Anna Massey, ‘Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture’ (Oxford: Berg, 2000)

Anna Massey’s book takes a very different approach to that of Mary Ann Doane, although there is some overlap in their concern with how women engaged with the content of movies during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than using psychoanalytic theory as her starting point, Massey focuses on ‘edifices and artefacts…object-based material culture’ in order to explore the impact of American movies on British popular culture and design style. Her scope is far ranging, tracing the relationship between films and design by looking at the architecture of shops, cinemas and factories, interior room design, fashion, cigarette brands, advertisements, beauty products and family photographs. Unlike Doane’s work – which she cites – her writing is firmly rooted in real personal experiences, as is brought to life vividly by the inclusion of photographs of her mother and grandmother, with their own anecdotes about how their lives were affected by Hollywood movies.In her introduction to this book, entitled ‘Reclaiming the Personal and the Popular’, Anna Massey argues for the importance of embracing two strands that are often neglected in academic writing: a deliberate choice, spurred by the realisation that in much academic literature ‘affirmation of my own history and experience seems to be missing.’ (p.4)

 Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian in Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) 

Using evidence drawn from these diverse sources and family anecdotes, Massey demonstrates the extent to which British popular and material culture was influenced at all levels by American style, as mediated through Hollywood, noting also how British intellectuals and establishment figures were determined to resist this Americanization which they associated with loose morals and subversive social mobility. There are four chapters, divided into rough chronological periods. The first of these, The Jazz Age, discusses developments between 1918 and 1929 when Hollywood eclipsed Paris in terms of influence on design, leading consumers in Britain to start looking towards America for the lead in matters of taste and style. A large chunk of this section looks at the films Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) and its sequel Our Modern Maidens (Conway, 1929) which propelled Joan Crawford to leading lady status and showcased Cedric Gibbons stunning art deco sets as well as Adrian’s daring costumes – which are discussed at length by Caroline Young’s book. Great concern was felt, both in America and Britain, about the dangers of young women trying to copy the behaviour exhibited in these films, and Massey quotes from women’s personal accounts of how they adopted the short skirts and flapper hairstyles worn on screen. A more specific expression of British resistance to Hollywood’s encroachment was the Cinematograph Film Act of 1927, although as the author makes clear, most of these attempts to hold back the American tide soon gave way in the face of popular and commercial demand – indicative of the tensions between elitist distaste for American culture and its mass popularity.  In Chapter Two, Bright Style in Dark Days, – the largest section of the book – the author traces how art deco evolved into the more streamlined art moderne style and the impact this had on British culture during the early 1930s, particularly in the form of architectural design in the south of England. Films discussed include Grand Hotel (Goulding, 1932,) Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933) and Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935).

Joan Crawford’s home in Our Dancing Daughters

The third chapter on Cold War Cultures covers the period during and just after the Second World War, including the impact of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ fashion line launched in 1947, and postwar British resistance to American influence in the shape of British design fairs and the moral concern over the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, recalling how the film Rock Around the Clock (Sears, 1956) was banned by councils in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Belfast. She discusses Bette Davis in Now Voyager, the ‘Americanized left-bank glamour of Hepburn’ (p.160), Hollywood actresses’ endorsement of beauty products and the short-lived British magazine Film and Fashion. A concluding section,  Post-modern glamour. A postscript, brings in some of the author’s own personal experiences of relating filmgoing to choices in dress and cultural attitudes, noting how the 1970s saw a revival of 1930s fashion, for instance through Mia Farrow’s stylish outfits in The Great Gatsby (Clayton, 1974).

The book should encourage readers to think more broadly about the cultural significance of classic films and the complex intersections that occur between the movies, avant-garde design, high fashion, popular culture and mass market commodities. The diverse and nuanced interplay between personal, popular, architectural and cinematic topics makes for a stimulating read, but it does create some problems for the author in trying to impose some order on the material and draw the various strands of her analysis together into a strong conclusion.

This will be the final post for the #ClassicFilmReading summer challenge this year, and for anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend you check out the Out of the Past website for other reviews in the challenge as well as a wealth of material on all aspects of classic cinema

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Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987)

The existence of the genre of the ‘woman’s film’ is a challenging one for feminist critics such as Doane, for while these films portray women in stereotypical feminised roles – mothers, lovers, hysterics, invalids or victims – they were hugely popular with female cinema-goers, who evidently enjoyed the films and identified (in some way) with the onscreen depictions of women’s experience. As a feminist, theoretical critic and psychoanalyst, Doane seeks to explain the anxieties underpinning these films and the ways in which filmmakers tried to get audiences to identify with the psychological behaviour of the screen characters.

