This afternoon, I had the good fortune to talk with Mark Lynch for his NPR show Inquiry from WICN radio, on my new book Death of the Moguls. In the 1930s and 40s the great Hollywood studios were ruled by a small group of men who had complete control over which films got made and what stars got to appear in those films. These moguls rule was absolute and together they had a feeling of “absolute immortality.” They were the real gods of Hollywood. But after they died, the era of the classic Hollywood studio also came to an end and the studios lost their individual identities. Here, I get a chance to talk about the book with Mark Lynch; we ran out of time just as we were getting started! Hope to do it again.
Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
A lot of people probably don’t know that Captain Marvel, originally a comic book character for Fawcett Publications, was the first superhero whose exploits were adapted for the screen, in a Republic Pictures serial from 1941, directed by William Witney (Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director) and John English. With an epic running time of 216 minutes, the serial played out in 12 chapters, spread out over 12 Saturday mornings, when it would run as a continuing feature as part of the Saturday matinee program at movie theaters. Serials in the sound era ended production in 1956, and the genre had been around since the silent era, but among serial aficionados, Republic’s serials have a special place of pride as being the most slickly produced and directed, with superb special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and non-stop, pulse pounding action.
As Wikipedia notes of Captain Marvel’s genesis and production, the “Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 twelve-chapter film serial directed by John English and William Witney for Republic Pictures, adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics [. . .] during an archaeological expedition to Siam, the Malcolm Archaelogical Expedition unearths the lost Golden Scorpion, an ancient, multi-lensed statue with a curse attached, which has the power to transmute base metals into gold, but also to destroy those who seek to misuse its power. Billy Batson [Frank Coghlan, Jr.], a young man who has tagged along on the expedition, meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who grants him the power to become Captain Marvel [Tom Tyler] and protect those who may be in danger from the Scorpion’s curse.
The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among five scientists of the Expedition, but a black-hooded villain known as the Scorpion then attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device itself. Several expedition members are killed in the Scorpion’s quest despite Captain Marvel’s continual efforts to thwart him. Deducing that the Scorpion always seems to know what goes on at all the meetings with the scientists, Billy later confides his suspicions to his friends, Betty Wallace [Louise Currie] and Whitey Murphy [William Benedict], that the Scorpion might be one of the archaeological team.
The Scorpion later discovers the connection between Billy and Captain Marvel. After capturing him, the Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and reveals the Scorpion to be one of the last surviving scientists, who is then killed by an angry Siamese native. Captain Marvel tosses the scorpion statue into a volcano’s molten lava to prevent it from ever being used for evil. Once it is destroyed, Captain Marvel is instantly transformed back into Billy Batson [. . .]
Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553, although the final negative cost was actually $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend) — [still a mere $2,330,151.43 in 2012 dollars]. It was filmed between December 23, 1940 and January 30, 1941 under the working title Captain Marvel. The serial was an outgrowth of Republic’s failed attempt at a serial which would feature National Periodical Publications [today known as DC Comics]’s Superman. When DC refused to grant Republic the rights to the character, Republic approached Fawcett Comics, and struck a deal to bring Captain Marvel to the screen. Captain Marvel was actually more popular the Superman as a comic book character at the time, outselling Superman by a a considerable margin.
Director William Witney was, however, skeptical about trying to film Captain Marvel after the legal problems with Superman, but the serial went ahead on schedule. DC attempted legal action to prevent the filming, citing Republic’s previous attempt at a Superman serial, but was unsuccessful. Adventures of Captain Marvel was a huge success at the box office, and is considered by many to be Republic’s finest chapter play of the 66 serials the company produced. About a decade later, following a legal battle with DC and a declining market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic series. In the 1970s, the Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived (and ultimately purchased) by DC Comics.”
The problem with Republic serials for the contemporary viewer, however, is that almost none of them are available in DVD format. When VHS tapes were first introduced, Republic put out most their serials in excellent two-tape transfers, necessitated by the long running time of each production, but when DVDs were phased in, for some reason, the serials never made the jump to the new format. Happily, Adventures of Captain Marvel is the exception to that rule, and is readily available on a legal DVD from Artisan Releasing and Republic Pictures, in a sparkling transfer.
