FADE IN, Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City, fifty years ago. A curious but apprehensive audience has crowded into the small vaudeville theater to see the first public exhibition of movies in America. Defying gloomy, pre-dictions that the projector would explode, that the flickering images would ruin eyesight, and that delinquent elements would take advantage of the darkness to pick pockets or even—God forbid!—force their attentions on defenseless young ladies, the intrepid spectators edge forward in their seats. They are rewarded—as the New York Times will report next morning—with "living pictures of two precious blonde young persons of the variety stage doing the umbrella dance with commendable celerity ... a burlesque boxing match between a tall, thin comedian and a short, fat one ... an instant of motion in Hoyt's farce, 'A Milk White Flag,' repeated over and over again ... all wonderfully real and singularly exhilarating."
Americans had begun to discover their favorite form of entertainment. Two generations have been sufficient time to map the boundaries of this more cowardly than brave new world. But after fifty years this great new continent of the arts remains as unexplored as central Greenland.
In 1900, hundreds of thousands were introduced to movies when vaudeville managers used them to break the first theatrical strike. But the return of the rebellious actors left the movies out in the cold, a homeless child of four. The displaced medium was taken in by penny-arcade owners who added films to the shooting galleries, the midgets, and the traffic in French postcards. Whereas in France the approach of the pioneer Méliès was closer to that of artists in more established media, in America the movie was a gutter child growing up without guidance or traditions in an atmosphere of opportunistic commercialization of the cheap thrill. It's been a long, impressive climb from those crummy arcades to magnificent cinematic cathedrals like the Music Hall. But psychologists will tell you it's the first ten years that mold our characters, and it could be that this applies to our films as well. For despite their spectacular development in technique and the occasional film of real beauty, it may be that they have yet to outgrow their penny-arcade origin and point of view.
By the end of the first decade of nickelodeons, millions had caught the movie habit without the slightest realization that they were watching the development of a new art-form, destined not only to be the most popular but perhaps even the most advanced yet discovered in man's restless, endless search for new means of self-expression and entertainment.
Americans, scorned so long for their indifference to the seven traditional arts, can lay claim to a major role in creating the eighth. It was Edward Muybridge who first proved to a skeptical public at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 that pictures could be made to move. Edison, Latham, and other American scientists developed the principle of film projection. Edwin S. Porter, an Edison mechanic drafted as a cameraman, created the first realistic storytelling films and indicated, with The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery, the new medium's dramatic potential. An unsuccessful playwright so ashamed of the profession into which exigency had forced him that for years he hid behind a pseudonym, D. W. Griffith staged a one-man revolution in cinematic technique. The close-up, intercutting for dramatic suspense, dramatic lighting, the moving (or trucking) shot, the flash-back, and the breakdown of a scene into brief individual but component shots spliced together to a dramatically rhythmic plan—these are only a few of Griffith's innovations which accelerated the development not only of American films, but of French, German, Russian, and Italian as well. To this day the French call a close shot plan américain, and the Italians, piano americano.
The monumental comitragedies of Chaplin, the vigorous absurdities of Sennett, Walt Disney's animated world of fantasy, and some memorable films from such directors as Von Stroheim, Murnau, Vidor, Ford, Milestone, Wyler—in the long run these remarkably mature achievements for an infant art may balance the sins of tastelessness, unimaginativeness, and artistic amorality a majority of American film makers have committed systematically for generations.
These offenders have taken an instrument as sensitive, as delicately balanced, as capable of indescribable beauty and subtle emotion as the finest Steinway; they have set themselves in front of the keyboard before the largest audience in the history of the world—and have proceeded to play chopsticks.
For, with half a century of motion picture exhibition behind us, it is high time we were honest with ourselves and our great machine for making art. Hollywood finishes at least one feature-length picture every day of the year, and six of the seven turned out each week are just plain chopsticks, the same tune everybody knows, repeated in a repeated series of repetitions.
How can it be that the only nation in the world with a tradition of popular education produces 98 million movie-goers a week who happily keep on paying their two bits, four bits, six bits (and sometimes three times that much) to see and hear chopsticks year in and year out? Or a symphonic arrangement of chopsticks (scored by a great European producer making more money in a month than in his entire previous career) in a spectacular production number that involves hundreds of identical pianos?
