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Milking the Elk

America in the Movies

by Michael Wood
Basic Books, 206 pp., $10.00

The Men Who Made the Movies

by Richard Schickel
Atheneum, 308 pp., $12.95

The Silent Clowns

by Walter Kerr
Knopf, 371 pp., $17.95

In what sense does the US lead the world in movies? We make more of them than any other country and are I suppose more proficient technically, but have we ever turned out anything that was comparable artistically to the best German or Russian films?…The idea of establishing and exploiting the lowest common denominator of audiences has finally killed the movies.”

Thus, Edmund Wilson in 1937—little realizing that auteurs were already turning out genre movies for future cinéstes. Ah, what a difference a few French words can make. Within a few years, the French New Wave were poring over the junk Wilson describes and, unhampered by English, finding gems, masterpieces after the fact.

The Anglo-American mind is traditionally pole-axed by French approval, however bizarre. And in no time words which not only Wilson but the directors themselves would have considered pretentious and wrong were the coin for discussing Hollywood, with Louella Parsons all but forgotten.

Not a bad thing. Our nonvisual intellectuals had certainly missed a trick or two, if the best of them could dismiss technical proficiency so lightly. But the revisionists could not stop with the pretty pictures and fine individual scenes: they had to find dramatic and narrative virtues that had eluded even the wide-ranging Wilson. And to do this, they had further to fashion a theory of “movieness” so self-enclosed that no previous aesthetic could touch it. Only on these terms could they have their Golden Age.

The auteurist wars ended in exhaustion a few years back. But they left a legacy of assumptions about Hollywood that both sides now seem to accept. For instance, to a purist, Michael Wood would seem like a natural enemy: what can a flippant English professor of literature know of movieness? Yet at the outset of his funny book America in the Movies, Wood invokes the magic word “style” as an auteurist would, to elevate whatever he wishes. After reciting a catalogue of movie nonsense from the old days, compounded of silly lines and inane plotting, he says it was exactly “right” for the period. Because of Style. He quickly adds that the same sort of thing is dead wrong in Cleopatra (1963), when apparently America had come of age.

This contribution to Age of Innocence theory would come as news to the survivors, who thought the nonsense was just as bad then as it is now, although time may have lent it quaintness. The witness from those years is overwhelming, and not just from snobbish intellectuals and sourball novelists. Dwight Macdonald, in his young dandy period, wrote about movies brilliantly in the late Twenties, but sat out the Whole Golden Age in protest; and if Macdonald is too verbal for you, consider Walter Kerr, a highly visual critic steeped in silent movies, who turned his back on the talkies to find more nourishment in, God help us, the Broadway stage. And so on. It is not just a question of perhaps overvaluing a few old movies but—fatally easy for us—of undervaluing the best taste of a generation.

There was, of course, much oblique merit in Thirties to Fifties movies, and a new kind of critic arrived to do it justice. James Agee and Otis Ferguson were expert at grading junk according to its kind and finding stray bits of carbon. But their descendants want more. They want to embrace the whole junk yard—for the very good reason that they were raised in it.

Those were the only movies we had, and we had no choice but to love them. If they were aimed, as the director Raoul Walsh says, at the inch and a quarter forehead, we simply had to lower our brows for the occasion. And now, with the glow of our childhood on them, these simple-minded movies seem “just right.” It turns out that the director was talking to us sophisticates all along over the heads of the mob—while he was talking to the mob too. As Schickel puts it, he offered “something a child could respond to on one level, an adolescent on another, an adult on a third”—not bad going for an eighty-minute film.

The result is rather like a literary criticism that bogs down in comparing Rider Haggard with Conan Doyle—not altogether bad, if we keep the enterprise in scale. Richard Schickel’s boyish book The Men Who Made the Movies is a good example of how not to do this. It is based on a series of TV interviews with eight veteran directors, in which a certain amount of flattery may have been necessary to get the old boys talking. But the reverence remains in the text double-thick, along with a fawning introduction that would embarrass a reverend mother. It seems that when critics of a certain age come within sniffing distance of the old Hollywood, they lose their bearings and forget what they came for. Once upon a time the old charmers would have signed up Schickel on the spot for PR duties, but now they don’t need to.

Yet almost the only interesting thing about these interviews is Schickel’s determination to make them so. If we had masterpieces, we must have had masters: so Schickel makes even their limitations a clue to greatness. For instance, he tells us admiringly that the directors tend as a group to be men of action and not of verbal analysis (Wood says that old movies always insisted on this distinction, so that some should walk and others should chew gum), which puts them at a blow beyond their intellectual critics, who sound like dreadful weeds anyway, and covers for a lot of lackluster dialogue. In fact, I began wondering whether we mightn’t dispense with dialogue altogether and simply show pictures of the directors fishing or something.

