In charge: Women CEOs in American cinema

A distant ancestor of the recent women CEO films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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

There is trong interest in the upcoming film Bad Blood depicting the rise and fall of Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. The film is based on her company’s collapse, which at one point, was worth more than $9 billion. The company’s forunes were based on flawed technology, blatant lying and sheer gall. After whistleblowers exposed it, Theranos collapsed. At one point, Holmes was the world’s youngest billionaire, and her personal and corporate disintegration was sensational news. Such a story is too enticing for Hollywood film executives.

While Bad Blood is based on a true story of corporate greed, some recent fictional creations explore the same territory. I Care A Lot (Prime) and a limited TV series, The One (Netflix), also share a theme of a strong and highly capable woman leading an organisation. Whatever the strengths of these CEOs, they are also both deeply flawed.

The movie I Care a Lot (2020) was written and directed by Johnathan Blakeson. The film stars Rosamund Pike as a court-appointed guardian who seizes older people’s assets for her own financial benefit. She identifies and targets a vulnerable or isolated older adult. With the backing of corrupt medical and nursing home officials, she locks them away from legal or family support.

Pike plays Marla Grayson, a scammer who makes a living by convincing the legal system to grant her guardianship over elders that she argues cannot take care of themselves. To do so, she ensures they cannot contact any outside support, or she targets those with little or no family support. This guardianship causes great distress to some remaining relatives. Grayson strips away their assets and milks them until they die – when they are cashed out. The business is highly immoral, but the film is a black comedy demonstrating that the clever and ruthless can exploit the most vulnerable. Marla Grayson has few redeeming features, but she is utterly fearless after she goes a step too far in imprisoning a relative of the mafia. Her fight with the mafia is the spine of the film.

While I Care A Lot is positioned in a remotely possible real-world, The One is a TV series that takes some basic scientific ideas and then stretches them to the limit of plausibility. A brilliant scientist Rebecca Webb develops a business using her DNA-based matchmaking service.  You can find ‘the one’ which is your soulmate or your one true love. Webb is a driven businesswoman who will not even flinch at murder. Webb, played by Hannah Ware, seems unstoppable with her business ready to float on the stock exchange, and billions are to be made – until a body is found in the Thames. The evidence points to Webb being the murderer of her co-founder.

One common thread in these shows is that women CEOs contain some form of deep-seated flaw. For Grayson, it is her absolute indifference to the pain and suffering she creates among the elderly and their relatives. In Webb’s case, it is her ability to lurch suddenly into violence to get what she needs. Whatever the strengths of these women in business, they are also both deeply unsound.  It raises some interesting points about the depiction of successful women – does the entertainment industry prefer women to have serious shortcomings when they are successful?

The portrayal of flawed women acting as CEOs has a long tradition in Hollywood. A distant ancestor of these films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Despite the success, her daughter remains ungrateful and destructive. Mildred Pierce cannot see the evil she is fostering pandering to her daughter’s every materialistic need. Her drive for money makes her blind to the consequences. In each of these depictions of successful businesswomen, there is a deep flaw embedded in their character.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sidelines his family, and destroy all he touches. Indeed, the evil CEO is almost a stock figure in American fiction. In response, in the 1950s, the ultra-conservative ideologue Ayn Rand, in her Screen Guide For Americans, specifically said that industrialists should not be smeared.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sidelines his family, and destroy all he touches. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Rand was partially correct as the evil corporate magnate/cattle baron/landlord is a familiar enough figure in American cinema. After her testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947, Rand wrote the guide in November 1947 to eradicate communism from the screen.[1] The 12-page leaflet said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man should not be smeared; that failure and the collective should not be glorified; and that communist writers, directors, and producers should not be hired.[2] The impact of the guide has been overstated. Rand bragged that the arts section of The New York Times had printed it in full; however, it was only mentioned in summary in a small article.[3] What Rand would make of the current crop of depictions of CEOs would send her spinning in the grave.

One other trait in these recent films is a downtrodden male counterpoint to the female CEO in The One and I Care A Lot. One aggrieved male seeks violent revenge on the female CEOs, and despite their success, the women can be cut down by their attacks. In I Care A Lot, the aggrieved man wears a red baseball cap like the ‘Make America Great Again’ caps worn by former President Donald Trump supporters. Trump was elected as a ‘wrecker.’ In an era where Trump supporters have stormed the Capitol building, these films reveal a savage undercurrent. The films also show an underlying male rage against female success.


[1] Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and Song of Russia : Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2005) 176.

[2] Ayn Rand, ‘Screen Guide For Americans, The Motion Picture Alliance for American Ideals.’ https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupid?key=olbp26775/ (accessed January 8, 2020).

[3] Thomas F Brady, ‘Alliance Group Issues Screen Guide for Americans’, New York Times, November 16, 1947. Rand’s memory may have confused The New York Times with the anti-communist newsletter Plain Talk in November 1947, which did print it in full. 

