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The Filmmakers - D. W. Griffith, Thomas H. Ince, Mack Sennett, Herbert Brenon, Lois Weber

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I n SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Billy Wilder’s poisoned love letter to the silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim gives William Holden a little lesson in film history. “There were three young directors who showed promise in those days,” he says. “D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max von Mayerling.” This judgment is not proto-auteurism, nor a self-serving application of the great-man theory of film history. Instead, it reflects the realization, common in the days of silent pictures, that directors were generally the people who made things happen, at least as far as the art of cinema was concerned. 1

Today, industry analysts tell us that such power is spread among a small group of stars, directors, agents, and creative production heads. 2 While a number of silent stars certainly developed the same authority, they were essentially seeking to control their own vehicles. Agents had no such power, and most producers were little more than glorified production managers. A few studio production chiefs did manage to put their imprint on a seasons output, and an even smaller number of key screenwriters or “literary editors” could wield similar power. With producers exercising little authority, studio chiefs preoccupied with business and contractual matters, and the value of a screenplay not yet established at the level talkies would allow, much creative power was concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of filmmakers capable of conceiving, orchestrating, and executing specific projects.

A look at the careers of some of these men and women reveals several ways in which this power was acquired and executed. The following pages are not intended as comprehensive career surveys but do seek to indicate how some of the main creative issues of the day were addressed by a number of the industry’s most prominent figures.

Most of these examples are drawn from the ranks of directors, and it is useful to understand what comparative value their employers placed on their services. In November 1926, Paul Kohner, then a producer at Universal, prepared a confidential memorandum for the company’s president, Carl Laemmle. Kohner had been asked to compile a listing of “the most important directors and the salaries they are getting.” He used whatever confidential sources were available to him within the industry in producing the accompanying list, which leaves blanks for those figures of Page 212  which he was uncertain. Note that the list does not consider such directors as Griffith or DeMille who worked for their own companies, or Murnau and von Sternberg who were not yet established in Hollywood. The fact that some directors had profitsharing arrangements is also not taken into consideration. Misspellings have been corrected.

DATE NOVEMBER 8, 1926
TO MR. LAEMMLE FROM MR . KOHNER

PLEASE KEEP CONFIDENTIAL

As per your request, please find below a list of the most important directors and the salaries they are getting. I am not quite correct in every point but I have tried to check up as closely as I could, and you will find that the figures in most cases are correct and in some cases approximately as they are now. Where I was not sure of the salary I have left a blank space.

D. W. Griffith

On his death in 1948, D. W. Griffith was eulogized by James Agee as the one irreplaceable creator of film art: “He achieved what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel, the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language, the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” 3

All the work of one man! When Griffith died (and for many years after) this was one of the two key themes of Griffith criticism, the other being the even more romantic “he lived too long” (also a note sounded by Agee). Griffith directed films until 1931, but as Agee suggests, he had long since ceased to function as a force in the industry. The period covered in this volume contains the years of his fall from power, but it is not true that, as at least one critic believes, Griffith made no contributions of lasting significance in these years and all his work of value is contained in the pre-1914 Biograph films. 4 Even leaving aside the tremendous significance of THE BIRTH OF A NATION to the cinema’s social, cultural, and economic development, Griffith and his films continued to hold a dominant position on the American film scene through 1922 at least. While it could be argued that we see few additions to Griffith’s technical bag of tricks in these years, it is a mistake to reduce the man’s art to a handful of optical or mechanical innovations such as the close-up, trucking shot, or parallel editing—none of which he “invented” in any case.

Griffith’s reputation continued to develop in these years on the strength of a series of masterworks—INTOLERANCE (1916), HEARTS OF THE WORLD (1918), BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), WAY DOWN EAST (1920), and ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1922). What filmmaker has been able to match so varied and powerful an output over so short a span of time? Griffith’s stature alone invited imitators (Allan Dwan and John Ford, for example), while his former assistants (Erich von Stroheim and Raoul Walsh) spread firsthand knowledge of "the master’s " philosophy and method of work. These major films demonstrated that the struggles of individual characters, which could only be sketched in the best of the Biographs, might be significantly illuminated when placed against a broad, novelistic background. Griffith was not the first filmmaker to make this attempt, as a viewing of Pastrone’s CABIRIA (1914) will illustrate. But Cabiria’s struggles and the events of the Punic Wars seem only coincidentally connected. One does not inform the other.

Griffith’s works, on the other hand, demonstrate how human lives are inextricably bound up with the larger forces of culture and history. Eisenstein and others made much of Griffith’s debt to Dickens in his ability to characterize through carefully developed imagery, but what Griffith really took from Dickens was the ability to balance the intimate and the epic within the span of his broad narrative canvas. 5 To execute this possibility, he needed the increased scale his longer features allowed. It is for this reason that he inflated the production values of a film like WAY DOWN EAST . By emphasizing the social milieu that produced an Anna Moore, and by calling up the forces of nature for his climax, Griffith underscored his distance from the vision of Lottie Blair Parker, author of the original play.

Recent criticism, it might be noted, has added to Griffith’s reputation several of the inexpensive pastorals he directed between these more elaborate works, notably A ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY and TRUE HEART SUSIE (both 1919). Though obscured at the time by the attention given his more costly films, these modest works show Griffith to have been just as comfortable without major budgets and masses of extras. 6

In terms of his position within the industry, Griffith is also significant as one of the first major filmmakers to reject the growing power of the Hollywood establishment and to attempt to operate in a quasi-autonomous fashion. He quit Biograph when his first employer began to question his policies and established fruitful relationships Page 216  with Mutual (1914–1915), Triangle (1915–1917), Paramount-Artcraft (1917–1919), First National (1919–1920), and United Artists (1920–1924). These arrangements allowed him a more or less free hand, but while the artist in Griffith flourished, the inept businessman drove the operation to disaster.

The Griffith papers collected at the Museum of Modern Art in New York demonstrate how the vast grosses of films such as ORPHANS OF THE STORM or even ONE EXCITING NIGHT (1922) were not enough to offset Griffith’s expenses, caused largely by his inefficient distribution system and the high overhead of the Mamaroneck studio he built for himself in 1919–1920. The loss of his studio compelled him to sign with Paramount as a costly contract director, but Griffith had no ability to function on this level. He could be seen late at night, talking to himself as he wandered around Paramount’s cavernous Astoria studio. His energy went into a string of complaints to Paramount executives and a doomed attempt to promote Carol Dempster. His last silent films are his weakest. By 1926 he had already lived too long. 7

Thomas H. Ince

By 1915 Thomas H. Ince was already established as one of the leading American producers. Once a small-time stage actor, he appeared in one of Griffith’s Biograph films in 1910, then won a contract with the IMP Company, for which he directed Mary Pickford throughout 1911. On the strength of these films, he was hired by the New York Motion Picture Company to take charge of their Edendale studio later that year.

In a lengthy series of one- and two-reel films, Ince took advantage of the spectacular California landscapes and the services of the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show to breathe new life into the traditional Western and Civil War action genres. More important, he was one of the first to systematize film-studio production in a practical and efficient manner. While the Vitagraph studio had employed an effective division of labor before this time, little is known about its day-to-day operations, and it is unclear just how the various production units were organized under J. Stuart Blackton’s executive control. Enough data does exist on the Ince studio, however, to demonstrate that by 1913 he was employing a carefully diagrammed continuity script to extend his control over a number of directors and production units operating simultaneously away from his personal supervision. 8

Soon after arriving in California, Ince split his forces into two units, maintaining personal control of one and assigning the other to Francis Ford, an experienced actor-director who already specialized in outdoor action pictures. Instead of using the relatively open scenario form common in 1911, Ince provided Ford with highly detailed shooting outlines. Over the years, these outlines evolved into formal blueprints (perhaps a better allusion would be to a musical score) that the director was expected to film without change. George Pratt reprints one of these, the scenario for SATAN MCALLISTER’S HEIR , a two-reel production filmed in one week at the close of 1914. The script material includes a 154-scene shooting script detailing the use of close-ups, iris openings, lighting effects, and stage directions. In addition, a scene plot groups all interiors and exteriors, indicating that all shots at “mouth of rocky cave” are to be done at one time. A cost sheet, prepared after production, indicates to the penny the payroll and material expenses ($815.09 total) and the final amount of negative used (3,579 feet). 9

As his operation expanded, Ince learned to delegate more and more authority to his staff and ultimately retreated from the specific writing, directing, and even editing functions, although he maintained careful supervision of each of these procedures. It is unlikely that he could have drawn on his own business expertise to establish such an organization. Kalton Lahue has suggested that George W. Stout, the studio’s fiscal supervisor, created the “Ince system” in 1913, and then replicated it at the Sennett studio. 10

In 1915 Ince joined Griffith and Sennett in the Triangle Film Corporation and moved completely into the production of feature pictures. 11 Their greater length allowed his chief writer, C. Gardner Sullivan, to develop more fully the internal conflicts sketched in some of the two-reelers. These “soul fights” had been significant in moving the early releases away from the stylization of melodramatic convention. Now, in films such as THE COWARD (1915) and THE ARYAN (1916), true psychological development appeared.

While Ince’s films were highly successful domestically, in Europe he was hailed as Page 218  an artist “infinitely superior either to Griffith or to Cecil B. DeMille,” at least according to the French film historians Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach:

By the end of the war Ince was more famous than Griffith. Delluc compared him to Rodin, to Debussy and Dumas, even to Aeschylus. “He is the first,” he wrote, “to synthesize the confused but brilliant impulses of this art as it emerges from the matrix.” … Thanks to him the film discovered several basic truths, above all the fact that in a dramatic film the actors are only part of the mise-en-scène, and that inanimate objects, trees, roads, and winds, can once more assume their ancient and proper role (History of the Film, pp. 109–11).

Of all Ince’s stars, the French were especially taken with William S. Hart (whom they knew as Rio Jim). While Louis Delluc and others automatically attributed the qualities of these films to Ince, we know today that his supervision of them was perfunctory at best, and that by 1917 his credit on the Hart films was purely contractual.

That year, Ince began distributing through Paramount-Artcraft. He now supervised fewer releases each year, but somehow the mechanical qualities of his productions began to overwhelm the creative elements. Peter Milne defended Ince and his method in a 1922 study of motion-picture directing, but even Milne admitted that little flexibility was allowed the director on the Ince lot. “When a director works for Mr. Ince he does what Mr. Ince tells him to do,” Milne reported approvingly. 12 A look at the roster of Ince contract directors reveals Fred Niblo and Reginald Barker as the best-remembered of the group, which is hardly an indication of excessive creativity on the stages. 13

In fact, Ince’s vaunted system was merely an extension of his personal taste and style. A mature production line, such as the one Irving Thalberg developed at MGM, can function effectively despite changes in top management. But when Thomas Ince died suddenly in 1924, operations at the Ince plant shut down completely. His system failed to survive him.

