In Two Cheers for Hollywood, film historian and critic Joseph McBride is on a mission: to recover the marginalised or unsung reputations of screenwriters, directors, producers and craftspeople of some of our favourite movies. In an age that suffers from presenteeism, has little or no sense of history, let alone film history, these are names we should know better but do not. Looking back on his fifty-year career, McBride states that the “sixty-four pieces collected here include ones that have done the most to shape and share my understanding of the art form and the film industry that supports or undermines it.” (p. 17) This includes profiles, interviews, set visit reports, reviews and essays. An important critic, McBride’s work has straddled the mainstream and “critical,” academic. He has also influenced other critics, not the least myself. And with a unique industry-insider perspective, he has gained the kind of access to directors and stars that other critics can only dream of, writing noteworthy biographies and studies on such luminaries as John Ford, Frank Capra and Orson Welles. In this long-overdue, self-published collection, we find McBride, too, reflecting on his own reputation.
McBride’s background is a colourful one. As he recounts in the introduction, he had a life-altering moment when he first saw Citizen Kane (1941) in an introductory film class at the University of Wisconsin. Thereafter, he decided he would devote his life to writing about and making films. He embarked on his own self-prescribed film curriculum, running the Wisconsin Film Society while supporting himself with odd jobs. He also penned books and screenplays, making his bid for a career in Hollywood. In 1970, he befriended Welles, who gave him a part as film critic Mister Pister in the unfinished, unreleased The Other Side of the Wind (1970-1976).1 In What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career, he chronicles the film’s long-drawn-out, on-and-off shooting schedule, in which he had to keep shaving off his beard and long hair to get back into character! While writing for Daily Variety and other film magazines, he shopped around his screenplays and co-wrote the Corman-produced Rock ‘n Roll High School (1979). He also worked on several AFI Lifetime Achievement Award specials.
But in his attempts to succeed in “the business”, McBride looks back on his time in Hollywood “as the worst years of my life other than my childhood. That has colored my once-romantic view of films and left me with a considerable ambivalence toward the industry and the medium itself. I could say, like Orson Welles, ‘I love movies. But don’t get me wrong. I hate Hollywood.’” (p. 32) This ambivalence or “qualified approval” is signalled in the book’s title, which in swapping “democracy” for “Hollywood” has McBride paraphrasing E.M. Forster: “We may still contrive to raise three cheers for Hollywood, although at present she deserves only two.” (p. 34) Does this mean the man is just another Hollywood washout, full of bitterness and resentment? No, he says, being a writer-director would have only got in the way of his book writing. While this sounds a tad philosophical, McBride says that in taking this alternate career path he found his true calling after all: “One thing I have learned about life is that whatever we think we want, life usually tends to work out the way it should” (p. 35).
This ambivalence also comes out in McBride’s view of academia. As “a maverick, a nonconformist, an iconoclast” (p. 18), McBride has vigorously asserted his independence outside of the academic system, which he considers an advantage: “As an outsider I did not have to deal with academic politics or the intellectual straitjacketing that too often dominates the field” (p.22). As such, he rejects over-theoretical and highfalutin strands in film criticism, preferring intelligible English to academese. But given his self-styled nonconformism, à la his idol Welles, and his rejection of the values of academia, McBride seems anxious to reconcile this with the fact he now finds himself within its hallowed halls after all, a Professor in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University. This does not mean he has sold out, of course. As he points out, his route there has been circuitous and unconventional. “When I became a regular member of academia belatedly in 2002, I found that auteurism and even film history itself were held in ill repute. I was viewed with suspicion by some of my colleagues. I was amused that they regarded me as ‘too Hollywood’, while in Hollywood I was often regarded as ‘too academic’.” (p. 23) For newcomer critics and independent scholars (no, not a euphemism for unemployed!), McBride is living proof that you can produce your best work without a university affiliation. That Two Cheers for Hollywood is published by McBride’s own Hightower Press, and not a university press, is a further testament to his independence.
