Friday, 6 December 2019

Alice Guy-Blaché

The earliest days of cinema, from the late 1880s to the late 1900s, was a fascinating, fabulous time where pioneers came and went, rose and fell, and the art form grew and expanded from one day to the next. Almost all of the films made then are long gone, and what we have left now are bits and pieces, often with unknown dates and unknown makers, but what is left is exciting enough for a lifetime of studies. One of the most impressive and important contributors to this period is Alice Guy-Blaché, who was present at Lumière's first public screening of films in Paris in late 1895, and almost immediately began her own career as a filmmaker of great ambition and inventiveness. Last year a new documentary about her was released, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green, 2018), which generated a lot of publicity and interest in Guy-Blaché's life and work. I finally watched it last week, and it is an engaging and well-edited and professionally narrated film. The topic naturally appeals to me, but at the same time, the title of the film, and its marketing campaign, had annoyed me a great deal because the story about Alice Guy-Blaché is not untold. There are books, articles, video essays, retrospectives and previous documentaries about her, about her life and career. As an example, The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché (Marquise Lepage 1995), a great Canadian documentary, tells the exact same story as Be Natural. The Canadian one is 40 minutes shorter, but that is not because Be Natural provides more information about Guy-Blaché. The extra time is primarily spent on celebrating the team who made Be Natural, whom, you might think, single-handedly discovered Guy-Blaché and gave her back to the world.

Despite all earlier research and books and films about her, Guy-Blaché is still not a well-known name among people at large, but if you have studied early cinema and film history you would have come across her name. Very few of the early pioneers are remembered today, and many of their careers ended in failure and they became invisible, but despite the contention of the title and the film itself, Guy-Blaché is one of the very few who actually is remembered today. It is made a point in the film that Thomas Edison and Lumière brothers are more well-known than she is, and this is true, but they are not known or remembered as filmmakers but as inventors. Guy-Blaché was not an inventor, she was a filmmaker and studio head, and those of her peers from the earliest days of cinema (before D.W. Griffith and that era) are almost all, with the obvious exception of Georges Méliès, forgotten today unless among film scholars specialising in that era. The way Griffith in particular has come to completely dominate conventional film history of the 1900s and 1910s is both unfair and ahistorical and Guy-Blaché, who was well acknowledged and celebrated at the time, is sadly a victim of this. So are many others. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince made a couple of short films in 1888 in Leeds, and they are the oldest moving images I have ever seen, yet he is hardly ever mentioned. Max and Emil Skladanowsky organised a public screening for moving images in Berlin in November of 1895, almost two months before the Lumière brothers did their first public screening in Paris, yet it is rare that the Skladanowsky screening is mentioned. Such is the unfair nature of early cinema history.

Falling Leaves (1912)

There is another way that Be Natural lacks a necessary film historical context, and that is that, in the film, Guy-Blaché seems to have been alone at doing what she was doing. Yes, she experimented with sound, colour, editing, narrative, but so did many others, including, eventually, other women. She was perhaps unique in her business acumen, in the way she moved to the United States and started a film studio (Solax), but this does not make her a uniquely inventive filmmaker. It is suggested in the documentary that Guy-Blaché made a film in 1896, The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux Choux), that would be one of the first fiction films telling a story, which in some commentaries and reviews has been transformed into the claim that Guy-Blaché made the very first fiction film that tells a story. Given that the overwhelming majority of all films made at the time have been lost, it is impossible to say whether any remaining film was the first of anything. We cannot even say with certainty that Guy-Blaché made a film in 1896 and there is much speculation about The Cabbage Fairy (see here for example): did she make one in 1896 or is the one available now, which is referred to as the 1896 one, a remake from 1900, or maybe from 1902, and the one from 1896 is lost? Or is the one from 1900/1902 the first one, and she never made a film in 1896? Some have referred to a print in the archives at the Swedish Film Institute, which is listed as being from 1896, as proof that she made one in 1896, but the date of that print is an estimate and not a certainty either. It proves nothing. They only reason why we are debating whether she made a film in 1896, despite there being no proof of its existence, is that she said so in her autobiography, and in some later interviews. But our memories are not necessarily to be trusted, and her description of the plot of the alleged film of 1896 match a later film she made, and which does exist. These are important nuances that are not to be found in Be Natural.

