Screens, Large and Small

Screens, Large and Small

Hollywood and the Cold War

In 1940 David O. Selznick made a picture of Daphne Du Maurier’s story, Rebecca. Alfred Hitchcock gave it masterly direction, which, coupled with beautiful performances by Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson, made it one of the important pictures of the year. Bette Davis added to her reputation as one of Hollywood’s best actresses with her performance in a screen version of W. Somerset Maugham’s play,

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Switching on to Television

At the opening of the twentieth century the decisive influence of the ragtime pianists fell on white audiences tiring of the minstrel show and willing to pay to hear black performers. At the same time the American band was being heard everywhere, promoted by John Philip Sousa, the most successful musician of his time, and testifying among other things to pugnacious nationalism. Both phenomena would modulate into dance bands playing vigorous dance music.

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TV Dramas and Variety Shows

On September 23, 1961, NBC introduced its new series, “Saturday Night at the Movies,” featuring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” This broadcast was an astounding success and pointed to Hollywood’s growing inclination to release its post-1948 movies to television. Seven more series representing all three networks and every night of the week appeared over the next five years.

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CinemaScope: Hollywood’s Response to Television

After the war the rate of change accelerated. Anti-trust suits broke up the large companies and forced them to sell their theaters. And television began to keep the public at home. The movie industry responded with attempts at expanding the medium to attract new interests: 3-D, CinemaScope, Technicolor; and it continues to experiment: quadraphonic sound, sensurround, holographic images, leaps in special effects have been tried.

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Cinema’s Heroes and Families

Western Import and its representative, M. Jacques Haik, launched the Keystone comedies with Mabel, Fatty, and Charlie in Europe in 1915; other comedies of theirs not distributed by this house were suppressed. In a very few months Chaplin had replaced Linder as king of comedy, and cinemas had to book A Night at the Show weeks ahead. Western Import was even compelled to place photographs of Mabel and Charlie on sale so as to make their appearance widely familiar and to discourage imitators.

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Drive-in Cinemas

Inside the cars parents and children settle in their seats, munching hot dogs. Love-struck teenagers snuggle up; the air fills with the glow of fireflies and smell of buttered popcorn. The lights of the tiny town of Centre, a mile away, are too dim to penetrate this enchanted scene. The movie begins. It could be 1953.

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Film Outside Hollywood

Each big producing firm in Italy had its own company of actors under annual contract. Actors like Emilio Ghione (who was a director as well as an actor, and has written a brief essay on the Italian film), actresses like Maria Jacobini, Gianna TerribiliGonzales of the unforgettable name, and the pre-eminent star Francesca Bertini, directors like Gabriellino d’Annunzio, Negroni, Righelli and Guazzoni all made up a picturesque and lively group.

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Marilyn, The Dream Woman

In stressing the importance of sexuality in Marilyn Monroe’s image, it might seem that I am just another commentator doing to Monroe what was done to her throughout her life, treating her solely in terms of sex. Perhaps that is a danger, but I hope that I am not just reproducing this attitude toward Monroe but also trying to understand it and historicize it.

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Marilyn, The Dream Woman

Marilyn, The Dream Woman

Stars are important to us because they act out aspects of life that matter to us, and though we may tend to think of the things that matter to us as immutable and enduring, they are nonetheless only ever encountered in a culturally and historically specific context.

The fifties hardly invented sexuality as a talking pint, but it was a period characterized by a particular, widely disseminated, and intensely popularized discourse on sexuality. Monroe’s image, and Monroe herself to the extent that she identified herself with it, both expressed and were in turn overwhelmingly determined by that discourse. She was charismatic, a center of attraction, who seemed to embody what was taken to be a central feature of human existence at that time.

In stressing the importance of sexuality in Marilyn Monroe’s image, it might seem that I am just another commentator doing to Monroe what was done to her throughout her life, treating her solely in terms of sex. Perhaps that is a danger, but I hope that I am not just reproducing this attitude toward Monroe but also trying to understand it and historicize it.

Monroe may have been a wit, a subtle and profound actress, an intelligent and serious woman. I have no desire to dispute these qualities and it is important to recognize and recover them against the grain of her image. But my purpose is to understand the grain itself, and there can be no question that this is overwhelmingly and relentlessly constructed in terms of sexuality. Monroe’s sexuality is a message that ran all the way from what the media made of her in pin ups and movies to how her image became a reference point for sexuality in the coinage of everyday speech.

