Rising in righteous anger: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Drop (2014)

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

A figure that constantly re-occurs in American cinema is an even-tempered man – it is almost always a man – brought to the end of his tether, who reacts in righteous anger against a vile enemy. The plot usually concerns a series of provocations, and a final last straw, before a cathartic episode of violence, where the enemy is left dead, and order is restored. Various westerns have used the plot. It is based on a long lineage, with the American writer Richard Slotkin arguing that the myths developed from early American history represented “Regeneration Through Violence”.[1]  

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance is one of the great screen villains. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

The character is central to director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). An even-tempered lawyer Ranson Stoddard, played by James Stewart, is on his way to make a fortune in the west. In the opening scene, Stoddard is savagely beaten and left for dead. Recovering from the attack, he recongnises his attacker as Liberty Valance, but there is no law here to stop him. Stoddard is pushed beyond breaking point by Valance, who is played with malevolent glee by Lee Marvin. Yet Stoddard still believes in the law, but the power on the frontier belongs to those with guns and the ability and inclination to use them. After endless provocations, Stoddard must pick up a gun to fight Valance. His showdown with Valance leads him to being celebrated across the territory, and it forms the basis for a successful political career.

The idea of the frontier holds a strong grip on the American imagination. As the United States grew towards the west, the idea of a better life on the frontier took hold. But in no short time, the frontier as a physical entity disappeared, the land became settled, and towns and cities were erected. The frontier was no longer dangerous. The wild frontier in Shinbone begins to break down, and all that is left of the town’s origins is unreliable myths about its origins. When Stoddard and his wife Hallie leave Shinbone at the end of the film, Hallie tells him: “This country used to be a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. You helped to make it.” The town of Shinbone becomes a settled and civilised community, almost unrecognisable from its violent origins. The shootout helps heal the community and allows the town to grow under the rule of law.

The savageness and the violence of the frontier would return with a vengeance to the decaying cities. The shift can be seen from one of John Ford’s westerns, Fort Apache (1948), set on the western plains, providing at least partial inspiration for Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), where urban decay has caused crime on a massive scale. These inner-city areas appear lawless, with the police barely holding the line. Other films would follow in its footsteps. While Ranson Stoddard was not entirely a ‘righteous man,’ as his career is built on a lie, Bobby Saginowski, played by Tom Hardy, is even darker in The Drop (2014). Bob Saginowski appears to be a passive man working as a quiet barman at a neighbourhood bar in a rough working-class area of Boston. Little by little, we learn that Saginowski is not as harmless as he appears. Both he and his cousin Marvin Stipler, played by James Gandolfini, were low-level gangsters who lost out to a violent gang of Chechen mobsters. The cousins now work for the Chechen gang, who occasionally use their bar as a ‘drop’ for money for their various unlawful enterprises.

The Drop is a savage reworking of the themes in the Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Bobby finds a battered pit bull pup abandoned in a rubbish bin on the way home from work. In rescuing the puppy, Saginowski meets Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, and she guides him on how to take care of the injured puppy. Bobby keeps the dog while beginning to form a relationship with Nadia. Saginowski is threatened by Eric Deeds, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a former abusive partner of Nadia. Deeds had injured the dog and left it to die where Nadia would find it. Deeds has a reputation on the street as a killer, and he finds various ways to intimidate Saginowski, demanding money for the dog and terrorising Nadia. Deeds eventually threatens to kill Nadia to get the money from the drop.

At which point, Saginowski shoots him twice in the face and yells at his corpse: “Go out for a dinner still dressed like you’re in your living room. You wear those big, you wear those big hippity hoppity clown shoes, and you speak to women terribly. You treat them despicably. You hurt harmless dogs that can’t even defend themselves. I’m tired of you, man. I’m tired of you, you embarrass me.” The righteous man had responded to the threats and taunts, and ‘nobody’ will hurt Nadia anymore.

Both Stoddard and Saginowski would win the woman in their respective films but at a cost. In rising in righteous anger, both have lost something. Unlike Stoddard, Saginowski is no innocent thrust into this position.  In the twenty-first century, the righteous man has become far murkier. A practicing Catholic, Saginowski believes he is damned for previous crimes – including a previous murder – for eternity. He ponders his fate: “There are some sins that you commit that you can’t come back from, you know, no matter how hard you try. You just can’t. It’s like the devil is waiting for your body to quit. Because he knows, he knows that he already owns your soul. And then I think maybe there’s no devil. You die… and God, he says, Nah, nah you can’t come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away, and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.” Yet to survive in their respective worlds, they must make an impossible choice between violence or death or flight. The eruption of righteous anger taints both Saginowski and Stoddard.

Like Stoddard, Deeds is credited with a killing he never committed. For the slaying, Stoddard is given political glory, while Deeds gains street credibility. In other ways, Saginowski represents an amalgam of Stoddard and the figure of Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, who is the man who really shoots Valance in an act of cold murder. Unlike Doniphon, Saginowski faces his tormentor directly and shoots him in self-defence. But a decade earlier, Saginowski had also shot a man who posed no threat to him. Similarly, Doniphon shoots Valance from a darkened alley, giving the outlaw no chance to defend himself. The Drop is a savage updating of the themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The frontier may have moved to the inner city, but the dynamics of the film have remained largely the same.

[1] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Thawed out horror – The Thing from Another World and The Tomorrow War.

The Thing from Another World captured cold war tensions. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

A hideous monster armed with massive powers lies frozen in the earth for centuries. An accident or something else causes it to thaw allowing for the creature to awaken and wreak havoc. The idea has been a staple for several films, TV shows and books. The most recent example is The Tomorrow War (2021), released through the streaming service Amazon/Prime. Many centuries previously, an alien spaceship carrying genetically engineered killer beasts crashed into the frozen Russian north. The beasts are bred to kill everything in their path and are virtually unstoppable. Even though the alien spaceship smashed into earth hundreds of years ago, the creatures have remained frozen but still alive. The alien monsters are released as global warming melts the ground around their frozen spaceship. As temperatures increase, the alien beasts come to life and threaten to destroy all of humanity.

Due to the discovery of time travel in the near future, soldiers can return to the present day to warn that civilization has 30 years to deal with the creatures or humanity will be extinct. In response to the threat, a rag-tag group of soldiers are sent to the future to fight the ‘Tomorrow War.’ The underlying fear is that global warming will destroy us all in the future if we do not do something about it now.[1]

It is surprising how long it has taken for filmmakers to address climate change. Given the amount of coverage and concern for global warming, it seems that Hollywood is reluctant to address climate change issues. In 2020, critic Nicholas Barber pointed out that Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) was one of few popular films to deal with the issue. [2] Barber is correct that few films contain the theme, but it could be that climate change is just too fearful a topic for filmmakers to tackle at the moment.