But the bottom line is that it does not really matter if she made one in 1896 or not, either way her legacy and importance are the same, with or without that potential film. And even if a print was found and that it was established without doubt that this was the 1896 version, it would still not prove that it was the first of anything.

There is one version of The Cabbage Fairy available online with the year 1896 attached to it, which is, probably, erroneous. But if this one in fact is from 1896, as some claim, it is correct that it is a work of fiction but it does not tell a story or provide a narrative; it is just a woman walking through rows of cabbage, and picking up babies. It is not something new and not different from many other films of that year or the year before, such as historic re-enactments like The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), or the many fictional staging of crimes and chases that were made in 1895 and early 1896.

At another point in the documentary, there is some excitement about her film Matrimony's Speed Limit, which has editing, alternates between medium shots and close-ups, and tells a longer story than the earlier ones with one shot/one setup. But that film was made in 1913, and there was nothing new and interesting about it, technically. In 1913, what was new and exciting were full-length features of depth and complexity like The Student of Prague by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye or Victor Sjöström's Ingeborg Holm. It becomes absurd of praising Guy-Blaché for doing something, a short comedy with a race against time, that had already been done for years, including by herself in all likelihood.

Celebrating the work and achievements of Guy-Blaché is a good thing, and easy to do. As Be Natural has brought renewed attention to Guy-Blaché and her work, I am in that regard happy that it was made, and can be shown around the world. But her achievements are exceptional as they are and do not have to be embellished and exaggerated. I think that it belittles her, as if what she had actually done was not good enough. One of her major accomplishments was her central position in Gaumont's production of chronophone films. Guy Blaché directed/supervised maybe as many as 150 of these short sound films, called Phonoscènes, but this is barely mentioned in Be Natural. They say she experimented with sound but not how, for how long and what that entailed. The focus of the film is not always to Guy-Blaché's advantage. The way the film highlights its own makers, make them out to be heroes, almost at Guy-Blaché's expense and certainly at the expense of all those scholars and researchers that came before this film, does raise some ethical questions.

I have been teaching film history for ten years and all that time Guy-Blaché is probably the one I devote the most time to when I talk about the early days of cinema. The students seem to be impressed by what she did, without me having ever felt any need to invent things or make her out to be more than she already was.


Here are some previous documentaries that told this allegedly untold story:
Qui est Alice Guy 1975, produced by Nicole-Lise Bernheim
The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché (Marquise Lepage 1995)
Alice Guy ou l'enfance du cinema (Florida Sadki 1997)
Reel Models: The First Women of Film; Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Frances Marion, Dorothy Arzner (2000)
Looking for Alice (Claudia Collao 2008)

And there is a fictionalisation about her life: Elle voulait faire du Cinéma (Caroline Huppert 1983)

Here are some earlier books:
Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-2968): La première femme cinèaste du monde by Victor Bachy (1993)
Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alice McMahan (2002)
Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simon (2009)
Alice Guy, Gaumont et les débuts du film sonore by Maurice Gianati, Laurent Mannoni (2012)
Alice Guy Pionnière du cinéma by Daniel Chocron (2013)

The entry for her in Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia (1994) tells the same story too, although without mentioning all of Guy-Blaché's many siblings, children and grandchildren that take up a considerable part of Be Natural.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Japanese cinema of the 1930s, very briefly

Spending so much time with the 1930s for several months has been very rewarding, at least when it comes to watching films. (It has been less rewarding reading about it.) It is time to end this special focus for now, with some brief words about Japanese cinema of the 1930s. They have to be brief because I have seen very little, but I have seen enough to know that it was a rich and exciting period of filmmaking. There was a lot of experimentation, and popular, mainstream Japanese films played with conventions and tried new approaches and angles. Maybe less so than in the 1920s, but still noticeable. You could take risks and surprise the audience because with millions of cinema visits made in Japan every year, it was a profitable and safe business, and a lot of films were made, 400 - 500 per year. But while being experimental and playful, it took a long time for sound film to break through. There had been occasional efforts but it was not until 1931, with The Neighbour's Wife and Mine (Madamu to nyōbō, Heinosuke Gosho), that sound broke through successfully. The following year only about 10% of the recorded films were with sound. As late as 1937, silent films were still being made. One explanation for this is the Japanese tradition of having a person, a so-called benshi, in the screening room who narrated, interpreted and translated the films, and who also gave voice to foreign actors. Benshis was a tradition that they were unwilling to give up, and their unions fought against sound, as it was something that would make the benshi superfluous. But it was inevitable that sound would take over.

