Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Filmmakers in Classic Films

"All of life's riddles are answered in the movies." (Davis in the 1991 film Grand Canyon)

There is perhaps no medium as self-reflexive as motion pictures. It is true that writers sometimes feature writers as protagonists in their novels and short stories. Songwriters do write songs about singers and even songwriters. And there have been television shows about, well, television shows. That having been said, it would seem that none of these media refer to themselves nearly as frequently as motion pictures. Not only have there been movies about movie theatres, movies about movie stars, and movies about movies, there have often been movies about movie making. As a result, there have been several films which feature directors as central characters.

Indeed, movies about movie making go all the way back to the silent era. Behind the Screen featuring Charlie Chaplin as an overworked stage hand at a movie studio was made all the way back in 1916. The 1923 animated short Felix in Hollywood featured Felix the Cat as the companion of a down on his luck actor who goes to Hollywood. The 1926 Mervyn LeRoy comedy Ella Cinders starred Colleen Moore as the title character, a beauty queen who goes to Hollywood to make a career in pictures, based loosely on the fairly tale Cinderella. Given that movies about movie making had existed since the silent era, it should come as no surprise that one of the earliest talkies would feature a movie director as the impetus for its plot. It should also come as no surprise that it is one of the famous movies of all time, regarded by many as one of the greatest films of all time.

That film was King Kong. Among its primary characters is director Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), who also appears in its sequel, Son of Kong. It is Denham who sets the plot of King Kong in motion. It was Denham who decided to make a film on Skull Island, having heard legends of Kong and deciding that they must be based on fact. It was also Denham, after having been told his movies would have made more money if they had a love interest in them, found and cast Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in his film. Quite simply, without Carl Denham, King Kong would not have been made.

As a director Carl Denham made documentaries, most often set in the jungle and other primitive areas of the world. He had no problem with putting himself in danger, and hence his cast and crew in danger as well. Despite his devotion to documentary film making (he objects to the notion that his films need a love interest), Carl Denham apparently had no objections to  staging scenes--aboard the ship he had Ann rehearse the scene when she first sees Kong. He was also a consummate showman. In Kong he saw not simply a wondrous animal, but a means to put on a good show and hence make a good deal of money. In Son of Kong Carl Denham, burdened with lawsuits from the damage caused by Kong, fled New York City with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), the skipper of the ship which made the original trip to Skull Island. The two men once more found themselves back on Skull Island, this time in search of treasure. Of course, in the process they would meet what was ostensibly the son of King Kong.

To a large degree Carl Denham was based on the the director of the original King Kong, Merian C. Cooper himself. Before they started making narrative films such as The Four Feather and King Kong, Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack made documentaries such as Grass and Chang. Like Denham, Cooper and Schoedsack frequently put themselves in danger. And like Denham they had no objections to combining staged scenes with actual, documentary footage (a prime example being the elephant stampede at the end of Chang).

Carl Denham in the original King Kong epitomised the sort of filmmaker who would risk anything to get his film made. This is also true of the director Carl Denham (Jack Black) in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake. In fact, it may even be more true of Denham in the 2005 remake. For the most part Carl Denham in the original version was honest with people--he would not lie or cheat to make a movie. In the remake Carl Denham did  not have such limitations. He stole the film stock that technically belonged to his investors. He wrote cheques to both Captain Englehorn of the  tramp steamer Venture (Thomas Kretschmann) and screenwriter Jack Driscoll that will more than likely bounce. Still, the remake's version of Denham has more in common with the original version than Denham than simply an extreme devotion to movie making. He willingly put himself in danger to get his movie made and even to capture Kong!

An extreme devotion to filmmaking can also be seen in the lead character in Sullivan's Travels, movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea). John L. Sullivan had made several successful comedies which he considered shallow, among them Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and So Long Sarong. He had decided that he wants to do an important, message film, a tale of the downtrodden based on the novel  O Brother Where Art Thou by Sinclair Beckstein. His studio boss, Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick) would much rather Sullivan do another comedy. Despite this, Sullivan insisted on going ahead with his plan to make O Brother Where Art Thou. What is more, he is so dedicated to the project that he had decided to take up the life of a hobo so that he can know the life of the downtrodden first hand. Not only was Sullivan a dedicated filmmaker, he was also an idealist who wants to do something important, to make a film that is substantial and had a message.

