As WICN’s website notes, “during the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were the ‘Big Five’ studios that included MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers. But in addition to these giants of film making, there were also a number of smaller studios. Some of these lesser studios produced fine major films like Gone With the Wind and Spellbound, while others concentrated on serials and “B” films. Each of them has a fascinating history. On this Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon and we continue our conversation about his book Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood. Tonight we concentrate on the stories of these smaller studios like United Artists, David O. Selznick (shown here with Jennifer Jones) and Republic Pictures, the films they produced, the stars, and the unusual lives of the men who headed these studios. If you love film, do not miss this interview!”
Archive for the ‘Career Retrospectives’ Category
Esther Eng, a pioneering feminist director, is the subject of a new documentary. As Elizabeth Kerr notes in a review of the documentary, Golden Gate Silver Light, which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, in The Hollywood Reporter, “Wei’s feature doc is clearly a labor of love — she also edited, produced, wrote, shot and narrated — and the workload often shows. The voice-over (difficult under dramatic circumstances) is academic and frequently stilted, the subtitles are riddled with inconsistencies and spelling errors, and Wei is given to hyperbole (there are many “masters” and “legends” referred to in the film). The HDV photography is functional and efficient and nothing more, and the film is heavy on stock footage and archival photos (though that is likely beyond Wei’s control). Despite the technical and cinematic shortcomings, festivals should provide Golden Gate Silver Light a healthy life on the strength of its subject, and the film could find a place on specialty cable and even in academic circles.
Wei begins her search for details on Eng’s life in the city of her birth, San Francisco, and follows her footsteps to Hollywood, then Hong Kong and finally back to the United States where she died in New York in 1970. Along the way Wei tracks down the bystander who found Eng’s personal journals and photos in a dumpster (which he donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive) and as many surviving family and co-workers — many former Cantonese opera stars fleeing the war in the 1930s — as she could to paint a rough sketch of the unconventional woman. The conversations with Eng’s now-elderly peers complement the material supplied by periodicals and Hollywood biographers and film critics (including The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy). The fact that Wei found two with a semblance of knowledge of Eng speaks to just how unjustly she’s been disregarded.
One of Golden Gate’s strengths is its seamless ability to weave history, Sino-U.S. relations and social standards together to allow for inference and context. When the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Eng from pursuing her chosen career, she left for Hong Kong, where the same individualist streak made her a local celebrity, which stemmed as much from the success of the five films she made there to the exotic lesbianism no one seemed to care about. When she returned to the United States, she was a successful filmmaker — who cast Bruce Lee as an infant girl in one of her last films, Golden Gate Girl (1941).”
With his new book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Wheeler Winston Dixon has performed no mean feat in finding a new and illuminating perspective on what is probably the most written about phenomenon in film history, the Hollywood studio system. By placing the stories of the moguls, from Louis B. Mayer at MGM to the likes of Herbert J. Yates at Republic, one next to the other Dixon captures simultaneously the tremendous impact they had through sheer force of personality on the film culture of their era, but also how they ultimately were, one and all, products of their time, of a specific economic and cultural period. That is, Dixon’s book captures the dialectical interplay between individual and structure. In the end, not just the moguls, but their way of running an industry had to die. “[N]o one came along to take their place, because their kingdom itself had vanished,” as Dixon puts it, eventually to be replaced by today’s corporate media empires. The email interview that follows was completed in March 2013.
Daniel Lindvall: How did you come up with this perspective? What was it that suggested it to you?
Wheeler Winston Dixon: Most conventional histories of the studio era either focus on the “golden age of Hollywood” aspect, in which the producers become heroic figures bending ordinary mortals to their collective wills, or else they become dry statistical surveys with box office tabulations and production schedules. In this book, I set out to concentrate on the late 1960s as the era in which the reign of the great moguls came to an end, as a result of unionization, anti-monopoly decisions, and also the fact that in each case, during the 1930s to the late 1960s, the major studios were run by one or two key people who held unquestioned authority, and believed they were immortal, and irreplaceable.
Thus, it was during the collapse of the studio system that the inherent flaws, inequities, and dictatorial aspect of the Hollywood production machine became most apparent. At the same time, while these men – and they were all men – were monsters, not benevolent despots as some would have us believe, they also made some absolutely superb movies, by exploiting their employees as much as they possibly could. Thus, it seemed to me that to focus on the “end days” of the system could tell us much about the entire mechanism that created the studio system, revealed in full detail as it unravelled.
