Did Mary Pickford say putting sound into film “was like putting rouge on the Venus de Milo?”

Mary Pickford in her silent heyday. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

When sound was introduced to American cinema, the celebrated actor and film producer Mary Pickford was reported by the Los Angeles Times as saying it was like “putting rouge on the Venus de Milo.”[1] The quote appears to be a strong condemnation of new technology, and it has been linked to Pickford ever since. However, it seems unlikely that she ever said such a thing. Pickford was the most celebrated actor of the silent period and was commonly called “America’s sweetheart.” She was also a powerful force in Hollywood and her comments carried some weight.

If she did say it, Pickford was repeating word for word what director Albert Parker said in 1926 in an entirely different context. Parker was the director of the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle, The Black Pirate (1926). In a publicity interview for The New York Times Parker declared: “that to some persons the making of pictures in natural colors was like putting lip rouge on Venus de Milo.”[2] Parker was against such sentiments, pointing out that Fairbanks had immersed himself in the study of Technicolor processes. The article details the lengths that Fairbanks went to in ensuring that the color process worked and improved the film.

He spoke about the care taken with the new technology. “The color must never dominate the narrative. We have tried to get a sort of satin gloss on the scenes and have consistently avoided striving for prismatic effects. There is nothing violent. We realize that color is violent and for that reason we restrained it.”

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were married at the time of the interview, and it seems more than likely Pickford was fully aware of the comment. Her own quote in 1934 is confusing. Lipstick is usually a bright color, and it makes little sense to apply the allusion to sound. Mary Pickford was quoted while speaking as a guest of honor at the Association of Foreign Press Correspondents. A separate account that appeared in The New York Times did not record the quote. It has also not been possible to find another account from any of the journalists that attended.

Even so, Pickford did not fully endorse talking pictures. She said that she would be “bitterly disappointed if Charlie Chaplin speaks in his next picture.” As it happened, Chaplin did not speak Modern Times (1936). Pickford and Chaplin were part owners of United Artists, which distributed the film.

Pickford would not return to silent cinema. She did declare there would be a minimum of dialogue in her next film. She talked about the story underpinning the film. She believed that the story was the most important element. “I have never seen good acting save a poor story, but I have seen a good story save poor acting.” Overall, she believed that talking pictures were “tiring and provincial.” These pressures were “losing the world’s market.”

She may have reflected that sound meant that English language films were more problematic on the European continent. Audiences may have enjoyed seeing films in their own language. The European film industry had also recovered from the First World War by 1934. It wasn’t sound. It was simply a more competitive environment.

The reality was Pickford had embraced sound film for more than four years in 1934. Always the innovator, Pickford arranged for a sound stage to be built at her Pickfair studios. Her film Coquette (1929) was advertised as 100 percent talking. It was a box office success, and Pickford would win the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress for her performance.

One distinct possibility is that she quoted Albert Parker’s original comments in some part of her speech, perhaps when discussing the broader issue of change in the industry. The Associated Press reporter may have ascribed Parker’s words to Pickford in error. The short article was syndicated across America in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Daily Herald. Without access to her speech, it is impossible to say for certain, but it may have never been said.

The comment may have been originally made in connection to the Black Pirate (1926), about the use of technicolor. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.


[1] “Mary Pickford Sees Talkies as Lipstick on Milo,” Los Angeles Times March 18 1934.

[2] “Director Tells of Making Fairbanks’s New Prismatic Pirate Production,” The New York Times, March 7 1927.

Mean Moody and Magnificent: New biography of Jane Russell

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Mean… Moody… Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend by Christina Rice. University Press of Kentucky, 2021.

Jane Russell was one of Hollywood’s leading pre-Marilyn Monroe sex symbols in the 1940s and 1950s. Russell came to prominence in her first film, the notorious The Outlaw, which tested the censorship boundaries of the Production Code. She was presented as a sultry sex siren, yet Russell’s politics were conservative, and she was a passionate Christian. The tension between her onscreen persona and her strong spiritual values is an intriguing area for study.

Her biographer Christina Rice raises some interesting questions about the actor and singer in this book. Rice appears to be interested in women who closely associated with RKO head Howard Hughes. She has also written on another actor associated with Hughes in Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel.

The full review is available at

Brianton, Kevin. “Mean… Moody… Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend.” Film & History 52, no. 1 (2022): 67.

