Posted by Susan Doll on October 1, 2012
The highly anticipated Hitchcock opens the AFI Film Festival on November 1. Based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the drama interprets the behind-the-scenes production of one of the 20th century’s most influential films. I have not seen a trailer for the film, but based on the publicity stills, the makeup on star Anthony Hopkins results in an uncanny likeness of Hitchcock. Writer-director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil; scriptwriter for The Terminal) lacks a sufficient track record to predict the quality of the drama, but Hopkins is sure to offer an interesting interpretation of the Master of Suspense. In addition to Hitchcock, a film called The Girl, which focuses on the director’s relationship with Tippi Hedren, is in the works. Toby Jones stars as Hitchcock, and Sienna Miller costars as Hedren.
Hitchcock and The Girl belong to that genre generally described as “movies about the movies,” a category irresistible to most film lovers. In doing research for this blog article, I was surprised at the diversity of the films that fall into this genre. There are biopics about beloved actors (Man of a Thousand Faces; The Story of Will Rogers); biopics that examine the adverse effect of Hollywood on the individual, particularly the star system and publicity machine (Frances; Harlow); dark exposes of those industry insiders corrupted by fame and power (Sunset Boulevard; A Star Is Born; The Bad and the Beautiful; Hollywoodland); and comic musings about the nature or history of Hollywood filmmaking (Sherlock, Jr.; Singin’ in the Rain).
This fascination for movies about the movies goes back as far as the film industry itself. In 1908, Vitagraph released what is likely the first film in the genre, Making Motion Pictures: A Day in the Vitagraph Studio. The film follows a production team as it hustles through a day of moviemaking. The team is given a script in the Vitagraph executive offices, then hustled to the studio in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Scenes are rehearsed; sets are constructed; the shots are completed. Throughout the film, comic high jinx ensue as the difficulties in production are interpreted as slapstick comedy. At the end, the completed movie, Love Is Better than Riches, is projected.
Four years later, Vitagraph expanded on the genre with A Vitagraph Romance, about the daughter of a prominent senator who defies her family by becoming a movie actress. When the father tracks her down at the studio, he encounters several Vitagraph executives played by themselves, including Albert E. Smith, J. Stuart Blackton, and William T. Rock. The success of A Vitagraph Romance spawned other studios to come up with behind-the-scenes storylines, including Mabel’s Dramatic Career from Keystone. This 1914 comedy starring Mabel Normand may have been the first movie about the movies to be shot in or near Hollywood, though my learned colleague David Kalat likely knows more about this than I do. Recently, I saw the only film starring Charlie Chaplin to be shot in Chicago, His New Job (1915), a charming two-reel short that also belongs to this genre. Released in 1915 by Essanay, the comedy follows Charlie as he reports for work as the prop man at Lodestone Studios (a wink at Keystone, Chaplin’s previous studio) only to end up as the leading man via a series of comic misadventures. (His New Job is available on Youtube.) In all of these films, some part of the filmmaking process and some depiction of studio personnel are part of the storyline, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse that must have been eye-opening for early movie-goers.
As I stumbled across both the famous and the forgotten in this genre, the historian in me detected an evolution of trends and patterns in the movies-about-the-movies genre. While there are notable exceptions in each era, the types of stories in this genre can be charted over the decades. In the 1910s, the films were largely comedies spoofing the process of production and the genre conventions of popular movies like those mentioned above. Other examples from this decade may be obscure, but they sound intriguing: Whiffles Tries Moving Picture Acting (1913), A Film Johnnie (1914), Doc Yak, Motion Picture Artist (1914), and Film’s Favorite Finish (1915). While comedies exploiting behind-the-scenes Hollywood for laughs have never really faded away, other types of stories overshadowed them in subsequent decades. In the 1920s, most movies about the movies were variations on the story of the small town girl who goes to Hollywood to become a star but finds disillusionment and disappointment. If she does become a star, it is not due to talent but to luck or accident. Given the number of young girls who flocked to Hollywood after World War I only to be pushed to the dark fringes of the industry as party girls, the films serve as a kind of warning, even the light-hearted ones. Examples include Hollywood (1923) by James Cruze, Ella Cinders (1926), Broken Hearts of Hollywood (1926), and Merton of the Movies (1924), also directed by Cruze.
