Posted by Susan Doll on December 20, 2010
The last episode of TCM’s Moguls and Movie Stars, “Fade Out, Fade In,” chronicled the Film School Generation and its impact on Hollywood history. The episode also noted the impact of young movie critics of the era, many of whom supported the then-radical films against the old guard of reviewers who were vexed by the New Hollywood. A major incident of the era was the battle among the critics over Bonnie and Clyde, with grand old man Bosley Crowther of The New York Times remarking about the film, “This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap.” Coincidentally, the reviewer for Time magazine also declared Bonnie and Clyde to be “claptrap.” Either Time’s critic had read Mr. Crowther’s review, or “claptrap” was a very popular word at the time.
Crowther’s intense hatred for the film became a rallying point for supporters of the Film School Generation, who felt the movies of these young, college-educated directors were not understood by older critics of the establishment. Crowther wrote three negative reviews and repeatedly criticized the film in other articles, and then in the spring of 1968, he was dismissed from The New York Times. Many assume that Crowther was let go after 27 years because his opinion of Bonnie and Clyde revealed him to be too far behind the times. After hearing the incident recounted in Moguls and Movie Stars, I couldn’t help recall other films that were wrongly maligned by critics upon initial release. With the aid of some helpful resources, including The Critics Were Wrong: Misguided Movie Reviews and Film Criticism Gone Awry, I thought I would share a few examples that I found particularly thought-provoking. This week, I will focus on reviews of movies from “old Hollywood,” including the silent era through the 1960s. Next week, I will dig up reviews of contemporary films, including those of the Film School Generation. I was going to comment on the quotes, or group them together into fun categories, but I decided they are more telling without adding my two cents. Draw your own conclusions.
William Pfaff of Commonweal on An American in Paris (October 19, 1951): “The publicity led this reviewer to expect something unusual. . .But this is substantially the same old stuff. It used to be set in Mexico and used to star Xavier Cugat and a Chihuahua.”
Variety on Buster Keaton’s The General (February 9, 1927): “The General is far from funny. Its principal comedy scene is built on that elementary bit, the chase, and you can’t continue a flight for almost an hour and expect results. Especially is this so when the action is placed entirely in the hands of the star. It was his story, he directed, and he acted. The result is a flop.”
Manny Farber of The New Republic on Laura (October 30, 1944): “As a murder puzzle it leaves out most of the clues and hides the rest, which makes the mystery both baffling and boring. . . it is hard to find anything good in Laura, or simply anything.”
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times on Lawrence of Arabia (December 17, 1962): “It is, in the last analysis, just a huge, thundering camel-opera. . . .”
Manny Farber of The New Republic on My Darling Clementine (December 16, 1946): “John Ford’s slow-poke cowboy epic My Darling Clementine is a dazzling example of how to ruin some wonderful Western history with pompous movie making. . . Given almost equal billing with the Earps in this version of old Tombstone are cloudscapes which are saccharine as postcard art. Typical of director Ford’s unimaginative, conforming tourist sensibility is the setting he uses.”
Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times on Nosferatu (June 4, 1929): “. . . most of it seems like cardboard puppets doing all they can to be horrible on papier-mache settings. . . It is a production that is rather more of a soporific than a thriller.”
Dwight Macdonald of Esquire on Psycho (October 1960): “. . . this is third-rate Hitchcock. . . . I think the film is a reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly, sadistic little mind . . . . All in all, a nasty little film.”
Ellen Fitzpatrick of Films in Review on Some Like It Hot (April 1959): “The basic gag of this picture is female impersonation, one of the standbys of old-fashioned burlesque. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are the impersonators, and though they do not make like fairies, Wilder does let the action, and some of the dialogue, run along the lines that titillate sex perverts . . . .For much of Some Like It Hot is in very blue taste.”
Russell Maloney of the New Yorker on The Wizard of Oz: “Displays no sense of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity. . .I say it’s a stinkeroo. . .Part of it was the raw, eye-straining Technicolor, applied with a complete lack of restraint.”
Films in Review on Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass (November 1961): “I am told Hollywood hopes to make him a star, but his face, at least in this picture, is on the weak side, and doesn’t always photograph well.”
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