 ‘‘before she dies she becomes pure gaze’ (p.122)

Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy, 1940)

Inevitably she is building on Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ which was published in Screen journal in 1975. (It was later revised for Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) pp. 833-44, which would provide a good background read for anyone approaching this topic.) Mulvey coined the term ‘male gaze’ to discuss the concept of ‘scopophilia’, the pleasure taken in gazing at the passive female as an object – a notion she pursued using the language of voyeurism and fetishization. These are also terms employed throughout Doane’s book, for even though the idea of the women’s film might suggest a ‘female gaze’ – women in the audience watching women on screen – it is important to grasp that Mulvey’s male gaze had three perspectives – that of the filmmaker, the screen character and the viewer – and was never intended to suggest binary distinctions between biological gender. As Doane makes clear, most of these ‘women’s films’ were made by men and reflect typically masculine anxieties about female agency during the wartime period; the way in which women were portrayed onscreen – she argues – was in keeping with a particular agenda that sought to increase female identification with passivity, suffering and neurosis.

Cat People Cats In Film Cinema Women And

‘the compatibility and substitutability of feline and female’ (p.51)

Simone Simon in Cat People (Lewton, 1942)

By choosing to focus on woman’s films in the 1940s Doane lines up a marvellous array of classics movies with some of the era’s greatest actresses. We have Bette Davis in The Letter (Wyler, 1940) and Beyond the Forest (Vidor, 1949), Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945), The Locket (Brahm, 1946), Humoresque (Negulesco, 1946) and Possessed (Bernhardt, 1947),Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (Leisen, 1946), Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) and so on. Several of Max Ophuls’ films, including Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Deception (also 1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949) are included, as is Gaslight (the Cukor 1944 adaptation, rather than the Walbrook one, alas) Secret Beyond the Door (Lang, 1947), Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941) and many, many others – including Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1946) just to prove the Forties weren’t entirely monochrome. So what does the author have to say about these films?

‘her daydream of happiness turns into a nightmare when she is unable to say “I do”‘ (p.148)

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak, 1946)

At times, frankly, what the author wishes to say is not immediately clear, which is (sadly) perhaps what one should expect from a psychoanalytical theorist. Viewers who have watched these films many times and learned to relish Ophuls’ gorgeous cinematography, appreciate Tourneur’s masterly use of sound – or thrill to the soaring beauty of the music scores composed by Waxman for Rebecca or Newman for Leave Her to Heaven – may well feel disappointed by the downright ugliness of sentences such as ‘It is as though the historical threat of a potential feminization of the spectatorial position required an elaborate work of generic containment olation’ (p.2) that form much of the prose here. This is a shame, as the author has a great deal of perceptions observations to make, and readers who manage to persevere with the difficult language may find the author’s insights valuable in reshaping  attitudes towards this ‘golden age’ of movies.

For Doane, popular terms for women’s films such as ‘weepies’ and ‘tearjerkers’ indicate the narcissistic nature of female spectatorship and its over-identification with the emotional states portrayed onscreen. In most of these movies, women are only allowed to feel a passive form of sexual desire, and those who express – or worse still, act upon – an active desire are generally punished.  The author makes a forceful argument not only about the extent to which these films rely upon, and exploit, a range of psychical conditions associated with stereotypical femininity, but also the ways in which the actual visual imagery of these films and its effects are deployed in enforcing these constructs, and just how deeply these symbols are ingrained within the subconscious of both the watchers and the watched.

Related image

‘the victim of desires which exceed her social status’ (p.75)

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) 

One trouble with the author’s emphasis on conceptual theorizing is that it seems to treat both the women in the cinema audience and those on the screen as ciphers of ideological concepts rather than real human beings. To me, the language of this sort of critical discourse is so far removed from everyday experience that it comes across almost as dehumanizing – achieving precisely the opposite effect of that intended by the author. Those seeking to learn more about women’s experience of cinema-going around this time might find Lisa Stead’s Off to the Pictures: Women’s Writing, Cinemagoing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2016) far more engaging and convincing, because it is so deeply rooted in real voices and material ephemera.

