Archive for the 'Film history' Category
Schine’s Elmwood Theatre, Penn Yan, New York, late 1954-early 1955. Photo courtesy Yates County History Center.
Nowadays when a theatre closes or goes digital, it says farewell by screening The Last Picture Show. That hadn’t yet become a tradition when the Elmwood Theatre of Penn Yan, New York presented Bogdanovich’s movie on its final day in November 1972.
Six people showed up.
The Elmwood had been going downhill for years. “I think the theatre building is an eyesore,” declared the chairman of the town’s Urban Renewal Agency. Once part of the powerful Schine circuit, the theatre had been acquired in the mid-1960s by the Rochester-based Panther chain, later renamed Countrywide. That firm seems to have specialized in low-budget genres and X-rated fare. In Penn Yan, the UR officer declared, most of the Elmwood’s programs were rated “restricted,” adding: “Yet it is claimed by some that it is a recreational facility for our children.” Disney films were screened at the Elmwood during those years, but local moviegoer Robert Brainard noted: “They were getting all the junk and nobody was going, not even the kids.”
When the theatre was finally closed, it stood vacant. Vandals broke the windows, and pigeons roosted inside. It had come a long way from the 1940s.
In 1974, two businessmen paid $11,000 for the building and turned it into a racquet club. That business operated for some years, but in 2003 the entire structure was demolished and a new village hall was built on the site.
By then a small three-screen mall cinema had set up business elsewhere in town. I report on a visit here.
In January, I was back in Penn Yan and naturally I sniffed around. Thanks to John H. Potter and Lisa M. Harper of the Yates County History Center, and my sisters Diane and Darlene, I came away with some precious information about the theatre I attended for the first eighteen years of my life.
I also came away with an extremely rare film.
Broadway Melodies and Cherry Blossom Queens
Captain Harry Morse ran steamboat trips on Lake Keuka. He was a legendary figure. Some said that as a boy he had caught a lake trout on his nose. (I know: How could you do that? Supposedly he bent over the side of a boat and a trout leaped up and glommed on.) More prosaically, Morse invested in Penn Yan movie houses, and in 1920 he bought the Shearman House Hotel, a popular stopover for visiting vaudevillians. Morse turned the Shearman House into a theatre.
The Elmwood Theatre opened in 1921. It held at least 700 people. That’s pretty big for a town of 4500 people, but as the county seat and a business center, Penn Yan brought in farm families. Many shows were accompanied by printed programs listing coming attractions and carrying advertisements for local businesses. This one, for Song of Love, is from 1923.
Admission was typically 11 cents for matinees and 17 cents for evenings. “Specials” like Chaplin’s The Kid boosted ticket prices to 17 and 28 cents. In 1936 the Schine chain acquired the house.
The Elmwood benefited from the projection expertise of Nathaniel P. “Nat” Sackett. Nat had begun his film career in 1908 at another local movie house, vocalizing with the song slides shown between reels. He became a projectionist before joining the Elmwood in 1923. He stayed on for several decades. According to Nat, The Broadway Melody was the first sound film the Elmwood played. During World War II, he worried that too many theatres were running triple features. If the fad continued, production couldn’t keep up. For Penn Yan, one feature was good enough—especially if it was something like How Green Was My Valley or Captains of the Clouds.
A small-town movie house often became a community center. Elmwood patrons remember talent shows and holiday parties, with gifts and contests before the screenings. In 1940 a housewife attending I Love You Again could join an hour-long cooking class (with prizes) just before the show. Young women would be named Apple Blossom Queen or Cherry Blossom Queen. Halloween screenings included costume contests and of course sudden blackouts and scary sound effects. During the war, with no television or Internet, people flocked to the theatre for newsreels. Customers were steered in and out by ushers; the Elmwood employed them well into the 1950s.
“Today,” remembered Nancy Gillette, “most people cannot imagine a theatre as large as the Elmwood, which included a large balcony, being full most of the time.” By the 1930s, admission prices had come down a bit for children. Ten cents admitted Nancy to the Saturday marathon matinees: “Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Charlie Chan, the newsreel and one or two cartoons—WOW!” Lines of kids stretched down the block. In the 1950s, Diane and I were among them, watching the same cowboy heroes, along with Tarzan and Martin and Lewis.
Romances and marriages were forged at the Elmwood. In 1933, a young man taking tickets let a young woman slip out to retrieve the keys she left in her car. Over the next few days he began to drive by her house. Her cousin knew the young man and said, “Margaret, I am taking you out when Sam comes along, and I’ll stop his car and introduce you to him.” After two years of dating, Margaret and Sam married and eventually had three children. The Elmwood manager gave Sam’s mother and Margaret free passes.
Local kids like Sam found good work at the theatre. Being an usher got you free movies and a chance to flirt with the concession girls and those who came “solo.” After movies there was pizza at the Den below the theatre. But among the ushers’ tasks was the very onerous one of changing the marquee. Jerry Nissen remembered:
First you had to do layout on paper what the marquee was to say. Then, working from the last letter in the last row, fill a heavy wooden box until you get to the first letter of the first row. The solid metal letters were stored in the basement and you hauled them up to the street. Now imagine, if you will, climbing a rickety old step ladder in the rain or snow and taking down the old message and then letter by letter placing the new message on the two-sided marquee. Brrrr, it used to get very cold. Also on occasion we were the targets of some nice vocal comments and snowballs coming from the T & C Tavern across the street.
DIY movies, 1915
Wheat and Tares (Penn Yan Film Corporation, 1915).
Penn Yan had theatres before the Elmwood went up. In the ‘00s and ‘10s Nat Sackett sang at Theatorum and another theatre, both owned by the Wickham brothers. For a time Nat took over ownership of them. Before Captain Morse built the Elmwood, he was showing movies at the old Sampson legitimate theatre, as well as in the Cornwell, located above a department store. The town apparently had four screens in 1911.
With so many films playing within a couple of blocks, it’s perhaps not surprising that a local businessman decided to make one of his own.
Edward R. Ramsey owned a local paper mill and a factory that manufactured electrical cable. The story goes that when Ramsey observed that Hollywood, California was buying a great deal of his cable, he decided to try moviemaking. Ramsey sold his cable plant and started the Penn Yan Film Corporation.
After making some shorts, Ramsey tied his first feature production to a fund-raising effort by Keuka College. The college’s aim was to provide advanced education to rural students who couldn’t to go to a big university. Ramsey’s film would demonstrate the virtues of going to college. All the talent was local, including the cameraman, who was Ramsey’s brother. From outside, Broadway actor and occasional film director George E. LeSoir was recruited to direct the show.
Shot in the summer of 1915, Wheat and Tares traces the story of two young men. Both Jim Watson and Will Beggs read dime novels, but Jim is encouraged by Alice Corwin, daughter of a Penn Yan businessman, to improve himself. Uplifted by literature, Jim leaves the farm for Keuka College. There he learns enough to become an auto salesman. At the same time, Will (who stuck to pulp fiction) falls in with a gang of layabouts and petty crooks. Their fates converge when Jim discovers oil. A crooked realtor hires Will to put Jim out of action long enough for the site option to expire. But Alice renews the option, and Jim’s family becomes rich. Meanwhile, Will’s life of crime catches up with him, and he is sentenced to a prison road gang. Jim and Alice, now married and with a child, stop when they see Will on the road. Jim vows to help his old friend go straight.
Despite its opening-night success at the Sampson playhouse, Wheat and Tares didn’t have legs. Keuka College closed in fall 1915 and didn’t reopen until 1921. Ed Ramsey died in an auto accident in June 1916. The film may have gotten no distribution outside the region. Stored in the Ramsey home, it was discovered decades later when the house was prepared for demolition. The film was transferred to safety stock and eventually to DVD. That’s the version I have seen.
In the moralizing manner of its day, the full title, Wheat and Tares: A Story of Two Boys who Tackle Life on Diverging Lines, contrasts the life paths of its two protagonists. A tare is a form of weed that infects a field of healthy wheat. Tares in their early stages look very much like wheat, so the metaphor implies that one must wait to see if a young man will turn out well or not. (The Biblical reference is a parable by Jesus, at Matthew 13: 34-35.)
The surviving copy of Wheat and Tares has lost its opening reel. What remains is a fairly ordinary 1915 film. The parallel stories of Jim and Will aren’t developed in tandem; we lose Will for most of the film. A great deal of the second reel is occupied with rich boys hazing Jim at college, which does teach him the manly art of self-defense, but to no special point: he doesn’t get to use his boxing skills later. Another undeveloped plot line involves a movie company filming in the vicinity.
Theme and plot don’t match very well. If you are trying to convince people that going to college will better them, why show your hero succeeding by stumbling onto an oil gusher? Jim would have been just as likely to find oil if he had stayed a sodbuster. The climax is particularly feeble: While Jim is recovering from the beating given him by Will and another thug, it’s Alice who saves the day. She does this not through extraordinary courage or sacrifice, but simply by having her father write a check that renews the option. The realtor, a very passive villain, does nothing, underhanded or otherwise, to block her maneuver.
Stylistically, you can hardly expect The Birth of a Nation, The Cheat, or Regeneration from this tiny Finger Lakes company. In most respects, the film resembles standard films of the period. Some filmmakers were exploiting the sort of crosscutting popularized by Griffith, but Ramsey and Le Soir take almost no advantage of it. There’s no fast cutting to pick up the pace. Most scenes are played in single shots, with close-ups used only to emphasize details, such as a deck of cards, that can’t be easily seen in the master framing. The closest shots of the principals occur during a phone conversation–again, a convention of the period.
Nor does the film exploit the sort of complicated staging we find in tableau cinema. There is one rather well-handled crowd shot, as well as a smooth track-in and-out when Will recruits a one-eyed thug to help him ambush Jim. Simple camera movements like this were by 1915 considered a fairly normal option.
There is an ambitious matte effect when Jim and his college chum Phil visit the movies, but even this fairly common device is somewhat bungled when the boys’ bodies become ghostly by crossing into the matte area.
Although Wheat and Tares exemplifies ordinary cinema of that day, like most films of the first great era of cinema it’s a pleasure to watch. Shooting on location yields spontaneous beauties. At one point Jim rides home on the trolley. In a film utterly lacking in calculated lighting effects, we get a lovely image. Not only do we see the town and wagons pass through windows, but after Will and his partner jump aboard, accidents of backlighting turn them into sinister shapes.
Trolley shots are among the glories of 1910s cinema; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad one.
Penn Yan must have been gorgeous then, with the main streets lined with elms.
The trees were felled by Dutch elm disease and other factors, I’m told.
As with any film shot in surroundings that you know, part of the fun comes in spotting familiar locales. John Creamer’s introduction juxtaposes some town landmarks. Here’s the Sampson Theatre, then and now.
Two locations that my sisters discovered pop up late in the film. For a chase, the camera was set up just around the corner from Ramsey’s house.
Ramsey’s house was demolished to add a building and a parking lot to the local hospital, but from that vantage point, we found the source of another shot. The camera was apparently set up in front of Ramsey’s home to frame Jim and Alice and their child in their chauffeur-driven Maxwell. The sidewalk in the foreground is gone, but the background area, including the fire hydrant, has stayed surprisingly constant.
And whatever the faults of Wheat and Tares, watching it gives you a glimpse of the entrance to Captain Morse’s Sampson Theatre (below). In the summer of 1915, Charlie Chaplin had sauntered into my home town. The show starts on the sidewalk, as they used to say.
I’m grateful to John and Lisa of the Yates County History Center for all their suggestions, for access to their files, and for the exterior photo up top and the shot of the Elmwood interior. You can read the local newspaper’s announcement of the Wheat and Tares premiere, with a teaser synopsis, here. Thanks also, of course, to Darlene and Diane. The picture of Penn Yan’s town hall was supplied by Darlene, whose photography site is here.
