Posted by Susan Doll on October 7, 2013
Episode 6 of The Story of Film: An Odyssey airs tonight and tomorrow night on TCM. Titled, “1953-1957-The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams,” this episode continues the exploration of Hollywood and world cinema of the 1950s that was begun in Episode 5. In regard to Hollywood, the career of musical director Stanley Donen and the impact of McCarthyism were discussed last week, while James Dean and the era’s glossy melodramas are briefly mentioned tonight, along with On the Waterfront. While musicals, McCarthyism, melodramas, and Marlon’s Method do characterize Hollywood cinema in the 1950s, the decade represented so much more for the American film industry.
One of my favorite periods of American film, this decade was a time of many changes—from the diminishing power of the major studios to the increased creative control of directors to the weakening of the Production Code. When the Supreme Court handed down the Paramount Decree in 1948, they declared that the Hollywood studios were an oligopoly (a kind of monopoly) and forced them to divest themselves of their theaters. The loss of revenue from their theaters caused the studios to downsize. They released dozens of stars, directors, producers, and others from their contracts. These personnel formed their own production companies to make films on their own terms, which they offered to the studios for distribution. While directors, writers, and producers were taking creative control of their films, stars were reveling in their freedom from long-term contracts. In the meantime, the studios were distracted by television, which was luring away viewers by the millions. The competition drove the studios to offer defecting audiences something they could not get on the small screen—color, a wide screen, and stereo sound. And, the movie moguls who ruled with an iron fist during the Golden Age were suddenly dropping like flies: Some retired; others were put out to pasture; a few died.
With all of the changes occurring in Hollywood, it is not surprising that the industry itself would become a subject for movies. Released in 1950, just two years after the Paramount Decree, Sunset Blvd. helped pave the way for a slew of inward-looking films that explored and exposed the inner workings of Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer considered these movies to be “biting the hand that feeds you,” because they were bitterly critical of Hollywood. It was as though Hollywood’s creative types were releasing their pent-up hostility toward the studios and the old men who had ruled them like private little kingdoms.
Hollywood had always made films about itself, because, as one historian put it, “it believes that the factory is of equal interest to the automobiles it produces.” While these self-portraits may have introduced a degree of self-criticism, they emphasized glamour over grit, especially during the Golden Age. The films of the 1950s offered a far darker view in which morally bankrupt Hollywood insiders rapaciously destroyed the unique qualities of the studios’ most prized employees—the stars. In these movies, the stars were packaged as commodities for mass consumption by audiences who were mere stooges manipulated by the Hollywood machine.
These “bite the hand that feeds you” films encompassed many genres, from tragic dramas to down-and-dirty film noirs to comic farces. Several major directors and producers, who had cut their teeth in the trenches of the studio system, made their contributions to this story type. Vincente Minnelli, who was part of legendary producer Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM, directed The Bad and the Beautiful, the story of an unscrupulous producer who walks over friends and peers to get to the top, then dares to call on them again when he wants to stage a comeback. Rather than turn down the man who had stabbed them in the back, the former associates seriously consider his offer because he had made them famous. In Hollywood, fame and success trump loyalty and friendship. Minnelli and the writers drew on what they knew to flush out the script, basing the producer on David O. Selznick, the tragic actress on Diana Barrymore, and the director on Val Lewton. Kirk Douglas starred as the producer, and, according to Minnelli, he needed very little direction because “we’d both met many such people during our years in Hollywood.” Later, Clifford Odets penned The Big Knife and, like Minnelli, based his characters on recognizable Hollywood figures. The story of a legitimate actor who sells out to Hollywood, The Big Knife featured a ruthless, immoral, and short-sighted studio head, who was based on Harry Cohn.
More tragic than these two melodrama s was Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film noir In a Lonely Place. Humphrey Bogart plays screenwriter Dixon Steele, who is as hard and cynical as his name implies from years of prostituting his talent to the studio system. He uncovers one last chance at love, which revives his talent and work ethic. But, his good fortune with a worthy woman also means he has something lose, which brings out the worst in him. The fate awaiting Steele is likely that of the washed-up actor in the film who has been used up and then cast aside by the industry.
Screenwriters never get much respect in Hollywood, as evidence by the opening scene in Sunset Blvd., in which writer Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, is lying face down in the swimming pool of silent screen star Norma Desmond. In Norma’s day, stars paid no income taxes, lived in huge palaces in the heart of “the Colony,” and were considered America’s royalty, and yet the industry still cast aside its luminaries when they no longer made money. Gillis’s generation can expect the same treatment—to be used then forgotten. Every aspect of Sunset Blvd. points to this key theme, including the self-reflexive casting by writer-director Billy Wilder. Most classic-movie lovers know that silent screen legend Gloria Swanson costarred as Norma Desmond, and the notorious Erich von Stroheim played her butler and former director, Max. In one of the film’s famous scenes, Norma, Joe, and Max watch a movie starring Norma that had been directed by Max. Clips from Queen Kelly, an unfinished epic by von Stroheim that had starred Swanson at the peak of her popularity, stood in for the film that the trio watches in Norma’s decrepit mansion. Lest you think that Wilder was exploiting von Stroheim, this scene was the old director’s suggestion. Another von Stroheim suggestion was the scene in which Max writes fan mail to Norma to make her believe she has not been forgotten. Fortunately, Wilder did not use all of von Stroheim’s ideas. He nixed one in which Max was to fondle Norma’s lingerie as though it were a sexual fetish.
The most heart-breaking use of self-reflexive casting is a scene in which Norma plays bridge with her friends who are an assortment of her peers from the silent era. The friends were played by real-life silent stars who by 1950 had been forgotten by the public, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and—saddest of all—Buster Keaton. If the theme of the film was to paint Hollywood as cruel, manipulative, and ruthless in the way that it uses and then tosses aside its most creative people, then his casting proved his point.
Films about movie stars from the 1950s focused on the psychological trauma of living a lie as a manufactured persona, or the despair of falling from grace as a public idol. In The Barefoot Contessa, Ava Gardner stars in the title role as an unknown dancer who is dragged to Hollywood, where a studio manufactures a star image for her that she cannot live up to. In both the remake of A Star Is Born, featuring Judy Garland and James Mason, and The Star, with Bette Davis, movie stars suffer identity crises when they fall from their peak of popularity with the public.
Several biopics about past Hollywood stars were released during the 1950s, but these biographies were variations of the same “chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out” theme. Released in 1957, Jeanne Eagels recalled the life and career of a 1920s actress who was treated like a commodity and then driven to drugs and drink. Two years earlier, I’ll Cry Tomorrow shaped the career of singer-actress Lillian Roth into the same story, which suggested it was the industry’s machinations that drove gifted people to squander their talents.
The response to these films was split between the industry leaders who had built Hollywood and established the systems and practices that made it hum like a finely tuned machine, and the creative figures, who too often felt controlled and manipulated by these practices. Their opposing points of view were represented by the reactions to Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. Just before its release, the wily Wilder arranged a screening for people in the industry. Louis B. Mayer, former production head of MGM, walked up to Wilder and exploded, “You bastard. You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of town.” Moved by the film, and perhaps seeing a glimpse of her own future, Barbara Stanwyck openly wept and then walked over to Gloria Swanson and kissed the hem of her gown.
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