Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton; drawing by David Levine

“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.

Wood seems to acknowledge the difficulty, though not perhaps enough. He understands that films are so many escapes, but he suggests that, to work, they must first remind us, however glancingly, of what we’re escaping from. So his first question would be rather, why this particular happy ending? why these difficulties? And here, as an Englishman who beat him off the boat by a few years, I may be able to help him in one respect at least.

Although at one point he mentions the Motion Picture Code (only to dismiss it rather too swiftly as basically what people wanted. How on earth does he know?), he doesn’t ever touch on that other great enforcer, the Catholic Legion of Decency. Perhaps out of delicacy, film historians have not really done justice to the power of this strange organization. Although a few young Catholics used its condemned list as a shopping guide, and learned a lot of French for their pains, most of them went along with their annual pledge to boycott not only these films but the houses that showed these films.

This was quite a hammer, and more than enough to flatten a mogul. By chance I once visited a studio in the company of a widely syndicated Catholic reviewer, and all hands groveled, as before Goldwyn. This man, a kindly fanatic, told me afterward that his favorite movie was The Father of the Bride, and that The Asphalt Jungle was a deadly poison.

So before we can talk of the flow of myth through film, we have to consider what was trying to stop that flow and why. For its part, the Church was making a last desperate power play (for which it is now paying dear) to keep its immigrant children in line. These in gross were better educated than their parents, had a bit of money for the first time, and some of them had actually seen Paree. In short they were ripe for secular temptation, with nothing to save them but the reflex of obedience, which was about to be worked to death.

The obvious medicine was domesticity in cloying spoonfuls. And since most of them knew what harsh medicine this can be in real life, it had to be sugar-coated beyond belief for popular consumption. Hence Donna Reed. But this myth was not rising from the public: it was landing on it. And the same goes for “problem” movies like Pinkie, which squarely confronted the trials of Negroes who look like white movie stars, and which seemed more like an Army training film than a reflection of anyone’s unconscious.

A Wood- or Deming-ite might answer that mythmaking simply went underground at this time to burrow into the middle of the film, the adversary part, and they would probably have a point. The cult of domesticity was so alien to the actual filmmakers that they may have put a little more vinegar into subverting it than even normal storytelling calls for. Perhaps.

Another difficulty that Wood wrestles to a draw is that of finding specifically American myths in movies aimed at, and gobbled up by, a world audience. He is quite right to suppose that “nice guys finish last” (as in The Gunfighter) is a typically American thought, but one might argue from dramaturgy alone that the Greeks had it first. Or, if not that, something else which made them typically American—a love and fear of success. (Using Wood’s methods one could conceivably prove that almost anybody is typically American.)

He is on firmer ground with the guilt of new wealth theme in films like Mildred Pierce, since Americans happened to have new wealth and nobody else did; and because in some sense it came out of Europe’s hide—though few Americans probably worried about this. But as with his myths in general, the truer and more painful they are, the fewer movies there are to support them. Naturally enough. If you can find the myth, it hasn’t been hidden properly, and if it’s been hidden properly you can’t find it for sure. Hence the pleasant circular sensation of reading his book.

But sometimes he strains too hard to justify his title: for instance in foisting the legend of the “obscurely motivated” and destructive woman on America. This after all the baffled French husbands we’ve seen gazing into the Seine is a bit hard to take. Wood’s trump card here is Rita Hayworth in Gilda, but he complains that her face denies what she’s doing, even as she lays waste to her men, and that her mind seems to be elsewhere, as well it might.

Let me suggest another theory, probably no better or worse than his: namely, that this European perennial strikes Americans as plain silly, and that they can’t do it with a straight face. I would even add for the sake of argument that owing to looser social arrangements, Americans get to know what the other sex is up to earlier than many Europeans, for whom the difficulty of mating outside or even inside one’s own class provides hordes of mystery women in all varieties. At any rate the type la belle dame sans merci is a small part of our canon and has a borrowed look about it. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity is more our kind of woman, and we know exactly what she is up to: the same thing we are.

