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Films discussed include: The Adventures of Captain Marvel The Big Clock Body and Soul Back Door to Heaven Blues in the Night Cabin in the Sky Caged Casablanca Champion Deadline at Dawn Destry Rides Again The Devil-Doll Diplomaniacs Dynamite Frankenstein G. I. Joe Give Us This Day Gun Crazy High Noon Hitler's Children Hold That Ghost Honky Tonk Keeper of the Flame Kiss the Blood off My Hands Kitty Foyle Lassie, Come Home The Lawless Life with Father The Long Night The Maltese Falcon The Man Who Reclaimed His Head Marked Woman Mayor of Hell Meet the People Mission to Moscow Monsieur Verdoux Mr. Smith Goes to Washington None but the Lonely Heart Our Vines Have Tender Grapes Phantom Lady The Philadelphia Story A Place in the Sun The President's Mystery Pride of the Marines The Public Enemy Ruthless The Sea Hawk Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror Stella Dallas Stormy Weather The Story of G.I. Joe Talk of the Town Theodora Goes Wild The Thin Man Thirty Seconds over Tokyo A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Watch on the Rhine The Wizard of Oz Woman of the Year
Author Biography: Paul Buhle is a lecturer in the American civilization department at Brown University. He co-authored The Encyclopedia of the American Left, Tender Comrades, and A Very Dangerous Citizen (with Dave Wagner). He writes for the Nation, the Guardian, and the Times Higher Education Supplement, among other publications. Dave Wagner is the former political editor of the Arizona Republic.
The Screenwriter's Fate
VETERAN WRITER W. R. BURNETT was on hand in 1930 for the Los Angeles premiere of the pace-setting crime drama Little Caesar, but as the credits were announced, he stirred in his seat, deeply frustrated. Proud studio officials introduced actors, director, and cinematographer onstage and finally—almost as an afterthought—the ultimate literary source. The emcee reportedly quipped, "there always has to be a writer," to which an embittered Burnett claims that he stage-whispered, "Screw you!" Burnett's description of a primal incident at the birth of sound film, demonstrating the indignity of the writer's trade, sidesteps one crucial element. Burnett was actually the novelist and not even the more important half of the film's two-man screenwriting team. His characteristic disrespect for the actual script ("it wasn't very good") typified the ways in which the ostensibly ignored and abused novelist remained still a head taller than the screenwriters. Conspicuously unmentioned at the same opening, their absence subtly suggested that perhaps there didn't really need to be that kind of writer at all.
Francis Faragoh, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, had taken over the script from a failed first attempt at adaptation and rewritten it from top to bottom, slicing away larger and larger parts of the novel to give the screen version what turned out to be its genre-creating credibility. A former theatrical avant-gardist hailed by The New York Times for his achievements, Faragoh was to experience ups and downstypical of the screenwriter's Hollywood, including prestigious assignments in some of the first color films to enduring family favorites. Unionism and left-wing politics, scarcely in his mind when he left New York, nevertheless shaped his studio career, his social and personal life. Faragoh offers a picture-perfect example of the truism that radical screenwriters were not born but made. Little Caesar also fairly presented for the first time the curious contradiction that the crime story along with women's films offered the right genre for the early exploration of social discontent and the subtle evasion of political censorship by the skilled writer.
In the beginning, with the slow rise of silent film and sudden emergence of producer-merchandisers in giant studios, the writer's job had been truly a mystery. Directors and important actors often composed the film plots as they went along, seeking to avoid repetition of details from some earlier movie while providing essentially the same package of saleable entertainment. Writers first broke in as "captionists," toiling for the studios to develop dialogue through explanatory sentences or "intertitles," and then eventually the plots. As film stories began to become more complex, around 1910, story departments were set up with two main purposes: to analyze material submitted for possible use, and to monitor (or mine) sources like Broadway theater, slick magazine fiction, and best-selling novels for ideas. The increasing difficulty of outright plagiarism, always a quietly happy notion in Hollywood, propelled studio executives to import proven talent. Except for European exiles, the outsiders were mostly New Yorkers.
But hardly radical ones. The sudden spurt of studio growth around 1920 created a demand for more writers—limited to those willing (with the rarest exceptions) to toe the political line. During the "new era" of apparently limitless capitalism (but also of the so-called Soviet Menace), the diversion of the masses' minds from social change to personal escape was openly discussed, and not only in the business or Marxist press but as a ready fact of life. It was as common a topic as scientific management ("Taylorism") or expanded overseas sales of American commodities generally. The steady stream of anti-Bolshevist or antiunion movies seldom drew big audiences, but writers were expected to celebrate the society of abundance even while drawing upon exotic themes, exploiting star appeal with sexual innuendo, and reproaching certain kinds of evildoers.
