Friday, 28 June 2019

Tay Garnett

The previous post, about poetic realism, mentioned Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg, and Jules Furthman as contributing to an American poetic realism. There are many connections between those three, and they were part of a creative circle for a while. There are several other names that could be added to that group, such as the writer John Lee Mahin and the director Victor Fleming, the latter who in some ways was the centre and inspiration for them all. Another, more tangential member, was Tay Garnett. (He did not make any films I would call poetic realism though.)

The period I am thinking of is primarily the 1930s. Both von Sternberg and Fleming struggled in the 1940s (Fleming died in 1949), and while Garnett made his most famous film in 1946, The Postman Always Rings Twice, the kind of films he was making then were different. Of the directors, only Hawks continued to blossom, and stay true to his style. Furthman wrote fewer scripts, and the best ones were with Hawks. John Lee Mahin, like Hawks, showed no sign of slowing down though. But in the 1930s there were a lot of things that connected these people. Styles, themes, ideas and personal history. Hawks and Fleming were best friends, both Garnett and Lee Mahin were married to the actress Patsy Ruth Miller (not at the same time...) and Furthman and Lee Mahin co-wrote many of these directors' best films, except for Garnett's for whom Furthman wrote only one.

Fleming, Hawks and Garnett, together with King Vidor, were at one point thinking of starting a company to produce their films together but nothing came of it. According to Michael Sragow in his fine book Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (2008) "Hawks thought he could do more movies on his own, and Garnett's story choices flummoxed Vidor." (p. 443)

One thing these men had in common, besides being filmmakers, was that they were adventurers; interested in flying, hunting, travelling and boating, and this was reflected in their films. I am not sure about the two writers, but Hawks, Fleming and Garnett had all been pilots, and this too was reflected in their films, not least with Hawks who made six films about pilots. But even though there are similarities, there are also major differences.


Garnett is the least known of these and that is appropriate as he is not comparable to either Fleming or Hawks in terms of craft or vision, not even close. While there is a big, comprehensive book about Fleming and several about Hawks, there is little to be found about Garnett. But some information is out there. He was born in Los Angeles and went to university there. He was in the Naval Air Corps during World War 1, and was discharged in 1918. A plane crash left him with a life-long limp and he used a walking stick. He had already made a name for himself as a comic writer and he worked on that in the Navy after the crash. He also did flying stunts.

Eventually he began working as a gag writer at Hal Roach studios, and then for Mack Sennett. At Sennett he sometimes wrote with Frank Capra for several famous comedians, such as Harry Langdon. He also directed a couple of short films before he got going as a feature-film director in 1928. (The third feature, The Flying Fool (1929), was about a pilot.) The first of his films that has a claim to fame is Her Man (1930). It was for a long time considered a lost masterpiece, although it has now been found and, well, masterpiece is perhaps not the right word to describe it. But it has three things that are typical of Garnett of the 1930s and early 1940s: an exotic location (Havana), a haphazard narrative based on gag routines, and a highly mobile camera. Unfortunately many of the gag routines in Her Man, particularly those about hats, are to me not funny but intolerable. But otherwise it is a fine film.

Garnett kept himself busy during the 1930s, making several films each year. He was never attached to any studio for a longer time, he moved around, sometimes producing himself, and even abroad. He had his own boat and in 1935/1936 he sailed it across the world, and he used his film camera to capture the Pacific locations he encountered. They would later form the backdrop for Trade Winds (1938), another typical Garnett adventure and my favourite of his films. Other rambunctious films in the Far East are China Seas (1935) and Seven Sinners (1940), the latter with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne and almost a remake of Her Man. I prefer Seven SinnersOne Way Passage (1932), set on a boat going from Hong Kong to San Francisco, has a more serious tone, and some think it is Garnett's best work (himself included). William Powell and Kay Francis play the leads, as two passengers who fall in love during the cruise. It is quite lovely, and here a running gag turns increasingly poignant until the very end. Garnett is good at capturing moments of love at first sight, and One Way Passage is an example of that. The highlight for me of such a moment is the first meeting between Fredric March and Joan Bennett's characters in Trade Winds. You can almost see that something shifted in March's soul.