Sarah Street’s groundbreaking study, Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955, on the development of color in the British cinema, is that rare film history text which is at once absolutely authoritative, and pitched at a very high level in terms of discourse, but still readily accessible to the general reader. In addition, the volume is richly — and I mean intensely – illustrated with numerous, exquisitely printed frame blowups from the many films it examines, all in full color, and Street’s analysis of the development of color, not only in the commercial British cinema, but also in the the experimental work of artists such as Len Lye, is meticulous and detailed.
As the British Film Institute’s website for the book notes, “how did the coming of colour change the British film industry? Unlike sound, the arrival of colour did not revolutionise the industry overnight. For British film-makers and enthusiasts, colour was a controversial topic. While it was greeted by some as an exciting development – with scope for developing a uniquely British aesthetic – others were deeply concerned. How would audiences accustomed to seeing black-and-white films – which were commonly regarded as being superior to their garish colour counterparts – react? Yet despite this initial trepidation, colour captivated many British inventors and film-makers. Using different colour processes, these innovators produced films that demonstrated remarkable experimentation and quality.
Sarah Street’s illuminating study is the first to trace the history of colour in British cinema, and analyses the use of colour in a range of films, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Open Road, The Glorious Adventure, This is Colour, Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and Moulin Rouge. Beautifully illustrated with full colour film stills, this important study provides fascinating insights into the complex process whereby the challenges and opportunities of new technologies are negotiated within creative practice. The book also includes a Technical Appendix by Simon Brown, which provides further details of the range of colour processes used by British film-makers.”
One of the most interesting aspects of British color cinematography that Street takes pains to point out is the ways in which British cinematographers changed the “look” of the three-strip Technicolor process from the hard, bright, bold colors used in many American films during the same era, such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and other Hollywood projects. As she demonstrates, color was used in a variety of ways in the British cinema, with much more variation than in the States; effectively muted in the superb film This Happy Breed to convey the drabness of workaday British life during World War II, or strikingly bold in the films of The Archers — Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), of which my favorite is probably A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the United States).
There are a number of books presently available dealing with the use of color in film, and the problem with many of them is that in describing the works they examine, they often fall back on black and white illustrations to demonstrate their case, astonishing as that may seem. Color printing is expensive, but in this case, using an excellent and sensitive paper stock, Street has managed to create a book at a very reasonable price that is bursting with color images from the many films she discusses, so much so that the book becomes almost a coffee table book, gorgeous simply for the images it contains, as well as an excellent study of the various color processes used in the UK from 1900 to 1955.
As Monaghan writes, “Wheeler Winston Dixon talks about how he went about researching his latest book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, which Rutgers University Press released in August 2012. Dixon is a prolific film historian based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Among his many books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).
In Death of the Moguls, he explains what happened when leaders of Hollywood studios during the “golden era” of the 1930s to 1950s faced obstacles they had not foreseen, and could barely countenance – dying, for example. Dixon describes the final years of the studio system and assesses the last days of the “rulers of film” – moguls like Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic. Dixon asserts that because those figures made the studios through the sheer force of their personalities and business acumen, their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Why? Because almost none of them cultivated leaders to succeed them.
Dixon introduces many studios and their bosses of the late 1940s, just before the studios collapsed, and describes their last productions as they headed towards their demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He details such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters and slash their payrolls; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era – by shifting to 3D, color, and CinemaScope; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.
In his ‘lucid and penetrating account,’ as film scholar Steven Shaviro of Wayne State University puts it, Dixon also describes what came next: the switch to television production and some distribution of independent film.”
Daniel Lindvall, the editor in chief of the distinguished journal Film International, has just written a brilliant essay on the new Batman film, which deftly summarizes the elitist concerns of the film, and Nolan’s work on the series as a whole.
As Lindvall writes, in part, “without the help of a time machine, watching the The Dark Knight Rises on a big screen will probably remain the closest I’ll ever get to what experiencing a Wagnerian propaganda spectacle in 1930’s Berlin must have felt like. It is not just the celebration of the übermensch in shiny black body armour, the fetishization of his equally shiny black military vehicles and war equipment, nor even the literal horde of police in dark uniforms – a police force now collectively redeemed, cleansed of all corruption – that fight by the hero’s side in the final battle of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga. And it isn’t just the utter contempt that all of Nolan’s Batman films have for anyone looking like they may not be able to afford a home on Gotham City’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Upper West Side – police, loyal servants and orphans excepted.