This is the penultimate post in this summer’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge

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Stefan Sharff, ‘The Art of Looking in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”‘ (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997)

Sharff (1919-2003) was born in Poland, moving in 1939 to Moscow where he joined the Film School before being apprenticed to the director Sergei Eisenstein in Kazakshtan. He later moved to America where he worked as film-maker for the UN, continuing to make documentaries while teaching film at Columbia University.  Here he wrote Elements of Cinema (Columbia University Press, 1982) and Alfred Hitchcock’s High Vernacular. Theory and Practice (Columbia University Press, 1991) which includes a shot by shot analysis of Notorious (1946), Family Plot (1976) and Frenzy (1972). This work has clearly laid the ground for The Art of Looking, in which Sharff devotes his attention exclusively to Rear Window with the aim of demonstrating that ‘cinema art can be depicted as a work composed, not unlike an orchestral piece of a large painting.’ He does so over five chapters, beginning an introduction ‘The Art of Seeing, the Art of Looking’, followed by Chapter 2’s ‘Rear Window’ which provides a synopsis of the story, an outline of Hitchcock’s approach to the film and the techniques he uses in Chapter 3’s ‘Bricks and Mortar’ (pp.22-101) followed by the heart of the book, Chapter 4. Shot by Shot, with Timing and Dialogue (pp.104-78) which provides a formal and technical scheme of the entire film, with an exhaustive description of all 796 shots in the film. Chapter 5 winds up with some ‘Concluding Remarks.’

                                               James Stewart and Grace Kelly in a scene from Rear Window 

One of the interesting things to me about Sharff’s book is his argument that Rear Window ‘promotes the primacy of visual information and the merits of silent film’ (p.8). As he observes, almost 35% of the film is silent, without dialogue, and this is in keeping with a generally disparaging attitude towards dialogue in Hitchcock’s film and his desire to use visual language as the primary means of communicating plot and character. As Hitchcock remarked to Truffaut during their conversations in 1962, ‘dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms’ (Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. p.222.) This rather disparaging attitude towards film dialogue indicates that he regarded the real language of cinema as being primarily visual, and this underpins Sharff’s desire to reveal to readers the meticulous care with which Hitchcock crafted his visual imagery, presenting a shot-by-shot analysis that offers valuable insights into how Rear Window has been composed and edited.

Boris Rautenberg’s painstaking panoramic rendering of James Stewart’s view of his courtyard reiterates Sharff’s point  – there’s a lot going on in this film.

Although the book is obviously a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the formal elements within the film, Sharff makes the case that Rear Window is really a form of metafiction, holding up a mirror to its viewers to challenge them about the whole process of cinema-going and the nature of looking, gazing, seeing what others see, what it means to watch and to be watched. While this is a concept that could be debated at length, perhaps the the most important thing one gains from reading The Art of Looking is a realisation of the masterful skill with which the film is constructed. Sharff’s comparisons of Hitchcock to an architect as well as a composer are well-founded, and his exhaustive frame-by-frame analysis drives home the extent to which the director crafted every single shot. It should be noted too that this was the first book to publish the entire script of the film, including all the dialogue.

Given that the book came out in the same year that commercial DVDs were launched, it is almost certain that Sharff watched Rear Window on VHS or 16mm, which means that this process of putting this book together must have been a painstaking – not to say tedious – matter. It also means that the quality of the still images reproduced here leaves much to be desired by today’s standards. However, the solution to this is obvious – go and watch the film again, which is no doubt what the author would like readers to do once they’ve read the book. Is that not what #ClassicFilmReading is all about?

 

This was another entry in the #ClassicFilmReading series for 2018

 

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Harry Harrison, The Technicolor Time Machine (London: New English Library, 1970)

At first sight The Technicolor Time Machine might seem an odd choice for a classic film reading. After all, author Harry Harrison (1925-2012) was a doyen of the science-fiction community, beginning his career as an illustrator for the EC Comics titles Weird Fantasy and Weird Science before going on to write and edit numerous science-fiction stories, novels and anthologies. This book first appeared as a three-part serialised story in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (March–May 1967 issues) as ‘The Time Machined Saga’.

The original magazines in which the story first appeared, along with artwork by John Schoenherr

While there’s no denying its credentials as a piece of science-fiction, The Technicolor Time Machine can also be read as a satire of the film industry during Hollywood’s Golden Era, and indeed it was those elements of the book that I found most enjoyable.

At this point a quick recap of the plot would probably be in order. The story begins at the offices of Climactic Studios, where hack director Barney Hendrickson and corrupt studio owner L. M. Greenspan are facing financial ruin within a matter of days.