March and Bennett

Stand-In (1937) is a comedy with Leslie Howard as a New York accountant or efficiency expert sent to evaluate and improve a rundown Hollywood studio. This suits Garnett's tone. The same year's Slave Ship on the other hand is a mess and shows that Garnett's kind of filmmaking is not at all suitable for a subject such as the slave trade. To call it insensitive would be an understatement.

Garnett's films in the 1940s and later are varied and not necessarily that exiting. (Maybe that is what Raymond Durgnat referred to when he wrote "Often, film auteurs, like novelists and poets, die before their death – like Tay Garnett, Stanley Donen, Edward Dmytryk, Robert Siodmak.") He made a couple of war films that James Agee liked (Bataan (1943) and The Cross of Lorraine (1943)), some sentimental dramas, the aforementioned noir The Postman Only Rings Twice, and the eccentric thriller Cause for Alarm! (1951), with a fine performance by Loretta Young. One Minute to Zero (1952) is a lacklustre war film about the Korean war, with Robert Mitchum. More propaganda than poetry, and too impersonal. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949) is a lot of fun though. A campy, occasionally hilarious, version of Mark Twain's novel. Mel Brooks might have been a fan when it came out.

Bing Crosby and William Bendix in Camelot.

In the mid-1950s Garnett almost stopped making feature films and instead focused on TV. There he directed episodes for various series, primarily detective shows and Western series including such famous ones as Rawhide and Bonanza. Despite his early work as a comic writer, he did little of that in the second half of his career. But Cause for Alarm! has a comic relief in the form of a small boy who appears several times and is almost the best thing about the film.


Garnett never made much of a splash, and few mentions him now, although Andrew Sarris put him in the category "Expressive Esoterica" (in some ways the most interesting category). In American Directors, Jean-Pierre Coursodon says that Garnett was perhaps "an auteur of sorts, albeit a very minor one." and adds that "Garnett's speciality was exotic adventures generously spiced with comedy, a seasoning so rich that it often overpowered the straight action. /.../ Running gags are his trademark; it apparently doesn't matter to him how lame they are so long as they keep running." (p. 139)

I feel no need to track down and watch all of Garnett's films, but I have a weakness for his idiosyncratic comedies in exotic locations, some of which are photographed by masters and are therefore also pleasing to look at. He is interesting to study in order to highlight the various ways in which filmmakers functioned in Hollywood, in particular the lesser known or unknown, those whose weaknesses are perhaps more pronounced than their strengths yet who managed to carve out a niche and a career on their own terms.

Maybe Garnett's most important contribution to film history was a book. In the 1960s Garnett sent out questionnaires to filmmakers, young and old, all over the world and then collected their answers. It was published in French in 1981 (I believe) with the title Un siècle de cinéma and then in English in 1996 with the title Directing: Learn from the Masters. François Truffaut wrote the foreword: "He was thin, laughing, rugged-featured. /.../ As nearly all his colleagues of the Silents, he was athletic, a flyer, an adventurer; like them, he was an intellectual without wanting to be. /.../ Tay Garnett was the only filmmaker who was poor - he spent his money on friends and women."

One Way Passage


James Agee's reviews are to be found in any of the collections of his film criticism.

Raymond Durgnat, "Who Really Makes the Movies" in Films and Filming April 1965

Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage, American directors - Volume 1 (1983)

World Film Directors: Volume One 1890-1945, editor John Wakeman (1987)

Directing: Learn from the Masters, editor Tay Garnett (1996)

Michael Sragow, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (2008)

You may like Farran Smith Nehme's article in Film Comment (2016) about Her Man.

