GWTW: The Making of “Gone With The Wind”
The Citizen Kane Book: Raising Kane
The Citizen Kane Book: The Shooting Script
“Casablanca,” Script and Legend
More About “All About Eve”
The Magic Factory: How MGM Made “An American in Paris”
The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book
Broken empires, scattered dynasties. Hollywood always loved nostalgia, and Gone With The Wind was a better title than anyone knew. Early Egypt, ancient Rome, the gracious old American South cropped up so often and so appealingly in Hollywood movies because they were an gone, taken by Time’s fell hand. The flashback in the Forties and Fifties was not really a narrative device at all but a compulsion, the instrument of a constant, eager plunging into the past. A slow, misty dissolve, and off we went into the day before yesterday, when things were different; into a time before all this (whatever all this might be in any given movie) happened to us.
It looks now as if there was plenty of prophecy there; premature symbolic mourning for the time when Hollywood itself would also be gone. Certainly Selznick, producer and onlie begetter of Gone With The Wind, came to think so. “Hollywood’s like Egypt,” he told Ben Hecht. “Full of crumbled pyramids. It’ll never come back. It’ll just keep on crumbling until finally the wind blows the last studio props across the sand.” Hollywood, in spite of daily rumors of its death, is probably livelier than such an elegy implies; but a glance at a stack of recent books about American movies suggests that Selznick ought to have been right, even if he wasn’t.
Here are books about the making of Gone With The Wind itself (1939); about the making of Citizen Kane (1940); a book to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Casablanca (1943); an assortment of Mankiewicz’s recollections about the making of All About Eve (1950); a collection of interviews with people involved in the making of An American in Paris (1951). The Kane, Casablanca, and All About Eve books have screenplays of those movies for good measure. Every now and again an editor or a writer in one of these texts will murmur something about scholarship and history and the study of film, but the heart isn’t in it. Good old soupy nostalgia is what these books are about, and of them all only Arlene Croce’s brilliant essay on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is entirely free from it; and that is only because nostalgia is the wrong word for the confused, haunted longings that Fred and Ginger provoke in us. Fred and Ginger were too crisp and casual and stylish for us to be simply nostalgic about them, so we have to shift our nostalgia to the brittle dancing world they seemed to inhabit.
Citizen Kane, of course, remains an unsafe, unsure, unsettling movie, and Pauline Kael escapes nostalgia at least some of the time because she is serious and intelligent about the film. The other four books, though, are really serious and intelligent only about the pastness of the past, or rather about nostalgia’s curious paradox: here we are, talking about films gone by, because they are gone; but they are not gone, since here we are, talking about them. We meet to celebrate the miracle: Gone With The Wind has not gone with the wind.
Reality, Gavin Lambert tells us elegantly but obscurely, has conferred a lasting relevance on Gone With The Wind. He speaks of popular art, of legend and archetype, of “situations deeply woven into the fabric of American life.” “It becomes,” he says, “like watching mythology performed in public.” Pauline Kael talks about Citizen Kane as a popular work (“not in terms of actual popularity but in terms of its conceptions and the way it gets its laughs and makes its points”) and also throws in a remark or two about archetype and legend. All these comments point in the right direction, but they don’t do much more than point. Even Pauline Kael’s wonderful phrase for Citizen Kane—“it isn’t a work of special depth or a work of subtle beauty. It is a shallow work, a shallow masterpiece”—doesn’t take us as far as it seems to. She tells us all about the movie’s attractive, sloppy, slightly cheap shallowness, but leaves us just as much in the dark as ever about why it is a masterpiece.
Popular art of any kind is a genuine puzzle, since our critical vocabularies were not made for it. Even if we don’t take to the auteur theory of cinema, we do like the idea of an intention behind a work; yet legends and archetypes can hardly be entirely the fruit of any kind of intention, still less of an artistic intention. There is too much accident in such matters, and popular art is not the expression of an individual talent but a reading of the mind of its audience. Characteristic moments in popular movies, for example, provide not the shock of originality but the illuminating sense of life and style being given to something we half knew already. They have the flavor of old jokes told well. They are fullblown, as Gavin Lambert says of a sunset in Gone With The Wind, but not overblown—although I think he is wrong about that sunset, it is overblown.