Here ‘the 99 per cent’ figure only as easy-to-manipulate potential recruits to a violent mob led by psychopaths. And it isn’t, in itself, the demonization of Asia as the home of coldly inhuman intelligence and cruelty. Or that evil is so often connected to physical deformity. Hero worship, gun fetishism, glorification of the armed forces of the state, racism – none of this is new to the genre. But in this ultimate instalment, Nolan’s Batman trilogy combines it all into a story that reaches the deepest recesses of the bourgeois soul and unquestioningly celebrates the authoritarian darkness it finds there.
Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is not just your ordinary superhero or vigilante. Even if the films make much of his tragically (self-)imposed social isolation this does not make him an outsider or an outcast. His place is above, not outside of, society. He is no bullied loner accidentally gaining super powers, like Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and he’s no rebellious cop, like Dirty Harry Callahan.
Bruce Wayne’s powers rest ultimately on material wealth, and not just any wealth, but control over an inherited corporate empire whose main source of profit comes from the arms trade. Batman’s moral code may forbid him the use of deadly violence, but it doesn’t forbid him making a luxury living out of peddling weapons to Pentagon, including, for instance, a machine capable of vaporizing the enemy’s water supplies, intended for use in desert wars. One wonders which desert wars?
The rather worn-out question explicitly posed throughout the trilogy – whether or not it is right to take the law into your own hands – is therefore really the question about the relation between capital and the state, the arms industry and the public armed forces. Batman is a contemporary saga about the shadowy world of post-9/11 ‘security’ arrangements operating under the jurisdiction of anti-democratic ‘anti-terror’ laws and supra-legal authority in a world where the borders between the state and private corporations are increasingly permeable, whilst power escapes ever further away from the influence and scrutiny of ordinary citizens.
Of course, the Batman films never seriously questioned this form of authority in any way other than purely rhetorically. Anyone in the Gotham City universe that criticizes Batman is always portrayed as silly, ineffective, corrupt or crooked. However, if there was ever any doubt at all, The Dark Knight Rises does away with it spectacularly as the city, in an unusually distasteful scene even for this film, erects a statue of its hero pictured as a sternly watchful warrior saint.”
I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on Hollywood’s movie moguls of the 1930s through the 1960s, and how their era came to an end; it’s part of the work of my book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press for Fall, 2012.
Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film,” which examines the careers of such moguls as Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. The sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.
Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I discuss here, and in the book in much more detail, of course, such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.
Barry Keith Grant read several drafts of the book during its production, and wrote that “in this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful [. . .] Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.”
Here’s an interesting item that was suggested by my student Jeff Bragg; I’m probably going to include this in the final draft of my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, which is at the publisher’s now, but which will certainly be edited right up to the publication date.
As media critic Alexandra Alter notes in The Wall Street Journal, “in the past, publishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader sits down with a book. Does the reader quit after three pages, or finish it in a single sitting? Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins? Now, e-books are providing a glimpse into the story behind the sales figures, revealing not only how many people buy particular books, but how intensely they read them.
For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public.
The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.”
As Jeff Bragg pointed out to me, “as someone who uses a Kindle every day, I had never thought much about the data they were collecting and how they might put it to use. It looks like publishers will be making similar ‘focus group’ type moves in the future in order to maximize profits. We can only hope that authors don’t end up letting general audiences influence their work too much. One particular example that struck me was an author who reconsidered writing out one character simply because 30% of the audience ‘liked’ him.”
The fourteen essays featured here focus on series such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, and Captain Z-Ro, exploring their roles in the day-to-day lives of their fans through topics such as mentoring, promotion of the real-world space program, merchandising, gender issues, and ranger clubs – all the while promoting the fledgling medium of television. The distinguished group of authors involved includes Henry Jenkins, J.P. Telotte, Roy Kinnard, Patrick Lucanio and many others. Should be out in late August, early September 2012.
I have a new essay on the noir films of director Robert Wise, just out in this excellent new collection edited by noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir: The Directors, published by Limelight Editions.
Here’s the first paragraph of my essay:
“Robert Wise’s case as a noir director is a curious one; Wise seemingly freelanced throughout his career, and never really came down decisively in any one genre, swinging all the way from musicals to horror films, with every possible stop in-between. His youth was marked by constant movie going, and he soon got tired of the limited opportunities offered by his hometown, and trekking to Hollywood, got a job in RKO’s cutting department. At first an apprentice, working on music and dialogue tracks, and then a full-fledged editor, Wise rapidly rose through the ranks of the studio hierarchy, and by 1939 was cutting complete “A” level features, such as William Dieterle’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in 1940, Dorothy Arzner’s feminist tract Dance Girl Dance.