Mack Sennett

The most important events in the career of Mack Sennett—his days with Griffith at Biograph, his formation of Keystone, and his development of Chaplin, Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand as major stars—were already history by 1915. In January of that year alone, he released seventeen reels on the Mutual program, including five reels of Arbuckle-Normand comedies, a pair of half-reel educational subjects, and a scattering of slapstick shorts of one reel or less, featuring Chester Conklin, Sydney Chaplin, Charlie Chase, Mack Swain, and Charlie Murray. 14

Keystone, which began as a comedy producer in 1912, had long since passed the days when its product could be assembled more or less off the cuff. Gilbert Seldes and other supporters of the early Keystone films might have prized Sennett’s air of improvisation above all else, but by 1915 the requirements of a heavy release schedule had turned his studio into a “fun factory” in the fullest sense of that term. While Ince has been given credit for organizing production at his studio, Mack Sennett’s   achievement at Keystone was no less remarkable. In fact, Sennett devised a method of delegating production authority that not only maintained the quality standard of his releases but transmitted their characteristic style and subject matter as well, to create Hollywood’s most consistent studio look. Clarence Badger, a writer and director for Sennett at that time, recalled that this studio “slant” was constantly kept in mind, especially when hiring new talent. 15

In 1915 the journalist Harry Carr visited the Sennett lot and observed this system in action. According to Carr, Sennett started with a rough scenario, hardly more than an idea, which he had thrashed out in committee with his writers. Kalton Lahue, the author of several volumes on Sennett and Keystone, reproduces one of these documents, called “Aeroplane Elopement Story,” which begins as follows: “Roscoe leaves aeroplane near clump of bushes and goes to girl. Establish a love affair in opening scene between Roscoe and the girl—get over that her father is trying to marry her off owing to her ferocious temper or something.” 16

Using such a document as a guide, Sennett gathered together actors and crew and began breaking down the action and indicating, with chalk marks on the floor of the studio, where players, cameras, and props should be positioned. A stenographer followed, taking down every word of his instructions. The next day these notes would be handed to a “subdirector” on location, who would do his best to execute the plan. “By this singular method Sennett is able to direct the whole thing in miniature in a few hours,” marveled Harry Carr. Sennett was thus able to “personally direct the scenarios” of his ten or twelve companies and maintain a high degree of individual control. 17

In the cutting room, Sennett studied incoming footage intently, twitching in his chair or spitting if anything displeased him. He told Harry Carr that only about 25 percent of the material shot would eventually be used, a figure that had shrunk to 20 percent by the end of 1916, according to figures provided by Lahue. The numbers indicate that considerable leeway was being allowed for polishing material and thus undercut tales of offhand production methods in this period. 18

“Mack Sennett supervised his pictures all along the way,” his editor William Hornbeck told Kevin Brownlow. “But he couldn’t afford to reject any; good or bad, the pictures had to go.” 19 The success of his operation, and the pressure to continue the stream of new product, ultimately began to take its toll. Brownlow notes an instance where Mabel Normand was directing Chaplin in one of his earliest films, made in 1914:

Mabel asked him to stand with a hose and to spray the street so that the villain’s car would skid. Chaplin remembered the old Lumière film in which a boy steps on a gardener’s hose and when the gardener peers down the nozzle to see what’s wrong, he gets a jet of water in the face; he suggested this gag to Mabel, who knew how fast the Sennett comedies had to be ground out. “We have no time,” she said. Chaplin refused to play the scene, and sat on the kerb in a sulk (Hollywood: The Pioneers, p. 143).

Sennett took her side when they returned to the studio, and Chaplin considered quitting. Changes of pace and characterization had no place in Sennett’s scheme, so Chaplin went elsewhere to develop his talents. Over the years, he was followed by a string of others—Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, gagman Frank Capra—because Sennett had no interest in their efforts to craft comedy to character, and either fired them or allowed them to leave. When running a fun factory, what was needed were interchangeable parts. A fat man, a baggy pants comic with a cane, a baby-faced innocent—to Sennett these were types, clowns who needed only to remember where he had put the chalk marks.

Hal Roach would be the man to profit from these lessons. Working with Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chase, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, it was Roach who would perfect situation comedy based on realistic characters and storylines. By the end of the silent era, Mack Sennett’s fun factory was mired in its own rust belt.

Herbert Brenon

The postwar period marked a watershed in silent-feature production, and few successful directors operated in the twenties who had been equally prominent in the early days of feature films. One of the most important was Herbert Brenon, a director   originally noted as a pioneer of overseas location shooting and lavish spectacle who successfully adapted his style to the requirements of the postwar era. He developed a new reputation for his handling of actresses and adaptations of literary properties, and he closed out the silent era as one of its most popular and best-paid directors.

There was never a personality cult centered around Brenon and his work, however, and while the production of some of his films did make good copy, the man himself was too ordinary to capture the imagination of critics or acolytes. When he gradually stopped making films, he seems not to have been missed, and with so much of his key work gone, there is little possibility of reviving his reputation. Nevertheless, Brenon’s career is crucial to understanding the development of the American studio system in this period.

Brenon was born in Dublin in 1880. He came to the United States in 1896 and looked for work in the theater, eventually finding a job directing a stock company in Minneapolis. With his wife, Helen Downing, he formed a vaudeville act, but they abandoned the stage to run a nickelodeon in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. 20 He left this business a few years later and went to work as a scenario editor for the IMP studio.

After five months behind a desk, Brenon was given the chance to direct his first film, ALL FOR HER (1912), which quickly established him as a director.

He made the first IMP three-reeler, LEAH THE FORSAKEN (1913), and later that year was sent to Europe, where he made important films in Britain, France, and Germany. The most significant of these films was the four-reel IVANHOE (1914), filmed at Chepstow Castle. 21 Unlike the Ince-Pickford unit sent by IMP to Cuba the previous year, this was no ill-conceived excursion but a serious effort to take advantage of European locales and produce work of scope and significance. In addition, the trip marked one of the few important attempts by American filmmakers to challenge the dominance of European producers by sending a complete crew right into their own backyard. Brenon’s ABSINTHE (1913) appears to have been the first American film made in France, although French companies at the time were deeply involved in American production.

On his return to the United States, Brenon produced the seven-reel epic NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER (1914), an aquatic fantasy starring Annette Kellerman, which was a tremendous success. It ran at the Globe Theatre on Broadway for twenty-six weeks, a record not matched until the arrival of THE BIRTH OF A NATION . 22

Moving to Fox, Brenon worked with Theda Bara for a time, then set out to top his success with the Kellerman picture through a kind of sequel, A DAUGHTER OF THE GODS (1915–1916). Taking over an entire corner of the island of Jamaica for eight months, he used 2,000,000 feet of lumber and 2,500 barrels of plaster to create vast, fantastic settings, and put 20,000 extras on the payroll. Far from Fox’s supervision, Brenon shot 220,000 feet of negative and completely outstripped his budget. Worse, he began a war with William Fox over the personal publicity he was accruing (at Fox’s expense), and when the company returned to New York, the film was taken from him and edited by the studio. When he heard that Fox intended to remove his name from the credits and advertising, Brenon went to court, but his motion was dismissed. Fox eventually restored the credit, but this battle between studio head and director nonetheless seems an eerie foreshadowing of Erich von Stroheim’s later troubles. Decorated with nude tableaux and precocious tracking shots, the film was a considerable topic of conversation in 1916 but does not appear to have been completely successful. 23

Brenon subsequently eschewed such spectacle, and THE FALL OF THE ROMANOFFS (1917) was staged in his Hudson Heights studio. Becoming associated with more restrained dramatic vehicles, he directed some of the best films of Alla Nazimova, Norma Talmadge, and Pola Negri. Between 1923 and 1928 he was one of the key Paramount directors, and surviving films from this period, including the proto-feminist D ANCING M OTHERS and the James M. Barrie adaptations PETER PAN (1925) and A KISS FOR CINDERELLA (1926), reveal an exceptionally assured style. He closed out the silent era at the top of his form with BEAU GESTE (1926) and SORRELL AND SON (1927) and was named the best director of 1927–1928 in a massive Film Daily critics’ poll, quite a compliment considering the competition that season. 24

But Brenon was unhappy with the talkies and as late as November 1928 labeled them a fad that would stand in the way of the film’s perfection as a graphic art. 25 An individualist in an increasingly producer-oriented system, Brenon found it harder to work in the manner in which he was accustomed and eventually returned to England, where he directed his last film in 1940.

Lois Weber

The most remarkable thing about women directors in the silent period is not that there were so many of them but that their contributions should have been so thoroughly effaced in all later histories of the period. At Universal alone, in 1916–1917, one could have observed Ruth Ann Baldwin, Grace Cunard, Cleo Madison, Ruth Stonehouse, Ida May Park, Elsie Jane Wilson, and Lois Weber directing every sort of picture on Carl Laemmle’s release schedule. Most of these women soon dropped out, presumably for lack of talent, interest, or the ability to cope with Hollywood politics, but Lois Weber flourished. During the war years, she achieved tremendous success by combining a canny commercial sense with a rare vision of cinema as a moral tool. For a time, Weber made a fortune trying to improve the human race through movies.

As a young woman, Weber worked for a time as a street-corner missionary in Pittsburgh, but later dropped this vocation and followed the advice of an uncle in Chicago to try the stage. The transition was not as radical as it might seem, since she had had previous experience as a touring concert pianist. “As I was convinced that the theatrical profession needed a missionary, he suggested that the best way to reach them was to become one of them, so I went on the stage filled with a great desire to convert my fellowman.” 26

Soon after joining a road company of Why Girls Leave Home, she married the troupe’s actor-manager, Phillips Smalley, but the constant separation involved in the touring life proved difficult, and Weber settled in New York to establish a home. In 1908 she discovered that motion pictures required little road work and signed with the Gaumont studio in Flushing, New York. Here, she would have observed the screen’s first woman director, Alice Guy Blaché, who had come to the United States with her husband, Herbert Blaché, to take charge of Gaumont’s American interests.

Weber grew comfortable with the film form—writing, directing, and starring in Gaumont’s one-reelers—and Smalley soon joined her. As a team, they eventually moved to the Reliance studio, then to Edwin S. Porter’s Rex Company, which they took over when Porter left in 1912 and Rex became part of the new Universal. Their films from this period were signed by “The Smalleys,” although Weber typically received sole writing credit. How the directorial chores were divided is not clear, but by 1917 Weber was putting her own name on the productions, and Smalley gradually faded in importance.

Few early Weber films survive, and the most remarkable, SUSPENSE (1913), is uncharacteristic in its flashy cutting, photographic effects, and lack of a direct moral statement. The following year, the Smalleys produced for the Bosworth Company their first great success, HYPOCRITES ! (1914). This four-reel feature was cast in the form of an allegory, with “the mirror of truth” being held up to various tableaux representing politics, family life, and other areas of moral concern. Weber’s use of a (double-exposed) nude actress to represent Truth caused a considerable stir at the time.

