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Prewar Stars, Genres, and Production Trends - Authorship, Film Style, and the Rise of the Producer-Director

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The rapidly changing social, economic, and industrial conditions in 1940—1941 created a curious paradox in terms of the actual films and filmmaking of the period. On the one hand, the Hollywood studios enjoyed the benefits of the improving economy, especially in the surging first-run market, and they continued to rely on established star-genre formulas to exploit that market. Indeed, familiar stars and standardized story forms remained the chief organizing principles in virtually all phases of the industry. But on the other hand, the acute demand for A-class product and the increasing clout of top filmmaking talent created unique opportunities for innovation and individual creativity in the production process—opportunities which a good many filmmakers actively pursued. This had a significant effect on the films of the period, and in fact the early 1940s saw changes in both film style and the filmmaking process, particularly with regard to directorial “authorship,” that would have enormous impact throughout the decade.

Tino Balio, in his study of 1930s Hollywood, Grand Design , aptly notes that filmmaking during that era of near-absolute studio control was characterized by three related factors: the “growing domination of producers” over studio filmmaking; the “diminished status” of top creative talent, especially directors and writers; and “the ‘authorship’ of studio house styles.” 1 The established house styles would persist into the 1940s, keyed as always to each studios star-genre repertoire. But the demand for first-run product in the early 1940s and the emergence of the producer-director as a major industry force marked a significant reversal of the trends Balio describes.

The steadily increasing demand for first-run product in 1940-1941 put greater emphasis on presold films and product differentiation, and in the process filmmakers themselves became a viable means of preselling and differentiating top pictures. Increasingly, the names of individual directors—Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, John Ford, and others—were invoked to assure audiences of the distinctive artistry and overall quality of high-end movie product. Employing name recognition was more than simply a marketing ploy. Top filmmakers did enjoy greater   creative freedom and administrative control in the early 1940s than they had known in over two decades of studio rule. This power led to increased innovation in feature production styles and a higher premium on directorial style as well, particularly in films geared for more sophisticated metropolitan audiences.

This trend also signaled a broadening conception of critical prestige. With the surge in high-end production and in the overall quality of top features in 1940-1941, the distinction between A-class and prestige pictures steadily diminished. Indeed, the distinction became almost meaningless with the shift to longer runs at higher prices for firstrun releases, as well as the reliance on presold product. The deluge of top product did include the more predictable and commercial prestige fare—costume musicals, biopics, historical epics, and so on. But these high-end releases included riskier and more innovative ventures as well, such as the adaptations of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men , the amalgam of Eugene O’Neill one-act plays into THE LONG VOYAGE HOME in 1940, and Orson Welles’s monumental CITIZEN KANE 1941.

Projects like these indicated not only the willingness of studio executives and independent producers alike to test the interests and tastes of first-run audiences but also the increasing clout and innovative impulses of top filmmakers. Indeed, the rampant critical debates and industry discourse about the Hollywood cinema as a “directors medium” indicated that the notions of film authorship and film style that Balio ascribed to 1930s filmmaking no longer quite pertained—or at least not in quite the same manner. Balio’s observations about the dominant role of producers still applied, but what he saw as the “diminished status” of the director simply did not.

Indeed, the single most significant aspect of the shift to independent and unit production in prewar Hollywood was the rise of the producer-director. Invariably, this person was a director who had ascended to producer status, a career path that occurred with increasing frequency in 1940—1941 owing to industry and market conditions. The primary factors were the market demand for first-run product and the war economy; there were other factors as well, from the formation of the Screen Directors Guild and the 1940 consent decree to the desire for autonomy by top directors and the critical discourse about cinema as a director’s medium.

Frank Capra and John Ford were prime examples of this shift in Hollywood’s division of filmmaking labor, and in fact both became embroiled in controversies during the struggle in 1939 for approval of the Screen Directors Guild (SDG), approval which centered on the very issues of directorial independence and individual artistry. As mentioned in chapter 2, Capra was president of both the Motion Picture Academy and SDG in 1939, and he played a key role in winning Guild approval. Ford, meanwhile, had remained characteristically aloof from the fray but was drawn in after the release of STAGECOACH in February 1939, when the industry debate was at its height. The picture was independently produced (for UA) by Walter Wanger and became a cause célèbre for those advocating not only SDG but a view of the cinema as a director’s medium. Much of the struggle went on behind the scenes, as when Wanger informed a UA executive: “While I am proud to be the producer of ‘Stagecoach,’ will you please do everything in your power to see that the picture is known as John Ford’s achievement.” 2 At about the same time, the screenwriter Dudley Nichols wrote a personal note to Ford about the STAGECOACH premiere in New York: “If there was ever a picture that was a director’s picture it was that one, and I tried to make that clear to everyone who complimented me in New York.”

The debate also went public via the press. The New York Times film critics Bosley Crowther and Frank Nugent both wrote on the issue, and Nugent was particularly out-spoken. There are those, he wrote in March 1939, who argue that “the motion picture is a director’s medium rather than the player’s or the writer’s. And this, beyond question, is true.” The best evidence, Nugent opined, was “John Ford’s” STAGECOACH . 4 Two weeks later, Capra wrote an open letter to the Times , suggesting that the real problem resided with the studios’ executive producers. “About six producers today pass upon 90 percent of the scripts and edit 90 percent of the pictures,” lamented Capra, while “there are only a half a dozen or so directors who are allowed to shoot as they please and who have any supervision over their editing.”

