an homage to the recently deceased Warner Oland. Despite Oland’s death, the Chan series continued until 1949, with Sidney Toler in the role, but with Lorre’s departure the Moto films ceased.
Having a Caucasian actor play an Asian protagonist was common at the time. Today, it seems condescending or worse, but we should recognize that the films featured Asian actors as well, often in significant roles. The most visible example is Keye Luke as Charlie’s highly Americanized son. Forever blurting out “Gosh, Pop!” Luke is a lively and likable presence.
Just as important, the portrayal of the detectives is remarkably free of racism. Charlie and Moto are clearly the quickest-witted characters, and both prove resourceful in all kinds of ways. Moto’s judo subdues thugs twice his size, and Charlie is up-to-date in the new technologies of detection. The scripts go out of their way to show both men skilfully handling the prejudice they encounter. In Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), a blatantly racist cop (William Demarest) who calls Charlie “Chop Suey” is mocked incessantly by everyone, most gently by Charlie. Moto excels at pretending to be the stereotypical Asian (“Ah, so!” “Suiting you?”). And both our protagonists are sympathetic to others who are in minorities. Charlie is notably unwilling to participate in guying black servants as the whites do, and Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936) shows his keen sympathy with the “freaks,” treating them with quiet courtesy. The Moto series presents a Japanese who doesn’t seem to share his country’s goal of ruling Asia. In Thank You, Mr. Moto, he enjoys a respectful friendship with a Chinese family of declining fortunes.
The Chan series features straightforward detection. A murder is committed, and either Charlie is in the vicinity or the police ask for his help. A young and innocent couple is involved, adding pressure for Charlie to solve the case. Another murder is likely to take place, and a few attempts are made on Charlie’s life before he comes to the solution. In traditional fashion he tends to assemble all the suspects at the climax before exposing the guilty party.
The Moto films aren’t as concerned with puzzles. Like the novels, they’re tales of international intrigue, involving smuggling, theft of archaeological treasures, and the like. There’s more violence and physical action, with shootouts and last-minute rescues. Moto Kentaro (his given name is visible only on his identity card) is a more shadowy presence than Charlie, often working under vague auspices. He’s either an agent of Interpol, a functionary of the Japanese government, or an exporter who takes up intrigue as a hobby. (1) In Mr. Moto’s Gamble, arguably the best of the series, he engages in old-fashioned detection involving murder during a boxing match. Unsurprisingly, the film was originally planned as a Chan vehicle, and it even includes Number One Son as Moto’s sidekick.
Looks and looking
We can learn a lot by studying the two main actors’ performance styles. The plump Oland plays Chan as stolid but not ponderous. He floats across a room and gravely circulates among suspects, giving the films their deliberate pacing. Oland’s drawn-out delivery and pauses were due, people say, to his acute alcoholism, but he never seems to be struggling to find his lines. Charlie is at pains to be unobtrusive, modest, and tactful; his characteristic gesture is a simple one, letting the fingertips of one hand grasp one finger of the other. He is a loving father, doting on his many children (all in tow in Charlie Chan at the Circus). Although Number One Son may exasperate him, you would go far in films to find as warm a portrayal of a father’s affectionate efforts to curb an impulsive boy. See Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) for the casual byplay between Charlie and Lee, now an art major and a member of the swimming team. Lee’s bubbling energy gives Charlie’s imperturbability even greater gravitas.
The short and slim Lorre plays Moto as a suave man about Asia, hand thrust casually into his trouser pocket. Moto is an art connoisseur, a graduate of Stanford (class of ‘21), and a master of many languages. Lorre, so easily caricatured at the time and now, hit on a brilliant idea: He didn’t give Moto stereotyped tricks of pronunciation. Unlike Oland, he didn’t usually drop articles or compress syntax.(2) Lorre just played the part in his lightly accented English, as he would in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He added a soft-spoken delivery, a modest smile, and a trick he may have picked up from Marlene Dietrich–ending his sentences with a slight upward inflection, turning every statement into a polite question.
Reaction shots of suspects are a convention of these movies, but after several cuts show us everybody looking shifty, the reverse shots of our heroes show us that they miss none of this byplay. (3) Charlie is alert, but he hides his penetrating view behind a bland courtesy. As Moto, Lorre presents a more aggressive intelligence. Peering through round spectacles, those bug eyes, panic-stricken in M, can now become pensive or bore into a suspect. Charlie needs the force of law, but Moto, who usually acts alone, is dangerous by himself, and Lorre’s horror-show pedigree serves him well in giving his hero’s stare a sinister edge.