Robert Downey Sr. is a remarkable filmmaker in his own right; you can check out my blog on the recent Criterion release of some of his early films for more proof of this. He’s also, of course, the father of Robert Downey Jr., whose recent success is one of the more amazing comeback stories in cinema history; a brilliant actor whose life nearly spun out of control, he’s now the star of two franchises, the Iron Man series and the recently rejuvenated Sherlock Holmes series, and has never delivered a bad performance. In a recent issue of Esquire, Downey Jr. remembered the “tough love” that his father dished out at one point in his life, to help in him get back on the straight and narrow:
“The greatest thing my dad taught me came one day when I called him from a phone booth and said, ‘Hungry. No bus token. Please. Out of options. Friends aren’t picking up the phone.’
He said, ‘Pfft, get a job.’
I couldn’t believe it. He just completely stiffed me. I thought I had this guy by some sort of guilt hook still. I thought I could at least get five bucks or something. He said, ‘Call your friends.’
I said, ‘I called them.’
He said, ‘Get a job.’
I said, ‘Dad, where am I going to get a job in enough time to get a paycheck and eat a slice of pizza?’
He said, ‘Enough.’
And you know what? I made do. The next phone call was to some Irish chick whose dad was out of town, and I wound up over at her place. And pretty soon I had a job. I wouldn’t wish that lesson on an enemy. But, you know, sometimes you just gotta be drop-kicked out of the nest.
And by the way, I don’t think those lessons are exclusive to your formative years. I think that human beings tend to keep re-creating some secret, covert mess as they go along.
What do they call it in pop psychology — your comfort zone? I have such a deep empathy for seeing someone’s private Idaho crushed. But it’s the only thing that ever really gets you to the next level, right?”
As film historian Hans J. Wollstein notes, “born on January 5, 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, according to legend, veteran action director Spencer Gordon Bennet entered films by answering an ad for a stuntman to perform a daring jump from the New Jersey Palisades into the Hudson River. The year was 1912 and the employer, the legendary Edison Film Mfg. Company. Bennet was hooked on filmmaking from that moment on and went on to become one of the three or four most important names in the field of motion picture action serials.
Of Anglo-French descent, Spencer Gordon Bennet had sold programs and played bit roles in a Brooklyn theater before earning $62.50 for that fateful jump into the Hudson. He remained with Edison for a while, performing stunts and playing bit parts, before switching to Pathé, where he served as assistant to legendary serial directors Bertram Millhauser and George B. Seitz, actually replacing Seitz as the company’s leading cliffhanger director in the late ’20s when he helmed all the influential Allene Ray and Walter Miller chapterplays.
Concentrating on B-Westerns and feature action films in the early years of sound, Bennet returned to the serial field in 1932 when picked by RKO to direct that studio’s 12-chapter The Last Frontier. It was a homecoming or sorts and he remained in the field until helming the final American action serial, Blazing the Overland Trail, in 1956. Best remembered today, perhaps, for his work for cheapskate producer Sam Katzman, including the 1948 Superman and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, Bennet also did yeoman work for industry leader Republic, where he co-directed some of the most beloved serials of all time, including The Masked Marvel (1943), The Tiger Woman (1944), Zorro Rides Again (1945), and The Purple Monster Strikes (1945).
Signing an exclusive contract with Katzman in 1947, Bennet went on to direct, or co-direct, all of Columbia Pictures later serials, save one, including Batman and Robin (1949) and Captain Video (1951). His ability to work fast and furiously, a prerequisite for steady employment in the B-Western and serial fields, never alienated him from cast and crew, however. ‘He was probably my favorite director of all and was one terrific man,’ said veteran B-Western and serial villain Pierce Lyden. Bennet, who directed his final feature film in 1965, the nicely old-fashioned The Bounty Killer, was the uncle of legendary special-effects wizard Linwood Dunn. He died on October 8, 1987, at the age of 94.”
Bob Fischbach interviewed me for a piece on the Ingmar Bergman festival at Film Streams in Omaha that begins today. Bob’s piece in the Omaha World Herald notes that: “‘You can’t say you’ve got an understanding of film unless you see the films of Bergman,’ Dixon contends. ‘His films are riveting, they have great entertainment value and they’re absorbing experiences. From the beginning, he addressed the timeless questions of human existence: life, death, love, faith, hope. Meditations on what it is to be alive, to have friends and lovers, to face mortality.’
Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala, Sweden, in July 1918. His father was a Lutheran minister, later chaplain to the king of Sweden. He directed more than 60 films and documentaries, most of which he also wrote. Bergman also directed 170 stage plays, through which he developed a core company of actors for his films: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Anders Ek and Gunnar Björnstrand among them.
