Film History 101 (Part 4)

When we last left off, it was 1941 and Orson Welles had just been given the boot from RKO. This was after creating what many people consider to be the greatest film ever made: “Citizen Kane.” RKO’s slogan that year became “Showmanship, Not Genius“. It was a direct slap at Orson Welles, and a signal that they intended to return to traditional fare. But the executives at the studio were left in a quandary. How to increase their business, but having to do so without having the money or resources of the bigger studios?

Looking around, they saw that the Hollywood studio most similar to them size-wise was Universal. And at the time, Universal was raking in the cash by recycling all of their monsters from the 1930s. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man were starring in a slew of sequels and creative pairings. The light bulbs must have gone off in the Executive Board Room at RKO. The studio made the strategic decision to get into the horror movie business.

Toward that end, they hired a young producer named Val Lewton. At the time, Lewton was a direct assistant to David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind. His tutelage under Selznick had given him a strong foundation in the mechanics of movie making.  He had already been an assistant producer, director, scriptwriter, and most importantly to RKO, knew how to manage a budget.

To lure him away from Selznick, RKO offered Lewton a multi-picture deal and complete and total creative control over his projects. That was, as long as he met three very interesting conditions: 1). Each picture Lewton made had to be under 75 minutes in length. 2). The budget for each picture could not exceed $300,000 under any circumstances. (Even in 1942, this was a very low figure.) And most interesting of all was condition number 3). Lewton could make any picture he liked, with any script he chose, as long as he used the titles given him by RKO’s marketing department.

And what titles they were: Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. In all, Lewton would make 9 horror films for RKO. And they all sounded like ideas dreamed up by kids sitting around a campfire. But for Lewton, the naming conventions for his titles were a moot point. They had been handed to him and he was told to take it or leave it. He did the former.

But in choosing Lewton, in many ways the RKO executives who hired him couldn’t have made a worse choice. At least as far as getting someone who was going to deliver traditional fare.  Like Welles before him, Lewton had no interest in making typical Hollywood films. He was looking to break new ground and create something that approached art — rather than just make disposable entertainment for a quick buck. For Lewton, dealing with silly film titles was a small price to pay for this chance. Creative control was something everyone wanted, but few people actually had. And Lewton intended to make the most of it. He assembled a trusted team around him, and set out to make literate, intelligent films designed to scare the pants off an audience. It was the birth of the modern psychological horror film.

Up until Lewton, horror films were variations of people (usually attractive women) being chased around by someone in makeup. We love the old Universal horror films, but let’s be honest–at their core, that’s all they boil down to. Lewton had something different in mind. He wanted to scare people by placing capable, rational characters in situations that the audience could relate to. Where the supernatural was always at the edge of everyday life, just out of reach of what you knew to be real, but more than capable of intruding into your world.

A woman walking home in the dark through the park, with someone or something following her….Being thrown into an insane asylum by an evil magistrate where you’re the only person who’s rational….A young girl begging to be let in the front door of her house only to be silenced suddenly by a thud and a pool of blood spilling in under the door….Being trapped on an island where the walking dead seem to be taken for granted by all the inhabitants…Dealing with devil worshippers who seem more rational than anyone else around….Hearing the screams of someone buried alive….These are just some of the scenarios that Lewton exploited using shadows, expressionist lighting, sound effects, and sometimes even complete and utter silence.

These kind of films were a complete break with what had gone before them, both in terms of horror and suspense. Their plots were often unpredictable, and were full of artistic touches. (e.g. I Walked With a Zombie is really a remake of Jane Eyre). William Friedkin, who went on to make The Exorcist lists The Leopard Man as a major inspiration in teaching him how to construct stories designed to scare people. Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) also lists Lewton as a major influence. Robert Wise, who went on to direct West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and countless other major films first became a director under Lewton.

In addition, Lewton’s films did make money. Cat People as a major hit for RKO, and all of the subsequent films turned a small profit. But, alas, not as much as RKO wanted. They were baffled at what they were getting. They began to pressure Lewton to make horror films like Universal’s. They demanded to see more monsters. They even brought over Boris Karloff from Universal to work with Lewton. To their dismay, they found out that Karloff also wanted to make the same kind of sophisticated films that Lewton was working so hard at. The two instantly became friends. The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam all starred Karloff, but were the last three films Lewton did for RKO.  For when his contract was up, they cut him loose.

Lewton never found steady employment again and after taking odd jobs at some of the other studios died a few years later. At the time, he was broke and all but forgotten. It wasn’t until years later, that people began to appreciate what he had created, that his place in film history (or at least horror film history) was secured. Lewton had demonstrated that what you didn’t see on screen was sometimes even more important than what you did. Against huge odds, not the least of which was the mindset of the time, he had shown the way for virtually every suspense or scary movie we see today. (Funny how that works sometimes). But in addition to inspiring major filmmakers and writers later on, Lewton had also made major contributions to the film genre that the 1940s is probably most famous for: Film Noir.

Film Noir (or film black) is a term given to a range of films with certain similar characteristics. They typically deal with the dark side of humanity. Murder, blackmail, corruption, adultery, gambling, robberies…these are the mainstays of film noir. Usually, even the main character isn’t even likeable. The dialogue has a terse, unsentimental style, and you never knew who you could trust. Usually the scripts were adapted from books by people like Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammet.

Film Noir’s lighting also had a lot in common with Lewton’s films. More often than not, the parts of the frame in shadow were often just as important as the action in the parts of the picture that you could see. Other trademarks include a cynical private eye, femme fatales, silhouetted characters, dark, damp streets, lots of night scenes, a voice-over narration, and a convoluted plot.

Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, Dana Andrews, Fred McMurray, Edmund O’Brien, Barbara Stanywick, Veronica Lake, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall…these were some of the stars of Film Noir. But there were many others. Classics of Film Noir from the 1940s include Murder My Sweet, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Double Indemnity, Laura, The Postman Always Rings Twice, They Live By Night, Detour, Force of Evil, Crossfire, Criss Cross, The Set-Up, and The Killers.

There were many more. In fact, the genre never really went away. We see solid examples of Film Noir all through the film world from the 1940s on. Even though it usually doesn’t get mentioned as a major type of film genre, it’s just as common as Westerns, Science Fiction, Romantic Comedies, or Costume Dramas.

Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard, Basic Instinct, LA Confidential, Body Heat, Sin City, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Jagged Edge, Blue Velvet, Se7en, or the majority of films produced by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers fall squarely within the confines of Film Noir. Films as diverse as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Police Squad, and The Dark Knight have to be considered an offspring of this type of film born in the 1940s. And let’s not forget Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry.

But perhaps the biggest thing to happen to Hollywood in the 1940s wasn’t on any movie screen. It was in the court room. In 1947, the Justice Department won a lawsuit, claiming that the Hollywood studios constituted a monopoly. It was determined that each studio controlled three separate elements of the film industry: production, distribution, and exhibition. A federal court ruled that each studio could take it’s pick, but had to divest itself from one of these three elements. All of the studios chose exhibition as the part of their empire to get rid of.

It’s hard to believe now, but prior to 1947, when you went to your local movie theater, you only saw the films of the studio that owned that particular venue. Warner Brothers specialized in gangster flicks. So, all of the gangster movies played in only one theater in town. If you liked musicals, you most likely headed for the local theater owned by MGM. The Three Stooges were under contract with Columbia, so you needed to find a Columbia theater if you wanted to see one of their shorts before the main movie. And, if your town was small enough to only have one theater….well, you were just out of luck depending on the kind of film you wanted to see.

But after the court ruling, theaters became independent chains. Why did all of the studios pick theaters as the odd man out? Simple. They made the least amount of money for the studio. That trend continues today. When you shell out $10 (if you’re lucky) to see a movie, the theater taking your ticket only gets to keep about 75 cents. Where does the other $9.25 go? To the distributor, who also has a deal with the production company (or studio).

So, how do local theaters stay afloat if they’re only pulling in 75 cents per patron? One word: Concessions. Selling tickets is just an excuse to get people to buy popcorn and soda. And the markup there is unbelievable. That $5 cup of Cherry Cola you purchase only costs the theater about 5 cents. Popcorn is about the same. The biggest expense AMC or Regal has is labor. And that’s minimized by hiring teenagers who work for minimum wage. Now you know 1) why mostly young people work in movie theaters and 2) why theater managers go apoplectic when you try to bring in your own snacks and soda from outside.