A DVD copy of Wheat and Tares is available for $15 from the Yates County History Center. You can email Lisa M. Harper, ycghs at yatespastdotorg, or call (315) 536-7318. Credit cards accepted.
The indispensable guide to the theatres in this region is Norman O. Keim’s Our Movie Houses: A History of Film and Cinematic Innovation in Central New York (University of Syracuse Press, 2008). You can read about the Schine chain there, or here.
Wheat and Tares is a prime example of an orphan film. Dan Streible of NYU is a moving force behind retrieving and restoring these elusive items, and a new Orphan Film Symposium is coming up in Amsterdam.
Wheat and Tares (1915). The sign on Charlie’s crotch reads” “Meet Me at the Sampson Program.”
Saul Steinberg, “Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Highbrow”; Harper’s Magazine, February 1949.
The 1940s was a golden age of American arts journalism. Apart from Edmund Wilson, who had been at it since the 1920s, poets Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, and W. H. Auden offered their thoughts on literature to a broad public, and so did the novelist Mary McCarthy. Professional critics included Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Irving Howe, and, near the end of the decade, Leslie Fiedler. Clement Greenberg reviewed art for The Nation and Harold Rosenberg did the same for Art News. Virgil Thomson wrote weekly music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune.
Securely anchored in East Coast publications, these critics put on display scathing wit and sibylline prose. Thomson wrote after a concert: “Both theatrical experience and poor eyesight are probably responsible for the Toscanini style.” Mary McCarthy skewered Cocteau’s play The Eagle has Two Heads:
Grandiloquent and lurid in the old-fashioned royalist mode, this story of a poet and a queen suggests that the attic of Cocteau’s mind was never as smart as the downstairs: a schoolgirl was there all along reading romances and trying on costumes.
This waspish, refined intelligence held the arts to high standards. Apart from Barzun’s open admiration for detective stories (but not those brutish tough-guy ones), almost nobody paid attention to mass culture. Indeed, most intellectuals were agreed that it was dangerous.
This wing of the New York intellectuals–made of gays, Greenwich Village Bohemians, immigrant-family Irish and Jews denied access to Ivy League colleges, left-leaning traitors to the upper class–was firmly on the side of modernism and against everything that made the Old Guard, the WASPS with three names like Van Wyck Brooks and Mark Van Doren, nervous. But they still had enough of the genteel tradition in them to treat great art with a stiff solemnity. The byword of Partisan Review, the principal platform of the artistic left, was Seriousness.
Enter James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. They wrote criticism with a zany gusto that nobody else imagined possible. They didn’t telegraph their punchlines; sometimes you couldn’t be sure that there was a punchline, and sometimes there seemed to be too many. As for popular culture: They seemed, with reservations, to like it a lot. They liked being unSerious, which only lent greater oomph to the moments when gravity was demanded.
Neither dead nor red
Stalin at the 18th Party Congress (1939) by Sergei Gerasmov.
In spite of all these defects you feel in the Soviet Union that you are at the moral top of the world where the light really never goes out.
Edmund Wilson, 1935
In the 1940s, every intellectual was expected to answer two questions. What do you think of Communism? What do you think of popular culture?
The Depression had convinced many writers and artists that only a version of left-wing politics could overcome the crisis induced by capitalism. The rise of Fascist parties around the world intensified the fear of right-wing dictatorships. To many intellectuals the Soviet Union seemed the best alternative, especially since its apologists assured the world that it was a democracy. But Stalin’s sweeping purge of 1934-1938, highlighted by the murderous charade of the Moscow trials, made many lose faith in the USSR. Soon came the 1939 non-aggression treaty between Russia and Germany, a sign that Stalin was ready to compromise with Nazism.
But dimming faith in the USSR didn’t automatically wipe out socialist ambitions. Apart from the Communists, who followed the Moscow line, there was a daunting array of left parties: Social Democrats, Socialists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party. Fine-grained differences in doctrine led to constant quarreling. Some intellectuals adhered to one line or another, but many hopped around or simply participated casually, agreeing to donate money or attend meetings or write an article without worrying about ideological consistency.
When the US entered World War II in 1941, many intellectuals saw it as a necessary step in destroying Fascism. Now that Russia was an American ally they often quieted their reservations about Stalin’s regime. At the war’s end, however, politicized intellectuals began to believe that history had proven them largely wrong. Business and labor had cooperated to defeat German and Japanese imperialism. Despite Marx’s predictions, capitalism had lifted the living standards of millions of people. The United States was comfortable as never before. American democracy, while imperfect, was still the best chance for mass participation in governance.
Smaller-scale reforms would always be needed, not least the recognition of equality for African Americans; and some form of democratic socialism might still be achieved. But on the whole, the American way of life seemed the best hope for the future. “The chief cultural phenomenon of the decade,” noted the poet John Berryman, “has probably been the intellectuals’ desertion of Marxism.” By 1952, Partisan Review declared that democracy was “not merely a capitalist myth but a reality which must be defended against Russian totalitarianism.”
Defending American democracy, however, didn’t include defending its popular culture.
Mass art as mass delusion
The Homecoming (1945) by Norman Rockwell.
There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting or degrading qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them.
Marshall McLuhan, 1947
Today, when everybody unselfconsciously finds something to like in the entertainment industry, it’s hard to imagine the climate seventy years ago. Then there was a Serious debate about whether mass media were simply machines of social control. From Communists to anti-Communists, the intelligentsia was largely united in the belief that “mass culture” was at best a bland source of solace and at worst a cruel manipulator of the desires of an unhappy populace. Many very smart people considered Laura, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and Mickey Spillane novels the signs of a society sinking into comfortable degradation.
Already during the 1930s, left intellectuals had worried that mainstream entertainment in the US was corrupt. Not only was the working class victimized by its rulers, but it was fed junk. The most influential articulation of this view was probably Clement Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. According to Greenberg, the great age of modern art, from the 1910s to the early 1930s, had showed the power of self-conscious formal experiment. Cubist painting, the novels of Joyce and Gide, the poetry of Eliot—all had challenged the audience to expand its horizons. But to this avant-garde there was counterposed a rear guard, a debased and easy art that produces “unreflective enjoyment.” Greenberg didn’t spare the Soviet Union from his complaint: Stalin’s Socialist Realism had created its own version of kitsch, in the cinema no less than in other arts.
Greenberg’s article was followed by many others, notably Dwight Macdonald’s 1943 essay “A Theory of ‘Popular Culture.’” The common complaint was that now high art was more threatened than ever before by the rising tide of kitsch. For many intellectuals, it wasn’t just that popular music, comic books, movies, and pulp romances were bad art. They were bad in a dehumanizing way, turning people into more or less mindless consumers of a collective daydream. Mass culture, as it was usually called, was a huge threat to intellectual diversity and political progress. Conseratives and newly anti-Communist liberals turned their firepower on the products of Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and the magazines and paperbacks filling the corner drugstore. For many, political criticism became cultural criticism, with a strongly moralistic tint.
The all-engulfing flood of mass media required analysis, reflection, and judgment. How best to understand it? Some writers, following Greenberg’s strategy, used arguments about the achievements of the avant-garde to lambaste mass culture. Others drew on psychoanalysis, which was becoming more prominent in American life. Soon writers were claiming that a whole society had a superego and repressed impulses, and the seething roil of a nation’s inner life was reflected in popular culture.
Social scientists began commenting as well. Anthropologists turned their observational technique on American culture, and sociologists sought to use media to understand the group dynamics of wartime and postwar society. Other academics, brandishing the tools of what was emerging as “mass communication research,” tried to sample and measure the collective delusions promoted on the radio or the movie screen. Émigrés associated with the Frankfurt School merged these strategies with large doses of post-Hegelian philosophy. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) seemed to propose that American capitalism had turned audiences into chortling morons.
Stuck in the middle with Middlebrow
Harper’s Magazine (August, 1967).
Several of these writers had decided by the mid-1940s that Greenberg’s straightforward opposition avant-garde/ kitsch was too broad. A four-part model seemed more adequate for describing cultural activity.
There was Folk Art, a genuine and spontaneous product of the people. Amish furniture, Appalachian folk songs, and black spirituals would be examples. Some observers included jazz and the blues as well. The Folk artists went about their business unbothered by other trends.
There was Highbrow Art, exemplified by the modernist avant-garde, past (Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Stravinsky, Picasso, et al.) and present (perhaps best exemplified in Abstract Expressionist painting).
Then there was Lowbrow art, the anonymous products of the culture industry—radio shows, mystery and romance fiction, pop music, and most movies.
And there was something called Middlebrow Art. The term had become fairly common in the 1930s, and 1940s commentators spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what it described.
Certainly, it involved class. If High Art was consumed by the Bohemians—other artists, museum curators and concert performers, young rebels, and above all college professors and students—Middlebrow Art was aimed at the middle classes, the professional people who aspired to join the sophisticated crowd. The Middlebrows put reproductions of Renoir on their walls, Tchiakovsky symphonies on their turntables, and expensive, unread editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets on their coffee tables alongside Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly.
Most critics agreed that the Middlebrow impulse poached on other realms. There was pseudo-folk Middlebrow art like WPA murals, Carmen Jones, and “Rhapsody in Blue.” More annoyingly, Middlebrow artwork swiped ideas and techniques from High Art, then sanded off the spiky edges in order to attract an untrained audience. Dwight Macdonald invoked Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed Brechtian theatrical techniques to tell a jes’-folks tale, and The Old Man and the Sea, a simplification of Hemingway’s faux-naïve style ready-made for the Book of the Month Club. Middlebrow made crude art smooth, hard art easy.
True, the new media had disseminated the great achievements of the past more widely than ever before. Recordings and broadcasts of classical music, films about painting and theatre, radio and magazine discussions of art and literature were now part of everyday life in America. Faulkner and Joyce were available in cheap editions. But this greater accessibility didn’t guarantee understanding. According to legend, after finishing Fantasia, Disney exclaimed, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven!” The same film turned Stravinsky’s ritual of virgin sacrifice into a battle of dinosaurs.
Nervous about falling out of style, the Middlebrow mind tried to keep up with the contemporary avant-garde. A Lowbrow magazine would simply ignore Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or (if it was Mad) satirize them. By contrast, Life’s famous 1949 profile of the artist anxiously responds to the challenge of Highbrow taste. Pollock is “a shining new phenomenon of American art” and may become “the greatest American painter of the century.” Yet there’s no attempt to explain why his work is significant. The work’s value is appraised in cash terms (one painting is worth $100 a foot) and the results are mocked, timidly. Against the critics’ praise is set the verdict of the common man. “He has also won a following among his own neighbors in the village of Springs, N.Y., who amuse themselves by trying to decide what his paintings are about. His grocer bought one which he identifies for bewildered visiting salesmen as an aerial view of Siberia.” Life has hedged its bets (he might be great) while allowing a reader to say, “Aw, hell, my kid could paint that.”
For such reasons, many intellectuals decided that while Lowbrow culture was a danger, the real foe was Middlebrow culture. The 1952 Partisan Review symposium identified the threat: “Do you think that American middlebrow culture has grown more powerful in this decade? In what relation does this middlebrow tendency stand to serious writing—does it threaten it or bolster it?” If Lowbrow culture ignores High Art, the Middlebrow betrays it.
There were obvious problems with conceiving Mass Culture as a united front of Lowbrow and Middlebrow. What about the great popular arts of earlier eras? Dickens, Poe, Tolstoy, Twain, and many others taken as High Artists today wrote for popular audiences. What in our age prevented a widely beloved play or painting or novel from being good, even great? Then there was the issue of bad faith, as Auden noted: “Whenever the word Masses is used, we must read the words ‘myself in weaker moments.’”
Hollywood: The worst of Low and Middle
Rainbow (1944): The Nazi invader threatens to kill Olga’s baby.
