Where the Stars Were Born

Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era
by Thomas Schatz.
Pantheon Books , $24.95.
THOMAS SCHATZ TAKES his title and his book’s epigraph from Andre Bazin, the French theorist and critic: “The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e. not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system.” There is shrewd irony in this choice, for Bazin and the young Cahiers du Cinema critics he so profoundly influenced in the 1950s were the authors of the auteur theory, which Schatz feels a curious, belated compulsion to subvert.
In the sixties and seventies, when it had the force of the new, auteurism was the defining ideology in film criticism; you could not work in that field without declaring, at least by implication, whether you held with it or against it. It remains, rather quaintly, the basis for pseudo-knowledgeable film chat of a less formal kind. Its chief tenet, of course, is that despite the contributions of other figures (producer, writer, stars) or factors (generic convention or, more important to Schatz’s argument, the corporate culture of the producing company), the director must be regarded as a film’s prime creator, and his ability to assert his personality in the course of turning out what his employers intend to be an essentially impersonal industrial product as a crucial test of the film’s value.
Early in its career, at a time when American movie reviewing was—improbable as it may seem—even less distinguished than it is today, the theory had its corrective uses. By insisting on the primacy of the director in the creation of a film’s mise en scène, the auteurists helped to reorder critical priorities and audience perceptions, especially among the educable young. They had a particularly beneficial effect in shaping historical perspective on what people have lately taken to calling the classic era, generally defined as the first two decades of sound-film production. The official “great” movies of that time, those earnest and overstuffed winners of Oscars and New York Film Critics prizes, which had dominated critical and historical attention (if not our affections), were ruthlessly re-examined, and popular genre works by such auteur favorites as Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, which had once been casually dismissed, were awarded their rightful place in the pantheon.
The theory, however, always had its limits, the most obvious of which is that a lot of good movies have been made by directors not valued by its proponents, and vice versa. Casablanca is the great counterexample with which everyone proves auteurism’s strictures, but there are, of course, a hundred—a thousand—other treasured movies whose delight the theory is helpless to explain. As a result, it has declined to a sort of “yes, but—” status.
THOMAS SCHATZ, who supervises graduate studies in film at the University of Texas, has set out not only to belabor auteurism but also to elaborate an alternative theory to take its place. Schatz has closely examined the records of three studios (MGM, Warner Brothers, and Universal) and one significant independent producer (David O. Selznick), aspiring to calculate, with the aid of their antique paper work, the “whole equation of pictures” in the old Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald, from whose The Last Tycoon that phrase is borrowed, believed that fewer than a half dozen men—all of them, we must surmise, studio executives—could carry this complex arithmetic around in their heads, and Schatz agrees with him. Indeed, he advances a still larger claim for those moguls, arguing that the production system they built was miraculously—perhaps mystically—gyroscopic in its functioning, maintaining that delicate balance of social, industrial, technological, economic, and aesthetic forces which produced the classic age.
It is not a completely disagreeable thesis. In some ways it is a self-evident one. Each major studio of the thirties and forties did develop a house style—a compound of art direction, lighting, costuming, and so forth—which more or less automatically subsumed or at least softened the manner of all but the strongest directors it employed. Each studio had its thematic preoccupations, too, tending to work more effectively in some genres than in others. But Schatz is not really interested in presenting the kind of close critical characterization that a useful discussion of these matters would require, and when he tries to provide one, he betrays a remarkably opaque sensibility.

Precisely because he cannot tell the difference between a historically resonant movie and a historically irrelevant one, he defeats his own purpose. For if, indeed, the “system” had a previously unidentified “genius,” then it is in the theorist’s interest to demonstrate its specific and shaping manifestations in movies that we still care about. Instead, we get quite the opposite impression of the system as Schatz works his way through its records. Time after time we see mediocrity shaping mediocrity, and we emerge with this impression: analysis of