Another filmmaker that one could include in this group of men from a certain generation, with a taste for adventure and influenced by Victor Fleming, is Henry Hathaway. But he feels different. For one thing he was more serious, and hardly made any comedies. While Garnett's Slave Ship is embarrassing, Hathaway's Souls at Sea (1937), which is also about the slave trade, is a great film. (I wrote about it here.) 

Friday, 14 June 2019

Poetic realism and Howard Hawks

France in the 1930s was a particularly fertile ground for filmmaking. It is probably true that more great films were made in France just by men called Jean (Grémillon, Renoir, Vigo) than most other countries were able to produce in total. There were all kinds of films made, in many different genres, but the term most people associate with this glorious French decade is "poetic realism".

But poetic realism is one of those terms that are both specific and vague, and where it seems each person who use it defines it slightly different. Sometimes the term is used so broadly it becomes another way of saying "French films from the 1930s" and sometimes it is just about only the handful of films written by Jacques Prévert in the 1930s and early 1940s that are included, most of which were directed by Marcel Carné. This is unsatisfying because if we want to use a term it should mean something concrete, otherwise it becomes meaningless. And for it to mean something concrete it is not enough to define it, your examples of it must also fit that definition. When you use it to include everything from La Kermesse héroïque / Carnival in Flanders (Jacques Feyder 1935) to Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier 1937) to Port of Shadows (Marcel Carné 1938) to The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir 1939) it has no meaning as those films have nothing in common (whether style, tone or settings or themes) other than being French films of the 1930s. You can of course call them all examples of poetic realism if you wish but then your definition of poetic realism needs to be able to include such disparate art works. If the definition cannot do that, do not call them all examples of it.

Port of Shadows

While poetic realism is the term overwhelmingly in use today, others have been used before to talk about some of the same films, such as "populist melodrama" or "fantastique social" and that is relevant as it shows how ill-defined the concept is. Many critics and historians (including Ginette Vincendeau and Rémi Fourier Lanzoni) argue that central to poetic realism is a depiction of the lives of the working class, but while it is true that Jean Gabin's character in Daybreak / Le jour se lève (Marcel Carné 1939) works in a factory, I would not say that the films most commonly included under the banner of poetic realism (such as the four above) are on average about the working class in any particular way. An urban setting, particularly Paris, is also often considered a key aspect but this is by no means generally true. Many of the films that are frequently referenced as poetic realism are set in rural areas or in French colonies. I would not include La Kermesse héroïque among poetic realism but many do, even though it is set in 17th century Flanders.

One problem in the discussion is that during the 1930s over hundreds of films where made each year in France (some years up to 160 films were made), and the ones that are being discussed are such a very small portion of that. This small sample pack might give the appearance that poetic realism was a prevalent style but that is probably not true at all. Although until you have seen the roughly 1200 films made during the decade, you cannot say how many that can reasonably be called poetic realism.

But while there is a lot of confusion and incoherence, there is something we could refer to as poetic realism, but it should be used with more specificity, and your examples should fit your definition. That Port of Shadows is a prime example of poetic realism seems uncontested, one of the few films that everybody agrees upon. What it has is a sense of melancholia and fatalism, of people hiding out from the world as existential fugitives with a troubled past and no real hope of a tomorrow. It is shot with a beautiful combination of sets and the real world and in a black and white that is leaning towards grey, and with an infrequent mist adding texture. The narrative is often loose, and the focus is on the characters and their interactions rather than the story at large. A film must not have all of these features to qualify, some aspect might be missing, but it should be close enough, an outlook on life and a particular view of character. This to me is poetic realism. My definition is perhaps too narrow for some tastes but I think it must be if it is to be meaningful. Even if it is not an exact science, it should still be coherent. At the same time I do not think it is unique for France, as is almost always said. We can talk of it as a more global trend.

