• Print

Slim Pickens

The Oxford Companion to Film

edited by Liz-Anne Bawden
Oxford University Press, 767 pp., $24.95

The Filmgoer's Companion

edited by Leslie Halliwell
Avon, 4th ed., 873 pp., $6.95 (paper)

According to The Oxford Companion to Film, Chester Conklin (d. 1971), Charlie Ruggles (d. 1970), composer Leigh Harline (d. 1969), and art director William Cameron Menzies (d. 1957) are actually all still alive. This is not widely known. Nor is it a familiar fact that Charlton Heston is “a well-known liberal,” an epithet that might have seemed more appropriate when William Cameron Menzies was known to be living. The Oxford Companion also alludes to William Bendix’s “distinctive rasping voice with its thick Brooklyn accent, sturdy build, and craggy features,” which ought to surprise everyone. Bendix’s death (1964) is recorded, but we are told nothing of his distinctive voice. Is it still living? Does it know where Chester Conklin is?

The encyclopedist of film does not have an easy job. Historians of the other arts can classify with ease; they have respectable standards to direct their compilation. The scholar of film history has nothing to guide him but his own preferences and the dictates of fashion, and he had better dispense with these if he aims at comprehensiveness. Cinema is still too young to have generated trustworthy principles of selection. We still have trouble explaining why a film is good or bad, or whether it is dated or inept. While the literary historian can dismiss Charles Lever and Elinor Glyn and discuss George Eliot and Arnold Bennett, the film historian has to include Archie Mayo and Jackie Cooper along with François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Because film is such a fluid and capacious medium, however, it will probably never offer solid criteria. What seems trashy in one context seems worthwhile in another. Depending on one’s point of view, John Ford is either a vulgar jingoist with a repulsive maudlin streak or a skillful visual artist with a subtle sense of history. Jerry Lewis embarrasses millions of Americans with his spastic mugging, but is exalted by the French as a masterful auteur. Furthermore, a clever director can redeem a limited actor by highlighting certain traits for special purposes. The wooden Tim Holt appears in dozens of routine productions, but Orson Welles and John Huston use him effectively in The Magnificent Ambersons and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Stanley Kubrick and Mel Brooks allude to the energetic malice of the Three Stooges. Whatever the range of their own abilities, Holt and the Stooges earn further consideration from the use of their characteristics by greater talents. An editorial assessment of these actors’ worth is irrelevant: they are ubiquitous figures, and so deserve inclusion in any compendium of film history.

Moreover, the capricious nature of the film industry makes final judgments still more difficult: “uneven” is the aptest word to use in appraising most cinematic contributions. Zasu Pitts is a versatile actress under Erich von Stroheim’s direction, then twitters into obscurity as Gale Storm’s sidekick on television. Andy Griffith, Eve Arden, and Robert Cummings also end up haunting reruns after delivering impressive performances in movies. Stars have to please big audiences and big groups of investors who pretend to know what those big audiences want. “It’s all addition and subtraction. The rest is conversation,” as the gangster says in Body and Soul. This dependence on fortune turns artists into hacks with disheartening speed in the film world, where too many people have too much to say about the final product.

Too many people had too much to say about The Oxford Companion to Film. Over forty contributors worked on this book, which purports “to answer any query which may occur to the amateur of film in the course of reading or film-going.” This prospectus is accurate if the amateur does his reading or film-going around the South Pole, but it bears little relation to the big and empty Oxford Companion as it will be pored over by thousands of unenlightened viewers in civilized places. (Film Quarterly and the Times Literary Supplement have praised the book’s dependability and scope.) A good Companion will honor the motleyness that is built into the collective art of film. It will include Dame Sybil Thorndike and Francis the Talking Mule, both of whom The Oxford Companion leaves out, along with Archie Mayo, Jackie Cooper, Tim Holt, Mel Brooks, the Three Stooges, Andy Griffith, Eve Arden, Robert Cummings, and hundreds more. The serious encyclopedist of film would do well to begin by including everyone missing from The Oxford Companion, which is a useful Who’s Not of film history.