To a degree John L. Sullivan grew out of a conflict within the movie's director and writer, Preston Sturges himself. Sturges was a very successful director of such comedies as The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve. He was disturbed by a trend in comedies at the time which seemed to him to be downright preachy, putting social messages ahead of the laughs. At the same time, however, Preston Sturges was very much a man with a social conscience. It is notable that, among many other things, Sullivan's Travels is among the first Hollywood films to feature African Americans in a dignified, non-stereotypical manner (for which he received a "thank you" letter from the secretary of the NAACP). To a degree, then, John L. Sullivan is based on Preston Sturges himself, as well as those directors who insisted on preaching in their comedy movies.

While directors are central to both King Kong  and Sullivan's Travels, they are only peripheral to The Bad and the Beautiful.  This is perhaps to be expected, as the movie is about corrupt movie producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), after all. This does not mean that directors are absent from the movie. At  the beginning of his career, Shields teamed with Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) to make B movies together, with Sheilds as producer and Amiel as director. Unfortunately, Shields decided to back stab Amiel when the two received their first big project--the adaptation of an epic novel largely considered unfilmable. Despite this, Amiel goes onto become a very successful director. While the early part of Jonathan Shields' career, while he was partners with Fred Amiel, is based on Val Lewton's career as a horror producer at RKO, the character himself would seem to be based on David O. Selznick. It is difficult to say if Fred Amiel is based on any director, although he began as an assistant director and stunt man on B Western and was directing what appeared to be a thriller at the start of the film. Two other directors who appear briefly in the film are clearly based on real life directors. British director Henry Whitfield, played by Leo G. Carroll, is clearly based on Alfred Hitchcock. German director Von Ellstein, played by Ivan Triesault, is clearly based on Fritz Lang.

While The Bad and the Beautiful only touches upon filmmaking, filmmaking rests at the heart of Singin' in the Rain. Indeed, it could be one of the most self-referential movies of all time. Set at the time that Hollywood was making the transition from silent movies to sound, Singin' in the Rain even drew upon real life incidents from that period for some of its plot. What is more, many of the characters were based loosely upon real life people. Among these character was director Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley), who was based on Busby Berkeley. Like Berkeley, Dexter tended to direct using rather broad examples.

Both Carl Denham and John L. Sullivan had their difficulties with making movies, but niether of them had the problems that Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) had in 8 1/2. Quite simply, Anselmi was working on his next movie, a post apocalyptic, science fiction film, when he was hit with a sudden onset of "director's block." Not only does Anselmi suddenly find his creativity suddenly gone, but everyone in his life is making demands upon him--his producer, his cast, his crew, his wife, his mistress, his press, and even his fans. The film chronicled Anselmi's quest to recover his creativity and get control over his life.

Just as Carl Denham was loosely based on Merian C. Cooper and John L. Sullivan was loosely based on Preston Sturges, Guido Anselmi was based on Federico Fellini. In fact, 8 1/2 is filled with veiled autobiographical references, including the "director's block" from which Anselmi was suffering. It had been in 1960 that La Dolce Vita had been released, becoming his most successful film up to that time. It even became a hit in the United States, where foreign films traditionally have not done well. In the face of such success, Fellini was at a loss as to what to do next. At last he hit upon the solution--turn his "director's block" into a movie. Not only is 8 1/2 somewhat autobiographical and not only is it a movie about making movies, but it is self-referential with regards to Fellini's career as well. Even its title is self-referential, 8 1/2 being Fellini's 8th and half movie (Luci del varietà from 1950 was co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, so that it is the "1/2" of the title). Not only did Federico Fellini base Guido Anselmi upon himself, but he obviously identified with him--he once said "I am Guido."

For most of movie history the directors featured in narrative films were fictional, even if they might be loosely based upon real life directors. More recently there has been the phenomenon in which movies have featured directors who actually existed. This is the case with Ed Wood, Tim Burton's 1994 film based on the life of the man who may have been the worst director of all time. In the film Burton portrays Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp) as constantly optimistic and a bit of an idealist. He constantly moved forward with his films, even though each one flopped and he worked with budgets that were less than a shoestring. He also idolised Orson Welles, who, like Wood, was also a producer, screenwriter, and director. This is to a degree an entirely accurate portrayal of Wood's life. Unlike other directors of exploitation films, Ed Wood seems to have honestly believed in what he was doing. As hard as it is to believe, Wood did not realise that he was simply creating rubbish.