Listening and looking
You can argue that Oland and Lorre, coming to their parts only a few years after sound had arrived, helped Hollywood develop a wider array of acting styles. We historians of Hollywood have rightly praised gabby comedies like Twentieth Century (1934) and It Happened One Night (1934) for finding a performance technique suited to sound films, particularly in the wake of technical improvements in acoustic recording. If movies had to talk, we think, they should really talk, fast and hard and heedlessly. In this church our Book of Revelations is His Girl Friday (1940). Lorre and Oland, like Karloff and Lugosi, remind us of the virtues of being gentle, spacious, and deliberate. This isn’t a reversion to those hesitant, strangled mumblings of the earliest talkies. Rather, the movies’ plots surround our Asians with rapid-fire duels of cops and reporters, snapping out “Say!” and “Hiya, sister!” and “Watch it, wise guy!” and “Don’t be a sap!” Against clattering percussion Moto and Charlie deliver a melodic purr.
Some people still believe that in Citizen Kane Welles and Gregg Toland introduced American film to steep low angles, tight depth compositions, and noirish lighting. In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, I’ve argued that the Gothic, somewhat cartoonish look of Kane synthesized and amplified trends that were emerging during the 1930s. The Chan and Moto films are wonderful places to study these visual schemas.
In Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935, above), cinematographer Charles G. Clarke (whom Kristin and I interviewed for the Hollywood book) offers flashy depth and silhouette effects, and nearly all the Chan films have moments of clever staging. Charlie Chan at the Opera, above, is particularly engrossing, with its huge set (recycled from the A-picture Café Metropole, 1937). The same film, incidentally, contains scenes of a fictitious opera, Carnival, composed by Oscar Levant. This was an ambitious gesture for a B film and looks forward to Bernard Herrman’s Salammbo sequences of Kane.
The Motos are even more remarkable. You want wild angles? Venetian-blind shadows? Telltale reflections in eyeglasses? Swishing bead curtains? Twisted expressionist décor? You’ve come to the right place.
Some late thirties Fox sets seem to have been stored in Caligari’s Cabinet. Watching these films, it becomes clear that Kane applied the moody technique of crime and horror films to ambitious drama. One bold setup in Mr. Moto’s Gamble looks like a dry run for a Toland big-foreground composition (done here, as often in Kane, through special-effects). I like this shot so much I used it in Figures Traced in Light.
Yet all this creativity took place within severe constaints. These were B pictures, running under seventy minutes and shot in a month or so. Three or four would be released each year. They shamelessly used stock footage, leftover sets, and the same players in different roles from film to film. (Watch for Ray Milland, Ward Bond, and others on the way up.) The boys in the Fox cutting room seem to have enforced a remarkable uniformity: most of the Chans in these DVD sets, regardless of director, contain between 600 and 660 shots, while the faster-paced Motos average between four and six seconds per shot. The actors created hurdles too. Oland sank even further into drinking while the high-strung Lorre was addicted to morphine and periodically retired to sanitariums to recover. Those were the days; rehab wasn’t yet a matter for infotainment.
Looking and relooking
The Fox DVD boxes are model releases. The prints are well-restored (better on the second sets than the first) and filled with astute, informative supplements. We get a lot of detail about production matters, including why Oland left Hollywood. There is welcome biographical background on master minds like Sol Wurtzel and Norman Foster. I still want to know more about James Tinling, though; his direction of Mr. Moto’s Gamble and Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) belies his reputation as a hack.
“The cinema is not dangerous,” Moto reassures the Siamese tribesmen about to be filmed in Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938). Immediately, the woman who’s being filmed dies. The adventure begins. Who can resist movies like these? They have kept me happy since my childhood, when I watched them on Sunday afternoon TV. They can keep your children, and you, happy too.
For some good reading, see John Tuska, The Detective in Hollywood (Doubleday, 1978); Charles Mitchell, A Guide to Charlie Chan Films (Greenwood, 1999); Howard M. Berlin, The Complete Mr. Moto Film Phile: A Casebook (Wildside, 2005); and Stephen Youngkin, The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (University Press of Kentucky, 2005).
(1) The involvement of an innocent romantic couple was a convention of slick-magazine fiction of the day (both the Chan and Moto novels were serialized in the Saturday Evening Post), and it recurs throughout mainstream detective fiction of the 1930s. Most writers of the period wrestled with the problem of how to make the couple interesting. See Carter Dickson/ John Dickson Carr’s short story, “The House in Goblin Wood,” for a brilliant handling of the device.