But while thousands of films were made in Japan during the 1930s, few are preserved. According to one estimate, less than 5% remain. It is a great cultural treasure that has been lost, due to disinterest, fire, natural disasters and wars. Japan was becoming increasingly fascist in nature (historians debate whether it is accurate to call it a Fascist state, but probably not), and with increasing censorship, during the 1930s. Of those films that remain, few are known or seen, but much of what is preserved and available is very good. Given that the overwhelming majority of all films from the period are lost, we cannot draw too many conclusions from the high quality of what remains. It is reasonable to assume that they have been saved partly because they were outstanding, and not reflective of the average film. But either way, we can still watch and marvel at the 1930s films of filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse. There are also many interesting filmmakers I have seen nothing of but who, judging by what I have read, are major artists. Teinosuke Kinugasa, Hiroshi Inagaki, Mansaku Itami, Hiroshi Shimizu (whom Mizoguchi called "a genius"), Yasujiro Shimazu (whose films Japanese critics in the 1930s referred to as "neorealism") and Tomu Uchida. Many of the great Japanese actors in the postwar era debuted in the 1930s, such as Setsuko Hara, best known for her collaboration with Ozu, Hideko Takamine, who often collaborated with Naruse, and Takashi Shimura, who is best known for his later collaboration with Akira Kurosawa. The big production companies, or studios, that have dominated Japanese cinema were in place in the 1930s: Toho, Nikkatsu (the oldest one, founded in 1912) and Shochiku (founded in 1895, but they began making films long after Nikkatsu was founded).

One special case is the filmmaker Sadao Yamanaka, from whose oeuvre of 26 films only three remain, and who died at a young age, only 28 years old. They are jidaigeki, the Japanese term for films in a historical setting, and they are blending comedy and tragedy, naturalism and Kabuki, and are filled with passion and sensuality, with striking compositions. The first two are called The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo 1935) and Priest of Darkness (Kōchiyama Sōshun 1936), both fine films. But the most notable is his last film, the beautiful named Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjō Kami Fūsen) from 1937. It is about a poor and lonely samurai, a ronin, and his struggle to preserve his dignity. Slowly and meticulously, it builds up to its tragic and poetic ending, with a tight script and a closed, but varied and detailed, set with great depth of field and extravagant compositions, with several planes of interest in a given shot. The script is written by Mimura Shintaro, and the various themes of pride, humiliation and dignity are addressed in many forms, and it is also occasionally witty. The balloons that signify the ronin is quite remarkably handled. The one single balloon drifting away in the ditch in the last shot is one of the finest, most poetic, endings I know.


Friday, 8 November 2019

John Ford in the 1930s

To have seen all of Ford's sound films has long been a goal, as he is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and worthy of such a commitment. Lately the focus of my research in general has been the 1930s, and as that was also the decade from where I had several Ford films left to watch, I have spent the last ten days or so exclusively on Ford's 30s. Now I have finally seen all of them too, with one exception; I have not been able to get hold of an acceptable version of The Brat (1931). But that is the only sound film of his that remains unseen. A satisfying feeling.