Is it because, for all our compulsory education, we're numbed to anything more challenging? Or do we keep coming back week after week simply for want of something better to do? Is it that Hollywood can't play anything that requires more than two fingers and a kindergarten rhythm? How is that possible when Hollywood has gathered to her sun-tanned bosom more geniuses, assistant geniuses, and apprentice geniuses than were assembled in Athens in the Golden Days: some of the most renowned writers of today, Huxley, Faulkner, Odets; top European directors, René Clair, Hitchcock, Renoir, Lang; such cameramen as Gregg Toland, Joe August, and Rudy Maté, who deserve the name of artist; world-famous actors like the Barrymores, Olivier, and Barry Fitzgerald.
Yet, despite this impressive catalogue of talents, more creative ideas are thrown away in the incessant shoptalk of a good Hollywood party than are seen in a year of movies. There are a few honest-to-God geniuses in Hollywood, several more whose lack of honesty corrodes their genius, and several hundred clearly gifted. But, with notable exceptions, these talents inevitably drain off into the same old ruts.
What's the trouble? Is it just that Hollywood is a low-pressure area in our national culture? It's not quite so simple as the easy conclusion that Hollywood's hierarchy is composed of a breed inferior to the general public. Instead, too often their shortcomings lie in their reluctance to lift themselves above the lowest common denominator of public taste. How to raise the standards of all our mass-consumption arts is the basic problem; Hollywood is merely an outstanding and spectacular example. The aesthetic bankruptcy that drops Stage -Door Canteen onto the All-Time List of Box-Office Champions (while films of less obvious attraction like The Informer and The Ox-Bow Incident are lucky if they get their costs back), that permits tens of millions to enjoy movies that are false, shallow, and cliché-cluttered, is the same Idiot Muse that enables countless radio listeners to submit uncomplainingly to the brain-crushing banalities of the soap operas and the routine terrors. Sex, not as defined by Hemingway but as dished up by Kathleen Winsor. Crime, not as penetrated by Dostoevski but as batted out by Erle Stanley Gardner. Love, not as dignified by Tolstoy, but as standardized, streamlined, and sweetened to taste (everybody's) in our radio dramas, love magazines, and movies. Is this the price we have to pay for being not the best-educated people in the world but merely the most literate, with more leisure than we know what to do with and so much money for recreation that the recreative pursuits must be geared to mass production?
FROM the nickelodeon days of forty years ago, American films seem to have suffered from a surfeit of public approval. Whereas the French, with their artistic traditions, approached films with serious purpose, the chief motivation in America was profit; the emphasis in the formative years was speed in production and quick turnover. Since the American people apparently possessed a bottomless and indiscriminate capacity for pie-in-the-face comedies, action pictures, naïve pornography, and melodrama, these are what they got.
As early as 1905, Edwin S. Porter was caught in a dilemma that has been trapping well-intentioned but something less than steel-willed film makers ever since. Developing in the muckraking period that produced Lincoln Steffens, Jack London, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, and other social critics, Porter began to explore not only the photographic possibilities of the new medium but its effectiveness as social commentary as well. One Porter film distinctive in a day of prat-falls and clumsy chases was The Kleptomaniac, which contrasts a wealthy shoplifter whose suave lawyer saves her from judicial wrath, with a poor woman driven to stealing bread for her children, who receives a harsh sentence. Another Porter film attempted to deal with the problem of a released criminal whose prison record blocks his efforts at rehabilitation, a theme explored with considerable success in Wanger and Lang's You Only Live Once some thirty years later.
Crude as those pioneer films were in both content and technique, they were hailed as artistically revolutionary by early film critics. But meanwhile Porter's The Great Train Robbery had become the first "super-colossal hit." The public wanted more Great Train Robberies. So did nickelodeon owners. The Edison Company was in business to see that they got them. Porter cranked out a picture a week to keep up with the demand. He gave them train robberies, bank robberies, and mail robberies; there was no time and no financial incentive to continue to develop the techniques with which he had led the field in 1903. Soon the critics were saying that one Porter movie was like another. But the public was back in growing numbers every week.