In no particular order, here are some other films from the 1940s you might want to check out:

The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed, another big fan of Val Lewton, it’s a classic film about corruption and deception in post-war Vienna, Austria. They still show the English version every week right near the center of that city.  And you can also still ride the ferris wheel where Orson Welles made one of the greatest ad-libs in film history. To paraphrase: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

DOA. Edmond O’Brien has been given a slow acting poison for which there is no antidote. Given only 24 hours to live, he spends his final day trying to find out who killed him, and why. A great film with a plot that just flies along. With all of it’s false moves and dead ends, it’s the cinematic equivalent of racing through a maze.

Gilda. Rita Hayworth is just phenomenal. The movie’s not bad either.

Out of the Past. Quite possibly the perfect Film Noir. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also made three films for Val Lewton, it has all the elements. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas all sparkle. It was remade in the 80s as Against All Odds.

White Heat. James Cagney as the quintessential gangster: a certified psychopath with migraines and a mother complex.

Kiss of Death: This is the one where Richard Widmark pushes the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs. Pretty chilling stuff, but it made him an instant star.

The Big Clock. Ray Milland tries to outwit Charles Laughton and prove his innocence when all of the evidence he uncovers points to himself. It was remade almost exactly as No Way Out with Kevin Costner. Really.

Shadow of a Doubt. Alfred Hitchcock once claimed this was his favorite out of all the films he directed. Joseph Cotton is a serial killer who moves in with relatives in a idyllic small town. Teresa Wright is the niece who suspects that wonderful Uncle Charlie is really the personification of pure evil. Hitchcock obviously enjoyed juxtaposing good and bad and seeing the sparks it created. And Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie is really, really bad. (People really into Hitchcock have pointed out that everything in the film occurs in pairs. There are two murders, two attempted murders, two Charlies, two detectives, literally almost two of everything. It’s a hidden narrative device that goes all the way back to vaudeville, which Hitchcock borrowed when he got to Hollywood).

Samson and Delilah. It’s full of REALLY corny dialogue, and gross overacting. So, do what we do and forward to the end when the temple collapses. It’s still mighty spectacular.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. For some undefinable reason, everything clicks as the comedy and scares blend perfectly in this one. Parts are laugh out loud funny, while Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man all play it straight. Bela Lugosi has never looked so relaxed on screen. A fitting send-off to all of the classic monster movies of the era. (And yes, that’s Vincent Price uncredited at the end as the Invisible Man).

Mighty Joe Young. The 1940s produced very few good fantasy or imaginative films. But this is the exception. The special effects are nothing short of marvelous in one amazing trick shot after another. It was also Ray Harryhausen’s debut as an stop-motion animator.

The Heiress. One of the most emotionally gut-wrenching films you’ll see from old Hollywood. Olivia DeHaviland won an Oscar in a film which explores how utterly cruel people can be. Tom Cruise was all set to do a remake of this film in the 1990s, but after he saw it, he and his producer nixed the idea. They claimed there was no way to improve upon the original, and that any remake would be a waste of time.

The Best Years of Our Lives. One of Hollywood’s all time best. It tells the story of three different men home from World War II who are trying to readjust to their civilian lives. You’d think that it would be dated, or boring. But for some strange reason, the characterizations ring true to the point that you could swear you were watching a contemporary film. After more than 60 years, it still has a lot people can relate to.

As the 1940s closed, the film industry had no idea of the major changes coming in the next decade. The advent of television would force Hollywood to respond with technological innovations of its own. In the process it helped pave the way for the widescreen viewings and multi-soundtracks that we today view as an essential part of both the movie and home theater experience. That will be the next part of film history in 1950s.

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Head North by Northwest

As we’ve mentioned before, Hitchcock made a total of fifty three films, and it’s amazing to consider how many have gone on to achieve “classic” status.  But most film historians would agree he reached his creative peak during the late 50s and early 60s.  In past posts, we’ve discussed Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie. Each of which were made during this time period.  All that’s missing from Miracle Movie‘s lineup is the one Hitchcock film which would have come second in that remarkable string.  It’s not only one of the director’s greatest triumphs, but also stands out as one of our favorite all time films as well.

When people come to us and complain that “old movies just aren’t as entertaining as the newer ones” we politely tell them to check out North by Northwest.  An instant hit upon its release in 1959, it’s one of those rare films which has gone on to earn equally high marks with both critics and audiences alike.  It currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes–the web site’s highest mark.  (Translation:  they couldn’t find a single person to give it a bad review).

People forget, that before becoming ultra famous with a certain shower sequence, Hitchcock was probably better known for his political and espionage thrillers.  With films like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, and Saboteur.  (All worth checking out if you’re so inclined…especially the latter two).  But “North by Northwest” probably represents the apex of the genre–with a script that just sparkles from start to finish.  When commencing work on the project, screenwriter Ernest Lehman told the director he wanted to make a “Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.  One loaded with wit, sophistication, glamor, action and lots of changes of locale.”  And that’s precisely what the two men succeeded in doing.  Still, as with any Hitchcock picture, there’s also a lot going on underneath the surface.  We’ll get to that in a minute.  Even if we have to slightly censor ourselves to keep the material safe for a “family-friendly” blog.

After hitting the big time with his script for The Sweet Smell of Success (starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster), Lehman was originally hired by MGM to work with Hitchcock on a film called “The Wreck of the Mary Deare.”  The writer found the director very easy to get along with, and the two enjoyed bouncing ideas off one another.  But one day, Lehman realized that the concept was unfilmmable.   Given the technology of the day, he couldn’t construct a story which was interesting enough to go along with a spectacular shipwreck.   So he called Hitchcock up and told him he was going to have to withdraw from the picture.  “Don’t be silly Ernie”, is how Hitchcock responded.  “We get along so well, we’ll just do something else.”  “But what will we tell the studio?” Lehman asked.  With his characteristic impish charm, Hitchcock replied: “We won’t tell them anything.”  So, while MGM awaited the delivery of a sea-going saga, Lehman and Hitchcock embarked upon a completely different picture.

For the better part of the year, Hitchcock would throw out various scenarios, and Lehman would try to fit them into some sort of a coherent story.  Two ideas in particular stood out.  Hitchcock said he always wanted to do a movie that had little people scampering over the faces on Mount. Rushmore.   He also said he had the idea for a scene in which a diplomat was addressing the United Nations.  At one point, the speaker notices the Peruvian delegate asleep in his chair, and refuses to go on until he’s awaken.  But when attendants go to rouse him, they discover the man has been murdered.

A third piece of the puzzle fell into place while Hitchcock was attending a cocktail party.  One of the other guests told him about a CIA operation he had read about.  Seems the Agency had created a fake “character” to throw the Russians off the trail of the real agent working under their very noses.  The idea was to keep the other side so busy chasing after the fictitious person, the actual mole would go undetected.  Hitchcock and Lehman liked this idea.  So much so they eventually paid the party goer $10,000 for the right to use it.  (Another reason it’s always a good idea to keep a few entertaining stories up your sleeve the next time you attend a social gathering.)

After many excruciating months, Lehman finally turned out a script that delighted Hitchcock, who then began story boarding every single shot in the film.  The final result has been called “the ultimate Hitchcock thriller”.  If you’ve never seen the film, we won’t spoil the show for you by outlining the entire plot.  Suffice to say, it concerns a debonair Madison Avenue executive named Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) who gets mistaken for a fictitious decoy agent, and then spends the entire film chasing and being chased across the country.  All while trying to clear his name of a fake murder charge.   Along the way, he meets a femme fatale named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and a super suave villain by the name of Philip Vandamm (James Mason).

Part of the fun of the film is all the real-life locations it visits:  South Dakota, The Plaza Hotel in New York, Grand Central Station, and the United Nations.  For this last locale, Hitchcock needed an establishing shot of Cary Grant entering the building, but was denied permission to film there.  So, he commandeered a carpet cleaning truck, parked it across the street, and set up his camera in the back.  He then asked Grant (who was one of the most famous movie stars in the world at the time) to walk right past the crowds and U.N. security guards without anyone noticing him.  Incredibly, it was all done in a single take.