Returning to Universal, Weber increased her production of such morality plays, culminating in the notorious WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN ? (1916), self-described in its publicity as “a five-part argument advocating birth control and against race suicide.” Her films were often attacked by censorship groups as simple exploitations of taboo subject matter, but Weber sincerely believed in her position as artist and evangelist. “In moving pictures I have found my life’s work,” she declared in a 1914 interview. “I find at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals. I can preach to my heart’s content, and with the opportunity to write the play, act the leading role, and direct the entire production, if my message fails to reach someone, I can blame only myself.” 27

She continued dealing with such “women’s issues” as divorce, poverty, child abuse, capital punishment, and birth control, although women’s suffrage does not seem to have been one of her prime concerns. In 1917 she starred in a fictionalized account of the imprisonment of Margaret Sanger, originally called Is A WOMAN A PERSON ?, which was recut and retitled THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE after still more trouble from pressure groups. 28 After this film, she began to play down the blatant sermonizing in her work, as in THE BLOT (1921), which substitutes a nuanced analysis of the effects of poverty on a poor minister’s family.

Despite these changes, Weber seems to have abruptly lost her public after 1920. A four-picture deal with Paramount, which would pay her $50,000 per picture and 50 percent of the profits, was dropped after the poor reception of the first two films. The new audience of the 1920s had even less use for Weber’s analysis of their moral shortcomings than they had for Griffith’s. She directed a few films after 1921, was divorced and remarried, and seems to have suffered some form of nervous breakdown. Poor management of her real-estate holdings depleted her fortune in the early 1930s, and when she died in 1939 her funeral expenses were paid by friends who remembered her devotion to an impossibly high ideal of screen art.

Maurice Tourneur

The ranks of early film directors were drawn from a startling array of occupations, with engineers, sailors, stuntmen, vaudevillians, and explorers all represented. A few successful Broadway figures did work behind the cameras, but in general, the men and women responsible for producing early films were far less noted than those hired to act in them. Adolph Zukor’s slogan may have been “Famous Players in Famous Plays,” but to direct, he hired the great mechanic Edwin S. Porter.

One notable exception to this rule was Maurice Tourneur, who came from Éclair’s Paris studio to Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1914. Tourneur was born in Paris in 1876, and after studying at the Lycée Condorcet he worked as an interior decorator, an illustrator, and a designer of posters and textiles. He was an assistant to Auguste Rodin and Puvis de Chavannes and, for Puvis, he designed sketches for the Boston Public Library staircase mural. After three years of military service he turned his attention to the theater and toured the world with the great actress Réjane. While working with André Antoine at the Théåtre de l’Odéon, he married an actress in Antoine’s company; their son Jacques (later a film director of note) was born in 1904. 29

Tourneur began directing for Éclair in 1912; he was brought into films by Émile Chautard, with whom he had worked on stage (Chautard, who later joined Tourneur in America, would also be the mentor of Josef von Sternberg). In America, Tourneur first worked for the World Film Corporation, a company managed by Lewis J. Selznick and generally devoted to filming theatrical successes. In the hands of a less inventive director these films might have been straightforward transcriptions of the Broadway originals, but Tourneur was able to take advantage of the opportunities for stylization opened up by the camera. In fact, he often connected his goals to those of Edward Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt, and Konstantin Stanislavsky. 30

His earliest extant American film, THE WISHING RING (1914), displays a sophisticated handling of deep space, with an ingenious use of foreground and background action. A brooding squire sulks in his dark sitting room, while his sunlit garden, Page 226  whose roses he never picks, is always visible through the French doors in the distance. The use of sunlight to light interiors in this period brought such effects within every director’s grasp, but relatively few were able to avoid the visual chaos it could easily bring on. Fewer still were able consistently to employ patterns of deep space to achieve effects that were considered rare when von Stroheim employed them a decade later.

Tourneur’s command of editing, even in this early work, is equally good. While he avoids the pulse-pounding tempo of directors like Griffith, he carefully uses cutting to establish a three-dimensional playing area and to enhance, when desired, the feeling of offscreen space. 31

Perhaps most interesting to modern eyes is Tourneur’s use of formal distancing devices. Especially when dealing with period or fantasy subjects, Tourneur consistently filmed through a proscenium-shaped mask, “theatricalizing” even events that were filmed outdoors. THE WISHING RING , subtitled “An Idyll of Old England,” is introduced by three graces reminiscent of a Julia Margaret Cameron photograph. In addition to opening and closing a curtain, which “frames” the narrative, they appear at intervals during the film as well and thus participate in the action they are framing. 32

Like other successful directors of the period, Tourneur was too busy to labor over his work, which averaged six features per year between 1914 and 1920. He made two of Mary Pickford’s finest pictures, THE PRIDE OF THE CLAN and POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL (both 1917), and also directed several notable successes of Olga Petrova and Elsie Ferguson. But in 1918 his avant-garde productions of THE BLUE BIRD and PRUNELLA were resounding box-office failures. Tourneur felt betrayed by his audience. In an article bluntly entitled “Meeting the Public Demands,” he wrote, “I would rather starve and make good pictures, if I knew they were going to be shown, but to starve and make pictures which are thrown in the ashcan is above anybody’s strength.” 33

Once heralded as “the poet of the screen,” Tourneur grew bitter over increasing commercial pressures. TREASURE ISLAND and THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (both 1920) were among his last satisfactory efforts. That year, he dissolved a highly successful relationship with Jules Brulatour, the financier and agent for Eastman raw stock, and joined five other noted directors in forming Associated Producers, Inc. The move only snarled him in red tape, however, and the combine soon dissolved. 34

While always gainfully employed afterward, Tourneur had good cause to complain about the weak scripts he was given to direct. The increasingly departmentalized routine of Hollywood production was unable to sustain the creative atmosphere he craved. In 1926 he was directing MGM’s first Technicolor feature, THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND , when Irving Thalberg assigned him a producer. Two weeks after the man walked onto his set, Tourneur quit the picture and left Hollywood to continue his career in Europe.

Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille arrived in Los Angeles on 20 December 1913. He was the newly appointed director general of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company and was traveling with the firm’s entire production unit. The journey had been undertaken in order to film Edwin Milton Royle’s Western play, The Squaw Man, in surroundings of greater authenticity than those available in New Jersey. DeMille had with him Dustin Farnum, star of the stage production, and Oscar Apfel, an experienced motion-picture director who would co-direct the picture (DeMille was fresh from the theater and had no knowledge of film or film technique). The company soon acquired a lease on the property at 6284 Selma Avenue, a renovated barn and adjacent grounds in the suburbs of Hollywood. They were not the first filmmakers in Hollywood (the Nestor Company had been operating out of Blondeau’s Tavern on Sunset Boulevard since 1911), but they were the first company there to specialize in feature pictures, the dramatic form that would soon dominate the industry and make the name “Hollywood” internationally famous. 35

DeMille constructed an open-air stage on the lot and here managed to film the studio scenes of THE SQUAW MAN (not inside the barn, as some would have it, since he had no lights). Despite a series of misadventures, including a problem with variant framelines (still visible in existing prints of the film), the picture was successfully sold on the states rights market, and DeMille’s screen career was launched. 36

Over the next three years, DeMille directed the twenty-nine features on which his early reputation was based. Made for the Lasky Company, and later Famous Players-Lasky, these films were closely tied to their theatrical sources and the performances of their Broadway stars. James Card has noted:

Not until his eighth film did he entrust a lead to an actress primarily of the cinema, when he cast Blanche Sweet. Not until his fourth year of production did he discover, with Gloria Swanson, that an actress with no stage experience whatsoever, could prove to be more popular and more successful under his direction than were any of his stage-trained leading ladies (“The Silent Films of Cecil B. DeMille,” in “Image”: On the Art and Evolution of the Film, edited by Marshall Deutelbaum, p. 119).

But Swanson came later. His early stars were legitimate troopers, including Theodore Roberts, House Peters, Raymond Hatton, and even Geraldine Farrar—all contract talent signed by Lasky to help convince exhibitors of the proven theatrical underpinnings of the company’s product.

DeMille was able to distance himself from rival producers of canned theater by an arresting visual style and a true genius for self-promotion. Benjamin Hampton felt that DeMille and Griffith were the only directors of the period whose names meant anything at the box office, and DeMille took steps to ensure his popularity throughout a career much longer than Griffith’s. 37

DeMille was never very successful at articulating screen space through the use of such devices as editing or camera movement, but from the beginning he was quite concerned with pictorial composition and won immediate attention for his lighting effects. Working with cameraman Alvin Wyckoff, DeMille pioneered a style of illumination soon known as “Lasky lighting” or (when DeMille was speaking) “Rem-brandt lighting.” His concern with visual style was relatively advanced at a time when most companies were satisfied to record a clean, detailed image. In a 1917 article titled “Photodrama a New Art,” he wrote, “No longer does every detail in the set where action takes place have to be absolutely distinct. Much is being done in following out the Rinehart [ sic ] idea of suggestive settings. The audience is made to feel the background rather than see it.” Such mastery of light and shadow can be seen at its best in DeMille’s THE CHEAT (1915), one of the most widely acclaimed films of the era. 38

This self-conscious artistry reached its peak in THE WHISPERING CHORUS (1918), which DeMille considered the first film to deal with internal psychological conflicts. 39 Although relatively successful at the box office, it marked the end of his early period of artistic experimentation. He followed it with OLD WIVES FOR NEW (1918), the first in a series of titillating melodramas designed to capture postwar audiences. “Accurately appraising the new civilization that was emerging, DeMille decided that the majority of theatre patrons were fundamentally curious about only money and sex,” wrote one contemporary observer. 40

This series, especially MALE AND FEMALE (1919) and WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE ? (1920), inspired a flock of screen imitations, reflecting Hollywood’s vision of postwar American social mores. As Lewis Jacobs, who lacks enthusiasm for even the early DeMille, acknowledged, “If, in the artistic perspective of American film history, Cecil Blount DeMille is valueless, in the social history of films it is impossible to ignore him.” 41 The postwar films became those on which his later reputation was to build (especially his first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS 1923, with its portents of later spectacles), and the early years of innovation were soon forgotten. When he began to film Gloria Swanson in golden beds and golden bathtubs, DeMille moved permanently from artistic pioneer to cultural phenomenon.

Marshall Neilan

The legend of the great silent-film director who dissipates his own success in a welter of fast parties and bootleg liquor has at least some basis in reality: the crippled career of Marshall Neilan.