The burden of command in the post-Second World War films

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University

John Wayne plays the platoon’s sergeant Stryker in one of his best screen performances. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In the immediate post-Second World War period, many films began to wrestle with command and the stresses it caused.  Hundreds of thousands of troops were returning to the United States, and films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) looked at the difficulties soldiers faced in readjusting to civilian life. Other films dealt with pressures created by military conflict across the globe. Of this group of films, the most successful was Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). It depicts a platoon’s genesis from basic training to one of the Second World War’s bloodiest battles at Iwo Jima. It was the first time that the United States had invaded Japanese territory, and they met strong resistance from the Japanese in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War. John Wayne plays the platoon’s sergeant Stryker in one of his best screen performances.

The squad initially detests Stryker and the hard training he insists upon. He is especially despised by private Pete Conway, played by John Agar, who is college-educated. Pete is the son of Colonel Sam Conway, whom Stryker admired. Conway is part of the elite, who disdain military life, but the true heroes are the hard salt of the earth men like Stryker, who project a much tougher line against the United States’ enemies. The film discusses the shocking burden of command. Eventually, Conway understands and adopts Stryker’s techniques.

While the Pacific theatre of war was the focus of Sand of Iwo Jima, Twelve O’Clock High (1949) concentrates on the bombardment of German factories by aircrews of the US airforce. The film is set on an airbase in the English midlands, focusing on a B17 bomber group with an abysmal record. With its morale a disaster, its leader Colonel Keith Davenport is set aside for allowing discipline to erode when he became too close to its men.

Savage collapses under the stain of command in Twelve O’Clock High. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Brigadier General Frank Savage replaces him to lead the 918th bomber group. Screenwriters in 1949 appeared to employ strong, active surnames such as ‘Savage’ and ‘Stryker’ for their protagonists, who then whipped a military unit into shape. Like Stryker, Savage clamps down on discipline and deals harshly with slackers. His new order causes dissent, but eventually, they come around to his way of doing things. Savage leads the 918th on a mission over the German heartland in a version of the Black Thursday strike against Schweinfurt, a major raid against a ball-bearing plant in Germany.[1] The B-17s attack the ball-bearing plant—but a second bombing raid is required. As Savage attempts to board his aircraft to lead the restrike, he suffers a mental breakdown from the accumulated strain. Savage can lead no further, but even in his absence, the unit destroys the target and the 918th is now an elite unit, and it moves on to new leadership. After all his efforts, Savage is disposable. The film was the first to touch on the massive stress involved with command.

Submarine Command dealt with the issues of post-truamatic stress in a submarine commander. (IMDB and Paramount)

The first film to directly deal with post-traumatic stress disorder related to command was Submarine Command (1951), which took these issues to another level. The film focuses on the crushing decision by Lieutenant Commander Ken White, played by William Holden. He orders the submarine USS Tiger Shark to dive to evade an aerial attack, causing his the death of a commander and a quartermaster. White is not able to lead his troops further, as the war is finished when he resurfaces. For White, vindication comes when the Korean War is declared, and his leadership in the face of overwhelming pressure shows his decision-making wisdom. In Regeneration Through Violence, Richard Slotkin shows that the attitudes and traditions that shape American culture evolved from the social and psychological anxieties of European settlers struggling in a strange new world to claim the land and displace the Native Americans.[2] White, Styker and Savage are all vindicated by the violence they direct at the United States’ enemies. The messages from this group of films, which were released in the early days of the Cold War, were that the United States would need to be tougher, and people like Stryker, Savage and White were needed even if they were to be killed or crushed by the demands of war.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_O%27Clock_High.

[2] Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence : The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. 1st Ed.].. ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

News of the World and The Searchers

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

The iconic imagery and ideas of the Searchers can be seen in many different films and TV shows. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Even though the film was not nominated for any Academy Awards, The Searchers (1956) remains one of the cinema’s most revered movies. Directed by John Ford, the film depicts the decade-long search of Ethan Edwards for his niece, who the Comanche Indians kidnapped when she was a small girl.

The film is superbly directed, with the final scene being the most powerful. The scene is framed through the black edges of a door, and we see the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house in order to gain entrance to society. Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, stands momentarily at the door, considering his options. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards, played by Natalie Wood, to the porch. She is walked through the door with the Jorgensen family and to rejoin the community. Edwards steps towards the door but then moves back when a couple, Martin Pawley, who traveled with him and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway. They seem content in each other’s company, and it seems certain they would marry. Edwards then looks through the door, hesitates and eventually turns his back to the door, which swings shut – barring him from entry.

Earlier in the film, Edwards had shot out the eyes of an Indian corpse, cursing him to walk between the winds for eternity. In the final scene, the wind picks up, and dust swirls around him as he walks away.  It appears that the curse has now returned to haunt him. After his heroism in returning his niece, he exiles himself from the community he longs to join. Even after repeated viewings, it carries a massive emotional punch, and this scene is rightly celebrated. Its impact can be seen in films and TV shows to the present day.

The most recent reworking was in the film News of the World (2020), based on Paulette Jiles’ novel. It is the story of a man’s efforts to return a child abducted by Indians to her original family. The parallels between the two films are obvious. Like Edwards, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a former member of the Confederate Army. Unlike Edwards, Kidd has surrendered to the Union forces and signed a loyalty oath. Edwards did not sign the loyalty oath. Kidd is also a cultured and caring man who suffers for his involvement in the war. Edwards is a borderline psychopath who delights in killing – particularly Indians.