Only a miracle can save the studio, and this miracle comes in the person of eccentric scientist Professor Hewett, who claims to have built a time machine – the vremeatron – that would enable Hendrickson to go back in time and make a historical movie without the need to pay for any set construction or extras. This is the essential ‘gimmick’ of the novel, but as the story progresses, the notion of time travel is exploited more and more as a strategy for smoothing out difficulties in the film’s production.

In the first instance of this, to buy them some time, the Chinese-American scriptwriter Charley Chang is sent back to the Precambrian Era where he works away on a remote island in solitude for a month, returning to the present day with a script entitled Viking Columbus about the founding of the Viking settlement of Vinland in North America. Having obtained a script, cast and crew travel back to the Orkney Islands ca.1003 AD where they hire a real-life Viking – and larger than life character – named Ottar to be their guide and Norse interpreter. Ottar eventually takes over the leading role when Hendrickson’s vain star actor, Ruf Hawk, injures himself during filming – a replacement that has unexpected consequences for the leading lady, the voluptuous Slithey Tove.

Slithey Tove as imagined by artist Bruce Pennington on the front cover of my copy of the novel

As befits a story originally published in a science-fiction magazine, there are some serious efforts to get to grips with the complex mechanisms of time travel, but these are not pursued for their own sake – rather, they form an important part of the plot as Hendrickson struggles to meet the deadlines and needs to find ever-more desperate ways to save time.

Issues about the saving, passing and good use of time are at the heart of the story, which gives the author ample scope to lampoon Hollywood’s attitude toward the past. Jokes are made not only about Hollywood’s disregard for historical accuracy, but also the general illiteracy in matters of history and culture: ‘Eric the Red? You want us to get blacklisted with a commie picture’? Filmmakers are portrayed as mercenary individuals, churning out films with titles such as The Creature’s Son Marries the Thing’s Daughter, The Pfc. from Brooklyn and Teen-age Beatniks’ Hophead Rumble, which lie just on the borderline between absurdity and near-credibility. Despite the strongly satirical tone there are some nice little touches that make the cinematic setting of the story almost believable. The camera man Gino Cappo uses an 8mm Bolex camera to try out some angles, and later expresses his concerns about light exposure – ‘I should have loaded this up with Tri-X. It’s five in the afternoon’ – before offering his thoughts on the future of the movies. ‘You haven’t heard the last of Cinecitta yet, Mr Hendrickson, not by a long shot. The new realism came out of Italy after the war, then the kitchen-sink film that the British picked up. But you’ll see, Rome ain’t dead yet..’

As events in Vinland take a turn for the worse, death – in a very real sense –  threatens not only the Vikings but also the 1960s film crew. By the end of the book it becomes clear that – even if they succeed in eluding arrows, axes, spears or drowning – there will be serious consequences from their reckless time travel. As Professor Hewett explains, with the help of a handy diagram (in which A1-Z1 is the world time line, with A1 the past and Z1 the future, and A-Z is the timeline navigated by the film crew):

The film-makers must go back in time at B, arrive at C, stay till D and then return to E:  the graph must always read ‘B-E’, never ‘E-B’, otherwise K – ‘the interchange of energy point, where the scales of time are balanced’ – would not exist. Readers who are reminded of the prohibition in Ghostbusters  – ‘never cross the streams’ – will probably also recall the dire warnings in Back to the Future about what might happen if one meddles with the past. There will no spoilers here, and anyone wishing to find out what happens to Barney, Slithey and co. will have to read The Technicolor Time Machine to find out. Hollywood has been the setting for countless novels and the subject of many a satire, but combining these with a well-crafted science fiction tale provides a rare treat, even if the tone may at times be too whimsical for certain tastes. A BBC radio adaptation was broadcast in 1981 as part of the Saturday Night Theatre series, and there were rumours some twenty years ago that Mel Gibson had bought the film rights – although whether he is the best person to be at the helm of such a project is open to question. In the meantime, the clever concept of The Technicolor Time Machine has inspired a great number of book illustrators and the cover art for the myriad paperback editions are well worth exploring.

 

This post was written as part of the 2018 #classicfilmreading challenge.

 

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The true heart of Holly. Truman Capote, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964)

It is not unusual for classic film adaptations to eclipse their literary sources in popular culture, but even in the case of the most passionate book lovers, I doubt very much if anyone can hear the title Breakfast at Tiffany’s and NOT immediately think of Audrey Hepburn. So closely has the actress become associated with the character of Holly Golightly that it’s rather unsettling to realise that the author of the original short story, Truman Capote (1924-84), was not at all happy with the casting choice and thought she was altogether wrong for the role. Having seen the film many times, it seemed like a good idea this summer to pick up the book and read Capote’s short story again, doing my utmost to push Hepburn’s performance out my mind.  A vain attempt, I should add, and one that was certainly not helped by the fact that my paperback copy has an image of Hepburn on the cover.