From a more value-neutral viewpoint, movie production also reorganized along lines already adopted by the makers of automobiles, steel, chemicals, and other commodities rationalized for domestic and international sales. Studio insiders set themselves to the task, complicated by the continuing chaos of the market and by the predilection of rising moguls, to staff their operations with relatives. Contemporary automobile makers if not the machine-tool makers who supplied the parts also had to please the public's current fantasies, even to create them. But there was a difference: Henry Ford and his competitors rarely had to bring in the equivalent of a noted playwright or novelist and then domesticate his or her creative energy. That was the rub, all around. The sound era once more multiplied the demand for writers, this time tenfold, virtually overnight. It also heightened the natural tensions between creative impulses and business practice at the historical moment of capitalist breakdown.
The global movie industry had already faced political and artistic challenges unknown in America. After the First World War, when the French lost their short-lived monopoly on world film production outside the United States (where French films were also heavily distributed), there arose in virtually every film capital from Moscow to Rome to Berlin a new generation of filmmakers whose political allegiances were solidly on the left. They were antiwar as a matter of course, in the wake of the recent horrors, and committed to telling stories of the vast urban populations at a time when censors and conservatives suppressed tales of crime and hunger as insults to national character. And so it was that a new, worldwide popular art with progressive political shading emerged, not only deeply rooted in the century's rapidly developing electromechanical technology but also in the social relations of the emerging industrial-urban population alongside social movements that were most closely identified with that population.
Back in the United States, themes of sympathy for the worthy poor and ridicule for authority had managed to find their way to the silent screen, usually in the guise of the heavily gendered melodrama or the antic Keystone Kops styles, but also in the artistic and overwhelmingly popular "Little Tramp" pictures. With fitting symbolism, the formation of United Artists in 1919 by Charles Chaplin and his star-colleagues Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford signaled the first of many efforts to defend creative control as well as distribution and profits from the effects of monopolization (more properly, oligopolization). UA succeeded—but only for its own small production team, spurring limited-scale "artistic" production in later decades. At the "Poverty Row" end of undercapitalized studios, independents grew up almost as fast as they collapsed, and were replaced by fresh contenders without offering serious competition to the mainstream. The giants themselves waxed stronger or weaker, merged and even sometimes collapsed. But they never lost confidence or overall control of the market until the late 1940s, when unexpected weaknesses found them at their most overgrown.
What Abraham Polonsky observed at the end of the century had been true almost from the beginning, that radicals and serious artists had dreamed endlessly of escaping the studio system. Some did. But major filmmaking took place almost exclusively within it at least through the Second World War. Scatterings of insurgents had to find their way within the maze and monopolies, not even to make peace with the less abusive sections of it but simply to create a workable niche for themselves and their friends. With genius suitable to the rapidly evolving medium, capable of creating a serious as well as brilliantly humorous cinema, the talented writers, along with their acting, directing, producing, and technical counterparts, needed the studios. Their talent for subverting the conservative standards of Hollywood film, usually deployed only within very limited ways until the close of the 1930s and even beyond, found expression in subtleties that managed to evade censors and critics alike.
These needs were likely to come together, in the short run, in sometimes highly curious ways, under the radar of political censorship but verging on the radar screen for censorship of other kinds. Neither crime films nor women's films allowed glimpses of a better world. But rebellious criminals gave audiences license for their outrage at the consequences of the economic collapse, and rebellious women gave female viewers in particular the psychic reinforcement that many craved. Studio assignments found radicalized writers more than prepared to turn in lively scripts on these subjects.
The studios were fortunate in another, closely related sense. By the last few years of silent films, Broadway had entered a lush moment along with the lively neighborhood and college theaters. Plenty of talent was available for the asking, and more on the way with the invention of the stage musical thanks to the concatenation of a sophisticated audience, talented actors, flourishing producers, and a circle of mostly Jewish lyricists and composers. And here we might take a first glance at a curious contradiction from within the consolidating studio system: that the rank and file of the opposition developed deep within the entertainment business at large and frequently from the most unexpected comers. Not a single genre would appear less susceptible to radical intervention than the musical, and no one—neither studio chiefs nor the musical artisans themselves—suspected just how progressive-minded these young men were to become or how heavily they would pay for it.
To commence with a single and improbable example: Ira Gershwin, who would host the anti-blacklist Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) meetings of Hollywood progressives in 1947, emerged as a major popular composer during the 1920s with Broadway hits in collaboration with his more famous brother, George. Ira's film credits stretched from Shall We Dance (1937) to Funny Face (1957). In 1929, former businessman Yip Harburg—who had been on hand in that famous moment when the first piano was delivered to the Gershwin family flat—began writing lyrics with the encouragement of his lifelong pal Ira, who effectively prepared Yip for future collaborators and film-score writers. By 1932, Yip had a hit show and had written to fellow future blacklistee Jay Gorney's shtetl-inflected melancholy tune the ultimate radicalizing musical statement of the Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" After various ups and (mostly) downs in Hollywood, Harburg recast the structure of a collapsing musical production through his songs, effectively realizing The Wizard of Oz (1939). He personally put the age-old radical "rainbow sign" into the movies, a feature absent from Oz's Populist literary original.