(2) As many commentators have noted, Charlie doesn’t speak pidgin English; he seems to be mentally translating. Interestingly, the generation gap is apparent here too, since Number One Son speaks peppy and perfect American slang.
(3) One hyperclever moment in Mr. Moto’s Gamble gives us the usual rapid-fire array of single shots of discomfited suspects but neglects to show us the real culprit.
The Film faculty and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin—Madison are a close-knit bunch. Keeping in touch via email, we exchange ideas about teaching and research, as well as passing along gossip and peculiar things that appear on the Internets. Our community includes grad students and alumni from several generations. The youngest are taking courses now; the most senior were here in the early 1970s, and they still have all their marbles.
Over three days earlier this month, there was a lightning round of exchanges on B films. With the permission of the participants, I’m posting highlights of the correspondence here because it exemplifies one way in which the Web can advance film studies.
Most film writing on the web comments on current films or video releases. Nothing wrong with that. But if you’re a researcher into film, you also want to talk about history. It’s rare to find an online debate about historical evidence and alternative interpretations of that evidence.
So to scratch my academic itch, I give you mildly edited extracts from our UW cyber-dialogue. You’ll see some hard-working professors practicing imaginative pedagogy, and you’ll find ideas for research and teaching. You’ll also see, I hope, that film studies can make progress by asking precise questions and refining them through inquiry and critical discussion.
Note to film scholars: Blogs are seldom cited in academic writing, but if you intend to use this material in your own research, it would be courteous to mention these esteemed sources, as they mention others.
To be a B, or not to be a B
First, a little background. Today sometimes we call low-budget films or just poor quality movies “B movies.” But across the history of Hollywood the term had a more specific meaning. You can find a primer at GreenCine, but here’s a little more industrial context.
During the heyday of the studio system, most theatres ran double bills—two movies for a single ticket (along with trailers, news shorts, cartoons, and the like). Very often the main feature, or A picture, was a high-budget item with major stars from a significant studio. The B film was low-budget, ran to only 60-80 minutes, and showcased lesser-known players. A B tended to be distributed for a flat fee rather than a percentage of the box office.
(I’ve just distinguished Bs in terms of its level of production; as you’ll see from the dialogue, we can think of them in other ways too.)
MGM, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century-Fox, and other major companies made B pictures as well as As. Often the B film was part of a series. Fox had Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan, MGM had Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare. Since the most powerful studios owned theatres as well, the B film filled out the double bill with company product. Moreover, the Bs allowed studios to make maximum use of the physical plant. Sets built for an A picture could be used for a B, and actors idling between big projects could take small parts in Bs. Bs could also serve as training ground for stars, crews, and directors who might move up.
Other companies concentrated wholly on making B pictures. The most famous of these so-called Poverty Row studios are Monogram, Republic, Mascot, and Producers Releasing Corp. Besides turning out stand-alone Bs, the Poverty Row studios specialized in serials, like Don Winslow of the Navy and Hurricane Express (1932, Mascot, with John Wayne, right).
Still other studios, the so-called Little Three, hovered between A and B status. Universal, Columbia, and RKO were smaller companies, and some of their A pictures might have been considered really B’s, in terms of budget and resources. This is one theme of the conversation that follows.
As the major studios cut back production after the war, many B pictures were made as independent productions. Double bills in the US persisted into the 1960s, and Roger Corman and other producers turned out B-films for drive-ins, declining picture palaces, and rural theatres. Still, the prime years of B films were the 1930s-early 1950s. They have always been an object of admiration for cultists; recall that Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram. Important directors like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher started in B production. Several Bs, notably noirs and horror films, are staples of cable and home video.
Want to know more? Here’s some essential reading: Tino Balio’s The American Film Industry, rev. ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System: A History (London: British Film Institute, 2005); Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, eds., Kings of the Bs: Working within the Hollywood System (New York: Dutton, 1975).
Now to the question of the day.
Day 1: What do I teach?
It all began on 6 February. (Cue harp music and dissolve here.) Paul Ramaeker of the University of Otago asked an innocent question….