The point of popular art is not to defeat our expectations but to outdo them, to fulfill them overwhelmingly. Think of Welles’s abuse of long, raking camera angles; of Hitchcock’s taste for naturally overproduced locations like Mount Rushmore; of the high crane shot of the Civil War dead and dying at the railroad station in Gone With The Wind; of the voices visiting Vivien Leigh at the end of that movie, urging her to go back to Tara. Think of the smart, weary wit of the dialogue in Citizen Kane; of Bogart in Casablanca telling Ingrid Bergman what he remembers of their last day in Paris (“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue”); or of Bogart again, telling Claude Rains that he came to Casablanca for the waters (“Waters?” Rains says. “What waters? We’re in the desert.” Bogart: “I was misinformed”).
And so on and on, through hundreds of famous, unforgettable shots, lines, set-ups, cuts, compositions. All too much; all distinctly hammed up; all fine where they are, in movies. They just sound overdone when you describe them. André Bazin once wrote that Chaplin was not sentimental, he just seemed sentimental to literary people because in a book he would be sentimental. This is not always true, since Limelight is mawkish by nonliterary standards too. But it is true for Modern Times, which feels sentimental when you think about it but isn’t when you see it. The same argument can be applied to many great moments in movies: they would be overdone in another medium. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that one can’t overdo things in the movies, merely that different standards apply for telling how much is enough.
What all this means is that the most interesting of these books about the making of famous movies are also, ultimately, the most disappointing. Lucid and informative as they are, Gavin Lambert’s GWTW and Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane can’t overcome the central fallacy of looking for the authors of legends, and Miss Kael is even reduced to throwing the whole thing into the lap of chance: “Extraordinary movies are the result of the ‘right’ people’s getting together on the ‘right’ project at the ‘right’ time.” Well, well. One can’t quarrel with that. But once we have admitted our helplessness in this way, all we can look for from such studies is a kind of historical justice about credits for a film, a means of setting the record straight about who did what. A deserving cause, to be sure, and it is good to see Herman J. Mankiewicz (Joseph L.’s elder brother) win posthumous glory for his dazzling screenplay for Citizen Kane; interesting to learn how much Cameron Menzies, production designer on Gone With The Wind, was responsible for the lush, glossy appearance of the movie, and for the fact that it doesn’t look as if it was shot by three different directors. But what about the movies themselves? When we know who made them, and how, what is it that has been made, and why do these expensively photographed hallucinations matter to us?
The Magic Factory and All About Eve stay fairly safely within the limits of studio gossip, or oral history, as it’s called these days; although the first has some useful technical information about An American in Paris, and the second has some very good gags (“My films,” Mankiewicz says, “seem to lose something in the original English,” and he is very funny about a much admired Antonioni wall—“The plaster shop at Cinecittà turns out that particular wall, in that particular texture, by the mile”). Howard Koch’s Casablanca is really just a screenplay squeezed between fatuous essays by Koch and others, and concerns not the making of the film but Koch’s delight in the kids who keep on digging it. Still, Casablanca is Koch’s immortality, and the man whose credit for the celebrated War of the Worlds radio broadcast was stolen from him by Orson Welles is understandably edgy about posterity’s memory of him.
Arlene Croce is very much concerned with how the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, from Flying Down to Rio (1933) to The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), were put together, but the finished films themselves remain firmly at the center of her interest, and she writes extraordinarily well about them. She describes an Astaire solo in Roberta, for example, as “full of stork-legged steps on toe, wheeling pirouettes, in which he seems to be winding one leg around the other, and those ratcheting tap clusters that fall like loose change from his pockets”; she writes a whole historical and sociological essay in a few mildly facetious sentences:
In the class-conscious Thirties, it was possible to imagine characters who spent their lives in evening dress—to imagine them as faintly preposterous holdovers from the Twenties, slipping from their satin beds at twilight, dancing the night away and then stumbling, top-hatted and ermine-tangled, out of speakeasies at dawn. It was a dead image a faded cartoon of the pre-Crash, pre-Roosevelt Prohibition era, but it was the only image of luxury that most people believed in, and Top Hat revived it as a corrected vision of elegance…. Top Hat is a Thirties’ romance of the Twenties….
Miss Croce underlines what I take to be the secret of Fred and Ginger’s enduring success: their apparent ordinariness, their almost severe abstinence from emphasis. Astaire seems to sing like a person who can’t sing; like the rest of us. Only he sings with such intelligence and restraint and precision that he has lasted longer, as a singer, than people like Nelson Eddy, who really had voices but now sound like parodies of themselves. The same goes for Ginger Rogers, especially as an actress. Her performances are so persistently offhand, low-keyed, that she becomes an island of calm surrounded by a frenzy of overacting from everyone except Fred. Yet she is acting, there is nothing wooden or insufficient about her style.