Although originally intended for publication in Harper’s Bazaar, Truman’s 50,000-word novella first appeared in the November 1958 issue of Esquire magazine. It was first published by Penguin in 1961, the year that the film was released, and my copy is from a reprint in 1964.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator some years after Holly’s departure from the New York brownstone apartment block where they were neighbours during the 1940s. Her current whereabouts are unknown, and the catalyst for the story is the discovery in 1956 of a photograph of an African wood carving that bears a striking resemblance to Holly – a strange element of the tale that made me for a moment think about Heart of Darkness, as I imagined Holly Golightly being idolised by some remote tribe in the middle of the jungle. The photograph was taken by one of their old neighbours, Mr Yunioshi, whose portrayal in the film by Mickey Rooney is unforgettable, for all the wrong reasons.) Idol worship aside, although Holly often appears to delight in being the centre of attention, she is not the shallow, gold-digging socialite that this might suggest, and one of the fascinating traits of the novella is how it plays with the reader’s presumptions about how characters should behave. Yes, she is self-centred and infuriating in her lack of consideration for others, but we gradually learn more of the hardship of her early life in Texas, and there are glimpses of real emotional depth in her powerful reactions to the death of her brother.  She may be a party girl, but there is a great deal of pain in her life, most of it not of her own making. As the story unfolds, the reader learns more about how Lulamae Barnes of Tulip, Texas, became Holly Golightly, Travelling, of New York (and elsewhere) – a process that invites reflection upon the relationship between the past and the present: how much of Holly’s personality is an evolution of her experience as Lulamae and how much is a reaction against it?

This is the only book cover I’ve ever seen that depicts Holly as someone other than Audrey Hepburn. It is well known that Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part and actively campaigned for this.

There is a melancholy air to the novella, which is heightened by the sense of bittersweet nostalgia that comes from looking back on the events after thirteen years have passed. The happy ending that closes the film is entirely absent here, as are the clear-cut, clean-cut delineations of sexual identity and social convention. Holly makes it clear that such distinctions matter little to her, as she tells the narrator: ‘A person ought to be able to marry men or women or – listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it.’ The opening of the story suggests that all the men who gather to discuss Holly are still in love with her, each in their own way.

The precise nature of these loves is left undefined, with neither Capote nor his characters showing much inclination to pin their personalities and relationships down with hard-and-fast definitions or judgments. A great deal of their lives is messy and irresponsible, romances and trysts are multiple or overlapping, and their grasp on who they are, wish to be or pretend to be, remains elusive to themselves and the reader. It rings remarkably true as a reflection of what life is like (I feel) for most people, if they are truly honest.

There is much in the book to think about regarding truth and artifice, surface appearance and inner reality, so it is unsurprising to find many references to the film industry and to learn that Holly was at one point drawn to Hollywood: after running away from Texas she was picked up by movie agent O.J. Berman (the name surely recalls that of Pandro S. Berman of R.K.O.) who had her made over to be a film star, teaching her French to eliminate her Texan accent, and coaching her for an audition with Cecil B. DeMille before she ran away again, this time to New York. Like all the other men in Holly’s life, of course, he retains his affection for her and turns up at her parties. Among the many characters who weave in and out of her life, there is an aura of unreality created by their colourful names – Rusty Trawler, Sally Tomato, Sapphia Spanella – providing another reminder of names can act as a smokescreen behind which to conceal one’s true identity.

It is worth remembering that the film’s emphasis on Givenchy gowns, tortoiseshell Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses and Edith Head-designed outfits draws attention away from Holly and towards her external appearance, whereas the novella does the opposite: ‘there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and greys and lack of lustre that made her, herself, shine so.’ Many books have been written presenting Holly/Hepburn as a style icon, as if that was the real essence of the character, the lesson of the tale – but reading Capote’s story in fact reveals that if anything could be considered sacred to Holly herself, it is personal integrity – even if misplaced and contradictory: ‘Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.’ Readers might find few moral certitudes in Holly’s perspective on the world, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s offers much to reflect upon about how individuals are perceived and presented, and how much we can really know about a person (even ourselves). The lesson offered here chimes with an observation often made about the finest American prose, of which Capote is a prime example – that sometimes, less is more.

This is the second in a series of blogposts written as part of the #classicfilmreading challenge for 2018

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