During the Depression, movies about the movies focused attention on the ruthlessness of the studio system. Universal adapted Once in a Lifetime (1932), the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play satirizing the coming of sound, to the screen. What Price Hollywood? (1932), directed by George Cukor, served as a forerunner to the first version of A Star Is Born (1937). Both successfully dramatized the artificial nature of constructing a star image for an actor as well as the pitfalls of stardom itself. Other films included Bombshell (1933), starring Jean Harlow as an actress who supports her free-loading family and employees, Lady Killer with Jimmy Cagney as a gangster turned movie star a la George Raft, and Going Hollywood, a musical with Bing Crosby and Marion Davies.
Movies about the movies faded during the 1940s, except for Preston Sturges’s masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and a couple of comedies by Olsen and Johnson, Hellzapoppin (1941) and Crazy House (1943). The rest of the decade was dominated by a particular type of behind-the-scenes story—the all-star review set in Hollywood. In these films, a thinly drawn plot served as an excuse for guest appearances and performances by the major stars of the period, often to boost morale as part of the war effort.
During the 1950s, the systems and practices that defined the Golden Age began to self-destruct after a series of Supreme Court rulings severely curtailed the studios’ power to control the industry. The results of these rulings included the studios’ release of their iron-fisted control of stars, directors, and others via long-term contracts. Interestingly, a slew of movies that exposed the dark side of the industry in terms of its psychological impact on individuals poured out of Hollywood, including Sunset Boulevard (1951), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), In a Lonely Place (1950), The Goddess (1958), A Star Is Born (1954), and Too Much, Too Soon (1958). There were also several films that revealed dirty studio politics, such as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and The Big Knife (1955). Dark, cynical, and bitter, I call these films the “bite the hand that feeds you” genre.
Tales of traumatized Hollywood victims and the cynical execs who did them in continued into the 1960s, though their use of color, lurid details, and melodrama represent a change in tone and style. Examples included What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Inside Daisy Clover (1966), two versions of Harlow (1965), The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), and The Last Tycoon (1976).
During the 1960s, the Film School Generation, which included film school grads as well as the young directors who had learned their trade on live television, invaded Hollywood with new sensibilities and new aesthetics. Most were knowledgeable if not appreciative of the Golden Age, particularly those contract directors who had slugged it out with the studios for decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, a nostalgia for the old days seeped into movies about the movies without masking the ruthlessness of the business. Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), about the mixing of the real and the fake in silent westerns, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon, a love letter to the pioneers of cinema, represent the cream of this crop. Other films that typify this trend are Play It Again, Sam (1972), Gable and Lombard (1975), W.C. Fields and Me (1976), and Won-Ton-Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood (1976). A few refrained from nostalgia or romanticism, such as The Day of the Locust (1974) and Inserts (1975), which wallowed in the seamy underbelly of Hollywood. The smartest movie about the movies from this era is Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, a self-reflexive cypher of a film that is an unlikely combination of nostalgia and criticism.
Sentimental and nostalgic, Hugo and The Artist seem to have kicked off another round of movies about the movies, which likely influenced the green-lighting of Hitchcock and The Girl. Though each of these films had their champions and detractors, I was just happy they successfully introduced younger generations, who are rarely interested in silent or classic films, to cinema’s illustrious past.
I enjoyed re-visiting some of these titles as I discovered that I have a soft spot for movies about the movies. Of course, I love the classics from this genre—Sunset Boulevard, Sherlock , Jr., Sullivan’s Travels—but my other favorites run toward the quirky, lesser-known films. The references to Hollywood pioneers in Nickelodeon tend to bring out the nerdy film historian in me, while The Last Movie was presented so vividly by one of my film teachers in class that I am a life-long fan of the movie and of Hopper’s. The Legend of Lylah Clare is as over the top as Hollywood itself, and Hearts of the West features Andy Griffith in a role that reminds everyone of what a gifted actor he was.
If Hitchcock is part of a resurgence of movies about the movies, I began thinking about what behind-the-scenes Hollywood tales I would like to see. Though there is a terrific documentary by George Hickenlooper about the production of Apocalypse Now called Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, I would definitely watch a dramatic interpretation about the troubled shoot of this iconic film. The search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara is a Hollywood story of mythic proportions—and one that was chronicled in a long-ago made-for-TV film called The Scarlett O’Hara War. However, the actresses who vied for the coveted role of Scarlett were all portrayed by unknowns in that 1980 film. A remake featuring today’s female stars as yesterday’s screen legends might be fun, though the experience would likely reveal how very few of today’s too-thin, too-dim actresses measure up.
What Hollywood story do you think is ripe for a movie about the movies? Who knows, maybe someone in the film industry is listening.
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