With several street scenes taking place in midtown Manhattan, the film is also notable for evoking what life was like in the big city during the 1950s.  This wasn’t necessarily by design.  Today, if a film company wants to shoot in New York (or any large city for that matter), they coordinate the production through the local film commission.  This entity helps arrange for the necessary permits, closes off the affected streets, and provides police protection.  But back in the 1950s, most municipalities didn’t realize the financial bonanza that came with an on-location production crew.  (Hint:  it takes a small army to make a film these days…and this army needs a place to eat. sleep, and shop for essentials.  The amount of wasteful spending that goes on with any film production adds substantially to a city’s coffers).

Unfortunately, Hitchcock made the mistake of complaining to a local reporter about some lapses in police protection while shooting on Madison Avenue.  As well as the difficulty of keeping the crowds at bay when they saw the movie stars associated with the picture.   This didn’t go over too well with the local police, who responded by pulling ALL the coverage from the picture on certain days.  Which forced Hitchcock to shoot several scenes “guerrilla style.”  Later, he referred to the local police as “New York’s worst.”  But the shots had the added benefit of not looking “staged” because a lot of the action in the background definitely wasn’t.

Another location was just outside Bakersfield, California.   It’s an extremely odd place for an action sequence. Cary Grant takes a bus to this isolated and uninteresting locale, where he’s told the mysterious Mr. Kaplan (the non-existent double agent) will meet him and explain everything.  What makes the sequence so remarkable is that nothing happens for almost eight solid minutes.  Yet, Hitchcock manages to hold our attention the entire time.

Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ll no doubt recognize the iconic shot of the character running from the plane.  Right before he takes refuge in a nearby cornfield which the pilot “dusts” with fertilizer.   Seeing an oil truck approaching,  Grant runs back to the highway to flag it down and is almost run over.  The sequence literally concludes with a bang when the plane then flies into the truck, causing it to explode.  This entire sequence is so famous the British film magazine “Empire” named it the best movie moment of all time in an 2009 issue.

(Trivia note: during this sequence, Cary Grant’s suit understandably gets a bit dirty…which then functions as a key plot point in subsequent scenes.  A group of fashion experts pulled together by GQ Magazine in 2006 chose Cary Grant’s grey suit in “North by Northwest” as the “best suit in film history.”  It was even replicated for Tom Cruise in the movie Collateral, and Ben Affleck in Paycheck.)

Of course, equally famous is the film’s climax on top of Mount Rushmore.  Originally, Hitchcock described what he was planning at a press party.  He even sketched the sequence on a cocktail napkin.  One enterprising reporter took this napkin back to the office with him, and reproduced it as part of an article he wrote for his home town newspaper.

This wasn’t a problem until someone at the National Park Service saw the paper.  Soon word was out that Hitchcock was planning on staging “killings” on the face of the monument. Naturally, the Park Service didn’t take kindly to this news and announced it was going to withdraw their support from the picture.  In addition, they decided to prohibit Hitchcock from filming anywhere near the national monument.

Naturally, due to safety considerations, there was never any intention of filming on Mount Rushmore itself.  From the very beginning, the plan was to do it all in a studio with models and matte paintings.  The Park Service asked that they refrain from depicting any scenes of extreme violence.  Hitchcock had no trouble complying with this.  But he bristled at the high-handed and pompous tone behind some of their directives.  One in particular demanded the film depict “the enemies of the republic being defeated at the feet of this shrine of democracy.”

To throw salt in the wound, the Park Service proved to be equally uncooperative in issuing the necessary permits needed to get the establishing shots below the monument.  Hitchcock was forced to attend endless meetings with government bureaucrats who wanted to second guess every decision and shot he had planned.  As famous as he was, Hitchcock finally got what he needed, but it was like pulling teeth.

Still, as was typical, Hitchcock got the last laugh.  It’s customary in films like this for the studio to include a credit saying something like “The producers wish to thank the Department of the Interior for their unwavering cooperation and support in the making of this motion picture.”  Sound familiar?   Well, when the studio in this case (MGM) drew up the final credits, Hitchcock told them to remove that particular slide.  He said he refused to give the Park Service any publicity whatsoever after they had unnecessarily made life so difficult for him.

(We always find it ironic when certain individuals in positions of authority deem it necessary to “insert” themselves into a process where they have no experience or expertise.  All they usually do is “gunk up the works.”  In this case,”North by Northwest” was a unique and wonderful opportunity for the Park Service to promote itself and Mount Rushmore.  How easy it would have been to serve as an engine helping push this train along, rather than someone riding the brake the entire way…)

The final sequence is one of the most celebrated in Hitchcock’s storied career.  With some incredibly beautiful matte paintings courtesy of art director and longtime collaborator Robert Boyle.   Years later, Boyle described why he liked working with Hitchcock:

No director I’ve worked with knew as much about films as he did.  A lot of directors I worked with know a great deal, but they didn’t have his technical skill…he was always trying to make a visual statement, and there never was such a thing as a throwaway shot.”

Ironically though, in a scene leading up to the famed Mount Rushmore sequence, you’ll find one of the most notable and amusing bloopers in cinema history.  It’s the scene in the movie where Cary Grant meets Eva Marie Saint at the Park’s cafeteria.  (If you’ve ever been there, it looks like it hasn’t changed a bit in 50 years…)   In the story, Ms. Saint pretends to “shoot” Cary Grant with a gun loaded with blanks in order to convince the bad guys she’s on their side.   The ruse is deliberately staged in a crowded, public area so everyone can see it.

Like most movie scenes, this one was rehearsed and shot multiple times until Hitchcock was satisfied with the take.  But one small detail escaped even his eagle eye.  In the background was a small boy sitting at one of the dining tables with his back to the camera.  Who obviously knew what was coming.  When Eva Marie Saint pulls out the phony pistol, you can clearly see the kid  put both his fingers in his ears in anticipation of the gunshot to follow.  (And he probably never even got a copy of the script…).  Unlike a lot of other famous cinematic boo-boos, this one made it into the finished film, where you can still see it today.

There are multiple moving parts which make “North by Northwest” such a fun film to watch:  the action sequences, the perfect blending of humor and suspense, the inventive opening titles, and Bernard Herrmann’s fabulous musical score, among others.  But we wanted to highlight another key element which help make this particular film a fan favorite:   the extremely sophisticated and clever dialogue.

Dialogue may not even be the right term.  “Repartee” is how Lehman describes the verbal exchanges.   Whatever you call it, the words that come out of the character’s mouths represent a style of wit which has all but vanished from today’s movie landscape.  And they’re delivered with such perfect precision by Cary Grant and the rest of the cast, you begin to realize what your old Aunt Edna was talking about when she said “they don’t make ’em like that anymore…”

“North by Northwest” is so full of juicy lines, they’re just as much fun as the set pieces.  As just a sample, here are some of our favorites:

Cary Grant:  “I’m an advertising man, not a red herring.  I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders who depend upon me for a living.  And I don’t intend to disappoint them by getting myself slightly killed!” 

Cary Grant on the phone telling his mother some people tried to murder him:  “These two men poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. (Pause)  No…THEY DIDN’T USE A CHASER!!”

James Mason (as Vandamm):  “Has anyone told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely…?”
Cary Grant: “Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.”
Vandamm:  “Your very next role.  You’ll be quite convincing,  I assure you.”

Government Agent: “War is hell…even when it’s a cold one.” 

Eva Marie Saint (while clinging with Cary Grant to the top of Mount Rushmore): “What happened to the first two marriages?”
Cary Grant: “My wives divorced me.  They said I led too dull a life.”

But it’s the sexual connotations in some of the lines between Grant and his leading lady that really raise an eyebrow. Suffice to say, even in the more conservative atmosphere of the1950s, audiences knew exactly what they were talking about:

Eva Marie Saint: “He followed me from the hotel.”
Vandamm: “He was in your room?”
Cary Grant: “Sure.  Isn’t everybody?”

Cary Grant (while swapping suits): “Now what can a man do with his clothes off in 20 minutes?”
Eva Marie Saint “He could always take a cold shower.”

Eva Marie Saint: “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”
Cary Grant: “You’ve already eaten…”
Eva Marie Saint: “But YOU haven’t.”