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/862223/pdf

Ayn Rand and the Motion Picture Alliance

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, University

During the Cold War, while the studios were beginning to bring out anti-communist films, the right began to look for other targets. Not content with driving communists out of Hollywood, the right turned its attention to films with liberal messages. Ayn Rand wrote a Screen Guide for Americans in 1947 for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals which said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man shouldn’t be smeared; that failure and the collective shouldn’t be glorified; and that communist writers, directors and producers shouldn’t be hired. The alliance did not see it as a ‘forced restriction’ on Motion Picture studios, rather that each man should do ‘his own thinking’ and for the guide to be adopted as a ‘voluntary action’. Rand wrote that the guide aimed to keep the screen free from any ‘collective force or pressure.’ The irony was that this was precisely what the alliance was doing.

The real point of Rand’s pamphlet was that only a conservative vision of America should be allowed on the screen. The alliance wanted the present wave of films that attacked or criticized capitalism halted. One of the alliance’s supporters, Cecil B. DeMille was making similar speeches:

The American people know that with all its faults capitalism has given them the highest standard of living and the greatest personal freedom known in the world. The communist cannot deny that. But they can – and do – make a banker or a successful businessman their villain. They can – and do – pick out the sordid and degraded parts of all of America, leaving the audience – especially the foreign audience – to infer that all America is a vast Tobacco Road and successful people are all ‘little foxes’.

The impact of the guide has been overstated. Rand later claimed her ‘Screen Guide for Americans’ was printed in full on the front page of The New York Times drama section.[1] The claim has then been repeated by historians such as Steven J. Whitfield and then in turn by Rand scholar Robert Mayhew.[2] In reality, only a short article appeared on the screen guide with a few sentences describing its contents on page 5 of the supplement.[3] The article only took up one-third of a regular column.

[1] Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor, USA, 1987, p. 203.

[2] Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996, p. 131. Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and Song of Russia: Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., 2005, p. 176.

[3] The New York Times, 16 November 1947

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by W.K. Stratton

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia


Stratton has written a highly entertaining account of the creation of the Wild Bunch. Beginning with the premise that it is the greatest film ever made, he is clearly besotted with the film. It would have been good to have some critical distance to give the book a bit more weight.

The film has its problems, particularly with the depiction of women, and Stratton is not equipped to deal with such issues. It rewrote how violence was depicted on the screen and reset the boundaries for westerns. A great film – yes. The greatest – well it does not stand up that well against the classic Ford or Mann westerns. At least he lays his cards on the table from the beginning.

Stratton is too fixated on colorful stories of drinking and carousing to really understand how such a shambles of production, became a great film. Still the account gives an insight into the creative chaos of Peckinpah. A director who lived in the space between genius and madness.

The highest compliment I can pay the book is that it made me watch the film again.

Legacies of Buster Keaton: Jackie Chan and Malcolm (1986)

Keaton wrestled with huge objects and performed amazing feats in his films.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton,

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In almost every Buster Keaton film, there is a scene where the audience gasps at the actor’s astonishing athleticism. It can be when Keaton wrestles with huge pieces of wood on his steam engine, The General or when a building collapses on him. In an era, well before CGI, Keaton does make that leap or have a house fall on him. Keaton’s career peaked in the 1920s but then declined with the introduction of sound. Interest in the comic actor rose from the 1940s but then declined from about 2000.[1] While Keaton’s career descended from the 1920s great matinée idol to cameos on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s, his legacy has lived on. His films are now considered some of the greatest of the period, and many would argue that they are the greatest of all.

The legacy of Keaton’s great directorial skills can be seen in two unrelated from different countries producing two vastly diverse films. Malcolm (1986) was an Australian comedy, written by the husband-and-wife team of David Parker and Nadia Tass, who directed the film. The film stars Colin Friels as Malcolm, a tram enthusiast who becomes involved with a pair of would-be bank robbers. The film has a lot of nods to silent cinema. But if there is one clear predecessor to Malcolm’s character, it is Buster Keaton in The General (1926). In this film, Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer, just before the civil war breaks out, who loves his locomotive called The General and a young woman. It is easy to speculate that the train probably comes first. Keaton’s character is devoted to the railway engine, just as Malcolm surrounds himself with trams and is devoted to their upkeep.

Colin Friels plays a character who is obsessed with trams and other vehicles in Malcolm (1986).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Keaton, who directed The General, Tass does use the overacted double-take employed by many other silent comedians. Keaton played it with his “stone face,” while Colin Friels employs a boyish smile in response to whatever is happening.[2] It is a similar space to Keaton, who shows little or no emotion. While he is ostracised by the Confederate Army, Keaton employs all sorts of inventiveness to defeat the Union forces who stole his train. Like Keaton, Malcolm is an outsider who triumphs. While the Keaton character loved trains, Malcolm is entranced with Melbourne’s trams. Through his ingenuity, he triumphs.