At the core of mass culture lay Hollywood movies. T. S. Eliot had already denounced “the encroachment of the cheap and rapid-breeding cinema,” and by the 1940s no American could ignore films.
They were everywhere. Although Hollywood cut back production somewhat during the war years, many shows were double features, and most theatres changed their bills twice a week. Hits were revived and recirculated. In cities energized by war work, some theatres ran twenty-four hours a day. Now that people had more money to spend, attendance hit new levels. In this age before television, 85 to 90 million Americans, about 60 % of the population, went to the movies each week. Today, it’s around 25 million per week, out of a much bigger population.
The mass media carried synergy and recycling to a new level. A novel (published in hardback, reprinted in paperback) could become a movie (promoted in magazines, with product tie-ins), then a radio show. The cult of stars grew, with popular actors constantly visible on billboards and in magazine ads. After Gone with the Wind, a bestseller like The Robe or Forever Amber stirred frantic anticipation of the movie to come. Producers bought books before publication, and studios commissioned books and plays to be written so they could be turned into movies.
What was a poor intellectual to do? Back in the 1920s the critic Gilbert Seldes had championed slapstick comedy as a mixture of Folk Art and quasi-avant-garde challenges to genteel taste. But that was before Hollywood had turned filmmaking into a factory driven by finance capital and pumping out formulaic stories. After Griffith, Chaplin, and von Stroheim—the touchstones for all intellectuals interested in film—there was little to like in the studio product. The foreign film had provided Caligari, other fine German films, and Soviet masterworks, above all Potemkin; but the rise of Nazism and Stalinism had stamped out those creative impulses. At the end of the 1930s, Dwight Macdonald had denounced Stalin’s cinema as a form of kitsch at least as sinister as Hollywood’s.
Western intellectuals had no access to production in the Axis or Axis-dominated countries, and they were hard pressed to find much to admire in current American cinema. Some tried to study the Hollywood film as a reflection of the American character or social anxieties or certain persistent myths of romance and getting rich. But with few exceptions, the product of the studios was unrewarding as art. What wasn’t Lowbrow belonged firmly to the Middle (Wilson, The White Cliffs of Dover, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives).
After the war, André Bazin and other French critics would start to forge an aesthetic of the Hollywood sound cinema, but American writers did not think so abstractly. Agee, Farber, and Tyler worked more pragmatically to search out cinematic creativity in their time. All shared a trust in the Standard Story of the evolution of film art, from Griffith through the silent masters to René Clair in the early sound era. Yet they weren’t hobbled by nostalgia; they reacted with immediacy to the cinema of their moment.
They set themselves apart from the larger debates of their age by shrewd flanking strategies. For a start, they by and large avoided declaring political allegiance. Agee once declared himself a Communist “by sympathy and temperament” but in the next breath attacked the worker-idolatry of Soviet propaganda. Farber had, according to reports, tried to sign up in the Communist Party in the 1930s, but he doesn’t seem to have joined the print polemics on any side. Tyler seems to have been non-aligned as well, although he indulged in occasional caustic asides about Hollywood’s social commitment. He noted of Meet John Doe‘s purported celebration of democracy, “At this point in planetary affairs, American democracy becomes the theoretical right to hold a job and vote every four years for a new president.”
Although Agee and Farber wrote for left-liberal publications, they often went out of their way to support films that would be considered retrograde. In a famous review, at the height of American solidarity with the Soviet defense of the homeland, Farber charged the Russian war film The Rainbow (1944) with naked cruelty. He also declared Birth of a Nation, despite its prejudices, the greatest film yet made.
Likewise, all three detoured almost completely around the Mass Culture controversy. You can find some snobbish asides about Middlebrow culture here and there (later Farber charged that Agee was a middlebrow critic), and Agee and Tyler did flirt with calling some Hollywood films folk art. Basically, though, they didn’t fight on that terrain. Agee spoke out against the “priggishness” of social scientists’ critiques of thrillers like The Big Sleep. Perhaps these movies did “mirror” society, he admitted, but denunciation of American cinema as social symptoms missed the fact that such films were “relatively intelligent, accurate at least to something in the world, and entertaining.”
I realize also that on its most careful level, as practiced by Dr. Siegfried Kracauer or Barbara Deming, this sort of analysis is of interest and value, dubious as I am about a good deal of it. But to me the most sinister thing that happened during the movie year  was just this kind of analysis.
He was worried that these bleak cultural diagnoses were being seized upon by “club women and the nastier kinds of church pressure groups.” On all the evidence I’ve seen, Farber and Tyler would have agreed.
Culture in the totally administered society
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
If under present conditions we cannot stop the ruthless expansion of mass-culture, the least we can do is keep apart and refuse its favors.
Philip Rahv, 1952
More generally, all three critics seemed to understand that the best way to show that American cinema had artistic dimensions was to present their case in precise, urgent, sometimes giddy prose. They were connoisseurs, making distinctions and discriminations of fine degree. And they found God, or the Devil, in details. In mounting those lines of defense, they risked condemnation by the most intellectually intimidating critic of the culture industry, Theodor W. Adorno.
Adorno believed that in modern times, true art could only present itself as opposed to easy reception. As a Marxist, he held that economic processes—the division of labor, the obliteration of use value by exchange value, among other factors—made the harmony sought by classic art impossible. For hundreds of years art works participated in a market system, and even the very greatest achievements could bear the traces of social strain. (One Adorno article is titled “Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Alienated Masterpiece.”) Traditionally, an artwork aimed for totality, but today the true artist can express only the inability to achieve harmony. Art’s value lies “in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity.” The formal dissonance of the artwork reveals its refusal to reconcile itself to capitalist demands. Some modernist art, such as Schoenberg’s atonal pieces and Kafka’s novels, achieved this refusal, but even much avant-garde music, painting, and literature fell short of registering the strains of contemporary life.
The culture industry, as characterized in Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, becomes the ultimate expression of capitalist rationality. As companies crank out commodities, Hollywood, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley pump out synthetic art works. Mass art’s smooth surfaces are a grotesque parody of the unity struggled for by the great artists of the past. Form and content are harmonized in an ersatz, conformist way. Neither avant-garde nor classic art, the standardized mass-marketed products offer no resistance to easy pickup. The music “does the listening for the listener.” Virtually by definition, the entertainment industry couldn’t create art of value.
This is too brief an account of the culture-industry thesis, but two points are especially relevant to our film critics. Adorno argues that the popular artwork concentrates not on the whole but the part. Classic artists struggled to find a unity specific to each piece, but mass culture has made overall formats—the three-act play, the formulaic movie plot, the pop song—so generic that the only strong effects arise from isolated moments. An arresting plot twist or a sudden chord change stands out and has a brief impact. But by slotting itself into the set pattern, the little jolt simply confirms the validity of the prefabricated format.
But surely there are major differences among these products? No two pop songs or movie melodramas are identical, and new styles or formats emerge from time to time. Here comes the second point. Adorno claims that the differences we detect are fake. Each product of mass culture is “pseudo-individualized.”
For one thing, the innovations are still very limited; jazz, Adorno wrote in 1941, is confined by its harmonic and metric schemes. Moreover, even innovation tends to confirm the standardized format. “The constant need to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions.” He suggests that in jazz, a “wrong” note is registered momentarily as a fresh detail but the listener’s ear immediately corrects it. As for film:
Orson Welles is forgiven all his offences against the usages of the craft because, as calculated rudeness, they confirm the validity of the system all the more zealously.
There’s no escape. Just as an automobile or a breakfast cereal uses trivial differences to stand out from the competition, so too do songs and stories. Forms are formulas, novelties are minor and fleeting, and any deviations confirm the norm. Our three critics, by distinguishing subtly between this film and that, often on the basis of scenes or details, have fallen into the mass-culture trap.
It’s easy to call this position humorless (no gags in genuine art) and elitist (“Everyone’s a sucker but me”) and to insist that those who write favorably about mass culture are on the side of right, i.e., the People. But this is just labeling. What if Adorno and Horkheimer’s diagnosis is correct?
In my experience, there’s no arguing with Culture-Industry accounts like this on their own terms. Point to a film that exhibits what you take to be rich form, and the skeptic will say: “Call that complex? It’s just a variant on the same old thing.” Point to a ripe detail in a scene, and you’ll be told it’s just pseudo-differentiation. If Ulysses and Schoenberg’s Erwartung are your prime examples of valid art, His Girl Friday isn’t going to measure up—let alone Rhapsody Rabbit.
Going further, Kristin and Janet Staiger and I tried to show in The Classical Hollywood Cinema that film production can’t be standardized to the degree that high-output manufacture is. It’s an error to consider Hollywood an “assembly-line” system. No two movies are as much alike as two Fords rolling off the line at River Rouge. Hollywood employs an artisanal mode of production, in which each worker adds something distinctive to the result, and the “product” is a complex blend of overlapping and crisscrossing contributions. Marx called this mode of production “serial manufacture.” Instead of rigid standardization, differentiation in various degrees is at the base of the system, and all of those differences aren’t blueprinted via central command.
Another difficulty comes, I think, when we recognize just how stringent are Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s standards for valuable art. The bar is set excruciatingly high. “Telling a story,” Adorno noted in 1954, “means having something special to say, and that is precisely what is prevented by the administered world, by standardization and eternal sameness.” So fresh and authentic stories are impossible? Most of us aren’t prepared to narrow our experience so drastically.
More theoretically, Adorno’s insistence that the true modern artwork must be sui generis, related to tradition only in labyrinthine dialectical ways, seems to me implausible. It puts him close to Croce’s view that each artwork is irreducibly unique. By contrast, I’d argue that art works good or bad, classic or avant-garde, owe a great deal, and quite openly, to norms, styles, genres, and other traditions. It doesn’t take anything away from modernism’s bold innovations to recognize that in many cases artists like Joyce, Picasso, Woolf, Conrad, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg “took the next step” beyond the state of play at the time. Where does radical change shade off into pseudo-differentiation?
It will also come as news to Orson Welles that Hollywood “forgave all his offenses.”
Toward a criticism of popular art
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
If you like to keep warm in your neighborhood theatre these days or have to review movies for a living, you can find something good in any film.
Manny Farber, 1946
Did Agee, Farber, or Tyler read Adorno or Horkheimer? Dialectic of Enlightenment wasn’t translated into English until 1972, but the Frankfurt School’s ideas were circulating in their milieu. (Adorno’s 1941 piece on popular music influenced Macdonald’s “Theory of ‘Popular Culture’” essay.) In any case, my three critics outflanked the mass-culture debates through simply diving, quite self-consciously, into popular material—something very few intellectuals were willing to do. Their sensitivity to nuance and detail carried a force that we seldom find in the Frankfurt School writers.
Plunging into the material had a particular importance at this moment. During the 1940s, criticism became technical to a degree never seen before. I haven’t found any piece by Adorno and Horkheimer that troubles to analyze closely a single product of the culture industry. Writing on Mahler or Berg, Adorno gets more concrete, but he never dismantles a simple jitterbug tune. As “social philosophers” rather than critics, he works at a level of generality that exempts him from looking closely. This refusal stands out in contrast to what was happening in the American artworld of the time.
Most apparent was the flourishing of the New Criticism in literary studies. During the 1930s Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others in America had picked up ideas of “close reading” from England. Those ideas were disseminated to universities across America in Brooks and Warren’s 1938 textbook Understanding Poetry and its successor Understanding Fiction (1943). Literary history, the survey of authors and their times, was being displaced by the scrutiny of a single poem or story as an isolated work. In calling his time “an age of criticism,” Randall Jarrell complained that this craze for technical analysis was sapping the energies of both poets and critics, but it has maintained its hold as a model of how to understand literature.