These are the films he directed then, including one from 1929 as it was his first feature-length talkie:

The Black Watch (1929), an adventure in British India during World War 1.
Men Without Women (1930), a World War 1 drama in the Navy.
Born Reckless (1930), a gangster drama with a section during World War 1.
Up the River (1930), a prison comedy.
Seas Beneath (1931), a World War 1 drama in the Navy.
The Brat (1931), a comedy about an unexpected guest in a rich family.
Arrowsmith (1931), a drama about a country doctor.
Air Mail (1932), an aviation drama.
Flesh (1932), a melodrama.
Pilgrimage (1933), a World War 1 drama.
Doctor Bull (1933), a comedy about a country doctor.
The Lost Patrol (1934), a World War 1 drama in the Sahara Desert.
The World Moves On (1934), a tale about a rich family and their business 1914-1934.
Judge Priest (1934), a human comedy.
The Whole Town's Talking (1935), a gangster/journalist comedy.
The Informer (1935), an Irish political drama.
Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), a comedy/drama set in the 1890s.
The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), a post-Civil War drama.
Mary of Scotland (1936), a historic drama.
The Plough and the Stars (1936), an Irish political drama.
Wee Willie Winkie (1937), an adventure in British India.
The Hurricane (1937), a South Sea adventure.
Four Men and a Prayer (1938), a globe-trotting whodunit.
Submarine Patrol (1938), a World War 1 drama/comedy in the Navy.
Stagecoach (1939), an epochal Western.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), a biopic and pre-Civil War drama.
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), an American Revolution drama.

As you can see there were all kinds of films but with several recurring themes, and almost half are set in the past and deal with war. He made films for most studios and some independent producers, but usually with a recurring crew and cast. The cinematographer Joseph H. August shot nine of the films above, (their collaboration peaked later, with They Were Expendable (1945)), George Schneiderman shot five and Bert Glennon five more. Dudley Nichols wrote or co-wrote at least twelve of them. Most of them are good, a couple are bad and a few lack Ford's distinct personality. But the three great ones were all made in 1939; something happened there, and from 1939 onwards almost all of his films are either great or magnificent. There is the odd misfire here and there, but I think the only bad one after 1938 is What Price Glory? (1952).

Of the earlier ones, The Informer is the most famous one I imagine, and it is a fine film, although somewhat overwhelming in its solemn artfulness. Also fine, but in a lighter mood, are two with Will Rogers, Judge Priest and Steamboat Around the Bend. I am less keen on Ford and Rogers's first film together, Doctor Bull.

Ford did several submarine-related films in the 1930s, the first was Men Without Women, which was also his first film written by Nichols. I do not care much for that one, the construction is off and, like many other early ones, there is a problem with the acting. But the next year they did the fine Seas Beneath, which admittedly also has terrible acting but is otherwise solid.

Seas Beneath

Seas Beneath is about a battle between the American Navy and the German Navy in 1918, but both sides respect and admire one another. There is even a death scene with an American sailor dying in the arms of two concerned German sailors. And it is bilingual, all Germans speak German.

Arrowsmith is a film where no one feels right for their part (except John Qualen) and it is all talk and no conviction. But visually it is spectacular. Epic set design, breathtaking lighting (Ray June was cinematographer) and imaginative staging in depth. It is one of Ford's most distinguished films, visually.


Flesh is about a big-hearted German wrestler and a frail, conflicted American woman in a tragic melodrama of its time. First 50 minutes are fine but then things start to get a bit out of hand, script-wise. It has a great, moody look all the way through though.

Pilgrimage is, like The Informer, self-consciously artistic. The opening 30 minutes is like a long tribute to Murnau. But then it changes gear and takes on more the tone of Henry King, and then changes again to be more Fordian. A serious drama with moments of greatness, but it suffers from stiff/awkward acting.


The Hurricane (co-directed with Stuart Heisler) is a lavish production where the highlight is the hurricane sequence, which take up the last part of the film. It is incredible, one of the greatest natural disaster sequences I have seen, and genuinely scary. James Basevi was in charge of creating it and he was a master of these kinds of special effects. The earthquake in San Francisco (W.S. van Dyke 1936) is another one of his creations, as is the storm in China Seas (Tay Garnett 1935). He also did spectacular set designs, such as on Wilson (Henry King 1944). Basevi was art director for many of Ford's films up until The Searchers (1956), which was the last film he worked on.

Four Men and a Prayer is, despite George Sanders in a leading role, a lame, anonymous anomaly in Ford's career, expect for the brief appearance of Barry Fitzgerald in a good scene. The rest might as well have been directed by someone else.