As early as 1918 Motion Picture magazine was calling Neilan “the youngest Big director in the motion picture industry.” He had just directed four of Mary Pickford’s finest and most popular films, including the powerful STELLA MARIS (1918), which both Peter Milne (in 1922) and Edward Wagenknecht (in 1962) thought contained her best work. He was twenty-six years old when he made the Pickford films and earned $125,000 per picture for directing them. By the time he was thirty, his career was already showing signs of strain; by the time he was forty, he was reduced to directing slapstick two-reelers and hillbilly musicals. 42

Neilan did leave considerable evidence of his talents, especially in the features he directed in the late teens. But by 1923 even his supporters were paying more attention to his life-style than to his films. Tamar Lane, who spoke of him in the same breath with Griffith and von Stroheim, accused him of not taking his work seriously and of leaving too many key scenes in the hands of various assistants. Later historians dubbed him “the last of the shoot-from-the-cuff directors” and “an incorrigible playboy [who] never applied himself to his craft with any seriousness.” 43

What seems to have been lost over the years, however, is the tremendous sense of respect (and affection) that Neilan engendered among his critics and colleagues, a feeling based not only on his engaging personality but on the fine performances and strong dramatic values evident in the best of his work.

Neilan began his career in films in 1911 as an actor for the Kalem Company. Handsome and personable, he was soon signed by Allan Dwan to play opposite J. Warren Kerrigan at the Flying A studio, and when Dwan left for Universal, Neilan came with him. Gradually he began directing the films he appeared in, and on returning to Kalem in 1913 he found himself acting, directing, and generally running the studio. But after a few months at the reins of Kalem’s bizarre HAM AND BUD comedy series (DON’T MONKEY WITH THE BUZZ SAW was a typical title), Neilan was ready to return to acting and joined Allan Dwan’s Lasky unit in New York. 44

The Lasky pictures were Neilan’s first important films, giving him the chance to play opposite such stars as Marguerite Clark and Mary Pickford (he was Pinkerton to Pickford’s MADAME BUTTERFLY in 1915). After a brief season directing for Selig, Neilan returned to Lasky and directed a series of features with Blanche Sweet (whom he later married), Sessue Hayakawa, and Mary Pickford. These were the pictures on which his reputation was based.

Not surprisingly, Neilan felt that all directors needed a certain amount of acting ability, and he preferred to mime each part for his players, then watch quietly during shooting as they joined their conception to his own. He was especially good with child actors and developed the successful career of Wesley Barry, who starred in Neilan’s DINTY (1920) and PENROD (1922). In the silent film, such performances could be shaped completely by a director with a firm grasp of editing, dramatic construction, and proper use of the camera. Neilan once listed the essential requirements of screen acting as beauty, personality, charm, temperament, style, and the ability to wear clothes. In other words, all that was required was that a performer be a suitable mannequin; talent was unnecessary because the director was expected to provide that component. 45

Neilan’s wife, Blanche Sweet, whom he later directed in such films as TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES (1925), once gave an extraordinary interview “explaining” Neilan’s undisciplined working habits:

They are all wrong about Mickie. Everybody around the studio thinks that Mickie is a careless, happy-go-lucky idler who drifts in late to the studio and just sort of makes the thing up as he goes along. I used to think so myself until we were married. The fact is that Mickie is doing his hardest work when he appears to be playing. I can always tell at home when Mickie is working out a big scene in his mind. Our home life straightway takes on an atmosphere of jazz and excitement. Mickie whirls me around to jazz emporiums at loud and unusual hours of the night. We dance at road houses and Mickie gives prizes to the best fox-trotters, and we whirl thru a round of pleasure until I am positively dazed and dizzy. I have learned from experience to know that at these times, Mickie is working some big situation in a big story ( Motion Picture Classic, February 1924, p. 18). 46

By the mid 1920s the partying seemed almost continuous. Neilan’s biographer Jack Spears characterizes him as living out an F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasy and tells of increasing bouts of drunkenness and absenteeism. Neilan was off the set so frequently that one of his films was credited as “Directed by Marshall Neilan and Staff.” In addition, although the center of an admiring group of supporters and drinking buddies, Neilan alienated several key Hollywood figures with his wicked sense of humor. “An empty taxi cab drove up and Louis B. Mayer got out,” he once quipped—a line that did not help him find work around MGM. 47

Unlike Griffith or von Stroheim (or, to cite a later example, Orson Welles), Marshall Neilan’s tragedy had little to do with the cost, style, or box-office success of his pictures. His story cannot be read as a failure of the system but only as the inability of one talented, undisciplined, and self-destructive individual to adjust to the success he had wrested from the system itself.

King Vidor

Much work remains to be done on the small regional film centers that grew up within the United States in the teens and early twenties. Far from the main production centers in New York and Hollywood, or even Chicago, movie-struck amateurs with access to such simple cameras as the Universal or the Institute Standard (both widely available by the late teens) made actualities, short comedies, and even occasional features. Kathleen Karr locates some of these companies in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Providence, Rhode Island, and even Saranac Lake, New York. 48 If regional centers had been able to flourish, the character of the American cinema in this period might have been significantly different. But the ultimate dominance of Hollywood and New York led to standardization of product. This homogenized perspective might have been economically efficient, but it eliminated most nonconforming approaches.

These centers did produce a few individuals who successfully carried on their careers in Hollywood however. The most notable was King Vidor, a director who was able to play the Hollywood studio game while maintaining an independence of style and subject matter seldom found in the mature American film industry.

Vidor was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1894, and writes in his autobiography of falling under the spell of a vaudeville projection of Georges Méliès’ VOYAGE ÀLA LUNE. In 1914–1915 he worked with friends filming short comedies and industrials, and acted as a stringer for THE MUTUAL WEEKLY before leaving for California, where the real movies were made. 49

His wife, Florence Vidor, an aspiring actress who had worked with him on the Texas films, soon signed with the Ince studio and began a steady rise to stardom (her later films included THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE 1924 and THE PATRIOT 1928), but director Vidor could land only odd jobs. His writing credit appears on a few Universal comedy shorts, but it was not until 1918 that he was again able to work as a director. Significantly, he achieved this not through the established studio structure but by convincing a group of doctors and dentists to back him in the production of a Christian Science subject called THE TURN IN THE ROAD (1919). Its moral agenda recalls the sermonizing of a director like Lois Weber, and Vidor’s seriousness of purpose was immediately clear (as was his popular touch—the film was quite profitable). A little later, Vidor published in the trade papers a “Creed and Pledge” outlining his intentions. He announced that the motion picture should serve humanity and help free it from the shackles of fear and suffering. He rejected evil subjects and embraced pictures that were “absolutely true to human nature.” 50

He was able to establish his own studio, Vidor Village, where he produced films for distribution through First National. The studio specialized in Americana subjects, and Vidor sought to duplicate a mood he found in the writings of Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, and James Whitcomb Riley. Owning and operating one’s own studio was a goal of most independent directors of the day, among them Griffith, Neilan, and again, Weber. With THE JACK KNIFE MAN (1920) Vidor proved himself true to his ideals, creating one of the most affecting of American pastorals. The film is the story of a folk artist, a woodcarver, living as an itinerant boatman on the Mississippi. Vidor may, in fact, have seen himself as such an artist, pursuing his own ideals just outside   the Hollywood community. In any case, he was soon forced out of this paradise, lost his studio, and began free-lancing, eventually joining the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 51

His long and fruitful relationship with MGM (twenty films over the next twenty years) provides a model for the accommodation of a strong-willed director to the requisites of big-studio production. Vidor soon made himself indispensable by helping develop John Gilbert into a major star and directing THE BIG PARADE (1925), one of the highest-grossing pictures of the silent era. Establishing a close relationship with Irving Thalberg, Vidor would trade off projects by agreeing to two of the studio’s projects as long as he could direct one of his own. The most spectacular example during this period was THE CROWD (1928), a drab urban poem largely shot on location in New York and admittedly influenced by E. A. Dupont’s VARIETY (1925) and Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1926). 52

While directors such as Clarence Brown and John Ford found America in the countryside, Vidor was capable of seeing the nation in its cities as well. Later, in THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949), he would show a superman asserting his will over such a city, but THE CROWD is one of Vidor’s films of ordinary life, and the resolution is far less operatic.

A director who was able to maintain his own ideals while remaining flexible enough to serve the interests of his employers, Vidor duplicated his silent success in the talkie era, while his less adaptable compatriots, including Brenon, Neilan, and von Stroheim, soon found themselves unemployed.

Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim’s first biographer dubbed him “the Hollywood scapegoat,” the victim chosen to suffer ignominy and expulsion for the sins of the many. 53 He was not the only director to go far over budget, behave outrageously on the set, or inflame the nation’s various pressure groups. But he was the only one to do so while flouting the authority of his studio superiors and failing (for the most part) to bring in adequate box-office returns.

Between 1919 and 1932 von Stroheim began the direction of nine films, all but the last of which were silent. Of this number, one was never released, two were completed by others, one was halted during production and released in truncated form, two were taken from him after shooting and savagely cut, two more suffered minor studio-inflicted cuts, and one was released essentially intact. In terms of a body of work, this collection of footage might hardly seem worth evaluating. Von Stroheim himself once referred to the released version of one of his films as “the skeleton of my dead child.” Yet throughout the 1920s he remained one of the most respected, and best paid, of all Hollywood directors. 54

This esteem has continued over the years. In the 1976 Belgian Royal Film Archive poll von Stroheim was still seen as being among the ten most important American directors, despite the fact that not one film from his hand survives intact. His best-known film, GREED (1924), notorious for being slashed to one-quarter its intended length, was cited in this poll as the third most important American film of all time. Clearly, such judgments are not being made on aesthetic grounds alone, and it is largely in terms of their symbolic value that von Stroheim and his films continue to hold such a position of prominence. 55

Von Stroheim, the son of a Jewish dry-goods merchant, was born in Vienna in 1885. A failure in both the business world and a brief military career, he emigrated to the United States in 1908 and worked at a series of odd jobs. He tried his hand at the stage as early as 1912, writing a short play, called In the Morning, which contained, in rough outline, many of the themes he would later develop in such films as THE WEDDING MARCH (1928). His first Hollywood experience came with the Griffith company, although it is impossible to substantiate his claim to have worked as an extra in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. He did act in a number of Griffith-produced subjects for Mutual, however, and often assisted the prominent stage director John Emerson. Griffith’s method of working soon became von Stroheim’s model, and under “the master” he worked on INTOLERANCE and HEARTS OF THE WORLD. Von Stroheim began to have some success as an actor, specializing in the portrayal of fiendish Huns in war-propaganda films, but such roles disappeared with the Armistice.

At that moment he was able to convince Universal’s Carl Laemmle to allow him to star in and direct an original script of his own. By giving Universal the script for nothing, taking no salary as director, and accepting only $200 per week for playing the leading role, von Stroheim made the tight-fisted Laemmle an irresistible offer. He also seems to have appealed to “Uncle Carl’s” gambler’s instinct and his penchant for hiring relatives and other German-speaking emigrés from the old country. Von Stroheim far exceeded the budget, but the results justified the gamble. This first film, BLIND HUSBANDS (1919), earned some $328,000 during its initial year of release, approximately six times the take of an average Universal feature. 56 Critics were also suitably impressed, and the result of this acclaim was to increase von Stroheim’s leverage with Laemmle, an advantage he stretched to its breaking point on F OOLISH W IVES (1922), touted as “the first million-dollar picture.” But the financial failure of FOOLISH WIVES , and increasing production problems on his next film, MERRY-GO-ROUND (1923), moved Universal’s new production head, Irving Thalberg, to fire von Stroheim midway through production.