Something comparable was happening in criticism of the visual arts with vivacious descriptions of painters’ strategies. Earle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition (1943), for example, revealed large-scale principles of design underlying paintings that sometimes seemed a jumble of colors and planes. In the context of weekly reviewing, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, and others probed details of color and paint handling. Farber, in his guise as art critic, can be positively fussy in anatomizing the layout of a Léger and the candy-box spectrum of a Chagall.
Musicology, long geared to rigorous analysis, was finding new layers of patterning in both classic and modern works. Heinrich Schenker’s formalism of earlier decades provided a basis for this inquiry. The rise of various musical avant-gardes employing complex compositional procedures, as in serialism, demanded ever more sharply focused studies of form. While Adorno and Hanns Eisler were denouncing kitsch music in film soundtracks, musicologists were dissecting Objective Burma!, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Best Years of Our Lives, and other scores.
I’m not arguing that our three critics conducted such microscopic analysis of movies, though Tyler, operating at a book-length stretch, probably comes closest. But they do burrow into the fine grain of American films to an unprecedented degree. For example, Agee, when he started writing his Nation column in 1942, declared that he would “feel no apology for whatever my eyes tell me.” Here he is praising Huston for a moment in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Treasure’s intruder is killed by bandits; the three prospectors come to identify the man they themselves were on the verge of shooting. Bogart, the would-be tough guy, cocks one foot up on a rock and tries to look at the corpse as casually as if it were fresh-killed game. Tim Holt, the essentially decent young man, comes past behind him and, innocent and unaware of it, clasps his hands as he looks down, in the respectful manner of a boy who used to go to church. Walter Huston, the experienced old man, steps quietly behind both, leans to the dead man as professionally as a doctor to a patient and gently rifles him for papers.
Thanks to steady looking, Agee can argue that the film has a novelistic power to delineate character, but without words, just through framing and physical action—in other words, through the “clean, direct” expression that Otis Ferguson had thought characterized American studio cinema. That conciseness finds its echo in Agee’s style, which packs characterizing details into adjectives and homely metaphors; one phrase, “a boy who used to go to church,” sketches a man’s life history.
Just as the New Critics punctured gas-filled generalizations about poetry by exposing the nuances of syntax and metaphor, Agee, Farber, and Tyler provide, in a roundabout way, an answer to the critics of mass culture. Through their precision of observation and the contagious enthusiasm of their rhetoric, they showed that blanket denunciations of entertainment missed areas of vitality and creativity, tendencies toward expressive form and emotional force. Sometimes those accomplishments fit the canons of high art, sometimes not. And at moments these critics trace an aesthetic specific to the Hollywood sound cinema.
Not all intellectuals condemned the culture industry utterly. The sociologist David Riesman argued that modern mass culture housed a great many levels, each with its own criteria and artistic ambitions. He dared to claim that there was good art at every level. Moreover, he suggested, the audience was often more aware of the qualities on display than the critics were. In a gesture that anticipates today’s academic study of fandom, Riesman proposed:
The various mass audiences are not so manipulated as often supposed: they fight back, by refusing to “understand,” by selective interpretation, by apathy. Conformity there surely is, but we cannot assume its existence from the standardization of the commodities themselves (in many instances a steadily diminishing standardization) without knowledge of how individuals and groups interpret the commodities and endow them with meanings.
Individuals and groups used media products in a variety of ways, Riesman claimed. The individual’s peer groups might even set up taste structures that could run against the ones offered by media industries. Jazz aficionados, both amateurs and critics, discerned styles and genres not acknowledged by the record companies. In a quiet knock on the High Art standards of literary academics, he suggests that “taste exchange” among fans and critics constitute “the Newer Criticism.” He might almost have been talking about the Internet.
Or, in another way, about my three writers. If we think of Agee, Farber, and Tyler scooping out of mass art something that they could defend, we might consider each a “peer group” of one. They undertook to test their own personal histories and “taste structures” against the churn of commercial cinema. What they devised, suitably sharpened by the pressure of their writing styles, were three idiosyncratic versions of a Newer Criticism.
This series continues here.
In preparing this entry, I’ve benefited from conversations with my colleague Jeff Smith and my long-time friend Noël Carroll, whose Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford University Press, 1998) reviews many of the issues here.
A good introduction to the “cultural left” of the 1930s and 1940s is James Burkhart Gilbert, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Modernism in America (Columbia University Press, 1993). My Edmund Wilson epigraph comes from page 88. In Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), Paul R. Gorman traces trends of 1930s and 1940s cultural critique back to earlier decades. Macdonald’s 1938-39 attack on Stalinist cinema is reprinted, with strategic alterations, in Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969), 191-249.
I’ve emphasized what we might call the Partisan Review cohort of New York intellectuals, but there were others. Peter Decherney (in Hollywood and the Culture Elite) and Dana Polan (Scenes of Instruction) have documented the emergence of a more academic, largely East Coast, film culture during the 1920s and 1930s.
Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is available online here, and in printed form in Collected Essays and Criticism vol. I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22. Dwight Macdonald’s essay on mass culture was revised and expanded twice, but the one I refer to is the original, “A Theory of ‘Popular culture,’” Politics 1, 1 (February 1944), 20-23. An earlier and seminal defense of popular culture is Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts (Dover, 2001). (I discuss him here.) My quotation of McLuhan comes in “Inside Blake and Hollywood,” Sewanee Review 55, 4 (October-December 1947), 715.
A widely-read satiric account of the Brows is Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper’s Magazine 198, 2 (February 1949), 19-28. The Saul Steinberg illustration up top prefaces that essay. Lynes offered a followup in “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow Reconsidered,” Harper’s Monthly 216, 8 (August 1967), 16-20; I’ve taken the other cartoon illustration from that piece. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (Free Press, 1957) remains a useful collection of 1940s pieces. Interestingly, a 1945 article by Theodore Strauss declared both Agee and Farber highbrow critics writing “over-complicated” prose. See “No Jacks, No Giant-Killers,” The Screen Writer I, 1 (June 1945): 7; here.
The quotations from Adorno come from Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Englightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford University Press, 2002), 102, 103; Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 17-48; and Adorno, “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Sherry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press 1991), 31. See also Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 290-304; Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (1947).
For one example of the painter acting as “producer” heading a studio of craftsmen, see Peter van den Brink, ed., Brueghel Enterprises (Ludion, 2001). Glancing through the ten variants of Breughel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs that were churned out by his son’s studio (pp. 59-79), the reader might ask how to distinguish this process from the “pseudo-differentiation” Adorno and Horkheimer attribute to the modern culture industry. Remarkably, it seems likely that the son never saw the father’s original work but rather worked from a sketch the father left behind–a shooting script, we might say.
Not all Marxist philosophers of art were as stringent as Adorno. See, for example, Arnold Hauser, “Can Movies Be ‘Profound’?” Partisan Review 15, 1 (January 1948), 69-73. Hauser says yes.
Randall Jarrell’s objections to the technical bent of New Criticism are formulated in his 1952 essay, “The Age of Criticism,” in Poetry and the Age (Vintage, 1953), 63-86. For an influential example of the sort of analysis that arose from new compositional procedures in music, see René Liebowitz, Schoenberg and His School, trans. Dika Newlin (Philosophical Library, 1949). Analyses of film scores include Lawrence Morton, “The Music of ‘Objective Burma’,” Hollywood Quarterly 1, 4 (July 1946), 378-395; Frederick Sternfeld’s “The Strange Music of Martha Ivers,” Hollywood Quarterly 2, 3 (April 1947), 242-251 and “Music and the Feature Films,” Musical Quarterly 33, 4 (October 1947), 517-532, on The Best Years of Our Lives.
Nearly all material I’ve mentioned by James Agee and Manny Farber comes from their Library of America collections (here and here). Agee’s remark about being sort of a Communist is made in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Ballantine Books, 1960), 225. I’d also recommend Agee’s “Pseudo-Folk,” Partisan Review 11, 2 (Spring 1944), 219-222. Incidentally, the sooner The Nation, The New Leader, The New Republic, and Partisan Review are digitized, the better for understanding American cultural history. My quotation from Tyler about democracy and Meet John Doe is in The Hollywood Hallucination, 185.
The gods of Irony have a good time. Norman Rockwell, the very embodiment of kitsch for the 1940s mass-culture critics, has enjoyed a rehabilitation as a “serious” artist. The most recent sally is Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Christopher Bentley provides an enlightening review.
For an account of the theory of sound cinema developed by Bazin and his peers, see Chapter 3 of my On the History of Film Style.
Life (8 August 1949).
Today what a film critic hollered, or murmured, or didn’t say at all, at an awards dinner can get more publicity than the prizes the directors and stars won on the occasion. The very top critics can become media celebrities. They hang out with filmmakers, curate at museums, sit on festival juries, teach at universities, and get interviewed on TV and the Net. When they die, they may get cloudbursts of appreciation; Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert received more elegies and memoirs than most departed filmmakers do. Few film critics probably count as “public intellectuals,” but most have greater visibility outside their sphere of expertise than, say, critics of painting or music do. And filmwise people read critics not to find out about this or that movie, but to enjoy a “personal voice.”
It wasn’t always so.
The film critic as superstar
Movie criticism ascended definitively into the world of letters during the 1960s. In earlier decades, writers like Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Graham Greene had tried their hand at film pieces, but their fame was already established in other domains. In the 1960s, though, Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, and a host of others treated film reviewing as not merely a report on current releases but an occasion for a display of the writer’s sensibility. Still others, like Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, and Susan Sontag, wrote about the arts generally, but their fame depended heavily on what they said about movies.
“I read X,” people started to say, “not because I care much about current films but because s/he is such a good writer, such an interesting person.” (Bosley Crowther, eternal Straw Man who wrote for the Times, did not come off as a charismatic dynamo.) A new picture’s release became less the object of judgment than the springboard for critical high dives, weekly or monthly or quarterly performances of verbal bravado and conceptual risk-taking. Film criticism began to host a cult of personality, even a kind of elite branding.
There’s no denying that in all the spite, vanity, teacup tempests, and conceptual confusions of the era there were still some long-lasting critical achievements. I suggest a couple of them here and here. My point is just that these 1960s writers showed that journalistic film criticism could be as idiosyncratic and intimate as the writing of, say, Bernard Shaw on music and theatre. And you could gain fans and fame solely as a critic; you wouldn’t have to write Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
If I had to pick one pivot-point for the beginning of this new age, I’d choose 16 May 1955. On that day James Agee had a fatal heart attack in a New York cab. Two years later A Death in the Family was published. Despite being unfinished, the novel won enormous praise and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Agee’s renewed fame led to the publication of Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments in 1958. The collection revealed that a man of letters who was largely unappreciated by the literary establishment during his lifetime had spent precious creative years, week in and week out, reviewing movies for both a highbrow liberal weekly, The Nation, and, more surprisingly, Time (anonymously).
Suddenly people recognized that a magazine column passing judgment on the week’s releases could conceivably display graceful style and probing thought. The book boasted a 1944 blurb in which W. H. Auden called Agee’s column “newspaper work of permanent literary value” and “the most remarkable regular event in journalism today.” A review of Agee on Film in the New York Times declared that Agee’s fierce love for cinema “gave him a deeper insight into the nature of the movie medium, in esse and in posse, than any other American with the possible exception of Gilbert Seldes.” The Saturday Review reached higher. “He was the best movie critic this country has ever had.”
There’s no knowing how many teenagers and twentysomethings read and reread that fat paperback with its blaring red cover. We wolfed it down without knowing most of the movies Agee discussed. We were held, I think, by the rolling lyricism of the sentences, the pawky humor, and the stylistic finish of certain pieces—the three-part essay on Monsieur Verdoux, the Life piece “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” the John Huston profile “Undirectable Director.” The adolescent fretfulness that put some critics off didn’t give us qualms; after all, we were unashamedly reading Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, and Salinger too. Some of us probably wished that we could some day write this way, and this well.