There must be some reason why the editors of so large and expensive a reference book would exclude so many people, and so we search for the bias which will explain their odd selection. Perhaps the book observes a pro-British bias. This would be understandable. But among the missing are Cyril Cusack, Ronald Neame, Terry-Thomas, Reginald Owen, Cathleen Nesbitt, Ian Carmichael, Harry Andrews, Margaret Leighton, Hugh Griffith, Robert Bolt, Sarah Miles, Robert Shaw, Alastair Sim, Emlyn Williams, Nigel Bruce, and C. Aubrey Smith. William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett are included, but Joseph Conrad, whose work has inspired at least fourteen adaptations, and H. G. Wells, who wrote the screenplay for Things to Come (1936), a book about cinema (The King Who Was a King, 1929), and at least seven novels and stories that have been filmed, are excluded, as are screenwriters Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood.

If the book is not pro-British, then it might be pro-French, given the longstanding opposition between the French and British film worlds. But where are directors Jean Delannoy, Etienne Périer, Maurice Cloche, Yves Robert, Gérard Oury, André Calmettes, writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, actors Robert Dhéry, Fernand Gravey, Lila Kedrova, Harry Baur, Louis de Funes, Dominique Sanda, and Jean Desailly? Then is The Oxford Companion pro-Hollywood? If so, why are Dick Powell, Jane Wyman, Charles Bronson (Clint Eastwood is included), Rhonda Fleming, John Houseman, Virginia Mayo, Cornel Wilde, Frank and Eleanor Perry, Jack Conway, Yvonne de Carlo all missing? Where are Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West (F. Scott Fitzgerald is included), Edith Head, Paul Mazursky, Al Pacino (Jack Nicholson is included), Ben Turpin?

A bias would suggest a coherent approach, which The Oxford Companion’s editor never worked out. The book proceeds on the assumption that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all: it includes a few members of each category as if a few will do. Such great villains as Raymond Burr, Barton MacLane, William Conrad, and Lionel Stander are missing, but George Raft and Jack Palance are included, as well as Edmond O’Brien. O’Brien usually represented decency (A Double Life, White Heat, D.O.A., 1984), but here he is yanked into service with the claim that he “played bullying heavies with such bravura that a switch to roles of more intentional humour was inevitable” (and what were these humorous roles?). Similarly, the book leaves out Western actors Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Leo Carrillo, Edgar Buchanan, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and Slim Pickens, but includes Gabby Hayes, Roy Rogers, and Glenn Ford, who is misleadingly characterized as a “popular star of many Westerns.” Ford has made about twenty Westerns, which is not “many,” considering that he has made eighty films. The quota system is, as usual, hard on minorities. There are entries for black actors Paul Robeson, Rex Ingram, and Godfrey Cambridge, but none for Louise Beavers, Willie Best, Canada Lee, Dooley Wilson, Butterfly McQueen, Lena Horne, Woody Strode, or, incredibly, Stepin Fetchit.

Directors, cinematographers, performers, screenwriters, editors, art and costume designers, and theorists from all over the world are missing. A compendium which includes Gertie the Dinosaur and leaves out Vittorio Gassman and Maximilian Schell is so unreliable that simple incompetence, and not some eccentric set of principles, is the only explanation (unless, of course, William Bendix’s voice, with its sturdy build, snuck into the editorial office one night and lugged off half the index cards). But a filmgoer needs a Companion not so much to find out about major figures like Woody Allen and George Segal (although their absence from this book is inexcusable) as to get the facts about those figures whom time has taken from the public eye: George Coulouris, Hume Cronyn, Signe Hasso, Leo G. Carroll, Eleanor Parker, Sam Jaffe, Gale Sondergaard, talented and prolific performers whose contributions should be precisely catalogued now that they no longer inspire loud publicity. The Oxford Companion excludes these actors, and so does them and their audiences an unforgivable disservice.