Consciously or unconsciously, the film also echoed some other characters of silent cinema. Despite their modern uniforms, the police are almost direct descendants of the Keystone Cops. This group of highly incompetent officers made shorts for Mark Sennett. Their only purpose was to chase the central characters, with their batons waving in the air, only to lose the chase, with various pratfalls and explosions. The police depicted in Malcolm hark back to the silent period of cinema.

Like Keaton, Chan does not use stuntman and he makes sure that audiences know it.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Tass, the police officers in Chan’s films are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns and are just useless. The martial arts actor Jackie Chan comes from a different cinematic tradition and has been in many films, but one film clearly shows his relationship with Keaton. Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was directed by Stanley Tong, with the stunts developed by Chan and Tong. Released in Hong Kong in 1995, Rumble in the Bronx had a successful worldwide run, and the film announced Jackie Chan’s arrival to United States audiences. As a result of this film and many others, Chan is now one of the most successful actors on the world stage.

Like Keaton, Chan does his own stunts, including a leap from one building to another. It is the type of stunt that Keaton did routinely. Chan did it without wires, and it is astonishing viewing. But it is again a link back to The General, with a climax involving a preposterous use of a hovercraft. Chan does a series of stunts around the hovercraft that are more than a nod to Keaton’s theatrics with a railway engine. Chan injured his foot so badly in this film; he required a moon boot for the rest of the film. Chan continued to work, even engaging in water-skiing without skis. Keaton’s similarities to Chan are obvious: he once broke his neck in a film and continued working.

Many critics have often equated Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who was Keaton’s central rival in the action-comedy – of course, Charlie Chaplin overshadowed both. Jackie Chan has even stated: “I wanted to be like a Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but all the martial arts directors I worked with wanted me to copy Bruce Lee,” he said. “So after I got famous, I started to change a lot of things. When I was filming ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ in the late 1970s, I sat down with the director and watched a Bruce Lee film. I decided, when Bruce Lee kicked high, I’d kick low. When Bruce Lee yowled, I’d punch doing a funny face like it hurt. Whatever Bruce Lee did, I’d do the opposite.”[3]

The conscious or unconscious tributes in Malcolm and Jackie Chan show that one of the cinema’s original masters still influences a new generation of directors. When we see Tom Cruise jump out of a building or any other action-adventure figures, we are looking at one of the descendants of Keaton and Lloyd, who opened the door for a whole branch of cinema.

A pebble dropped in a pond will create waves that ripple out forever. Keaton’s influence is still very much with us.


[1] Figures based on https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=buster+keaton&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&case_insensitive=true

[2] The film was dedicated to John Tassopoulos, Nadia Tass’s younger brother who died after being struck by a car. When interviewed by from The New York Times, Nadia Tass said the central character reflected her brother a great deal. “Basically, he was very similar to Malcolm, who was withdrawn, and socially inept. He had a very difficult time being accepted in society because of his inability to communicate verbally. However, he was a very clever person.” Lawrence Van Gelder,  “At The Movies,” New York Times, 18 July 1986.

[3] Strauss, Neil. “Faster than a Speeding Bullet, but also Humanly Fallible: [Biography].” New York Times, Jan 30, 1995, Late Edition (East Coast). http://ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/docview/429993898?accountid=12001.

The Screen is Red – book review

Bernard F. Dick, The Screen Is Red: Hollywood, Communism, and the Cold War, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 282 pp., illus. Hardcover: $65.

During the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities – or HUAC – investigations of Hollywood in 1947, chairman J. Parnell Thomas told journalists that he had a media bombshell. He would link the investigation of communism in the film industry to the leaking of atomic secrets to the Russians. Journalists were intrigued and showed up in droves to find it was a media stunt and Thomas had nothing. Hollywood, communism and nuclear fears proved to be an irresistible lure for journalists in the 1940s, and they remain a fascinating topic for film historians. The political cinema of this turbulent period and its impact is the focus of a new book by Bernard F. Dick, a prolific writer on the film industry. Professor Dick is a classical scholar who has produced critical accounts of the Hollywood Ten, as well as books on the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, along with directors Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz. His Anatomy of Film is a standard text. He has also written a history of America cinema in World War II, Second World War: The Star-Spangled Screen, which has been highly influential. His ambitious aim with The Screen is Red is to tell “the story of the culture that formed a generation’s political conscience, and fuelled its suspicion of technology capable of world annihilation, as science fiction films of the period imply.” [4]