The timing of the collection was good. The status of film criticism in the 1960s was being boosted by intellectuals’ interest in movies. More people were going to college, and some of them were drawn to foreign imports (Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Godard et al.) and young American cinema (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, etc.). Such unusual movies demanded commentary, even debate. This was the moment that made the movie review or the longish think-piece into a vehicle of serious writing and thinking. Agee on Film became the model for similar collections by Kael (I Lost It at the Movies, 1965, made her reputation), Sarris, Simon, Macdonald, Kauffmann, and many more writers. Published by trade presses in surprising bulk, these items now sell online for prices of $.01 and somewhat above.
The shock of the old
That steady stream of cut-and-paste collections swept two other 1940s pioneers back into view. Parker Tyler had been writing voluminously throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and he published a collection in the wake of Agee’s: The Three Faces of the Film (1960). There followed another gathering, Sex Psyche Etcetera in the Film (1969). More important was the 1970 reprinting of Tyler’s first two movie books: The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947).
Like Tyler, Mannny Farber had continued writing about film after the war years, and he gathered several pieces from that later period into Negative Space (1971). Neither Tyler nor Farber would probably have returned to fame without the canonization, in at least two senses, of Agee. Their honored predecessor, Otis Ferguson, had been killed in the war, but the film book boom revived his reputation as well, with his collected reviews appearing in 1971.
These anthologies revealed that these writers had done great things. In 1940 Agee was thirty-one and Farber was twenty-four. Their youth, I think, made them plucky enough to try to think boldly about commercial cinema in America. Tyler, the oldest, was thirty-six, but he had not lost the impertience that made him call himself, during his earliest days in New York, The Beautiful Poet Parker Tyler.
Neither highbrow nor lowbrow (nor middlebrow), neither pure journalists nor Algonquin intellectuals, they created a daredevil criticism that remains audacious and dazzling. We have here three guys who smuggled themselves into the literati without becoming pale versions of Edmund Wilson.
Each of the trio displayed a fine intelligence trained in the high arts, particularly modernist trends. Yet each detoured around the current debates on mass culture and plunged directly into the stuff itself, unashamed. Each man taught his readers to see things in movies that more serious intellectuals missed. Each cultivated a writing style that evoked a sharply etched personality. And each strategically lapsed into rhapsodic, occasionally nutty outbursts unlike anything on offer from their staid contemporaries.
Tyler started earliest, with a 1940 review of Rebecca and Blondie on a Budget for the Surrealist View, and he kept going there and in other magazines and in three books. In late 1941 Agee wrote his first review for Time, and he became a regular contributor in 1942; later that year he began his stint at The Nation. In 1942 as well Farber started covering film for The New Republic. Both continued through the decade. By the time Agee died he had largely given up film criticism, but Farber and Tyler kept publishing into the 1970s.
Agee and Farber were high-end journalists, while Tyler practiced belles lettres in the pages of art journals and little magazines. Their styles were sharply different, as were their tastes. Agee and Farber had a butch swagger (“virile” and “tough” recur), while Tyler offered what he called later “the straight face of high camp” and wrote “tongue stiff in cheek.” But they had a lot in common too.
For one thing, all were polymaths. Agee was a poet, novelist, screenwriter, and author of one of the landmark books of the 1940s, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Farber, while writing reviews and working as a carpenter, eventually made a career as a painter. Tyler wrote poetry, a scandalous experimental novel about gay life, and essays and books on the arts.
At the same time, all were cinephiles from their earliest years. They knew the Standard Story of film history, recently traced at length in Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film (1939). Their canon was, by today’s standards, very cramped. Always the same Museum of Modern Art touchstones and Manhattan revival fodder: Griffith (for some shorts and Birth of a Nation), the silent clowns (Chaplin above all), Caligari, Potemkin (sometimes Earth), and René Clair’s Italian Straw Hat and his early sound pictures. Yet the critics agreed that however great the classics remained, and however terrible contemporary Hollywood could be, there were extraordinary things to be found in new releases.
Beauty, in flashes
The Story of G. I. Joe (1945).
What sorts of things? Beautiful things. These critics seem to me aesthetes pursuing modern beauty, though from various angles. Agee was a Romantic, Farber a post-Cezanne modernist, Tyler an avant-garde dandy in the Wilde-Cocteau tradition. Their attitudes had been well-established in the sacred precincts of literature and painting but hadn’t made their way to the criticism of mass art.
Moreover, the three critics understood that movies stretched the standards and premises of high art. Most critics thought that you couldn’t talk about Cary Grant in aesthetic terms; these three understood that you could, if you favored criteria like liveliness, poignancy, force, and arresting details. Most intellectuals couldn’t recognize art in mass-market movies because Hollywood had redefined what artistry was. In some cases it had taken creativity beyond art, into a realm that Tyler called “hallucination.”
The beauty that these three disclosed was often merely glimpsed. All believed that parts sometimes superseded wholes. Most movies lacked the formal unity of expression of classic art. Instead of finding this worrisome, they found it exhilarating. Each one was alert to momentary diversions, odd spots, places where something unpredictable seemed to leak in around the cracks.
The idea that Hollywood movies sometimes yielded fugitive moments of truth wasn’t uncommon in the period. Barbara Deming, looking for symptoms of American malaise, suggested that actors “scuffed in” a tangible reality of behavior and voice that couldn’t be manufactured, and Dwight Macdonald conceded that the system sometimes turned out films with moments of “vitality.”
Vitality was precious to my threesome too, but they probed further. They suggested that a good part of the artistry, or at least the fascination, of popular movies lies exactly in those details or plot turns or performance bits or throwaway compositions. The vagrant items might enrich the action, or detour it. They might, Farber and Agee thought, be willed by the directors and actors, yielding flashes of diversion or glimpses of real life.
These actors produce some light, whimsical effects which are generally minor as far as making the plot any more significant, but they are the most intriguing parts of the film and were generally intended by the director (Farber on The Mask of Dimitrios).
[The film includes] purely “meaningless” bits—such as a shot in which Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) sits by the road while some soldiers straggle past—which have as great meaning as anything could have, being as immediate and as unlimited by thought or prejudice as what the eye might see on the spot, in a casual glance (Agee on The Story of G. I. Joe).
For Tyler, the blooming pleasures could also be inadvertent.
The voice [is] an independent actor, an element that, as with all Hollywood components, refuses to be completely absorbed into the artistic mesh and creates a little theater of its own.
He thought that most films lurched from moment to striking moment, leaving piquant dissonances behind. “Crevices,” he called them.
Faults = beauties
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).
These critics accordingly recast one of the conventions of film reviewing: the rhetoric of faults and beauties. Everybody knows the trick. This moment is rather nice, but that one falls flat…. The dullness of the affair is alleviated by a flash of comedy by a young woman we hope to see more of….Brilliant as it is, the film suffers from a certain stiffness… Unless you’re writing a hatchet job, you must dose your praise with some vinegar, and you must dilute your severity with a few compliments.
Our three critics turn faults-and-beauties criticism to fresh purposes. Agee uses it to whip himself into loops of intemperate indecision. Writing up Till the Clouds Roll By he suggests that the story is feeble, but the players are “nice people” and the songs are by Jerome Kern. He can give and take away in a single phrase.
If, as I do, you like a good deal of his graceful, nacreous music, the picture is pleasantly, if rather stupefyingly, worth all the bother. The songs are nearly all sung with care and affection, though not one that I have heard before is done here quite as well as I have heard it elsewhere.
Farber likewise crosscuts his praise and blame. On the “well-played and punchy” Home of the Brave, which Farber declares “a clattering, virile movie with deeply affecting moments,” we also get:
The script is so basically theatrical that it has to be acted almost entirely from seated or reclining positions, but the director works more variations on those two positions than can be found in a Turkish bath. The actors talk as though they were trying to drill the words into one another’s skulls; this savage portentousness not only forces your interest but is alarming in that the soldiers are usually surrounded by Japs and every word can obviously be heard in Tokyo.
If Agee is Hamlet, Farber plays Hotspur. Agee keeps turning his other cheek; Farber turns yours, from side to side, lightly slapping.
Tyler marks out faults and beauties more cleanly. But since the pleasure of thinking about Hollywood movies consists partly in quickening their clichés with jolts of your imagination, the faults become valuable points of interest and, perversely, blossom into virtues. Such is the portrait of Dorian Gray in Albert Lewin’s film. The degenerate image, revealed in a screen-filling shriek, is doubtless vulgar in its execution by Ivan Albright and in its garish Technicolor. Both Agee and Farber complained that they wanted to see the painting deteriorate in stages, but Tyler finds its shock-cut revelation as morbidly appealing as a flowering Nightshade.
It is proof of Hollywood’s commendably alert, albeit limited imagination. . . . Although art is implicitly offended, one cannot help reacting with a certain thrill. It is the way one usually reacts to zombies and werewolves from the jungles adjacent to Sunset Boulevard. Ivan Le Loraine Albright has given us in his portrait of Dorian the wicked, a compelling version of the American moral jungle from which fundamentally all famous creeps must be said to crepitate.
Even flagrant errors of taste, Tyler suggests, can create provocative crevices for the critic’s imagination.
Speaking in tongues
The standard images have endured. Agee is the sensitive and sentimental humanist, Farber the poolroom wiseacre who reads The Art News, Tyler the hyperintellectual camp follower who does a couch job on the movies. But this lineup does them a discredit. Basically, all three function as performers.
Writing about movies allows them to do the police in different voices, to spread out American idioms like magicians fanning a fistful of cards. The sheen and pulse of the prose carry us through mixed metaphors, dropped conjunctions, and ricocheting associations. Ferguson had jiggled and snapped a sentence like a lariat, but these boys get really carried away. They become pop-culture rhapsodes, writing in a divine frenzy.
These bards aren’t kissed by the gods, though. They’re carried away by having found a subject–movies–that triggers a controlled ecstasy. The result is usually comic, sometimes dramatic, but often sensuously arousing. An orgy of words, after all, is still an orgy.
Farber, of course, is celebrated for his baroque firepower, fueled by paradox and hyperbole. The sentences seem to veer out of control before ending with a wisecrack that’s sometimes a capper and sometimes just weird but always unpredictable.
The movie, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” is almost too terrible to walk out of. . . . The wife spends her time in what should be a jungle washing the several thousand stunning play suits she wears to wait on tables, going for moonlight swims, dancing stylish rhumbas with the hobo. I think the best bobby-sox touches are the white turban that Cora wears to wash dishes, the love scenes which show Cora in a yum-yum pose and outfit, looking like a frozen popsicle, with Frank ogling her at six paces—and probably the director, in the background, swooning over a hamburger.
Want something more refined but no less gaga? Here is Tyler, in one of my favorite passages of American film criticism, on Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.
I was still transfixed by the conundrum of her voice, almost without inflection, low and lazily paced, with a pleasant burr of the Dietrich sort but not classifiable as to its true sources. . . . That she approached Hollywood with a certain Machiavellianism, I think, is shown by the mild Mephistophelian peaks of her eyebrows. Yet all of us are human; the most sensational military plans, even if the army wins, sometimes go kerflooey. Miss Bacall had evidently intended her voice to give notice that she was a Garbo to the gizzard, hard to get, and not going to let Humphrey triumph at the first shot.
I don’t think Mephistophelianism has ever been juxtaposed with kerflooey so effectively.
Agee, taken by many today as a gentle soul who leaned too much on his lyrical gifts, proves ready to spin us into orbit in reviewing the Warners cartoon Rhapsody Rabbit. Bugs Bunny as a concert pianist gives “a cut but definitive performance” of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.