He was one of the first European filmmakers to break through in the United States. Three of his films won the foreign-language Oscar: The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny and Alexander (1983). Another, Cries and Whispers (1974), was nominated for best film.
Dixon said Bergman’s career began with a stroke of luck: being born in Sweden. Through its Svensk Filmindustri, the nation underwrites the first film of its best students from the national film school. ‘He never had to cater to anyone other than himself,’ Dixon said. ‘He created cinema as an art form because he didn’t worry about audience feedback or test screenings or producers.’ When Dick Cavett once asked Bergman what he’d do if a producer told him to change a script, Bergman replied that he’d tell the producer to go to hell. ‘That was a deeply inspirational model to filmmakers around the world, an art form undiluted,’ Dixon said.”
I was watching Jack Arnold’s Tarantula last night on TCM, and was struck once again by Arnold’s economy in his shot structure, the simplicity and style with which he sets up his shots, the smooth and precise editing patterns, and the way in which he takes his material seriously, no matter how outlandish the basic premise. With such films as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Space Children, and Creature From The Black Lagoon to his credit, it’s easy to forget that Arnold also directed one of the most interesting Westerns of the 1950s, No Name on the Bullet, starring World War II veteran Audie Murphy as hired killer John Gant who arrives in a small town, intent on killing someone for pay — but whom? Everyone in the town seems to have some secret in their past, some enemy who wants them out of the way, but Gant refuses to tip his hand, resulting in a complete meltdown of the fabric as the community, since everyone thinks Gant is after them alone. Arnold is a really underrated American director, and his work deserves a great deal more scrutiny; here, then, is just a tip of the hat to the man who defined 1950s science fiction, but was also capable of a great deal more, if only he hadn’t become so identified with one genre alone.
As I argue in my essay, “the films of Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror filmmaker, are usually lumped in with those of other ‘gore’ specialists, but it seems to me that this is just one component of Fulci’s work. Running through all his films is a strangely dreamlike, hyper-violent abandonment of narrative, which seeks to disrupt normative social values, perhaps as a result of Fulci’s youthful excursions into Marxist political thought.
In such films as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and other works, Fulci continually works against audience expectations, both in terms of characterization and plot. In The Beyond, for example, a young blind woman’s faithful guide dog turns on her without warning, tearing her throat out; in City of the Living Dead, a young couple are making out in the front seat of a car when the girl’s father discovers them, and drags the young man to a drill press, which he uses to push a huge bolt through his skull.
Zombies roam hospitals, highways lead into the ocean with no end or beginning in sight, protagonists discover themselves trapped inside an oil painting, and there’s no logic to any of this. Fulci usually makes some desultory stab at a framing story, but once a central premise is set forth, the rest of the film is given over to random, unconnected, and seemingly unmotivated sequences that follow with no discernible order or reason. I would argue that the chaotic non-narrative structure of Fulci’s films puts him closer to the work of Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau; he creates a walking dream state from which the sleeper never awakes.”
I have a new Frame by Frame video up today on Charlie Chaplin; click here, or on the image above, to see my brief appreciation of his work.
As Wikipedia notes, “Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin, KBE (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977) was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work in the United States during the silent film era. He became the most famous film star in the world before the end of World War I. Chaplin used mime, slapstick and other visual comedy routines, and continued well into the era of the talkies, though his films decreased in frequency from the end of the 1920s. His most famous role was that of The Tramp, which he first played in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice in 1914. From the April 1914 one-reeler Twenty Minutes of Love onwards, he was writing and directing most of his films; by 1916 he was also producing them, and from 1918 he was even composing the music for them. With Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, he co-founded United Artists in 1919.
Chaplin was one of the most creative and influential personalities of the silent-film era. He was influenced by his predecessor, the French silent-film comedian Max Linder, to whom he dedicated one of his films. His working life in entertainment spanned over 75 years, from the Victorian stage and the music hall in the United Kingdom as a child performer, until close to his death at the age of 88. His high-profile public and private life encompassed both adulation and controversy. Chaplin was identified with left-wing politics during the McCarthy era and he was ultimately forced to resettle in Europe from 1952.
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Chaplin the 10th-greatest male screen legend of all time. In 2008, Martin Sieff, in a review of the book Chaplin: A Life, wrote, ‘Chaplin was not just big, he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he stayed on the job. … It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most.’ George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin ‘the only genius to come out of the movie industry.’”
Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.
In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.
In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.
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 email@example.com.
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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/