She started her career as a pin-up girl, and one can find no type of image more singlemindedly sexual than that. Pin-ups constituted a constant and vital aspect of her image right up to her death, and the pin-up style also indelibly marked other aspects of her image, such as her public appearances and promotions for her films. The roles she was given, the way she was filmed, and the reviews she got do little to counteract this emphasis.

She plays, from the beginning, “the girl,” defined solely by age, gender, and appealingness. In two films, she does not even have a name, Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948) and Love Happy (1950), and in three other films, her character has no biography beyond being “the blonde,” Dangerous Years (1948), The Fireball (1950), and Right Cross (1950). Even when any information about her character is supplied, it serves to reinforce the basic anonymity of the role. For instance, when her character has a job, it is a job that, while it may be genuinely useful, like that of a secretary, is traditionally (or cinematically) thought of as being a job where the woman is on show, there for the pleasure of men.

These jobs in Monroe’s early films are chorus girl in Ladies of the Chorus (1948) and Ticket to Tomahawk (1950); actress in All About Eve (1950) (the film emphasizes that the character has no talent); or secretary in Home Town Story (1951), As Young As You Feel (1951), and Monkey Business (1952). There is very little advance on these roles in her later career. She has no name in The Seven Year Itch (1955); even in the credits she is just “the Girl.” She is a chorus girl in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), and Let’s Make Love (1960), and she is a solo artiste of no great talent in River of No Return (1954), Bus Stop (1956), and Some Like It Hot (1959). She is a model (hardly an extension of the role repertoire) in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955), and a prostitute in O. Henry’s Full House (1952).

Thus even in her prestige roles, Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl, the social status of the person she plays remains the same. The tendency to treat her as nothing more than her gender reaches its peak with The Misfits (1961), where, instead of being the “girl” from the early films, she now becomes the “woman,” or perhaps just “Woman”—Roslyn has no biography, she is just “a divorcee”; the symbolic structure of the film relates her to nature, the antithesis of culture, career, society, history.

There is no question that Monroe did a lot with these roles, but it is nearly always against the grain of the way they were written, and the way they were filmed too. She is constantly knitted into the fabric of the film through point-of-view shots located in male characters—even in the later films, and virtually always in the earlier ones, she is set up an an object of the male sexual gaze. Frequently too she is placed within the frame of the camera in such a way as to stand out in silhouette, a side-on tits and arse positioning found equally in the early Monkey Business and As Young As You Feel and the prestige production, The Prince and the Showgirl.

It is not surprising that Monroe became virtually a household word for sex. What is equally clear is that sex was seen as perhaps the most important thing in fifties America. Certain publishing events suggest this—the two Kinsey reports (on men in 1948; on women in 1953), the first issues of Confidential in 1951 and Playboy in 1953, both to gain very rapidly in circulation; best-selling novels such as From Here to Eternity (1951), A House Is Not a Home (1953), Not As a Stranger (1955), Peyton Place (1956), Strangers When We Meet (1953), A Summer Place (1958), The Chapman Report (1960), Return to Peyton Place (1961), not to mention the thrillers of Mickey Spillane.

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Film Outside Hollywood

Film Outside Hollywood: Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of DollarsFilm Outside Hollywood: Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars

Each big producing firm in Italy had its own company of actors under annual contract. Actors like Emilio Ghione (who was a director as well as an actor, and has written a brief essay on the Italian film), actresses like Maria Jacobini, Gianna TerribiliGonzales of the unforgettable name, and the pre-eminent star Francesca Bertini, directors like Gabriellino d’Annunzio, Negroni, Righelli and Guazzoni all made up a picturesque and lively group. There were also Augusto Genina and Carmine Gallone, who were later to direct some fairly good films in France.

Ghione’s films, such as The Masked Amazon and particularly the series called Za-la-Mort, as well as those of Negroni and of Pasquali ( Gipsy Love, Between Men and Beasts, etc.), all exhibited the same emphatic style, the same rather touching naïveté, the same overabundance of gestures and declamatory motions. The worst faults of the American film were already apparent here, and on an even larger scale. Film stars in Turin and Rome were far more pretentious and exigent than they have ever been in Hollywood.