Looking across the span between The Great Train Robbery and Brute Force (or a dozen other recent entries that do not spare the rod) it would seem that America's favorite film actors have been shooting it out in dead earnest for forty-three years. The popular enthusiasm for vicarious mayhem and glorified criminality made Porter a rich man but choked off his talent. It may be the ghost of Edwin S. Porter that haunts so many directors today—men like King Vidor, who came to the film center twenty-five years ago with a fresh point of view, artistic independence, and the ambition to do the first honest films of American life. The Crowd, Hallelujah, and Our Daily Bread were courageous attempts to live up to this purpose. But the big studios, frowning on experimentation, wanted him to revert to such second-rate perfection as The Big Parade and The Champ. The sales departments, geared to standard merchandise, balked at what they sneeringly called "arty stuff." And the public wasn't there.
Vidor, like Porter, gradually succumbed to the machine. Now and then a film like The Citadel reminded his fans of his essential qualities. But his artistic identity, the association of his name with those individualized films which most deeply expressed him—this has come to be sacrificed on the altar of a bloodthirsty and uncompromising god called Box Office.
Since the days of Porter and his one-reel thrillers, movie attendance has increased 1000 per cent, until today the gluttonous, overstimulated appetite of the movie fans consumes well over 400 pictures a year in 16,500 theaters (one seat for every 12 1/2 persons of our total population). It is to Hollywood's credit that it possesses sufficient creativity to produce perhaps half a dozen excellent films a year, and a dozen more that aim at excellence. But to service those thousands of movie houses with a change of program at least once a week, Hollywood must feed into the nation's projection machines some 40,000 miles of film a week, while grinding out 600 miles of "original" entertainment films a year. That's a lot of mileage, especially when three out of four pictures are probably retreads and beginning to wear alarmingly thin.
To service 100 million American habitués of double features (plus another 30 million in England, and millions more throughout the world), films have had to be produced in large factories with tremendous overheads. In our inflationary market a film that costs less than a million dollars is tagged as a "B" and a two-hour feature that draws on the best talents in all departments can hardly be brought in, as they say, for less than three million. With major studios producing from thirty-five to fifty features a year, film-making has become big business. But despite profits that have been mounting steadily for fifty years (depression troughs excepted), Fortune's survey of the film industry charges it with not enjoying the profits it should, considering the world-wide popularity of its product. Automobiles, it would seem, are a less spectacular but more dependable investment. So is Coca-Cola. These businesses are efficient because they have standardized their production and minimized their risks. That is good NAM talk. Now, when a single picture can gross over thirty million dollars, when total film grosses reach a billion and a half dollars a year, when the Rockefeller and Morgan interests, through their Chase National Banks, RCA's, Western Electrics, and A.T.&T.'s, control the major film factories, which in turn control the distribution systems and exhibition outlets, you are going to get minimization of risk and standardization of production.
ONE of the surest minimizer-standardizers over the years has been the star. Until 1910 the original movie companies which formed the first monopoly (as members of the Motion Picture Patents Company) purposely kept their featured players anonymous in the shortsighted belief that publicizing their names would encourage them to hold out for higher salaries and so increase production costs. But the nickelodeon fans were already beginning to show spontaneous signs of that fawning adoration, worshipful submission, and vicarious passion that has become one of the more significant phenomena of our high-blood-pressure culture. Forty years ago letters were pouring in requesting the name of "The Biograph Girl," or "The Man with the Sad Eyes," "The Handsome Indian," or "Little Mary." Thus the craze began. It spread, as one pioneer producer has so poetically expressed it, like wild flowers. The status-quo mentalities of the early monopolists resisted it, and perished. The enterprising independents—Zukor, Lasky, Goldwyn, Laemmle—recognized it, encouraged it, institutionalized it, and thrived.