News of the World provides a counterpoint to the Searchers. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Like Ford’s film, members of the child’s family are killed with severe violence, and the films are linked by their depiction of a ransacked home where its pioneer residents are slaughtered. Star Wars (1977) used similar imagery when Luke Skywalker returned to the house of his step-family. News of the World even duplicates a shot out of a window frame that could almost be lifted from The Searchers’ visual style. But it is a story with a revisionist view of the American west – far different from John Ford’s work.

In News of the World, the Kiowa Indians are no brute savages, and the little girl wants to remain with them. The Kiowa is the only community that shows Kidd some kindness in his efforts to return the child to her family – they give him a horse in a sand storm that saves their lives.  In contrast, the white community will slaughter almost anyone, and some are quite prepared to sell off or abuse the child.

The child in News of the World is not comfortable in the world of the white people. Her biological family is cruel and uncaring, and she has no place there. Her rightful family is the Kiowa, but they have been killed or are roaming the plains. Like the cursed Indian in The Searchers, she is between both worlds. When the child is returned to her family in News of the World, we find that she does not seamlessly return to white civilization, and another solution must be found.

Scenes from the Searchers continue to crop up in various films and TV shows. In a flashback, the newly minted police officer, Jackson Brodie in the TV series Case Histories, finds a lost child in a field of long grass and raises her above him, in an almost identical shot to John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood, after searching for her for a decade. In the same episode, but in later years, returning as a hero, Brodie approaches a house with his potential girlfriend, and he is offered entry, but he walks away. Rejecting the home, Brodie is firmly in the mould of Ethan Edwards.

A reworking of the scene also occurred in Steven Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds (2005), the hero Tom Cruise returns his children to their natural mother, with whom he had previously separated.[1] Set against an alien invasion, the film shows Cruise  – who is a poor father – doing all he can to save his children. In bringing back his children, he had reunited the family and sent them through the door of their home. He seems content to have them return to their mother and her new partner and then begins to walk away. Unlike Ford’s version, Cruise is called back to rejoin the family unit – their arguments and disagreements appearing trivial compared to the carnage they had endured.

War of the Worlds (2005) ended with a reworking of the Searchers final scene. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Intentionally or not, all these films touch on the ancient Greek myth of Hercules. The demi-God was capable of immense feats of bravery and strength, but Hercules was also capable of destructive acts of rage against those close to him. Edwards, at one point, is hell bent on killing his niece. Such a figure can be seen throughout western literature.[2] Ford took the basic myth and refashioned it, in the simple context of a cowboy and Indians western. Film-makers continue to reinterpret the myth and employ Ford’s imagery.


[1] Among those who noted the similarity are: Devin Farci, In Defense Of Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS,  19 February 2019, accessed at https://birthmoviesdeath.com/2013/02/19/in-defense-of-spielbergs-war-of-the-worlds on 9 March 2021.

[2] Eugene Wraith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden. Columbia University Press, 1962. In another vein, Richard Rowland has looked at the destructive side of the myth in Killing Hercules: Deianira and the Politics of Domestic Violence, from Sophocles to the War on Terror. Rowland asks why have artists across two millennia felt compelled to revisit this particular myth to examine violence?

On the ease of conspiracy theories: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

A new series of Netflix conveys the power of conspiracy theories.

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The recent Netflix series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is an interesting but overlong and repetitive true crime investigation about Elisa Lam’s disappearance at the infamous Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

The investigation is the starting point of a look at the Hotel Cecil, which despite its impressive façade and foyer, is the hotel of choice for those who want cheap accommodation and are not overly concerned about hygiene or the safety of life and limb.

It was a cheap hotel in the middle of one of the poorest zones in Los Angeles. Such a setting makes Lam’s disappearance all the more intriguing. We understand from interviews that the place is the site of deaths and suicides and drug deals. Elisa Lam booked a stay at the hotel and then disappeared. She did not leave the building, and no body was found.

During the investigation, a fascinating video sequence was found of the poor woman terrified out of her mind in an elevator. The footage, coupled with her disappearance, makes for the spine of the documentary. The disappearance reminded me of one of those closed room killings favoured by the crime novelist John Dickson Carr and his impossibly clever mysteries.[1]

The investigators of disappearance work along traditional lines looking for evidence of how she would go missing. Their investigation is logical and thorough, but it takes time to discover the truth.

In today’s era, where there is a mystery, there must be social media, and then there must be conspiracy theories. Without giving away too much, Elisa Lam’s disappearance is explained clearly by the end of the show. The conspiracy theories are shown to be nothing much more than wild speculation.

Perhaps the most farfetched is that Elisa Lam was an agent spreading TB – a type of biological warfare. After all, there was a TB break out at the time, and the test for TB was called the LAM-ELISA.[2] It is an astonishing coincidence, but that is all it is. The conspiracy theory’s remarkable nature is that they take a coincidence and then build their case. It has an internal logic, but nothing more. The cases bounce off each other, and they present an erratic and enticing sequence of events.

