Friday, March 05, 2010

A Director Out of Wood*


The Siren has been pondering auteurism. Some time back Girish had a long and fruitful discussion of it, and last week Glenn Kenny went over to the Auteurs to proclaim "an auteurist film is an interesting film."

Glenn is right, of course. But the Siren runs into two problems with auteurism. One is the tendency of some auteurists to overpraise their idols' lesser works. The other, more significant problem is what to do with Jean Negulesco, Jack Conway, Roy del Ruth, Vincent Sherman, Archie Mayo, Henry Hathaway or today's guest star, Sam Wood.

Sam Wood is an excellent example of a studio man who helmed some good-to-great movies--namely, Hold Your Man, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, the 1937 Madame X, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Our Town, Raffles, The Devil and Miss Jones, Kings Row, Pride of the Yankees and oh, all right, some people like this one, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Ivy, starring goddess Joan Fontaine, is also supposed to be pretty good, and Lord Jeff too.) Yet Wood garners career evaluations that range from tepid to eye-rolling. In the afterlife, Vincent Sherman probably reads Sam Wood mini-bios to make himself feel better.

Let's be frank. Wood's hard-right politics have played a part in how he is remembered, as his post-war anti-Communism went from vocal to obsessive in nothing flat. He founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and in that guise was a driving force behind the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, where he testified grimly that certain Directors' Guild members were trying to "steer us into the Red River." Such was Wood's fear of subversion that after his death in 1949, his heirs discovered a clause in the will stipulating that they had to take a loyalty oath ("I am not now nor have I ever been...") before they could collect a dime.

The result was that during the years when books and interviews and documentaries were brought forth to celebrate the Golden Age, a number of Wood's ex-colleagues had little good to say about him; "a fascist," was Groucho Marx's encomium. And later critics, mindful of Wood's role in the blacklist and with no Wood still alive to discuss anything, haven't been inclined to give him much credit. His bad or mediocre films (and they are many) have been deemed as much or more representative of his abilities than his successes. And Wood's successes were discussed without much enthusiasm for his role. Mind you, the Siren is all for giving ample credit to James Wong Howe, William Cameron Menzies and Gregg Toland, or Rudolph Mate, Cedric Gibbons and Norman Krasna, for that matter. But watch Kings Row on a double bill with Picnic and tell me if you think the difference is all Howe.



It is possible to read a critique of a Sam Wood picture and wonder if the thing directed itself. In fact, some have pretty much suggested that's what happened on the two Marx films. While Thalberg had the final say, and the Marxes drove many (all right, most) collaborators crazy, the idea of Wood as glorified traffic cop doesn't fit so neatly with Simon Louvish's statement that Wood "refused to take any Marx Brothers nonsense and insisted on endless and exhausting retakes" (a signature Wood technique, although his taste for takes doesn't seem to have been quite up to Wyler levels). The Siren would never argue for Wood's sole authorship of those movies, but she doesn't see why we should presume that he contributed nothing.

Anyway, the blacklist ended forty years ago, Wood's been dead for more than sixty and the Siren thinks no one need be ashamed to be caught loving a good Sam Wood movie. The fact is, pace M. Truffaut, I would much rather watch The Devil and Miss Jones than Hatari!; would curl up with The Pride of the Yankees well before I'd sit down with The Long Gray Line; and would take King's Row over Frenzy in a heartbeat. Does this mean that I consider Wood to be the equal of Hawks, Ford or Hitchcock? Nope. But it does mean I think he deserves to be taken seriously, and given credit for the things he did well.

There, that's my Sam Wood defense.

Unfortunately, it's all leading up to a brief discussion of a not-terribly-good Sam Wood movie, Saratoga Trunk.



"You can't go home again," said Thomas Wolfe, in a title the Siren first encountered via Charlie Brown. While there are few movie experiences as great as rediscovering the virtues of an old favorite, it's pretty depressing to go back to a movie you loved in youth and find that it looks kind of cheesy. The Siren was crazy about Saratoga Trunk when she was about 13 years old, but custom has staled this one something awful. There are good visual moments, such as the opening, a late-movie train chase and crash, Ingrid Bergman's untrammeled joy as she tastes her first jambalaya, and Bergman in her Saratoga hotel room getting tiddly on peaches in champagne. Bergman's mouth meeting peach is erotic as it got in 1945. She was quite the sensualist, was Bergman, one who loved her food, and the Siren wonders if that was why she was so hot to play Clio Dulaine. It couldn't have been the script.