(In the original cut of the film, Eva Marie Saint actually says “I never make love on an empty stomach”.  But the studio insisted on redubbing her line.  If you watch her lips, you can see they don’t match what she’s saying.)

There’s plenty more where that came from–but we promised Aunt Edna we’d keep this clean enough for the kids.  There’s also a reference to a homosexual relationship between Vandamm and his primary henchman Leonard–played by Martin Landau. (Such subjects were completely taboo on movie screens in the 1950s).   Leonard tells Vandamm about his “woman’s intuition” that something’s awry.  And Vandamm responds by accusing him of being jealous.

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the final shot in the picture.  For here’s where Hitchcock pushed the envelope right past the censors’ very noses.

One of the tasks that Hitchcock gave his second unit crew was to get a shot of a train entering a tunnel.  At the time, no one knew what he had in mind.  Most assumed it would be part of the coverage for the train trip depicted earlier in the picture.  But it shows up right at the climax to the film, as Cary Grant reaches down and pulls Eva Marie Saint to safety from the top of Mount Rushmore.  The shot quickly transitions to the same identical motion as Grant pulls her up to join him in the top bunk of a railway car.  And then immediately cuts to the shot of the train entering a tunnel. Followed by the words THE END.  If you can’t figure out what that’s supposed to mean, just let us know and we’ll pass along Aunt Edna’s phone number.  We’re pretty sure she can help you out.

When “North by Northwest” opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York, it was an immediate smash.  Over the years, its reputation among espionage-related films has been eclipsed somewhat by the flashier James Bond pictures, but in terms of style and sophistication, it can more than hold its own.

For years afterward, Lehman would give lectures at various film schools across the country on the art of screenwriting and storytelling.  He was always flattered by the number of students who would approach and tell him that “North by Northwest” was their favorite movie of all time.  Many of them confessed their obsession with the film had even led them to doing dissertations on his ingenious script and dialogue.

Even at the time, Hitchcock and Lehman knew they were on to something special.  One night over dinner, the director had a few too many martinis and confided to his screenwriter what to him, at least, the art of cinema was all about:

“You know, we’re not making a movie.  We’re constructing an organ…we press this chord and now the audience laughs, and then we press that chord and they gasp, and we press these notes and they chuckle.  Someday we won’t even have to make the movie.  We’ll just attach them to electrodes and play the various emotions for them to experience in the theater.”

It’s tempting to focus on the cynicism inherent in that kind of perspective.  But to do so would miss the larger point.   Hitchcock knew his primary job was to entertain, and was cognizant of the fact that it went hand in hand with the art of emotional manipulation.  He’s also famous for saying that “drama is nothing more than real life–with all the dull parts cut out.”  We’ve never heard a better description than that of what constitutes a good story.

Years ago, we attended a panel discussion with Hitchcock’s daughter Pat.  One of the members of the audience asked her why her father’s films remain so popular after all these years.  Her answer was simple:  “Because he made his pictures for the audience.  And no one else.”  At first, we thought this was a softball question followed by a fluff answer. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized all she was doing was hitting the nail on the head.

As Hitchcock himself said in a promotion short he appeared in for “North by Northwest”:  “I promise you nothing but entertainment and a vacation from all your problems…as it was for me.”   In other words, Hitchcock enjoyed entertaining the public as much as they liked watching his movies.  That’s another secret to good storytelling:  a genuine desire to engage your listeners–or viewers–and ensure they have a good time.  (Something this blog honestly tries to do as well.)

“North by Northwest” was to be Hitchcock’s last successful “fun” picture.  As he turned 60, years of poor eating habits and a lack of exercise began to take their inevitable toll in the form of various ailments.  While it’s hard to draw a direct correlation, around this time many of Hitchcock’s long-time collaborators started noticing a change in his demeanor.  Within a few years, he had a falling out with several of them, including composer Bernard Herrmann.  From this point on, Hitchcock seemed more willing to indulge his darker impulses, both when it came to the subject matter contained in his films, as well as with the beautiful actresses he worked with (like Tippi Hedren).  There were still some classic movies left in Hitchock’s career, but none with the playful charm of “North by Northwest.”

In closing, we’d like to offer up this excerpt from Peter Fitzgerald’s short film “Destination Hitchcock.” to help explain why this man—perhaps the most famous director in film history—is still often called “The Master of Suspense”.  It goes a long way toward describing the enduring appeal of his movies:

“His genius was tapping into the most basic of human emotions – fear.  However, the way he created fear in his films was far more cutting than depicting scenes of extreme violence.  Hitchcock put us in touch with how we could become unwitting victims of secrets, betrayals, and even government plots in the midst of our everyday lives…”

What’s being described here is a formula that Hitchcock used over and over again to delicious effect.  In fact, it’s hard to name any other director in Hollywood–past or present–who is so highly regarded by both the high and low-brow segments of the movie-going public.  You may not believe it, but (most) film critics are just like the rest of us.  It might be their job, but when they go to the movies, all they want to do is have a good time too.

…and “North by Northwest” certainly fits that bill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Film History 101 (Part 3)

When seeking examples of a solidly entrenched status quo, you had to look no further than Hollywood in 1940s. And that’s just happens to be where we left off in our last blog post providing an overview of film history. During that decade, the Hollywood studio system was at its zenith. If you were an actor or actress during that era, you almost certainly were under contract to one of the big Hollywood Studios: MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Columbia, or Universal. You didn’t have a choice of projects to work on. Unless you were a big enough star and an ego to match, the studio picked your parts. Refusal meant a blacklist, for there was no shortage of people trying to break into the business.

Directors didn’t fare much better. The concept of “final cut” didn’t exist yet. With few exceptions, directors were handed their projects, babysat the production on the set, and handed over the raw daileys to the producers and editors who actually put the movie together. In this world, the producer was king. 1940 also marked the year that independent producer David O. Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock over from England. Although his first film, “Rebecca” was a huge critical and commercial success, Hitchcock soon chafed under Selznick’s micromanagement. It would be another 11 years before Hitchcock, having fulfilled his contract with Selznick, had the autonomy to start churning out the classic films in the style we remember today.

But the studio system did have its advantages. Film making became an assembly line process. And the studio heads had fine-tuned the process to the point where they could consistently churn out superior (if formulaic) product under amazing pressure. The Best Picture winner in 1941 was “How Green Was My Valley.” The shoot was a difficult one, and combined on-location photography with studio shoots. The cast was enormous, and the script went through multiple rewrites. But the final film looks effortless. It’s almost impossible to believe that principle photography began in May of 1941, and the completed film was in theaters by September of that same year.

“Casablanca” is another prime example of what the studio system was capable of producing during this time frame. But the joke was that no one on the set knew what the film was actually about. Most never even saw the script. They just took direction and only knew to do what they were told. When Bogart nodded for the band to play the French national anthem, he had no idea what song he was asking for. It was all shot separately. Sometimes on completely different days. As cogs in a machine, the guiding principle was that the sharing of information between participants was unnecessary. (Sound familiar?)

As you might guess, this assembly line process led to a dearth of creativity. The above exceptions aside, most of the films of the early 1940s fell neatly into categories of mass entertainment. MGM turned out one musical after another. (They were the genre favored by studio head Louis B. Mayer). Lassie pictures were also popular. The anti establishment humor of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Mae West was replaced by more conventional offerings from people like the Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and Danny Kaye. Over at Universal, they were repackaging all of their monster movies into a series of sequels and re-teamings (Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man etc.)

Of course, World War II played a big part in this retreat to conventionality. During the war, all Hollywood scripts had to be sent to the Pentagon for approval. Anything deemed even marginally critical of the government or the war effort was immediately excised. For their part, the studio heads were more than happy to go along with this open version of censorship. Quite simply, the film industry was at an all time high in terms of profitability. As long as the money kept flowing and no one challenged their authority, all was well. Louis B. Mayer was the highest paid executive in the entire country at the time.  Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, and the other studio heads weren’t too far behind. Not too many people wanted to rock the boat.

But something interesting was going on over at RKO. As the smallest of the Hollywood studios, RKO had been rescued from the brink of bankruptcy by the release of King Kong seven years earlier, and had been trying to break into “big leagues” ever since. Toward that end, in 1940 they signed 25 year old Orson Welles to a contract that was totally unique in Hollywood up until that time.