Many commentators writing on similar terrain start with the pro-Russian ally films of the Second World War. Dick takes a longer perspective and his chapter on Hollywood’s various approaches to communism in the run-up to the Second World War is impressive. It is a pity that Dick did not step even farther back and look at the anti-communist cinema produced after the First World War when the United States had its first red scare. Bolshevism on Trial (1919) was one of many films of the period to show that Hollywood’s anti-communism was part of its political DNA.

During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. Dick captures the faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right. He concludes the section with an analysis of the more gentle anti-communist satires, Ninotchka (1939) and Comrade X (1940). In 1939, the Nazi-Soviet pact placed both left and right-wing assumptions under greater strain. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbour, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union. The seismic political and cinematic shifts of the period are covered well in The Screen is Red, particularly when it treats the films of the Second World War. In this section, Dick examines pro-Russian ally movies, including the infamous Mission to Moscow (1943), the closest film to Stalinist propaganda that Hollywood ever produced.

Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Another profound dislocation occurred in Hollywood as the Soviet Union moved from ally to bitter opponent following the war. Reacting to the sharp rise in Cold War tensions, and the 1947 HUAC investigations, Hollywood produced a series of anticommunist films of varying quality over the next few decades. Dick provides an impressive examination of the anticommunist cinema of the 1950s. Films such as I was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and Walk East on Beacon (1952) were part of this group. Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. My Son John is undoubtedly one of the more feverish films of the Red Scare period. The film’s production fell into a shambles with the death of lead actor Robert Walker, and an ending of sorts was created – with some unheralded assistance by Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. The remaining film is uncomfortable to watch; it contains one disturbing scene in which an angry father attacks his communist son for laughing at his conservative jingoism. Despite the contrived conclusion, Dick describes McCarey as a master of plot resolution. He argues that McCarey gave viewers an ending that was “dramatic and reflective,” [117] providing an accurate description of America in the early years of the Cold War. His respectful analysis is at odds with both contemporary reviewers and later critics, who see it as a mixture of hysterical anti-communism tinctured with a vague homophobia – along with some disturbing ideas about motherhood. Most reviewers slammed the film, aside from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, who praised some aspects of it; but even he had grave concerns about its political dogmatism. Dick rarely references contemporary media commentary and he fails to mention that My Son John also proved unpopular with audiences, along with other overtly anti-communist cinema.

Unlike most writers, Dick also covers the Korean War and its corresponding cinema. Again, he provides a solid summary of the films that centered on the engagement, concluding that Hollywood did not romanticize the conflict as it had done in the Second World War. Dick examines films such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), which present war as a thankless undertaking. Sometimes his selection of films is odd. He does not look at important films such as The Rack (1956) which offers many ideas about collaboration, brainwashing, informing, and the Korean War in general. Also absent is Strategic Air Command (1955), a box office success, which directly focuses on his central topic of nuclear annihilation in the post-Korean War period.

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is not examined in any great detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Where Dick is far more comprehensive is in the science fiction genre. The alien invasion and subversion films of the 1950s reveal many of the era’s fears about communism and nuclear war. Dick presents an extensive and energetic discussion of these films. However, in some cases, his analyses could be more thorough. For example, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) depicted the fight by a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) against aliens who can hijack a body when it falls asleep. The horror and suspicion gradually increase until, at the film’s conclusion, McCarthy’s character is (famously) shown running down a freeway yelling hysterically while being pursued by human-like aliens intent on stripping away his personality. Dick initially describes the film as containing a hidden anti-McCarthyite critique as well as dumbed-down communism but does not expand on these ideas. Critics remain sharply divided over whether the alien force represents McCarthyism, communism, or even suburban conformism. Dick presents his view with little evidence or consideration of these other possibilities and moves on to the next film. His only nod to audience reaction is to say that “politically astute audiences might have interpreted the film that way.” [74]

The focus on science fiction films also means that other genres receive little attention. Dick barely mentions westerns. Even High Noon (1952), considered one of the prominent anti-McCarthyite films of the era, is given only part of a paragraph. A more glaring omission is biblical epics. Dick remarks on The Robe (1953), but other films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) contain many ultra-conservative statements that refer indirectly to the strength of the monotheistic religions as a spiritual shield against the atheistic Soviet state. Contemporary media commentary on The Ten Commandments (1956) directly related it to both the Suez Crisis and the Russian invasion of Hungary. Dominating the box office, its ideas of American moral superiority over totalitarian regimes permeated or simply reflected political debate in the United States – indeed it still does.