To take another fascinating if less spectacular example of the unexpected species of insurgent musical talent, sometime Broadway actor and stage manager Edward Eliscu, who worked with future Hollywood giant (and blacklistee) Sidney Buchman in Adirondacks summer entertainment, also began writing lyrics with some success during the late 1920s. The Depression's crushing effect on Broadway and a fortuitous call from Hollywood offered him a new setting; according to his testimony, he came West without a single self-conscious political impulse. Inside of a year, his songs, along with the gag routines of leftish Henry Myers and a young Joseph Mankiewicz, marked the hilariously anti-Establishment Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle Diplomaniacs (1933). Thereafter, Eliscu accommodated his skills to Eddie Cantor (himself soon to be an ardent actor-unionist and outspoken antifascist) in routine studio work.
Like Eliscu's intimate friend Mortimer Offner, a boyhood pal of Hungarian-Jewish director George Cukor and a frequent early screenwriter for Katharine Hepburn, and like his writing mentor, Francis Faragoh, Eliscu was gaining maturity. Buchman, Gorney, Harburg, Eliscu, Offner, and Faragoh would all go on the blacklist not so much for their deep political attachments—only Faragoh gained any prominence in Communist Party circles or even seems to have belonged for an extended period—as for their personal experiences and their loyalty to one another as Jews and as progressives in an uncertain America.
Hollywood of the early 1930s did not by any means rely wholly upon the training grounds that theater supplied, but it could not have come up with prestigious writers otherwise, or easily filled what Marxists might properly label the "reserve army of mental labor." In the depth of the Depression, studios had on staff something like eight hundred writers, full- or part-time, including lyricists. The story departments also employed within and outside the studios hundreds of "screen readers" of potential film-worthy material, men and a scattering of women from all backgrounds, intellectuals who (with left-wing guidance) eventually formed their own militant union but also often turned their jobs into stepping-stones writing scripts.
Actor-director Irving Pichel, one of the studio insiders who could rightly be called a cinematic theoretician, observed later that the emergence of sound at first seemed to set back film innovation a notch or two. Studio heads, who never lost their low regard for the former caption writers, saw themselves taking full advantage of the availability of theatrical plays by having it both ways. Now that they possessed ready-made scripts for sound production, they immediately sought to simplify movies into "screen plays," minimizing the expenses and trouble of increasingly sophisticated camera work that had been more and more skillfully realized in silent film; meanwhile, they could ignore the intentions of the playwrights as well, ordering rewrites according to formula.
These self-serving assumptions turned out to be doubly false. Audiences demanded and got steadily advancing innovations in technique and narrative, while writers insisted upon the point (without the personal prestige or power to drive it home) that film always began with the story. Studio executives, accepting these realities, nevertheless sought once more to make the best of the situation, subordinating nearly every creative impulse to their own authority.
Formulas came quickly to the sound era, especially as mostly newer film stars were recognized and merchandised through feature after predictable feature, much as earlier stars had been in the silents. In the standard narrative woven by film historians, one cycle of films after another follows in the Golden Age, influenced by the trends of censorship and by the technical integration of the narrative film process, even more by what the studios took to be passing audience fads. At first inspiring dozens of imitations and then exhausting a genre from sheer popular weariness, such cycles simultaneously demanded the birth of new subgenres. Most of the successful writers who were not stuck in the low-budget "series" (like Westerns) followed the trends by virtue of the projects assigned them.
This narrative, repeated so often and so usefully to describe the thinking of studio execs and the films of the most famous Hollywood stars, is less adequate to explain the fuller scope of film production and of screenwriting. The gangster film, for instance, no longer at its apex after the middle-to-late 1930s, never really goes away. Like other styles or models, its elements survive in more complex or sophisticated films; but in reduced form, the gangster film simultaneously sinks into the B genres with endless variations. Likewise, what has been described as the "comedian comedy" predominant in the early 1930s, based upon a vaudeville style of stage action breaking up a thin plot rather than the plot becoming the basis for comedy (as in more sophisticated comedy-drama ascendant in the later 1930s), returns and actually reaches new heights of production during wartime, when low-budget films are turned out at an all-time rapid clip.
The same could also be said of other major genres, from the melodramatic women's film to that all-time B staple, the cowboys. In the usual succession of developments, formula comes to film production, then creative expression, then still more creative expression, and then a lot more formula until television takes over almost all of it, except for the most violent and salacious of the lower genres. Even there, the humblest film spinoff requires a writer.
Excerpted from RADICAL HOLLYWOOD by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Copyright © 2002 by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||The Screenwriter's Fate||1|
|2||The New Deal, the Rise of the Hollywood Left, and the Jewish Question||56|
|3||Genre Realized: The Radical World of the B Film||111|
|4||Success, but at Any Price? The New Deal Film and the Marketing of the Popular Front||154|
|5||War on Two (or Three) Fronts||202|
|6||Film Commentary and Theory in Midpassage||261|
|7||Politics and Mythology of Film Art - The Noir Era||321|
|8||To the Bitter End||369|