Siegfried Kracauer's American Writings
Essays on Film and Popular Culture
By Siegfried Kracauer, Johannes von Moltke, Kristy Rawson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Why France Liked Our Films
What would an intelligent European observer learn about American life from American films? I feel somewhat disquieted by the necessity of operating in the field of rather personal impressions, but fortunately the ground is solid: it is an incontestable fact that throughout the last decade the American film continued to attract the intellectual elite in Europe. True, Hollywood exported mainly grade A pictures to France—pictures that had no difficulty in competing with the bulk of the average home-made talkies. But their power of enchanting European spectators was due not so much to their comparative perfection as to certain specific traits that those spectators missed in their native productions.
What did they miss? As early as 1919 Louis Delluc, one of the pioneers of the French film, vented the dark prophecy: "I should like to believe that we shall eventually make good films. It would be very surprising, for the cinema is not in our blood.... I prophesy—we shall see in the future if I am right—that France has no more aptitude for the cinema than for music."
In the meantime, such great French directors as René Clair, the late Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier and others have achieved many a picture that belongs to the classical works of the screen. However, these are rather the exceptions, and on the whole Delluc's criticism proves right: the typical French film, and especially the French talkie of the past ten years, is far from embodying the essential possibilities inherent in that mode of expression; it reveals a mentality that would make itself manifest far better on the stage or in literature.
There is a sensible lack of action and movement in the French films. While looking at any of them, one feels that they arise from a mind not accustomed to wide spaces and to events with which the film camera is concerned. Old cultural and artistic traditions press upon this mind, so that it has lost the immediate contact with a more primitive world and prefers psychic experiences to those crude adventures and sudden changes that young, naive people enjoy. The French soul is cultivated and stationary like the charming French country, which does not inspire thoughts of long distances, overwhelming catastrophes or exciting discoveries. Characteristically, even the many films of the French Legion have rarely succeeded in materializing the enormous extension of the French Empire in Africa. Of course, such impassivity is not adequate for the medium of the cinema. It seems to me that during the pre-war period the political situation in France contributed much to transform that natural attitude into a sort of stagnation. As life slowed down, many an effective theme became too dangerous to be presented on the screen. The preference given then to films showing in a more or less literary way some crime and allowing Jean Gabin to work his spell as a good bad man can be explained by the urgent need for action. One escaped to the underworld because in the higher strata of society all was paralysed. Or the French film producers proceeded in the same manner as the French literates: they immoderately intensified the atmosphere to make it a substitute for movement. Frequently French films of those years contained nothing but atmosphere, realized through beautiful pictures which sought to conceal the deficiencies of the plot.
These films also neglected the material details—all those objects and gestures that are so important on the screen, and which only the camera is able to detect and endow with significance. Toward the end of the silent era it was precisely the French avant-garde that insisted upon showing hitherto unseen phenomena and composing them into strange pictures. But as soon as the talkies appeared, this tendency weakened more and more, and those films began to prevail which avoided trespassing the limits of our visual conventions. While the story they told was sometimes touching and of human interest, their methods of narration changed nothing of the normal image of the world. The little things remained little; the actors occupied the foreground.
This practice was strengthened by the absolute predominance of the dialogue. From time immemorial French people have been devoted to delicacy of literary language, and love nothing more than to taste a witticism, a well-calculated antithesis. Hence the French talkies tried to charm their native audiences with long conversations and explications that had been polished by Jacques Prévert or some other stylist. Such films as Entrée des Artistes [France 1938, dir. Marc Allégret], for instance, in which the flood of words submerged the pictures, became the delight of audiences. In consequence, the screen approached the stage and the pictures functioned as mere illustrations. Whereas the development of a true film depends upon the meaning of its pictures, in these films the dialogue alone determined the progress of the action. And since the words usually convey multifold traditional associations, even original pictures had scarcely any opportunity to pierce the dense cover of conventions that enveloped them. They simply followed the course of the words instead of directing it.