The best part of it goes two ways: one, very observant parody of concert-pianistic affectations, elegantly thought out and synchronized; the other, brutality keyed into the spirit of the music to reach greater subtlety than I have ever seen brutality reach before. I could hardly illustrate without musical quotation; but there is a passage in which the music goes up with an arrogant wrenching of slammed chords—Ronk, Ronk, RONK (G-B-E)—then prisses downward on a broken scale—which Bugs takes (a) with all four feet, charging madly, scowling like a rockinghorse late for a date at stud, (b) friskily tiptoe, proudly smirking, like a dog toe-dancing through his own misdemeanor or the return of an I-Was-There journalist, a man above fear or favor who knows precisely which sleeping dogs to lie about. It killed me; and when they had the wonderful brass to repeat it exactly, a few bars later, I knew what killed really meant.
The longer you look at this, the more outrageous it gets. A rockinghorse put out to stud? A dog’s “misdemeanor”–i.e., pissing on the carpet? And can you imagine Fido with a proud smirk? What’s the on-the-spot journalist doing here? And was the travesty of the “sleeping dogs lie” cliché suggested by association with the balletic, emptied-bladder dog? On many occasions Agee, no less than his peers, was touched with benign madness. But of course the craftsman wasn’t sleeping: all the parallel clauses are set into balance by stately semicolons.
Such virtuosity hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two entire shelves of my university library are filled with books on Agee. Farber Studies, already teeming with admiring short reviews and memoirs and tributes to his painting, can be expected to swell too. Admittedly, Tyler, no less a dazzler in his way, remains less acknowledged. Even gay critics seem not to have pushed his cause as much as they might. Still, becoming a phantom presiding over Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (published, be it noted, in 1968) grants its own sort of immortality.
I’m captivated by all three. None holds me hostage, though; I write as an enthusiast but not a promoter. What attracts me now, in tandem with the book I’m writing on Hollywood in the 1940s, is what they did in their first decade. Although many readers didn’t notice, these three made writing about American film exuberant and important. They raised it to a level of frenzied acuity that it had never enjoyed before. They helped create, by the delayed action I sketched earlier, the modern institution of movie criticism, with all its virtues and excesses. In the process, they forged some original ways of thinking about American cinema.
This series of entries continues here.
This series of entries began as a lecture for “Narrative Theory and 1940s Hollywood,” a seminar that I co-taught with Jeff Smith in the fall at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Thanks to Jeff and all the members of the seminar for an enjoyable semester. I also want to thank Kent Jones and Jim Naremore, considerable critics both, for email discussions of these writers.
For a wide-ranging survey of the US scene, see American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (Library of America, 2006), ed. Phillip Lopate.
I’ve taken my Agee and Farber quotations from the Library of America collections of their work (available here and here). Quotations from Tyler come from The Hollywood Hallucination (Simon and Schuster, 1970; orig. 1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (Simon and Schuster, 1970; orig. 1947).
Barbara Deming writes of “scuffed-in” meanings in her article, “The Library of Congress Film Project: Exposition of a Method,” The Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 2, 1 (1944), 10. Albert Moran discusses this and other passages in Deming’s piece in “Film and Psychology: Notes on the ‘Psychological’ Film Criticism of the 1940s,” First Australian History & Film Conference Proceedings, ed. Ann Hutton (National Library of Canberra, 1982), 123-124.
The indispensable book on Farber, Tyler, and their milieu is Greg Taylor’s Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999).
Rhapsody Rabbit is currently available for viewing on Vimeo.
P.S. 27 January: The earliest version of this entry shaved ten years off Parker Tyler’s age! He was born in 1904. The error has been corrected.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
Le brasier ardent.
Six years ago David and I celebrated the 90th birthday of the classical Hollywood cinema with a post that included a list of what we considered the ten greatest (surviving) films of 1917. Choosing the ten best films of 90 years ago has become a custom, one which helps us avoid doing a ten-best list for the current year. It’s a way of drawing attention to some wonderful but often little-known films, for those who are interested in exploring the treasures of silent cinema.
For some reason, that 1917 list was pretty easy to put together. In recent years, I’ve had more trouble. As I wrote last year, “For the past two years, I’ve noted that it was difficult to fill out the list of ten masterpieces. I keep thinking that I’ll get to a year where I won’t have to say that, but 1922 turns out not to be that year. Some titles were obvious, but the last one or two took some hunting.” Well, 1923 still isn’t that year. I’ve again had some trouble filling out the top ten.
Why? 1923 should be packed with worthy candidates. But oddly, some of the most significant directors of the era didn’t make films that year. This seems to have been partly because success brought greater ambitions. In 1923 Fritz Lang was preparing his epic two-part Die Nibelungen, guaranteed to show up in next year’s list. Abel Gance had embarked the long road to the release of Napoléon, four years later.
Carl Dreyer, who had made three films in 1919 and two each in 1920 and 1921, was bouncing around among companies and countries in the mid-1920s, and didn’t again release anything until his 1924 German-produced film, Michael.
Others made relatively unremarkable films. F. W. Murnau’s surviving film from 1923, Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs, serves mainly to prove that comedy was not his strong suit. Victor Sjöström’s Eld ombord (The Hell Ship) doesn’t match the masterpieces we find elsewhere in his career. Louis Feuillade’s 1923 feature Le Gamin de Paris is likewise unexceptional, though it’s of interest for showing his abandonment of complex staging and his conversion to American-style cutting, including angled shot/reverse-shots. (Of Feuillade’s 1923 installment film Vindicta, we can’t speak; we haven’t been able to see it.)
Other films are lost. John Ford made four films that year, only one of which survives: an incomplete, beat-up version of Cameo Kirby that doesn’t make it look like anything special. Murnau’s first 1923 film, Die Austreibung, seems to be gone. Mauritz Stiller’s The Blizzard is lost, and he, too, was probably already involved in his own 1924 two-part epic, The Saga of Gösta Berling.
[December 29: Brian Darr tweets that The Blizzard is not lost, which I am glad to learn. Its Wikipedia entry confirms that it is only partially lost, with about two-thirds of the film known to be preserved.]
Finally, the Soviet cinema, which was to make such major contributions to 1920s cinema, had not yet gotten off the ground.
Still, with some help from David, I’ve concocted a list with some great films and some near-great ones. The place to start was obvious.
From the ridiculous to the sublime
Some years now we’ve been watching the careers of Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton delivering wonderful short films and inching toward even greater things. This was the year they blossomed.
Chaplin made a charming short feature, The Pilgrim, this year, but he also surprised everyone by making a sophisticated sex comedy (appearing only in an unrecognizable cameo as a porter). The title role of A Woman of Paris features Chaplin’s regular leading lady, Edna Purviance, as a village girl, Marie, who loses her young boyfriend Jean through a misunderstanding. She runs off to the city to become a rich man’s mistress and realizes too late what she has lost.
The plot centers largely around this romantic triangle and Marie’s indecision about whether to return to her boyfriend, who has become an impoverished artist in Paris, or to stay in the luxurious life that Pierre provides her. The affair between Marie and Pierre is handled in a sophisticated and yet subtle way. There are no love scenes, but at one point Pierre finds himself without a handkerchief and goes into the bedroom to pluck one casually out of drawer. Clearly he spends a lot of time in their love nest.
At the same time, the film deals more generally with the gulf between the very wealthy and the working-class people who who serve them. In one well-known scene, a woman gives Marie a massage, and the camera stays mainly on the masseuse as she tries to maintain a neutral expression while obviously being shocked by the lurid gossip between Marie and a friend. In another, a kitchen assistant in a swanky restaurant cannot bear the odor of the aging game bird he has to fetch for the chef, but the chef and Pierre consider it a prime delicacy.
One of the strengths of the film is that it does not take the obvious approach of making Pierre into a fat, obnoxious oaf. On the contrary, Adolphe Menjou plays him as a witty, unflappable figure. He thinks nothing of arranging a marriage with a rich woman while planning to carry on his affair with Marie, but he puts up with her shifting moods and does genuinely seem to love her. The touch of having him play his saxophone while Marie has a tantrum and orders him out (right) typifies the light touch Chaplin applies to what is ultimately a tragic story.
A Woman of Paris was not well received upon its release, at least by the ticket-buying public, who expected a Chaplin film to star the Little Tramp and to be straightforwardly funny. The title at the beginning, where Chaplin explains that he does not appear in the film undoubtedly did little to appease them. Many critics were respectful, however, and other filmmakers recognized the new type of sophisticated comedy that he had introduced. Lubitsch, who was working on Rosita at the same studio, United Artists, was definitely influenced by it–as we shall see next year when his The Marriage Circle figures in the top ten of 1924. That film includes Menjou, playing a similar role, and in fact after playing minor roles for nearly ten years, he became a star with Chaplin’s film.
[February 10, 2014: Paul Duncan, Film Book Editor for Taschen, has kindly supplied figures showing that A Woman of Paris was profitable, if not as much as Chaplin's other films: "It earned United Artists $634,000, of which $608,868.91 went to Regent Film (the company Chaplin formed to produce films for Edna Purviance). So with a production cost of $351,853.03, A Woman of Paris made a healthy profit, though, as you write, obviously it would have been more if it had been a comedy starring Chaplin." Paul also informs me that Taschen's The Charlie Chaplin Archives, which he is editing, will be published later this year.]
By 1923, Harold Lloyd had already done some shorts featuring nail-biting but hilarious comedy high up on skyscrapers. (See High and Dizzy in our 1920 entry.) In 1923 he took the same sort of premise into the feature-length Safety Last and created an indelible image: a brash young man hanging from a tilting clock. The gags go on story by story. After surviving the clock, Harold manages to get to the next level, only to be chased out a flagpole by a dog (left). Looking back, people tend to remember the vertiginous climb as the whole film, though remarkably, it takes place only over the last third. Earlier scenes involve a romance and misunderstandings that arise from the hero’s job at a department store.
Safety Last wasn’t Lloyd’s greatest film, but it launched the greatest period of his career. He’ll probably be joining us for these nostalgic lists every year now until 1927. The film is still available as part of New Line’s big box set of Lloyd’s films on DVD. (Buy that one, and you’ll be a step ahead of those future lists.) This summer the Criterion Collection brought Safety Last out on DVD and Blu-ray. There’s only that one feature on the disc, but it includes several supplements, including three newly restored Lloyd shorts and Kevin Brownlow’s 104-minute documentary, The Third Genius.
Keaton, too, entered a hugely creative streak in 1923. He made an amusing satire on Intolerance, the feature-length The Three Ages, in which Buster traces love through the stone age, the Roman era, and the Roaring Twenties. As Keaton himself acknowledged, “Cut the film apart and then splice up the three periods, and you will have three complete two-reel films.” He followed it up, however, with a masterpiece that displayed a complete command of story structure in the classical Hollywood mold: Our Hospitality. It’s arguably as fine as anything he ever made, except The General, which just edges it out.
Interestingly, Our Hospitality and The General are Keaton’s only two period pieces. (that is, if one excepts The Three Ages, which is far more farcical and does not attempt to recreate a realistic period atmosphere.) Both also take place in the South, and outdoors to a considerable extent. The milieu seems to have inspired him. Dealing with old-fashioned trains and other technology generated a lot of clever gags, and the fields, forests, and rivers helped give these two films a pictorial beauty that separates them from the Keaton’s other films.
Way back in 1978, when David and I were working on the first edition of Film Art: An Introduction, we wanted to include an extended analysis of a single film in each of the chapters on film technique. For mise-en-scene we chose Our Hospitality, which contains numerous uses of setting, costume, acting, and lighting brilliant enough to inspire a teacher and straightforward enough for students to notice and understand. Plus what better way to win over students who think that old black-and-white silent movies aren’t worth watching?
The story is simple. Willie McKay, the hero, travels from New York to the deep South, under the impression that he has inherited a mansion. The trip south on a very old-fashioned train supplies a long string of marvelous sight gags. There Willie meets the heroine, who shares his coach. Upon arrival, Willie discovers that his “mansion” is really a decaying house. Since the heroine has invited Willie to dinner, he wanders around to pass the time, unaware that he has inherited something else: a feud. The heroine’s family has a longstanding grudge against the McKays, and the father and two brothers are determined to shoot Willie. The only catch is that Southern hospitality dictates that they cannot kill him while he’s in their home.
