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New Article: “Service Providers” : Genre Cinema in the 21st Century

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

I’ve just published a new article in QRFV on 21st century genre filmmaking.

As I write in the article, Harrison Ford in 2013 noted that “‘I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities—I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers —that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies of Transformers or whatever is going on . . .’

When Harrison Ford made these comments to Adam Sternbergh, a reporter for The New York Times, no particular controversy ensued. Ford was simply stating a fact: Directors today, most of whom work within rigid genre formats, are indeed little more than ’service providers,’ who create long, loud, open-ended and ultimately unsatisfying “epic” films for an ever more indiscriminate audience.

Yet, it’s really not the fault of the viewers who flock to see the endless interactions of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and other franchise films; they simply don’t know any better. There is nothing else on offer at the multiplex, and with everything online — behind a pay wall, usually with a subscription attached —any impulse to be adventurous in one’s viewing habits died long ago. It’s like McDonald’s: It is what it is, nothing more or less, and it’s reliably available, and always the same.

As Derek Thompson wrote in 2014, ‘The reason why Hollywood makes so many boring superhero movies [is because] studios were better at making great movies when they were worse at figuring out what we wanted to see,’ adding that ‘Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it’s become better at making relentlessly average movies …

In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business in America, after grocery stores and cars …Watching films approached the ubiquity of a bodily function: Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, creating an audience share that’s bigger than today’s Super Bowl.

The six major studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and RKO) could basically do whatever they wanted and be sure to make money. Owning their own theater chains (which accounted for half their total revenue), they controlled the means and distribution of a product that was as essential to mid-century life as grilled chicken. Surprise, surprise: Virtually all their films made money.’” Not so today.


Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller’s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford’s Mark Chapman is the New York Express’s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

As Allison Meier writes in the website Hyperallergic, Hollywood’s background art has long been ignored.

As Meier notes, “when backdrop painters were successful at their jobs, the filmgoing audience didn’t notice their work at all. From the 1930s, up to the emergence of CGI and higher quality photography, painted backings were an essential part of the cinema industry.

However, the artists were barely credited, no matter how important their transformation of reality was to a film — whether a colossal painting that transported the viewer to an exotic locale or a fantastic mural for an entirely fictional realm. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Karen L. Maness and Richard M. Isackes, out now from Regan Arts, is a visual compendium of over 300 images highlighting this unheralded history.

‘These special effect backings, the largest paintings ever created, were breathtaking in their artistic and technical virtuosity,’ the authors write. They note that although the ’majority of backings used today are digitally printed photographic enlargements,’ the painted backdrop still remains a part of film, albeit in a reduced role:

But, paradoxically, the painted image often looks more realistic than the photographic image. Scenic artists can manipulate backings by adjusting light, color, and texture, helping to support the movie camera’s constructed image. Some information and details can be selectively accentuated, while others can be deemphasized. A photograph, on the other hand, is static and has a tendency to contradict the artifice of the rest of the setting.

They also point out how recent films, like 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and 2014’s Interstellar, also incorporated painted backings to instill an otherworldly atmosphere. Most of the book is concentrated on artists who made significant contributions to the “golden age” of Hollywood.

Before the 1930s, films were often staged like theater, backgrounds not intended to be viewed as anything other than flat space. Then emerged films like 1936’s The Petrified Forest. Shot entirely at the Warner Bros studio in Burbank, California, all its scenes were set in the Arizona desert, with realistic backdrops integral to moving the action, even if the actors didn’t go anywhere.

You probably haven’t heard the backdrop artists’ names — although Salvador Dalí makes a brief appearance with his dream sequence backing for the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

You’ve almost certainly seen their work, even if your brain perceived it as a real three-dimensional space, such as George Gibson’s scenic art for the Wizard of Oz or North by Northwest, and Ben Carré’s artwork for classics like The Phantom of the Opera. No matter the place, the painted backdrop was crucial to the audience’s immersion in the cinematic world.”

A fascinating look at an under-appreciated art form; well worth checking out.

Russell Hicks – Hollywood Professional

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

“I want to show you I’m honest in the worst way!” – Russell Hicks in The Bank Dick

Russell Hicks, the consummate Hollywood professional character actor, is seen above in one of his most memorable roles as the astonishingly corrupt con man J. Frothingam Waterbury in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940, directed by Edward F. Cline), who successfully unloads some worthless shares in “the Beefsteak Mines” (whatever that is) on Fields in a rundown bar with some memorably shady hard-sell dialogue.

As Waterbury tells his mark, Egbert Sousé (Fields) in the film, “Waterbury’s my name, J. Frothingham Waterbury. I’m in the bond and stock business. Now, I have five thousand shares of the Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada, that I want to turn over to your bank. I like this little town and I want to get some contacts. I think you’re the very man.

Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share. The telephone company once sold for five cents a share. These shares are twice as expensive, therefore, consequently they’ll be twice as valuable. Naturally, you’re no dunce. Telephone is now listed at one seventy-three and you can’t buy it. Three thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars for every nickel you put into it.

It’s simple arithmetic — if five’ll get you ten, ten will get you twenty. Sixteen-cylinder cars, a big home in the city — balconies upstairs and down. Home in the country — big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate. Warm Sunday afternoon, fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice-cold beer.  And then this guy comes up the shady drive in an armored car from the bank, and he dumps a whole basket of coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in your lap.

And he says, ‘Sign here, please, on the dotted line.’ And then he’s off, to the soft chirping of our little feathered friends in the arboreal dell. That’s what these bonds mean. I’d rather part with my dear old grandmother’s paisley shawl or her wedding ring than part with these bonds. Gosh! Oh, pardon my language. . . I feel like a dog. But it’s now or never. It must be done. So take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it!” Fields responds, thereby setting off a chain of events that makes The Bank Dick one of the handful of films that has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But Hicks’ work in The Bank Dick is just one of more than 320 feature films and television programs the actor appeared in, including, among many other projects, such significant films as Scarlet Street,  Blood and Sand, The Great Lie, Sergeant York and The Black Arrow, racking up no less than 19 credits in 1942, and another 25 films in 1941.

For all of this, Hicks received comparatively little remuneration, as this employment card from for The Little Foxes from 1941 shows; he was a day player, with a rate of just $150 per day with a weekly guarantee for $600, and remained in constant demand because of his absolute professionalism, the fact that he could remember reams of dialogue and almost never blew a take, and could be relied on to essentially “direct himself,” so that even when the film he was appearing in fell apart, or the director had no idea what he was doing, Hicks would emerge unscathed, ready for his next assignment.

Russell Hicks’ employment contract for The Little Foxes, dated May 1, 1941.

Hicks worked right up until his death, and as you can see, he had to; for his entire professional career, Hicks was a perennial freelancer, moving from studio to studio, from the majors to the minors, without hardly missing a beat. With his sonorous voice, photographic memory, and dignified bearing, Hicks could move from playing a shady mob lawyer (in Hold That Ghost), to a judge (Tarzan’s New York Adventure), or an army colonel (They Died With Their Boots On), or a CIA “handler” (The Flying Saucer) without missing a beat.

Amazingly, he even took on the role of an aging Robin Hood – surely a stretch – in the 1946 film The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, and managed to pull it off in style. Some of his roles took just a day; others a week or so, but Hicks could always be relied to show up, say his lines, and wrap up his portion of the project with smooth assurance.

Indeed, his career stretched all the way back to 1915, and his work on D. W. Griffith’s horrifically racist Birth of A Nation, as well as Intolerance in 1916, and he was never out of work for more than few weeks before the next job came along.

Hicks’ last work was in Betty White’s pioneering television fantasy sitcom Date With The Angels in 1957; he died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 61 that same year. So his career truly spanned cinema from almost the medium’s inception straight through until the modern sound era. It’s always fun to watch him at work; no matter how small the part, he never disappoints, and plays each new role with conviction and style.


Marvel vs. DC – The Social Media Battle

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Talkwalker describes the social media battle between DC and Marvel as “a friendly rivalry” – but really, it’s a battle to the death.

As Julie Hong writes, “A friendly rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics has spawned since the 1930s, originating from comic books and then flourishing onto the big screens and video games. With more than 20 movie adaptations planned in the next 4 years, superhero movies are bound to break box office numbers, and social media records. While we must reckon that comparing Marvel and DC worlds is like comparing Coca-Cola and Pepsi – it’s a matter of taste – we can however determine who is catching the attention on the social web this summer in regards to figures and stats.

Using Talkwalker’s social media analytics platform, let’s see who wins each round in terms of social media trends, share of voice, hashtag analysis, sentiment, and engagement on Facebook and Twitter.” Hong then takes the various Marvel and DC films through a variety of social barometers, with Marvel sometimes winning, and DC sometimes coming out on top, but in the end – surprise – Marvel wins, mostly because they have a much deeper bench of characters than DC, and they’re clearly more adept at playing the social media game, and have been, long before Twitter, Facebook and the like were invented, and the only fan feedback was the “letters to the editor” column.

Hong concludes, “Our 8-round battle concludes to Marvel winning over DC on social media in terms of general conversations about comic books, volume of brand and hashtag mentions online, buzz originating from its cinematic universe, and Twitter activity. Winning the battle, but not necessarily the war. Superheroes fans, the floor is yours. Let us know who wins your heart @Talkwalker! This analysis was conducted using Talkwalker, a social listening and social media analytics platform that monitors and analyses online conversations on social networks, news websites, blogs, forums and more, in over 187 languages.”

So check it out – even if comic book films aren’t your main interest, this is fascinating material.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon 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 thirty books and more than 100 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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