Submarine Patrol from the same year is also a minor film, and the first 15 minutes or so are tiresome, but then it gets it together and here you really feel Ford's presence. At the same time, the film reminded me of Hathaway's You're in the Navy Now (1951), which I prefer.

The scene in Wee Willie Winkie where Shirley Temple is singing for Victor McLaglen, not understanding that he is dying, is one of the most moving scenes in Ford's career. The rest of the film is not as good, but amiable enough. But of the two films Temple did with Ford, the later Fort Apache (1948) is superior in every way. What is interesting is that they have a lot in common, but the differences (such as in acting, visuals and maturity) are what makes Fort Apache superior; one of Ford's best.

One film Ford wanted to do but never did was a remake La Grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937). Darryl F. Zanuck talked him out of it, and maybe that was a good thing. But that Ford wanted to remake it is not surprising since the sentiment of Renoir's film can be found in Ford's films too, before and after 1937. Consider for example how in the films about World War 1, the Americans, French and Germans do not hate each other but treat each other with respect and concern. They fight and kill because they have to, but they do not celebrate their victories. They salute the falling soldiers regardless of which side they were on, and mourn the loss of life. "Do we cheer?" asks a newly recruited sailor after his ship has sank a German U-boat. "No." says the more experienced sailor next to him.

Drums Along the Mohawk

Spending so much time with a filmmaker during a short period of time is a rewarding experience, as you notice connections, links, references and recurrences that you might not think of, or remember, if you are watching an oeuvre during a long stretch of time. It is also enlightening to watch Ford try things out, enrich his cinema by experimenting with sound, visuals and eventually colour. He was of course not a newcomer, he had been making films since the late 1910s, and several good ones, but the 1930s meant many new challenges, technically and structurally, for his as for everybody else. He struggled a lot during the decade, with producers and actors mostly, and many films were severely compromised in one way or another. But almost all of them are filled with the specific scenes, moments, jokes, visual touches and sentiments that are the essence of Ford's art. Then, as he moved into the 1940s, he got more freedom, more certainty and more depth, and his art grew. It would eventually reach such beauty, clarity and confidence that it has almost no equals.

From 1934 to 1940, Frank S. Nugent was film critic at The New York Times and there he was a champion of Ford's films. Perhaps it was inevitable that, beginning with Fort Apache (1948), Nugent would become one of Ford's most important creative partners as scriptwriter. When Wagon Master (1950) was finished, Ford told Nugent "I liked your script. In fact, I actually shot a few pages of it." according to an article from 1949 in his former paper.

Wagon Master

(Initially I briefly mentioned Frank Tuttle in the article, but I removed his name to keep things in perspective. He will instead appear in a future post. There is always more to write about.)

Friday, 25 October 2019

Young and Innocent (1937)

In 1990 a new TV channel started in Sweden, TV4, and for a while in the early 1990s they were showing Hitchcock's films of the 1930s regularly in the afternoons. I watched them all and recorded them on VHS tapes, so I could watch them whenever I wanted. And I wanted to a lot. I watched them so many times that the colourful logo of TV4 has become part of my memories of these films. While The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were the best ones, it was another one I re-watched the most: Young and Innocent (1937). It is not a terribly exciting story but it has such generosity and charm, perhaps like no other film by Hitchcock, that I immediately developed a crush on it.

It has a typical Hitchcockian story, a man on the run after having been falsely accused of murder and himself searching for the real criminal. It is also a sort of road movie in the British countryside, interspersed with typical Hitchcockian set pieces. There is for example a children's party which is a feast of looks, mistaken identities and sly wit. There is also an accident in an abandoned mine and the celebrated long take in the end of the film, starting high up in a hotel lobby, moving down across a restaurant, over a band playing, and into the eyes of the drummer.

Children in Hitchcock's films are usually eccentric.

