Turner Classic Movies is airing the US premiere of The Story of Film: An Odyssey one episode per week from September through December, accompanying it with selected films discussed in each week’s episode. It’s a film history eduction in and of itself. I’ll be presenting my thoughts on the documentary and whatever films I have time to watch from TCM’s programming, but I don’t have much time these days, so fair warning, I may be saying “I didn’t have time to see this” a lot.
In the hills of Los Angeles, the myth of Hollywood had just begun.
It was a dictatorship, but some say there was genius in it.
In some ways, though they’re often overlooked by classic film fans now because bridging the gap between sound and silence takes a leap even for us, the 1920s were the true heyday of Hollywood filmmaking. Coming out of World War I, the United States was relatively unburdened financially, while much of Europe was devastated, their film industries languishing while they struggled to recover from the war. This led to Hollywood staking its claim as the center of the international movie industry, a status it has enjoyed to one degree or another ever since.
But Mark Cousins doesn’t go into the business side of things very much – for that, check out the TCM-produced series Moguls and Movie Stars, which documents the creation and demise of the classic studio system. Instead, Cousins is interested in what the studios produced, and he starts this chapter (entitled “The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels”) by showing the look and feel of Hollywood films throughout the studio era, from 1920 through the 1950s. Obviously styles changed during that time, but he points out the relatively constant throughline of what he calls “romantic cinema” and how that played out in different studio styles (the prestige of MGM, the vitality of Warner, the opulence of Paramount, etc.).
In the documentary, Cousins seems a bit suspicious of Hollywood, calling it a bauble (symbolized by an imminently breakable glass Christmas tree ornament he photographs in the Hollywood Hills) and emphasizing the studio assembly line that favored easy-to-understand mainstream productions. At the same time, he’s somewhat fascinated by it and how artistic genius still seemed to flourish at times within what he calls a dictatorship. It’s a tension familiar to anyone who loves classic film while understanding how they were produced, and in fact, it’s the very same tension that led French critics in the 1950s to set forth the auteur theory to explain how amazing films could be produced in such a restrictive system. As Cousins puts it, “the ghost in the machine was art.” As director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade) puts it in Cousins’ interview with him, “the studio didn’t get into the film, it was the garden where we worked.”
When the studio system worked, it fostered great talent and gave that talent the resources necessary to flourish. Studios were run by businessmen who were interested in the bottom line, yes, but because everything was under one roof and they had contracted directors, writers, stars, and everyone else on down the line, they could afford more missteps than studios can today. Of course that wasn’t agreeable to everyone (just ask Bette Davis or Olivia de Havilland about their conflicts with Warner Brothers), but it did have its merits.
On the other hand, when it didn’t work, genius could be stifled, smothered, and left out in the cold. Orson Welles is the poster child for this, but we’re in the 1920s, so Cousins’ focuses on Erich von Stroheim, whose epic Greed was ruthlessly cut by MGM and who struggled to get anything else made during his career. To be honest, the original von Stroheim cut of Greed was nearly eight hours long, and the recut version is two and a half hours, which still seems long to me. Where is the line between artistic indulgence and studio interference? The long version has been lost, so we may never know, but von Stoheim has become the 1920s example of the studio gone wrong.
But the majority of studio films were, in Cousins’ terminology, romantic and mainstream. He uses Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad as an example. Within the first few minutes, it sets up a broad setting (ancient Bagdad), a society (the people of Bagdad), an individual (a handsome young man, who we recognize from other films). It uses romantic camera techniques – soft lighting and focus, dissolves – and makes space clear, no breaking of the 180 degree rule (or any other rules). Later, it establishes a woman as the object of the thief’s gaze and his desire, and that desire for that woman will drive the rest of the plot. This is, in fact, a good template for studio films, though I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But is it innovative, which is Cousins’ raison d’etre for his series? Maybe the first time, but its objective is to entertain – not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I think Cousins does understand the value of entertainment and how good studio era films were at that, but innovation is disruptive. It challenges the status quo.
Cousins’ gives the comedies of the era (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, of course) the edge on innovation, crediting Keaton with his brilliant use of the camera and understanding of the tricks of cinema, Chaplin with his manipulation of the human form to create comedy and pathos, and Lloyd with…I’m not sure exactly. He does point out the interesting fact that Lloyd’s character dresses like a nerd (horn-rimmed glasses, vests, plus his nervous shyness) but has the physicality of a jock, which breaks the expected stereotypes. But I do think Cousins drops the ball a little bit here on explaining exactly why the comedies, as amazing as they are, were so much more innovative and hence disruptive within the studio system than other films of the twenties. He goes into merely describing what they did without bringing it back to his thesis, and also makes some pretty tenuous connections, as when he connects Chaplin’s nervous energy in a scene cut from City Lights to fidgeting characters in a Nicholas Roeg film.
When Cousins turns to the rebels of the era, he’s talking primarily stylistically – directors who challenged the romantic, mainstream style of Hollywood studio output and allowed realism to invade Hollywood’s fantasy bauble. This is when Robert Flaherty made his groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North, an interesting choice for Cousins to bring up, since it’s well-known that Flaherty in fact staged many scenes in his film and depicted a remote life that was already passing on, getting Nanook to act far more behind-the-times than he actually was. But Nanook is still the beginning of documentary, and in a tantalizing discursus Cousins shows various examples of innovation in documentary – another topic worth its own series.