That a studio should remove a director of this caliber from “his own” picture was unprecedented, but it was nothing personal. Thalberg was able to use the firing of von Stroheim to intimidate every director in Hollywood, and it was largely von Stroheim’s visibility that caused him to be used as the lightning rod in this demonstration. Von Stroheim’s career went downhill from there. His next film, GREED , was taken away from him in a further storm of publicity and was virtually cut to ribbons. Now at MGM, he ran afoul of the powerful Louis B. Mayer, who threatened to blacklist him in the industry. 57 A financial success with THE MERRY WIDOW temporarily reestablished him in Hollywood, but cost overruns on THE WEDDING MARCH and incessant squabbling during production of the never-completed QUEEN KELLY ultimately destroyed his credibility.

Von Stroheim, a student of Griffith, felt that the cinema was an art form, the writer-director an artist, and the studio head, at best, a patron. Postwar Hollywood reality destroyed this fiction. After the first blush of success, he soon learned that the relationship was more accurately that of employer and employee.

Rex Ingram

If there was one director who gave Louis B. Mayer almost as much trouble as Erich von Stroheim, it was certainly Rex Ingram. The problems these two had with Mayer quickly became a major part of early Hollywood lore, but such stories have more than merely anecdotal value. When Mayer positioned himself against this pair (and, to a lesser extent, Marshall Neilan), he was asserting not just his personal authority but the authority of MGM’s entire production system. Ingram and von Stroheim championed the position of freewheeling directors operating within a supportive industrial framework. Mayer (and his associates Irving Thalberg and Harry Rapf) felt the need to establish a hierarchical power structure, with authority flowing down from key studio executives. There is no question as to who won this battle, but how it was waged reveals much about the position of key Hollywood filmmakers in the early and mid 1920s.

Volumes have been written about von Stroheim’s troubles, but the details of Rex Ingram’s career are not nearly so familiar. Like von Stroheim, Ingram was a European who arrived in America during the nickelodeon era and dabbled in other media before entering films as an actor, changing his name, and eventually directing his first film at Universal. He was born Reginald Hitchcock in Dublin in 1893, and he arrived in the United States in 1911 to study art at Yale. As Rex Hitchcock, he began acting for Edison in 1913, transferred to Vitagraph the following year, and by 1915 was working on scripts for Fox, at which point he adopted his mother’s maiden name, Ingram. 58

Unlike von Stroheim, Ingram began directing before America’s entry into World War I and completed his first feature for Universal in 1916. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Flying Corps as an aviation instructor, saw no action, but was severely   injured in a crash. Making his way back to Hollywood, he was appalled to see Erich von Stroheim occupying “his” spot as a director on the Universal lot. Years later, von Stroheim remembered how uncomfortable it made him feel to have “yesterday’s wonder boy,” now an injured veteran in uniform, glaring at him from the sidelines the first day they met. But the pair soon became friends and found that their attitudes toward film, and the process of directing, were remarkably similar. Within a short time they were competing for the industry’s accolades, with von Stroheim’s FOOLISH WIVES winning the sort of attention for Universal that Ingram’s THE FOUR HORSE-MEN OF THE A POCALYPSE (1921) had garnered for Metro the previous season (although the Ingram film was vastly more profitable). In 1923 the critic Tamar Lane found only four real leaders in the motion-picture industry—D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Marshall Neilan, and Rex Ingram. 59

Neither Ingram nor von Stroheim was shy regarding his opinion on the nature of film art, but for Ingram, the key was always his experience at Yale. In a 1922 essay, he repeatedly compares film to painting and sculpture, refers to his days at the Yale School of Fine Arts, exalts his teacher Lee Lawrie, compares the scenario to a sculpture’s armature, and equates actors with paint or clay. 60

This vision of a director gradually shaping a film, with the contributions of other collaborators being reduced to the merely technical, is in the direct tradition of Griffith and von Stroheim. Like both of these men, Ingram preferred to avoid professionally trained actors and actresses, convinced that he could “discover” a personality and then shape it to fit. He made a star of Valentino (although who actually did the discovering is open to question), and when Valentino left him, he set out to do the same with Ramon Novarro. His wife, the actress Alice Terry, was another of his discoveries, and her passive blond beauty glides through most of Ingram’s greatest films. In fact, his affection for nonprofessional actors was so great that he once listed Nanook’s performance in Flaherty’s film as the finest piece of screen acting he had seen. 61

Ingram also shared with von Stroheim an obsession with atmosphere, believing that a convincing mood on the set could affect actors and audience alike. To help achieve this mood, he might ask his principals to speak to one another in French if the silent film they were making was set in France. Like von Stroheim, he would film many takes of the same scene, hoping to achieve one magical synthesis of all the elements he sought to bring out. Grant Whytock, an editor who worked for both men, says that Ingram rivaled von Stroheim in the amount of film shot and would often lose track of the vast amounts of footage. But the effect on screen was appreciated. Wrote one critic of Ingram in 1922, “He suggests scenes in his pictures and refuses to label them. In this respect he is farther advanced than most any director in the art today.” 62

Von Stroheim had to deal with Louis B. Mayer in Hollywood, but when the Metro-Goldwyn merger occurred Rex Ingram was in North Africa filming THE ARAB (1924). Thus he was able to negotiate a new contract directly with Nicholas Schenck in the New York office of the parent company, Loew’s, Inc. This contract allowed him to acquire the Victorine studio in the south of France and base his operations there. More surprisingly, his films were not to carry Louis B. Mayer’s name on the credits, a unique concession that infuriated the Hollywood mogul.

Working away from the studio and away from Mayer, Ingram was able to make his Page 239  films according to his own standards, although there were some difficulties regarding the length of MAREN OSTRUM (1926). According to Whytock, the films were generally inexpensive enough to remain profitable, but as Mayer gradually increased his authority, MGM decided that it had little use for such working arrangements, and the contract was not renewed. Again like von Stroheim, Ingram made only one talking picture, which was scarcely distributed and soon forgotten. Failing health and a lack of interest in necessary studio politics kept him from directing again. The Victorine solution offered only a temporary answer to the creative struggles of 1920s Hollywood.

June Mathis

Many silent scenarists exercised a degree of power that extended far beyond the drafts emerging from their typewriters. Frances Marion had the ear of Mary Pickford, and the prolific C. Gardner Sullivan skewed the character of Ince releases by the sheer quantity of his own output. But the most influential screenwriter of the day was undoubtedly June Mathis, the dynamic, mystic “editorial director” whom Photoplay magazine called “the million dollar girl.” 63

She was born in Leadville, Colorado, in 1890 and was onstage from the age of eleven. Well known on the touring circuits in various ingenue roles, she was with the Julian Eltinge company in 1912–1913 as the only woman in the cast of The Fascinating Widow. When road-company business declined, she turned to writing and soon settled in New York with a place on the staff of the Metro studio. Few film writers had been able to exercise any degree of creative control in this period, when most significant producers and directors were either drafting their own scripts or isolating their writing staffs behind a bureaucratic curtain. But Mathis won the attention of Metro president Richard Rowland and soon began shaping the course of Metro releases. She had a flair for the romantic and the exotic, and frequently emphasized elements of mysticism and spiritualism in her films. In a 1917 Moving Picture World article, she advised prospective authors not to think about their works too long before setting them down on paper in order to prevent the ideas from being stolen by those with conscious or unconscious telepathic powers. “It all depends upon the voltage of the brain,” she claimed. Mathis would never write without wearing her magical opal ring, which she claimed had brought disaster on its previous royal owners but which, democratically, was good magic for her. 64

Inevitably, Mathis joined forces with Metro’s mysterious Russian star Alla Nazimova, mistress of her own occult circle. Together they made such films as OUT OF THE FOG (1919) and THE RED LANTERN (1919), which proved too exotic for general tastes, although Mathis maintained her own commercial standing with a series of successful potboilers. Her most important film was THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE A POCALYPSE (1921), which she convinced Metro to produce on an elaborate and spectacular scale. Not only did she adapt the Ibáñez novel, but she also selected director Rex Ingram and was responsible for casting the relatively unknown actor Rudolph Valentino in the main role.

Benjamin Hampton notes that Mathis had “full authority” on the film and with her own staff devised a careful plan to control all aspects of production. “Efficiency engineering applied to films,” he called it. Her contributions to the film were widely acknowledged, and a few critics took pains to note the characteristic elements of mysticism that had crept into the adaptation. 65

Mathis, Ingram, and Valentino then made THE CONQUERING POWER , an adaptation of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, but Valentino soon quarreled with his director and aligned himself with Mathis, with whom he shared an interest in the occult. She would be the most significant creative figure in his career. He appeared in the C AMILLE she wrote for Nazimova, then signed with Famous Players–Lasky. Mathis, too, had outgrown Metro. For a time she followed Valentino to Famous Players–Lasky, where she scripted BLOOD AND SAND (1922), one of his greatest successes. But THE YOUNG RAJAH (1922), a steamy travesty of Hindu mysticism, was ridiculed by critics and damaged Valentino’s career.

Mathis was now signed by the desperate Joe Godsol, who appointed her editorial director of Goldwyn Pictures. She was to set studio production policy, pass on contracts, and involve herself personally with the most important films. Soon the Goldwyn studio was populated by such directors as King Vidor, Victor Seastrom, Page 241  Marshall Neilan, and Erich von Stroheim, but its financial status only grew less secure. Mathis did take a hand in cutting von Stroheim’s G REED, which she had personally approved for production, but her suggestions were bypassed in the final version. 66

What occupied most of her time was the protracted filming of BEN-HUR (1926). Kevin Brownlow, who calls Mathis “one of the most important figures in the industry,” has detailed the production of BEN-HUR, with emphasis on her responsibility for launching it on the wrong foot. She ordered the entire production to be shot in Italy, but this time adequate preparations were never executed. Her director of choice, Charles Brabin, shot reels of useless footage and refused the suggestions she made when she journeyed to Rome to oversee production. Ultimately the Goldwyn company was absorbed in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer merger, and the new executives fired Brabin, Mathis, and George Walsh (her choice to play Ben-Hur), scrapped all the footage, and returned the production to Hollywood. 67

Mathis emerged from this debacle relatively unscathed and became editorial director at First National. Here she concentrated on stories for Colleen Moore and Corinne Griffith, comedies and melodramas such as WE MODERNS (1926), THE MARRIAGE WHIRL (1925), and IRENE (1926). Although none of these films had the impact of the best of her early work, Mathis was able to demonstrate her successful supervision of a major studio’s entire output, personally handling some of the most important titles. Perhaps Frances Marion’s filmography is more impressive, but June Mathis was the only screenwriter ever to achieve this degree of control.