OK, so I am running a grad seminar (or, more precisely, our closest equivalent- a 4th year Honours course) on Classical Hollywood Cinema. I want to spend time on the industry, obviously, which raises questions about what to screen for those weeks. I thought an A pic and a B pic. For the A, I was thinking about Robin Hood. For the B, I’m not sure, but I had for other purposes been considering a double bill of The Black Cat and I Walked with a Zombie. Now, the latter, I know, is a B pic; but is The Black Cat a B? It’s about an hour, which suggests a B and it’s not got a lot of sets. But it’s got Lugosi and Karloff, who surely were two of Universal’s bigger stars at the time, right? So which is it?
Any other good B pic recommendations are welcome.
The replies came fast. First, from Jane Greene of Denison University:
I do the same thing in my history class and I’ve found that Casablanca and Detour work well. It helps that most students have heard of Casablanca and a surprising number have seen it. You can point out how this “timeless classic” was very much a product of collaboration, how the star system, budget and schedule determined the look of many scenes, and it also allows you to discuss censorship… I mean self-regulation. (See Richard Maltby’s “Dick and Jane Go to 3.5 Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema” in a little-known book called Post-Theory.)
Aljean Harmetz’s The Making of Casablanca is coffee-table-y, but she did consult tons of production and publicity material and there are reproductions of production documents (script pages, even a Daily Production Report!).
And, if yer willing to go Poverty Row for yer B Film, Detour just rocks. It’s so obviously re-using 2-3 sets and locations, has the foggiest scene ever shot, and long voiceovers that sound deep and poetic and take up half the film. The kids love it. And it could ease you gently into the waters of film noir, should you wish to go that way (and I bet you do).
Leslie Midkiff DeBauche of UW—Stevens Point also shared a teaching technique.
I teach the 1930s with a colleague in the History Department and we like to create a whole program: News Parade of 1934 from Hearst Metronome News; Three Little Pigs (1933), followed by the first half of a documentary called “Encore on Woodward” about the Fox Theater opening in Detroit. It opens in 1929 and is wonderful–it has clips of late silents like Seventh Heaven, sound comes, and we end it after a woman remembers how her boyfriend proposed to her, in the balcony, during Robin Hood. We usually show the 1936 (I think, it could be 1934) year-in-review newsreel that is on the Treasures of the Archive
I set of DVDs and the feature we use is It Happened One Night. What the students like best though is the popcorn and the give-a-ways between the parts of the program: Nancy Drew and Superman, a bag of groceries with food items from 1930s–turns out to be current student food–Bisquick, Snickers, Jiffy peanut butter,Ritz crackers. The grand prize bank night equivalent is an A on the final exam. They freak! It is like they won big money.
From Notre Dame comes Chris Sieving on RKO:
In researching Lewton last year I found a few sources that argue vehemently that the Lewton-Tourneur-Wise-Robson horror films were not B films, but more like nervous As: budgets were decent, prestige factor was high, occasional name stars (like Karloff).
Another veddy interesting and perhaps more “authentic” B film, besides Detour, is Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). It contains some very bizarre and magical Peter Lorre acting, plus some people call it the “first” film noir. (Speaking of film history myths that need debunking…)
Lea Jacobs, doyenne of Film Studies here in Madison interjects:
I would think The Black Cat is a B, not only because of running time but because of genre. When I was researching the distribution of B’s at RKO I was surprised by the way the horror films made by Val Lewton’s unit at RKO (many justly celebrated today) were treated as the lowest of the low–opening alongside films with titles like Boy Slaves at the small Rivoli or Rialto theaters in New York for very short runs, and later booked in and out of theaters nationally on an ad hoc basis. See my article, “The B Film and the Problem of Cultural Distinction,” Screen 33, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 1-13. I also think that Universal simply wasn’t making many A films in 1934, even with their recognizable stars.
When I teach the B film I like to show Detour and Moon Over Harlem (now out on DVD). The latter has two really amazing scenes in a movie made for less than $10,000. But maybe that is too Ulmer heavy. Anyway you can’t go wrong with I Walked with a Zombie.
Kevin Heffernan of Southern Methodist University weighs in.
The Black Cat is an A picture, I think. All of the Universal horror movies ran between 65-71 mins, so this is just under their average. Also, names above the title usually point to an A, and I’m virtually certain the movie would have played a percentage (rather than a flat fee) in its initial engagement. I would imagine that a Universal horror picture sold well in subsequent run as a component in double bills, so they would be sort of de facto B pics in some situations.
And it is worth mentioning to your students, as Elder Goodman [Douglas] Gomery pointed out years ago, that the Deanna Durbin musicals were much more financially successful for Laemmle et cie than the horror movies. They’re all out on video now. Ghastly, unwatchable, wretched.