Star worship is a sociological, psychological, pathological, and 64-million-dollar question (the net profit for last year). Since we shall probably be buried with our stars, it can even become an archaeological question. A star isn't made by critical acclaim. It is something much more basic, more frightening—essential to a people sapped by frustration. Mary Pickford's salary didn't jump from $50 to $10,000 a week before World War I because she was a fine actress (although she was one of the first to demonstrate what film acting was) but because she was America's Sweetheart. This was no mere publicity slogan. She literally was. And women didn't tear the clothes off Valentino because they were so impressed with the histrionic talent he revealed in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A provocative study of American morality could be based on our changing taste in female stars: the fluttery Victorian heroines—Gish—before World War I; the wicked (still in a Victorian sense) Theda Bara of the war years; our Dancing Daughters of the twenties—Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, Phyllis Haver; our new-found sophisticates—Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri; the Sex-without-qualms group—Mae West, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr; and lately the romanticized normalcy of Greer Garson and Ingrid Bergman with some leg-art (Grable) thrown in for the boys.
Today, if a star can act—or create a living character on the screen—it is only an incidental embellishment of his stature as a member of our contemporary mythology. More often, men and women who came to the screen as actors have had to suspend or freeze their gifts in order to fit into the fixed roles they are playing in the minds, hearts, or emotionally immature libidos of the movie fans (short for fanatics). Jimmy Cagney, for instance, was an actor before he became the God of Hard-boiled Goodness, Soft-boiled Badness, and Small-Fry Sex Appeal. Long before Spencer Tracy was deified, he went to the chair in The Last Mile, and went effectively. But he is a grown-up Eagle Scout now, the Bumbling, Practical, Hard-headed but Soft-hearted AMERICAN. Why let him play any other part, the producer argues with terrifying logic, when we already have box-office proof that this is the part the public wants him to play?
Just as Gable, whether he speaks the language of Rhett Butler or of a colloquial accounts-executive in radio, can only be Gable the Traveling Salesman, the wickedly handsome fellow it's fun to dally with but dangerous to marry, for whom every woman from Park Avenue to RFD 1 secretly longs. That Flynn? Another Traveling Salesman. Van Johnson? The King of the Cute Dates. Lana Turner may be cast as the murderously lustful wife of a hamburger-stand owner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but what she really represents is a glamorously groomed mannikin, not a tramp alive with disruptive passion as James M. Cain had written her, but a professional model in a white turban and tailored shorts, Miss Hamburger Stand of 1946, made up for her peacock walk down the reviewing ramp.
Perhaps this is what the loyal young men and women of the Lana Turner Fan Clubs of America, Inc., insist she should be. For regardless of any individuality she once possessed, she has been grooved and shellacked into a standard brand. It is the box-office magnetism of these standard brands that insure a film against the hazards of fortune that haunt all creative effort. Not the play but the star is the thing. More than any other single factor, the star has kept the business of motion pictures on its feet and the art of motion pictures on its back.
A STAR like Chaplin, of course, can create an unforgettably valid, three-dimensional personality that seems to have a life of its own like the enduring characters of literature. And there have been fine pictures in which the stars were subordinated to the theme and general conception—Gary Cooper and James Stewart in memorable Capra films; Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney in Fury; Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, and David Niven in Wuthering Heights; Ray Milland in his Academy Award interpretation of Don Birnham in The Lost Weekend. But these are only some of the exceptions that prove how much more often this rule could be broken if there were more individual courage and artistic conviction among the film makers and a more mature response from a glamour-happy public. Too often, under the star system, great stones have been reduced to vehicles, character development has been sacrificed to the exploitation of surface personality, and Don Ameche has portrayed Alexander Graham Bell.
Even in the age of the star system, some of our more enduring pictures have been those with non-star (euphemistically called all-star) casts: John Ford and Dudley Nichols's Stagecoach, The Informer, and The Long Voyage Home; Milestone's Of Mice and Men and A Walk in the Sun; Cowan and Wellman's G.I. Joe, and most recently Crossfire, a precedent-shattering attack on race hatred that adds RKO studio head Dore Schary, producer Adreon Scott, director Edward Dmytryk, and writer John Paxton to the honor roll of Hollywood innovators.
If we can learn to forsake narcissistic images and hand-me-down reveries for real actors interpreting believable characters in honest situations, if we can begin to demand more of Hollywood than the gilded, faded lilies to which most of us have become accustomed, our screen may begin to prove consistently what it now indicates only spasmodically: that it is not only the most entertaining but the most satisfying and compelling of all the art-forms, synthesizing, as it does, composition, pantomime, spoken drama, photography, rhythmic motion, and music.