On 26 July 1927 Mathis was in New York with her mother, attending a performance of The Squall. Near the end of the final act, she suddenly began screaming, “Oh mother, I’m dying, I’m dying!” and was rushed out of the theater to an adjacent alley. A doctor immediately pronounced her dead, but her disbelieving mother tried for an hour to revive her, massaging her wrists and begging her to speak as she lay in the street outside the Forty-fourth Street Theatre. In 1926 her friend and discovery Rudolph Valentino had also died on a visit to New York. He was interred in June Mathis’ vault in Los Angeles, where she would join him less than a year later. 68

Robert Flaherty

Robert Flaherty completed only two nonfiction features in this period, hardly a prolific output. But these two films, NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922) and MOANA (1926), were the most significant works of their kind yet produced by an American filmmaker. With NANOOK, Flaherty succeeded for the first time in winning public support and critical accolades for what eventually came to be called “documentary cinema.” The term itself did not yet exist. When Robert E. Sherwood heaped praise on the film in The Best Moving Pictures of 1922–23, he grouped it by necessity with “travel pictures” and “scenics.” 69

In fact, it was not until MOANA appeared in 1926 that the word “documentary” was first applied to such films, when John Grierson, writing anonymously in the New York Sun, referred offhandedly to the film’s “documentary value.” The following year Flaherty’s wife, Frances, a significant collaborator in all of his film work, wrote that “pictures of life, of the drama inherent in life, are documentary and philosophic,”thus neatly identifying this style with Robert Flaherty’s own highly interpretive approach to it. One could argue that the very word “documentary” was coined to describe the cinema of Robert Flaherty. 70

Legend has it that none of this might have happened if not for the dangerously flammable qualities of nitrate film. According to this story, Flaherty had returned from the Arctic in 1916 with twenty-five thousand feet of exposed negative, the raw material for a film on Eskimo life, which was assembled in the traditional travelogue manner. A work print was struck and shown to limited audiences, but the negative was accidentally destroyed when Flaherty carelessly dropped a cigarette on it. He was thus forced to begin all over again on another expedition but this time with the lessons of the first experiment behind him. 71

The audiences on which Flaherty had tested his first Eskimo film were attuned to the usual Burton Holmes travelogue, a home-movie style ramble in which the Western adventurer situates himself in exotic climes. “People were polite, but I could see that what interest they took in the film was the friendly one of wanting to see where I had been and what I done. That wasn’t what I wanted at all. I wanted to show the Innuit,” Flaherty wrote in his diary while at work on the new version of the film. 72

To the industry’s great surprise, this personalizing of a nonfiction subject proved innovative and exciting, especially when combined with the stark drama of the Northern landscape. NANOOK OF THE NORTH was irresistible, and Robert E. Sher-wood immediately recognized why:

Nanook was the center of all the action, and on him was the camera focussed. In this way Mr. Flaherty achieved the personal touch. Another producer, attempting to do the same thing, would have been content to photograph, “A Native Spearing Fish” or “Another Native Building His Igloo.” Moreover, he would have kept himself in the foreground, as is the way of all travelogue rollers. Mr. Flaherty makes Nanook his hero (The Best Moving Pictures of 1922–23, p. 4).

While foregrounding his hero, however, Flaherty opened himself to charges of ethnographic manipulation. It soon became clear that he had altered the cultural and historical context to suit his dramatic purposes. He reconstructed certain events and occasionally fabricated others entirely. Flaherty’s biographer Arthur Calder-Marshall goes so far as to call NANOOK “a costume picture.” 73 Flaherty worked this way in order to capture what he felt was the essence of a culture, trying to reveal it to film audiences in its “unspoiled” state. On the other hand, Hugh Gray, in a thoughtful defense of Flaherty’s methods years later, supported the filmmaker’s conclusion that “one often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit.” 74

Flaherty’s methods were remarkably similar to those of the photographer Edward S. Curtis, whose twenty-volume series The North American Indian was published from 1907 to 1930. Both men felt the obligation to record on film images of indigenous North American cultures already “corrupted” by contact with European society and both employed a certain amount of dramatic license to achieve their ends. In fact, Curtis’ proto-ethnographic film about the Kwakiutl Indians, IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS (1914), is said to have been a direct influence on Flaherty and NANOOK. 75 Both men would be attacked by traditional ethnographers for this same reason, but it is important to remember that Flaherty and Curtis were poets, not scientists. The truth they reveal lies not in the inviolability of their details but in the creative interpretation of the material that they present to their viewers. As Paul Rotha said of NANOOK:

It brought alive the fundamental issue of life in the sub-arctic—the struggle for food—with such imaginatively chosen shots and with such a sincere feeling for the community interests of these people, that it suggested far greater powers of observation than the plain description offered by other naturalistic photographers (Documentary Film, p. 82).

Samuel Goldwyn

In a neglected 1956 monograph, Richard Griffith, then curator of the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, laid out the case for Samuel Goldwyn as an overlooked auteur. Griffith argued that Goldwyn’s hand was clearly visible in each of his films and that, between 1922 and 1956, he had been the most prominent and successful of independent Hollywood producers. Operating without investors and without partners (“When you have a partner you don’t need an enemy,” Goldwyn once said), he exercised complete control over the handful of features issued by his studio each year. 76 Avoiding the system of mass production employed by Thomas H. Ince, Goldwyn retained the principle of direct producer involvement that he had observed when he first entered motion pictures in 1913. This approach, which allowed both flexibility and eccentricity, was later developed by David O. Selznick and, in a different context, Walt Disney. But it was Goldwyn who demonstrated that it was possible to break with the big-studio method of production, maintain a personal vision, and still operate in an efficient and profitable manner.

Goldwyn was born Schmuel Gelbfisz in Warsaw in 1879, and anglicized the family name to Goldfish when he arrived in Birmingham, England, a dozen years later. He came to America in 1896, eventually amassing a tidy fortune in the glove business. In 1913 he became one of the original partners in the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Goldfish was in charge of the financial end of the new concern, which soon became one of the most successful early feature producers. When it merged with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company in 1916, Goldfish became the new board chairman and Zukor the president. But Goldfish was unable to share authority with Zukor, and at the latter’s instigation he was voted out of the company three months later, netting some $900,000 for his interest. 77

Later the same year he entered into a partnership with Edgar Selwyn, and their two names yielded the corporate name Goldwyn Pictures (according to Terry Ramsaye, industry wags suggested the name “Selfish Pictures” instead). Operating out of East Coast studios, the Goldwyn Company invested heavily in theater and opera stars such as Maxine Elliott, Geraldine Farrar, and Mary Garden, a move that earned it the nickname “Goldwyn’s old maids’ home” when audiences rejected these transplanted stars. By this time Goldfish had legally appropriated the Goldwyn name for himself to become Samuel Goldwyn. 78

The company prospered on the strength of some Mabel Normand and Will Rogers pictures but was unable to survive Goldwyn’s “Eminent Authors” project, an attempt to inject literary values into the studio’s output by signing a number of popular novelists and short-story writers. Goldwyn never seemed to give up on this idea and later expended a considerable sum in bringing the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck to Hollywood, with equally dismal results. “That Morrie. I trusted him, and he wrote me a story about bees,” Goldwyn is reported to have said. 79

These steps may have been taken for publicity purposes, but probably Goldwyn sincerely felt that his films could benefit from the work of serious writers. As he told a pier reporter in 1925, upon leaving for a European trip (where one of his goals was to sign Sigmund Freud to a Hollywood contract), “Professor Freud will inject into pictures truth and reality, where now we have only tinsel and shadows.” 80

In 1919 one of Goldwyn’s partners, Joe Godsol, induced the Du Pont interests to invest heavily in the Goldwyn Company. Combined with backing from the Chase Bank and the Central Union Trust, this created a pool of $7 million for corporate expansion, which was used to purchase and overhaul the Triangle studio in Culver City, California. This lot would later become the longtime home of MGM. Unfortunately, a coup engineered by the same interests ultimately bounced Goldwyn from the company in 1922. He retired briefly to Great Neck, Long Island, where he issued a rather fatuous “autobiography” consisting of a series of vignettes praising everyone in the industry except Joe Godsol. 81

In 1923 he began fully independent production, free of partners and investors. He made a few ethnic comedies (the POTASH AND PERLMUTTER series, 1923–1926), a lengthy string of Ronald Colman vehicles, often co-starring Vilma Banky, and at least two highly regarded adaptations, STELLA DALLAS (1925) and THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926). Although George Bernard Shaw once quipped that he wouldn’t sign with Goldwyn because Goldwyn cared only about art, whereas Shaw cared only about money, Goldwyn’s twenties productions in fact seldom attained the artistic. He took care to hire the most talented workers in the industry, including directors George Fitzmaurice and Henry King, screenwriter Frances Marion, and cinematographers Arthur Miller and George Barnes. From each, he extracted work of uniformly high caliber, often through outrageous exertions on his own part. But all too often, everyone seemed to be straining, working entirely too hard to achieve the effects Goldwyn hoped to see on screen. Goldwyn made films “like a man shaking a slot machine,” said Ben Hecht, who worked with him often enough to know. 82

It was during the sound period that Goldwyn produced the bulk of the films that confirmed his reputation and were most responsible for his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1971. 83 But his decision to turn his back on big-studio production methods and operate as an independent for the balance of a long and successful career must stand as his most significant contribution to the industry itself.

James Cruze

James Cruze was one of the highest-salaried directors of silent pictures, and many of his films were among the most popular of the postwar decade. Writing in 1926, Terry Ramsaye casually grouped him with D. W. Griffith as one of only two “major directors” at Famous Players-Lasky. But within a few years, all such acclaim began to sour. Cruze soon lost not only his lucrative contract but his critical standing as well. By 1939, Lewis Jacobs, in a lengthy discussion of Cruze and his films, announced that he was “a minor figure whose talents were unrealized” and a director who had been “unable to make any valuable contribution to American film.” 84

Meteoric reputations are not uncommon among silent-era directors, but few have fallen with such finality as that of James Cruze. Is this a career in need of rediscovery, or did an inflated reputation simply achieve its inevitable collapse?