Lea Jacobs replies:
Universal is one of the little three in 1934, and, unlike today, when horror films command high budgets and garner big returns, in the 1930s horror films and sci fi were the stuff of serials and the bottom half of the double bill. I would have to see a contract before I believe it played for a percentage. One way, apart from that, to decide, is to look at where it opened in New York, how long it played and where it played subsequently in the key cities.
Doug Gomery, Resident Scholar at the University of Maryland, is succinct on I Walked with a Zombie:
RKO in the 1940s was a low budget studio and Floyd Odlum owned it. Odlum went cheap after his experiment with the likes of Citizen Kane. So it was B pure and simple.
Then Hughes bought it after the war and dabbled with his strange way of doing things.
It’s now 5:30 on the same day, but are our eager scholars tired? You have to ask?
Lea Jacobs follows up:
It is pretty safe to assume that most Universals in the 1930s were in the B range–their films were shown on the bottom of the double bills in theaters owned by the Majors. Even in the 1920s one reads Variety complaining about the cheapness of Universal’s product. A far cry from when it was taken over by Doug’s favorite Lew Wasserman.
Jim Udden of Gettysburg College jumps in, invoking the founder of film-industry studies at UW, Tino Balio:
Tino does discuss this issue in Grand Design. According to him, Frankenstein and Dracula are clearly A pics, part of Universal’s strategy to break into the first-run market, since, as we all know, they had very few theaters of their own. But Black Cat is only one third the budget of Frankenstein, according to the figures in IMDB.com. Does that make it a B pic? Perhaps. Yet it seems to me that this film could still have been marketed and released like the initial Universal Horror films, riding on their coat tails, so to speak, but with less actual money invested in the production.
So was Black Cat more often one of these “featured” features, or was it usually the bottom half of the double bill, as Lea says? Maybe this is an AB pic?
This to me, sound like a researchable topic! (I myself have not time for this, unfortunately…)
Lea Jacobs replies:
Yes, Jim, I agree, a researchable question that I don’t have time for either. But a distinction that can be made, without research (or prior to it) is one between A/B at the level of production planning and budget and A/B at the level of distribution. Sometimes relatively “cheap” films were marketed as As (Variety usually complains about this its reviews!). Thus, to be really certain of how a film lines up, you have to look at both the budget ranges at the studio at the time of the films’ production, and the distribution pattern, including, of course, whether it was distributed for a percentage or flat fee.
Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University, comes rolling in at 10:30 pm.
* The trouble with some of the great B’s, like The Black Cat, Detour, and I Walked with a Zombie is that they’re so good that they don’t give a sense of the real purpose of the “B,” which was to hold down half of a double bill, and amortize overhead at the studios over a larger number of opportunities for revenue – that is, individual films. A comparison of scenes from an A film and a B film using the same standing sets does this nicely; I use the RKO New York street set, visible in Citizen Kane and Stranger on the Third Floor, as an example. (A great visual example I’d like to make would be Lewton’s Ghost Ship, which is said to be a script written for an existing ocean liner set, but I haven’t seen that set in another RKO film as yet.)
*I’ve often done a clip show that involves:
A. Clips from films like the Lewtons, or the Schary-Rapf films at MGM (like Pilot #5 and Joe Smith, American), or one of the series films, like a Maisie film. These films show that the resources of a big studio, such as talent, standing sets, skilled cinematography and editing departments, etc, could generate a film that, while it might have been double feature fodder, still maintains a sense of `quality’ that, perhaps, studios wanted to maintain for purposes of brand equity.
B. Clips from fairly awful B’s, like the Dick Tracys or Tim Holt Westerns at RKO, which show what could happen when questions of production value were not attended to quite so scrupulously, simply because, given the films’ titles, they were likely to draw from a market which did not make attendance decisions in the same way as patrons of, say, Pilot #5.
C. Clips from minor studio “B” westerns, ala Buck Jones. REALLY gets the point across about the relationship between production expenses and expected grosses; clearly, these films were made on a precise calculus. As films, of course, they’re nowhere near as interesting as the Lewtons or RKO “B’ noirs like The Devil Thumbs a Ride, but they work, particularly when students can’t really tell the difference between a Buck Jones, a Tom Mix, or a Three Mesquiteers – that’s sort of the point. Peter Stanfield’s work on “B” Westerns, however, shows how the signifying practices of the B Westerns, production values aside, could be truly divergent from anything in the A film canon, and worth studying. But in defense of my students, being trapped in a screening room with a true B Western at full length can be a grueling experience.