When the Grable and Van Johnson Clubs have given way to the Ford and Wyler Clubs, the Nichols and the Sherwood Clubs, or the Society for the Appreciation of the Photography of James Wong Howe—seriously, if just one of our puerile fan clubs were to be transformed into a society for the understanding and encouragement of better films, like those that have sprung up in England and France, it would be a sign that we are beginning to give this abused medium the adult attention it deserves.
Meanwhile, it is still sound business to put those standard-brand stars in standard-brand stories, stories which have stood the test of ordeal-by-box-office. There is an anecdote going the rounds about the head of a large studio—let's call him A. C.—who ran a Marine picture for a fellow production head. The competitor liked the picture and asked A. C. what else he was working on. "A submarine picture," A.C. said. "Got a good story?" the competitor asked. "Sure—you just saw it," A.C. said. Whether or not this anecdote is apocryphal, no one could doubt that any similarity between the Marine picture and the submarine picture, when they later appeared, was purely intentional.
EVER since The Great Train Robbery, the "cycle" has been a favorite crutch of the rabbit-hearted and the bookkeeper-brained who would rather beat out a measly bunt than run the risk of striking out to knock one over the fence. We have had Western outlaw cycles, rural romance cycles, femme fatale cycles, ancient spectacle cycles, Civil War cycles, flapper cycles, gangster cycles, wicked-heroine cycles, and most recently, a slew of alleged psychiatric stories through which amnesia has spread like a common cold. It is not improbable that some knowledge of mental illness, its complex causes and its various therapies, would be of assistance to screen writers and directors in motivating and adding new facets to their characters and plots. But like a Midas wand which turns everything it touches into a single consistency, Hollywood points its golden finger at psychiatry, and lo, the psychiatrist becomes a beautiful young damsel who falls in love at first sight with her tall, handsome patient whose one convenient dream she spells out like a Freudian crossword puzzle. Bombarded by a two-year barrage of psychopathology plots, the public might be expected at least to have acquired a more enlightened attitude toward this vital new branch of medicine. But about all movie-goers could have learned from the current cycle is that the murderer will most likely turn out to be the head psychiatrist.
Since the surface writing, the direction, the photography, the editing, the visual tricks, and all the other phases of this complex art have been steadily improving while content has lagged, it seems that more and more technique is lavished on less and less, until today the average Hollywood film comes off the assembly line like a well-made can: canned love, canned adventure, canned psychiatry, canned history, canned spiritual values, hermetically sealed, untouched by human hand or human heart. When one film critic described No Leave, No Love as "a cheap picture on which no expense has been spared," he was being specific where ace screen writer Dudley Nichols generalized in accusing most Hollywood films of being "slick, smooth and bright as steel, and just as devoid of life."
In recent months there has been a growing demand from responsible film critics for more films dealing honestly with contemporary American life. From his fortified position on the New York Times, Bosley Crowther has been blasting away at Hollywood's "fancified stereotypes" and pleading for films which come to grips with contemporary problems and contemporary ideas. From Louisvil1e, Boyd Martin, the Courier-Journal's drama editor, has been waging a campaign against escapist fairy tales and. threadbare formulas, in favor of "genuinely dramatic problems of these critically momentous times." The public, Mr. Martin seems to think, are tired of warmed-over pipe dreams and ready for stronger stuff.
But to most Hollywood executives, the safest stories still seem to be those which do the people's dreaming for them. Reverie by experts, a silent star once summed it up. Away from your troubles, away from your responsibilities and your punch-in-punch-out monotony, you sit there in the enveloping darkness and let DeMille or some other genius of mediocrity spin out for you a million-dollar dream. The homely secretary takes off her glasses and blossoms into a beautiful woman and the ideal mate for the boss. The rich and spoiled but beautiful heiress meets her match in an even more headstrong man of the people. The efficient and successful career woman who has forgotten that she is a woman is reminded of the fact by a forceful gent who puts her back in the home, where, it turns out, she wanted to be all along. Just in the nick of time, the villain is caught, the game is won, the show goes on.
Now there is nothing wrong with a little honest reverie now and then. We all have a bit of Walter Mitty in us and go around doing heroic, romantic things on the private stages of our minds. It is only natural that the screen should reflect and embellish these reveries.