A good compiler will avoid other mistakes that are well represented in The Oxford Companion. There is no room in any reference work for errors of fact. The encyclopedist of film must be especially careful in this regard because he must keep the records of a subculture that makes an industry of illusion. Publicists tailor the truth to contrive a fuss: when The Oxford Companion tells us that One-Eyed Jacks, “containing a sequence allegedly directed by Sam Peckinpah,” was Marlon Brando’s “only Western,” it resembles a studio blurb more than an encyclopedia, for Brando made another Western (The Appaloosa, 1966), and Peckinpah actually wrote an early draft of the screenplay. “Allegedly” has no place in a compendium of facts. There is not a “magnificent final shoot-up in a wine cellar” in Hitchcock’s Notorious. Conrad Veidt, not Cedric Hardwicke, “starred in the British version of Jew Süss,” which was released in 1934, not 1935. Tiny errors invalidate a reference book, and are particularly destructive when they bear a distant relation to the truth. The entry on Abraham Lincoln ends with this sentence: “There have been several films dealing with Lincoln’s assassination, including Suddenly (1964).” Suddenly does deal with an attempt to assassinate the president, but not President Lincoln: Suddenly was released in 1954, not 1964, and it has a contemporary plot.

Unlike many of the book’s numerical inaccuracies (such as the reference to “the thirty-three plays firmly attributable to Shakespeare”) and spelling errors (“Hunz” Hall, Gene “Sachs,” Aldo “Fabrizzi,” “Ted” Avery instead of “Tex”), these are serious mistakes, because collectively they distort the complex movement of film history, slighting some films and lending others a false stature. However, many of the book’s errors are not serious, but absurd. Rin-Tin-Tin was not born in 1918, but even if he was, who cares? The fact is that Lee Duncan found the fully grown dog in 1918, but it makes no difference. Why does Rin-Tin-Tin merit more space than Fredric March? Why bother with his birthdate at all, when there is none given for Andrew Sarris? André Malraux did not first meet de Gaulle at the première of Abel Gance’s Napoléon in 1927, but even if it were true, it would be meaningless. As it is, it’s just fake trivia. Malraux, who made one film and wrote a short essay on cinema, has a longer entry than Henry Fonda.

We could dispense with entries for Huey Long, The Outrage, and Joshua Logan’s Fanny. We could also do without hearing that “the circumstances of Vigo’s life markedly affected his work as a film-maker,” and that “Barrymore’s performance [in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde] is a tour de force of acting,” and that the success of In Which We Serve provides “one of the best examples of how public response to certain films is governed by the prevailing emotional mood.” What artist’s work is not affected by his life? What would an actor’s performance be a tour de force of, other than acting? Pole vaulting? When is a film’s popularity not “governed by the prevailing emotional mood”? Maybe Charlie Ruggles knows.

These absurdities were written by people who watched films (or heard about them) and could think of nothing to say. The encyclopedist of cinema must never be at a loss for the proper words. It is his job not to abstract from the eloquent images of film, but to evoke with all possible incisiveness something of their full effect. He must see the right things, then let those things dictate his style. A compendium filled with blather can tell us nothing about cinema, which is vivid, immediate, colorful. According to The Oxford Companion, Jack Lemmon “employs a deceptively natural style which, with its subtlety of response and perfectly controlled timing, is the product of a high degree of professional skill.” This windy amplification fades in the reading, while it is difficult to forget Jack Lemmon’s harassed wince and high-strung stammer.

Because cinema is fundamentally concrete, an attempt to convey a sensory impression will tell us more than an effort at summary abstraction. The Oxford Companion provides another negative example: Lolita is “Kubrick’s characteristically wry observation of the rootlessness of contemporary American society,” Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is a “wry exposition of the probable fate of humanity in the age of technology,” and 2001: A Space Odyssey “expresses Kubrick’s typically wry view of the human condition.” This vague catch-all is not only overused, but irrelevant: using the word “wry” to sum up Kubrick’s “view” is like calling Swift’s satire “grumpy.”

Lame analysis is one kind of filler; the easy value judgment is another. Value judgments take on a false legitimacy in the context of a reference book, whose province is the indisputable. Unfortunately, the editorial opinions in The Oxford Companion are as reliable as the “facts” reported there. The unexplained assertion that Don Siegel’s sluggish The Killers (1964) “is considerably better than” Robert Siodmak’s version (1946) suggests that the gang at Oxford never saw the earlier film, which features yet another of Edmond O’Brien’s sympathetic roles. Major Barbara is arbitrarily called “more successful” than Pygmalion; “Renoir blurred his intended message” in La Grande Illusion, and “Last Tango in Paris fails to attain tragic stature, perhaps because it lacks contrast.” Why tell us which of the Shaw films is “more successful”? Is Last Tango supposed “to attain tragic stature”? It was all right for Dr. Johnson to appraise in his compendia: the time was right, and he was good at it. A film encyclopedist with an axe to grind can also pass judgments, as long as the axe is visible. Georges Sadoul’s dictionaries are clearly biased in the Marxist direction, so we know enough to measure the claims of those books. The judgments in The Oxford Companion are unreasonable. They shed no light, but take up a lot of space.