*A handout listing the films produced in a single given year by one studio, grouped by genre, and with A or B indicated in each case. 1939 is a good year to do this with, as it contains some of the few studio films students have even ever heard of. They can see how certain studios specialized in certain genres, and how B’s supported A’s in the production calendar.
*Finally, by way of an outro, of course, talking about modern equivalents of B films, and even arguing whether such equivalents exist in the film or cable marketplaces. (Jim Naremore’s chapter on direct to video “erotic thrillers” in his wonderful book on noir, More than Night, can be very helpful here.)
Our researchers retire from the field. But not for too long.
Day 2: Diving for Dollars
Brad Schauer, Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison fires this off at 9:33 CST on 7 February:
Wow, what a digest I received this morning! With all this B movie talk, I couldn’t resist adding my $.02.
The Black Cat is a tricky case – it was worth flipping through some of the secondary sources to investigate (Senn 1996; Weaver, Brunas, and Brunas 1990, Soister 1999). In a sense, it’s a clear B. The budget was about $90K and was scheduled for a two-week shoot. Compare this to next year’s Bride of Frankenstein, which cost $400K and took Whale about six weeks to film. Plus, Black Cat has all the wonderful hallmarks of a quintessential B: lurid storyline, short running time, sometimes incomprehensible narrative (due in this instance to censorship), etc.
And it was devalued by the critics because of its genre and the concomitant transgressive material (the flaying scene is still shocking).
However, the film was also a big hit for Universal, its top moneymaker for 1934. Looks like it brought in rentals around $250K – which isn’t a lot, but it suggests a percentage release, at least in its initial run. Variety also said it had “box office attraction” because of the current popularity of Lugosi & Karloff, teamed for the first time. Someone would have to investigate its distribution patterns to be sure, but it kinda looks like a B picture that was sold as an A, as Lea suggested. Maybe Universal knew it could throw a cheap movie out there and it would succeed based on the popularity of the genre and the stars. It’s a kind of precursor to all those low-budget, highly-profitable horror films like Halloween and Saw. So for me it’s about 4/5th B, 1/5th A.
Would I show it as an example of a B? As Kevin Hagopian mentioned, it’s really much too good to be a truly representative example, but students will probably like it more than a Dr. Kildare movie or something. If you really want to sock it to them, dig into the Sam Katzman filmography. Try one of the Jungle Jims or the Lugosi Poverty Rows.
David already mentioned the real gems of the studio Bs, the Motos. The Chans are great too. (I can even watch the Monogram Chans, although the Karloff Mr. Wongs can be a real slog.) As far as other mystery series go, the Universal Holmes films are extremely well done, the Dick Tracys, Perry Masons, and Torchy Blaines are a lot of fun, and I have a soft spot for the Falcon films due to AMC early morning reruns in my childhood. The Kitty O’Day mysteries are on my “to watch” pile, but I’m not optimistic. Follow Me Quietly (1949) also comes to mind as a great B-noir.
And also, the Thin Man movies weren’t really Bs. Not responding to anyone – just needed to get that out there. Closer to Bs would be MGM’s Sloan mystery knockoffs, which are fun too (especially Fast and Furious, which is fortunate enough to have Rosalind Russell).
Whew, thanks for reading if you made it this far.
As a new day dawns on Texas, Kevin Heffernan has more thoughts.
Thanks for the info, Brad. Yes, Black Cat is a curious hybrid case. For a “truer” example of a Karloff/Lugosi B from Universal, see The Raven from the following year–most notably in its use of fairly minimal, obviously left-over sets (nothing like the very bold production design of Black Cat). And, although I recall that Kristin is a Lew Landers fan (didn’t she call him “lightly likeable at least” in Breaking the Glass Armor?), his name was somewhat synonymous with quotidian program pictures in the 30s and 40s.
My assertion that Black Cat was an A referred to my understanding of the terms of its first-run distribution . But I actually had little evidence, I have discovered, as I looked over my notes on the movie from Tino’s seminar a few years back.
Lea and Doug’s observations about Universal’s “Little Three” status and the general role its horror pictures played in the larger patterns of distribution seem spot on to me and of course became more prevalent (inflexible, even) in the post-Laemmle years. The only exception to this that I can think of was Son of Frankenstein, which was U’s entry in the superproduction cycle of 1938-39 (stars on loan from other studios, spectacular production design, initial plans to shoot in Technicolor, etc), but that movie was really the last gasp of the A horror pic at the studio, I think.