While anybody watching it would instantly recognise the man behind it, the tone is different. There is no darkness or neuroses, or paranoia; instead it is a lovely tale of the growing romance and love between the two young leads: Derrick de Marney as the fugitive and Nova Pilbeam as the chief constable's daughter who helps him. Their banter and flirting are what keeps the film together, and gives it its charm. That most of the people they encounter are distinct characters also adds to the overall sense of bonhomie. Despite the seriousness of the situation, nobody seems to take things too seriously, and the real murderer is not a threat or a menace but only appears briefly in the beginning and for a few minutes in the end (where he is only a threat to himself).

According to Patrick McGilligan's book Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Hitchcock was under a lot of stress and in a bad mood when he made the film because of his economic situation and contractual reasons (it was about to expire): he had gained a lot of weight, he was tired, and used humour and sarcasm as a defence mechanism. Maybe he wanted to make something light and playful to counter his inner turmoil.

The film is based on a book, but they have little in common other than that there is a murder in the countryside. Instead Hitchcock completely re-imagined it, working with a lot of people on the script, including his recurring partners Joan Harrison, Charles Bennett and Angus MacPhail. Another key collaborator was, as always, his wife Alma Reville.

The set designer was Alfred Junge, otherwise known for his work on the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and it is particularly the mine that stands out. It is a good, effective scene. Perhaps the only scene in the film of real danger, shot almost like it was a silent film.

Doing the complicated long take.

It is often said that Hitchcock was discovered by the French in the 1950s, but this claim is undermined by the fact that he was celebrated as an important filmmaker on both sides of the Atlantic early on, and in the mid-30s some leading critics, including Otis Ferguson, suggested that he was one of the greatest directors currently working. Young and Innocent is not a work of greatness but it has great charm, and it shows how even under stress and difficult working conditions, and without the financial resources he would later have, he could, seemingly effortless, pull off a fully accomplished and recognisable film of pure Hitch.

A good analysis of the film is by Charles Barr in his book English Hitchcock (1999), drawing out the connections with later films like Vertigo (1958) and The Birds (1963), and emphasising the importance of Charles Bennett in Hitchcock's development.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Cinema of the 1930s - an art form reborn

One of the many notable things concerning the release of Ben Urwand's book The Collaboration is that, according to the publishers, it had been peer-reviewed by five scholars. Either these scholars had objections which were ignored, or neither scholar was knowledgeable about 1930s film history and hence did not see anything wrong with the book. It is quite possible that it is the second alternative because I have long had the sense that the 1930s is the least researched and least understood decade in terms of film history. Put another way, I do not think that a book as unhistorical as The Collaboration would have been published if it had been about any other decade, because people would know enough to be able to dismiss it.

Today the 1930s is known for things like Hollywood pre-code films, French poetic realism and the year of 1939, but these things too are often misunderstood and leads to a skewed and unfair view of the decade. The cinema of the 1930s is much richer and more fascinating on many levels than conventional wisdom gives it credit for, especially films from Hollywood, Japan and France. (I have unfortunately not seen any Chinese films from the 1930s but I know they had a large and, I imagine, interesting film production.) For one thing so much happened, not least the introduction of three-strip Technicolor and the recovery of mobility and agility after the first shock of the introduction of synchronised sound. Films from 1930 are on average extremely different from films of 1939, maybe more so than for any other decade. Cinema at the end of the 1920s had reached a creative peak, technically, visually, emotionally, but with the introduction of sound everything changed and there was a general sense of upheaval, some for good and some, in the short run, for bad. Even if the impact on sound on actors' careers and the loss of mobility of the camera has frequently been overstated, there was, I think, a dip in the overall quality of films as the 1920s turned into the 1930s, and that it took a couple of years for the art form to find itself again. (Although great films were made in the dip too, such as The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh 1930), in the now barely remembered 70mm system of the time.) There was a certain waywardness and ad hoc quality in the filmmaking processes as the 1930s progressed, even among the studios in Hollywood; giving a sense of an art form in an often raw and rough state, side by side with the carefully controlled and exquisite, in a way that is different from the 1940s and 1950s.

Cinema going practises were different from now. There was the concept of A- and B-movies for example, and there was among the audiences also a waywardness, audiences coming and going as they saw fit with no regard for schedules. There were ongoing debates about how to deal with the audience, and how films should be shown and what schedules should look like. Hitchcock's campaign at the release of Psycho (1960), to keep the audience in place and not to allow anyone in after the film had begun, is well-known, but such efforts had been done before.