He includes von Stroheim as someone who explicitly battled the studios, but battled them because there was no room in the studio mindset for the kind of stark and somewhat depressing realism he wanted to portray in Greed. Five years later, King Vidor made The Crowd, which Cousins notes for its realism and refusal to compromise in its view of modern life. There doesn’t appear to have been a big fight over it, though – apparently by 1928, there was room for someone to challenge the romantic style from within the system. Interestingly, the woman in despair that Cousins praises for realism would be considered the height of exaggerated and artificial emotion today. Just a reminder that when looking at innovation in film history, you’ve got to look at it in context.
Cousins also considers Carl Theodor Dreyer a rebel against Hollywood studio style in this section, which is true in the sense that Dreyer’s stark staging and religious overtones in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc bear little resemblance to Hollywood output of the time, while having tremendous impact on world cinema in the future, from Bergman to Godard. At the same time, his inclusion seems a little odd in this chapter, since Dreyer was working in Europe and not in Hollywood at all – I suppose you can still say his style challenges the status quo, since Hollywood had become the de facto status quo film industry in the world at the time, but he didn’t really challenge the studios in any direct way, since he had nothing to do with them. I suppose the same is true of Flaherty. Anyway. It seemed a little weird to me to single out Dreyer, but okay.
When I saw this section months ago, I came away thinking Cousins had a real cynicism regarding Hollywood film and what he terms the romantic tradition, but after seeing his interview with Robert Osborne before this broadcast, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Now, perhaps since Hollywood romantic cinema is TCM’s bread and butter, they asked him to be kind to it, but he comes across in his TCM intro as being really fascinated by the kinds of beauty that Hollywood was able to pull off during the studio era. It may be a case where he enjoys the films but ended up coming off a bit more standoffish in the documentary because of his overall thesis.
The first night of programming, TCM accompanied The Story of Film with great silent comedy from Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. You really can’t beat these films. I’d already seen just about all of these, so I didn’t burden my DVR with them. One Week is the first film Keaton released as director (he directed on earlier, but wasn’t happy with it and held it for release until after One Week), and it’s pretty handily my favorite of his shorts. I haven’t actually seen The Three Ages, one of Keaton’s early features, but I intend to soon – I own it on Blu-ray and hope to power through all my Keaton Blu-rays once The Story of Film programming is over. So, like…December. Heh.
The Kid and City Lights bookend Chaplin’s silent features (Modern Times is a part-talking anachronism), and are both really great examples of his signature mixture of comedy and pathos. But both my husband and I have seen them both, so we decided to focus instead on the Harold Lloyd 2-reeler Never Weaken. The film breaks cleanly into two sections, the first following Harold as he tries to drum up business for his girlfriend’s chiropractor boss, the second seeing him attempting suicide after a misunderstanding and ending up tottering around a high-rise construction site. It’s very funny, if pretty slight, and capitalizes on Lloyd’s tremendous yet subtle physicality. Not to mention, of course, the similarity of its major setpiece with that of his most famous film Safety Last, except also totally different because here, he has the building-climbing happen to him instead of doing it on purpose.
After the silent clowns come the rebels, and TCM played most of the films discussed above – Flaherty’s Nanook, Walsh/Fairbanks fantasy The Thief of Bagdad, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr, Vidor’s The Crowd, and von Stroheim’s Greed. I’d already seen the first three of those, and as I said, I have some concerns about how much I’ll enjoy Greed. I did record it, and we’ll see if I get to it sometime, but I’m much more eager to watch The Crowd. Sadly, time really really got away from us this week and we barely got through the chapter of The Story of Film and the one Lloyd short. We’re only two weeks into this and we’re already falling behind! Gotta step it up.
What’s Coming Up Next
This Monday Cousins sticks to rebel filmmakers at the height of the silent era, but this time widens his focus to the rest of the world. He’ll discuss German Expressionism by way of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Robert Weine, the experiments in editing by Sergei Eisenstein and Abel Gance, the surrealist cinema of Luis Bunuel, and the cinema of Ozu and others in Japan and China.
German Expressionism and Eisenstein’s theory of montage especially would shape cinema up to the present day, and surrealist cinema (not just Bunuel) is at the forefront of experimental cinema to this day. In the west, it’s common to think of Japanese film as starting with Kurosawa, but it did not, and Ozu is perhaps Japan’s most imminent stylist, way back here to the silent era. These filmmakers may have been the rebels in terms of challenging the established stylistics of Hollywood in the silent era, but they formed the basis for all cinema that followed them. That’s pretty much the definition of innovation right there, so this is an episode you do not want to miss.
Where Else to See These Films
One Week: YouTube
The Three Ages: Netflix Instant, YouTube
The General: Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, YouTube
The Kid: Amazon Prime, YouTube
City Lights: HuluPlus
Never Weaken: HuluPlus, YouTube
Safety Last: HuluPlus, YouTube
Nanook of the North: YouTube
The Thief of Bagdad: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
The Passion of Joan of Arc: HuluPlus, YouTube
Vampyr: HuluPlus, YouTube
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans: YouTube
The Battleship Potemkin: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
The Goddess: YouTube
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
Metropolis: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube (not sure which version this is; the others are all the Complete Metropolis)
La roue: Not available
Un chien andalou: YouTube
I Was Born, But…: Hulu, YouTube
Osaka Elegy: Hulu, YouTube