Movies in America: After Fifty Years

IV

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.

V

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.

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