Schickel stresses that men like Walsh and Howard Hawks and William Wellman were real he-men in touch with an earlier America. But what so often struck one about their films was their artificiality even in this, their strength—because their active years embraced not the heyday but the decadence of machismo, when toughness had become pure pose, as in apache dancing. For the first time ever, many Americans did not actually need to be tough, so they made a fetish of it, using the word itself to nausea. And the directors, when they could tear themselves away from hunting trips with Hemingway, gave it to them in ungovernable doses. Hawks’s prattle about “who’s better” would presumably strike a genuine man of action as corrupt or silly (“Go roll a hoop in the park,” as Hammett told Hemingway), but to pale-faced city boys and French cinéastes it was nectar.

As with toughness, so with everything they touched. Far from keeping their roots in America, the directors had merely preserved them under glass. Like most people in Hollywood, they lived in their own airtight compartments of friends and rushes and pictures of memories, in a town that was itself airtight. The hard-nosed bulletbiters like Walsh seem to have kept their own road companies of actors and technicians about them to sustain a mining camp uproariousness at all times, as depressing after a while as shiny false teeth. No one in America was doing that any more if they ever had. This was just old men at play.

Schickel praises Walsh’s Gentleman Jim because it keeps touch with Irish working-class life. But in all the weird annals of Hollywood Irishness, no movie was ever hokier or further from any kind of Irish life than this jolly, funning, brawling, kissing broth of an old sod. I would not have been surprised to hear it had been made behind the Iron Curtain.

The directors were of course serving up myths, which is Wood’s theme and we’ll get to it in a moment. But one thing Schickel’s book makes clear despite itself is that the directors were rather ordinary men with ordinary minds who only became geniuses after they retired, or semiretired. In their own time, the time that counted, the producer’s name was usually the big one, not theirs. And however we inflate them now, the tonal quality is that of clever functionaries, not creative artists.* One would do no better or worse with eight cameramen.

As if to confirm this, the introduction refers to how well the directors worked with “what they were given,” and adds approvingly that they had very little trouble with their studios (in the vanity of retirement they make this sound like some sort of sly integrity, but there is barely a movie of the period that couldn’t have been strengthened by a little trouble-making). The myths were parceled out by the grotesques in the studios, guessing the public taste from a company village 2,000 miles away and up.

Since we bought the results the assumption is that they guessed right; though once we had a choice, their guesses (see Wood on Cleopatra) suddenly seemed wrong. Which would seem to verify a Raymond Williams view, that this was fundamentally an entrepreneurial culture and not a folk one.

It is necessary to Michael Wood’s thesis that Hollywood had at least some links, however twisted, with the Folk, and that the movies which seemed so hilarious because they spoke to no one’s real concerns were actually mining shadows in our psyches. And since it is impossible to prove the matter one way or the other with any precision, his book simply ignites a string of arguments which can burn as long as you like—not a bad function for a movie book. What Wood does is place movies and America in juxtaposition, like facing mirrors, or like Groucho and Harpo in Duck Soup, and try to guess who is doing what to whom: which at least allows the Williams possibility that Hollywood invented its own America, and the second mirror copied it.

America in the Movies begins as a gloss on Barbara Deming’s powerful, lopsided book Running Away From Myself. Deming maintained that movies told horrible truths about America while pretending to tell pretty ones. E.g., Bogart’s neurasthenic alienation is the real story of Casablanca, not his trumped up conversion to action at the end. And so on. The only problem with this, and it is a nearly fatal one, is that Deming completely ignores the exigencies of storytelling. Granted that a narrator wants to reach such and such a happy ending, then everything along the way must work against that ending. And the strength of his story will almost invariably lie there.

Which is why Milton is always on the side of the devil. Applying Deming’s brooding analysis to lighter entertainment, one might suppose that Broadway musical fanciers are obsessed with boys losing girls. In general, since nine plot resolutions out of ten are likely to be contrived and unsatisfactory, one presumes the author’s real meaning is somewhere in the middle of the story.

  1. *

    There are exceptions at both ends. One or two of the subjects seem perhaps too old to do themselves justice, while another, Alfred Hitchcock, seems to belong to a different species altogether. As a dealer in deceit, he was able uniquely to express himself even in Hollywood. Incidentally, the others interviewed, besides those mentioned, are George Cukor, Frank Capra, Vincente Minnelli, and King Vidor.

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