How social media users made a relatively simple set of circumstances into something tangible that many people still believe is remarkable. [3] In this case, a whole body of conspiracy theories was uncovered. One unfortunate soul, who had been at the hotel a year before, was named the killer and subjected a vicious social media hazing.

At almost every level in society, facts have become irrelevant as people seek the most convenient version of the truth. The United States is presently working through the fallout of an insurrection against the Senate. Those participating were pushed along by a stream of unfounded complaints against the election’s conduct on social media. The simple fact was that the courts rejected the claims for lack of evidence. Yet, the conspiracy theorists continue to spread their savage distortions, and a fair proportion of the population took it up. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel shows the dynamics of how all this works.

Before the social media barrage of conspiracy theories, films such as The Parallax View (1974) and Executive Action (1973) offered their take on political assassinations, arguing that a large corporate body was behind the political violence in the United States. [4] One the Hollywood 10, Dalton Trumbo wrote the script for Executive Action, which proposed that a group of right-wing politicians, businessmen, assassins and intelligence agents developed a plan to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.

In the 1970s, Executive Action, and The Parallax View harnessed some of the conspiracy theories. Images courtesy of eMoviePoster.

These films fed into the widely held view that a sole deranged assassin in Lee Harvey Oswald did not murder President Kennedy, and there was a broader conspiracy. These conspiracy theories do not stand scrutiny, but are widely held.[5] The theories were later reinforced by films such as JFK (1991) which a complex web of conspiracy theories weaved together. These films are joined by Flashpoint (1984), Ruby (1992), and Interview with the Assassin (2002).

Conspiracy theories centre on great stories, which is always a sound base for some fine films. What is alarming is how easy it is to create a plausible – albeit evidence-free – conspiracy theory. While not the greatest of documentaries, the TV show has shown how simple it is to construct a conspiracy theory based on little or no evidence or simple speculation. What was once laughable has now entered the political and cultural mainstream.

The political implications are serious. It shows the astonishing ease that complete and utter nonsense can be translated into a creditable belief. The commentators had no special ability in research, aside from a fascination with the subject of Elisa Lam’s disappearance. This disappearance was tragic, but the detectives reveal a perfectly logical sequence of events. Even the social media theorists admitted that their conspiracy theories were unfounded. However, there appears to be no concession to reality for those in the crowd who stormed the Capitol building.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dickson_Carr.

[2] The test for the tuberculosis was her name in reverse order: LAM-ELISA, which stood for Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). 

[3] Lucy Devine, “People Are Still Convinced Elisa Lam’s Death Was Connected To TB Outbreak,” Tyla, accessed at:

https://www.tyla.com/news/tv-and-film-what-is-the-elisa-lam-cecil-hotel-tb-outbreak-theory-skid-row-death-20210216 on 19 February 2021

[4] Art Simon, In The Parallax View, Conspiracy Goes All the Way to the Top—and Beyond, Slate, 21 July 2021, accessed at https://slate.com/culture/2017/07/the-parallax-view-is-a-70s-paranoid-classic-about-evil-corporations-and-political-assassinations.html on 22 February 2021.

[5] Gerald L. Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Doubleday, 1994, provides an overview of the weaknesses of all the major conspiracy theories.

Your Honor and the legacy of noir

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

Your Honor has a great debt to film noir.

In the recent TV series Your Honor, (Stan in Australia) a respected and fair judge descends down a moral abyss to protect his so. Desiato is depicted as a liberal judge handing out fair sentences in the hopelessly corrupt city of New Orleans, and he appears to have a strict moral code. When his son Adam is involved in a hit and run, Desiato does not cover up but takes Adam down to the police station to report the crime, only when he discovers that his son has killed the son of a violent crime family head – that he begins a cover-up. Judge Michael Desiato breaks every rule to protect his son from the wrath of a vicious organised crime family.

The TV series was adapted from the Israeli TV series Kvovo, which has a similar premise. This series is set in New Orleans, and it contains the basic stories in film noir: individual moral decline and a doomed attempt to beat the system.

The TV series has many of the elements of film noir. Underpinned by the production code, film noir in the 1940s and 19050s contained the idea that anyone committing a crime must pay the penalty. Without giving away the ending, Your Honor keeps to the formula. The moral fabric of the universe, or the gods that run it, will not allow an individual to break the rules and get away with it.

The plot has many elements of Scarlet Street (1945), directed by Fritz Lang. In Scarlet Street, an honest man, a painter called Christopher Cross, played by Edward G. Robinson, is in a loveless marriage and a hopeless job. His meeting with Kitty March, played by Joan Bennett, paves the way for personal destruction. Cross makes some decision to embezzle funds from his employer to pay for Kitty.

The key difference in Your Honor to film noir is that there is no femme fatale to lead Desiato to the brink. Joan Bennett provides the lure for Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

When betrayed, Cross commits murder and implicates the wrong man, who goes to the gallows. Christopher fails at suicide, becoming homeless and needy, and he cannot even claim credit for his paintings, one of which has now been sold for a small fortune. He wanders New York, constantly hearing his victim’s voices in his mind.[1]

In film noir, stepping off the moral path destroys the individual. Like Cross, Desiato’s action starts a chain reaction where people are killed, and the innocent are found guilty of crimes they did not commit. Every action Desiato takes to defend his son results in more mayhem and death. It is a dance with the devil, spiralling down to hell.