But when an individual begins to have more and more and longer and longer reveries, when he retreats from every difficult situation into the prettier world of fantasy, he is on his way toward becoming a schizoid personality who can no longer distinguish his fantasies from his real existence. Social psychologists may speculate about whether as a people we aren't running this same danger of turning away from our problems and escaping for longer periods than is healthy into our celluloid reveries. No other medium has had the power both to lift people completely out of themselves into a billowy world of romance, and to show things completely as they are—to look into your home or the home of your neighbor or of some distant community (it could be no further than Harlem from Radio City) you would never have the chance to see. Only the motion picture camera can look so closely into the face of a man that it can even record the unsaid things that come into his eyes—and then swing away, over the buildings, over the city, to place him in long-shot perspective as just one more of the city's millions. Movies can be used either as an ether cone to wipe out our consciousness and drug us into stupid oblivion, or as adrenalin, shot into our failing hearts to stimulate us to new vitality, broaden our knowledge, deepen our understanding.
A GOOD businessman, we have noted, aims to please as many people as possible while minimizing risk and standardizing production. The aim of the good artist, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. He turns his back on every formula, keeps breaking new ground, risks everything, and whether he succeeds or fails, prepares to risk again. When the definitive history of Hollywood's first fifty years is written, or the big novel that catches the whole spirit of the place, it will concern itself with this still unresolved struggle between the business machine and those men and women of talent who failed to check their personal integrity and artistic conscience at the gate when they came in.
From this tug-of-war have issued some of Hollywood's best films. Ford and Nichols's plans for The Informer went begging until finally, with a convic-tion all too rare among film professionals, they offered to do their picture for nothing and gamble on the returns. The Lost Weekend might never have seen the light of a projection machine if writer Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder, Paramount's Gold Dust Twins, hadn't insisted on adapting the Jackson novel as their price for doing a musical more to the taste of "the front office." This take-one-to-do-one theory has been a long-time formula of Hollywood compromise. John Ford not only wins three Academy Awards; he also stoops to Wee Willie Winkie, Steamboat Round the Bend, and Submarine Patrol.
Conversely, Fortune may say of Darryl Zanuck, in approving his right to head a major studio, "His taste, his desire, his convictions are average—as they should be." Yet Zanuck, the Super-Average Man, in his topical, hard-hitting early days at Warner Brothers, came up with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Public Enemy, and They Won't Forget. He gambled on The Grapes of Wrath. He dared to make Wilson, a well-intentioned film without stars. He bought Anna and the King of Siam and resisted what must have been for him an excruciating temptation to fill it full of formula love. Recently, Zanuck instructed his Eastern story department to corral the best new novels, regardless of whether or not they measured down to familiar movie plots. Thus Zanuck, the Common Denominator, eventually comes into conflict with the Zanuck who dares reverse his own well-trodden field and challenge spreading bigotry with Gentleman's Agreement.
Samuel Goldwyn—hardy perennial among independent producers—recently accused Hollywood of having run dry of ideas. There were not nearly enough good stories and good writers, he charged, to supply those four to five hundred pictures a year. The enthusiasm, if not desperation, with which film studios pounce on almost every new play or novel which does not deal with incest or perversion indicates Hollywood's failure as an indigenous creative source. Producers blame writers for this; writers tell you the fault lies with producers. Actually this buck-passing on both sides is camouflage for moral cowardice. Producers who will pay a quarter of a million dollars for a daring Broadway hit will not pay a quarter of a dollar for the same story presented in film-outline form. There is almost no price they will not pay for a New York success, since this protects them against the risk of backing their own judgments. As a result, there has been little incentive for writing off-the-beaten-path material directly for motion pictures. Instead, the so-called "original stories" fed into the studio thrashing machines almost inevitably deal with worn-out types in worn-out situations, old shoes polished to a bright, deceptive shine in the accepted trickery of all secondhand merchants.
Some of our most promising writers have submitted to this golden degradation. With their novels or their poems or their plays behind them, they immerse themselves in Hollywood's seductive comforts. Able and industrious as many of them are, they have cut themselves off from the experiences, the roots, the vital stimulants that invariably generated the works which won them their original reputations. Commuting between the Tennis Club and a major studio writers' building, without sufficient curiosity even to explore the sprawling, transplanted Middle Western city, that spreads around them, an alarming percentage of Hollywood's more successful scenarists write in a contracting circle of empty facility.