For McBride, “Watching a film is a way of having an experience you wouldn’t otherwise have, a way of continuing your lifelong education in the art of living” (p. 16), which echoes the late Roger Ebert’s remarks that “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes.”2 But, unlike Ebert, McBride’s love of movies is again rooted in ambivalence:
Reading books has always been at least equally important to me, and as I grow older, that way of gaining knowledge of the world and understanding it has come to mean more to me than watching movies, because it allows me to dig more deeply into subjects I find compelling. But moviegoing, like life itself, is a habit that cannot never [sic] broken, at least voluntarily. (p. 16)
As a literary studies – and not film studies – major, I can relate. It is thus no surprise that McBride’s criticism is sprinkled with literary references and parallels: to Shakespeare, Dickens, Emerson, Whitman, Lawrence, and others. For me, the great film critics – like McBride or Robin Wood, who found an unlikely influence in the English literary critic, F.R. Leavis – have both a literary and cinematic mindset. The modern film critic is often too narrowly concerned with other films as intertexts and reduces books to mere source material for films (or “novel to film”).3 In contrast, McBride sees literary texts as valid intertexts for films.
If I am spending so much time on the book’s introduction, this is because it does so much to set the scene for the contents, describing McBride’s parallel career paths, his love-hate relationship with Hollywood, his scholarly interests and influences, and critical thought apropos of the auteur theory. He writes:
My earliest film writing followed the auteurist school founded by [François] Truffaut and brought to America by [Andrew] Sarris; I was also greatly influenced by [T.S.] Eliot’s literary criticism and Robin Wood’s pioneering studies of such filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, which raised auteurism to the level of the finest literary criticism. Eventually I developed a more nuanced perspective on authorship, acquiring a deeper understanding of the collaborative nature of film through my coverage of the industry and my experience working as a Hollywood screenwriter. (p. 21)
Setting forth a more nuanced view of film authorship, multiple authorship, that conceives of writers and directors in “creative synergy” is key to understanding McBride’s evolution as a film critic, shaping how we read many of the pieces he has collected for our edification and pleasure.
Particularly noteworthy is an appreciation of the contributions of writer Robert Riskin to the films of Capra. In “Riskinesque: How Robert Riskin Spoke Through Frank Capra and Vice Versa,” McBride argues that “the themes and styles that have come to be known as ‘Capraesque’ [across the director’s oeuvre] can just as well be called ‘Riskinesque’.” (p. 87) Politically, he says, writer and director were polarised: whereas Riskin backed Roosevelt’s New Deal, Capra was anti-New Deal and a lifelong Republican. According to McBride, the differences between the two men gave rise to competing voices in their films, which was the source of unresolved tensions. Even in films they did not do together, like Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the Capra-Riskin “formula” was evident.
That the political ideology of Capra’s films is elusive is confirmed by Raymond Carney, Leland A. Poague and others, and I suspect that it is rather more difficult to disentangle Capra’s politics (more complex than McBride is willing to own) from Riskin’s. Alas for a director obsessed with possessory credit, McBride notes that “Even by Hollywood standards Capra’s denigration of writers was unusually vehement” (p. 86). He concludes:
This remarkable creative synergy between Riskin and Capra makes their inability to stay together particularly unfortunate, for the truth is that neither man was the sole auteur of their films. They were joint auteurs who could not function at full creative capacity without each other. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for everyone who works in the movies, a truly collaborative art form that reaches its highest peaks only when a writer and a director, rather than wasting their creative energies in antagonism, are able to find common ground and bring out the best in each other’s talents. (p. 97)
Likewise, in his fine appreciation of screenwriter and frequent John Ford-collaborator Frank S. Nugent, McBride again reiterates his point about “fruitful synergy” between writer and director (p.129). Nugent wrote the masterful screenplay of The Searchers (1956), which is full of rich, evocative descriptions of the landscape and detailed camera directions which made it into the finished film. But, like Capra, Ford wasn’t about to give credit where its due: “No doubt realizing how much Nugent had contributed to the artistic quality of the films they made together, Ford was anxiously trying to allocate the bulk of the credit for himself” (p. 142).
