Movies in America: After Fifty Years

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I

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?

II

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.

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