the system explains all too well the prevalence of the ordinary film, but it is helpless to explain the extraordinary film.
It may be that Schatz’s methodology is to blame for this impression. He implies that he had no choice but to limit his study to just four companies, sacrificing breadth in favor of depth in order to keep his book to a shapely length. The implication is that sampling must yield typicality because the system functioned more or less identically at every studio in the old Hollywood. But that is simply not true: the variations in management style from place to place and time to time were enormous. I suspect that his choice of studios for extended analysis was anything but random, was in fact dictated largely by his anti-auteur bias. For the companies he discusses at length are precisely those that were the least welcoming to highly individual talents, especially in their directorial ranks.
Under Irving Thalberg (Fitzgerald’s model, of course, for The Last Tycoon) MGM did indeed develop an elaborate system of production control, much envied (if never successfully emulated) in other front offices. Directors were interchangeable and writers were platooned on and off pictures, which were subject to numerous retakes after they were tested on audiences in sneak previews. The auteurs here were unquestionably Thalberg and his supervisors (latterly producers). They were essentially middlebrows, stamping the studio’s work with a smooth, impersonal luxe, which showcased its huge roster of stars admirably, sacrificing energy for calculation
and permitting no wayward individuality, no giddiness, high or low, to live for long on the screen. Thalberg’s MGM stressed high romantic sheen, and after his death Louis B. Mayer’s MGM stressed homely virtue. Conviction of a sort may have moved both of them. But in processing their films the MGM system reduced even the bosses’ strong feelings to genteel mannerism. These films wowed the folks in the Depression thirties, when a touch of glamour did wonders to offset the gravness of life, and MGM became the most profitable studio of the decade. But looking back now we see that the best of breed in all the most vital genres of the time— screwball comedies, crime dramas, noir romances, even costume adventures and “women’s” pictures (both MGM specialties)—were made elsewhere. It was only in musicals that, starting in the early forties, the studio outstripped its competitors. But all its truly great musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain, among others) were produced by Arthur Freed’s legendary unit, which functioned virtually as a studio within the studio—a fact that does not exactly strengthen Schatz’s argument.
NEITHER DOES THE history of Warner Brothers, the other major studio he takes up (Universal being of minor importance). Warner’s was famous for its gangster pictures (The Public Enemy, Little Caesar), but they were just the most evident examples of its preoccupation with lower-class lives and issues in an urbanizing nation. And in the early thirties the spirit that animated these tough, smart, fast-moving little melodramas touched almost everything on the lot— including Busby Berkeley’s divine backstage musicals. Later, when Bette Davis’s weepies, Errol Flynn’s costume adventures, and contemporary films noir were added to the mix, the studio contrived to make good-looking, often darkly romantic films without breaking the bank—and without a loss of that energy and passion which were characteristic of its best work.
Obviously, some kind of unifying force was operating here, and Schatz would clearly like it to conform to his thesis. But it doesn’t. Warner Brothers wasn’t a system, it was a perpetual cat fight; its greatness was born not of systematization but of contentiousness. The boss, Jack Warner, was a study in conflicts. Politically he was a New Dealer, which is why, although his tolerance for strong-minded directors was low, he was a sucker for left-leaning writers, especially if they were smart Jewish kids who, like him, had hustled up out of the ghetto. But he was oafish in manner and almost comically tightfisted, which kept him at war with his contract talent, with his production chiefs (scrappy, gifted Darryl Zanuck, and smooth, gifted Hal Wallis, both of whom eventually quit in anger)—with anyone, in fact, who looked as if he were about to waste Warner’s money. Schatz’s treatment of this story is gingerly, even disapproving. He just cannot believe that rancor can lead to creativity, or that cheapness can be the mother of energetic invention. By his lights, this was no way to run a business. But it worked: Warner Brothers probably produced more of the great films of the classic era than any other studio.
Except possibly Paramount, which Schatz scarcely mentions, perhaps because it is the largest inconvenience to his theory. As Ethan Mordden argues in a poorly attended book on this subject, The Hollywood Studios (published by Knopf last year), Paramount was the studio with the strongest commitment to directorial authorship. Its tastes were eclectic: It gave Cecil B. DeMille a unit of his own, and it gave Eisenstein his shot at Hollywood, an idea that worked out rather less well. But best of all it loved sophisticated, Europeanized stylists like Rouben Mamoulian (who got movies moving again after the coming of sound), Ernst Lubitsch (the wittiest of romanticists), and Josef von Sternberg (a creator of marvelously excessive images) in the early thirties. A little later it permitted Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder to move out of its writers’ ranks to directorial glory. And it made stars out of such weirdos as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers, only the last of whom MGM ever showed any interest in, and then its concern was to tame them. Thanks to all these essentially unsupervisable individuals, Paramount was to sophisticated comedy and romance what Warner’s was to socially passionate melodrama. And both made MGM’s products, however glossy, look stodgy and middle-class. You have to wonder how Schatz can pretend to offer a comprehensive study of a system’s genius while omitting lengthy mention of its most delightfully eccentric component.
For that matter, why did he pick marginal Universal for study over more aspiring operations? It provided B pictures to the small towns, creating a filmography that, aside from its horror films and a few isolated major releases—All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance— has almost no historical resonance. And why does Schatz devote so much space to Selznick’s company, which was marginal in a different way, producing a handful of flashy pictures that have not worn well (no, I’m not forgetting Gone With the Wind). Indeed, as the lengthened shadow of a ravenous ego, it was perhaps the least systematic component of the system. And it was the one that most quickly deteriorated when its proprietor’s mental health did. At the end Selznick was forbidding directors to make a shot until he came down onto the stage to approve the angle. By this time, too, he was more flesh peddler than producer, lending his contract talent to other companies for more than the salaries he was obliged to pay them, and pocketing the difference. Schatz seems to think that Selznick was useful to his one great director, Alfred Hitchcock, but aside from Notorious, which Selznick packaged rather than produced, all of Hitchcock’s best work was done either before or after his indentured servitude with the producer.
Columbia and RKO, which Schatz largely ignores, were, like Universal, fringe operations, but in its desperation Columbia turned not to Deanna Durbin, over whose collected works Schatz gushes for pages, or Abbott and Costello, but to an auteur named Frank Capra, while RKO, scrambling equally hard for survival, gave us King Kong, Astaire and Rogers, and the young Katharine Hepburn when no one else would touch her. Both studios were always willing to strike a deal with Hawks or Leo McCarey or George Stevens, all strong-minded stylists who did much of their best work (Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, Gunga Din) on these lots. And, lest we forget, it was RKO, fresh out of systematic genius, that went out and recruited the momentarily genuine article, the Orson Welles who made Citizen Kane.
IT’S REALLY QUITE simple: the vast majority of the pictures that best characterize the classic age, and that we continue to watch today with delight, were made at the very studios that Schatz, unfortunately, either ignores or misunderstands. And what is true of films is also true not just of directors but of stars and writers too: the best ones, the ones who defined not just the spirit of the time but those cinematic stylizations of reality that have somehow defied time’s passage, did not for the most part work at the most oppressively systematized studios, where corporate static distorted the exchange of messages between them and their audiences. It is of course a mistake to attribute successes in this vexing enterprise to a single author, for movies are obviously a collaborative (and highly accidental) art. But it is an equally large mistake to imagine that there can be, or ever was, an industrial complex capable of being fine-tuned enough to pick up and effectively respond to a nation’s—a world’s — brain waves. That is work for creative men and women free to make wild surmises. And free, as well, to act on them with a minimum of temporizing constraint. That is the awful truth about moviemaking.