In his spotlighting of writers from the shameful era of the Hollywood blacklist, McBride is not only committed to reclaiming credit for these writers, but to shame others for their role in the blacklist. Following investigations by the House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into alleged Communist sympathies in Hollywood, Michael Wilson was blacklisted for being an “unfriendly witness”. In his tribute in the official Writers Guild of America magazine, Written By, McBride recounts how, after Wilson had died, William Wyler claimed he had no choice but to deny Wilson credit on the family Quaker drama, Family Persuasion (1956). But McBride points to a memo from April 8, 1954 which indicates that it was in fact his personal decision. (p. 41) In an unprecedented move, the film was released without a writing credit, and Wilson’s nomination was disqualified by the Academy, who cooperated with the HUAC. David Lean, too, was particularly intent on denying Wilson credit on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Small consolation was a posthumous Academy Award in 1985 for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai with fellow blacklistee, Carl Foreman. Hearteningly, Wilson was acknowledged in his lifetime with a Writers Guild of America Laurel Award for career achievement in 1976. Here, he gave an impassioned speech on threats to intellectual freedom (which McBride reprints).
McBride’s other tributes to blacklistees include Marguerite Roberts, screenwriter for True Grit (1969), and her novelist husband, John Sanford. Roberts had been a member of the Communist Party before she was blacklisted in 1951, refusing to inform. She wouldn’t work in Hollywood again until the early 1960s, when the blacklist began to crumble. No doubt the irony of her writing the screenplay for the aforesaid Western in which John Wayne starred – the “patriot” was vocal in rooting out Communists and supporting the blacklist – was not lost on her. “But Wayne,” McBride notes wryly, “had no problem recognizing and benefiting from her screenwriting ability.” (pp. 98-99)4 Like Wilson, Roberts or Sanford, writer-director Abraham Polonksy refused to turn informer. Still bitter many years later, he was behind the protest against informer Elia Kazan’s Honorary Oscar in 1999. So, too, was McBride.5 But John Lee Mahin, who penned scripts for Victor Fleming and Clarence Brown, was unrepentant about his role in the HUAC hearings. “I spent as much time telling people that so-and-so was not a Communist as I did saying that I believe somebody was, or I had proof. I never said a thing about anybody unless I had proof.” (p. 79) Hmm.
When newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst tried to suppress Citizen Kane, he also helped instigate an FBI investigation into Welles’ alleged Communist ties. Welles had the good sense to abscond to Europe at the time of the HUAC hearings in 1947; he didn’t return until 1956. For the record, he was no Communist and disagreed with the doctrinaire aspects of its ideology.6 In the collected essay, “The Screenplay as Genre”, McBride addresses the controversies over the authorship of the screenplay of Citizen Kane, with Pauline Kael doing untold damage in her wilful misreading of sources in her 1971 monographic essay Raising Cain, where she minimised Welles’ contributions over Herman J. Mankiewicz’s. In the academising of film studies, which Kael found so abhorrent, McBride suggests she “lost the culture war resoundingly, but she had more success in winning the immediate battle over [the authorship of] Citizen Kane.” (p. 52) For Welles the damage had been done.
As McBride tells it, he knows firsthand what it is like to be blacklisted. When Daily Variety printed his review on “‘the ultra-violent, fascistic, blatantly anti-Irish’” (p. 158) Patriot Games (Philip Noyce, 1992), the staffer was barred by Peter Bart, a former Paramount Pictures executive turned editor in chief, from reviewing any more of the company’s films for the publication. (It’s a pity McBride does not include the review for reference). And when the Writers Guild of America threatened to block publication of a 2004 piece comparing literary and cinematic dystopian fiction with the “Bush-Cheney regime” (p. 648) in Written By, McBride shamed them by pointing out their role in the Hollywood blacklist, even quoting Michael Wilson’s acceptance speech for his Laurel Award regarding threats to intellectual freedom. Since then, he notes, he has not been permitted to write other pieces for the magazine. Here, McBride may come across as too much of a “leftie” for some, with a lively belief in conspiracy theories, government cover-ups, Orwellian restrictions to freedoms, lost elections. He has even dedicated a lifetime of study to the Kennedy assassination, writing a book on the subject (also published by Hightower Press). But if McBride sounds a bit like Gore Vidal (who has a “banned” but inconsequential interview in the collection) or Noam Chomsky, telling us what is wrong with America, I find myself agreeing with him on many points!
