Movies in America: After Fifty Years


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?

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