In Mists of Regret (1995), Dudley Andrew's rich book about poetic realism, he suggests Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) as an early example of poetic realism or, as he puts it, "arguably the first major film explicitly intoning the poetic realist appeal." (p. 36) But that is an outlier, and Andrew does not pursue an American poetic realism (see my first footnote). One could instead consider some films of Josef von Sternberg, from the late 1920s and early 1930s (such as Morocco (1930)), as other contenders. Frank Borzage's adaptation of A Farewell to Arms, made in 1932, comes close to adhering to my definition, as do Allan Dwan's While Paris Sleeps (1932). And then there is Howard Hawks.

In 1939, the same year as Carné made Daybreak, Hawks made Only Angels Have Wings. It has all the traits and attributes of poetic realism, the men and women huddled together away from the world at large, living in the moment since the past is best to be forgotten and the future is bleak. The narrative has a meandering quality and despite a story filled with drama and tension, it is leisurely told with primary attention given to character interactions and relationships. Visually, Only Angels Have Wings is also within a style of poetic realism, both cinematography and set design.

Only Angels Have Wings

There are other films by Hawks that can be discussed as poetic realism, such as The Road to Glory (1936) that was inspired by the French film Les Croix de bois (Raymond Bernard 1931). The last example of Hawksian poetic realism is To Have and Have Not (1944). Like with Only Angels Have Wings, it is easy to imagine that Jean Gabin's character Jean from Port of Shadows will just walk in one day and join the group.

Both Only Angels Have Wings and To Have and Have Not were co-written by Jules Furthman, who also participated on the scripts of some other films by Hawks and some early films by Josef von Sternberg. Furthman is undoubtedly an important figure within American poetic realism.

My argument is not that Hawks was explicitly influenced by the French, the argument is that the style and mood was more universal than French. In the 1940s Swedish filmmakers like Hasse Ekman and Ingmar Bergman were clearly influenced by certain aspects of French 1930s cinema, but that is something different. The usual argument is that French cinema of the 1930s was an antidote or an alternative to Hollywood, but that is a monolithic view. With thousands of films made in each country, the output is too rich and varied for such neat dichotomies. When you compare one specific masterpiece like Stormy Waters / Remorques (Jean Grémillon 1941) with a generic, unspecified Hollywood production then of course the French film will be different and superior. If you compare one Hollywood masterpiece, such as Holiday (George Cukor 1938), against a generic, unspecified French film it will be the Hollywood masterpiece that is different and superior. But either comparison is weak and will not tell you anything of value.

Another argument I make is that it is wrong to treat all Hollywood films as following the same narrative structure, in contrast with other countries. There are plenty of variations of narrative within classical Hollywood, as I have argued elsewhere. Hawks is an example of that, and looking at it from the perspective of poetic realism can yield interesting insights.

The Road to Glory

Despite his claim for Broken Blossoms, I do not think Dudley Andrew would agree with these American examples. A large part of the introduction to Mists of Regret is focused on "proving" that Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné 1938) is by default better than anything made in the US in the 1930s. A peculiar argument to make about a decade that saw Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, George Cukor, Henry King, Henry Hathaway, John M. Stahl and others do wonderful things. Andrew's book is beautifully written but it has its faults.

Besides directors, perhaps the most important contributors to French cinema of the 1930s were the art directors and set designers, like Alexandre Trauner and Jacques Krauss. Another one was Lazare Meerson. He was indisputably a master, as can, for example, be seen in his work for Feyder and René Clair. But by the time poetic realism really got going Meerson had moved to Britain (in 1935) and he died suddenly in 1938 from meningitis. On his last film, The Citadel (King Vidor 1938), Meerson was replaced after his death by Alfred Junge, who would later be a key collaborator with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Had Meerson not died so young he might have been that key collaborator instead.

Here is something I wrote about Spawn of the North (1938), a film directed by Hathaway and written by Jules Furthman:

I discuss different kinds of narratives in Hollywood cinema in my chapter in the book ReFocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher (2017).

 A Farewell to Arms