. In Double Indemnity (1944), the central character is an insurance salesman who tries to beat the system by murdering a client to run off with his wife. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Desiato promises his son that he can fix this problem as he understands the system. In Double Indemnity (1944), the central character is an insurance salesman who tries to beat the system by murdering a client to run off with his wife. Neff says, “You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. And do it smart. Because you’ve got that wheel right under your hands.” The salesman, Walter Neff, wants to receive double the payout from a life insurance policy. Every element of the murder is successful, and it appears certain that he and Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barara Stanwyck, will triumph.[2] However, film noir’s rules demand that their murder is exposed, and both must suffer for their crimes. They must take the “ride to the end of the line, ” which in their cases is death. Desiato also takes the same ride.

In a comment on the theme, Woody Allen wrote and directed Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), where there is no punishment for the guilty. The originator of the film’s murder, Judah Rosenthal, says: “And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up… Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then, one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him, and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe, and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.”

Rosenthal is challenged, but he responds that his accuser has, “seen too many movies. I’m talking about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie..” [3]

The key difference in Your Honor to the film noir of the 1940s is that there is no femme fatale to lead Desiato to the brink. The women in Your Honor are strong and ethical. Desiato’s decision to fix the system is his own. The decision is based on reasonable fears that Adam will be murdered in prison by the criminal gangs. Whatever the reasons, having moved off the moral path, Desiato finds that his decision leads to even worse outcomes. People – innocent or otherwise – are killed or have their lives destroyed. The themes of film noir resonate today, but in today’s world, it should be noted that the murderer of an innocent man – the son of a gangster – gets off scott free. Those with values or principles appear to be trampled.


[1] Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward (ed.), Film Noir, London: Secker Warburg, 1980, p. 248.

[2] Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward (ed.), Film Noir, London: Secker Warburg, 1980, pp. 93-94.

[3] Woody Allen Crimes and Mideamnours, 1989, in https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097123/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

The impact of Victorian Theatre on the film industry

Most people going to see plays at the Belasco Theatre in New York would probably not recognise the origin of the theatre’s name.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Most people going to see plays at the Belasco Theatre in New York would probably not know the origin of the theatre’s name. David Belasco was an inspiring figure who was a leading figure in American theatre from 1895 to 1915. His theatre was flamboyant, extravagant and spectacular, and he dominated Broadway for decades.[1] Belasco certainly had an impact on Hollywood. He helped launch the careers of James O’Neill, Mary Pickford, Lenore Ulric and Barbara Stanwyck, who became major Hollywood stars. He also had a major influence on Hollywood directors such as Cecil B. DeMille and his influence continues to the present day.

In turn, Belasco had been building on the work of Imre Kiralfy and his spectacular circuses of the 1880s and 1890s. Kiralfy’s Nero or the Fall of Rome – The Greatest Spectacular Production of Modern Times was performed at St. George, Staten Island, New York, in 1888. These shows were part circus and co-produced with P. T. Barnum, the founder of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. [2]  The New York Times observed that Kiralfy was: …never satisfied with doing things on a large scale, and in his latest spectacular production, he is fully satisfied in his own mind that he has the biggest thing of its kind on earth. As far as magnitude is concerned, his production of “Nero: or the fall of Rome” is on a colossal scale, and Mr Kiralfy takes pride in the fact that on the biggest stage now built, he places 2,000 people and uses up 20,840 feet of scenery and has a ballet of 500 girls.[3]

Birth of A Nation employed Victorian publicity tehcniques. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Cinema was only in its infancy during this time, but such shows’ visual display would have impacted those growing up in this environment.  The first major Hollywood director D.W. Griffith had a strong background in Victorian theatre, and he employed a similar technique to Kiralfy when promoting Birth of a Nation in 1915. For example, this ad was printed in The Atlanta Constitution, 12 December 1915: D.W. GRIFFITH’S GIGANTIC SPECTACLE, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, YOU WILL SEE

18,000 People – 3,000 Horses – 5,000 Scenes

  • Petersburg at the height of battle.
  • Lee and Grant at Appomattox.
  • The shot that killed Abraham Lincoln.
  • The pillaging of Atlanta by Sherman’s invaders. [4]

Future directors such as Cecil B.DeMille was only a child at this time. His father Henry worked with Belasco for many years before his early death. With his family’s deep involvement in the theatre, he would almost certainly have attended performances of this or similar events. Such productions made an impact on his cinema. Posters for the Karifly production called it “The Greatest Show on Earth” – a title DeMille would eventually use for his film in the 1950s. Indeed, Nero would feature in The Sign of the Cross (1932), which was based on Wilson Barrett’s religious play of 1895.

Flyers supporting the film Fool’s Paradise (1921) showed an approach to promoting films from the period he would use for his entire cinematic career. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille’s debt to Victorian Theatre is obvious in both the films and in the publicity he employed. He would convert a stream of Belasco plays to cinema in his early years as a director. Flyers supporting the film Fool’s Paradise (1921) showed an approach to promoting films from the period he would use for his entire cinematic career. It involves highlighting the film’s most sensational aspect and constant repetition of the word “see”.