Here I wish that Wood had opened his inquiry a little to take in a) foreign movies, and b) foreign audiences. Which of these myths rang bells in Europe and which clinked? The success of, say, Eddie Constantine in France suggests that the lonesome, alienated hero is even more doted upon there than here, not because of any frontier but because of the lack of one. It could be that the studio sages looking through their telescopes saw that Gary Cooper would be a marvelous export to the cooped up peoples of Europe—and of the Eastern seaboard, which looks the same at that distance. American myths be damned; the first spaghetti western was made in Hollywood.

All these quibbles (and one could raise a dozen more) are somehow anticipated and neutralized by the author’s manner, which is light and unassertive, like a good tailor trying things out on you. Perhaps this theory fits? Ah well. Pity. As sociology this has limited value, since we can only trust the bits we already know, but as entertainment it’s fine.

At one point, hopelessly stuck, Wood announces with Fields that he is off to milk his elk. You can’t get mad at an author like that: even when he says, apparently seriously, that Charlton Heston with arm aloft outside the Promised Land reminds him of the Statue of Liberty. Even his elk would draw the line at that one. (Presumably a European Moses would have kept his hands in his pockets.)

For the sake of a solid unified subject, the grasshopper mind of Wood has overloaded the myth of American exceptionalism: which I can only say is typically American of him.

To return to the actual Hollywood, where auteurs rubbed elbows with baby tycoons: Life Goes to the Movies is as good as an archaeological dig, though not always for the reasons intended. The same Richard Schickel gave this book a fulsome review in The New York Times Book Review even though he had worked for Life himself. I mention this not to pick on Schickel but because it sheds light on the whole publicity apparatus on which Hollywood thrived.

“This book is about a magazine’s love affair with an industry,” begins the text, meltingly. “From the start, Life and the movies were hooked by each other.” Which sounds like just the right word. And Schickel, being hooked by both, harks back to an era when even first-rate men took sycophancy for granted.

Life (whoever that is) still talks in the tones of that era and it’s a spooky re-creation worthy of the movies. Perhaps it’s in order for a magazine to gush over itself posthumously: but all this simpering from the tomb could have a distorting effect on cultural history. Because, for at least part of this period, Life’s coverage of Hollywood was almost as depressing as Hollywood itself. In a long section called “The Build-up,” we are shown how the magazine conspired to inflate talentless starlets into national figures—“with tongue firmly in cheek,” we’re now told.

That last touch is macabre. The picture of grown men sitting “with tongue firmly in cheek” as they transmitted this studio garbage makes the flesh creep. But for Life, looking back on itself and finding itself good, the whole seedy operation has been transformed into gorgeous “nuttiness,” “goofiness,” fun.

Finally on page 108, Life pulls itself sternly together and says, “Despite fun and games with starlets and despite the importance of a star’s performance, Life recognized that Hollywood’s essential ingredient was the film itself.” This was very acute of Life since they were the ones who had made the fuss about the starlets to begin with. But here as elsewhere, Life does itself a disservice by blurring the dates and making itself into a timeless continuum. It could be that the magazine improved as films did after the big studios collapsed, taking with them the whole publicity nexus. The photographers had always been good, because like studio technicians they had never had to speak.

The book immortalizes the earlier tone. “Life managed to maintain an affectionate and faintly awestruck attitude toward the famous toilers of the dream factories.” This is marvelous period pastiche, and it evokes the whole sickly relationship with movies better than any objective analysis could.

The Thirties, Forties were an era of mass-produced junk, and all the auteurs and editors with tongue in cheek cannot alter that much. It is edifying to note how often talent managed to find its way through the chinks, and no doubt instructive for TV writers to study this. But Life and the studios were partners in crime: among them, and all the lesser flacks, they were Hollywood, all we had, and the book conveys precisely what this Hollywood was. At the front are pages and pages of stars, then promo, then actual movies—and only later, as the magazine was approaching its own end, a few pages of directors. This Hollywood produced no masterpieces, so there is no need to look for masters.

Yet Hollywood always knew how to make movies, and sometimes this knowledge was enough. What the French auteurists were seeing in effect were silent movies, which contained the wisdom of the silent era, plus in a few cases more. After the first problems of mike placement were solved, the camera had begun to move again. And perhaps it took foreigners to notice that there was a technical continuity with the past which sound had only seemed to sever.