In our analysis in Film Art, we pointed to the many motifs Keaton uses in service of the narrative, such as the moment of the hero’s rescue of the heroine as an echo of the earlier fishing pole/waterfall gag. One stylistic motif of staging comes back several times: Keaton using foreground doors or walls to create depth staging of moments when people spy or eavesdrop on others. In the frame on the left below, one of the brothers waits to ambush Willie, who is unaware of his presence (or indeed of the feud itself). In the one on the right, Willie eavesdrops on the brothers in their house, learning that they intend to kill him but that he is safe inside the house. Now Willie learns what’s going on, while the brothers don’t realize that he’s overhearing their plan. Such compositions are a motif in the film, forming a way of manipulating the narration–usually giving us more information than the characters onscreen have.
Like Safety Last, Our Hospitality ushered in the prime of the comedian’s career. Keaton made a string of marvelous features that lasted until The Cameraman in 1928. He didn’t always sign the films as director (he’s listed as co-director of Our Hospitality, along with John Blystone), but his unerring sense of how to compose images for the entire frame, both its surface composition and in depth, suffuses all his films of this period.
I’ve mentioned that Lubitsch was working at United Artists in 1923. Rosita was his first American film, starring Mary Pickford. It’s certainly not a masterpiece on the level of The Marriage Circle or Lady Windermere’s Fan, but Rosita is a charming and impressive film, certainly at least as good as Lubitsch’s other lesser films of the decade, Forbidden Paradise and Three Women.
As I discuss in my book, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood, the director had already been tentatively using classical Hollywood style in his last two German films, Das Weib des Pharao and Die Flamme. In Rosita, he managed to balance a typical historical epic from his German period (Madame Dubarry, Anna Boleyn) with the light, vivacious appeal of his star. She plays the title character, a cheerful street musician who is in love with Don Diego, an impoverished nobleman and military officer. Rosita catches the eye of the lecherous king. Don Diego ends up condemned to death, and Rosita plots to save him.
The sets were built on the enormous backlot of United Artists, where Douglas Fairbanks’ castle for Robin Hood had stood. The day after Rosita wrapped, the construction of the sets for The Thief of Bagdad began on the same lot. Indeed, one can detect a distinct similarity between Rosita’s big sets–city streets and a large prison–and those of the two Fairbanks films. This frame is a shot of the prison interior emphasizing a gallows in the background:
Given that this giant set was built in the open air, Lubitsch must have filmed this and other scenes at night, using the giant arc spotlights that had recently become a standard tool of Hollywood filmmaking to throw great swathes of illumination across the scene. In general, Rosita‘s style demonstrates that by 1923, Lubitsch had come fully to understand the American approach.
As a vehicle for Pickford, the film also is skillfully done, permitting her numerous intimate scenes that show off her charm. Given her star persona, the dramatic situation is leavened with humor in the interior scenes. Rosita’s poor family, a large, rowdy bunch, provides much of this, as when Rosita brings home a perfumed handkerchief and the impressed parents and children in turn bury their noses in it and sniff deeply. Rosita’s reactions to the King’s attempts to seduce her are also somewhat comic, though there is definitely a threat hanging over the situation.
Unfortunately, like all too many of the films on this year’s list, Rosita is difficult to see. It seems to have survived only in a Russian print, and a rather contrasty, worn one at that, as the frame above demonstrates. As long as that is the sole available material, a restoration might be too daunting. Still, in this day of digital manipulation, perhaps something could be done to improve the image quality. I hope at some point it will become available on home video. That also goes for Lubitsch’s other somewhat lesser films of the mid-1920s, Forbidden Paradise and Three Women.
Rosita’s reputation has suffered from strange statements Pickford much later made to Kevin Brownlow and which he published in The Parade’s Gone By. There she claims she and Lubitsch did not get along and that the resulting film was bad and a commercial failure. With the film itself unavailable for viewing, Pickford’s condemnation was accepted at face value. In fact, documents in the United Artists archive at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research overturn Pickford’s supposed dislike for Lubitsch. For years she tried to find financing to make another film with him, and in 1926 she called upon him for help in editing Sparrows. With the discovery of the Soviet print, it becomes apparent that Rosita was far from the disaster Pickford later claimed. Why her memories of her work with Lubitsch became so distorted late in her life we shall probably never know.
Overshadowed masters of French Impressionism
Abel Gance’s flashy La roue (on last year’s list) gets a lot of attention these days. He’s the high-profile representative of Impressionism. Yet 1923 saw the first fiction films from the director who was the movement’s modest heart: Jean Epstein. The very first, L’auberge rouge (“The Red Inn”) is a lovely film, but Cœur fidèle (“Faithful Heart”) epitomizes the quiet side of Impressionism. It’s story is as simple as they get: Marie is a barmaid whose foster parents try to force her to marry a thug, Petit Paul, while she is in love with the sensitive dock-worker Jean. The scenes around the waterside and the famous sequence in a carnival are all done with a realism blended with the subjective camera techniques that convey the characters’ thoughts, perceptions, and feelings in a way that was fresh at the time.
The exteriors were shot around the docks of Marseille, and Epstein uses superimpositions of the ocean to convey the lovers’ longing. Waves are sometimes superimposed over their figures, or one will look into the water and see the other’s face there, as when Jean envisions multiple images of Marie:
Shooting into a distorting mirror, Epstein uses the conventional Impressionist indicator of drunkenness as Petit Paul looks at a woman next to him in a bar:
Coeur fidèle has been released in the UK (Region 2) as a DVD/Blu-ray combo in Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema series. (This includes a helpful little booklet with excerpt from Epstein’s writings and a review of Cœur fidèle by René Clair.) It is also available as a Region 2 French DVD without English subtitles. As these frames indicate, the film survives in beautiful condition.
Along with La roue, Cœur fidèle proved hugely influential. It used the “unfastened camera” that later was credited to Murnau in The Last Laugh. Like Murnau, Hitchcock picked up Impressionist style, as reflected most obviously in his 1927 boxing film, The Ring. Hitchcock’s penchant for moving camera and subjectivity never went away. Hollywood, too, picked up the subjective techniques of Impressionism, especially in the 1940s films that David is studying now.
Unlike Cœur fidèle, Le brasier ardent (“The Burning Crucible”) was sophisticated, convoluted, and perplexing. It was one of two films directed in France by the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine for the émigré film company Albatros. (The earlier one is L’Enfant du carnaval, 1921; as far as I know, no print survives.) Earlier this year, upon the release of Flicker Alley’s box set of five Albatros films, I described Le brasier ardent:
It has a reputation as an audacious, surrealist, and almost incomprehensible film. This may be due to the fact that prints available in archives during the 1970s and 1980s lacked intertitles. The opening nightmare sequence is indeed disturbing, but at least with intertitles, we understand that it is only a dream. It begins with a wild-eyed man tied to a stake where he is about to be burned. The heroine stands looking on, resisting as the man pulls on her long hair, apparently intent on dragging her into the fatal flames to accompany him in death. Subsequent scenes of the nightmare show the heroine encountering different men, all played by Mosjoukine, culminating in a man in evening dress stalking her along a vaguely Expressionist street until she escapes and wakes up in bed.
This nightmarish opening must have established vivid expectations in the spectators of 1923 as to what sort of film they were in for. After the heroine wakes up, however, what follows is quite different. The main plot is a stylized but quite amusing comedy. The heroine is a pampered wife, married to a rich man whom she does not love. She is faithful, but he is unreasonably jealous. He goes to a distinctly odd detective agency, one department of which is “Recovery of Lost Wives” (above), with “Success guaranteed!” and “Nothing to pay in advance!” Juxtaposed with the bizarre opening, this quirky humor might have eluded puzzled audiences of the day. Certainly the film itself was a failure, and Mosjoukine stuck to acting thereafter.
Unfortunately for the husband, Detective Z, whom he picks from the eccentric group pictured above, is the very man, again played by Mosjoukine, whom his wife has dreamed about. What follows is an odd tale with the detective and wife gradually falling love. Mosjoukine, known for his tragic, intense characters in the Russian cinema, plays such figures in the fantasy sequences–but in the main story he is allowed to play for laughs, gamboling and rolling on the floor like a puppy when the wife finally appears at his mother’s apartment and declares her love for him.
Mosjoukine should not, however, be allowed to overshadow his co-stars, Ermolieff actors who were also were to make their way into the wider French production of the day, including Impressionism. The wife is played by Nathalie Lissenko, one of the stars of the pre-Revolutionary cinema, who had acted opposite Mosjoukine in Russia. Among her 1920s roles was the protagonist of one of Epstein’s finest films, the largely unknown L’Affiche (1924). The husband is Nicolas Koline, who started his career with Ermolieff only after the company had left the Soviet Union. He will be familiar to silent-film fans from his performance as Tristan Fleury in Gance’s Napoléon.
By this point, stylistic influences were beginning to pass back and forth between France and Germany. Le brasier ardent shows distinct touches of Expressionism in its decor, as when the heroine flees through a distorted door. (See top.)
I have to admit that the third Impressionist film on our top-ten list, Germaine Dulac’s La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) is not one of my favorites. It hasn’t got much of a plot. A sensitive woman in a provincial town finds her husband crass and unpleasant until a final crisis brings them–at least temporarily–together. It’s not so much the simplicity of the story, however, as the rather heavy-handed use of subjective camera tricks to convey Mme. Beudet’s thoughts about her husband, as when a distorting mirror conveys her grotesque view of him (at right).
We’ve just seen a similar distortion in Cœur fidèle, above, to show a drunkard’s point of view. In Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado, from 1921, another distorted-mirror close-up suggests drunkenness without using a character’s point of view (see Film History: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 79).
The film has decided virtues, such as the lovely shots of the small provincial town in which the film’s exteriors were made, as well as the genuinely surprising and touching ending, which pulls back somewhat from the simplistic characterization of M. Beudet.
As with some of our choices from previous years, The Smiling Madame Beudet goes on the list partly because of its historical importance. Dulac was one of the early women directors to make a career in the cinema. Back in the days of 16mm, prints of this film were among the few Impressionist classics available for film club and classroom use, and the film became a staple in feminist-film courses.
Ironically, nowadays teaching the film is more difficult. Oddly enough, none of the mainstream labels has brought out a DVD with English subtitles. A German DVD, which includes two other short Dulac films, Invitation au voyage (1927) and the surrealist classic La coquille et le clergyman (1928), is available. The copy on this DVD is probably the same as the fairly good-quality Swiss archive print on YouTube, with bilingual French and German intertitles. For anyone with even an elementary knowledge of either language, the titles are not very challenging.
Caligarisme was the French word for cinematic Expressionism, which, as the example from Le brasier ardent shows, fascinating many French filmmakers.
Despite the lack of major contributions from Murnau and Lang, in 1923 the country’s cinema was going strong. Several films that fall slightly short of being masterpieces appeared. By this point the Expressionist film movement was well established, having begun in 1920 with Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Some of its greatest films–Der müde Tod, Nosferatu and Dr. Mabuse der Spieler–had already appeared.
Three very good Expressionist films came out in 1923: Erdgeist (“Earth Spirit,” directed by Leopold Jessner), Schatten (“Shadows,” released abroad as Warning Shadows; Arthur Robison), and Raskolnikow (adapted from Crime and Punishment; Robert Wiene).