This reluctance for filmmakers to wrestle with pressing topics has certainly been the case in previous decades. In the 1950s, direct treatments of communism proved to be highly unpopular, but allegorical treatments in science fiction, biblical epics, and even westerns could deal with this pressing issue. The famous horror author Stephen King recalled seeing Earth versus Flying Saucers when the Sputnik scare was in full flight. King wrote that the monsters flying the alien craft were a depiction of the feared Russians. The destruction of the American Capital brought to the surface fears of nuclear oblivion.[3] King saw the destruction of the flyers saucers as a mental respite for those self-same cold war tensions.

The Tomorrow War contains a nod to another science fiction film of the 1950s. The Thing from Another World (1951) has another monster being released from the frozen depths of the polar regions. The 1951 film depicted an Antarctic expedition discovering an alien frozen beneath the ice. The alien in The Thing from Another World (1951) was a popular depiction of communism controlling American society by stealth.  The ‘thing’ was a mobile vegetable, and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory, and they quickly grew.  If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the United States – it could threaten the world.  This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further.  In other words, if the alien was not stopped at an early stage, then the threat would grow until it became impossible to resist.  This argument contains the logic of Cold War containment, which would drive the United States into a myriad of proxy wars.  To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies.  Keep watching the skies.’

Stephen King believed The Thing from Another World (1951) was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser.[4]  He wrote that for average America, the scientists were vilified in American cinema in the 1950s. This group had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age.  According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain.[5]  Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany, which had almost been lost.  It was better to fight than to appease.  When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms.  Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.

Of course, fears are not always political. The same message of thawed horror is contained in the first season of Fortitude (2012), a British TV show about a community living well within the arctic circle, but in this case, the horror is decidedly different. A frozen carcass of a long-dead animal is left to thaw, releasing some insects that could rip apart the small community. The insects turn people into psychopaths, and the community begins to disintegrate as blame shifts from one person to another. The fears raised in Fortitude deal with the idea that each individual can turn into a psychopath given the right circumstances. The Tomorrow War (2020), made in today’s environment, deals with another set of fears about global warming. For The Thing From Another Planet (1951), it was the threat of communism. These works have the same basic plot of a frozen terror being thawed and then released. The story has stayed the same, but the fears have changed.

[1] Some critics argued that this film was unsuccessful in linking climate change fears to a science fiction film, but the message about global warming is undeniable. Peter Suderman, The Tomorrow War Is a Tortured Global Warming Metaphor Disguised as a Dull Action Movie, 7 February 2021, accessed at https://reason.com/2021/07/02/the-tomorrow-war-is-a-tortured-global-warming-metaphor-disguised-as-a-dull-action-movie/ on 20 August 2021.

[2] Nicholas Barber, Why does cinema ignore climate change?, BBC, 17 April 2020, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200416-why-does-cinema-ignore-climate-change on 20 August 2021.

[3] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, London: MacDonald  1981, 25-27.

[4] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, London: MacDonald  1981, 173.

[5] ibid, 174.

Radical Innocence reconsidered

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

The fate of one member of the Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo, was recently the subject of a  widely released film. Trumbo (2015) foreshadowed a renewed interest in Hollywood’s Red Scare of the 1950s. The film premiered six months before Donald Trump began his Presidential campaign with its ‘America first’ message – the slogan was the title of another right-wing populist group dating back to isolationist debate before the Second World War. It appears that the rise of a new form of right-wing populism which culminated in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2021 has led to greater interest in the McCarthyite period of the 1950s. Links between the two periods are easy to find. Donald Trump’s one-time legal advisor was Roy Cohn, an assistant to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose legal and political tactics gave rise to the term McCarthyism.

The reissue of Bernard F. Dick’s Radical Innocence, a 1988 critical study of the Hollywood Ten, is another indicator of that growing interest.[1] Professor Dick is a prolific writer on the film industry and has recently released a book on films that dealt with communism in the 1950s called The Screen is Red. His Anatomy of Film is a standard text. He has also written a history of American cinema in World War II, Second World War: The Star-Spangled Screen, which has been highly influential. Dick has recently published a book on Columbia Pictures and he has also written books on the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman and directors Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz.

The Hollywood Ten – as they became known – appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947. The longwinded title for the committee quickly shortened to become HUAC, and its history is infamous. These HUAC hearings were highly unfair and vindictive. These investigations uncovered little or nothing about communism in the film industry that wasn’t already known and were more about pre-election publicity for the committee members. Many historians have labelled the hearings a ‘show trial’ for good reasons.[2] HUAC handpicked some conservatives to testify about the perils of communism in American cinema. They relied on the FBI to determine suitable communists or left wingers to interrogate.

These ‘unfriendly witnesses’ which came to be called the Hollywood Ten comprised Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Albert Maltz, Herbert Biberman, and Ring Lardner, Jr.  They were called unfriendly witnesses as they refused to answer the committee’s questions about their political affiliations and were eventually imprisoned for contempt of Congress. One of its members, Ring Lardner Jr once said that the Hollywood Ten was a group of people who were thrown together. Some people he liked and others he didn’t. Right through the hearings and beyond, they argued over strategy and tactics and with each other. They were never a cohesive unit.

Dick agrees with Lardner that the Hollywood Ten were an accidental group of writers and directors selected by the committee. His conclusion is backed by the FBI reports that show the investigations were chaotic, with a constant reshuffling of witnesses right up to the public hearings in October 1947. Nonetheless, they were depicted as a homogenous group of left-wing writers and directors. Dick points out: “They did not come to a particular place for a particular purpose, nor did they have a common aesthetic; they represented different talents within the industry as well as different traditions within the arts.”

The reputation of the Hollywood Ten has always been looked at through a political prism, and the group’s critical reputation was never high. Dick noted that: ‘For more than forty years, they have also been stigmatized by Billy Wilder’s quip “Of the unfriendly Ten, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly.”’ Dick fails to mention that while the quote has been attributed to Wilder and has been widely used, it may just be a spurious Hollywood anecdote. It certainly sounds like Wilder’s sense of humour, but it has never been linked to him directly from any contemporary source.[3] It is also at odds with the actions Wilder took during the hearings. Wilder provided nominal support for the Hollywood Ten through the Committee of the First Amendment. Wilder was also not a man who routinely savaged the reputation of his fellow writers and directors. He was normally polite and often complimentary.[4]

Even if the quote is fictitious, Dick is correct in saying that the Hollywood Ten’s cinematic contribution has been largely ignored. Initially, the most visible figure was John Howard Lawson, whose highly volatile and adversarial testimony set the scene for the group. Lawson was dragged screaming from the hearings. Dick rightly notes that Lawson has been the subject of some academic research. Yet, the most prominent members of Hollywood Ten would be Edward Dymytrk and Dalton Trumbo, who took different paths to reinvigorate their careers. The others were largely ignored.