At times, the book appears to be a loose collection of essays and ideas with an overly relaxed arrangement of thematic and chronological chapters. As the book draws to a close, the director Alfred Hitchcock and actor John Wayne are each allocated a chapter; both sit uncomfortably with the rest of the text. Despite these flaws, The Screen is Red offers an extensive survey of Hollywood from the 1930s through to the present, representing the nation’s central political obsessions of nuclear annihilation and communism. Professor Dick is excellent at describing the plots and contexts of his films, but he has his blind spots. Box office, contemporary film reviews, publicity campaigns, fan letters, and media commentary also play their part in how cinema contributes to shifting attitudes and there is little use of these sources. The Screen is Red is not an entirely successful book, but it is a valuable one.

Kevin Brianton, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Original citation at Brianton, Kevin Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2018, Vol.48(2), 64-67

Copyright Center for the Study of Film and History Winter 2018

Did Cecil B. DeMille have a foot fetish? Probably not.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Charles Higham in 1969 made the claim of DeMille’s foot fetishism in his discussion of Feet of Clay (1924). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

One of the persistent myths about Cecil B. DeMille was that he had a foot fetish.  DeMille Biographer Charles Higham in 1969 made the claim of DeMille’s foot fetism in his discussion of Feet of Clay (1924) where he wrote that there was ‘no doubt’ that DeMille’s obsession with feet drew him to the title.[1] This entry would create a claim of a foot fetishism which would be repeated by many people over the years, even though the evidence is against the idea. Film historian Robert Birchard in 2004 pointed out that Higham had no opportunity to watch Feet of Clay as the print was lost and the case for foot fetishism was weak. Moreover, Feet of Clay was about a man who lost his foot – hardly a sexual image at all, and the film was imposed on DeMille by the studio.[2] The fetish claim possibly came from DeMille’s niece Agnes who repeated it in a TV documentary about DeMille in 1982.[3] The evidence is pretty thin. DeMille told Photoplay magazine in 1930 that ‘pretty feet and trim ankles are something he always admired in a woman.’[4] Even so, it is doubtful that his niece Agnes DeMille understood the precise use of the term and she certainly had no detailed understanding of the intimate details of her uncle’s sex life. A foot fetishist enjoys sexual stimulation by the use of the feet. Liking the look of a woman’s feet and a foot fetish are quite different.  A ‘well turned ankle’ is an old fashioned phrase that DeMille might have used to describe an attractive women.

Writing in 2001, David Wallace discussed DeMille’s alleged foot fetish in some detail, saying that DeMille was enchanted with his wife Constance when he saw her feet walking up a stair case.[5] DeMille’s autobiography is the only available account of their romance and he did not mention his wife’s feet at all.[6] DeMille wrote that she was beautiful and had wit.

Paulette Goddard did appear barefoot in North West Mounted Police, but it is not a sexual image.

Other evidence was that Paulette Goddard was rumoured to have got her role in North West Mounted Police by showing her bare feet during an audition. The reality is probably more mundane. DeMille’s grand daughter Cecilia deMille Presley suggested that the possible reason for the rumour was that DeMille liked to see an actor’s feet if they were to appear barefoot on screen.[7] Her eventual role in the film does depict her barefoot, but it is a stretch to say it is a sexual image.

The final piece of threadbare evidence given by Wallace is that DeMille ‘probably’ suggested that people leave footprints in the concrete outside Grauman’s Theatre. No source is given for this weak claim. As weak as the evidence, the idea has permeated critical and biographical writing about DeMille. It is quite possible over the course of 40 years in film making to identify any number of bare foot scenes, but given DeMille directed more than 70 films, the evidence is just not there.

Originally published on kbrianton.com.

[1] Charles Higham, Cecil B. De Mille: A Biography of the Most Successful Film Maker of Them All, Scribner, New York, 1973, p. 129.

[2] Robert S. Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2004, p. 195.

[3] Barry Norman, The Film Greats, ISIS, Oxford, 1985, p. 186. Certainly

[4] Rosalind Shaffer, ‘I never choose beautiful women,’ Photoplay, Volume 38, No. 4, September 1930, pp. 30, 31, and 114.