In 1937, Valerio Jahier wrote in an excellent essay on the history of motion pictures: "Let us imagine for a moment that tomorrow one would no longer be able to produce or to show films. We do not believe that French prestige would diminish then. On the other hand, we would have the impression that America suddenly has become silent.... For in America, cinema is in the blood." This was the way in which many Europeans felt about the contrast between French and American films. And it was quite natural that to them the Hollywood pictures appeared as the manifestation of movement and life. Where else but in the Western do real horses gallop over real plains? They are representative of the swiftness of action, and, what is more important, this action, typical of American films, answers the demands of the film camera in that it extends over the whole material dimension and precisely includes that sector of reality which can be called camera reality. Even since the days of Mack Sennett, the people on the street, staircases, vehicles—all the apparently insignificant objects of everyday life—have been an essential part of the plot. This close contact with the external world enables Hollywood to show situations, events and interrelations that are inaccessible to any other form of art. Thus little details, those usually disappearing among the mass of impressions, are given all the importance they deserve: I recall the repeatedly inserted gag with the prepared cigars and matches in The Bowery [USA 1933, dir. Raoul Walsh] and the "leit-motif" of the broken drinking-glasses in One Way Passage [USA 1932, dir. Tay Garnett]. Thus chance continuously plays its role—chance, the intervention of which indicates that the story is not skipping the various accidents of life. Illuminating in this respect is the opening sequence of San Francisco [USA 1936, dir. W.S. Van Dyke]. Amidst the street crowd on New-Year's Eve Gable and MacDonald happen to pass each other without suspecting yet that their destinies are to be joined. Thus the desire to follow material developments to their extremes leads to the inclusion of natural catastrophes and horrors, phenomena that could never be represented in art. The earthquake sequence in San Francisco and the hurricane in the film of that name [The Hurricane, USA 1937, dir. John Ford] are symptomatic.
To sum up: it is the sense of realism in the American film that attracted the European spectator surrounded by pictures of quite another attitude. He sensed that those films in annexing new provinces of the visible world achieved one of the special missions of the cinema, and then he loved them, too, as a continual demonstration of the American conception of life. All American films seemed to reveal to him the direct and realistic way in which Americans feel, think and behave. And thanks to that basic trait which always came through, whatever Hollywood picture was shown, he learned from it—or thought he had learned—numerous facts about every-day life in America.
To be exact: it was the backgrounds in these films rather than their stories which were the main source of information. Many a picture turned out to be a blank; but even the most avidly commercial nullities frequently happened to contain some well-observed moment of life. How palpable became the Main Street of a few decades ago in the first part of Stella Dallas [USA 1937, dir. King Vidor]; how dense was, in Back Street [USA 1932, dir. John Stahl], the atmosphere of a little town's old-fashioned garden concerts. The rooming house scenes in this latter film, accompanied by the awful noise from an adjacent building under construction, were so instructive as to supersede long sociological essays on this theme. May I mention, too, those scenes from the completely average film Mannequin [USA 1937, dir. Frank Borzage] in which Joan Crawford, walking down a cheap staircase, switches off, from habit, the bulb, and afterwards, in the elevated train, talks and talks to her young lover. Behind such fragments of New York life the immense city itself seems to appear. Other films stressed other regions: Our Daily Bread [USA 1934, dir. King Vidor] turned to the land, and Jezebel [USA 1938, dir. William Wyler] introduced us to the customs of the South. Incidents of mere fiction, all these realistic inserts functioned nevertheless as documents. In the eyes of Europeans, even the American fiction film was set against the background of real life.
Nor is the realism confined to the backgrounds alone: it characterizes several cycles of Hollywood pictures that impressed Paris as particularly vivid portraits of American types. I think of the gangster films, so rich in discoveries; among them Raft's coin-tossing gunman and the hints at the close connection between that special kind of criminal and life with posters, paper streamers and illuminated advertisements. There were a number of boxing films too, considerably augmenting the knowledge of popular pleasures in America; and I remember the audiences in the theatres of the Paris Boulevard Rochechouart which, as true experts, loudly judged the pugilistic fine points in these films. And, too, a wave of such reporter films as Hi, Nellie! [USA 1934, dir. Mervyn LeRoy], The Front Page [USA 1931, dir. Lewis Milestone] and so on, in which reporters were presented as rather disturbing and quite obtrusive beings, but at the same time as courageous heroes who, at the decisive moment, solve a complicated murder or a faked bankrupt[cy] case—for Europeans this was a strange aspect of that profession. One saw them run around, shout at one another, and typewrite side by side in tremendous, noisy rooms where no one could possibly be concentrated; yet despite this chaos the newspaper never failed to appear and to prosper. The breathless confusion of the editor's offices seemed to mirror that of American business life in general. Equally vigorous were the detectives who populated the screen; and in films like [The] Citadel [USA 1938, dir. King Vidor], the camera focussed upon the work of the medical profession. From bankers to workers, all social strata came into being—not forgetting the joys of the idle rich, tirelessly depicted for the sake of those who could not share them.