Crossfire, was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

At the time of the hearings, Dmytryk looked certain to be a successful director. He had directed a series of low-budget films until he made a major film noir in Murder, My Sweet (1944).  Just before the hearings, Dmytryk had made a strong film about anti-Semitism called Crossfire (1947). Even though it was a low-budget B film, it received several Academy Award nominations. The producer was Adrian Scott, who was called to testify before  HUAC. Dmytryk would eventually distance himself from the group and then give names as requested by the committee in later years. Following his rejection of the Hollywood Ten’s approach, Dmytryk returned to Hollywood. In the later part of his career, he was celebrated for his films, such as The Caine Mutiny, and he had a successful film career that ran until 1975. Dick spends a great deal of time on the director and his work.

Dalton Trumbo’s script for Spartacus (1960) helped break the blacklist. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In sharp contrast to Dmytryk, Trumbo would never testify and remained an unrelenting opponent of HUAC and was contemptuous of those who did. Trumbo would use ‘fronts’ to write a series of screenplays over the next ten years. He would then be noted as the man who broke the blacklist when he received credit for Spartacus (1960). Trumbo would return to Hollywood on his terms. He is also recognised for his “Only victims” speech at the Laurel Award dinner on 13 March 1970. It was a speech arguing that everyone involved lost from the HUAC investigation. The term was used by many, including Robert Vaughn, for his study of the blacklist and has become a defining statement of the period.[5] In this respect, Dick’s book is now a little dated. In 2021, Trumbo has become a hero since the release of a popular film and books about his life.

Dick looks beyond these three dominant figures and demonstrates that each of the Hollywood Ten contributed to film history. Some of the contributions were relatively minor, while others made major impacts. For example, Lester Cole made some interesting films, such as Among the Living (1941), described as a mixture of film noir, social drama, horror films with suspense. Samuel Ornitz wrote novels in a similar vein to James Joyce. Herbert Biberman would defy the blacklist and somehow direct Salt of the Earth, a film about a strike with strong feminist messages – everyone is equal.[6] Albert Maltz would write a highly regarded film noir in The Naked City (1948), his last screen credit for twenty-two years, and he was denied a screen credit for The Robe (1953) and many other successful films. Maltz would eventually return to being credited with Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). While Maltz was prolific, Alvah Bessie had not written a great deal for Hollywood. Still, Dick shows he made a strong impact through his novels, particularly Men in Battle, where he used his experiences as a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Ring Lardner Jr. left a legacy of sparkling wit with some of his screenplays, but Dick shows he had a broad range of skills. For example, along with John Howard Lawson, he was not credited for the legendary film noir Laura (1944). Lardner would revive his career in later years with films such as M*A*S*H (1970).

A Russian poster of Salt of the Earth, the 1954 Herbert J. Biberman historical melodrama starring Juan Chacon, Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, and David Sarvis. Banned fron beingscreend at the time of its release. In 1992 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Image and caption information courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Each of the Hollywood Ten is given a dedicated chapter, and Dick proves to be a fair-minded critic of their work. In doing so, Dick highlights the hidden tragedy of the hearings and the subsequent blacklist. The book shows that tremendously talented people were shunted aside for no good reason other than holding unpopular political views or engaging in lawful protest. Yet it is hard to agree with Dick’s general conclusion that: “It is a truism of American film history that the blacklist which followed the 1947 hearings contributed to the decline of the movie industry after World War II.” He further argued that “The greatest irony of the blacklist, then, was the way it backfired on the industry that set it in motion: it weakened the industry that it was supposed to strengthen; it strengthened some whom it was supposed to destroy by eliciting from them work that was often better than they had done previously. Yet some aspects of the blacklist transcend irony: the premature deaths and suicides it caused, the dull and sanctimonious films it spawned.”

The reality was that television was emerging after the Second World War, and it would undercut the industry far more aggressively than any political investigation. Yet even with its conservative slant, some of the cinema from the 1950s is among the greatest to reach the screen. Harvey (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), High Noon (1952), The War of the Worlds (1953), Rear Window (1954), Night of the Hunter (1955), The Searchers (1956), Twelve Angry Men (1957), Vertigo (1958) and Ben Hur (1959) are among the films made during this time, and it is not evidence of a film industry in creative decline.

Moreover, the HUAC investigation was never about strengthening the film industry; it was about publicity for the Congressional investigators. Certainly, each of the Hollywood Ten suffered greatly due to the HUAC investigation. They suffered alongside tens of thousands of other people across the United States in the Red Scare period. In broad terms, American democracy was shown to have an Achilles heel regarding right-wing populism – a flaw even more evident today.

One clear shortcoming of the reissued book is that there is no attempt to update or place the work in its contemporary context. More than 30 years after its initial publication, the work deserves some form of updating. Even a short biographical essay or afterword would have been useful to examine the scholarship on the Hollywood Ten over the past decades. A revised bibliography should have been included to refer to works published after 1989. Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo’s work on Dalton Trumbo is an important addition to the literature,[7] as is Gerald Horne’s detailed study of John Howard Lawson.[8] Jennifer E. Langdon has written well about Adrian Scott and Crossfire.[9] Other articles on the critical and political contributions of individual members of the Hollywood Ten have should also have been noted. Radical Innocence remains interesting and important, but its publication represents a lost opportunity to refresh a key work.

[1] Bernard F. Dick, Radical Innocence, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988 and re-released in 2021.

[2] Among others see Thomas Doherty, Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist, New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

[3] Most historians quote secondary sources or say it is widely quoted. See Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard. New York: Hyperion, 1998 or Donald T. Critchlow, When Hollywood was Right, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[4] Robert Horton (ed.). Billy Wilder: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

[5] Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: a Study of Show Business Blacklisting. New York: G P Putnam, 1972.

[6] The remarkable history of this film is told in H. J. Biberman, and Michael Wilson, Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film. Beacon Press, 1965.

[7] Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical. 2015.

[8] Gerald Horne, The Final Victim of the Blacklist John Howard Lawson: Dean of the Hollywood Ten. University of California Press, 2006.

[9] Jennifer E. Langdon, Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2010.

Selling your artistic soul: Halston or Sparks

Kevin Brianton. Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. Image courtesy of emovieposter.

Halston (Netflix) looks to be an ultramodern series as it delves into the high-powered world of New York fashion. However, it has mythical echoes that link back for centuries. Roy Halston Frowick was an American fashion designer who courted fame and fortune in the 1960s and 1970s. His design’s brand name was Halston, and it was noted for its minimal or clean look. Halston charts his rise and fall as a celebrated designer after he rose to fame when Jackie Kennedy wore one of his hats for the JFK Presidential inauguration in 1961.

Halston is based on a biography of the life and work of the fashion designer by Stephen Gaines called Simply Halston.[1] Halston would work closely with the New York rich list and Hollywood and Broadway celebrities to further cement his reputation. In 1973, Halston sold his high-profile design company to Norton Simon Industries, and the business relationship began well when he created a successful fragrance.

The company then produced a wide range of merchandise bearing the brand name. However, Halston began to use drugs, and his work slipped over the years. Norton Simon was taken over, and the Halston division was re-sold. His new corporate masters grew tired of his erratic work habits and lack of concern for profits. He was eventually banished as a designer from the company that bore his name. Halston remained a wealthy man, but he lost control of his designs – and his name – in the process.