The official recognition of SDG in March 1939 provided significant impetus for the growing producer-director trend in 1940-1941. The Guild agreement gave all directors the right to participate in casting, script development, and editing (ensuring them the first rough-cut or “director’s cut” of a picture) and increased directorial authority over principal photography as well. Two objectives of SDG, as Variety noted, were, first, “the gradual elimination of associate producers” (i.e., middle-management functionaries who supervised production) and second, the right of top directors, “signing contracts as producer-director, [to be] responsible only to the production department and top studio executives.” 6 The producer-director trend received additional—and perhaps far greater—impetus from the 1940 consent decree, which put a premium on proven (“bankable”) directors who could dependably deliver their own films. As Variety noted in late 1940, “the decree, apparently, is bringing [directors] all they had hoped to win through their [SDG] pact, and more.”

Once the Writers Guild signed its agreements with the producers in 1940 and 1941, screenwriters also began enjoying increased status and authority. Indeed, the term “hyphenate” was becoming common in industry parlance by then, referring not only to producer-directors but to other combination roles as well, notably writers who had ascended to either director or producer status—the writer-director Preston Sturges at Paramount, for instance, or the writer-producer Dore Schary at MGM. 8 It should be noted, however, that although market conditions placed greater importance than ever on stars to sell pictures, stars rarely attained (or even pursued) producer status; the actor-producer was not a common figure in the burgeoning ranks of Hollywood hyphenates in 1940-1941.

The film historian and theorist David Bordwell, in his telling analysis of classical Hollywood cinema, has argued for the centrality of the director in any consideration of film authorship in prewar Hollywood. In his examination of the complex interplay of innovation and standardization in Hollywood, filmmaking, of product differentiation and classical film style, Bordwell posits the director as the primary agent of both the articulation and innovation of that style: “The most influential argument for differentiation within Hollywood cinema has been advanced by auteur critics. To choose a body of works attached to a director’s signature and to claim it as individual, personal, even subversive … does locate important differences within the classical style.” Significantly enough, Bordwell takes most of his examples from precisely this period in American film history—Hollywood in the early 1940s—when film style was shifting from an institutional to a more identifiably personal and individualized phenomenon.

Bordwell offers four basic notions of directorial authorship in classical Hollywood. The first treats the director as an “individual human agent” and sole creator of a film, with virtually absolute control over every aspect of its creation. The second regards the director as a “veritable trademark” attached to a product as an assurance of its distinctive quality—as implied in the argument that a film is worth seeing because it is “a Hitchcock film” or “a Ford film.” The third associates the director with distinctive “narrational” and stylistic operations within a particular film; the director, in other words, is treated as a storyteller with characteristic techniques that become evident in the “telling” of a particular film story. And fourth, the director is associated with a set of “common stylistic or thematic strategies” that gradually become evident throughout an entire filmmaking career in a cumulative “body of work.” In Bordwells view, the most valid arguments for directorial authorship rely on the fourth approach, identifying a director’s “personal style” in terms of the formal, narrative, and thematic qualities which emerge in the course of an entire career. Bordwell downplays the third category because narrational and stylistic operations rarely are evident within a single film—particularly for veteran studio directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, and others schooled in the high classicism of the 1920s and 1930s, with its premium on thematic subtlety and “self-effacing” narrative technique. And Bordwell virtually dismisses the first two notions of directorial authorship altogether, since only “rare exceptions” among Hollywood filmmakers enjoyed any real individual autonomy, creative control, or trademark status.

What is ultimately so remarkable about the 1940-1941 period, however, is how many of those “rare exceptions” did emerge. Industry conditions rendered the prewar era a moment of remarkable opportunity for filmmakers willing and able to seize it, and quite a few did so. Significantly enough, many of these filmmakers came from outside the studio system, bringing a strong sense of personal style and individual creative authority to their work in Hollywood. Indeed, the early 1940s saw the sudden, explosive emergence of a new generation of Hollywood directors who would have tremendous impact on American film history. Some, like Alfred Hitchcock, Anatole Litvak, Robert and Curt Siodmak, and Jean Negulesco, came from abroad, mainly from Europe after the war broke out; others, like Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, and Jules Dassin, came from radio or stage backgrounds in New York.

Most of the leading filmmakers (and eventually canonized auteurs) of the prewar era, however, were established Hollywood contract directors who had attained producer-director status and operated either freelance or under a (variously controlling) studio contract, like Frank Capra, John Ford, Leo McCarey, and Howard Hawks. Equally important were contract writers, like Preston Sturges, John Huston, and Billy Wilder, who climbed to hyphenate status as writer-directors in 1940—1941. The ranks of producer-directors and writer-directors would grow steadily during the decade, and these clearly were the filmmaking elite, individuals whose commercial success and ability to work within the system, even as freelance producer-directors, translated into unprecedented creative and administrative authority.

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