But if American films are based upon a realistic conception of the world, a comparatively few content themselves with simply echoing it. In this context, the parade of historical pictures is without interest, except for those that, in the form of elaborate Westerns, deal with the construction of the first Trans-Pacific railroad and the rush toward the West, or, like The Bowery and Barbary Coast [USA 1935, dir. Howard Hawks], describe the rough, colonial manners of the still uncivilized cities. To Europeans, apt to distinguish between poetry and truth, such illustrated primers were valuable object lessons on America's past. As for the films devoted to contemporaneous behaviour, the spectator in Paris was particularly impressed by certain Hollywood productions treating social problems with a frankness that would have been impossible in France after 1933. That Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [USA 1936, dir. Frank Capra] or Dead End [USA 1937, dir. William Wyler] dared to face such problems, was one of the reasons for their European success; they broke the rule of neutrality that weighed upon the French cinema. At the same time they furnished much enlightenment as to the political thinking and social struggle in America. As the substance of the French republican mind vanished more and more from the screen, these pictures testified to the strength of American democracy, and it did not matter so much that they were often naive, like You and Me [USA 1938, dir. Fritz Lang], or side-stepped the very point in question, like You Can't Take It with You [USA 1938, dir. Frank Capra]. They usually featured the optimistic attitude of Americans toward an indefinite progress and their firm belief in individual values. Burdened by complicated traditions and helpless in the face of their own actual problems European observers often condemned such views as inadequate simplifications; on the other hand, however, they could not prevent themselves from envying that simplicity and admiring the unhesitating confidence and directness with which Americans apparently try to overcome all obstacles. And were the shadows denied? Such important films as I Am a Fugitive [from a Chain Gang] [USA 1932, dir. Mervyn LeRoy] and You Only Live Once [USA 1937, dir. Fritz Lang] prove the contrary, and frequently the attached happy ending presented itself as an intentional fairy tale conclusion, as in Winterset [USA 1936, dir. Alfred Santell].
Interesting aspects were opened, too, by the treatment of erotic and psychological themes on the screen. I fancy that the influence of American films on the course of European love affairs can scarcely be overestimated. Continuously inflecting the question of how boys manage to meet girls, they determined the poise, the gestures and words of innumerable young people who, caught up in the enormous process of social change, lived in a sort of void, and yet needed models to follow as a substitute for lost conventions. Whenever Garbo made her entrance in the cheap theatres, thousands of little sales-girls left those theatres as Garbos. But the point here is rather what did these films show of American love habits? I should say that female types appeared in them with a kind of sex appeal unknown in Europe; it was the outcome of an almost mechanized surface under the cover of which one sensed, however, a nature rich in charming impulses. Europeans perhaps wondered at the obvious shyness with which the young American lover approached the subject of his intimate feelings—a behaviour that certainly could not be attributed only to the efforts of the Hays' office. Love occurs in a world regulated by unwritten laws and full of individual destinies. Insight into its structure was given through many a film that appealed to the psychological understanding. One learned from These Three [USA 1936, dir. William Wyler] or Back Street something about the might of social conventions and prejudices in America and in Dodsworth [USA 1936, dir. William Wyler], for instance, peered behind the scenes of marriages that seemingly were models of success and harmony. In America no less than in Europe, marriages frequently became mere routine, leaving nothing but resignation or the urge to escape. Perhaps the devastating influence of an all-consuming business life on private happiness was especially emphasized in the American film. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Siegfried Kracauer's American Writings by Siegfried Kracauer, Johannes von Moltke, Kristy Rawson. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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