Halston poster (Netflix)

In one key scene in Halston, the designer decides to sign over his firm to a corporate backer. It made great financial sense, as he sold his name for a “hundred million dollars.” He could not buy it back again. Change the word “name” to “soul,” and it is clear that Halston has an old-fashioned morality tale at its core. These stories began in the seventh century when Saint Theophilus the Penitent or Theophilus of Adana took the deadly bargain to become a bishop.

These stories have re-emerged at different times through the centuries. The idea of a person choosing to sell their soul for material reward has also been written at various times by Marlowe, Goethe, Wilde and many others.[2] The same idea occasionally appeared in American cinema. Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. It can also be seen in films such as Faust (1929), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941),  and Angel on My Shoulder (1946), which all had the theme of a man selling his soul for some form of reward.

A world away from the international fashion scene in New York is a documentary, The Sparks Brothers, which had its cinematic release in January 2021. The documentary film focuses on Ron and Russell Mael, who formed the band Sparks. It is a different success story, as, in contrast to Halston, the Mael Brothers are unlikely ever to sell out. They approach their music with great glee and a wicked sense of humor. Their “very best of sparks” album has a mere 56 songs.

The documentary is directed by Edgar Wright, who is also an unashamed fan of the musicians. The film focuses on the two brothers who formed the Los Angeles-based band when they were young, and the musicians continued making albums and going on tours for the next 50 years. The brothers were the core of this even though their bands formed and reformed several times over the years.

Over five decades, Sparks have constantly been reinventing themselves with a stream of musical ideas. To achieve this level of success and creativity over a long period, the brothers showed a strong and unrelenting work ethic. An interviewee says the brothers worked six or seven days a week for a few years to produce music for little or no return. Even when going well, the vast majority of their work – a total of 25 albums over 50 years – had only limited success. Every so often, they produced an album or a single that had a stronger resonance in the marketplace, but it is clear that the music is their main concern.

It would be naïve to say that the brothers ignore the business side of the equation – they are not artists suffering in a garret. The brothers appear to have a successful lifestyle – but it is certainly not on the same extravagant level as Halston with his New York apartments and first-class flights to Europe. The pair concentrate on the music they have created, and the band has developed tremendous respect throughout the music industry. In comparison to Halston, the brothers show that artistic success does not need to be self-destructive. The only drug issue for the brothers appears to be coffee. According to one interviewee, they go to the same coffee shop each day as a regular break from work – and they work almost every day.

On almost every level, the two works show different approaches to fame and success. In the 21st century, people may not sell their souls, but they can lose their integrity. Ron and Russell Mael appear to be characters from a Horatio Alger novel who get to the top by hard work, perseverance and talent, while Halston is depcited as more of a self-destructive genius. Even so, the artists have some similarities as they all come from relatively humble origins and worked their way up employingtheir abilites. These works provide two takes on the American dream and what compromises you should make to succeed.

[1] Stephen Gaines, Simply Halston, Independently published, 19 May 2021.

[2] Hedges, Inez. Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006. Accessed July 13, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood revisited

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

It is tremendous to see that the University of Kentucky Press is republishing Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood.[1] First released in 2004, Robert Birchard’s book helped spur a renewed interest in Cecil B. DeMille, which had begun to grow around 1985. Cecil B. DeMille’s reputation had been trashed from the 1960s to the 1980s as a commercially crass director with savage right-wing tendencies.

Any fair-minded reader of the book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood would see immediately that DeMille was far more than Charlton Heston parting the sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). The first thing that is evident is how many silent films DeMille created from 1915 to 1924. More than one critic has argued that DeMille was at his best during this time.

The second thing is just how little of his output was biblical epics. These films are his signature films, but they are hardly a major part of his career. If you count both versions of The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, and Samson and Delilah, the biblical epics add up to four films. Out of 70 films in a career spanning over 41 years, these cannot be considered an accurate summing of the director’s cinema.

Birchard’s careful examination of his films reveals a more complex and nuanced career. At its beginning, DeMille often struggled for a profile, and at various times he even battled to find work. He also changed his image and focus to suit the circumstances of the time. DeMille was an adapter of Victorian theatrical plays in the 1910s and domestic comedies where couple remarry in the 1920s. He began a series of American historical epics and westerns in the 1930s. There were also one-offs such as The Cheat (1915), The Godless Girl (1929), This Day and Age (1933), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), along with film versions of operas such as Carmen (1915), and even a proto-film noir in The Whispering Chorus (1918). Films such as Madam Satan (1930), which finished with people escaping with parachutes from a masked ball aboard a zeppelin thrashing about in a storm, defy any serious attempt at a category. It is impossible to pinpoint any consistent thread in his filmmaking.

I wrote a book in which DeMille featured heavily called Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist, published in 2016.[2] I contacted Robert while writing my book, and he could not have been more supportive. As my study progressed, it became clear that many of DeMille’s reputational problems came from the coverage of his actions at the Screen Directors Meeting of 1950. Unfortunately, the Directors Guild of America denied access to their records, and the transcript was difficult to find. That all changed when Joseph Mankiewicz’s family released his copy to the Margaret Herrick Library. Looking at the court transcript of the meeting revealed that most participants had been either misquoted or selectively quoted. In particular, John Ford’s contribution was savagely misrepresented. This discussion was not some minor footnote of interest to only pedantic historians. Ford’s attack on DeMille was one of the mainstays of both their reputations as well as a Hollywood legend. In that book, I demonstrated a lot of what had been written about the Screen Directors Meeting of 1950, where Cecil B. DeMille was deposed, was pure invention. I paid credit to Robert Birchard for being the first historian to detect the false history – that judgment still stands.

That conclusion was obvious from a simple reading of the document, but Birchard did more than just read the transcript. On viewing the Screen Directors Meeting transcript, Birchard then suggested that Ford had not said: “I don’t like him, but I admire him”  – a comment supposedly made to damn DeMille. What Ford had possibly said was, “I not only like him, but I admire him.” Read in context with Ford’s relationship with DeMille and the rest of speech, Birchard’s view is almost certainly correct. Birchard also noted a clear misrepresentation of Ford’s remarks.  He wrote to me: ‘I believe that the words… that read ‘I mean the little guy that creeps in and says that [the] russians stink.’  should more probably read ‘I mean the little guy who creeps in and says the rushes stink’  i.e. the producers who complain about the footage the director is turning out.  The expression ‘that the russians stink’ makes no real sense – even though it has been quoted widely.

The above example showed how a good film historian could look at an old source and uncover new information.The same approach can be seen throughout the book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, representing a fine example of a film historian looking again to reveal a more nuanced picture. I am not the only historian who has a debt to Birchard, as almost every writer who has looked at DeMille since 2004 owes something to his work.