I have often been puzzled by the widespread idea that deep focus was more or less invented by Welles/Toland for Citizen Kane, with a few rare precursors such as some films by Jean Renoir. Puzzled because deep focus was common all through the 1930s, in films from many countries, yet hardly anyone seems to be aware of this. According to David O. Cook, "cinema's physical capacities for deep focus" was "restored" by the "creative genius of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland" (p. 247) and "Renoir was the first major director of the sound film to compose shots in depth." (p. 247). Neither of these statements are true. (I have written about this here.) But it has occurred to me that this is not surprising, since so much about the 1930s is hidden behind a veil of ignorance.


The biggest and most well-known cinema of the 1930s is of course Hollywood, but it does not mean it is better understood or known than other countries. A representative quote:
"American cinema of the 1930s consistently concealed from the American people the reality of the Depression, and later, of the war in Europe. This is not a matter of opinion, but of historical record: with several notable exceptions (e.g. Warner Bros.' I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy, 1932; United Artists' Our Daily Bread, King Vidor, 1934), Hollywood did not seriously confront the social misery caused by the depression until the release of Fox's The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford) in 1940; the first Hollywood film to acknowledge the Nazi threat in Europe, Warner Bros.' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak), did not appear until 1939." (p. 221)
That was from the fifth edition of A History of Narrative Film by Cook, but whatever he may think, it is not an historical record that the reality of the depression was concealed. There were plenty of such films, in a variety of different genres, made each year. Just because Cook has not seen them does not mean they do not exist. They do; it is of historical record that they were plentiful, and sometimes strikingly harsh and bleak.

It is however the case that there were few films that addressed the situation in Europe, but I wrote more about that in an earlier post about Urwand's book.

While there is often talk about Hollywood's 1930s as being a decade of fixed genres and studio house styles, it was a lot more varied, complex and free-spirited than such beliefs allow for. Different genres, directors and cinematographers had different styles, and the concept of house style is often only applicable to specific groups of films from individual studios. For example, Universal is usually said to have specialised in horror films, and it is true that they did make several classics in that genre. But they also specialised in romantic musical comedies, particularly starring Deana Durbin. These do not look like Frankenstein (James Whale 1931), but are more reminiscent of what is usually alleged to be Paramount's house style. It is clear that Warner Bros. on average had a grittier look than Paramount or MGM, at least with regard to the most well-known classics. But Warner Bros. also did expensive-looking films with art deco design, while MGM did the Tarzan films, gangster films (the violent ending of The Beast of the City (Charles Brabin 1932) is quite something), horror films and films like Fritz Lang's Fury (1936), neither of which fits with the idea of what an MGM film looked like. Talking about studio style is to simplify matter in a way that leads to ahistorical conceptions about the actual reality. "Hollywood films of the decade, with surprisingly few exceptions, looked strikingly alike." (p. 230), from the seventh edition of A Short History of the Movies, is a condensed version of the conventional wisdom. But such a statement would not be made by someone who has watched a lot of Hollywood films of the 1930s.

The concept of genre is complicated for various reasons. It is for example often more relevant to talk about cycles or trends than genres. Fast films partly set in newsrooms with wise-cracking reports were popular in the 1930s, such as The Front Page (Lewis Milestone 1931), Five Star Final (Mervyn LeRoy 1931), Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth 1932), the nine films about the female reporter Torchy Blane, and so on to its apotheosis, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), appropriately a reimagining of The Front Page. But do these films constitute a genre? They are usually a combination of gangster film, social drama and screwball comedies, and might better be seen as a cycle of films.

Many films are almost impossible to pinpoint to a specific genre, as they contain multitudes. This connects back to what I said earlier about the waywardness and ad hoc quality of the decade. This is also what makes many of the films unpredictable and interesting. Our understanding of genres is often based on films made after World War 2, but the 1930s (or for that matter the 1920s) are different in many respects and do not neatly tie in with contemporary ideas about various genres and their alleged rigidity and stability.


