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…

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