If The Oxford Companion’s editor were to omit all these judgments, along with all the errors, the gossip, the swollen rhetoric, the trivial entries and dysfunctional points, there would be plenty of space in the book’s 767 pages for the right information. A comprehensive encyclopedia of film need not be unmanageably long. The enlarged fourth edition of Leslie Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion proves that a detailed, inclusive compendium in a single volume is possible. Only a little longer than the Oxford volume (and, in paperback, much cheaper), Halliwell’s Companion is a friend worth having. Virtually every name mentioned in this review has an entry in Halliwell’s guide, comprised of a pertinent characterization and exact filmography.

Halliwell has been updating and correcting his work since the appearance, in 1965, of the first edition, whose introduction states that “the emphasis is firmly on Britain and Hollywood”; however, despite this avowed bias, Halliwell’s book contains more European figures than The Oxford Companion does among its thousands of entries. (A reference book covering the film industries of Asia, Africa, and South America has yet to be assembled.) These entries include short historical essays (“Producer,” “Light Comedians,” “Tinting,” “Excerpts”) and thematic discussions (“Prostitutes,” “Funerals,” “The Chase”). The book contains helpful appendices, such as a list of title changes (American to British and vice versa) and an extensive bibliography. Aside from its solid essays on technical matters, The Oxford Companion offers little of substance in its thin expository passages.

The Filmgoer’s Companion is the work of one careful man, which accounts for its consistency and reliability. Halliwell’s personality is apparent throughout. Some purists may resent the book’s unaffected conservatism. For instance, Halliwell deplores “the rot” of violence and has little respect for what he calls “highbrow” critics. But the editor’s preferences do not matter. Halliwell’s book is an excellent encyclopedia of film. It is so inclusive as to be indispensable. It is not cluttered with inanities, nor does it struggle to sound academic. It can be used. In other words, it is all that The Oxford Companion to Film should have been.

In fact, it only disappoints to the extent that it resembles The Oxford Companion. It contains a number of value judgments, some of them disturbing, and it fails to indicate the running times of the films it discusses. The Oxford Companion’s editor decided to round off the running times of features to the nearest quarter-hour (the nearest five minutes for shorts), failing to record the original running times because “films are so frequently shorn of footage by accident or design that such attempted accuracy would have been misplaced.” So much of the book’s accuracy was misplaced, it is not surprising that the editor should not want to risk losing any more. But it is for just this reason, this constant danger of deletion, that a filmgoer needs a Companion: to tell him if the print he has seen is complete. All films have original running times before corrosion or censorship shorten them. If The Oxford Companion listed exact running times, it would be a more useful book. But it seems that the Oxford contributors cared little about usefulness, whereas Halliwell has done an enormous amount to assist those whose love of cinema is equal to his own.

This respectful affection for the movies is another remarkable feature of The Filmgoer’s Companion. Halliwell conveys this affection with the right tone, avoiding both the tedious solemnity of the dedicated “buff” and the pedant’s patronizing cuteness. He gives more space to Mischa Auer than to Woody Woodpecker, but gives the bird his due without condescension. Auer and Woody, not surprisingly, are missing from The Oxford Companion, which is coy and pompous by turns. “Succeeded by his son,” we read of Lassie, “he appeared in a string of sentimental film vehicles for his intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness”; Winston Churchill is characterized as “an avid film fan and noted dilettante.” Halliwell never cheapens cinema with such giggling asides, but maintains a light and witty tone through his many pages of documentation. Because of this cleverness and thoroughness, and because of its dozens of intriguing, well-reproduced pictures, The Filmgoer’s Companion is a pleasure to leaf through. It is as enjoyable as its subject, while The Oxford Companion is like a friend whom we never ask out to the movies for fear that his comments afterward will take all the joy out of the experience.