At the present moment, Craze’s reputation is largely bound up with that of his best-known film, THE COVERED WAGON (1923). During the twenties, however, he was initially applauded for a series of lively and unpretentious Wallace Reid and Fatty Arbuckle films made between 1918 and 1921. In commercial terms, these pictures capped Reid’s career as a matinee idol and helped Arbuckle move successfully from shorts to features. But the rise of both stars ended abruptly, and in revamping the script of a proposed Arbuckle vehicle to suit Will Rogers, Cruze hit upon a new style of satirical comedy, one that he would continue to develop over the next several years. ONE GLORIOUS DAY (1922) was the story of a mild-mannered professor temporarily possessed by a mischievous spirit sent from Valhalla. What might have been a straightforward situation comedy was shaped by Cruze into a canny satire of politics and spiritualism, replete with expressionistic touches influenced by THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. 85 Audiences resisted the film, but critical support moved Cruze further in the direction of satirical comedy. His RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1923) and MERTON OF THE MOVIES (1924) established him as a master of this form before it was taken over by the Lubitsch school. Cruze adopted the expressionistic theater staging of BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK (1923) for his film version and continued with this style in HOLLYWOOD (1923), a much-praised satire of life in the young movie colony. Cruze’s current reputation might be different if he were more identified with films like these, but when Lubitsch’s work captured the public’s imagination, Cruze’s efforts were forgotten. Today, nearly all these films have disappeared, and it is impossible to judge Cruze’s real contribution to the genre.

With the Reid and Arbuckle films also out of sight, Cruze’s reputation rested on a handful of outdoor epics that followed the success of THE COVERED WAGON , namely   THE PONY EXPRESS (1925), OLD IRONSIDES (1926), and the talkie SUTTER’S GOLD (1935).

THE PONY EXPRESS and SUTTER’S GOLD have had few defenders, and their occasional screenings do little to help Cruze’s image. OLD IRONSIDES , considered a costly flop on release, was still being damned a decade later as “a dismal failure” which made it clear that “his success with THE COVERED WAGON was a flash in the pan.” Lewis Jacobs may have been reflecting here the hostility of the moment, but his harsh assessment of OLD IRONSIDES seems hard to justify in light of recent screenings. 86

This leaves us with THE COVERED WAGON , a film whose value, even at the time of its initial release, was the subject of some debate. Jesse Lasky had acquired the rights to Emerson Hough’s Saturday Evening Post serial and felt that he could revive the Western genre by shifting the emphasis from stars (like William S. Hart) to scenery and situations. Accordingly, he authorized Cruze to take a large unit on location and to expend considerable sums in capturing a degree of physical authenticity previously unknown in Westerns. Largely thanks to the camerawork of Karl Brown, who photographed most of Cruze’s silent films, THE COVERED WAGON set a visual standard for Western epics to come and was the dominant critical and commercial success of the season. Victor Freeburg’s Pictorial Beauty on the Screen, perhaps the most sophisticated analysis of film aesthetics until then published in America, was dedicated to Cruze that year, and a still from THE COVERED WAGON served as the frontispiece. Many were impressed by the palpable authenticity of props and locations in this pageant of American history, but details of the action were criticized by a knowledgeable few, while others found the casting of J. Warren Kerrigan and Lois Wilson in the leads a serious mistake. But the film’s very success in launching a cycle of epic Westerns soon began to cut into its reputation. John Ford’s THREE BAD MEN (1926), for example, seems far more satisfactory by any possible standard, especially when compared with the truncated prints of THE COVERED WAGON available today. Although Kevin Brownlow defends the film for its documentary value, George Fenin and William K. Everson in The Western more accurately reflect current opinion when they berate it for being “slow and pedestrian, often crudely faked,” and “of negligible creative value.” 87

When Cruze was unable to repeat its success, his standing at the studio began to fall, and he especially bore the brunt of the costly failure of OLD IRONSIDES . In addition, he was the sort of director who preferred to work with a small unit, loyal primarily to himself. As in the case of von Stroheim and Marshall Neilan, this approach did not suit the developing production practices of the studios. When Cruze’s contract was dropped in 1928, Paramount production chief B. P. Schulberg issued the following terse explanation: “The day of the individual in pictures is over.”. 88

Ernst Lubitsch

Before 1914 America had been the world’s most important film market, but by the close of World War I it was the most important film producer as well. The French and the Italians were no longer viable as international competitors, but even before the Armistice, a potential new rival had arisen. Backed by the Alfred Hugenberg fortune and masterminded by impresario Paul Davidson, the German film industry had pulled itself out of the cultural wreckage that hung over Berlin in 1918. In a dramatic turnaround, German films were sent off to conquer foreign capitals so recently denied to German troops.

It was not until 1920 that this wave was allowed to break on American shores. But when the presentation of MADAME DUBARRY (renamed PASSION) at New York’s giant Capitol Theatre successfully overcame the firmly entrenched anti-German hysteria among American audiences, the domestic market once more seemed vulnerable to foreign infiltration. This was an intolerable and utterly surprising development for Hollywood. Reporting on the vast crowds being turned away from the theater by  extra policemen summoned for the occasion, the New York Times marveled that “none of the hostility that has greeted attempts to revive German opera and drama” was still in evidence. The success of DUBARRY was matched a few months later by that of DECEPTION (ANNA BOLEYN ) and one or two others. But not all German films were greeted so warmly. THE GOLEM (1920) flopped with American audiences, while T HE C ABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) inspired picket lines of disgruntled war veterans. Only those films directed by Ernst Lubitsch seemed surefire successes, and a race to lock up Lubitsch, his films, and his star, Pola Negri, soon became the obsession of Hollywood dealmakers. 89

Lubitsch’s first American employer was Mary Pickford, for whom he directed a Spanish costume romance called ROSITA (1923). Warmly received by critics but generally ignored by audiences, it was later suppressed by Pickford, who hated the film, hated Lubitsch, and hated the whole experience of working with the man. Pickford had expected to be well served by Europe’s greatest director and was unwilling and unable to bend herself to his wishes. She, after all, was producing this picture. “He was very self-assertive, but then all little men are,” Pickford told Kevin Brownlow decades later. 90

Lubitsch had been trying to get himself to America for years. " ‘Hollywood by Christmas’ is his banner cry, " reported an interviewer who observed him on the set in Berlin in 1922. 91 Now he appeared to have ruined his big opportunity, antagonized one of the world’s most powerful stars, and sullied his box-office reputation. But Lubitsch was a survivor. In a dazzling change of pace, he dropped the large historical canvas that had brought him his greatest success since his days with Max Reinhardt and turned to the comedy of manners.

On his first visit to America, in 1922, Lubitsch confided to Peter Milne his "amazement " over Cecil B. DeMille’s handling of minute details of characterization, hardly more than touches, in FORBIDDEN FRUIT (1922). Milne, who felt that the acclaim for Lubitsch’s German films was somewhat excessive, noted in his book Motion Picture Directing that the strength of Lubitsch’s films, at the time, lay in their handling of mass action and that Lubitsch’s concern with DeMille’s “touches,” while a step in the right direction, seemed quite out of character. In fact, the remark was prescient. 92

Moving from Pickford to the small Warner Bros. studio, Lubitsch quickly produced a series of films, including THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE (1924), KISS ME AGAIN (1925), and LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN (1925), which redefined sophisticated American screen comedy. Early efforts in this genre by James Cruze and others were forgotten, and for many critics, DeMille himself was “swept aside” by a man with more style and better taste. 93

The films were characterized by clever bits of business, soon referred to as “Lubitsch touches,” which illuminated character or situation and cast ironic (never sentimental) reflection on the action. Threatened with a palace revolt, Adolphe Menjou in FORBIDDEN PARADISE (1924) reaches for his hip—and draws out a checkbook to quell the disturbance. In the same film, Pola Negri surreptitiously moves a footstool into position so as to better plant a kiss on handsome Rod La Rocque. That these touches were often associated with aggressive female sexuality only added to their mild titillation. While many critics and historians to this day insist that Lubitsch’s new style had its roots in Chaplin’s A WOMAN OF PARIS (1923), anyone seeing that heavy, German-influenced exercise will find such a claim difficult to credit. 94

It should be noted that Lubitsch was not an easy director to work for. He planned out every shot, every gesture, far in advance of shooting, and set a pattern for Alfred Hitchcock in his subjugation of actors. No one ever won an Oscar for acting in a Lubitsch picture. All the performances were his own, and when the time came to edit his films, they could be assembled in a matter of days, a feat that astounded contemporary critics. 95

At the end of the silent period, Lubitsch returned to the historical spectacle. United with Emil Jannings for the first time since their Berlin days, he made THE PATRIOT , a tale of Czar Paul, which proved a failure with audiences but was nonetheless cited as the best picture of 1928 in the broadly based Film Daily critics’ poll. 96 With talkies on the horizon, Lubitsch did not need to change. Sound held no terror, and the microphone only provided opportunities for more Lubitsch touches.

Irving Thalberg

Allene Talmey, in her 1927 volume of film industry profiles, says nothing about Louis B. Mayer but offers the following about his second in command, Irving Thalberg: “Out of the dulness of middle class complacency there has come an unnatural phenomenon, known in Hollywood as ‘Irving Thalberg, the boy producer.’” 97 What was dull and unnatural to Talmey was Thalberg’s unspectacular background, a comfortable middle-class upbringing, some education, and a professional life that left little time for personal foibles. Talmey complained that ambitious pants-pressers, junk-men, and steerage passengers all made better copy but that Thalberg knew better than any of them how to make successful pictures.

Talmey credits Thalberg with the success of THE BIG PARADE (1925), THE MERRY WIDOW (1925), and FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1927), tries to explain how his supervision of production acted to shape these hits, working sometimes with, and sometimes against, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s noted writers, directors, and stars. Thalberg himself never took a credit. The general public in the 1920s knew of him largely through uncertain fan-magazine profiles that emphasized his shy charm and youth. 98 Without the traditional rags-to-riches story to cling to, they were at a loss to understand exactly what he did around the studio or how his function differed from that of his associates at MGM, Harry Rapf and Louis B. Mayer.

But those within the industry were not uncertain. They knew that Thalberg had whipped the untidy Universal lot into shape when he arrived there in 1920 and that he had masterminded the string of hits that placed the newly assembled MGM among the most profitable of Hollywood studios. In addition, he had done this by “breaking eggs”: seizing authority and exerting it against procedural inertia and executive paralysis.

His most significant steps were taken at Universal. As Carl Laemmle’s private secretary, the twenty-year-old Thalberg had been deposited at the West Coast studio and assigned to supervise production in concert with three other executives, Tarkington Baker, Maurice Fleckles, and Isidore Bernstein (the last two were Laemmle relatives). Since the opening of Universal City five years earlier, there had been no clear authority on the lot and no clear chain of command to Laemmle in New York. Managers and supervisors were appointed at frequent intervals, their orders undercut by cables from the East. The various production units at Universal City had once operated almost as independent outfits and had never quite been brought under unified command. Soon Thalberg had rid himself of his three associates and turned his attention to the most powerful of the lot’s independent spirits, Erich von Stroheim. 99

FOOLISH WIVES was already in production when Thalberg arrived, so there was little he could do but watch von Stroheim run the budget far over the original projections. When the time came to launch the next von Stroheim picture, MERRY-GO-ROUND , Thalberg kept the director from also acting in it, thus implicitly threatening to remove him from the picture if things went awry. He also sent spies to report on daily progress and kept a careful eye on rising expenditures and censorable rushes. 100 After $220,000 had been spent and only a small fraction of the film completed, Thalberg removed von Stroheim, brought in another director, and quickly completed the project.