It’s really a toss-up as to which film should represent Expressionism on this year’s list. I give the edge to Erdgeist, largely because it and Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (“From Morn to Midnight”) are the two films from the movement that push the style the furthest. They come the closest to Expressionism as it existed in drama and the other arts. Most Expressionist cinema “tamed” the style a bit by applying it to genre tales: horror (Caligari, Nosferatu), fantasy (Der müde Tod), historical myth (Die Nibelungen), and science fiction (Algol, Metropolis). These two films, in contrast, depended on dramas where elemental human passions are released and taken to extremes, with the costumes, decor, makeup, and acting reflecting the characters’ inner states.
The film was based on the first of the two “Lulu” plays by Frank Wedekind: Erdgeist (1895) and its sequel Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904). G. W. Pabst’s much better-known Pandora’s Box (1929) combines the two plays, which tell a continuous story about an amoral young woman who lives by exploiting wealthy men but drives them to extreme jealousy by flirting with other men.
In Pabst’s film, Louise Brooks plays Lulu as a vivacious young woman, seemingly unaware of her disastrous effect on the men around her. Asta Nielsen plays the character in Jessner’s film as a ruthless, mature woman. The plot concerns Dr. Schön, a rich man who found Lulu on the streets when she was a child and has raised her with the intent of having her become his mistress. At the beginning, she is married to Dr. Goll but immediately begins seducing Schwartz, an artist hired to paint her portrait. In the image below, Goll bursts in on them in Schwartz’s studio and Lulu collapses at the right. The distorted stairway, the streaks of light painted on the set, and the jagged shadows all create the Expressionist look–as does the eerie blank glow of Goll’s glasses.
The acting is exaggerated and unnatural. Nielsen, foregoing all glamor, frequently holds a grimace on her face to the point where she almost looks like she is wearing a mask. In an early scene Goll moves his cane about, and she dances like a marionette attached to it by strings. (Puppet-like acting was a convention of Expressionist drama.)
Overall, the style is so grotesque and the characters so unpleasant as to make it clear why Erdgeist is one of the least remembered of the major Expressionist films. It is not available on home video. The print I saw about 16 years ago had Dutch intertitles and was somewhat dark. Perhaps, like Von Morgens bis Mitternachts, it will eventually be restored and released on DVD.
Two Expressionist films deserve brief mention as well.
Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, launched the Expressionist movement in cinema but never made another film that gained nearly as much attention. That’s a pity, because Raskolnikow is quite a good film–of all the Wiene films I’ve seen, probably his second best (though The Hands of Orlac, 1924, has its virtues). I found it difficult to decide between it and Erdgeist.
Crime and Punishment turns out to be, not surprisingly, a good fit for the style, with the hero’s increasingly bizarre view of the world literalized in the settings. The film seems to have had a higher budget than Caligari, and the sets are sturdier looking and more three-dimensional. (See bottom.) Wiene also had the good fortune to work with a group of Russian emigré theatrical actors who had trained under Stanislawski and worked at the Moscow Art Theater. Clearly they had to adapt their approach distinctly to achieve Expressionist performances, but they managed well. The lead, Gregori Chmara, makes a haggard and mercurial Raskolnikow.
Back in the 1970s, when I became intrigued by German Expressionist cinema, Schatten was considered one of the main classics. That was no doubt partly due to the limited number of Expressionist titles available for viewing at the time. It’s a good film, but its prominence in film history has declined a bit in the intervening decades, especially as the full surviving work of Murnau and Lang has been discovered and restored.
Schatten is an atypical Expressionist film. Not that many of its sets are distorted or simplified in the usual ways. (This is also true to some extent of designer Albin Grau’s other notable Expressionist film, Nosferatu.) Its few exterior shots, including the opening, show the most strongly Expressionist decor (below left). Part of the action consists of a shadow-puppet show put on by a wandering entertainer (below right). Its plot seems to magically unleash the passions of the onlookers, who begin to behave in odd ways. The male guests (and a servant) try to seduce their hostess, driving the master of the house into a jealous rage.
The shadow play creates its own distortions and stark, black and white imagery. Once the show is over, Robison often frames the distorted shadows of the characters more prominently than their actual bodies (again echoing some of the scene with the vampire in Nosferatu). In this corridor scene one of the servants slyly creates cuckold’s horns on another man’s head:
Shadows, with their natural capacity for distortion, not surprisingly appeared in many Expressionist films, though never so pervasively as in this one.
Raskolnikow is unfortunately not available on home video, at least in an acceptable copy. (The reviews for the Alpha release on Amazon deem it “unwatchable.”) Warning Shadows is available on DVD from Kino or to stream on Amazon (free to Prime customers).
Returning to our top-ten list, I yield the floor briefly to David, who has been studying Sylvester for another project.
German silent cinema is more varied than a litany of the official classics, from Caligari to Metropolis, would suggest. One of the most intriguing trends of the period involved what was called the Kammerspiel, or chamber-play, film. Kammerspiel films were far more naturalistic than Expressionist films. They concentrate on a very few characters in a drastically limited number of locales. Performance is often slow and understated, though action may freeze into somewhat contorted poses. The action typically takes place in a short time span, and it is built up out of everyday activities in working-class households—chores, job routines, the habits of family life. Eventually, however, the mundane milieu is likely to explode into violence.
The versatile Carl Mayer (who worked on the script of Caligari) conceived of the early Kammerspiel film Scherben (Shattered, 1921), which defined the trend. In the same year the stage director Leopold Jessner released the remarkable Hintertreppe (Backstairs), which Kristin mentioned as a runner-up in her Best of 1921 list. Mayer also wrote the script for Sylvester (1923). Named for the feast day of St. Sylvester, 31 December, it’s known in English as New Year’s Eve. It’s not available on home video, but it’s worth seeking out in screenings. It remains a striking study in tabloid tragedy.
A café owner and his wife are busily serving crowds on New Year’s Eve. After a big meal and too many drinks, the wife and the mother-in-law fall to quarreling. The tensions around the table are constantly crosscut with the increasingly wild revelry in the café and the upper-class nightclub across the street. As midnight draws near, the women struggle for the husband’s loyalty. This petty quarrel will end in death.
Director Lupu Pick explores the limited space of the action by shooting the parlor from many angles, including ones that make daring use of a mirror (right). The street shots feature extravagant camera movements that look forward to the “unchained camera” made famous in Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1925), directed by F. W. Murnau and scripted by Mayer. With its strict limitation to a single night and its focus on domestic space, along with suggestions of the husband’s Freudian dependence on his mother, Sylvester showed how a fait divers could yield psychological drama.
The Kammerspiel film wasn’t a dead end. After Carl Dreyer’s borderline contribution to the trend, the Ufa production Michael (1924), back in Denmark he created probably the best of the lot: The Master of the House (Du Skal Aere Din Hustru, 1925). He later returned to the aesthetic in Two People (1945), and he continued to exploit its possibilities in his last features. Over the years after World War II, other directors were rediscovering Kammerspiel principles. We see fresh applications of the approach in Les Parents Terribles (Cocteau, 1948), Les Enfants Terribles (Melville, 1949), and of course Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Dial M for Murder (1954). As often happens, ambitious films of the sound cinema owe a good deal to innovative impulses of the silent era.
Welcome, experimental cinema!
One of the most remarkable films of 1923 is a mere three minutes long. Man Ray, an American painter and photographer who moved to Paris in 1921 and became involved in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. He soon acquired a film camera and later described how he shot bits of footage with it:
a few sporadic shots, unrelated to each other, as a field of daisies, a nude torso moving in front of a striped curtain with the sunlight coming through, one of [his] paper spirals hanging in the studio, a carton from an egg crate revolving on a string–mobiles before the invention of the word, but without any aesthetic implications nor as a preparation for future development: the true Dada spirit.
In 1923 Tristan Tzara advertised a Dadaist program in a Parisian theatre to be held the following evening, including a film by Man Ray as part of the entertainment. Ray had only a very small amount of footage ready. Faced with an overnight deadline, he supplemented it by using a technique he had already employed in still photography (the “rayograph”): placing small objects on a sheet of photographic paper in the dark, turning on the light briefly, and developing the image. The result was a series of sharply focused silhouette images of the objects against a plain background. This time Ray unrolled some raw negative film in a dark room, scattered nails, tacks, and other objects on it, exposed it to light, and developed the negative (right). Combined with the shots Ray had previously made, the result was a perfect Dada film, with randomly juxtaposed imagery that defied the audience to make any sense of what they were seeing. He titled it in ironic Dada fashion: Le retour à la raison (“The Return to Reason”).
Despite being cobbled together overnight, Ray’s film offers a broad exploration of the possibilities of abstract filmmaking. The opening, a rapidly shifting stippled screen, resembles the later flicker films of the 1960s avant-garde. The rayograph shots introduce an alien, high-contrast look–not surprising, given that these may have been the first cinema images produced without using a camera.
Ray also shifted between positive and negative imagery. This was not entirely new. Murnau had used short stretches of negative footage in Nosferatu the year before. But Murnau’s negative shots had a narrative function, to convey the eeriness of the environs of the vampire’s castle. In Le retour à la raison, Ray used negative imagery in an abstract way, to create startling juxtapositions of imagery that looked both similar and yet strikingly different. The tacks, nails, and springs in the rayograph stretches could be either stark white against black, as in the image to the right above, or the same shot repeated, but this time in black against white. The film ends with another positive/negative passage. The “nude torso moving in front of a striped curtain” is initially shown in a positive image, then in the same image flipped and shown in negative:
Ray was not the first to create an abstract film. In 1921 German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann probably made that conceptual leap in 1921 with Opus 1, a one-reeler with painted shapes moving around against a dark background. He followed this up with three further films, Opus 2 (1923), Opus 3 (1924), and Opus 4 (1925). (Good-quality prints with toning and appropriate musical accompaniment are available on YouTube: Opus 1 here, Opus 2 here, Opus 3 here, and Opus 4 here.)
I must confess that I probably should have at least mentioned Opus 1 in my entry on the best films of 1921. Still, Ruttmann’s films are far less daring than Le retour à la raison. It and its successors are basically efforts to do what so many filmmakers have tried since: to create the equivalent of a painting, but with motion. Ray’s film went much further, pushing the limits of the young art form in ways that had little precedent in the other arts, apart from Ray’s own highly experimental approach to still photography. There are even two fleeting stretches of film leader with illegible writing on them–a tactic one thinks of more in relation to, say, Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958) than to the silent era. Much of the experimental cinema to come decades later was briefly probed here.
There are several copies of Le retour à la raison on YouTube. The best was posted by Dimitri Shubin, who also provides a piano score. The film is also available on disc 3 of the Unseen Cinema set of American experimental cinema. Unfortunately this copy has a considerable amount of breakup, particularly in the early flicker portions. (An HD version would perhaps help.) The version on Kino’s “Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s” set has the same problem and is distinctly shorter, apparently because it is running at sound speed. The copy provided by Shubin has the clearest, steadiest video image of the film I have seen. Ideally, of course, Ray’s film should be viewed on 35mm.
I regret that so many of our choices for this year’s list are not available on home video or even, except in very rare circumstances, for viewing on 35mm in archive screenings. Still, part of the purpose of this ongoing series is to call attention to obscure but worthy and important films. Perhaps an archivist or an enterprising DVD publisher will be inspired to restore some of the ones described here.
The quotation concerning The Three Ages comes from p. 217 of Rudi Blesh’s biography, Keaton (New York: Collier, 1966).
Mary Pickford’s strangely distorted claims about Rosita and her relationship with Lubitsch are expressed on pp. 129-34 of Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By (New York: Knopf, 1968). I go into more detail about the continuing Pickford-Lubitsch collegiality in the 1920s in Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood, pp. 24-26.
For more examples of unusual German silent films, go elsewhere on this site here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. Criterion has a new, authentic version of Dreyer’s Kammerspiel-influenced Master of the House forthcoming.
The Man Ray quotation comes from a detailed study of Le retour à la raison by Deke Dusinberre in the collection Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941 (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 2001), published to coincide with the release of the DVD set mentioned above.