During this strange period of lockdown, I’ve divided my time between writing, reading, exercise, goofy time with my wife, following the daily news Horrorshow, and watching movies on Turner Classic Movies – mainly movies from the so-called Classical Hollywood period of 1930 to the late 1950s which comprise the bulk of TCM’s programming.
Since I spent the early part of the year at festivals watching world premieres and new movies, I wanted to flip things upside down and see how much of Classical Hollywood I didn’t know.
A lot, it turns out.
When you devote much of your work writing about new cinema, programming and presenting new cinema, you have little time left for cinema before now. I’ve always had this nagging feeling, thumbing through the pages of Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogues or of cinema histories, of how much I still hadn’t seen.
Now, with the time to dive into the TCM pool, this feeling comes back every day. And this is with the caveat that TCM’s pool is limited. It barely includes world cinema (its “TCM Imports” weekly time slot is a tiny sliver of its weekly schedule), silents (improving, but with a long way to go), non-fiction, or the experimental/avant-garde (the closest to it I’ve seen there lately is Ross Lipman’s fine NOTFILM ). Like the teaching of history in U.S. classrooms, TCM’s history lessons are blinkered.
After watching about 102 features over the past two-plus months (with about 80 more recorded and set up to watch, with more on the way), I’ve reached a few tentative conclusions.
One conclusion: watching Classical Hollywood destroys the auteur theory. Not only is the theory wrong about the cinema of this production model and era, but its absolute opposite is the case. The model really is about team practice. With sound, the huge bulk of Hollywood production over the next 30-plus years was either directly or indirectly filmed theatre. This means that projects were largely defined by a combination of script and casting. Dinner at Eight (1933) is a piece of writing, but it is really a piece of ensemble acting in which the Barrymores shared the stage with a company of strong-willed actors. Edward G. Robinson is the real author of his movies, and the scenes that he’s in: watch Double Indemnity (1944) (a masterpiece of adaptation) or The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and tell me I’m wrong. (It wouldn’t have mattered if Sam Peckinpah or Norman Jewison served as director, the movie would have been scenes shared by Robinson and the overshadowed Steve McQueen.) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath) is owned by Frederic March, just as The Gunfighter (1950) (written by William Bowers, William Sellers and Andre De Toth) is owned by Gregory Peck and The Hustler (1961) (written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen from Walter Tevis’ novel) is owned by Paul Newman, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie.
Well, to be precise, the studios owned them. A deep dive into TCM teaches the lesson that a “studio theory” is wildly overdue for cinema history. Given that 99% of the work was filmed theatre, the flavour and attitude is different at RKO – rowdy, cheap, lean, mean, hard – than MGM – stars, refinement, well-read. RKO movies were short; MGM went on and on, Warners movies were in-between, and acknowledged the American class system.
Another conclusion: the persons with the greatest Hollywood careers are, by a mile, James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn. Their early work is already genius: watch Hepburn take over and consume Little Women (1933) as Jo when she had been a leading actor for only 12 months; watch young Stewart with Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940) (a masterpiece of Classical Hollywood I had seen before but never really listened to and watched until now), how he shifts through moods like a magician. Watch how each changes and grows tougher through the decades. How Stewart, as one of the first actor-independent contractors, revived his floundering career (!) and co-created the greatest string of Westerns ever made with director Anthony Mann and (for the most part) writer Borden Chase, based on the concept of melding Film Noir with the Western. And how Stewart still dominates, as an older star, the flagrant scene-stealing of co-actors Eve Arden, George C. Scott (again), Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and Arthur O’Connell in Wendell Mayes’ hilarious, ribald Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
Another conclusion: The notion that there were more good roles for women in the Hollywood (and beyond) of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s than today is a stone-cold fact. Watch Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932). Watch Judy Garland in possibly the most astounding Hollywood performance ever recorded in A Star is Born (1954). Watch Bette Davis in the extraordinary, strange The Letter (1940). Go to the New Hebrides and Powell-Pressburger’s Archers production unit and watch Wendy Hiller (I Know Where I’m Going! ), Deborah Kerr (Black Narcissus ), Moira Shearer (The Red Shoes ). Today looks bleak.
Today is bleak. Theatrical cinema, as we know it, is dead. Something else – moving image art, The Longform, call it what you will – will take its place. Everything changes. Today is exciting.