And at 10:10 AM CST Lea Jacobs is back at the keyboard.
I guess Brad has the last word on The Black Cat. Nothing like doing the research.
Now about the Thin Man series. In the essay on film budgets at MGM that appeared a few years back, I recall that these films were in the “B” range for MGM (about $250,000). (See H. Mark Glancy, “MGM Film Grosses—1934-1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 12, 2, 1992: 127-144.) This is a lot of money relative to what other studios were spending on B films, of course, but all of MGM budget ranges were high relative to the other majors (the average MGM A was between $700,000 and $1 mil as I recall). So I agree that the Thin Man films are elegant and well dressed and don’t fit anyone’s conception of a B, but at least when considered from the perspective of film budget categories at MGM, wouldn’t these count as Bs? Or, put another way, what would you count as an MGM B?
Doug Gomery adds in re MGM B-pictures:
Nicholas Schenck was no great man, but he ran Loew’s/MGM from 1927 to 1954. To him the Thin Man series were Bs from his studio. Remember block booking? These simply made MGM a more attractive package. The question of A v. B is at its heart a budget decision and then a release one. The New York-based men, like Schenck, made those decisions.
Day 3: B Mania Subsides; some answers, more questions
8 February: Brad Schauer revisits Nick and Nora:
Real quick about the Thin Mans before I run to lecture: I know I was being a bit contentious when I said they weren’t Bs. Lea and Prof. Gomery are absolutely right that if you go by budget, they’re Bs…at least initially. But by the time we get to Another Thin Man (1939), the budget is up to $1.1 mil, only a couple of Gs less than Ninotchka. 1944’s Thin Man Goes Home is budgeted at $1.4 mil, only about $500K less than Meet Me in St. Louis (!).
Another reason they don’t seem like Bs to me is that they were consistently among the top grossers for MGM in the ’30s. But so were the Andy Hardys, you might argue, and they’re clearly Bs.
Except…from what I could tell from analyzing the distribution patterns of the ’35-’36 season (not done this morning, don’t worry), After the Thin Man played in major first run theaters, and hardly ever with a second feature until it hit the nabes (neighborhood theatres). It was distributed like a big deal A, and you can sense the exhibs’ excitement in the trade press that another Thin Man installment was coming out.
Finally, we can look at the running times. MGM’s Bs were sometimes longer than other studios, but the first sequel After the Thin Man is nearly two hours long. Compare that to MGM’s Sloan mysteries (Thin Man knock-offs), which clock in at 75 minutes each.
So, like The Black Cat, the Thin Man films seem an unusual case. The first installments may have been budgeted as Bs, but as the series caught on, it was treated like an A property, both in terms of production and distribution – compared to the Andy Hardy films, for instance, whose budgets remained quite low for the entire series.
Although I think the Hardy films were often exhibited as the top of a double feature, but that’s another story.
I kinda feel like lecturing on this stuff this morning instead of the continuity system, although I’m not sure the students will want to hear about distribution patterns at 8:30 a.m.
This is very interesting, Brad. I wonder if any of this could be correlated with William Powell and Myrna Loy’s salaries? That is, maybe the series made them stars (I am pretty certain that they were not prior to the first of the series). Higher budgets for later Thin Man films might have been a function, not only of more expensive settings and shooting practices, but also of MGM raising the stars’ pay.
Anyway, it might be worth looking at the publicity attached to the two stars over the course of the series and see if it increased and if it changed. I don’t know of any source that would tell you what they were paid (at least any source that can be trusted) although contracts might exist at AMPAS.
And then, of course, there is the question of whether or not the cutting rate went down over the course of the series…
This last remark refers to an email entry of my own, sent about the same time:
I have another idea about how to spot a B. It isn’t infallible, but it might serve as an index. I’m thinking Average Shot Length.
Oho, you think, here we go again. But hear me out.
Last night I watched THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, a 62-minute RKO item from 1952, directed by Felix Feist. Laurence Tierney is the most recognizable name in it, and if you know him only from RESERVOIR DOGS, you might not recognize him. Good suspense, very few sets (lots of car driving with background process plates), familiar character actors wandering in to do a bit part (including Harry Shannon, aka Charles Foster Kane’s father). A surprisingly violent twist at one point. Even the title tells you you’re watching a B.