When it was published, DeMille’s reputation was rising – albeit slowly. In 1977 George Lucas directed Star Wars, a large-budget film, which had opened up a new era of epic cinema. The most successful director of the period was Steven Spielberg, director of his big-budget films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and he would later claim that one of the directors who influenced him as a young man was DeMille.[3] Big budget epics were back in favour, and DeMille’s career was being more politely considered.

It was a happy accident that put DeMille back on the front pages. In 1923, probably to save money, DeMille had ordered that the set of The Ten Commandments be dismantled and covered over by the sand. The set remained undisturbed until 1985 when it was found by filmmaker Peter Brosnan and archeologist John Parker.[4] The site’s discovery created worldwide media attention and focused on DeMille’s role as a Hollywood pioneer. It was a serious boost to DeMille’s reputation because the discoverers depicted DeMille in more positive terms. A group organiser claimed, “Without Cecil B. DeMille, (films such as) Titanic would never have happened. Because Hollywood as we know it would never have happened.” [5]

Birchard built on this momentum. Yet his work could not have emerged without the support of the de Mille family, who released his documents through the Cecil B. DeMille archive at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and gave him other support. In 2004, Kevin Brownlow released a documentary on him for American TV – with Birchard being interviewed extensively for the film. It was clear that DeMille’s star was on the rise, and Birchard’s book arrived exactly the right time. He could not have asked for better pre-publicity.

My only regret with the book is that Robert Birchard did not follow through on his original idea to write a full biography. His book is mostly confined to the production history of films, which take up a fair proportion of DeMille’s life. Still, you can see that he occasionally allowed himself to wander away from the films to look at DeMille’s life and times. I think if Birchard had wished, he could have written an exceptional biography. This book is a fine achievement, but it leaves you wanting more.

[1] Birchard, Robert S. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

[2] Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. 2016.

[3] Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic, directed by Kevin Brownlow, 2004.

[4]Anne Edwards, The De Milles: An American Family, Collins, London, 1988, p. 7 and http://www.lostcitydemille.com.

[5] The organiser is not named but they are quoted on http://www.lostcitydemille.com/titanic.html.

Cold War or old war?

Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia

Edited by Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, University of Mississippi Press, 2020.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University

By the time  Joe Biden was elected President, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated for more than a decade. The media repeatedly used the term ‘a new Cold War” to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia. The first Cold War was a term developed in 1947 by the American writer, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman. The Cold War was the conflict between the USSR and the West from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The Cold War was depicted as the clear ideological conflict between communism and liberal democracies across the world – a claim open to debate. Of course, the current state of US – Russian relations has little or nothing to do with communism. This new “Cold War” appears to have been running from 2012 to today when Russia became more aggressive, particularly in the Ukraine. The iciness of world diplomacy has widespread implications, including a renewed interest in Russians as villains in American cinema. The editor of Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia, Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, “examines the recent growth in Russia-related films as well as the effectiveness of understanding the current US-Russia political crisis; through the lens of recent Cold War films and T.V. shows.” (4)  A clear influence to many of the writers in the book is Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, which maps out the recent menace of the re-emergence of Russian hostility.[1]  The book hopes to enrich the conventional understandings of the Cold War during both the Trump and Obama administrations.

This collection of articles does not have a uniform methodological or theoretical approach. Still, the editor  Prorokova-Konrad attempts to draw the essays together with an introductory discussion about Hollywood’s previous cold war spasms in the late 1910s and 1950s. Prorokova-Konrad only makes a faint mention of silent films with anti-communist sympathies, and she dates anti-communist films as far back as Ninotchka (1939). However, anti-Soviet films have had a much longer pedigree than the late 1930s. A mention of the film A Bolshevism on Trial (1919) showed that anti-communism had a long lineage, dating back to the Russian Revolution. Some of the 1950s anti-communist films are referenced, but it is an incomplete listing. Even key films in the 1950s, such as Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952), are only mentioned in passing. If the book’s title is a “renewed obsession,” the reader might be expected to be introduced to what exactly Hollywood was revisiting more thoroughly.

Bridge of Spies is seen as part of Cold War Nostalgia. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The opening section, called “Enduring Clichés,” begins with the article: The Warm Glow of Cold War Nostalgia by Vesta Silva & Jon Wiebel. It is difficult to see how the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis could create a warm glow in any sensible person. Still, the authors argue that “the second decade of the twenty-first century has seen an explosion of Cold War stories in American films and television series that highlight a nostalgic desire for a return to the more certain.” Looking at the issue through the lens of  The Bridge of Spies (2015) and Atomic Blonde (2017), they examine how the Cold War has been depicted through the actions of cinematic heroes. The films promote a sense of certainty that is lacking in the present-day War on Terror and the rise of Russia. The idea of nostalgia is also present in Big Rewards for the Small Screen by Helena Goscilo, and it is the best paper of the opening section. The essay looks at how The Man from U.N.C.L.E was depicted in TV series in the 1960s and a later film version directed by Guy Ritchie in 2015. As well as mentioning some films from the early stages of the Cold War, Grocilo uses the programs as an opportunity to look at the cultural responses within their cultural settings.

Red Sparrow is referenced by many of the essays. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With any disparate collection of articles, some essays are better than others. There is a mixture of heavy-handed theoretical works, and others are free of such concerns. One of the more impressive articles is  Ian Scott’s examination of the various films that have used Berlin as its setting, such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965).  It is an interesting and perceptive survey of the topic, and it is refreshing to see a writer who sees this recent crop of films as part of a tradition. The same comment can be made about The Shape of Water and the Cold War Revisited by Cyndy Hendershot. This essay is a highly observant one looking at how The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was reworked in the 21st century. Another good essay is “Your Body Belongs to the State by Dan Ward, which concentrates on the depiction of heroines in Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow. Perhaps the most successful essay is Laughing at the Early Cold War by Lori Maguire, where she provides a good introduction to these films. Again, she shows that films such as Hail Caesar (2016) and Death of Stalin (2017) have many predecessors. By referencing films such as the British comedy Our Man in Havana (1959), Maguire demonstrates a sound grasp of cinema history and the long lineage of these films.

Part of long lineage of Cold War satire is Our Man in Havana. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet in presenting a case for a ‘Hollywood obsession,’ some selections are quite dubious. Many of the films are not even American – and cannot be considered part of Hollywood’s cinema – for example, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) was a British, French and German co-production. The Death of Stalin (2017) was a British, French and Belgium co-production, and both films are repeatedly referenced. However, it is not just the film industry. To place TV shows as part of a ‘Hollywood obsession’ is stretching the boundaries a little. One of the essays: Of Mothers and Motherlands by David LaRocca, focuses on the American TV show The Americans (2013 – 2018). The Americans was a popular program that told the story of two agents who passed as the heads of an all-American family. LaRocca provides an excellent survey of the show. Astonishingly for an American program, audiences supported the two Russian spies as they killed and attempted to destroy American democracy. It is a complex program with multi-levels showing how spies had to balance their family lives with their intelligence work.