Francesca Bertini, Hesperia and Pina Menicelli all created tremendous scenes with their producers and their directors, threatened to stop work unless they were given immense contracts, came late or not at all to rehearsals and engaged in bitter feuds with one another. Francesca Bertini insisted on making a Camille because Hesperia had just made one.

Each of these ladies was backed by a lawyer, Bertini by Barattolo and Hesperia by Mecheri, both of them millionaires who engaged in a mutual contest of “bigger and better” films and financial coups, to the lasting injury of the Italian film. Actors too, in emulation of the actresses, all became extremely temperamental, insisted on being given contracts and thought up fresh ways of being difficult. Febo Mari, while making Attila, refused to wear a beard, whereupon Alberto Capozzi, appearing in St. Paul, declared that he saw no reason why he should sport so ridiculous an appendage and insisted on being clean-shaven too. This war of the beards was typical.

Italy and Sweden, in particular, developed a notion of “national cinema” reflecting specific cultural traits in a mode in which they could be successfully exported. In France, Japan and Eastem Europe a similar process was under way, but in these countries the economic viability of “national” production was less dependent on the export trade.

Japanese films were hardly seen abroad until 1951, when Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The distribution of Eastem films in Arnerica and Europe did not necessarily mean . that they were fully understood by Westem critics and audiences.

The few Japanese fiIms that did reaeh Westem screens, such as those of Kurosawa, were often those that could be most easily incorporated into European traditions of filmrnaking.

The Seven Samurai becarne The Magnificent Seven, and another of Kurosawa’s samurai films, Yojimbo (1961), was the basis for .the first spaghetti Westem, A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone in 1964.

Next Page: Marilyn Monroe, The Dream Woman

Drive-in Cinemas

Drive-in Cinemas

While many movie theaters in small American towns closed in the 1950s, an equal number of a new kind of theater, which recognized the supremacy of the automobile in American life, opened up.

In the 1920s concerned parents had been anxious about the effects of automobiles and movies on their children’s morals; their grandchildren could now combine these menaces to their moral welfare at the drive-in.

The first drive-in movie theater opened in 1933, but they mushroomed in the decade after World War II. By 1956 there were 4,200 drive-ins, earning nearly a quarter of total box-office receipts. They were promoted as “the answer to the family’s night out”; a way for married couples to avoid the expense of baby-sitters, but their real attraction was to the youth market, where teenagers could escape parental supervision.

The drive-in market encouraged a new kind of filmmaking, pioneered by Columbia producer Sam Katzman and American International Pictures (AlP). Discarding conventional formulas such as the Western, they geared their films solely for the teenage market, hooking a story on to any gimmick they could think of.

The success of Rock Around the Clock in 1956, and the cycle of rock ‘n’ roll movies that followed made it clear that “teenpics” could reap huge profits even. If they pointedly excluded an older audience. These mainstream productions spawned imitations, such as Teenage Crime Wave (1955) and Hot Rod Rumble (1957). The other major “teenpic” genre was the horror film: low-budget “exploitation” movies (so-called because their ‘publicity budgets were higher than their production costs), with titles like I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) were pumped out to provide the material for the double and triple-bills at the drive-ins.

Teenagers liked double-bills for the simple reason that they lasted longer – especially when offered on “midnite matinees”. Few of these movies shared classical Hollywood’s concern with tightly constructed narrative. Instead, their emphasis on spectacle implicitly recognized that the audience might have other things to do than just watch the film. By 1960 the established industry had learnt at least some of the lessons of exploitation producers, and were successfully producing material for the teenage market.

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Cinema’s Heroes and Families

Cinema's Heroes and Families

Western Import and its representative, M. Jacques Haik, launched the Keystone comedies with Mabel, Fatty, and Charlie in Europe in 1915; other comedies of theirs not distributed by this house were suppressed. In a very few months Chaplin had replaced Linder as king of comedy, and cinemas had to book A Night at the Show weeks ahead. Western Import was even compelled to place photographs of Mabel and Charlie on sale so as to make their appearance widely familiar and to discourage imitators.

For there were imitators galore. The firm of Bonaz had brought over the films of Billie Ritchie, who wore the same mustache, the same pants, the same hat as Chaplin’s, and carefully copied his movements. He shared Chaplin’s success for several months. There were other doubles, not to mention Lloyd, who also sported the little mustache. There was a Jack and, after the war, even a Charley; then this Charley and Billie Ritchie went to law, accusing each other of plagiarism. Both of them lost. All of this merely added to the fabulous prestige of Chaplin.