  • See the wonderful ice-ballet and the flight of the magic carpet.
  • See the marvelous growth of a Mexican oil town.
  • See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.
  • See the spectacular Siam Soo dances by natives and the attempt at a living sacrifice.
  • See the great theatre scenes, the cigar explosion, the knife-throwing villain, the sacrifice of a woman’s soul for the man she loves and a thousand other elements of a marvellous story. [5]
Victorian publicity techniques are in place throughout DeMille’s careers. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille used this strategy, a direct lift from Victorian theatre, of describing in sensationalist terms some of the key scenes from the film. As late as his third last film Samson and Delilah (1949), he would continue the motif of: “See the seduction of Samson by the infamous Delilah who robs him of his mark of power! See Samson strangle a lion bare-handed, crushing the breast to death with his grip of steel”.[6] The presentation of DeMille’s films never lost a sense of Victorian spectacle.

“See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.” Jurassic Park continues the tradition of Vicotrian Theatre on Hollywood. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille and Griffith could trace their origins back to Victorian Theatre, but they had a great deal of influence on future generations. Directors such as Stephen Spielberg would acknowledge their debt to DeMille. The same sense of spectacle can be seen in films such as Jurassic Park (1993). It has the same basic idea of the story: a family staying together in the face of enormous challenges – and you get to see some great dinosaurs. You could almost use the line that DeMille employed in Fool’s Paradise in 1921. “See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.” The same basic motif can be seen in thousands of films. Victorian Theatre is still very much with us.


[1] William Winter, and William Jefferson Winter, The Life of David Belasco.(New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1918).

[2] Robert Sugarman, The Many Worlds of the Circus. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).

[3] KIRALFY’S BIG SPECTACLE.: DRESS REHEARSAL OF “NERO” AT ST. GEORGE, STATEN ISLAND, The New York Times, 24 June 1888.

[4] The Atlanta Constitution, 12 December 1915: D.W. GRIFFITH’S GIGANTIC SPECTACLE, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, YOU WILL SEE

[5] Fool’s Paradise Flyer, Paramount 1921.

[6] Samson and Delilah, daybill from author’s collection.

Rediscovering Box office failures

It’s A Wonderful Life is now a cherished film, but it did not recover its costs on release. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Looking back on some films, it seems absurd that they were not popular on their release. Yet too many good films have failed for this to be the case.  A standout case is It’s A Wonderful Life. The film is now a classic shown almost every Christmas, and it is considered one of the popular films in American cinema. Capra considered it to be his finest film – indeed, he thought it was the greatest film of all. Yet, the film did not do well and failed to recover costs. What elements contributed to its failure? In 1946, the United States had been through a long and difficult war. It’s A Wonderful Life would have fitted in with a cycle of films about the afterlife and the importance of each life. But perhaps in the aftermath of the war, people did not want messages about death and life’s meaning. It may have made uncomfortable viewing. After all, it was about a man contemplating suicide for leading a wasted life. As Andrew Sarris noted, it was: “one of the most profoundly pessimistic tales of human existence ever to achieve a lasting popularity.”[1] In later times, Capra’s message of realising the richness of ordinary life appears to have resonated with the American public.

Other examples are easy to find. One of the Chaplin’s main rivals was Buster Keaton.  Keaton had made a string of successful short and feature films.  When Buster Keaton released The General in 1927, he considered it to be his masterpiece.  Film scholars have echoed that opinion for more than 60 years.  Yet when it was released, it did not prove to be a box office success, and after its screening, his film career disintegrated.[2] 

Audiences were left cold by the inventiveness of The General and it was one of Keaton’s great commerical failures. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Looking back at the film, it is almost inexplicable why the film would be a financial failure. Keaton plays a train driver who loves his engine called The General. When the civil war breaks out, the Union forces steal his beloved engine. Despite its undeniable quality, the audience of 1927 simply did not respond to Keaton’s battling little character.  Keaton had enjoyed great success until this point, and his films are now regarded as works of genius. It could be that his benign depiction of the American South did not resonate with the audience. It could be that audiences had simply grown tired of his battling little character who overcame every obstacle. The reasons for the failure of a film are difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, to click with an audience of the time, a film must fulfill a need more complex than straight entertainment.  Keaton’s little character has lost favor with the public, and his decline had begun. 

While Keaton’s vision of the South did not resonate, a film made 13 years later certainly did. Gone with the Wind (1939) was a massively successful film, and it remains an extremely popular to this day.  It has been re-released several times and has made handsome profits on each occasion. More than eighty years after its release, the film now has Blu Ray sets, special editions, and it remains one of the most popular films on cable television.  The perennial nature of its popularity could indicate that good films will be successful whenever they are released.  The argument is flawed.  Gone with the Wind was a bestselling novel published in the 1930s, and it was because of that popularity that producer David O. Selznick picked it up.  So even before the film was made, there was strong popular support for it.  Many people who attended the film went to see it simply because of the wonderful spectacle.  But once again, the film provided more than simple entertainment.  It dealt with a society about to be torn apart by war – as America was – and the sacrifices that men and women would have to make in that war.  These themes were also present in a large group of films that enjoyed popularity at the time.[3]  Films such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Union Pacific (1939) reassured America about its great past, and the ability to face challenges was in heavy demand.  With fascism on the march in Europe, that reassurance was needed.