Each of the essays has various strengths and weaknesses, but what is generally missing from the book is any discussion of the long-running diplomatic rifts between the West and Russia. This group of papers barely looks beyond the Second World War. The end of the Cold War meant that the USSR was no longer a superpower, and Soviet Communism was a spent force in world affairs. Russia imploded but was always going to reassert itself in some form as a regional power. One exception was Lori Maguire, who connected Putin’s rule back to Stalin, but there are other possible historical resonances. Putin represented another version of Russian authoritarianism that has impacted the country’s history for centuries.

Indeed, since the rise of the nation-states in the nineteenth century, tensions and conflicts between countries have ebbed and flowed. Russia has always been a player in the world and European politics. Britain and Russia wrestled for control of Afghanistan for many decades. “Cold War II” is a great title for the marketing department, and it makes for racy headlines for newspapers – but it is just not the case. The world is simply facing the same geographical dilemmas that have faced diplomats for centuries – albeit with nuclear weapons. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography certainly outlined the continuities of Russian history.[2] The essayists could have also looked further afield at books such as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of Red Czar,[3] and Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, which links communism and Putin’s rule as back to the Romanovs. Of these writers, Myers is mentioned once and crudely dismissed.[4] These books highlight that authoritarian rulers or Tsars have existed throughout Russian history, and both Stalin and Putin are part of that tradition – there is no new Cold War. The essayists could even have looked back to the reign of Catherine the Great for inspiration to explain some of the depictions. Interestingly, she was also the subject of two TV series: Catherine the Great (2019) and The Great (2020) and, but these were released after the book was written. 

What is also missing is any discussion of the box office success of these films, which might indicate the acceptance or take-up rate of ideas contained in the film. Few of the films examined were highly successful, which raises the question of what impact, if any, they made. It is one thing to say the films contained these ideas, but if the films were not watched, their impact is minimal. Look for the term ‘box office,’ and it is confined to one footnote in an essay discussing representations of US – Russia foreign policy by Thomas J. Cobb as represented in the film Black Panther, which did resonate with United States audiences in a way that Red Sparrow did not. Yet, it is the less successful Red Sparrow that is the focus of several writers.

Black Panther is one ofthe few successful films discussed at any length. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The timing of the book is also a little unfortunate. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) did not make the cut for these essays due to its launch after publication. It is a highly popular TV series with an interesting depiction of the Soviet Union. The central character Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, a United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972. The TV show cuts against the book’s central premise that most television and film depictions of Russia are menacing. While the Soviet Union is depicted as a harsh regime, the people in it are human. The American Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but they are also courteous and dignified. While her opponent Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph. The show then depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other. If the book had been issued a little later, the success of The Queens Gambit (2020) might have made the book’s tone more optimistic. It is not the only example, as The Courier (2020) also highlighted a positive relationship between a London businessman and a Russian spy that may have helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aside from a few exceptions, the papers have little or no optimism about the relationship. It is both an interesting and pessimistic book.

[1] Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[2] Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, London: Scribner, 2016

[3] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

[4] Steven Lee, Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. First Vintage Books ed. 2016.

Vitagraph America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio

Kevin Brianton

Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne

Andrew A. Erish is a historian who is not interested in the latest fashionable cinema or the trendiest director. Instead, his focus has always been detailed archive work of the origins of cinema. In doing so, he dismantles some of Hollywood’s most cherished legends. For example, his first book on Colonel William N. Selig was a riposte to those considered that D. W. Griffith or Cecil. B. DeMille had “invented” Hollywood, and he delivered detailed and grounded evidence to support his case.[1]

Erish has now produced a second book on similar terrain, and in this work, he wants to re-establish the reputation of Vitagraph, which he calls America’s first great studio. In his introduction, he argues that: “Unfortunately, if Vitagraph is mentioned at all in the histories, documentaries, and textbooks, it is usually in conjunction with its affiliation in the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), better known as the odious Trust. By virtue of its membership in the MPPC, Vitagraph has been mischaracterized as being the product of unimaginative, short-sighted engineers who produced a primitive form of cinema solely in the pursuit of quick profits that ceased the moment those better-known, more talented and intelligent showmen took over the industry.”[2] Erish argues that Paramount, Fox, Universal, MGM and Warner Brothers took over the American motion picture industry from Vitagraph and history was written by the victors. Not only was Vitagraph their predecessor, but its techniques would also even predate the cinematic mastery of D. W. Griffith, and its impact was immense.

To achieve the goal of re-establishing Vitagraph, Erish did what an astonishing number of film historians fail to accomplish: he sat down and watched the films. It is no small task. The studio would run until 1925 and produce about 3500 movies, and it is estimated 700 survive in some form. Then having viewed all accessible prints, increasingly available on the internet, Erish then backs his viewings up with detailed archival research. The end result is a detailed and fascinating revisionist history.

Erish is certainly not a historian who recycles information, and his treatment of secondary sources is exemplary. For example, movie memoirs are notoriously inaccurate, and many historians would have lifted material from Vitagraph’s founder Albert Smith’s memoir Two Reels and a Crank published in 1952.[3] However, Erish does not take anything for granted and sees the book as being entertaining than accurate. It is a sound decision, as Smith worked with film publicist Phil Koury to produce the work, and Koury’s books are not renowned for their accuracy. His account of his working with Cecil B. DeMille is also highly entertaining with a mine of information, but it needs to be treated carefully. [4]

Erish takes the reader into the world of early cinema when short films were shown for a few cents in shops on street corners. Vitagraph Studios was established in 1897 by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, who as young men wanted to make it as entertainers, but never quite achieved great or lasting fame on the stage. The book’s opening section deals with the massive impact of Thomas Edison on the development of motion pictures. The story of the young men finding “Thomas Edison’s Latest Marvel, the Kinetoscope,” which implants a business idea, is almost straight from the novelist Horatio Alger. They certainly had Alger’s character’s thrift. As Erish points out: “One of Smith’s appointment calendars, though printed for the year 1896, has pencil notations indicating that he used it instead for 1897—an example of his thrift in the face of poverty.”[5]

Initially, filmmakers could show people getting off a hansom or getting their shoes shined. One of the first successes of the company was literally a flag-waver. Following a clash between Spanish and American troops, a film was made of a Spanish Flag being pulled down to be replaced by the Stars and Stripes. It lasted thirty seconds and was a smashing success. This film paved the way for more extensive and longer films. But interest in these simple films quickly faded. Instead, people began to be more and more demanding. Vitagraph was more than equal to the task. By 1907, Vitagraph was producing a film every week.

The book highlights some forgotten chapters such as Bobby Connelly. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Following its success, it would branch into other areas as time progressed, including a series of Shakespeare plays, drawing the wrath of one censor who warned about a cinematic production of Macbeth: “The stabbing in the play is not predominant. But in the picture show it is the feature. . . . You see the dagger enter and come out and see the blood flow. . . . Shakespeare is art, but . . . not [as] adapted . . . for the 5-cent style of art.”  The tension between theatre and the rising force of cinema was immediately evident. Theatre would decline in impact, and it was this 5-cent art that was going to transform the entertainment world, and Vitagraph would play a central part.