In 1941, however, Wise’s skillful editing came to the attention of Orson Welles, fresh off his 1938 War of the Worlds Mercury Theatre radio broadcast, which memorably caused panic in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, with its vivid depiction of a Martian invasion in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, presented as a news broadcast in real time, a format that completely fooled a rather unsophisticated radio audience. Welles, who has been working in radio as an actor on series such as The Shadow since the mid 1930s, and before that as a director and impresario for a variety of outré Broadway productions, was rewarded with a three-picture deal at RKO for his audacious success, and sequestered himself in a screening room at the studio, watching everything from newsreels and travelogues to John Ford westerns, often in the company of the gifted Gregg Toland, a brilliant director of cinematography who was part of the RKO studio staff. For Welles, Wise edited Citizen Kane (1941), a film that surely needs no introduction to readers of this volume, and which, along with Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, and also an RKO film), heralded the dawn of the noir era.”
As one ecstatic reader of the volume noted of Film Noir: The Directors on the Amazon.com website, “some 20+ directors are profiled & discussed with many examples of their works and overall style. This book is well-produced, slick looking with generous illustrations and lots of informative film analysis. A gold mine for fans of bleak character driven tales of fatalistic heroes hopelessly lost in a dark world of never-ending shadows. Film noir heaven (can one possibly exist?) doesn’t get any better than this. Absolutely essential.”
It’s a real honor to be included here, and Alain Silver and James Ursini are holding a book signing in Los Angeles to mark the publication of Film Noir: The Directors at the famed Larry Edmunds Bookshop, located at 6644 Hollywood Boulevard, on April 28th at 5PM, followed by a screening of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Edge of the City, with a special appearance by noir actress Julie Adams at The Egyptian Theater, as part of their noir series for the American Cinematheque.
I’ve seen a number of films at the Egyptian, and the projection — still 35mm, thankfully — is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. If you live in the Los Angeles area, stop by Larry Edmunds Bookshop, pick up a copy of Film Noir: The Directors, and then walk down a few blocks to the Egyptian theater, located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, for a night of pure noir on the street of broken dreams.
Adam Abraham’s book on the rise and fall of UPA, the pioneering “limited animation” studio that dominated more adventurous cartoon production in the 1950s and 60s, is both a cautionary tale, and a celebration of the people who founded UPA, mostly as a response to the rigid cookie-cutter approach espoused by the Disney studios. UPA’s founders, Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow set up shop as an alternative way of making cartoons, and soon had a hit with the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, and Gerald Mc Boing Boing, creating cartoons that pleased both the public and the critics.
As Fred Patten notes in his review of the book in Animation World Network, “Abraham’s history of United Productions of America covers much more than that studio alone. In his picture of how UPA grew out of the Disney strike of 1941, he describes the Disney studio of 1938-1941 in considerable detail and the 1941 strike in great detail [. . .] Most of the animators (or animation artists of varying technical ranks) who joined the strikers were among Disney’s younger artists, who had a modern art education. The wrap-up of the strike required Disney to rehire the strikers, but they were made to feel unwelcome or soon re-fired. By the end of 1941 there were hundreds of young animators looking for new jobs. Abraham argues persuasively that this was both why the Disney studio lost its willingness to experiment with new art styles after the early 1940s, and why there were so many animators interested in modern art at other studios during the 1940s.”
Abraham is an excellent writer, and he also created the book’s inviting design, which is lavishly illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs, drawings, and animation cels, and he doesn’t stint on limning the darker side of the UPA story; how many of the animators who worked there came to untimely ends, how Disney’s continued hostility to the studio (particularly when it began picking up Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Subject) also took a toll, and how the changing marketplace forced UPA to cut the running time of their cartoons to the bone, and eventually move exclusively to television.
I’ve never really been a Mr. Magoo fan — it seems like a one joke premise that quickly wears thin — but Abraham’s book is really more about the studio itself, and its artistic and historic impact, than its most famous character. Behind UPA’s creation was the search for personal and creative freedom, and as Disney himself noted of the rise of UPA, “once a man’s tasted freedom, he will never be content to be a slave.” Working for Disney was doing what the boss wanted, and nothing else; at UPA, a whole new style was forged, which would prove, in the long run, to be a harbinger of the future of animation.
Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow, the founders of UPA, at work in the studio.
About the Author
Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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In The National News
National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/