Gone with the Wind continues to entertain 8o years after its release. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The reasons for its perennial popularity have more to do with the quality of its artistry. Films must operate at two levels to be successful. One, they have to contain elements of good writing, direction and production or a well executed or clever idea. But on another level, they are products of their time and need to talk to the audience of the period in which they were created. To succeed at the box office, a film needs to have more than a high standard of artistic and technical ability, it requires to have a level of audience involvement.  At some level, a popular film must discuss issues and dilemmas affecting the contemporary audience.


[1] Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film History & Memory, 1927-1949, 356.

[2] Tom Dardis, Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1979, p.114.

[3] For a full discussion read John E. O’Connor, ‘A Reaffirmation of American Ideals’ in O’Connor, John E., and Jackson, Martin A. (eds.). American Film/American History: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, Continuum, New York, 1988, 97 – 120.

Hollywood’s First Auteur: Cecil B. DeMille and the Battle for Reputation

Cecil B. DeMille moved to suits in the late 1920s to project an image of the professional director.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In the late 1950s, French film theorists argued that the director was the most important
influence on a movie. Adopting these ideas, Andrew Sarris introduced the “auteur”
theory to the United States in his seminal book The American Cinema: Directors and
Directions
in 1968, wherein Sarris respectfully placed the film director Cecil B. DeMille at
the second-highest rank. What the French theorists and Sarris did not mention was that
the central idea of the director as the driving force of the film was one that DeMille had
developed consciously about himself fifty years earlier – well before the term “auteur”
became a more common term.

The full article can be found at: Brianton, Kevin.Film & History; Cleveland, OK Vol. 50, Iss. 2,  (Winter 2020): 20-36.

https://search.proquest.com/openview/f188e20f90e7166bc33a26d3b8107db9/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=25504

The production code and a Promising Young Woman

Despite the lurid poster, the film is notable for its restraint on a difficult subject.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In some dreary and anonymous urban bar, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is way too intoxicated to know what is happening around her. She seems hopelessly drunk at a bar. A male customer offers to take her home to ensure she is safe. The man then changes tracks and invites her to her apartment first. He then makes sexual advances to her comatose form. At that point, he realises that not only is she not drunk, and he is a potential sexual offender – and not the nice guy he imagines himself to be.

Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s ambitious first film Promising Young Woman is a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film. The central character Cassie was a ‘promising young woman’ when her friend was raped, which caused her friend’s and also her own breakdown. Cassie leaves her high level medical career to work in a coffe shop, while living at home. She remains highly embittered by the attack and vows revenge on the killers – and men who take advantage of drunk women.

The film is well made and astonishingly tense depiction of a troubled young woman. It also has elements that stretch back to the depression era films. The Production Code of the 1930s was issued to help the film industry avoid a raft of state and federal censorship. It was a type of industry self-censorship to forestall government intervention.[1] Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice, the major Hollywood studios used the code to deal with the pressure from religious lobby groups. The code developed real teeth later in the 1930s, and films could not get a release if it violated its rules. Rape and depiction of rape were highly sensitive topics of the period. Some have argued that the Production Code meant that directors and writers were far more careful and clever in the way they depicted

While no code is in place now, as it fell apart several decades ago, Fennel employs an impressive array of techniques to depict the impact of violence, without showing it. She shows that an intelligent director does not have to be explicit.

Alexander Heller-Nicholas’s survey of rape-revenge films mentions a whole stratum of these types of films, arguing that Thirteen Women was an early example of rape-revenge film. It is certainly a distant ancestor of a Promising Young Woman. The 1932 thriller film directed by George Archainbaud did not explicitly depict rape, but the film provides clear evidence that the attack or attacks occurred. The film also even repeats the “We were young,” defence that the witnesses and the rapists employ in a Promising Young Woman. [2]

A distant ancestor of Promising Young Woman was Thirteen Women. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Of course, the Me-too Movement’s politics in 2021 is a world away from the Production Code of 1930, and some aspects have altered markedly. The rape is the now central incident in the film – there is no veiled references. What is remarkable about the film is that while the topic is odious, the depiction of sexual violence is kept to a minimum. Fennell prefers to allow the audience to project their fears rather than depict the incidents. Aside from one scene, the film is an exercise in restraint.

The writers of the production code may not have liked the nudity or the violence – very subdued by today’s standards – but they would have understood the ending and it could have got the code’s stamp of approval. Each of the people who allowed the rape to occur unpunished receives some form of retribution. One of the basic tents of the code was that overt act against the law would be punished.

Unfortunately, under the code, anyone who commits a crime must also pay the price, and Cassie is guilty of a host of offences in her pursuit of revenge for her friend. The framers of the production code would understand her penalty as a suitable corrective to anyone who considers breaking the law.

The code is still hanging in there, even in 2021.