The concept of the pre-code often entails a belief that films after 1934 are boring or timid but this is not the case. There is no particular reason to single out the pre-code years, the whole decade is remarkable, partly to do with the reasons I gave above, the thrill of watching an art form reborn and re-invented. And there were so many great films; fabulous, weird, ruthless, charming, magical, confusing films that are to a large extent forgotten. It is often the case that famous filmmakers are discussed primarily for their films of the 1940s and not least 1950s, and neglecting their earlier films, but this is a mistake. Just consider Douglas Sirk, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophuls, Henry Hathaway and Henry King.

Then there are those filmmakers who thrived in the 1930s but either never really made it after the war, such as Jean Grémillon, Victor Fleming, or Sadao Yamanaka (who died in 1938 and forgotten) or those that continued but never became household names for proceeding generations or film historians, such as Roy Del Ruth. In the early 1930s he was exceptionally productive, making six films in 1933 alone. That was a normal year for him. What is remarkable is how good so many of the films are. Witty, inventive, direct, sometimes moving and at time stylish. And almost always fast. Here is a shot from Employees' Entrance (1933):

According to conventional wisdom of the visual style of the 1930s, such a shot did not exist.

I do not know much about Del Ruth, but he began his film career as a gag maker for Mack Sennett and made short films for a decade or so. From 1925 he began making feature films, and soon became one of the highest paid directors in Hollywood, working at Warner Bros. and making films in almost all genres except Westerns. He did the first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1931) and several films with James Cagney, including Blonde Crazy (1931) and Taxi! (1932). Particularly good are Bureau of Missing Persons (1933), with Pat O'Brien as a cop with a violent temperament who is mellowed by his love for a murder suspect played by Bette Davis, and the delightful The Little Giant (1933), with Edward G. Robinson as a mobster going straight. In one scene he kisses Mary Astor, and then turns to look at the camera, at us, and swallows, as if he cannot believe what just happened.

Marvellous scene

While I said Del Ruth worked in almost all genres, it might be more accurate to say that many of his early films are difficult to pinpoint to a specific genre, including those films mentioned above. But towards the end of the 1930s he began making musicals at MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox. After that he tried being independent for a while, making films through his own company Roy Del Ruth Productions, including a thriller with George Raft and Virginia Mayo called Red Light (1949). His last film, after having done TV for many years, was the capital punishment drama Why Must I Die? (1960).

It is a pity that when directors working in Hollywood are written about and analysed it is almost always the special cases, such as Lubitsch, Hawks, Hitchcock, Wyler, Ford, those that had the power and independence, and inclination, to strike out on their own. But all those other directors that were the backbones of Hollywood, and who often made the largest number of films and the biggest box office hits, are not nearly as discussed and researched. Hardly a word has been written about Del Ruth despite his central rule at Hollywood's second largest studio. What was it like for someone like him? How were the processes, and what was his view of his position within the community and the filmmaking tradition? I am not saying that he is a forgotten auteur. He might be, but it is more interesting if he is not. The life and career of a happy workhorse is an underappreciated research topic. It would also be interesting to make a comparative study of him and Mervyn LeRoy, with whom he had a lot in common, although LeRoy had more of an edge to his filmmaking, more daring and imposing, and an anecdote mentioned in The Genius of the System is suggestive of this: Del Ruth was offered to direct I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but he turned it down since he felt it was too dark and without popular appeal. Instead LeRoy made it and while it is very bleak it was also more commercially successful than Del Ruth's Taxi! Del Ruth had a much lighter touch than LeRoy but, as they say, more research is warranted.

They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy 1937), a bleak, powerful study of corruption.


A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast, Bruce F. Kawin (2000, 7th ed.)
A History of Narrative Film, David O. Cook (2016, 5th ed.)
The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, Thomas Schatz (1988)
(I like Schatz's book but it seems to be known primarily for its introduction, which is unfortunate since it does an injustice to the nuances of the rest of the book.)

See also my earlier post about Deanna Durbin, Henry Koster and Universal.
I have written about poetic realism here.
For a prominent Swedish filmmaker from the 1930s, there is Schamyl Bauman. Read about him here.