essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Hollywood is a 13 episode documentary (676 m) made in the late 1970s by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for Thames Television in Britain, with music by Carl Davis and narration by James Mason, and released in 1980. Brownlow’s book The Parade’s Gone By… (1968), a history of silent film that featured many interviews with early film makers, gained him prominence, and the material of the book was used in creating the TV series. Brownlow went on to make further documentaries on Chaplin, Griffiths and Keaton with David Gill. Hollywood has a unique perspective, featuring interviews with over 100 pioneer film makers, such as Colleen Moore, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Lillian Gish, Anita Loos, King Vidor, Gloria Swanson, Hal Roach, Frank Capra, Harold Lloyd and Janet Gaynor, and archival footage of interviews with many more. Restored footage of key silent films and documentary footage of the town of Hollywood and events of the period 1895-1929 give a unique social perspective to the documentary. The series is of immense social and historical value, and essential viewing for those interested in film either as an art form or an industry. Release on DVD has been blocked for some years because of copyright disputes. Rated by many reviewers as among the greatest documentaries ever made.
Episode 1: The Pioneers
The series begins by correcting misconceptions about silent film. It plays a comedy short the way many people first see silent film, with a texture in faded greys, covered in scratches and stains caused by too many projections, and played through a sound projector, which runs at a different speed and causes the jerky movement seen in old films. Then we see a film called The Firemen, an archived stock master with a depth of field and texture, colour tones, sepias and greys which are extremely beautiful and projected at the correct speed. The difference is stunning.
Presenter James Mason, and several pioneers of those days, talk of the importance of sound. Silent film was never silent. For big productions sometimes an entire symphony orchestra was hired. There was always orchestral accompaniment in theatres in the cities. Sometimes in poorer neighbourhoods or rural towns there might be only a pianist. King Vidor in an interview gives the opinion that the music was 50% of the experience for most film audiences, adding immeasurably to the dramatic impact of the film shown.
Lillian Gish points out that silent film was pantomime, and a universal experience that all ethnic groups and language speakers could understand. It was ideal for the huge number of non English speakers that flocked to America for a new start. Gish also points out this was a medium before popcorn. You didn’t eat, or drink, or talk, or look away from the screen. The drama got audiences watching, afraid to look away in case they missed something. What is evident is the unsophisticated acceptance of the images by early audiences, not yet blasé. Audiences were frightened by speeding trains and guns pointed at the camera, cried at death scenes and thrilled at troops to the rescue and epic or battle scenes.
The film makers learned how to intercut, use close up, pace action to reach a climax and give audiences a point of view within the incidents depicted. Many actors were great mimes, and set designers created masterpieces, while special effects were the equal of anything done in modern times, though sometimes to the risk of actors’ lives. The films excerpted were a revelation to me. Previously I had the conventional view of silents as something faded and quaint, but found they were the equal of anything done since – but without natural sound.
Many interviewees felt film was a new art. Quite different to theatre, to music, to anything else. It was unashamed melodrama, but in that respect not that different to today’s films – or newspaper headlines.
Episode 2: In the Beginning
This is a potted history of the movies, showing how the industry began in New York, and was monopolised by a coalition of studio heads who tried to suppress independent productions. These independents looked for other locales to film in, and discovered California. The independents were harassed at times by gangsters and other toughs sent to stop their productions, and had to use force, and guns on occasion, to gain their freedom. Allan Dwan, the man behind the special effect fantasies of Douglas Fairbanks snr. such as Robin Hood and Thief of Bagdad, recounts how he used marksmanship to discourage a thug sent to discourage him!
Film in the early days was an outdoor affair, dependent on sunlight, filmed on studio rooftops in available light with open sets where often a wind would move the settings of an interior incongruously. The first world war came and went, and destroyed many film industries in Europe. Europe had originally been the innovator and market leader. Now, post WWI, it was America.
Cecil B de Mille’s daughter Agnes pays tribute to the extempore nature of productions. Actors with and without experience applied at studio gates and if accepted worked for little pay, a dollar a day, on productions where there was often no script and techniques were learnt as the film progressed. There was an air of exhilaration about productions, of improvisation, and exaltation when things succeeded.