Orson Welles was famous throughout the country for his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1937.  By mimicking an actual news broadcast, and deliberately timing it to happen at the moment he knew listeners would be tuning in from another radio program, Welles engineered a mass panic among people who became convinced that the Martians had actually landed. It’s the reason why to this day that whenever you see a simulated news broadcast on TV you always see it placed within an actual television set. Just to make sure the viewer doesn’t confuse the fictional newscast with the real thing.

Welles had a reputation as an artistic genius, and was much sought after by all of the major studios. But RKO offered him a contract unheard of at the time. Simply put, if Welles agreed to work within an agreed-upon budget, he could have complete artistic freedom. He could choose his own projects, pick his own crew, write his own scripts, and have complete control over the editing process. While the other studios might have been in a position to offer more money, they refused to give Welles what he (and most other directors) truly craved: creative control. And as soon as the ink was dry on the contract, industry wags were predicting trouble.

For his first project, Welles picked a thinly veiled portrait of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. He and Joseph Mankiewicz had authored a script called “American” and filled it with unmistakable references to the newspaper publisher. For his cast, Welles brought most of the theatrical group he had worked with for years in New York, the Mercury Theater. Welles himself would play the lead. For the music score, Bernard Hermann was hired. Eccentric but brilliant, Hermann would later be responsible for creating the music for classic films by Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), and Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver) .

But probably the most important piece to the puzzle occurred when cinematographer Gregg Toland walked into Welles office and asked to work with him. At the time, Toland was one of the most respected cameramen in the entire industry, and had been nominated for several Academy Awards for his work. Welles was taken aback and asked Toland why he would want to work with someone new to movies like himself. Toland replied that only someone who didn’t know anything about the business would be willing to try things that had never been attempted before. Toland wanted to push the envelope, and not be wedded to the studio’s conventional way of doing things.

The movie that Welles, Toland, and Mankiewicz helped create eventually took the title of Citizen Kane.  Every ten years the American Film Institute polls a large contingent of film critics and industry players to name the 100 greatest American films ever made. The most recent poll was in 2007. Out of the top 10, only one film kept its same position from 1997. And that was Kane in the top spot. In fact, starting in the 1950s, almost every film poll, both domestically, and internationally, has named “Citizen Kane” as the best film ever made.

Now, that’s an extremely lofty and subjective title. And it’s hard for some people today to appreciate why Kane, nearly 70 years after it’s release, is so universally lauded as the Mount Everest of cinema. Even it’s staunchest supporters have to admit it has some extremely fierce and stiff competition.

But to appreciate Kane, one has to understand that it “invented” a lot of cinematic conventions that we today take for granted. Through collaboration, experimentation, brainstorming, and sheer luck, Welles and company advanced the art of film way beyond anything that had come before. After The Great Train Robbery, Birth of a Nation, and King Kong, Kane was THE NEXT GREAT LEAP FORWARD (with apologies offered to Chairman Mao). In fact, Kane blazed so much of a trail, that it’s difficult to think of another film since 1941 that has had as great an impact on the art form. Specifically as it’s used to tell stories. Cinema is a language. And Kane is responsible for a lot of the vocabulary we use today.

Not to turn this entire piece into a boring film school lecture, but it’s useful to list some of the innovations that Kane brought to the movies:

Deep Focus Photography. Kane was the first film to open up the depth of the frame. In practical terms, this meant keeping both the subjects in the foreground and background in sharp focus. If you’re into photography, you know this means an extremely large f/stop (e.g. small aperture). Legend has it that the amount of light needed to pull this trick off in 1941 was so intense that Toland had to coat the camera lenses with vaseline to cut down on the glare. But once deep focus was achieved, the film frame was freed from its historical reliance on two dimensions (height and width). It now had a third: depth. Which meant that action could be taking place simultaneously up close to the camera, as well as way in the back. Which naturally led to Kane’s next innovation:

The Long Take. Increased depth of field also meant that a filmmaker didn’t necessarily need to cut to a closeup of the action. Instead, he could let the scene play out…often with multiple elements interacting in the frame. The end result was a single shot that could be held for several minutes…without losing the audience’s attention. This is an extremely difficult feat to pull off, and often involves split second timing between multiple elements in the frame. In film parlance, this is called blocking a scene. The French call it “Mise-en-scene”, or literally “putting in the scene”. Its artistic opposite is the montage (see any Michael Bay movie to get an education in the latter).

At the time, the long shot opened up new storytelling possibilities. In “Citizen Kane”, for example, there is scene where the young Charles Foster Kane plays with his sled outside in the snow while his parents discuss giving him over to a trustee. The camera dollies back and forth inside the cabin (often through furniture) while you see the boy playing through an open window. As Kane’s future is decided, the boy goes up and down in the frame created by the window in the background. It’s all timed to the discussion going on in the cabin. Until his mother signs the papers, and the boy completely falls from view.

The setup for something like this involves an extraordinary amount of work. Future filmmakers would build on Kane and create even more elaborate tracking shots. Welles himself contributed a bench-mark standard with the opening of another film he directed in 1955: Touch of Evil. That one started with someone planting a bomb in a car. The camera then travels over the rooftops and follows the car several blocks through a city before it explodes. The opening of Robert Altman’s The Player in 1992 has a long take involving some 30 speaking parts. It lasts over 8 minutes and goes in and out of several buildings.  Goodfellas also features an elaborate tracking shot as Ray Liotta takes Lorraine Bracco  on an early date by walking through the basement and kitchen of a nightclub before arriving at their table.   The opening shot of Boogie Nights likewise has an amazingly long take featuring a moving camera.  More recently, Children of Men offered what is probably the two most elaborate shots ever put on film. (Granted, with some CGI assistance…) One is the scene where the car is ambushed in the forest. The other is the final shootout in the slums. Try to find where the camera cuts. It doesn’t. Then try to imagine how much planning went into setting up those shots with all the explosions and people. And try to think about how many times they probably had to shoot each scene until they got it right.  It’s truly remarkable stuff…and it all started with “Citizen Kane”.

Non-Linear Narrative Structure. Kane was the first film to show that a story didn’t have to be told in a straight line. It tells the life story of an individual through many eyes. Often out of order. Welles proved that this doesn’t have to be confusing. Before breaking it into pieces, Kane opens with a fake “newsreel” that recounts Charles Foster Kane’s life. That way, the audience always knows where they are in the story, no matter who is telling it.  Looking for a modern example of this technique? Try “Titanic”. It shows you an animated re-creation of the ship sinking before Rose even starts her story. That way, you know exactly what’s happening as you follow the characters through the main event. Without having to stop the narrative and provide any messy exposition. Memento, Goodfellas, The Godfather Part II, Pulp Fiction, and even Definitely, Maybe are other examples of popular films with non-linear stories to tell. These days, we don’t bat an eye at such movies. But Kane was the first to show us that audiences are smarter than filmmakers often give them credit for, and could handle a story that “jumps around.”

Shooting in “Thirds”. Prior to Kane, movies were primarily shot in what is called a “Master Shot” approach. The actors played out a scene, and the director shot it with a wide shot. Then, the actors repeated their lines, but with the camera positioned in a medium shot. After that, the camera came in for close ups, and the scene was repeated again for a third, fourth, or even fifth time. And so on and so forth for most of the movie. The takes were then handed over to the editing department, who worked with the producer to select the best shots and intercut them appropriately. There were obvious exceptions, but in the Hollywood Studio System, this was how the assembly line process worked. This is one reason why modern audiences find some old films boring. Too often, they were based on this conventional structure.

Welles, being new to movies, thought outside the box. He saw each shot as relating to the previous shot as well as the one that followed. This became known as “shooting in thirds,” because using this approach, shots naturally came in groups of three. No master shot was needed to establish a scene. Each shot made sense because it logically followed the one that came before, and led to the one that came after. Only if the chain was broken would things get confusing. Once again, this led to more varied types of films, which could adapt their styles to the types of stories they told. You’d be hard pressed to find any films made today that aren’t shot in thirds. The master shot approach, while still workable, is a rare bird these days. You may spot it in individual dialogue scenes, but never for an entire movie.