[5] David Wallace, Lost Hollywood, St Martins Press, New York, 2001, p. x.

[6] DeMille, Autobiography, p. 45.

[7] Interview with Cecilia DeMille Presley, January 2008.

George Stevens Jr. and printing the legend:

Review of George Stevens Jr., My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington, Lexington: University of Kentucky 2022

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

According to Hollywood legend, in 1950, veteran ultraconservative director Cecil B. DeMille fought to oust Joseph Mankiewicz as head of the Screen Directors Guild over Mankiewicz’s unwillingness to impose a mandatory anti-communist loyalty oath for members. The dispute that split the guild came to climax at a meeting in October 1950, at the height of the blacklist’s reign of terror in Hollywood. After hours of contentious debate, George Stevens and then John Fordsupposedly stepped forward and condemned DeMille, leading to his fall from power.

In 2016, I wrote Hollywood Divided: The Screen Directors Guild Meeting and The Impact of the Blacklist, which disputed a great deal of the conventional wisdom about the meeting.[1]It built on the work of Robert Birchard that the story of the meeting was inaccurate and overstated. Most of the errors were derived from a series of inaccurate interviews by one of the participants, Joseph Mankiewicz. In Mankiewicz’s account, Ford is praised as the destroyer of DeMille with his famous speech that began: “My name is John Ford. I make westerns.” The myth has defined the reputations of Ford, DeMille, and Mankiewicz.

George Stevens Jr. used one of the Mankiewicz interviews for his excellent documentary on his father, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. The documentary has been influential, and many historians have repeated its claims and quoted from it. Mankiewicz praises George Stevens as a fine man who took on DeMille. The account accuses DeMille of misdeeds, yet most of the interview’s content is highly debatable. The errors became evident after a court stenographer’s transcript of the meeting surfaced, which demolished most of Mankiewicz’s claims.

George Stevens Jr. recently returned to his father’s role in his memoir My Place in the Sun, published by the University of Kentucky Press. The account provides an insight into recent American history. Overall, the book is an entertaining recollection of growing up in the shadow of a tremendous film director and looks at Stevens Jr.’s own fascinating life in film, politics, and media. George Stevens Jr. has had an intriguing life, and almost every page has something of interest.

Concerning the meeting, the book repeats a raft of simple errors and exaggerations that have created one of Hollywood’s most enduring legends. In this case, Stevens made a conscious decision to recite the popular version. He writes: ‘Mankiewicz’s heroic story about John Ford has been repeated through the decades, but new research and writing tell a different story. Ford’s comments, were, in fact, more evenhanded toward DeMille, and he wrote to him the next day saying he was “a great gentleman.” But Ford made a film called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the newspaper editor’s famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So, I am printing the legend, with this alert to the reader.’

Liberty Valance being shot: George Stevens Jr uses a line from the film: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance to justify printing the legend. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At least George Stevens Jr. is honest that his version of events may not be entirely accurate, and he has even warned the readers, but the approach leads to a flawed segment of the book. Stevens Jr.’s account is far more valuable when he does research, such as when he quotes a letter from DeMille to Stevens after the Academy gave the Irving Thalberg Award to DeMille in 1952. DeMille thanked Stevens for his support in gaining the award. George Stevens was his political opponent, but it did not extend into personal animosity on either side. The book would have been more substantial if Stevens Jr. had followed this path more closely. Stevens Jr. could have added that his father and John Ford almost certainly had a hand in Cecil B. DeMille winning the inaugural Screen Directors Guild D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award in 1952. This move was essentially a peace offering to calm residual tensions within the guild. Both John Ford and George Stevens would win the award in later years. The letter also shows that DeMille was also a courteous man, at least in his correspondence, when he thanked Stevens. More of this type of material would have built up a better book.

The fundamental problem with George Stevens Jr.’s approach is that ‘printing the legend’ actually does a disservice to his father. If anyone is to be singled out for having defeated DeMille at the SDG meeting, it should be George Stevens. Stevens was the hero of the meeting, and his integrity, honesty, and courage shine through the entire sad episode. It was Stevens who spent the week researching the background of the recall. Stevens directly confronted DeMille and accused him of undemocratic maneuvers in back rooms. Mankiewicz’s recall had been defeated before the meeting was called to order, but Stevens’ first speech, resigning from the Guild, opened the door for others to demand DeMille’s resignation. Ford had resisted this move, but it was Stevens’ second speech with its “little man” theme, arguing for a return to directors’ business that ended any hopes for DeMille’s survival. Stevens tore DeMille apart at the SDG meeting, not Ford. It is not surprising that Stevens got into his car after the meeting and drove deep into the night in triumph. In sharp contrast, Ford wrote a letter of condolence to DeMille on the day after the meeting. The myth gives undue credit to Ford and neglects the pivotal role of Stevens.

