Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire; drawing by David Levine

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.

“They were the two most divinely usual people in the history of movies,” Miss Croce writes—that divinely being one of her very rare false notes. Their dancing, she says, “had none of the excesses, nothing of the sweet tooth of its period.” Precisely. Their style was so personal that it was clearly a work of art; but it was also a style that played at not being a style at all, and thus became a continuing myth of ease and natural grace. Their dances, as Miss Croce says, were their love scenes, and they made no declarations other than those. They danced out a dream that was both tough and tender, they created a world in which talent and skill were all the eloquence you needed. As Miss Croce reminds us, when Fred falls for Ginger by looking at a flip-book of her dancing, he has not just fallen in love with a girl, he has fallen in love with a girl who dances like that.

By implication, then, Arlene Croce shows us how individual talents and public longings can meet up in a myth, and how movies can matter to us. But to get beyond implication, we need some kind of hypothesis about the relation between the movies and the public longings they incorporate, some sense of the social function of movie mythologies.

Pauline Kael gives us a clue when she writes that a star is created when a starring role provides “a realistic base for contradictory elements.” Welles as Charles Foster Kane incarnates the contradictions spelled out by Herman Mankiewicz. But there is more than this. Citizen Kane is about contradiction itself, defining Kane as an American only to define an American as a creature of conflicting impulses, perpetually at liberty because no one knows what to make of him, ultimately ruined because he himself can’t pull those opposing urges together.

“It’s become a very clear picture,” Mankiewicz wrote in a speech that didn’t survive into the final film. “He was the most honest man who ever lived, with a streak of crookedness a yard wide. He was a liberal and a reactionary. He was a loving husband—and both his wives left him. He had a gift for friendship such as few men have—and he broke his oldest friend’s heart like you’d throw away a cigarette you were through with….” In the film Kane is described as a communist by some, as a fascist by others. A title card then tells us that Kane himself thinks he is only one thing: an American. Kane is accused of having his newspapers attack companies in which he himself holds large amounts of stock. He admits this, says Kane is a scoundrel who should be boycotted, and offers a thousand dollars in support of such a boycott. On the other hand, as the publisher of a newspaper, it is his duty, he says, to protect the people of the city from “money-mad pirates”—like Kane in his alternative avatar.

In one of the movie’s most famous sequences, Kane comes across his old friend Leland asleep across his hostile notice of the opera début of Kane’s protégée. Kane finishes the notice in accord with Leland’s obvious intentions, then fires Leland for writing a bad notice. We can see this as a triumph for Kane’s tolerance, or as merely an attempt to buy Leland off, to convince him, as Leland himself puts it, that he is an honest man. We have to recognize a certain amount of charm and generosity in the gesture in any case, since Welles plays it that way. But there is childishness beneath it all, a belief that truth and integrity will be upheld if you support both sides of everything, that radical contradictions can be lived with as long as you let both competing teams run free. If Kane ceased to inhabit these contradictions, he would cease, in the movie’s terms, to be an American. Kane, the movie suggests, is not merely a man like the rest of us (Americans are not merely people like the rest of us), who often want to have our cake and eat it. Having his cake and eating it is a passion and a neurosis with Kane; it is his life.

The greatness of the movie, it seems to me, lies in its failure to focus this theme as well as it tries to, in its failure to present us with a coherent view of Kane. Kane, like his model Hearst, was too horrible to be admired and too attractive to be rejected, a genuine, full-scale, mythological American, a mass of self-love and self-hatred, of benevolence and barbarism. Kane is so baffling to us because we are baffled by our own attitudes toward him, and while the movie is orderly enough to let us see the man, it is also disorderly enough to be true to our bafflement, faithful to our puzzled, foiled understanding of his life. In the light of all this, of the film’s splendid, disquieting lack of an angle on Kane, the neatness of the Rosebud ending, the finally discovered suggestion that all Kane really needed was motherly love, strikes me as a wonderfully sharp, savage joke on us all, Welles and Mankiewicz included, no doubt.

I should say at once that I don’t think Americans are really any more caught up in contradictions than anyone else. But they do seem to like to see themselves that way, and Citizen Kane catches and inflames this liking. The larger point, though, is that we can read Citizen Kane as merely doing very plainly and very forcefully, almost schematically, what all movies that matter to us do in one form or another. What it does is dramatize contradictions which are scattered about in the national life, which bother us enough for us to want them acknowledged, but which really are irreducible contradictions, and therefore can be acknowledged only in play, only as shadows. This is more or less how Lévi-Strauss defines the function of myth in primitive societies: the reconciliation of the irreconcilable within a fictional narrative. The reconciliation takes place in fiction because it can’t take place in reality.

One needs to add, for an advanced society, more adept at self-deception, that even a full acknowledgment that there is a contradiction can hardly take place in reality. We work out in movies (and in jokes and plays and novels and television shows and nightclub acts and elsewhere) threats which beckon to us from just off the edges of our consciousness, which haunt us without ever quite appearing in daylight. I would want to say too, going beyond Lévi-Strauss in this, or perhaps stepping back from his position, that it is not at all necessary for the narrative to reconcile its irreconcilable elements at the level of the story. It is enough that those elements should live together for the space of the tale, and thereby prove that the contradiction, while possibly tragic and destructive, is not totally and terminally debilitating. Life goes on in the story, and the story, by sympathetic magic, may induce life to go on outside it.