The evolution from 15 second slot machine reels of dancers and nudes to the 12 minutes of the Great Train Robbery and on to the epics of DW Griffiths is covered. The first film stars, such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, and the unprecedented impact they had on people around the world, is looked at.
These reminiscences are moving to watch. Here are people recalling the times when they were young. What poignantly emerges is how different the times were, without all the self consciousness and media pressures we have become accustomed to.
Episode 3: Single Beds and Double Standards
Looking back on it the stars of those days thought they behaved with a lot of innocence. They had suddenly acquired fame and money, had a busy schedule, and they liked to party. That was it.
The innate puritanism in American society surfaced several times in the period of the 20s, firstly with the destruction of one of Hollywood’s most popular stars, Fatty Arbuckle. Seizing on the death of a starlet who died after attending a party with Arbuckle, an ambitious DA standing for political office capitalised on the repugnance of small town America for film star excess. Bradley, the DA, brought a case against Arbuckle, falsified and suppressed evidence, forced witnesses to perjure themselves, and created a case totally false to actual occurrences but which was taken up by the newspapers. Bradley, guilty of crimes which should have earned him a long sentence in gaol, was elected to political office. Arbuckle, who after several mistrials was acquitted and given an apology by the jury, was fired by the Hollywood studios and prevented from working again.
This scandal was followed by one concerning star Wallace Reid, injured in an accident on the set and treated by the studio doctor with morphine injections to kill the pain. This ‘treatment’ was continued by the studio so Reid could go on working, until he eventually became addicted. He died very young, at the height of his popularity, and there was a scandal when his drug addiction became known. Again the newspapers sold a lot of copies retailing the story.
In both cases, Reid’s and Arbuckle’s, the studios had committed crimes and shifted blame for them to individual actors, with the enthusiastic support of the newspapers. Then they asked Will Hays, then Postmaster General, to come to Hollywood and ‘clean up’ the town, and the Hays Office was created. All through the 20s, too, Prohibition, and bootleg liquor, was in force. This episode is a look at American society of the 20s, using examples from the world of film, and showing how rampant puritanism, hypocrisy and an exploitative press committed many acts of injustice, and acted very undemocratically, to great popular satisfaction. This episode had a slight falling away of impact as far as I was concerned, perhaps because I had some previous knowledge of the events covered.
Episode 4: Hollywood Goes to War
Battle scenes have always made good drama. Some of the most exciting (and wildly melodramatic) scenes ever filmed were in DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Yet many film makers made war films as an anti war statement. America itself veered dramatically from isolationist to interventionist attitudes during the war years, almost wiping the career of Woodrow Wilson, elected because he kept America out of the war. The torpedoing of the Lusitania caused a massive outcry, and America was ‘in’. The war film, with the Germans as villains, became very popular. Many film makers didn’t hide the tragedy and brutality of war, filming horrifying scenes of men charging machine gun nests or being bayoneted. Notable war films include King Vidor’s The Big Parade of 1925, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front of 1930, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Director, and William Wellman’s Wings of 1927, with spectacular aerial photography and stunt flying, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture.
This episode, like the previous one, is a social history of America in the period covered, that uses film as an example of what it wants to say about the times. This perspective makes the series much more than a history of the movies, or of the start of the studio system, or of Hollywood. These two episodes in fact might be a little too ambitious. The remaining episodes are all focused on the roles of film makers.
Episode 5: Hazard of the Game
The sight of actors defying death by clinging to the sides of skyscrapers or driving in front of a speeding locomotive is what many people identify as silent film. ‘Stunts’ are part of movie making, from the beginning until today, though in modern times film makers can supplement them with computer aided effects. There are unions to protect stuntmen and prompt medical attention should they become injured. It wasn’t always so. An earlier episode showed director Michael Curtiz releasing 30 tons of water from tanks to simulate the Flood, and exulting, “I visualise, I visualise”, while Agnes de Mille mentions that many actors suffered from broken arms and legs, and that one man was killed, in making the scene.
