Picture

No real precedents for Picture existed when Lillian Ross’s account of the making of John Huston’s misfired adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was published in 1952. Novelists who’d gone West to pay the bills by scoring some screenwriting lucre had tried their hand at getting the movie industry’s intricacies down on paper. The most notable was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose unfinished The Last Tycoon features some very sharply observed scenes of tense story conferences and bustling sound stages. They’re much more vibrant and convincing than the recognizably “Fitzgerald-esque” but remarkably silly love story he placed at the book’s center.

In those snobbish days, however, in-depth reporting about Hollywood’s m.o. that transcended star gossip and trade-magazine boilerplate wasn’t considered a fit occupation for serious journalists. Trashy star biographies, dull compendiums of cast lists and such, and esoteric critical tomes were pretty much people’s only choices if they wanted to read about movies – or “cinema,” a decidedly minority taste at the time.

A big part of what made Ross’s book such a game-changer was that she was covering The Red Badge of Courage at meticulous length for the most snobbish magazine in America. Throughout her career, from her 1945 debut as an anonymous “Talk of The Town” writer until her death in 2017, her home base was The New Yorker, devoted then as now to alchemizing provincialism into sophistication and vice-versa. Not so much a mere fly on the wall as Margaret Mead disguised as one, Ross had no peers at crafting the magazine’s mock-anthropological looks at curious events and personalities, which had the effect of making them seem ridiculous in a tone that stayed scrupulously deadpan.

Nobody got made more ridiculous than Ernest Hemingway, the subject of a devastating 1950 Ross profile that recorded every garrulous triviality that came out of his mouth on a rare visit to New York. Never once hinting that the great man had become absurd, she presented his fussing over shopping trips and his grandiose claims for Across The River And Into The Trees as if they were equally consequential – or inconsequential. Poor Hemingway was so befuddled by her disclaimer of any malicious intent that the two actually stayed friends.

Broadening her scope, Ross took the same approach in Picture, which initially appeared in The New Yorker in five long installments before its publication in book form. The various producers, M-G-M satraps, and studio bosses involved in determining Red Badge’s fate often appear to be well intentioned and far from stupid. Yet each page they appear on might as well have little clocks in the margin to denote how much time is left before the inane remark, peculiar crotchet, or glimpse of suppressed hysteria pops up that turns them into Left Coast donkeys Ross has just pinned an imported East Coast tail on.

She’s got more evident respect for the technicians employed on the movie, who are good at jobs that don’t allow room for ego displays. Perhaps because “jobs” is a misnomer in this context, she’s at an uncharacteristic loss for ways to get either herself or her readers interested in the movie’s ostensible stars. Not actors at all, they were Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy, the most decorated American combat soldier of the war, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Stars And Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Since they were probably the two best-known World War Two veterans in the country, their inclusion was egregious stunt casting disguised as gritty authenticity. But that thought was apparently too heretical for anyone on the set to voice it – least of all Murphy, who never did get around to voicing much of anything at all.

If his reticence turns him into a bit player in Picture, that doesn’t matter. The book’s unquestioned star is the very un-reticent John Huston, who is also the king-sized mote in Ross’s otherwise sharp eye for fatuity. The way Huston gets off scot-free amid the shambles is the key to Picture’s fundamentally bogus premise: the certainty that The Red Badge of Courage would have been an extraordinary work of movie art if gutless, jittery M-G-M hadn’t recut, rejiggered, and generally mutilated it in a desperate (and futile) attempt to recoup the studio’s investment.

Countless readers of Ross’s book have taken this on faith over the years. Besides gratifying their prejudices about genius undone by La-La-land philistinism, doing so reprieves them from any obligation to actually watch the thing. If they did, they’d discover that the truncated Red Badge is a bore from start to finish, including the scenes where Huston’s original conception seems to have been left more or less unmucked-with. Since he did direct every frame of the surviving version, the blame for its dullness can hardly all be laid at M-G-M’s door.

But Ross, for perhaps the only time in her career – up to then, anyhow — fell hook, line, and sinker for Huston’s uproarious (and very entertaining) dramatization of himself as a born artist who’d developed a streak of charlatanry as a survival skill. The truth may have been the other way around. He’s lionized as a “man who was simply the raw material for his own art” from his first appearance in Picture, greeting Ross in his suite at the Waldolf Towers before bundling her off to a meal at “21” and then launching a walk along Third Avenue with his “fast, important strides.”

He never stops talking, either — sometimes about his eagerness to make The Red Badge of Courage (he never explains why) over studio chief Louis B. Mayer’s resistance, sometimes about the race horses that keep him “broke all the time,” and sometimes about art: “I used to spend hours in this town looking at Modiglianis.” When Huston announces, “I’m going to direct [Red Badge] on horseback,” you marvel that Ross apparently didn’t need to suppress a guffaw.

Next stop, Los Angeles, where she gets her first look at M-G-M production head Dore Schary in Dave Chasen’s Beverly Hills restaurant. “He had an aura of immense self-assurance,” Ross writes, “as though he had reached a point where he could no longer be affected by anything that might happen in Chasen’s.” Neither Schary, who green-lit Red Badge despite Mayer’s grumble that “I wouldn’t make that picture with Sam Goldwyn’s money,” nor the movie’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt – the son of legendary émigré theater maestro Max Reinhardt – fits the stereotype of boorish Hollywood vulgarity. Indeed, Reinhardt is the first to recognize a problem that Huston will blithely ignore, which is that Red Badge’s real drama – its protagonist’s transformation from coward to war hero – is purely internal.