A much more talented director was the focus of the 2000 movie Shadow of the Vampire. Shadow of the Vampire is a highly fictionalised account of the making of Noseferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau. In the film Murnau (John Malkovich) is portrayed as egoistical, manipulative, dictatorial, and wholly devoted to the craft of filmmaking. In fact, in many respects, Murnau is even more Machiavellian than the villain of the film (whom I won't name here so as not to spoil the film). To a large degree this is an accurate portrayal of Murnau, who may well have originated the stereotype of the German director as a tyrannical egomaniac supremely devoted to his craft.

The films I have mentioned here are only a few of the movies which have featured directors in central roles. There have been many, many more. And while the characters of the directors may vary in these films, and while some may be entirely fictional and others portrayals of actual directors, there are some commonalities. One of the things that Carl Denham, John L. Sullivan, Rosco Dexter, Guido Anselmi, F. W. Murnau, and even Ed Wood have in common is a devotion to filmmaking.  Indeed, often this devotion to filmmaking takes the extreme. Carl Denham thought nothing of putting himself, his cast, and his crew in imminent danger. John L. Sullivan was so devoted to his vision of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou that he decided to live the life of a tramp so he could experience what it was to be downtrodden. It would seem that most directors in films are dedicated to Elbert Hubbard's quote, "Art is not a thing; it is a way." Another thing common to directors in films is that most of them have rather large egos. John L. Sullivan think himself above the comedies he has been directing; he believes that he has to direct an important film with a message. In Shadow of the Vampire F. W. Murnau does not need his films to be successful to know he is a great director; he already knows it. Of course, while most directors in films do tend to be egoists, they also tend to have their fair share of neuroses and anxieties as well. Guido Anslemi experiences "director's block" and is tormented by his past. Carl Denham loves nature and the unexplored regions of the world, but he cannot help but commercialise it and hence destroy it in the end.

Of course, the reason the directors portrayed in movies have so much in common is not that all directors are alike. Rather I believe it is instead that many of these movies express the uncertainties and crises all of us go through in our own lives. The self doubts and difficulties that accompany filmmaking reflect those self doubts and difficulties that all of us have had. To a degree, then, 8 1/2 is not simply about filmmaking. It is about life. In portraying Anselmi's "director's block," Fellini was then dealing with the uncertainties and low points that all of us experience. It is then perhaps for this reason that there have been so many films about directors and filmmaking.


Raquelle said...

Great post Terry!!!

I didn't know that Murnau was such a tyrant. He sounds like he gave Preminger a run for his money. Shadow of the Vampire sounds interesting and Malkovich seems perfect for the role.

Mercurie said...

Murnau definitely had a dominating personality, although he was not quite as extreme as Preminger. More often than not, he tended to dominate through his sheer intelligence--this was a man who was addressed as "Herr Doktor" on his sets!

Aaron said...

Excellent piece!

I'll have to watch The Bad and the Beautiful again as I don't recall the Hitch/Lang references.

What was their image or reputation among peers in Hollywood?

Any comment on Two Weeks In Another Town with Douglas and also directed by Minnelli?

The bio I Am King Kong about Merian C. Cooper with the elephant stampede--from Chang you say--are on the King Kong dvd---
Seeing that along with your post gives new insight into Kong and others.

Mercurie said...

Aaron, I don't think they ever actually refer to Hitch and Lang in The Bad and The Beautiful, but it is pretty obvious that Whitfield and Von Ellstein are based on those directors! Among their peers, both Hitch and Lang were regarded as geniuses. Hitch tended to be thought of as good humoured, while Lang had a reputation for being difficult, although he had plenty of friends.

To be honest, I haven't seen Two Weeks In Another Town yet, although I have always wanted to.

Dennis said...

Actually, if you read Murnau's letters and listen to what many of his actors actually said about him, there was a lot more passion and caring from both sides than what history and films has passed down about him. He was actually quite a remarkable man.