Directors took risks with their actors’ lives, and it was up to the actor to object. One scene in the Thief of Paris had a stuntman projected from a giant sling over the walls of Paris and through an open window. But the technicians had miscalculated. The stuntman insisted on a trial, and a loaded sack was projected instead: it smashed into the stone wall of the building beside the window. What amazed me in this episode was that actors and stuntmen were so willing to take risks. They balanced on two legs of a chair on a steel girder 14 stories from the ground, they deliberately nose dived an aeroplane into the ground, went under speeding trains, rolled cars – all for the dollar a day standard pay.
I vividly remember one man speaking with emotion, trying to express what it all meant, wishing he could explain what he felt in remembering those days. For he, and so many of the survivors interviewed for the series, what they remember is joy.
Episode 6: Swanson and Valentino
Gloria Swanson was considered the greatest of silent film stars. We now remember her best in coming out of retirement to play a similar role in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”. Wilder’s exploration of the no man’s land between reality and illusion is an insightful summing up of silent film (among other things). Swanson worked hard at being a star. Although a good actress, it was her star image that bought her worldwide fame, at first as the protege of Cecil B de Mille, then as an independent film maker. Others, such as Chaplin and Pickford, were as popular, but Swanson created the idea of the star. Others created an image, Pickford’s golden curled child or Theda Bara’s vamp, but Swanson lived the role of film star, and influenced millions. She is known for her association with Erich von Stroheim, director of Queen Kelly, and Rudolph Valentino, her close friend.
There is no secret about Valentino’s appeal, when he finally became a star. In film after film he shows smoldering looks towards the woman he loves. Passion was perhaps something women liked to think their men felt towards them, but seldom did. A Valentino film provided a substitute for what was lacking in real life. Looking at these clips there is no mistaking. Valentino means business. This is a frank portrayal of sex that would have given Will Hays a heart attack and was not seen in cinema again for decades. The inherent puritanism in American society was aroused by Valentino’s success, and several attacks by journalists suggested, baselessly, that Valentino was homosexual. The honest portrayal of sexual passion seemed to arouse hysteria in women and anger in men, and Valentino apparently couldn’t understand. He was hurt at the slurs and frustrated he couldn’t fight back. He died suddenly following an operation to repair a ruptured appendix when he contracted pleurisy while in hospital. His funeral was his greatest ever show.
This episode attempts to look at the wider phenomenon of fame, of movie stardom, its role in people’s lives and in the lives of the stars themselves, but it is also a fascinating look at names. They were once household names, inspiring intense and passionate feelings in millions. Now they are just names.
Episode 7: The Autocrats
The very epitomé of a film director, Cecil B de Mille wore jodhpurs, used a megaphone, and was the person in total command on his sets. He was a commanding personality, and capitalised on his early success as a director to mix and have his say with the producers of his films. When his films started to lose popularity de Mille invented the ‘sex and sermon’ formula, showing semi nude pagans being punished by the Old Testament god in marvels of early special effects such as the parting of the Red Sea. Most people detested de Mille, but those he favoured adored him. Gloria Swanson did a scene with a lion who later maimed a trainer, and a shipwreck scene when she couldn’t swim, at his say so.
Another great director was Erich von Stroheim. He exploited his success as a director to make what critics think of as the finest of the silent films. He paid scrupulous attention to detail on his sets, was a martinet who demanded complete obedience from cast and crew, and took not the slightest notice of schedules or budgets set by producers. Eventually he made films running six or seven hours which were not possible to exhibit and lost producers a lot of money. Finally, he was fired, several times, and ended up working as an actor. His last film, Queen Kelly, is considered his masterpiece, and it has been recently restored.
Here are two early examples of what Truffaut was later to call the auteur, or author, of films, creative artists who grappled with the conflicting demands of doing what they wanted to do and acceding to the commercial demands of producers. Each took a diametrically opposed way, and both failed as artists in the process. The dilemma is still there confronting ambitious film makers today.
