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Who Makes the Movies?

A Biographical Dictionary of Film

by David Thomson
Morrow, 629 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Forty-nine years ago last October Al Jolson not only filled with hideous song the sound track of a film called The Jazz Singer, he also spoke. With the words “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” (surely the most menacing line in the history of world drama), the age of the screen director came to an end and the age of the screenwriter began.

Until 1927, the director was king, turning out by the mile his “molds of light” (André Bazin’s nice phrase). But once the movies talked, the director as creator became secondary to the writer. Even now, except for an occasional director-writer like Ingmar Bergman,1 the director tends to be the one interchangeable (if not entirely expendable) element in the making of a film. After all, there are thousands of movie technicians who can do what a director is supposed to do because, in fact, collectively (and sometimes individually) they actually do do his work behind the camera and in the cutter’s room. On the other hand, there is no film without a written script.

In the Fifties when I came to MGM as a contract writer and took my place at the Writers’ Table in the commissary, the Wise Hack used to tell us newcomers, “The director is the brother-in-law.” Apparently the ambitious man became a producer (that’s where the power was). The talented man became a writer (that’s where the creation was). The pretty man became a star.

Even before Jolson spoke, the director had begun to give way to the producer. Director Lewis Milestone saw the writing on the screen as early as 1923 when “baby producer” Irving Thalberg fired the legendary director Erich von Stroheim from his film Merry Go Round. “That,” wrote Milestone somberly in New Theater and Film (March 1937), “was the beginning of the storm and the end of the reign of the director….” Even as late as 1950 the star Dick Powell assured the film cutter Robert Parrish that “anybody can direct a movie, even I could do it. I’d rather not because it would take too much time. I can make more money acting, selling real estate and playing the market.”2 That was pretty much the way the director was viewed in the Thirties and Forties, the so-called classic age of the talking movie.

Although the essential creator of the classic Hollywood film was the writer, the actual master of the film was the producer, as Scott Fitzgerald recognized when he took as protagonist for his last novel Irving Thalberg. Although Thalberg himself was a lousy movie-maker, he was the head of production at MGM; and in those days MGM was a kind of Vatican where the chief of production was Pope, holding in his fists the golden keys of Schenck. The staff producers were the College of Cardinals. The movie stars were holy and valuable objects to be bought, borrowed, stolen. Like icons, they were moved from sound stage to sound stage, studio to studio, film to film, bringing in their wake good fortune and gold.

With certain exceptions (Alfred Hitchcock, for one), the directors were, at worst, brothers-in-law; at best, bright technicians. All in all, they were a cheery, unpretentious lot, and if anyone had told them that they were auteurs du cinéma, few could have coped with the concept, much less the French. They were technicians; proud commercialites, happy to serve what was optimistically known as The Industry.

This state of affairs lasted until television replaced the movies as America’s principal dispenser of mass entertainment. Overnight the producers lost control of what was left of The Industry and, unexpectedly, the icons took charge. Apparently, during all those years when we thought the icons nothing more than beautifully painted images of all our dreams and lusts, they had been not only alive but secretly greedy for power and gold.

The lunatics are running the asylum,” moaned the Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table, but soldiered on. Meanwhile, the icons started to produce, direct, even write. For a time, they were able to ignore the fact that with television on the rise, no movie star could outdraw the “$64,000 Question.” During this transitional decade, the director was still the brother-in-law. But instead of marrying himself off to a producer, he shacked up, as Jimmy Carter would say, with an icon. For a time each icon had his or her favorite director and The Industry was soon on the rocks.

Then out of France came the dreadful news: all those brothers-in-law of the classic era were really autonomous and original artists. Apparently each had his own style that impressed itself on every frame of any film he worked on. Proof? Since the director was the same person from film to film, each image of his oeuvre must then be stamped with his authorship. The argument was circular but no less overwhelming in its implications. Much quoted was Giraudoux’s solemn inanity: “There are no works, there are only auteurs.”

The often wise André Bazin eventually ridiculed this notion in La Politique des Auteurs, but the damage was done in the pages of the magazine he founded, Cahiers du cinéma. The fact that, regardless of director, every Warner Brothers film during the classic age had a dark look owing to the Brothers’ passion for saving money in electricity and set-dressing cut no ice with ambitious critics on the prowl for high art in a field once thought entirely low.