There are two items of significance here. First, despite the fact that von Stroheim personally appealed to Laemmle in New York, his attempt to circumvent the studio production head failed. Laemmle threw his support behind Thalberg, thereby asserting the primacy of a central executive over any of the individual talents on the Universal lot. What has been forgotten over the years is that MERRY-GO-ROUND , as revamped under Thalberg, became a huge commercial success that validated his judgment in the eyes of the industry. If one producer could succeed in this, so could another. “The age of the director was over,” remembered one startled director. 101

In 1923 Thalberg was stolen away from Laemmle by Louis B. Mayer, who gave him a similar position at his studio on Mission Road. Within a year the MGM merger had taken place, and the “boy producer” found himself with a tremendous and somewhat nightmarish responsibility—supervising the efforts of all the merged companies. There was no guarantee that anyone could hold these disparate egos together. Professional and personal rivalries, and the problems of fusing the merged organizations, were all laid at Thalberg’s door. He had to contend with such willful figures as Neilan, Seastrom, Vidor, and von Stroheim, establish a central authority, stay out of Mayer’s way, and not miss a beat in the release schedule.

Backed when necessary by Mayer’s strong-arm tactics, Thalberg accomplished all this within a single season. He learned to accommodate Vidor, fired Neilan and von Stroheim, and seemingly charmed the rest into submission. This last element is hard to quantify, but those who worked with Thalberg still seem in awe of his taste, intelligence, and personal magnetism. The section on Thalberg in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By … consists mainly of a series of tributes from his old employees so lavish as to approach hagiography. 102

Thalberg was not infallible. He fired Mauritz Stiller while he was directing Greta Garbo in THE TEMPTRESS (1926), and the result was the only Garbo picture of the period to lose money. He dragged his feet on the introduction of sound for so long that despite MGM’s eventual success with the medium, rival studios had already seized a large share of the market. But the legend remained. Thalberg died in 1936, and the following year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named a special award after him, “given each year for the most consistent high level of production achievement by an individual producer, based on pictures he has personally produced during the preceding year.” Some years, they just cannot bring themselves to award one. 103

F. W. Murnau

“The camera is the director’s sketching pencil,” F. W. Murnau wrote in 1928. “It should be as mobile as possible to catch every passing mood, and it is important that the mechanics of the cinema should not be interposed between the spectator and the picture.” Long before Alexandre Astruc, Murnau was aware of the principle of the camera stylo. He articulated the doctrine of the long take, and seemed to recoil from the lavish studio fabrications that marked the early days of the German expressionist film. While other directors working in Hollywood, even von Stroheim or Lubitsch, built their work around scenarios of substance, Murnau approached his art from another direction. With the camera as his pencil, he wrote the essential elements of his films directly on the screen. 104

Murnau was brought to America by William Fox in 1926. He made three films for the Fox Company, none of which was commercially successful. Yet the impact of his method of working changed the entire direction of the American cinema in this period. Hollywood had absorbed and Americanized such talents as Lubitsch, Seastrom, and Benjamin Christensen, but Murnau proved to be the one European filmmaker of the era who succeeded in changing Hollywood.

Murnau’s THE LAST LAUGH (1924) had been a great critical success in America, though a box-office catastrophe (“The last laugh was on me” for having distributed the film, quipped Universal’s Carl Laemmle). William Fox, eager to enhance his industry position and be seen as the peer of Adolph Zukor, signed Murnau to a luxurious four-year, four-picture contract. The salary began at $125,000 and rose in annual increments to $200,000. Fox had acquired a German director as costly as Lubitsch, although without that earlier import’s box-office record. 105

But in signing Murnau, Fox had not just bought himself a German director; he had acquired a substantial segment of the German film industry as well. For the first film,SUNRISE (1927), a script came in from Carl Mayer, scriptwriter of THE CABINET OF DR .CALIGARI and THE LAST LAUGH . TO build the sets, designer Rochus Gliese was imported, and so were Herman Bing and Edgar G. Ulmer, who acted as Murnau’s assistants and intermediaries. Even one of the film’s American cinematographers, Charles Rosher, had just spent a year with Murnau in Germany.

A vast city set was constructed in diminishing perspective on the Fox lot. Inside the stages was built a great marsh, with the camera suspended from tracks in the studio ceiling. As it moved with actor George O’Brien through the bullrushes, Karl Struss, Rosher’s associate, had to hang from the ceiling with one eye glued to the inverted image in his Bell & Howell viewfinder. Most elaborate of all was the village set, constructed at Lake Arrowhead. “I crawled over it for a day and a half,” remembered director Clarence Brown. “It was wonderful.” 106 Brown did not even work for the Fox Company. Directors, designers, and cameramen from all over the industry trooped through Murnau’s sets and stages. SUNRISE became a demonstration project of German film techniques applied with Hollywood budgetary resources.

Soon even those directors most closely associated with cozy Americana subjects, men like Brown, Frank Borzage, and John Ford, had absorbed the lessons of Murnau and his style. Ford actually shot much of FOUR SONS (1928) right on the old S UNRISE village sets. Too costly to be profitable, too arty to be popular, SUNRISE made no money but left a deep mark on the final few years of silent film in Hollywood. Shadows, camera movements, artfully stylized settings and gestures, all became the mark of true film art in Hollywood during 1927 and 1928. The studios had flirted with, and rejected, the hard-edged expressionism of the CALIGARI tradition a few years earlier, but from Murnau they learned that it was possible to style and design “the real world,” and to match their own predilection for plastic realism with European notions of gestural and architectural stylization. 107 Only when sound changed the rules did Hollywood filmmakers begin to let go of this new style.

Murnau failed to benefit from the impact of his work. His next film, THE FOUR DEVILS (1928), caused little stir, and his final effort for Fox, OUR DAILY BREAD , shot largely on a farm outside Pendleton, Oregon, in 1928, was not even released in the form he left it. Remarkable mainly for its sensuous tracking shots sweeping through fields of wheat, CITY GIRL (as it was called on its release in 1930) at least moved Murnau off the back lot again. When he broke with Fox, he teamed with Robert Flaherty, a pairing that some critics damned as a mismatch of documentarist and expressionist. 108 But the Murnau-dominated film that emerged, TABU (1931), remains the last great achievement of the silent cinema.

Josef von Sternberg

In one sense, the achievements of Josef von Sternberg should properly be discussed in a later volume of this series. His films with Marlene Dietrich, his stylized use of dialogue, and his ultimate fall from favor all postdate the silent era. Yet von Sternberg occupies a significant place in the history of this period as well, insofar as his career reflects the primary contradictions built into the developing studio system: how to balance the requisites of an essentially personal style with the demands of industrial mass production.

Von Sternberg was the most self-consciously artistic of all Hollywood’s silent directors, one who sneered at stars and producers and affected eccentric habits of dress and decorum. Apparently a large part of this was mere posing. According to one often-quoted source, he first grew his moustache because it made him look more “terrible,” and therefore more noticeable. The first film he directed, THE SALVATION HUNTERS (1925), was a grim exposition of life on a dredge, clearly intended to outrage its viewers by exceeding even GREED in ashcan realism. In later years the director was often uneasy about acknowledging this heavy, graceless exercise, and when asked to speak before a screening in New York in 1954 he said, “I don’t know why I should introduce this film since I made it to introduce me.” 109

Produced for $5,000, THE SALVATION HUNTERS succeeded in catching the attention of Chaplin and Pickford and won for itself a place on the United Artists release schedule. According to von Sternberg, the film had reached the screen of Chaplin’s private projection room following the bribing of his household staff. 110 Critical response to the picture was wildly mixed, but it did lead directly to a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Von Sternberg began the direction of two films there, but the first was completely redone by another director, while von Sternberg walked off the second after only a few days of shooting.

Since the studio system was not adapting very well to Chaplin’s discovery, the comedian offered a project of his own. Von Sternberg would direct Edna Purviance in a story of life among the fisherfolk, THE WOMAN OF THE SEA (1926). But after one preview, Chaplin shelved the picture, and it was never seen again. Mary Pickford then set von Sternberg to work on a story for her, but when he returned with the outline for BACKWASH , the tale of a poor blind girl living in the slums of industrial Pittsburgh, that project also dissolved.

Von Sternberg had been able to attract attention with a personal film of “horrible” distinction but had not been able to turn this success into the basis of a future career. Not only had he failed at MGM, but his friends at United Artists had proven less than reliable. Finally, he was reduced to working at Paramount in a vaguely defined capacity, submitting story ideas and directing bits and pieces of other people’s films. Then, one fortunate day, the direction of a new gangster film, UNDERWORLD (1927), was taken away from Arthur Rosson and handed to von Sternberg. This time he was prepared. 111

In the four silent films he directed for Paramount in 1927 and 1928, von Sternberg was finally able to resolve the tensions between his own demands and those of his employer. Von Sternberg was happy to tackle a commercial subject like this because he was prepared to ignore those elements of plot and locale which made it valuable to Paramount. What interested him was happening elsewhere: mood, theme, and characterization. “I’m sort of a poet,” he announced later, an uncharacteristically blunt admission. 112

UNDERWORLD created a vogue for gangster films that lasted well into the sound era, and it achieved a financial success that assured von Sternberg’s ability to work with relative freedom on the pictures that followed. A completely romanticized view of crime and criminals, the film was attacked by some for its technical inaccuracies and amoral perspective, a type of criticism that would increase over the next decade. But UNDERWORLD set the pattern for later von Sternberg essays into exotic worlds, foreign and domestic. Later, with Dietrich, he would channel this approach through the personality of one star, but the roots of his sensuous, ambiguous screen style lie here—along with the seeds of later critical problems.

In the 1930s many critics, especially those on the left, felt that von Sternberg’s work suffered from “bad montage and an amazing ignorance of the moving forces behind human behavior and social reality.” 113 To which he might have replied, as he did many years later to Kevin Brownlow:

When I made UNDERWORLD I was not a gangster, nor did I know anything about gangsters. I knew nothing about China when I made Shanghai Express 1932. These are not authentic. I do not value the fetish for authenticity. I have no regard for it. On the contrary, the illusion of reality is what I look for, not reality itself. There is nothing authentic about my pictures. Nothing at all. There isn’t a single authentic thing ( The Parade’s Gone By …, p. 202).

In an especially notorious attack, the critic-filmmaker John Grierson announced, “When a director dies he becomes a photographer.” 114 But perhaps it was to be expected that the director of DRIFTERS (1929) would hardly be in sympathy with the man who made THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928).

The First 36 Hours of Dr. Durant [next] [back] The Film Industry Achieves Modest Stability: 1898–1901 - Biograph at Its Zenith

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