Episode 8: Comedy – a Serious Business
Risking your life in gags that involved split second timing was routine for the comedians of the silent screen. They were beaten, pushed off cliff tops, hit with water from a fire hose, fell out of aeroplanes and dived off skyscrapers. All to raise a laugh. The pratfall, with its variations, was routine, as was pie in the face. This episode concentrates on the individual styles of four great silent comedians.
Chaplin, the most successful and the most innovative, moved beyond slapstick, of which he was a master (a champion fencer, acrobat, skier and skater as well). He began to make longer films, and introduced the element of pathos, or sentimentality, into the script, most famously with The Kid. Audiences then loved it, though it counts against him today.
Almost as popular was Harold Lloyd, famous for his antics on top of skyscrapers which gave audiences a queasy feeling in the stomach, though, as Lloyd points out, he made relatively few of these. We get to see how Lloyd did these stunts, but even seeing the safety platform and mattresses I was still feeling queasy.
The greatest film maker, if not perhaps the greatest comedian, was Buster Keaton. His sight gags are masterpieces, and he created real drama out of them. Famous for the stone face, but it is noticeable all four comedians considered here had a stone face.
Harry Langton had a brief career as a baby faced innocent always in trouble. He had a limited range, but apparently overestimated his capabilities when his films proved popular, became an auteur, and his films failed dismally from then on.
Perhaps because of the context, film appreciation, I found none of these four funny at all.
Episode 9: Out West
Westerns were first made when western expansion was still taking place. Indian scouts and cowboys found there was a huge audience for the drama and the spectacle of the so called wild west. Perhaps the first to turn his knowledge and experience into a show was William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, followed in the movies by an ex cowboy of equal flamboyance, Tom Mix. Many unemployed cowboys found work as extras in westerns. Not all western stars were in westerns because of their previous experience though. Two of the most popular and enduring were New Yorkers, William S(urrey) Hart, and Harry Carey, who was to be a mentor for John Wayne. The episode vividly shows that, because of the nature of the terrain filmed in, the film makers often had as difficult a job to do as the original settlers.
It is fascinating to see, especially in the films of Hart and Mix, the myth of the west being formed. Obviously partly authentic, but formed equally by the melodrama of the times. The lone gunman confronting the town bully, seen in a thousand westerns since, the gun duel down Main Street. The heroine and the runaway horse and carriage saved by the hero. The gang ambushing a train or coach. Hart was careful to show evil being defeated by good, which it usually is, in the movies at any rate.
Carey, like Hart, was a stage actor, and also a playwright, but he was in love with the west, and as soon as he could bought a ranch and lived a cowboy lifestyle. Carey worked with DW Griffiths, whom he admired immensely, and John Ford. He got a famous salute from John Wayne, a close friend, in the closing scene of The Searchers. Mix, Hart and Carey, all immensely popular, created the conventions of the genre in their films and most subsequent film makers followed their lead, at least until the films of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.
Episode 10: The Man with the Megaphone
This is a homage to silent film directors, many of whom are not appreciated for the simple reason that much of their work has not survived. Perhaps the most difficult of the episodes to achieve its aim, it has to rely on short scenes to give audiences an idea of full length features, and rely often on the opinions of film makers interviewed who had seen some of the films discussed which have not survived.
Famous names were Marshall Neilan, Thomas H Ince, Rex Ingram, DW Griffiths of course, Allan Dwan, Clarence Brown, King Vidor and many more. The role of the director in making the film, it became apparent, has never been exactly defined. Other film makers, photographers, set designers, actors, and, uniquely for those days, title writers, might make major contributions but each of these have their preoccupation: with available light, best profile, historical exactitude, literary values. The director visualised the entire film, and coped with bad weather, star tantrums, lack of money and dozens of other problems. In the early days there was no concept of this. To be a director you need have no experience. Once you had something that worked, that sold tickets, you could make another film, and along the way the techniques of film making were worked out. This was film making and film school combined.
