The ABCs of Classic Hollywood
Speaking as an academic, it’s been a hard week: I gave and graded one hundred final exams. But speaking as a cinephile, it’s been a thrilling week. I revisited 4 films—Grand Hotel, The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, and Meet Me in St. Louis—and read Robert B. Ray’s The ABCs of Classic Hollywood, the best new film book I’ve encountered in a long while. This strikingly unusual book is devoted to detailed exploration of the four films.
Ray’s starting point is this quote from Vincente Minnelli: “I feel that a picture that stays with you is made up of a hundred or more hidden things. They’re things that the audience is not conscious of, but that accumulate.” Ray proposes a fascinating and unorthodox method for discovering these hidden things. For each film, he puts together a collection of ‘entries’, one or more for every letter of the alphabet. (It’s pure chance that this blog entry follows the one on Peter Wollen’s “Alphabet of Cinema”.)
Here are some examples of entries for Grand Hotel: A for Art Deco; B for the Blue Danube waltz, which plays throughout the film; C for the great Coffin scene, which seems parachuted in from some forgotten documentary; D for John Barrymore’s Dachschund, and for Doors; F for Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford); I for “I want to be alone”; O for overhead shots; U for underwear, etc.
The entries are eclectic and omnivorous, drawing from a wide variety of sources: Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, the two repeatedly invoked touchstones in this book—but done so in a lucid, pedagogically plainspoken way; Hollywood histories and biographies; Surrealism; philosophers like Wittgenstein and Cavell; la politique des auteurs, etc. Most interestingly, the work is pitched as “a movie primer,” aiming perhaps to build a bridge between academic thinking about cinema and the ‘lay’ film enthusiast interested in ideas.
Ray writes that the book began for him with a single image: after returning to her room from a failed ballet performance, Grusinskaya (Garbo) sits on the floor to remove her costume.
In the midst of Grand Hotel’s creaky melodrama and steamy overacting, this image—mysterious, beautiful, unmoored from any character’s perspective, narratively unnecessary—offers a challenge: what can we say that will do it justice? The movies, of course, are full of such moments, and the discipline of film studies arose, at least in part, to explain them. That task has proved more difficult than it once appeared: “[T]he movies are difficult to explain,” Christian Metz once admitted in his famous epigram, “because they are easy to understand.”
Ray performs neither a workmanlike New Criticism-style ‘close analysis’ nor a programmatic application of the ‘semiotic paradigm’—structuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism, ideological analysis, etc. (I’m not knocking either of these approaches, only saying that sometimes they can lend themselves to mechanical, cookie-cutter analyses that forget the power of surprise.)
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
One way to think about classical Hollywood filmmaking is to imagine a process occurring simultaneously on two axes. The x axis involves a movie’s forward momentum, its equivalent of melody […]—the enigmas and unfolding actions that keep the viewer wanting to see what happens next. In the studio system, producers, scriptwriters, directors, and editors had responsibility for this domain, the film’s story, regarded as its most decisive element. The y axis, on the other hand, resembles a melody’s particular harmony: every narrative moment must be inflected by choices of set design, costumes, casting, camera work and music. In general, the Hollywood studios reserved their highest rewards for the x axis: producers and directors, in other words, made more money than cameramen and costumers. The auteur critics would retroactively insist that directors had operated precisely at the two axes’ juncture; Hollywood production records, however, undermine that claim. With men like MGM’s W.S. “Woody” “One-Take” Van Dyke completing two features in nine days, and Warners’ Mervyn LeRoy, in Thomas Schatz’s words, “quite capable of cranking out six to eight pictures per year, on schedule and under budget,” while “averaging 5’30” of finished film a day,” directors often slighted the y axis in the pell-mell process of satisfying the studios’ quota of 50 features a year. In a conversation about Van Dyke, MGM producer J.J. Cohn once bestowed the studio system’s highest praise: “God, he was fast.”
Stars, of course, proved the exception to the x versus y rule. After producers, they commanded the highest salaries, perhaps because their work actually did involve both axes: Major stars became at once narrative axioms (Garbo-as-tragic-artist, Cagney-as-hoodlum) and a story line’s mise-en-scène (compare Grand Hotel to its remake, Week-end at the Waldorf: Garbo is not Ginger Rogers, John Barrymore is not Walter Pidgeon). Replacing a star could simultaneously disable a plot (John Wayne cannot play screwball comedy) and transform a film’s mood more decisively than any change in cinematographer, art director, or costumer.
It’s an indication of the freedom of movement of the book that the above excerpt is from a Grand Hotel entry called “Art Deco”. The work grew out of a 14-week course that intensely scrutinized the four films, and most of the entries are co-credited to specific students:
Far from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them. In fact, as I wrote this book, I found myself reluctant to move on when I had finished each chapter; each movie I had been studying seemed, in turn, the richest and most entertaining of the group. (Since I took them up in chronological order, Meet Me in St. Louis now seems to me the greatest movie of all time.)
Any recent (or even relatively recent) film books to recommend?
-- At Critical Culture, Pacze Moj has been watching and blogging about early Antonioni (esp. the shorts), accompanied by lots of framegrabs.
-- Dave Kehr in a post on Edward Dmytryk's The Sniper (1952): "Alfred Hitchcock was a voracious filmgoer, and like many great artists, a bit of a magpie. Consciously or unconsciously, he would file away shots and sequences that impressed him, and years later some of them would re-emerge, reshaped by Hitchcock’s genius and fully integrated into his personal universe."
-- Craig Keller posts YouTube interview/clips of "Four American Masters": Ferrara, Cassavetes, Welles and Jerry Lewis.
-- Thom Ryan at Film of the Year: "Reflections on Cinema after Viewing Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time."
-- Robert B. Ray is also a leader of the respected rock band, the Vulgar Boatmen.
pic: Garbo removing her costume in Grand Hotel.