New Transitions. In the past, movie relied on long dissolves to denote the passage of time. A lot still do. But Kane showed there were other more interesting ways to play time traveler. In one famous scene, Kane is having breakfast with his new wife. Things are fine. But as a montage unfolds, the viewer is able to watch the disintegration of the marriage over several years at the same breakfast table. By the final shot, the couple aren’t even speaking to each other…and the wife is reading a rival newspaper. This all happens in about a minute, and perfectly communicates their relationship in an extremely economical way. In other movies of the time, conveying this information might take up a half hour of screen time. In another shot, Kane’s trustee utters the words “Merry Christmas…” The camera cuts to a totally different scene, where the actor finishes the phrase with “…and a Happy New Year”. We’ve leaped 20 years into the future…with a single cut and a well known verbal phrase to bridge the gap. Such innovations meant that movies could now move faster–and communicate more–in a much shorter time frame.

Optical Effects. Film scholars also enjoy the film because it’s chock full of “tricks” and visual effects. Once Welles discovered the optical printer, he treated it like his own personal toy, and used it to put hundreds of fake shots into the finished film. Most movies used trick photography to depict dinosaurs, natural disasters, landscapes on other worlds, etc. But Welles realized that sometimes the best optical effects were the ones you didn’t even notice. He’d transpose actors over each other who never actually met, combined miniatures with real sets so as no one could tell the difference, and used roving visuals to expand the scope of the film.

Hand held shots, boom shots, low shots, high shots, panning shots…these were some of the unusual camera techniques that Kane exploited. Another amazing fact about the movie is that it was shot with only two different types of lenses. Many cinematographers today point out that Welles and Toland had pulled off the near impossible. The finished product looks like it was made with a hundred different cameras. And in the process blazed a (seemingly effortless) trail that cameramen  continue to follow today.

Relatable Themes. Lastly, Kane explored the dark side of human nature, and showed that characters could be depicted in shades of gray. In depicting the life story of it’s protagonist, it showed both the good and bad facets of his personality. And it finishes with one of the most iconic (and ironic) twist endings in film history.   If you don’t know what Rosebud is, google it. (Trivia: Steven Spielberg today owns one of the original “Rosebuds” from the film).

The list above is just a small sample of the fun stuff in “Citizen Kane. ” But most of it was lost on the audience at the time. “Citizen Kane” is unique in that it simultaneously created and destroyed Orson Welles’ career via this one film.  Most of Hollywood was envious of Welles’ groundbreaking contract, and everyone outside of RKO was waiting for him to fail. Other people outside of the film industry were taken aback by the perceived attack on William Randolph Hearst. To be fair, Hearst, who was well respected in the film and publishing world, had never done anything to hurt Welles. To some, the film came across as a mean-spirited and childish attack without any justification. Hearst was not a “monster” in any sense of the word. He personally chose to ignore “Citizen Kane.”   But none of the newspapers in his empire gave it any publicity whatsoever.

Partly as a result of this, Kane opened to mixed reviews and only fair business. Some were puzzled by its break from accepted conventions. When it failed to live up to it’s advanced buzz, Welles was quickly branded as a “spoiled artist” who had no regard for budgets or fiscal responsibility. This was not really true. “Kane” had been completed only slightly over budget and behind schedule. But the label stuck with Welles for the rest of his career. He was deemed “uncontrollable” and held up as a prime example as to why the established studio system couldn’t tolerate future mavericks.

Welles was still very young at the time. When Kane was finished, he was still only 26 years old. For his follow on, he chose The Magnificent Ambersons.  It continued to expand on many of Kane’s cinematic innovations, but using even darker tones. When the film was finished, World War II was still in full swing and the State Department asked Welles to travel to Brazil to make a documentary to promote U.S.-Latin American relations. While he was out of the country, Ambersons was previewed for a single audience.  They simply hated it.

RKO had finally had enough. They told Welles about the disastrous screening, took control of the film, and radically cut out half of it. They also shot a new ending which was totally out of sync with the rest of the film, and released as the bottom half of a double feature with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. To rub salt in the wound, they also destroyed the original negative so Welles could never restore the film to it’s original form. Peter Bogdanovich tells the story of watching television with Welles in his later years when Ambersons was being broadcast. He says Welles broke down into tears. In its abbreviated version, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is still a fun film to watch today. But along with the silent film Greed it remains a stark example of a masterpiece lost to cinema history.

Welles would go on to make other films. The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Othello, and others are good, even great movies. But Welles, in his own words, spent 95 percent of the rest of his life trying to arrange financing, and only 5 percent of his time actually making films. He took more and more acting jobs (for which he was still in demand) as a way to make a living. He may have gotten some solace as “Citizen Kane”‘s reputation continued to grow through the years. As previously mentioned, starting in the 1950s, it’s been frequently named as the best film ever made. Welles died in 1985, probably best known at the time as a spokesman for Paul Masson wines.

Well’s career is a great example of how thoroughly bureaucracy and the accepted ways of doing things can be embedded. After all, if something is perceived to work fine (like the old Hollywood Studio System), people are doubly reluctant to give it up. But Welles and “Citizen Kane” also demonstrate the benefits of change, and what it can ultimately lead to.

For, there were other changes afoot in the film industry following World War II which had a direct bearing on what we see in the multiplex today.  We’ll get to that in the next edition of Miracle Movies.

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Film History 101 (Part 2)

In their book “Shoot Out”, Peter Bart and Peter Guber, former movie producers and two of the industry’s ultimate insiders, describe the concept of creative collaboration when working on a Hollywood film as something they call “The Crucible.” When putting a film together, they readily admit that no one has any real idea about how the final product will turn out.  In Hollywood, the only adage that seems to be universally true is “Nobody Knows Anything.” Bart and Guber talk about how no matter the talent involved…the marketing done before hand…the money spent…or the past track record of the participants, no one really knows if the final film is going to be any good. The entire process of making movies is a convoluted and mysterious one…even to this day.

But speaking from experience, Bart and Guber also hit the creative friction theory square on the head. They noticed that the best films always seem to come from the most disruptive sets. Sets where the actors and directors didn’t get along…where the producers and crew were always fighting, where the stars were constantly trying to one-up each other for more screen time.  For some explained reason, these kind of films were ultimately the most successful, both critically and financially. The idea being that conflict is what pushed individuals to take it to the next level, and to do their best work. By contrast, movies where everyone got along just great, where everything stayed within budget and on schedule, where there were no star billing issues…these proved to be the lame ducks. They were always missing something. Even if technically proficient, they always were lacking that magical chemical ingredient that makes you anxious to see the movie through to the end.

So, in our ongoing musings about film history, we thought it might be fun to pick up where we left off in our last post.  We’d like to look at the developments in the film industry right after the introduction of sound films, and see how the economic conditions of the time led to stress and creative friction in the workplace…and as a result produced a preponderance of classic films that stand the test of time.  Because when asked to name the two decades in the past century with the most classic movies, most film historians would immediately name the 1930’s and the 1970’s.  Is it a coincidence that these were also the two decades that featured the most serious economic downturns in the last 100 years?  Maybe…and maybe not.

In hindsight, the conversion to sound film happened surprisingly quickly. Public demand for talkies mandated a rollover that destroyed projects and careers overnight. Once the studio executives (and public) realized that matinee idols like John Gilbert and Ramon Navarro had high squeaky voices, no one wanted them as romantic leads anymore. The movie “Singin in the Rain” does as good a job as anything in describing the challenges that Hollywood faced during the first days of sound film. No one knew how to hide microphones on a set. The result was long, involved dialogue sequences with all of the actors speaking directly into a potted plant, or a fake telephone.

If you watch the scene in 1929’s The Cocoanuts where Groucho Marx shows some prime Florida real estate to Chico…keep your eye on the map the two of them keep picking up. The rustle of the paper was so distracting to the microphone, that they had to soak it in oil. It definitely doesn’t make any noise…but on screen it looks like it’s dripping.

Also, right around that time, the most expensive Hollywood film ever in production was nearing completion. Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels” was a true epic with some amazing aerial sequences. In one shot, two planes deliberately crash head on in mid-air. (The pilots had bailed out off-screen seconds before the collision).  Imagine Hughes’ dismay when he was about to release a film he’d spent 3 years on, only to realize that he now needed to re-shoot the entire production for sound. (He did keep many of the aerial sequences…including an amazing attack on a German Zeppelin…with the sound dubbed in).