Naturally enough, so great a success as his was bound to annoy some of the producers. In 1916 there was quite a lot of feeling against American importations in the film world. Le Cinéma published an article signed by Jean Yvel which violently attacked Chaplin. His Tillie’s Punctured Romance had just appeared, an insane comedy with Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand. “His art, if we may call it so without profaning the word, is more simian than human.. Charlot is not a comedian, he is a twopennyha’penny jumping jack.” After calling on the sacred names of la belle France and of education, this writer concluded: “What a far cry is this from the artistry displayed by Prince in the Rigadin films!”

Cinema's Heroes and Families

The cinema’s heroes and families were much less secure than television’s. Westems and epics alike defined the hero as someone to whom violence is done; loser, martyr or victim, the liberal hero was passive, defensive, unwilling or unable to take the initiative himself.

There was an inescapable taint of masochism in the inevitability with which James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, even Gary Cooper, were deliberately maimed and humiliated. Heston seldom survived an epic without being stripped and mutilated at least once.

Younger male stars, trained in the neurotic mannerisms of the Method school of acting, took the performance of physical and emotional vulnerability even further. What often seemed to be being celebrated was their capacity to soak up punishment, and no-one responded better to this treatment than the sulky and indecipherable Marlon Brando, whose mumbling was always most justified after a beating. Even John Wayne, the great icon of conservative male stability, did not escape without having repression and neurosis attached to his character in John Ford’s The Searchers.

The movie going public first saw James Dean on the screen in East of Eden with Julie Harris. In this film, Jimmy was an overnight sensation. For his performance in East of Eden, he was nominated for an Academy Award. he received the first Audience Poll Award for Best Actor in 1955. Fame and fortune seemed his. In his second film, Rebel Without a Cause, he was supported by co-stars, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.

Jimmy had looks, appeal, talent, a serious attitude toward his profession and a keen desire to become a director. His friends and co-workers felt his sensitivity and talent. Rugged sports were a necessity in his life. Often at Warner Brothers Studio, he would spar with an athletic coach. His first purchase in Hollywood was a beautiful Palomino horse, next a motorcycle and finally his $7000 German made sports car, a Porsche Spyder 550.

During the filming of Giant with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, the studio forbade him to engage in any kind of racing. The day after the film was completed, Jimmy was happily preparing for one of the year’s most important and exciting sports car events. He left Los Angeles headed for the race in his Porsche-suddenly at the intersection of Routes 46 and 41 near Cholame, a car appeared-a collision and death came instantly to Dean, age 24, on September 30, 1955. Jimmy was brought back to Fairmount and laid to rest in the Winslow family plot in Park Cemetery, Fairmount, a short distance from the farm on which he grew up. Funeral services were held at the Fairmount Friends Church on October 8, 1955.

The gratification of the mammary fixations of American males, which was represented by Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, rarely passed without some barb directed at the childish fatuity of the version of male desire they embodied.

The success of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, premised on the inexpIicable, intolerable disruption of bourgeois normality which plunged its leading characters into an absurd chasm of madness, guilt and adventure, impIied an audience excessively interested in exploring its anxieties. The hero of North By Northwest (1959), played by Cary Grant, is an advertising executive called Roger O. Thomhill.

The O., he explained, “stands for nothing”, suggesting a hollowness at the centre of American materialist culture which permitted the abyss to open. Hitchcock’s next film, Psycho, toyed obscenely with even more intimate terrors, of murder in Mother’ s bedroom and compulsive behavior in the toilet.

The export market was becoming increasingly important for Hollywood, and its operations were aided by the State Department, which had long recognized the usefulness of movies as advertisements for the American way of life. But the harder motive, as ever, was economic. With the decline in American revenues after 1946 and the sharp rise in production costs, foreign sales became increasingly important. By 1955 the stability of the international market was as vital to the major distributors as the stability of the home market had been in the 1930s.

Expanding foreign interests was less difficult than finding ways of maintaining home audiences. The industry’s failure to resist the encroachments of television in part provoked, and was in part permitted by, the exploitation of an undeveloped market elsewhere. However much the masses stayed at home, film was now definitely mass entertainment, and was increasingly designed for an internationally undifferentiated audience.

Next Page: Drive-in Cinemas