“Will we show what really goes on inside the boy?” he asks his unconcerned director. Almost a year later, when the proof is in the pudding and the answer turns out to be “No,” it’s Reinhardt who urges adding voice-over narration taken from Crane’s novel to tell audiences why they should care about what’s going on inside Audie Murphy. It’s not a good solution; in the finished film, it calls attention to the clash between Crane’s stylized, symbolic language and Huston’s most likely miscalculated bid for a Matthew Brady-ish documentary effect. Still, what else should Reinhardt have tried? Picture takes no interest in examining the possibility that the panicked studio executives trying to salvage a movie they’d realized was going to be a commercial dud may have been right.

The filming, however, went smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that only Ross’s eye for detail and engrossment in the process spare the reader from noticing that the labor that goes into making a movie really is kind of boring, especially when no marquee-name stars are involved. (You wish that somebody would at least throw a tantrum or something, but docile Audie Murphy wasn’t the type.) She clearly likes the local extras recruited for the sequences shot early on in Chino – the rest, to the detriment of the movie’s Civil War verisimilitude, was shot on Huston’s ranch in the unmistakably Californian San Fernando Valley – but she’s seldom at her best when people are behaving well. Or maybe it’s just that anyone interested in the subject nowadays has read countless reports from the set of this or that movie, making Ross’s fascinated descriptions of camera placements, rehearsals, retakes, and so on feel considerably less eye-opening than they must have been to cinematically illiterate New Yorker readers in 1952.

Red Badge’s troubles begin when everyone is back in L.A. and the movie’s “final” (ho, ho, ho) cut is being screened for sample audiences. At a private showing for the cognoscenti, the reaction is enthusiastic, with Huston’s fellow director William Wyler praising his work to the skies. Then the first public previews are disastrous: walkouts, inappropriate laughter, cards with “Fair” (the lowest rating option) crossed out and “Stinks” or “Lousy” substituted. “They just hate it,” a “dazed” Huston marvels.

Suddenly, nobody at M-G-M is crowing about the director’s genius anymore, and Schary and Reinhardt, among others, get busy refashioning the movie without any input from him. The vignette that most wowed Wyler – actor Royal Dano’s death scene – gets deleted, along with some other too-grim moments. Sequences are reshuffled and then reshuffled again, to very little apparent purpose. The battlefield climax gets abbreviated in an attempt to simplify the action that actually makes its continuity more confusing.

Reinhardt becomes convinced that only way to sell the audience on Red Badge is by reminding them from the get-go that it’s based on a great literary classic, not only adding the narration but beginning the movie with a shot of a copy of the novel being opened and a portrait of Crane. (That Stephen Crane is now the film’s commercial insurance has its comic side.) None of these frantic rescue attempts does anything to halt Red Badge’s sturdily determined, foredoomed march to box-office oblivion.

The studio’s meddling, of course, is the main reason Picture is famous. It’s so much the point of the story that you wonder whether Ross’s assignment would have been a waste of her time and the New Yorker’s money if Red Badge had been placidly released in the form Huston intended. Graham Greene’s blurb perfectly encapsulates the conventional wisdom about the book’s value: “A terrifying picture of how a great film, directed by one of the best living directors, based on an American classic, can be slashed into incoherence through the timidities and the illiteracy of studio heads.”

This is about as flawless a constellation of cliches as anyone could ask for, starting with Greene’s confidence that Red Badge was a great film. Unless he happened to be in Pasadena for the second sneak preview, which seems unlikely, how would he know? The idea that being “based on an American classic” is a foolproof prestige booster mimics Reinhardt’s own notion of how to impose a properly respectful attitude on moviegoers. Neither he nor Schary were illiterates, either, and in Reinhardt’s case, “timidities” is an unfair characterization.

As Ross makes clear, he did what he could to preserve Huston’s vision, arguing hard against the deletion of Royal Dano’s death scene in particular. When it was all over, he wrote Huston a heartfelt letter, quoted by Ross at length, lamenting the shriveled final product and his own failure to prevent the excision of key moments. He simply hadn’t had the final say. (Ultimately, neither did Schary – who had more power, but who also had higher-ups of his own to appease if he wanted to keep his job.) But if anything, Reinhardt fought much harder to keep Red Badge more or less intact than Huston did, and Reinhardt knew it. His letter is full of self-recrimination, but that doesn’t stop him from accusing the director of “desertion.”

He wasn’t wrong. In a familiar pattern, Huston seems to have lost interest in Red Badge as soon as the sneak previews told him the movie wasn’t going over, if not as soon as its filming was complete. Once the discussions of how to overhaul the picture got underway, he passively accepted Reinhardt’s major recommendation – adding the Crane narration – and offered no suggestions of his own about possible cutting-room improvements. But he didn’t make a forceful case for releasing the picture as it was, either. Soon, he was off to Africa to shoot The African Queen, apparently indifferent to the bedraggled fate of what he’d once called the best movie he’d ever made. He answered Reinhardt’s pained letter with a cheery telegram: “KNOW YOU FOUGHT GOOD FIGHT. HOPE YOU NOT TOO BLOODY ON MY ACCOUNT.”

Even so, Huston comes off in Picture as far more sinned against than sinning, if you can catch him sinning at all. Since Picture is not only the definitive chronicle of what went wrong with “Production No. 1512,” but a decisive one in shaping the Huston legend, he’s stayed merrily — and gallantly — blameless in posterity’s view ever since. Nobody ever wonders whether the movie’s failure can be at least partly traced to the director’s conception of it, from casting Murphy and writing a script that didn’t flesh out any of Crane’s deliberately abstract stick figures to wanting the thing to look like a Matthew Brady photograph gone mobile. For that matter, from Graham Greene on down, it never seems to have crossed anyone’s mind that trying to make a commercially viable screen version of The Red Badge of Courage – a project with no story, no love interest, no interesting characters, and no stars – might have been kind of a dumb idea in the first place.