Stevens Jr. is entitled to restate the Hollywood legend. Yet the quote from a Ford film only provides a type of cover for this account. While John Ford may have directed a film with the line, “print the legend,” Ford never printed the legend in his films. Any viewer of the film knows exactly which man shot Liberty Valance.


[1] Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. United States: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

Ceremonial links between The Godfather  and The Searchers

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe Unversity, Melbourne, Australia

Ethan Edwards storms out of a funeral to begin the pursuit of his nieces in The Searchers (1956). Both The Godfather and The Searchers feature disrupted ceremonies. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At first glance, The Godfather (1972) would seem to have little or nothing to do with The Searchers (1956). One is a gangster film, and the other is a western. One is filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona, and it is set after the American Civil War, while the other is set in urban New York after the Second World War. The films were made more than a quarter-century apart, in radically different genres, by two exceptionally talented but different directors. John Ford was politically conservative with a pro-military stance, while Francis Ford Coppola was highly ambivalent about the role of the military and his films are more left-wing. Yet it is striking how much Coppola was influenced by John Ford, particularly with The Searchers (1956), when he came to make his gangster epic.

The most obvious comparison between the films is the closing scene. When Ethan Edwards rides up to the homestead at the end of The Searchers to return his niece, it is set in bright sunshine. Ford then shoots the final scene from a fixed camera – presumedly from the darkness inside the house. The heavy black edges of the door enclose the film’s last shot. The audience looks out to the desert and sees the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house to gain entrance into the community. Ethan Edwards stands at the door to consider his next step for a moment. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards to the doorway. Upon arrival, Debbie is greeted warmly and walked through the door with the Jorgensen family to rejoin the community. After they enter, Edwards takes a hesitant step but then halts when a couple, Martin Pawley and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway – and onto an inevitable marriage  – with a sure integration back into the community. Edwards then looks through the door, pauses as if deciding what to do, and reluctantly turns his back to it. The door closes, and he is barred from entering a community that has reunited.

The use of the door also features at the end of The Godfather (1972), but the underlying relationship is quite different. The new Godfather, Michael Corleone, has just completed a deadly and systematic series of assassinations to avenge his first wife, father, and brother. In a bold series of moves, Michael retakes his father’s empire, crushes his enemies, and solidifies himself as the most powerful mafia don in the country. The last murder is a gruesome and protracted garrotting of his brother-in-law Carlo, which he witnesses without emotion as he settles the “family accounts.” Following the murder of Carlo, his wife Connie – who is Michael’s sister – confronts Michael about the death. She screams at him while he remains unemotional. The scene takes place in full view of Michael’s second wife, Kay. After Connie has been escorted away, Kay demands to know if it is true that he killed Carlo. In a rare burst of anger, Michael slams the desk and then settles down, permitting Kay to ask one question about his business – or rather criminal – affairs. Michael lies to her face about the murder, and a wave of relief spreads over Kay’s face, but after she leaves the room she looks back at Michael, who meets his henchman, and she realises he is a murderer. Looking directly at Kay, his bodyguard Al Neri walks to the door, nods at Kay, and closes it. This scene leaves Kay outside the inner workings of the Corleone Family. In Godfather Part II (1974), the scene is almost repeated, except Michael goes one step further and closes the door in Kay’s face denying her contact with her children as well. Despite being Michael’s wife, Kay has been exiled from the family in the same fashion as Ethan Edwards. [1] While Edwards makes his own decision, Kay has little or no choice. Of course, in Ford’s universe, the community is central and supportive. In The Godfather, the family is evil at its core. In Ford’s film, the community exists in the darkness of their rooms – a shade from the fierce sunlight. In Coppola’s reworking, Kay is in a sunny room, while Michael is in the moral gloom of his office.

Another link between The Godfather and The Searchers is its use of ceremonies. The film critic Danny Peary has pointed out that rituals are disrupted at every turn in The Searchers. The arrival of Sam’s rangers disrupts Ethan’s homecoming. In turn, Edwards storms out of a funeral to pursue his captured nieces. Edwards shoots a dead Comanche in the eyes to destroy his burial. A wedding is called off when Ethan returns to the community.[2] Throughout the film, ceremonies are wrecked, cut short, or abandoned. The film is in sharp contrast to earlier ones by John Ford, such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), where ceremonies bring the community together.