BUT as the American film industry heads into the Late Forties and Frightening Fifties, there are at least ten conditions for change (if not improvement) creating a more dynamic atmosphere than at any other time since the Years of the Independ-ent Rebellion, 1910-1916 (starring Goldwyn, Lasky, Zukor, Laemmle, and others).
Condition One. The gradual elimination of block booking, whereby major studios are able to foist on the public dozens of careless and inferior films which exhibitors are forced to rent in order to get the superior films they want.
Condition Two. The possible disappearance of the double feature, a hangover from the depression doldrums when free dishes, money, cars, and added attractions were part of the desperate effort to lure movie patrons back into the theaters.
Condition Three. Inflationary prices and the resulting drop in purchasing power, making an anachronism of the wartime definition of a smart showman: one who throws open his doors and jumps out of the way to avoid being trampled in the rush. Movie-goers are beginning to pick and choose. Whether they will continue to choose Coney Island in preference to The Ox-Bow Incident across the street is another question.
Condition Four. Sharply rising costs of film production. There is a growing conviction on the part of Hollywood executives that "A" pictures are going to require new quality in order to do better than break even.
Condition Five. Growth of independent production. Last year nearly half of Hollywood's total output was made independently, which means outside of the production controls, though not necessarily outside of the financial controls, of the major studios. Whether the directors, writers, and stars set up their own corporations for income tax or loftier motives, the odds for better pictures are all on the side of those which bear an individual stamp and are made with individual care. The rash of independents, while not necessarily providing better pictures, may provide a more creative atmosphere in which to attempt them.
Condition Six. Signs of flexibility on the part of some big studio bosses who are entrusting production programs to younger, more liberal producers drawn from the ranks of writers and directors, while allowing others an unprecedented amount of creative elbowroom within the major company frameworks. Among the more intelligent innovations is Schary's plan to devote RKO's low-budget pictures to artistically advanced experimentation that may eventually eliminate the pulp-level "B " pictures.
Condition Seven. The influence of war experiences on Hollywood's film men. Many directors and writers who did documentary film work for the armed services have returned to Hollywood with a broadened conception of what a motion picture can be. The documentary technique reflected in several recent films may in time pull down to earth Hollywood's traditional prettified naturalism. Willie Wyler's direction in The Best Years of Our Lives shows a regard for realistic detail and a feeling for the way Americans really behave that are not only refreshing but a significant improvement over his best (which was good enough) pre-war films.
Condition Eight. The renaissance of European film production, including such successful importations as the Italian masterpiece The Open City, the French Well-Digger's Daughter, the Russian venture into pure entertainment, The Stone Flower, and the consistent high quality of British productions which carried off a disproportionate majority of the votes for the Critics' Circle's Best Ten Pictures of the Year. These foreign films not only offer competitive stimulation to Hollywood creators but serious economic competition to our Big Five anxious to reestablish their domination of world markets.
Condition Nine. An increasingly mature attitude toward their craft on the part of a growing number of film makers who, in local organs like the Screen Writer and the Hollywood Quarterly, the trade papers, and in frequent group discussions, express a growing sense of responsibility toward the medium which has become, if not "the unacknowledged legislator of the world," certainly Everyman's University.
Condition Ten. Hopeful indications of a stirring desire for something better on the part of film audiences, some of whom learned to laugh at the dramatic inadequacies of the Special Service movies that helped to interrupt the monotony of military life. An overwhelming proportion of the "preview cards" on Crossfire, for instance, expressed a desire for "more films like this that give us something to think about."
In the second fifty years of American film production, our movies may drift along in the listless calm of creative cynicism and public indiscrimination. Or they may forge ahead to a new maturity which will enable us to be not merely the most entertained people of all time, but the most capable of empathy—that ability to experience someone else's emotions which is the basis of civilized behavior and the ultimate power of the motion picture.
This is the challenge, not only for our film makers, but for all 98 million of us who line up at our favorite theater every week. Which will we choose, the stupor of anesthesia or the stimulus of adrenalin?