Another interesting tidbit about the conversion to sound was the change in frame rates. In the silent era, films were hand-cranked, and projected at 18 frames per second. But when sound came along, due to the placement of the sound head in the camera mechanism, it was necessary to speed up the rate the film traveled through the camera. As a result, sound films are shot and projected at 24 frames per second…a 33% increase. The reason this is important is what happens when old silent films are shown on modern projectors. They speed up. For decades, people thought that people move unnaturally fast in silent cinema. Melodramatic scenes looked ludicrous and the pacing turned tear-jerkers into laugh-fests. This is one of the reasons that only silent comedies remained popular. They were usually visual in nature, and only seemed funnier when going at warp speed.  Partly as a result of this, many other genres from the silent cinema were quickly forgotten.

But, artistically, the biggest casualty of sound was the film industry itself. Faced with the myriad of problems that shooting in sound presented, film reverted to it’s infancy. Static cameras, simple setups, and endless talking were the norms in the first few years of the sound era. Audiences were OK with this while the novelty of talkies were still new…but it wasn’t long until they were clamoring for better stories and more excitement.

As the depression deepened, and the public mood darkened, filmmakers began to push the boundaries of social norms. Films like Red Dust, Red-Headed Woman, Dinner at Eight, I’m No Angel, Scarface, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Min and Bill, Freaks, and even King Kong explored themes of sexuality, alcoholism, horror, criminality, and domestic violence.

Some of the subject matter that got through was simply remarkable.  But, anyone who studies social trends can guess what happened next.  In 1934, as part of a reaction to public complaints, a Production Code was implemented. All Hollywood scripts needed to be approved by the Hays Office…who kept a sharp eye out for any detail that they felt undermined public morality.

It’s no exaggeration to say that none of the classic films named above would have seen the light of day under the Code.  In fact, when “King Kong” was re-released in 1937, about 3 minutes were censored, and all of the action sequences were intentionally darkened.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that the footage was found (in an attic in Pennsylvania) and restored. “Freaks” was  removed from circulation, and banned in Great Britain for 30 years.  Mae West found all of her scripts and one-liners watered down to the point where she didn’t want to make films anymore.

In addition to banning any depiction of sex, drugs, or overt violence, the Code had other curious clauses. For example, anyone committing a crime had to be portrayed in a non-sympathetic light. They had to get their “comeuppance” at the end of the movie. This simple rule would come to dominate storytelling in the movies until the 1960’s.  And then, there was also the odd stipulation that when any two people were sitting on a bed or couch onscreen, they both had to keep at least one foot on the floor.  It made for some awkward (and unintentionally hilarious) camera setups.

Well…so maybe these couldn’t exactly be called positive developments, but the 1930’s saw many other advances in film history which definitely were:

Color Film. It was during the 1930s that full color film became technically viable. Starting with the two tone films done at Warner Brothers in the first part of the decade (Mystery of the Wax Museum), by the mid-1930s we had films like Becky Sharp and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The decade closed with The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, both of which still look gorgeous some 80 years later.

Major Advances in Visual Effects. “King Kong” stood atop the heap for the next 15 years as the most technically advanced film made up to that time (until 1948’s Mighty Joe Young).  Even today it remains a marvel of special effects and technical ingenuity.   But don’t forget some other visually impressive films from that era: The Last Days of Pompeii, The Devil Doll, The Rains Came, The Invisible Man, Tarzan and His Mate, San Francisco and Trader Horn.

Expressionist Lighting. With the collapse of the German economy (and the rise of Nazism), many of the most talented filmmakers in Germany fled to the U.S. Many set up shop at Universal Studios, where they brought their expressionist lighting techniques. Why is this important? Universal is where Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man were born. The lighting and motifs created for Universal horror films throughout the 1930s are now a solid part of our popular culture… especially around Halloween.

Creative Juices. The 1930’s saw other new stars, and new series, which to this day are also part of our popular heritage. Universal’s horror series is just one example.  Here are some more: The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Busby Berkley Musicals, Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, The Thin Man, Gangster Movies, Tarzan, Andy Hardy, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Ronald Coleman, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Jimmy Cagney,…the list goes on and on…

1939. By the end of the decade, it was safe to say that the film industry had regained all of the artistic ground it had lost when sound came in. In fact, film historians are in almost complete agreement that 1939 is THE GREATEST YEAR in Film History. To this day, there has been no other year in which so many great films were released. Here it was, only 10 years since the advent of sound, and the industry had come light years, both technically and artistically. In retrospect…it’s truly astonishing to compare films made in 1939 with those of 1929.  There is simply no other ten year span in film history which reflected such major advances in the art form.   Film had finally arrived.  And was now the most important venue for pop culture in the 20th Century.  As proof, here is just a partial sampling of what Hollywood produced in 1939….enough classic films to populate 20 years…not just a single one.

1939 FILMS
The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Son of Frankenstein, Ninotchka, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Another Thin Man, Beau Geste, The Rains Came, Dark Victory, Babes in Arms, Destry Rides Again, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Four Feathers, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Of Mice and Men, Only Angels Have Wings, The Roaring Twenties, The Women, Each Dawn I Die, and Young Mr. Lincoln.

1939 was a watershed year in film history. It closed out the decade and marked the end of an era in popular culture. There would never be another like it.

But in September of that year Hitler invaded Poland…and World War II began. And nothing in Hollywood would ever be same again.

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Film History 101 (Part 1)

One of the odd things about the birth of the movies is that no one can really agree on who invented them. During the early 1890’s there seems to have been several people around the world who simultaneously developed working film cameras. Most other major inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries had their major defining moment (the Wright Brother’s first flight, the Atomic Bomb, Sputnik, “Watson come here!”, etc.). But not film. Rather, it just sort of showed up, and at first, few people paid attention.

The first filmmakers who saw its commercial possibilities were the Lumiere Brothers in France. They borrowed the technology, built their own cameras, and began to capture everyday life in short films that lasted about a minute. What makes many of their films remarkable was the fact that for a very short window of time, the subjects they captured were completely real. Since few people knew what film cameras were, the reactions and images they recorded were perfectly natural. One of their earliest efforts was “Workers Leaving the Factory”. Watching the footage, one feels as if you have a true window into the past, and see people as they truly were. Sometimes it almost feels like you’re watching ghosts.

But the Lumiere Brothers made other films too. One of them involved putting a film camera on a platform at a rail station to capture a train arriving at the station. Since there weren’t such things as a movie theaters in those days, they projected their films at a Parisian Cafe. The owner of the cafe paid them a small fee in the hope that the new novelty would attract patrons. But when the wall sized image of the arriving train was shown to the customers, a panic ensued. In fear of being crushed by the train, the lunch crowd all ran out of the cafe. Having never seen a movie before, they were unable to differentiate film from reality. And the Lumiere Brothers, (as well as the none too happy cafe owner), suddenly realized the power of this new art form.

Almost all of the films produced during this period were novelties. Short and forgettable, they merely recreated short scenes from everyday life, often with their subjects showboating for the camera. (Update the technology, and we might just have a YouTube analogy). The next big step in the evolution of the movies came in 1903 with the release of Edwin Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery.” It was still a short film (less than 5 mins). But for the first time, the medium attempted to tell a story. It has a beginning, middle, and a resolution. It also ended with one of the characters pointing a pistol directly at the camera and shooting. Audiences were thrilled. The fact that it was a Western filmed in New Jersey didn’t seem to bother anyone. It was enormously popular and fueled a demand for more movies that told actual tales.

But films still had a major problem to overcome. It was a new technology, but as they gained in popularity, the movies were still wedded to the only other form of mass entertainment available at the time: the theater.  As the happenings on screen became more and more elaborate, they still almost all had one thing in common: an immovable camera. Just as one attends a play and sits in the same seat the entire time, the camera was usually bolted down too, while the action played out in front of it. Because in the beginning, theater was the only other art form people could relate to.