Early film stock was fragile, made from nitratecellulose. It decomposed easily, could catch fire if projected too slowly, and was always a fire hazard. There was no idea of how to store it, and film stock that had become damaged was often thrown away. As well, after the invention of syncronised sound film the silent film was seen as old fashioned, out of date, of no value. For these reasons the majority of silent films have not survived. Release of restored titles on DVD has demonstrated though that there is still an enthusiastic audience for silent film.
It became apparent to me while watching the films selected that the skills of film making are the same then as they are today. And that many of the greatest of film artists and technicians worked in silent film. Exaggerated pantomime actions and expressions are no more typical of silent film than the jerky motion produced by a sound projector. These are often intensely involving dramas and entertaining comedies, and their loss has been ours.
Episode 11: Trick of the Light
Next to the director the cameraman was the most important crew member, for the stars and for the success of each film. Many stars and directors are known for their creative partnership with an accomplished cameraman. This episode looks at the director of photography of those days. We hear how Griffiths’ cameraman Billy Bitzer discovered reflectors by observing sunlight reflected on actors’ faces from a white tablecloth. Many did their own lighting, and seemingly working intuitively, were able to create spectacular and subtle effects alike. Because the camera was hand cranked, varying the speed of the exposure was relatively easy for operators who apparently used music to maintain a steady rhythm while turning the handle. There appears to have been no standard speed for silent film, which means finding the correct projection speed now a matter of experiment.
It was the cameraman who created the star. Created a magical, luminous effect by lighting a star in such a way they somehow appeared more than human, a god or goddess. Veils thrown over the lens, romantic music from the orchestra, a meeting between lovers where innermost feelings seemed more obvious than in any real life situation: these swept the audiences of the day off their feet.
Also explored in this episode are some of the earliest and effective special effects used in film. Split screen, matte shots, rear projection, use of miniatures. One of the most effective was in Ben Hur, where a crowd of hundreds of thousands was created by augmenting shots of the extras with a perspective shot of a miniature set filled with moveable three foot dummies. The famous chariot race was entirely real (including a spectacular crash) and was shot by over a dozen cameramen, as well as from cameras in the surface of the race track.
By the coming of sound virtually all the techniques had been discovered. But the look of the silent stars has never been duplicated.
Episode 12: Star Treatment
Audiences go to see a picture most often to see the star. No matter how good the acting, photography or story, it’s the star that pulls the audience in. And stars can be created. This episode looks at two, two of the greatest of the silent era who for one reason or the other did not survive into the period of sound films. Both were great actors.
Clara Bow was the quintessential flapper, a jazz baby whose intense energy and sex appeal bought her instant stardom. Extremely beautiful, in a way still very appealing today, she would quite likely be a star all over again if we moved the clock back for her. She came from an impoverished background, and was said to be a tomboy as a child, without the slightest trace of her later beauty. Frowned on by some of the more pretentious inhabitants of Hollywood because of her lack of education and strong Brooklyn accent, Clara Bow went on her way without them. She was used to being ignored and denigrated after all. The public loved her, her sense of humour, her impudence, her spontaneity. Somehow, because of her background, she only felt real when she was on camera, when she played Clara Bow. A trap many stars have fallen in to. Clara Bow was an enthusiast: about gambling, about men, about drink. Her studio covered her gambling losses, which were huge, and about which she had only the vaguest idea. And when her pictures didn’t do well, her contract was terminated. She still worked, but when she ceased to be a star it seemed the life went out of Clara Bow. She didn’t know what to do. Some said it was her accent that lost her popularity. It was really the reality she grew up with she saw getting closer again.
