Biting the Hand That Feeds You: Movies About the Movies In the 1950s

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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.

WILDER, SWANSON, AND VON STROHEIM ON THE SET OF 'SUNSET BLVD.'

WILDER, SWANSON, AND VON STROHEIM ON THE SET OF ‘SUNSET BLVD.’

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.

KIRK DOUGLAS AS RUTHLESS JONATHAN SHIELDS

KIRK DOUGLAS AS JONATHAN SHIELDS. MINNELLI CLAIMED HE WAS BASED ON SELZNICK.

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.

ROBERT WARWICK (right), A FORMER SILENT-ERA STAR, PLAYED THE WASHED-UP ACTOR IN 'IN A LONELY PLACE.'

ROBERT WARWICK (right), A SILENT-ERA MATINEE IDOL, PLAYED THE WASHED-UP ACTOR IN ‘IN A LONELY PLACE.’

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.

FORGOTTEN SILENT STARS H.B. WARNER AND BUSTER KEATON PLAYS FORGOTTEN SILENT STARS.

FORGOTTEN SILENT STARS H.B. WARNER AND BUSTER KEATON PLAYS FORGOTTEN SILENT STARS IN ‘SUNSET BLVD’.

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.

BETTE DAVIS: CAST ASIDE AND FORGOTTEN IN 'THE STAR'

BETTE DAVIS: CAST ASIDE  IN ‘THE STAR’

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.

15 Responses Biting the Hand That Feeds You: Movies About the Movies In the 1950s
Posted By swac44 : October 7, 2013 5:39 pm

I still remember seeing Sunset Blvd. for the first time, on a local TV channel that aired it with ads. I kept waiting for Buster Keaton’s cameo, but it never came; it seems the “waxworks” scene was snipped out for time. Just another way that Buster gets no respect from the masses.

Posted By LD : October 7, 2013 6:04 pm

Film during the 1950′s turned a cynical eye not just on itself but other subjects. Broadway is dealt with in ALL ABOUT EVE and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. Television in A FACE IN THE CROWD. To me the most scathing one of all is about the press, ACE IN THE HOLE.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : October 7, 2013 6:33 pm

Wonderful post, Suzi!!

What a great anecdote about Stanwyck and “Sunset Blvd.” — luckily for her and for Gloria Swanson, episodic TV came along and gave them a venue which appreciated whatever former movie stars came its way.

In terms of sheer cynical brilliance, I think “Sunset Blvd.” takes the cake, but in terms of emotional power, I have to go with Judy and James Mason in “A Star is Born”. “The Bad and the Beautiful” is a little too MGM-ish for my taste; wish it were more savage.

All of these are fun movies for those of us who love the movies!

Posted By DL : October 7, 2013 7:49 pm

Harumph! More anti-corporate spin. :)

Posted By robbushblog : October 7, 2013 7:58 pm

This is quite possibly my favorite era of filmmaking. Its closest competitor would be the 40′s. I love the cynical takes on Hollywood of the time, despite my love for the movies made during the studio system era. The inward looks made for great movies.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : October 7, 2013 10:30 pm

i have to admit,i’ve loved In A Lonely Place for years,and when it came out on DVD with the tour of the actual locations with Curtis Hanson,well i always took the tour,but the ultimate middle finger to the “system” was any time in the film Bogart was referred to as “Dix Steele”…a Beavis and Butthead moment that must have gone over the bean counters heads

Posted By Susan Doll : October 8, 2013 12:51 am

DevlinCarnate: I did not even think of that — Dix Steele. I am so naive.

DL: Yes, but this is FUN anti-corporate spin!

Posted By doug : October 8, 2013 2:16 am

The cynic in me thinks that L.B Mayer’s reaction to “Sunset Blvd” would have been tempered a bit by the bottom line if it had been an MGM release.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 8, 2013 2:22 am

Rob: I once taught a class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on films of the 1950s. I think the students thought it was odd that I singled out a specific decade, but most of them ended up liking the class. I showed this film, Thunder Road, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a romantic comedy with Aldo Ray and Judy Holliday, Sweet Smell Of Success, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, and a several others I can’t remember. I love this era, too.

Posted By Richard Brandt : October 8, 2013 4:52 am

So, then, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a cautionary tale about what happens when the stars gain the upper hand?

Posted By chris : October 8, 2013 10:15 pm

Billy Wilder said his response to being insulted by Mayer was to say “F%#! You”

Posted By Christine in GA : October 9, 2013 12:32 am

Lots of great movies came out in the 1950s when you think about it. Personally, I love the science fiction films like THE THING, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. ACE IN THE HOLE, ASPHALT JUNGLE, SUNSET BOULEVARD, ALL ABOUT EVE and THE KILLING are my favorite dramas. It’s interesting that there was so much stimulating art (movies, music, books, visual arts, etc.) being produced the so-called conformity of the Eisenhower era.

Posted By DBenson : October 9, 2013 7:53 pm

Considering the role movies (and then television) play in defining and selling the American dream, the best of these films carry some weight beyond Hollywood navel-gazing. In some you can easily replace motion pictures with some other industry. The results may be less cinematic but equally valid.

“Sunset Blvd” can be read as a more general meditation on women in society. Norma was defined by her youth and beauty; now she’s as outdated and disposable as the relics around her. “A Star is Born” is 50s sexual politics: What happens when the power shifts between the starting-to-wilt alpha male and his young up-and-coming wife? Desperate Hollywood types are often Willy Loman in thin disguise; it’s easier for an audience to put safe distance between their own ambitions and the obviously bad actor who thinks he’s one break from replacing Gable.

Others play more generally with the idea of image, reality and myth: Onscreen heroes forced to play their parts in real life; reality made “more real” for popular consumption; people chasing the life that Hollywood advertises. “Singin’ in the Rain” playfully sets the fan-magazine fantasy against (an admittedly sugar-coated) reality, with actors.

Jerry Lewis’s “The Patsy” mocks the idea that to businessmen, anybody is replaceable — even the presumably unique star who powered their enterprise. Lewis takes the line it ain’t so: The incompetent bellhop they choose to make over succeeds in SPITE of their efforts. A broader reading is possible there, too (Lewis played several variations of the hero classified by some institution as a misfit or underachiever — the guy who proves society can be wrong).

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Posted By Lisa : October 21, 2013 1:17 am

Thanks for posting on Hollywood according to Hollywood — one of my favorite movie topics. I once wrote a college paper contrasting two of these 1950s films — “Sunset Blvd” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” Even though these films have a cynical side, I believe the characters’ love of performing remained in spite of it.

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