And 6.0 second ASL.
We found in our Hollywood book [The Classical Hollywood Cinema], and pretty reliably since, that during the 1930s-1950s the Hwood norms ranged from 8-11 seconds per shot. But those samples were drawn, I increasingly realize, from mostly A pix, because in the vast initial filmography we compiled, what we found in archives tended to be A pix. Only William K. Everson had a substantial collection of B titles on our first list, more even than the Library of Congress.
So maybe Bs tend to be cut faster? Here are some other ASLs from the 1930s, from B or B+ items: Murder by an Aristocrat, 6.3 seconds; Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, 6.8; Indianapolis Speedway, 5 seconds; Tarzan the Ape Man, 6.6 seconds; Tarzan Finds a Son, 3.6 seconds!
From the 1940s: Parole Fixer, 6.6 seconds; Chain Lightning, 6.3; Framed, 6.3.
Now this mini-sample has skewing problems of its own–lots of mystery and action pictures. We’d need to test it with other genres. Can there be fast-cut musicals? (Actually, yes; Footlight Parade.) Comedies? (Yeah, Duck Soup.) Melodramas? (Yep, Mr. Skeffington.) Still, I don’t have enough from any genres to say much of substance. As for our two big horror examples, The Black Cat falls in the A-picture range (8.5 seconds), while The Raven is much faster cut (5.7 seconds).
And what about the real Bs–the Westerns from Monogram et al? Plenty of them play on TCM and we have tons sitting in the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research, but I confess to having watched only a handful and never counted shots. Also, films with lots of stock footage (travel, racetracks, jungle animals, etc.) tend to be cut faster…and we know that Bs use lots of stock footage.
Interestingly, of major directors I’ve sampled, Hitchcock’s ASLs come closest to the ‘B’ touch. Selznick famously told Hitchcock to slow down the pace because his British films were too “cutty”; was there an unspoken belief that fast cutting was a little downmarket if you were making A pictures? Hitchcock sometimes cut fairly fast (until Rope and Under Capricorn, of course): 6.4 seconds for Lifeboat (on right), 7.3 for The Paradine Case, 6.8 for Notorious.
ASL can’t be an infallible detector because there are some Bs with ordinary ASLs, and a few with longish ones. Detour clocks in with an unusually lengthy 14.3 second ASL. Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1954), made for Allied Artists (the revamped Monogram), boasts an ASL of 14.6 seconds and has many single-shot sequences (though given its cast and technical credits, it’s arguably a B+). Still, most marathon ASLs seem to come in A pix by Minnelli, Preminger, Wilder, and their peers.
What makes this stuff interesting is a long-standing assumption that because of short shooting schedules, B films couldn’t afford many camera setups. I think there’s an unspoken belief that directors used longer takes to get more footage per day. The shot length averages suggest the opposite: B films can use lots of shots, and a surprising variety of setups.
This may also suggest a difference between A studios making B pictures and Poverty Row studios making only B pictures. Again, my sample is slanted toward the former. Nevertheless, although faster than normal cutting isn’t a necessary condition of a studio-era B picture, it may be a symptom of one. If other indicators point toward a B, and you’ve got an ASL of less than 7 seconds, that could strengthen the case.
Scott Higgins of Wesleyan University raises a new question about my ASLs:
Fascinating. Are shot scales different as well? Might editing compensate for cheaper mise-en-scene? In any case, this is good evidence that staging takes time!
Coming full circle
On 8 February, at 8:00 CST, Paul Ramaeker, who started it all two days earlier, writes:
Wow! Thanks to everyone for their input on this; now I just have to sort through everyone’s arguments and make a judgment call (given the degree of controversy over the question). I have to say, though I have now been convinced to use Detour as one of my screenings for that week, so as to have an example of Poverty Row, it would seem that either Black Cat or Zombie would work (as well as a Moto, which I hadn’t thought of at first), not least because there is some element of ambiguity in both cases that would be fodder for discussion.
I have to say, though, I think the reminders about the status of the Little 3, as well as the budgetary info, are kinda persuasive in the case of The Black Cat. And while I’d hate to lose Zombie, I can see some value in screening two films at different production levels by the same director, Ulmer in this case. There may well be such a thing as too much Ulmer, but if anyone could possibly object to a Black Cat/Detour double bill, they’d have to be kicked out of the class.
Cheers to all!
Weekly colloquium meeting of the Film area, UW–Madison