McBride clearly has a knack of getting writers, directors and stars to trust and open up to him. He won the irascible Ford over by playing the “professional Irishman” card (Ford of course was of Irish extraction), who granted him one of his rare interviews. But as an uncooperative interviewee, who refused to analyse and intellectualise his films, often giving very brusque answers, Ford let McBride know that “The only reason that I’m letting you interview me is that you came here, and your name is McBride, and your people are from County Mayo. Otherwise I’d tell you to go hell.” (p. 200) While McBride does his best to dodge his barbs and wisecracks, we can sense him squirming in his seat. In contrast, George Stevens and Billy Wilder were perfect subjects, ready and willing to open up about their work. For example, Stevens carefully explains to McBride and co-interviewer Patrick McGilligan how he got the lovely shot of the elk lifting its head to “greet” Alan Ladd on horseback at the beginning of 1953’s Shane (p. 248). I suspect that McBride’s success in getting these “old guard” filmmakers to talk to him owes much to the fact that they were considered past their prime. McBride, admirably, champions the later output – like John Huston’s “unfashionable” The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Wilder’s penultimate Fedora (1978).
McBride makes a persuasive case for the elevation of George Cukor’s critical standing. In his long and distinguished career, he was known for his sterling work with actors and particularly women. In McBride’s review of screenwriter Gavin Lambert’s 1972 interview book, On Cukor, he writes: “With his non-doctrinaire, instinctively feminist sensibility, Cukor usually filmed from the viewpoint of his female protagonist” (p. 290), evident in such films as Little Women (1933), Gaslight (1944), and Adam’s Rib (1949). When McBride interviewed Cukor, he was shooting his final film Rich and Famous (1981), about the uneasy, competitive friendship between two beautiful women. Refreshingly, Cukor acknowledged the valuable contribution of writers to his films. And while his status as a great director should be a no-brainer, McBride believes that Cukor’s reputation for making “women’s pictures” as well as his versatility worked against him in critical and auteurist circles; like Victor Fleming, Michael Curtiz or Wyler, he was regarded more as a craftsman than as an artist or auteur.7 Again, this shows the limitations of the auteur theory, not the artist.
Another versatile director who has been ill-served by the auteur theory is Steven Spielberg. Could we really find two films released back-to-back more different than The Post (2017) and Ready Player One (2018)? Interestingly, Spielberg has identified more closely with directors like Fleming, Curtiz and Wyler, who did not have well-defined styles and could alter their approach according to the demands of the material. McBride mounts a spirited defence of the director in “A Reputation: Spielberg and the Eyes of the World” (first published in the British academic journal, the New Review of Film and Television Studies in 2009). McBride’s unauthorised biography on the filmmaker remains definitive, and academic Nigel Morris has called him “the godfather of Spielberg studies” (which McBride makes a point of mentioning). But despite the accolades bestowed by the Academy, critical recognition has been begrudging. McBride suggests that Spielberg criticism is in the same place as Hitchcock criticism was when the director was still alive and being dismissed as a mere showman, entertainer. However, “Today no director is more widely studied in university film courses than Hitchcock, and the same fate no doubt will befall Spielberg once he is safely dead. Anyone who dares to take Spielberg seriously in academia today, if not in the realm of popular media, is still regarded with suspicion.” (p. 369) At an Australasian film conference a few years ago, I still felt I was being put into the uncomfortable position of having to justify why I would want to write on Spielberg. Critics who continue to dismiss him as unworthy of the critical canon are looking increasingly passé. McBride is on the right side of film history.