The same disruption is also evident in The Godfather, but in different terms. At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations continue. Vito seems to move seamlessly between dealing with his business and enjoying the wedding. The opening sets up the idea that the work of the Corleone family never stops. Even a momentous occasion such as his daughter’s wedding does not distract the family head from his duties.

At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations for Connie and Carlo continue. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Indeed, the only ceremony that does not involve mixing family events and the criminal enterprise of the day is Michael and Apollonia’s wedding in Sicily. Michael is allowed one short period of marital bliss before Apollonia is killed in a bomb explosion. Business discussions interrupt even the burial of Vito Corleone. At the gravesite, Michael Corleone agrees to arrange a meeting with his rival Barzani to ensure peace between the mafia families. In the final ceremony, bursts of violence punctuate the christening of Michael Corleone’s nephew as his enemies are systematically cut down while as godfather to the infant he rejects: “Satan and all his works.”

The films have other parallels. The film critic Jim Kitses observed that The Godfather was part of a set of films from the 1960s which “allegorise a fallen nation in flawed protagonists.”[3] Kitses sees a predecessor to Michael Corleone in the mercenaries of The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah. Jitses could look further back as The Wild Bunch had strong and clear links to The Searchers. Charles Bramesco wrote: “John Ford’s The Searchers had set the deconstructive ball rolling in 1956 by uncovering a wounded reactionary soul beneath the leathery, commanding exterior of the cowboy archetype, a pop-cultural revisionism that Peckinpah extended to its most extreme conclusion.”[4] Like Ethan Edwards, Michael Corleone is out to destroy those who have injured his family. Unlike Edwards, Corleone is unemotional, cold, and calculating. Initially, Corleone is bright and happy and not part of the criminal enterprise. The shooting of his father Vito by Vincent Sollozzo, combined with the foiled attack on his father at the hospital, wrenches Michael Corleone from an outsider to central participant – and eventually crowns him as family head. His clothes become darker, as does his character.

In more general terms, the similarities between Michael Corleone and Ethan Edwards reflect yet another Herculean anti-hero, capable of great deeds but destructive to the family they are trying to protect. The theme became more pronounced as the series of Godfather films continued. Both Godfather Part II and Part III deal with the further unraveling of the family, as Michael seeks to protect it. In the trilogy’s final episode, Michael hands over control to his nephew Vincent Mancini, warning that he can head the Corleone family, but he must give up any prospect of family life. The two cannot co-exist. Like Ethan Edwards, Mancini must walk away from a chance of domestic family life. Edwards turns his back to the audience and returns to the desert to live much like the Comanche corpse earlier in the film; Ethan is fated to “wander forever between the winds.” For all his power, achievement, and efforts, Corleone loses his family and dies alone in a foreign country. Both figures are outcasts.


[1] The similarity is mentioned in discussion on the Internet Movie Data Base at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049730/movieconnections/ accessed on 28 February 2022. Such similarities have been made noted by other commentors. Among others see Wes D. Gehring, Gehring Lost & Found: Selected Essays. N.p.: BearManor Media, (n.d.).” “What Does the Final Shot of “The Searchers” Mean?,” https://the-take.com/watch/what-does-the-final-shot-of-the-searchers-mean, accessed on 28 February 2022. Zachary Cruz-Tan, “Hollywood Retro Film Festival – The Searchers,” https://hookedonfilmwa.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/hollywood-retro-film-festival-the-searchers/.

[2] Danny Peary, Cult Movies, The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, London: Delacorte Press, 1981, 313.

[3] Jim. Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, 202.

[4]Charles Bramesco, “The Wild Bunch at 50: the enduring nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s western,” The Guardian,  18 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/18/the-wild-bunch-at-50-sam-peckinpah-enduring-nihilism-western, accessed on 28 February 2022.

Hollywood Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Professor Wexman does not lack ambition in her newest book Hollywood’s Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship, which outlines an impressive range of objectives. First of all, she wants to show how the Guild created the idea of directors as artists. She moves on to how directors adopted the image of charismatic leaders and then how they are recognised. Wexman then looks at how the Directors Guild of America (DGA) – which was initially called the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) – constructed a narrative about the famous meeting on 22 October 1950. Finally, Wexman examines the legal aspects of the Guild with its ownership rights.

Full review published in Film and History on:

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/842294