The greatest example of this was the otherwise ground breaking film A Trip to the Moon. There’s a famous shot where the spaceship approaches the moon for a crash landing. To get this effect, George Melies (the filmmaker) built a giant paper-mache’ replica of the moon (complete with a man’s face in the center). This fake moon was about 4 feet tall, and extremely heavy. To get it to approach the camera, they put the giant moon on a large dolly, built a ramp, and pushed it toward the camera. It never occurred to them to actually move the camera instead. The fact that the camera weighed a fraction of the moon prop, and that they picked it up and moved it all the time anyway after the day’s shoot was over seemed lost on them. Because, they were still thinking of film as an extension of the experience one had in the theater.

While film continued to make gradual strides in it’s story construction and camera placement, it would take another film revolutionary to push it to the next level. In 1915, D.W. Griffith released the first film which modern audiences would recognize as having a contemporary structure. “Birth of a Nation” ran nearly 3 hours, and interwove multiple characters and plots in an historical context. It recreated famous events, but ground its stories with everyday people that the audience could relate to. Every historical drama you’ve ever seen can trace it’s roots to this film. Unfortunately, “Birth of a Nation” also contains loads of offensive material that even audiences of the day condemned. The second half of the film remains almost unwatchable for it’s over the top distortions and ridiculous historical fallacies.

That’s one reason why many film historians have shifted D.W. Griffith’s legacy to his next film: Intolerance. Once again, Griffith tried to push the boundaries of the medium. He based the film on four completely separate stories that take place in vastly different time frames. The film starts out at a leisurely pace. After introducing each story, the film stays with each separate narrative for a fairly lengthy time, gradually shortening the time spent as the plots progress. As each part nears it’s climax, however, the cross-cutting reaches a fever pitch until the pace almost seems contemporary. The idea of parallel action and cross-cutting was a new concept for cinema, but one that any movie goer today would instantly recognize. Remember the scene in the “Dark Knight” where our hero races to save Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhardt at the same time? The camera cuts between all three of our protagonists, and then back to the Joker in the jailhouse as a way to build tension. This technique goes all the way back to 1916, and is now an entrenched part of the language of film editing.

“Intolerance” is also memorable for one of the greatest shots in film history. For the Babylon sequence, a gigantic set was built to showcase the decadence of the ancient civilization. The five story set was populated with dancers, elephants, and about a thousand extras. To capture the scene, Griffith’s cameraman, Billy Bitzer, put his camera into an actual balloon which “floated” into the set. The amount of coordination required is still mind-boggling. And it’s all in focus. This is one reason why “Intolerance” is the oldest of all the films chosen by the American Film Institute to represent the top 100 films of all time.

But if you’re still with us…let’s face it. Silent films are difficult for modern audiences to appreciate. Sound and slow story pacing have left them, well….boring. The only ones that hold up well are the comedies…mostly because of the visual nature of slapstick.

But there are a few–a precious few– that still almost qualify as entertainment. The 1920’s were the golden age of silent cinema. The Hollywood studios and silent movie-makers realized that film had limitless possibilities, both as art and as an entertainment medium. Toward that end, they began pushing the boundaries right up until the advent of sound in 1928.

When sound arrived, movies were reduced right back to their infancy. Static cameras, stagy melodrama, and boring stories. Once again, the new technology first looked like it would be a novelty, and people seemed to be more interested in hearing what their favorite star sounded like, rather than seeing a good movie.

Sound represented a major upheaval in the film industry. One, that 80 years later, we barely remember. Hopefully, in future blog posts (Part II), we’ll be able to talk more about this next stage in film history, and how people reacted to it.

But before we go there, we thought it only fair to come up with a list of the Top Ten Films of the Silent era. While we can’t actually recommend them as the entertainment of choice on a Saturday night, they’re still fascinating if you have any interest at all in the subject. Feel free to chime in if you disagree or have one to add on your own.

The Ten Greatest Silent Films

10. The Lost World (1925). Interesting and fun film which serves as a precursor to King Kong. (It had the same special effects team). About a bunch of explorers who travel to South America and encounter dinosaurs. They capture a brontosaurus and bring it back to London, where it escapes and demolishes the city. Amazing for it’s special effects and stop motion animation. Many people at the time actually thought the dinosaurs were real. (No exaggeration…)

9. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The world’s first psychological horror film. Dr. Caligari sends the somnambulist Cesare out to murder people and create havoc in small town. All of the sets in the film are warped in an expressionistic style. It’s not until the end of the film that you’re told that the film’s narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum. Pretty disturbing themes, especially given the age of the film.

8. The Last Laugh (1926). While the film tells the heartbreaking tale of a proud hotel doorman demoted to the washroom, the real star of the film is the moving camera. It flies around the hotel with unbelievable ease. Director F.W. Murnau took the possibilities of fluid film-making to an extreme which wasn’t equaled until the 1960s. (It’s not by accident that Murnau directed 3 of the films on this list).

7. Wings (1927). Winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s a World War I epic. As directed by William Wellman, it’s got great action sequences, inventive shots, and the “It” girl Clara Bow. Some of the war scenes still hold up, as does the emotional arc of the film as it spans several years in the lives of its characters.

6 . Sunrise (1927). Also directed by F.W. Murnau, it won the first (and only) Academy Award for Artistic Achievement. Full of inventive photography, it was remade (sort of) years later as A Place in the Sun. It’s about a young husband who almost loses everything by giving into the temptations of the modern world. A beautiful film to watch, if only for the great shots and visual storytelling.

5. Nosferatu. (1922). The first real vampire movie still has the power to creep people out, no doubt because of the makeup job on our main character. For years, the legend was that Nosferatu was played by a real life vampire…because the actor just doesn’t look human. A true classic with lots of inventive shots and visuals straight out of our nightmares. Also, our third film directed by F.W. Murnau.

4. The Gold Rush. (1925) . There’s no denying that Charlie Chaplin was a bona fide genius. But what most people today don’t realize is how effectively he combined slapstick with heart felt pathos. The reason most people put this film at the top of the Chaplin “Classics” list is that in addition to being hilarious, it’s also intensely sad in places. Trivia Question: In a worldwide poll years ago, people were asked to identify which cultural icon of the 20th Century was most widely recognized. Chaplin’s “The Tramp” came in second. Who came in first? Mickey Mouse.

3. The General (1926). Buster Keaton’s greatest film. Utilizing actual trains like toys for comic effect, it’s funny and amazing at the same time. The staging of the shot where a real train crosses a bridge which collapses into the river is still phenomenal.. In these days of CGI, it’s safe to say that no one will ever attempt to film something like that ever again.

2. Greed. (1925) One of Hollywood’s most notoriously difficult directors, Eric Von Stroheim sat down to film the book “McTeague” without a script. Instead he just opened the book to page one and started rolling film. Two years later, he had a film which was 9 hours long. Along the way, he demonstrated an obsession for detail that was legendary. If Greed was made today, it would easily be the most expensive film of all time. Stroheim didn’t exactly make friends with his studio bosses, who took the negative from him, cut it down to an hour and a half, and destroyed the rest of the film so he could never fix it. But what remains is an extremely powerful film with an unforgettable climax in Death Valley. The filming temperatures were over 120 degrees, and it you can almost feel the heat on screen. A dark, dark, film that’s simply fascinating to watch. If you care, it’s about a mismatched couple who win the lottery, and how the money destroys their lives.

1. Metropolis. (1926). The grand prize. Contrary to common perception, the greatest films in the world during the 1920s weren’t being made in Hollywood. They were being made in Germany. And “Metropolis” is probably the greatest of them all. About a city of the future, the visuals are immediately recognizable, and have been incorporated into everything from Flash Gordon to a Madonna music video. While it’s still full of silly melodrama and symbolism, the sets, miniatures, and other visuals are stunning. It’s even got some great scenes of flooding and general destruction. And its story of class warfare, politics, and social progress is easy to follow (and still relevant). At the time, “Metropolis” was the most expensive film ever made. It bankrupted UFA, the largest German film studio. For once, the film reflects the money and effort that went into it.

Here are some other silent films that might be worth your while: The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Big Parade, The Circus, Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., Safety Last, Seven Chances, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920 version), Pandora’s Box, Way Down East, Foolish Wives, and Broken Blossoms.

In Part Two, we’ll enter the sound era and talk about a lot of famous film personalities who still remain key components of our popular culture.

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