When McBride is not recovering the names of lost or unsung writers or directors, he is recovering films lost to history. As a self-described investigative reporter, he says, “I’ve always felt that part of a job – the obligation – of a film historian, is to rediscover and, if necessary, liberate lost films.” (p. 605) Thus he seeks to shine a light on Capra’s little-seen and difficult-to-see early films, including silent films; or investigate the history, production and rediscovery of Welles’ delightful tribute to the lost art of silent moviemaking, Too Much Johnson (1938), previously thought lost in a fire. It is an exciting find for Welles scholars, one that further upsets the Romantic myth of Welles as a “cinematic virgin” (p. 661) who had never made a film before Citizen Kane. McBride lobbied the US government to lift its long-standing ban on John Huston’s 1946 documentary Let There Be Light on WW2-service inmates of a hospital suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The film was banned because it was deemed “counterproductive for enlistment” (p. 606). For modern audiences, the film may seem too constructed, even “staged” (although a notice at the beginning states otherwise). When he is not recovering films lost or suppressed films, McBride is “recovering” a film that was never made: Hitchcock’s abortive adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1920 play, Mary Rose. Hitch’s failure to realise the film is almost tragic, especially since Universal seems to have forbade him from doing it “precisely because it was such a personal and idiosyncratic project.” (p. 603)
Other highlights which I can only mention here include a pithy profile on the producer as auteur, Val Lewton; a brand-new essay on the troublesome aspects of the Coen Brothers’ idiosyncratic work; a suite of essays on John Ford’s deployment of comedy and ambivalent treatment of ethnicity and race; and a hilarious spoof on the voices of prominent reviewers of the 1970s like Kael, Sarris and Wood, whom McBride imagines responding to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). But in attending to his legacy, there is a whiff of self-aggrandisement, like when McBride credits himself (with Michael Wilmington) with writing the book that led to the rediscovery of The Searchers which “quickly led to its status as an American classic” (p.19); or when he cites the “unanimous support” he received from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (“which I helped to found in 1975”) and the National Society of Film Critics after Variety published his incendiary review of Patriot Games (p. 29). Or when he casually refers to the documentary film about himself (p. 30). I personally sense McBride worrying about his reputation: seeking credit, approval from his peers. Unnecessary, I say! Still, I would prefer he pat himself on the back than play at false modesty.
Two Cheers for Hollywood is a generous sampling of pieces from a leading film scholar. The book is well-organised (with different sections on screenwriters, directors and sundry others) and the introductions to each of the pieces give much-needed historical context. At 695 pages, it is also a heavy tome, and not the type of book you’d carry around with you on a train or bus. The lack of an index of films and people is a major drawback; perhaps McBride thought it would swell the already considerable dimensions of the book. However, this is a valuable resource for film students, academics and scholars. Final rating: three cheers.
Joseph McBride, Two Cheers for Hollywood (Hightower Press, 2017)
- After four decades in financial and legal limbo, it looks like The Other Side of the Wind will finally be getting a release. An advanced cut of the film was screened to a select, invitation-only audience in Santa Monica, California on January 2018. Netflix is financing the completion and distribution of the film. ↩
- Roger Ebert, “Ebert’s Walk of Fame Remarks,” June 25, 2005, https://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/eberts-walk-of-fame-remarks ↩
- More than just “ransacking” the classics, cinema’s connections with literature run much deeper. As Eisenstein observed in his brilliant 1944 essay on the influence of Dickens on the cinema of D.W. Griffith, “Dickens’ nearness to the characteristics of cinema in method, style, and especially in viewpoint and exposition is indeed amazing.” “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” in Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, trans. Jay Leyda (London: Dennis Dobson, 1963), p.206. This includes the concept of parallel action. ↩
- Despite Wayne’s objectionable politics and role in the blacklist, McBride includes a heartfelt tribute to his favourite actor, entitled “Hail to the Duke”. Wayne is depicted most unflatteringly in the 2015 biopic, Trumbo. ↩
- Fascinatingly, in his essay on Wild River (1960), McBride suggests that Kazan’s films became more morally ambiguous after his informing for the HUAC, revealing a director with a troubled conscience (p. 637). According to Kazan detractor Welles, On the Waterfront (1954) was a “celebration of the informer.” ↩
- Joseph McBride, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: Portrait of an Independent Film Career (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), p. 50. ↩
- Interestingly, while Sarris was dismissive of Curtiz, Fleming and Wyler for their supposed lack of style, he recognised Cukor, along with Lubitsch, as “one of the best examples of the non-writer auteur, a creature literary film critics seem unable to comprehend. The thematic consistency of Cukor’s career has been achieved through a judicious mixture of selection and emphasis.” Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1996), p. 89. ↩