There are several myths about the great lover who succeeded Rudolph Valentino on the screen, John Gilbert. One was that his voice was effeminate, too high to be plausible for a lover sweeping women off their feet. Not true, as sound and colour footage of him make obvious. He too came from a deprived background, and as a child was often locked in a cupboard to get him out of the way, an experience which marked him for the rest of his life. Tall, dark and handsome, with an unruly shock of black hair and an infectious grin, he first played villains until his studio saw his potential. He rapidly became the biggest star of silent films, and the highest paid. When he first played opposite Greta Garbo she was the bit player, he the star (a position later to be reversed in his decline). Gilbert was so successful and well paid he dared to rebel against the studio system that had created his stardom, and looked for independence. He could both write and direct himself. But he came up against Louis B Mayer, the tyrannical mogul who controlled MGM, an extremely unpleasant man, like many studio heads were. Mayer once knocked Gilbert down during an argument. Forced into productions he didn’t like, denied any artistic control over his career, Gilbert felt humiliated, and began to crack. Drink and drugs did the ostensible damage. His popularity declined. Garbo, whom he almost married, withdrew as well. When he died at 38 he was a has been. It was an enormous waste of talent.
Episode 13: End of an Era
Sound film was first considered a gimmick. Nobody seriously thought it would last, and render silent film obsolete. Why cut off half of your film’s audience around the world who wouldn’t be able to follow the dialogue in English?
Early sound films (as distinct from early films with sound: they all had sound in the form of music and special effects) seem to bear out this skepticism. One reason was technical limitations. Early ‘talkies’ show actors gathered around the hidden microphone on the set in unnatural positions. There was often all sound but no action, a lack of fluidity that negated film’s potential. In fact some early sound films look like visual radio. Talk, the novelty, was overemphasised.
There was another weakness. Impressed by the new technology script writers attempted to develop insightful dialogue that expressed each character’s personality. Though eventually they produced some of the greatest dialogue scenes in film history later in the 30s, at the start all they did was ruin actors’ careers. One victim was John Gilbert, who instead of the smoldering looks he cast in silents was reduced to saying “I love you”, “I adore you” a ridiculous number of times and so became a figure of fun.
However, sound was an expensive investment, and once it was made there was no going back. It was the end of an age.
The first two or three times I saw this series it was uncritically. It was a highly emotional experience to watch as more than 100 pioneers, who created the cinema, talk about their early life and times. Many were close to tears themselves. Looking at so many, and hearing them talk of many more, people who were legends in their own lifetime, I couldn’t help remembering Gloria Swanson’s line in Sunset Boulevard: “the movies got small”. It’s no disrespect of modern film makers to say, they know what to do. And no disrespect of the pioneers mentioned in this series to say, they didn’t know what they were doing. What they achieved collectively was incredible. The creation of a technically proficient, commercially successful and highly entertaining art form. Nothing like the cinema has ever existed before in human history.
This time around I saw varying quality in the episodes, some brilliant insights but sometimes not that much to say that hadn’t been said before. But I still think it was one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.
To have found these people, recorded their reminiscences so unobtrusively and edited the footage so flawlessly is itself one of the great achievements in cinema. I only wish that Kevin Brownlow had started earlier. I’m sure he does too. The series is of course limited by the need to follow the available interviews. A different survey could have been made based on film excerpts alone. But overall Brownlow was right in his choice of material. The series he made is a treasurehouse of immensely valuable reminiscences that give a new and original insight into the period depicted and the achievement of the many gifted artists that created the cinema.
The series was released commercially on VHS and laserdisc in 1990 but a 2006 DVD release was pulled as copyright violations were alleged. Nobody apparently was looking too closely in 1990. Many feel the series will never make it to DVD as production expenses would prohibit a commercial release (even though it didn’t in 2006). As far as I know the series has only been screened once here on TV in the late 80s. Several people who own the VHS set or laserdiscs have made it available on DVD-R, on iOffer and other places at a cost of less than $20, and you can download it from YouTube. Episode 1 is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e91G9aDyS_s. As far as I’m concerned anyone who’s interested in film who hasn’t seen this series has lost one of the most valuable insights ever created on what cinema is. The more YouTube downloads and DVD-R sales the better. If it inspires a copyright holder or two to let go, that’s wonderful. The series should be on disc, even if only a VHS transfer. Ironic to know the release of Die Hard VI would be easier to organise. The audience for quality video product can’t be that small. Can it?
Film star scans all come from doctor macro, a highly recommended site. http://www.doctormacro.com.
©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.