For a close look at what the silents knew, Walter Kerr’s book The Silent Clowns can hardly be praised too highly. Kerr has always been a trying figure for highbrows, partly because of his unnatural importance as daily play reviewer, but partly because he seemed too intelligent for those chronic celebrations of commercial theater with the whiz-bang phrases all ready to quote. His detail work was unparalleled: he could take a scene apart like a watchmaker. But later one felt, so what? It often seemed like too much labor over too little. Did that little scene where Ethel Merman glances away quickly really deserve a paragraph? Like the estimable Andrew Sarris, Kerr seemed to believe that by analyzing something excruciatingly you gave it worth.

Such a critic may be fine at good v. bad, but untrustworthy on important v. trivial. And Kerr had something else in common with the Sarrises: a belief in “theaterness,” which like “movieness” overrides other values. Thus, for him, ideas as such have no special virtue in a play unless they are also good theater: a perfectly OK position for a new movie critic, but by whim of fashion, a disaster for a play reviewer. Thus Kerr was accused of selling out to the well-made play, whose very efficiency delighted him, though this efficiency seems to have polished the life out of Broadway.

One thing that The Silent Clowns makes clear is that Kerr has not sold out to anything. He simply got his aesthetic from the same place as the auteurists—from the movies. When he sees a scene on the stage, he breaks down its movements physically, as if it were silent. Speech, one feels, may be an immensely useful adjunct to movement, can even in some sense be movement, but movement came first in his own awareness and speech remains its servant, its Jeeves. This presumably was why he gave up on talkies: because they reversed the order at first and movement almost died.

So it’s clear that silent comedies are his perfect subject since importance does not arise (these films are 100 percent unimportant, bless them) and technique is transcendent. It is the one subject that can worm a masterpiece out of him. And if The Silent Clowns isn’t quite that, it is only because it isn’t organized to be one. It reads more like a series of his best Sunday pieces stitched together, so that it lacks momentum, i.e., you can read it backward without missing much. Overall, the book is so dense with proposition and example that it’s like reviewing Euclid. The subject is comedy, but before we get to that, the possibilities of a flat screen and a camera have been explored, as if for the first time by a gifted child: or as they were by the first movie-makers.

Kerr concludes that, after the treasure chest had been ransacked, dramatic movies still needed speech to complete them, but comedy didn’t: for everything words could add to a joke, they took away more. Chaplin with his tormented ingenuity kept his silence into the talking era; Keaton and Lloyd were killed by sound, as surely as any dramatic actor with a bad voice; Fields survived, but he honored his silent lessons. Speech is still Jeeves to Fields’s action, even if Jeeves steals the show.

Kerr at his best can write about comedy with all the deadpan solemnity of Buster Keaton. He talks once of being “trapped into laughter” and that’s how it is with connoisseurs: the relish builds from within and erupts reluctantly. As Kerr gravely describes a sequence he causes the reader to do roughly the same: to hold the laugh until it explodes in multiple bursts. No one writes about comedy better than Kerr; Alex Comfort on the orgasm doesn’t come close.

His book also tells talking directors the absolute least they must know about silent techniques and about the groping evolution of screen comedy. If Peter Bogdanovich had read it with understanding, he could not have made one frame of his woebegone What’s UP, Doc? In short, it is criticism of a very high order indeed lavished on the purest of our popular art forms. Ironically, the words tend to crowd out the pictures, and the postage-stamp stills in the margins are too small to convey anything except information. But the fine larger ones confirm the point that actors then existed to our minds solely in action, and not as exhibits stuffed and mounted.

Which brings us back for a moment to Life Goes to the Movies. This is primarily a picture book, and probably only a pervert would read the whole text. The selection and layout are quite conventional, and perhaps so much the better. Because Hollywood and its magazine extensions, brimming over with the best talent of an era, never did quite as well as they could. And this book records precisely the size of corset Edmund Wilson’s two ogres, Hollywood and the Lucempire, allowed their minions to work in. One looks back on Walter Kerr’s world of the silent clowns with a longing.

This Issue

April 15, 1976