Vitagraph would become one of the pioneers of this new form of entertainment. In 1906, it developed the studio system, and its films would become more complex and artistic. In 1907, it would create The Mill Girl, which Erish sees as highly important for cinema’s developing craft, arguing:“The complex construction of The Mill Girl was successful because Albert Smith trusted the growing sophistication of the audience for which it was made. It serves as a prime example of Vitagraph developing fundamental cinematic language in the pre-Griffith era.”[6] It is a bold statement bolstering his view that Vitagraph should get greater attention in film history.

Erish has a comprehensive knowledge of the era and its films. For example, when he compares Fantasmagorie (1908), considered to be the first animated film, he argues persuasively it owes a great deal to one of Vitagraph’s early films. Erish demonstrates a strong and clear grasp of the subject derived from deep and prolonged study. In addition, almost every chapter contains ideas and original comments about the films. Some of its cinema have entered film history for various reasons, and Erish fleshes out some of their impact. For example, A Florida Enchantment (1914) is considered to be the first film depicting lesbians. A Vitagraph film Black Beauty was the first film that the future director Ingmar Bergman ever saw in Stockholm in 1924 as a little boy. He could recall the film decades later, and no doubt, it played some role in his influential career.

Larry Semon’s work for Vitagraph is highlighted in the book. Buster Keaton paid tribute to his comedic films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

By 1908 Vitagraph employed close to two hundred full-time “painters, machinists, costumers, carpenters, lab technicians, editors, and sundry other specialized workers.” It would produce hundreds of films. In 1915, Vitagraph employed 1200 people, but the various legal battles with other parties and other circumstances eventually ran against the company. The Birth of A Nation, directed by D. W Griffith, rewrote the rules of the American film industry. Like all other studios, Vitagraph worked hard to create a rival in The Battle Cry of Peace, but they could not compete with the popularity of the Griffith epic. Unlike Griffith, Vitagraph released The Cambric Mask (1919), which would not provide a favourable description of the Ku Klux Klan.

During the First World War, business in Europe fell off a cliff as Vitagraph’s staff in Paris were conscripted into the war effort. However, when the conflict concluded, the company reached into new markets across Asia, becoming an international organsation. Eventually, the studio was not competitive against the newer studios, which employed fair means and foul to impede the growth of their long-established rival. Finally, in 1925, Vitagraph was bought out. The corporate historical revisionists such as Paramount head Adolph Zukor, who had long wanted Vitagraph destroyed, started to airbrush the studio from film history.

The Battle Cry of Peace was an attempt to cover the same ground as The Birth of A Nation. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster,

Of course, not all historians have followed the official story and some have done excellent work. Erish does pay tribute to the work of Anthony Slide, who wrote a short history in 1976 and then teamed with Alan Grevinson to produce a longer version published in 1987, which Grevinson further revised in 1993.[7] Charles Musser has recognised the contribution of Vitagraph in the first volume of History of American Cinema and elsewhere.[8]  Eileen Bowser also gave the studio respectful coverage in the second volume of the series.[9] Erish cites both extensively. While their work is important, it now clear that Vitagraph has found a suitable champion. Erish has demonstrated that the studio is far more crucial in American cinema history than previously considered. What is evident on almost every page is the deep knowledge that Erish possesses about early cinema and his overwhelming enthusiasm for it. While it is a demanding and detailed read, it is a fine piece of historical research as well as a testament to a largely unsung part of American cinema.

[1] Andrew A. Erish, Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

[2] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 1.

[3] Albert Smith and Phil Koury, Two Reels and A Crank, New York: Doubleday, 1952.

[4] Phil Koury, Yes Mr DeMille, New York: Putnam, 1959.

[5] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s first Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 10.

[6] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 47.

[7] Anthony Slide and Alan Grevinson, The Big V, A History of the Vitagraph Company, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1987.

[8] Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. History of the American Cinema; v. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 253 – 254.

[9] Eileen Bowser. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Canonical remakes

The 1939 version of classic The Wizard of Oz was a remake of a 1925 silent film. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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

About a decade ago, director Todd Haynes attempted to rework James Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce into a TV mini-series. Mildred Pierce had already been made into a highly successful film noir in 1945, and it is one of Joan Crawford’s best roles in her long career. A student of film, Haynes had a different visual style and emphasis to the original film. It is a serious piece of work in its own right. Mildred Pierce set a pretty high bar for those who reworked classic films, and many have been made recently. Some films In this recent trend have been highly creative and stand in their own right. Mank looked at the development of Citizen Kane (1939) and the role of Herman Mankiewicz.

While the 2020 BBC TV mini-series of Black Narcissus is firmly based on the Rumer Godden novel, the mini-series will almost invariably be compared to the 1947 film. The mini-series is the most recent production looking to reinterpret an entrenched member of the cinematic canon. The creators have aimed high; the combination of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is British directorial royalty. Black Narcissus (1947) is one of the pair’s most celebrated films. Indeed, it was ranked 44th by the British Film Institute in its top 100 films – and many would argue that position is a modest one.[1]  The team made this highly atmospheric thriller with a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between the two central characters of Sister Clodagh and Mister Dean.  It is set high in the Himlayan mountains, where Christianity is utterly foreign. It is beautifully made with the magnificent work of cinematographer Jack Cardiff and deserves its accolades.

The visual style of the TV series Black Narcissus closely resembles the film, reproducing this famous matte shot of the bell tower. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The immediate impression with this reworking of the film is that the set and the cinematography are so similar. It is almost as if the creators are seeking to re-establish the look and feel of the film. It is only when the flashbacks begin, that the creators dare to vary the visual style. It is a really difficult question of how far creators should stray from the confines of the original. In one extreme example,  Pyscho (1960) was remade as a virtual shot for shot tribute. The critic Roger Ebert noted: “Curious, how similar the new version is, and how different. If you have seen Hitchcock’s film, you already know the characters, the dialogue, the camera angles, the surprises. All that is missing is the tension–the conviction that something urgent is happening on the screen at this very moment. The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”[2] The clear lesson was that if you are going to take on a canonical work, you need to have something to say, or a new approach.

Black Narcissus avoids this trap and takes its own path. The temptation to repeat the unforgettable image of Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, filled with pale psychopathic rage moving to strike at Sister Clodagh, must have been strong. The new series employs a different set of images and approaches. Some of the changes work, and some do not. Overall, it is a skillful production with some powerful features and good acting, but it cannot compete with the original at the end of the day.