[1] Motion Picture Association of America, A Code Governing the Making of Motion Pictures: The reason supporting it and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. 1930- 1935,

[2] Alexander Heller-Nicholas, Rape Revenge Film: A Critical Study, London: MacFarland, 2011.

The age of the instant legacy: Comey’s Rule, Mank and the Crown

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow,

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

When George Orwell died in 1950, he requested that no biography be written. It was request that stood for a few decades until scholars began to research one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. Now many Orwell biographies have been written, and it is certain more books are on the horizon. While Orwell’s request was followed for a long time, a major public figure would see little point in making the request. Today, we face the trend of the instant biographies of people living and working. More importantly, depictions on TV and in the movies are coming thick and fast. Indeed, the half-life between an event happening and its depiction on the screen used to be decades. The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events on TV screens surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

That gap has been narrowing and it has become a matter of months before a prominent figure is depicted. At the time of writing Donald Trump – who is still president – has had a raft of books written about him. (Few seem to be interested in the new president Joe Biden.) Donald Trump has had two biographies written about his presidency by the iconic Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, but Woodward’s impact is nothing compared to the impact of TV shows. The Comey Rule is a recently released American political drama television miniseries, based on the book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by the former FBI director James Comey. The miniseries has Jeff Daniels playing Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. The remarkable aspect of this series is that it depicted a sitting President in recent events. For Comey’s book, the gap was barely two years.

Mank will shape the reputation of Herman Mankiewicz.

The impact of these shows is profound. The author of the highly regarded dual biography of Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz,  The Brothers Mankiewicz, Sydney Ladensohn Stern noted when watching the newly released film about Herman Mankiewicz: “Movies are so much more evocative than books that I knew no matter how accurate my research, how convincing my writing, and even how widely my book might be read, Mank’s Herman was going to be the Herman Mankiewicz for the ages.”[1]

The same process can be seen in other political figures. For example, the rumour of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover being in a closeted homosexual relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson and engaging in cross dressing is widespread. Rumours about Hoover’s homosexuality had circulated for many years as he had lived and worked closely with Clyde Tolson and neither were married. Based on a verbal account, one biographer argued that Hoover was a cross dresser. The account was almost immediately attacked by investigative journalist and Hoover critic Peter Maas soon after the biography was published. He re-interviewed the sources and demonstrated that every piece of evidence to support the case was flawed.[2]Maas believed the stories were nothing more than hearsay.[3]Maas’s conclusions were backed by FBI historian Athan Theoharis, who is also a strident critic of Hoover, and has demonstrated the evidence is particularly weak and it seems unlikely that Hoover was in a homosexual relationship with Tolson.[4] Another Hoover biographer Ronald Kessler has concluded the FBI director simply could not have engaged in homosexual activity at the Plaza with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out. “The cross-dressing allegations were as credible as McCarthy’s claim that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department, yet the press widely circulated the claim without further investigation. That Hoover was a cross-dresser is now largely presumed to be fact even by sophisticated people”.[5]  

J. Edgar shaped Hoover’s reputation as a cross dresser. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

So, you would assume that the rumour would be dismissed. However, films trounce books in setting agendas. When J. Edgar Hoover was represented in the 2001 Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, wearing a dress, historians of the period rolled their eyes. Hoover’s cross dressing and supposed homosexuality had hit the silver screen, and no amount of detailed academic research was going to erase a discredited claim. The image had been set in stone by a film.

The Crown is helping to define the image of future King: Prince Charles.

The impact of movies and TV shows on reputations can have wide ranging consequences. The Crown is a retelling of the rule of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II and it is now colouring the perception of the royal family. Camilla and Prince Charles have spent many decades slowly building their reputation, since their divorces and eventual remarriage. The pair have worked hard to gain public trust. The most recent season of the TV series follows the relationship of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, outlining their failing marriage. The creators of the show have declared that the show is historical fiction. This statement may be their intention, but the show is seen as a historical record. Prince Charles is often depicted as being uncaring in the face of Diana’s suffering. The show has created endless debate on the fairness of the depiction, but it is now the version of history against which all must negotiate. More than any other source, a TV series is now shaping Charles’s reputation, who will be King, assuming he lives longer than his mother: Queen Elizabeth II. King Charles III – as he will possibly be called – and Trump’s eventual reputation may not be decided by the political historians and journalists, it may well be decided by the audience response to TV shows such as The Comey Rule and The Crown along with the other series that are sure to follow.


[1] Sydney Ladensohn Stern, “The Mankiewicz Brothers’ Biographer Weighs in on David Fincher’s Mank,” Literary Hub, 4 December 2020 accessed at https://lithub.com/the-mankiewicz-brothers-biographer-weighs-in-on-david-finchers-mank/ on 7 December 2020.

[2] Peter Maas, “Setting the Record Straight”. Esquire, May 1993, 119(5), pp. 56 – 59.

[3] May 1993, Esquire  and for a broader perspective see Gerry O’Sullivan “G-Wo/Man – homosexuality of J. Edgar Hoover – Against the Grain – Column,”.Humanist. retrieved from  FindArticles.com on 4 June 2010.

[4] Athan G. Theoharis, J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime: An Historical Antidote, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1995 [2009]. p. 39.