A simple example. Westerns regularly set a homeless, wandering hero against a sheeplike community which needs his help: the lonely aristocrat confronts the huddled mob. The aristocrat gives the mob a lecture about how they should try to get along without heroes like himself and should gang up and get the bad guys, not just sit around waiting for Randolph Scott to ride in. The films are officially democratic, but secretly elitist, since we are all with the hero rather than with the cowardly townsfolk. Or rather we are on both sides, but more on one than on the other. We have spent two hours in the cinema thinking about democracy and the individual without even being aware that we were thinking at all, and one of the contradictions of our culture has been tired out and laid to rest, temporarily, by the exercise.

But if most films are myths in Lévi-Strauss’s sense, not all myths are alike in their treatment of contradictions. Citizen Kane lays them bare, leaves them dangling, and thereby corresponds very closely to a definition Richard Chase once gave of American, as distinct from European, fiction. Fred Astaire, on the other hand, transcends all those paradoxes about his style seeming not to be a style in the same way that a good poet can always get a poem out of not being able to write—he is thus an artist in a perfectly simple, old-fashioned, “European” sense. But there are films which neither transcend nor expose contradictions but exploit them sentimentally, turn untidy bewilderment into comforting, even inspiring disaster. What we ask of such films is not that they should take us out of our confused lives but that they should, obliquely, lend our confusion a bit of dignity and grandeur.

Casablanca, for example, beneath its topical allusions and its wry repartee, is a movie about the ambivalent charms of being alone. If you’re alone you’re not loved; if you’re loved you’re ensnared. The film allows Bogart to end up loved and alone, or at least discreetly partnered by Claude Rains instead of engulfed in the love of Ingrid Bergman. Yet he is letting her go for her sake, and for the sake of the free world. Like Kane, only far more successfully, he has his cake and eats it.

I must emphasize that this is not a psychological reading of Casablanca, a guess at why the Bogart character does what he does. I think he does what he does for heroic, sentimental, and entirely admirable reasons. But the mythology shows him, and us, winning on all fronts, and some of the topical remarks in the movie reinforce this reading in a curious way. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Bogart says more than once, bitterly. Claude Rains tells him that that is a “wise foreign policy,” and later comments that Bogart is “completely neutral about everything.” Sidney Greenstreet drives home the point by jokingly saying that isolationism is no longer a practical policy—he is referring to his own deals in Casablanca, not to the war. The year is 1941 in the movie, 1943 in the cinema. The effect of all this is not to give political overtones to a romantic movie but to give political isolationism a strong romantic and personal flavor. We might listen to some of the echoes, political and otherwise, of a phrase of our own like “I don’t want to get involved”—it is the private corollary to Jefferson’s thesis about foreign entanglements. The myth in Casablanca concerns getting involved without getting involved.

The myth in Gone With The Wind, as Gavin Lambert suggests, concerns survival; or more precisely, the price of survival; or more precisely still, survival while paying something less than the full price for it. The film celebrates the victory of the ruthless, irrepressible lovers of life (Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh) over the genteel bearers of the old civilized values (Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland). But the cost of this victory is beautifully masked by an abundance of sympathy for the losers, embodiments of the Gallant South after all, and by the dramatic sufferings of the winners, who lose their child and each other. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh thus win and lose in a way that satisfies every greedy moral instinct we have, because they engage and then placate an abiding American worry, a contradiction that appears again and again in American movies, although it is not often as grandly drawn as it is in Gone With The Wind. It is a worry about selfishness, which we try to think of as a vice but which we all know to be a major American virtue.

Would we then condone anything done in the name of self? Of course not, but we have a terrible time drawing the line. There are countless movies, starring Bogart or Robert Mitchum or William Holden or Alan Ladd, in which the hero’s selfishness is felt to be unanswerably attractive. The movies deal with this, usually, by a twist in the plot which lets these egoists in for a spot of selfless, redeeming heroism—or by having them, as in Gone With The Wind, appear to expiate their selfishness by suffering a lot. Yet the attraction of their original position, of their defense of their prime duty to themselves, remains long after the rest of the movie has slipped from the mind. Selfishness in American movies is as baffling as Charles Foster Kane, and for much the same reasons. Indeed Kane’s selfishness is part of his charm and part of the problem. But where Citizen Kane won’t let us rest even when we feel sorry for Kane, Gone With The Wind asks us to settle back and savor the joys of doublethink, continuing primly to believe that selfishness doesn’t pay, as we sit and watch the payments come rolling in.

“A country that no longer had any legends, the poet says, is doomed to die of cold. That is possible. But a people that had no myths would already be dead.” Thus Georges Dumézil, the great comparative mythologist. A myth is the working out of contemporary preoccupations in a story. We live among myths, and to some extent by our myths. A legend is a myth which has faded, it is the working out of yesterday’s worries, now seen to belong to yesterday, now taken up as a harmless fiction. It is the narrative form of nostalgia. So we look back at old movies, and nostalgia’s paradox takes another turn. These films are gone; not gone; and they allow us to contemplate problems we used to have as if we still had them. They were good old problems, we fondly think. They were problems with familiar faces. They don’t make them like that any more.

This Issue

November 29, 1973