In 1948, Bazin’s disciple Alexandre Astruc wrote the challenging “La Caméra-stylo.” This manifesto advanced the notion that the director is—or should be—the true and solitary creator of a movie, “penning” his film on celluloid. Astruc thought that caméra-stylo could

tackle any subject, any genre…. I will even go so far as to say that contemporary ideas and philosophies of life are such that only the cinema can do justice to them. Maurice Nadeau wrote in an article in the newspaper Combat: “If Descartes lived today, he would write novels.” With all due respect to Nadeau, a Descartes of today would already have shut himself up in his bedroom with a 16mm camera and some film, and would be writing his philosophy on film: for his Discours de la Méthode would today be of such a kind that only the cinema could express it satisfactorily.3

With all due respect to Astruc, the cinema has many charming possibilities but it cannot convey complex ideas through words or even, paradoxically, dialogue in the Socratic sense. Le Genou de Claire is about as close as we shall ever come to dialectic in a film and though Rohmer’s work has its delights, the ghost of Descartes is not very apt to abandon the marshaling of words on a page for the flickering shadows of talking heads. In any case, the Descartes of Astruc’s period did not make a film; he wrote the novel La Nausée.

But the would-be camera-writers are not interested in philosophy or history or literature. They want only to acquire for the cinema the prestige of ancient forms without having first to crack, as it were, the code. “Let’s face it,” writes Astruc:

between the pure cinema of the 1920s and filmed theater, there is plenty of room for a different and individual kind of film-making.

This of course implies that the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of film-making the distinction between author and director loses all meaning. Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing.

It is curious that despite Astruc’s fierce will to eliminate the scriptwriter (and perhaps literature itself), he is forced to use terms from the art form he would like to supersede. For him the film director uses a pen with which he writes in order to become—highest praise—an author.

As the French theories made their way across the Atlantic, bemused brothers-in-law found themselves being courted by odd-looking French youths with tape recorders. Details of longforgotten Westerns were recalled and explicated. Every halting word from the auteur‘s lips was taken down and reverently examined. The despised brothers-in-law of the Thirties were now Artists. With new-found confidence, directors started inking major pacts to meg superstar thesps whom the meggers could control as hyphenates: that is, as director-producers or even as writer-director-producers. Although the icons continued to be worshipped and overpaid, the truly big deals were now made by directors. To them, also, went the glory. For all practical purposes the producer has either vanished from the scene (the “package” is now put together by a talent [!] agency) or merged with the director. Meanwhile, the screenwriter continues to be the prime creator of the talking film, and though he is generally paid very well and his name is listed right after that of the director in the movie reviews of Time, he is entirely in the shadow of the director just as the director was once in the shadow of the producer and the star.

What do directors actually do? What do screenwriters do? This is difficult to explain to those who have never been involved in the making of a film. It is particularly difficult when French theoreticians add to the confusion by devising false hypotheses (studio director as auteur in the Thirties) on which to build irrelevant and misleading theories. Actually, if Astruc and Bazin had wanted to be truly perverse (and almost accurate), they would have declared that the cameraman is the auteur of any film. They could then have ranked James Wong Howe with Dante, Braque, and Gandhi. Cameramen do tend to have styles in a way that the best writers do but most directors don’t—style as opposed to preoccupation. Gregg Toland’s camera work is a vivid fact from film to film, linking Citizen Kane to Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives in a way that one cannot link Citizen Kane to, say, Welles’s Confidential Report. Certainly the cameraman is usually more important than the director in the day-to-day making of a film as opposed to the preparing of a film. Once the film is shot the editor becomes the principal interpreter of the writer’s invention.

Since there are few reliable accounts of the making of any of the classic talking movies, Pauline Kael’s book on the making of Citizen Kane is a valuable document.4 In considerable detail she establishes the primacy in that enterprise of the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The story of how Orson Welles saw to it that Mankiewicz became, officially, the noncreator of his own film is grimly fascinating and highly typical of the way so many director-hustlers acquire for themselves the writer’s creation. Few directors in this era possess the modesty of Kurosawa, who said, recently, “With a very good script, even a second-class director may make a first-class film. But with a bad script even a first-class director cannot make a really first-class film.” The badness of so many of Orson Welles’s post-Mankiewicz films ought to be instructive.

  1. 1

    Questions I am advised to anticipate: What about such true auteurs du cinéma as Truffaut? Well, Jules et Jim was a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. Did Truffaut adapt the screenplay himself? No, he worked with Jean Gruault. Did Buñuel create The Exterminating Angel? No, it was “suggested” by an unpublished play by José Bergamin. Did Buñuel take it from there? No, he had as co-author Luis Alcorisa. So it goes.

  2. 2

    Robert Parrish, Growing Up in Hollywood (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

  3. 3

    Astruc’s essay is reprinted in Peter Graham, ed., The New Wave (Doubleday, 1968).

  4. 4

    The Citizen Kane Book (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1971).

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