Rebecca (1940) was a highly successful film, and it is still regarded as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

A film that has already established itself in the film canon has entrenched defenders, and any filmmaker must be aware they are fighting an uphill critical battle to rework it. Some remakes have been disastrous. Rebecca (1940) was a highly successful film, and it is still regarded as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films.  Rebecca has been popular with producers: it was remade into a moderately successful version by the BBC in 1979; and it was a 1997 British-German television drama directed by Jim O’Brien. It was a creditable remake, but like many TV shows, it disappeared without a trace. In 2020, a new remake of Rebecca was made, but this time the reviews were disapproving. The New York Times writer A. O. Scott was scathing about the 2020 remake for Netflix: saying it lacked an emotional centre and was more interested in clothes than in the story. [3] When you are being compared to a centrepiece of the cinematic canon, the faults of a new film or TV series are only magnified.

Rebecca has been repeatedly remade, but none have threatened the canonical status of the Hitchcock film. Image courtesy of emovieposter.

With the pressure for new content from the streaming services, it is an obvious prediction that we will see more canonical remakes. They have a ready-made profile and an audience. Those who choose – or are compelled – to remake classic films will find the odds stacked against them. Yet a remake is not always inferior. It should also be recalled that John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941) was a remake of a 1930 film. The same can also be said of Wizard of Oz (1939), originally made in a silent version. But it should also be remembered that every production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream is, in a sense, a remake, and we have no qualms about seeing classic theatre being retold indefinitely.

[1] BFI 100 Top British Films, accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BFI_Top_100_British_films on 26 April 2021.

[2] Roger Ebert, “Pyscho,” 6 December 1998, Chicgo Sun-Times, accessed at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/psycho-1998 on 25 April 2021.

[3] A. O Scott, “Rebecca’ Review: A Classic Tale, but There’s Only One Hitch,” New York Times, 21 October 2020, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/21/movies/rebecca-review.html on 22 April 2021.

The haunted figure returning to a town: The Dry and its antecedents

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

Alan Ladd in Shane (1953), where a drifting gunfighter arrives at the homestead and tries to settle down. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

It is a simple plotline where a traveller appears on the horizon and arrives at a remote town.  The wanderer may be returning to the town or arriving for the first time. At the end of the film, the traveller leaves the town having faced the past or resolved present tensions or both.  The image appears again and again in films up to the present day. It is a standard way to start many films – particularly in westerns.  While the start may be similar, the scene opens up a wealth of stories. After their work, they cannot stay and must move on. In each of these films, the central figure leaves a town that is changed by their presence. The highly regarded Australian film, The Dry (2020), is the most recent example, but it is mainly seen in American westerns.

A central example is Shane (1953), where a drifting gunfighter arrives at the homestead and tries to settle down.  Giving up his shady past, Shane works hard for a family establishing a farm. Hoping to leave a lifetime of violence, Shane must deal with his demons while protecting a town and the family from its violent enemies. While Shane begins to fit into the community, he soon realises that he cannot stay if he is to defend the community. Once Shane has defeated the town’s enemies, he must leave as the gunfighter cannot silence his torments. He leaves, saying to a young boy that idolises him: ‘Joey, there’s no living with… with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.’[1] Shane was a highly popular and influential film, and it was itself derivative of any number of westerns, which told the story in different ways. The ideas run through many of Clint Eastwood’s westerns in High Plains Drifter (1973), where the gunfighter was pure vengeance, and of course, Pale Rider (1985), which was essentially an update of Shane.

In The Man Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ranson Stoddard, played by James Stewart cannot esacpe the lie of his past and must leave Shinbone.

John Ford provided a variation on the theme in The Man Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where Senator Ranson Stoddard returns to Shinbone after a long absence. Stoddard comes back to honor the memory of Tom Doniphon, who died a drunken and broken man. His return sparks the local newspaper editor’s interest, who does not accept his initial stories about the reasons for returning. After a while, Stoddard reluctantly reveals the real story behind the shooting of the loathsome Liberty Valance. The killing of the despised outlaw in self defence propelled him on to a great political career, but it was based on a lie. In telling the story, Stoddard returns some dignity to the figure of Tom Doniphon, who was a far more heroic figure than the town drunk. Stoddard has finally told the truth, perhaps looking for some dignity for his former friend and a release from the burden of living a lie. In Ford’s western universe, even when  the truth is told, it is better to ‘print the legend.’

Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear-cut attacks on the McCarthyite era’s politics. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The scene is not confined to westerns, and the films often had political and social messages. Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear-cut attacks on the McCarthyite era’s politics.  John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, is a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  He aimed to give a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years, and the townspeople were uneasy with his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’ 

The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno, a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said: ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[2] The film has strong political undertones. Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  Eventually, Macreedy defeats Reno, uncovering the truth of the past. The medal is given to the town to begin its healing after the ravages of Reno. Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, one of the petitioners for Joseph L. Mankiewicz and produced by Dore Schary, who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.[3]  The declaration signalled an anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls on 24 November 1947.  The declaration was supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Association of Motion Picture Producers – the studio heads – and was signed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.[4]  They voted to sack any employee who would not say under oath that they were not a communist.  This declaration meant that the Hollywood 10 were sacked without compensation.  The studio heads also voted to refuse to employ any person with communist beliefs. Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[5]  It was clear that these events impacted the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

It seems to be a world away from the Hollywood Westerns. Yet The Dry belongs to this group of films, which have essentially the same basic plot. The individual has some tortured relationship with the town and left for various reasons – good or bad. In The Dry, Aaron Falk is a Federal Police Officer who returns to his hometown in rural Australia, suffering from a year-long drought. Falk is to attend his childhood friend Luke’s funeral. Luke is thought to have killed his wife and son and then committed suicide. Played by Eric Bana,  Falk does not want to return to the town, as he left under a cloud, suspected of killing his teenage sweetheart Ellie Deacon. Even though he wants to stay only a day, Falk immediately suspects that something has been missed in the investigation. Linking with the local police, Falk tries to prove that Luke was innocent and deal with the past accusations.

This investigation is conducted against the backdrop of the town’s pent-up rage spurred by the ongoing drought. Despite these obstacles, by the end of the film, Falk has resolved the town’s problems – aside from the drought – and is ready to move away. In an almost classic sequence at the end of The Dry, Falk walks away from the camera towards the horizon. Falk is almost riding off into the sunset like Shane or Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider. In Bay Day at Black Rock, Macreedy takes the train, as does Ranson Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard says to his wife that he would like to return to the town in their retirement – his wife agrees wholeheartedly but realises it is a pipe dream when the conductor says: “Nothing is too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” They realise the western myth will not leave them alone. Like the others, these figures have resolved the tensions of the town and need to move on.

The nameless gunfighter becomes a force of revenge in High Plains Drifter (1973). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Shane Listing on IMDB, accessed at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046303/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu, accessed on 15 April 2021.

[2] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman.

[3] Phillip French, The Movie Moguls, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1969, p. 154.  Alogn with Schary, producers Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wagner opposed the declaration.

[4] Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, Headline, London, 1986, p. 332.

[5] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975,  700-716.

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

The upcoming film Bad Blood depicting the rise and fall of Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is creating strong interest. 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, sideline 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, sideline 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.