Overall, however, it's a slog. Ingrid Bergman is Clio, a Creole adventuress who arrives in New Orleans to seek revenge on her father's snooty family for ruining her mother's life. The first scene is entrancing, Bergman arriving at a French Quarter mansion where the garden has taken over, walking around the broken-down rooms and reliving her mother's heartache. The Siren would definitely point to the sequence as an example of Wood's fluid but inconspicuous camerawork at its best.

But then Clio settles in, and the movie stagnates. There is way too much of Clio's "mammy" figure, Angelique, played in glowering blackface by Flora Robson and topped with eyebrows that would scare the daylights out of Frida Kahlo. (Blackface. Can you believe it? in a serious role, in 1945? and Robson got an Oscar nomination for it!) The character is a snooze, serving only to make you appreciate Hattie McDaniel. And there is too much of Cupidon, played by little person Jerry Austin and used in most early scenes as not much more than a terrier with a French accent (although he gets some better moments later on). For about 70 long, long minutes we watch Ingrid force the Dulaine family to pay her off, merely by showing up at various public places and looking like her mother. That's a long time to wait to get to Saratoga, and the meat of the story, such as it is. Perhaps the fact that Edna Ferber helped adapt her own novel accounts for Saratoga Trunk's length. It definitely smacks of a writer who wrote a long book and was going to get it all in there, by gum, no matter if pacing begins to stagger and finally falls in a ditch.



Gary Cooper has to wear an oversized hat that brings up unfortunate Yosemite Sam associations, but when he takes it off and makes love to Bergman the Siren understands what first drew her adolescent hormones to this movie. Bergman's features look smashing with dark hair, but then we of later years already knew that. The beauty of the leads and the occasional good scene notwithstanding, this one would have been better screened in the Siren's cinema of the memory.

* The story goes that during one of the many tense moments on the set of A Night at the Opera, Sam Wood snapped, "You can't make an actor out of clay," only to have Groucho flash back, "Nor a director out of Wood."

48 comments:

Kendra said...

I'm sure you already know this, but Wood was one of the 3 directors on Gone with the Wind.

i love Goodbye Mr Chips.

The Siren said...

Kendra, I even know which scenes he directed (the lumber office and tearing down the draperies were two). I don't want to overpraise him, but I recently read a long thread about Wood and was thinking "Geez, give the guy SOME credit here." He also directed scenes in The Good Earth. He had talent.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Wood was pretty much a traffic cop. Ivy is excellent, however -- Joan Fontaine at her most insidiously alluring. And Kings Row sure as hell ain't chopped liver. But William Cameron Menzies and Erich Wolfgang Korngold are that film's true auteurs.

His off-screen conduct is of course beneath contempt, but as it says in Barry Lyndon "They are all equal now."

Dan Sallitt said...

Hi, Siren. I agree with you that Wood is worth attention: he's kind of weighty, to the point of ponderousness sometimes, but he seems tolerant of unusual situations that some other directors would normalize.

No two auteurists can agree on anything whatsoever about auteurism, so pick up the banner if you want to! I personally think Negulesco and Hathaway, at least, are personal directors with many strong films.

D Cairns said...

IVY is a simply incredible film, and I give Wood credit for it, but I just saw William Cameron Menzies' ADDRESS UNKNOWN and it became painfully obvious that the compositional style of IVY was Menzies' doing. I think we can give him the main credit for the visuals of KING'S ROW and OUR TOWN also. Wood did an excellent job with the performances in all those films, however, and his string of high-quality movies attests to a decent taste in material.

Yojimboen said...

Ah, Auteurism
Yippee-aye-oh-Cahiers!
I’ve forgotten how many different definitions thereof I’ve read over the years; how many different hymns sung to its praises and how many assaults on its philosophical underpinnings.

Marshall Brickman in his 1983 comedy Lovesick, gives the best line in the film to Alec Guinness as the ghost of Sigmund Freud (on psychoanalysis): “I didn’t intend for it to become an industry.”

Likewise I suspect Rohmer, Godard, Rivette and Truffaut didn’t intend for their “Politique des auteurs” to reach the level of abject silliness it has. Their initial assertion was simply made: film directors are just as much auteurs (translated as ARTISTS) as poets, painters, sculptors or composers etc.
Their purpose, clearly, was two-fold: to gain some long-overdue respect for filmmakers and, truth be told, to get themselves noticed.
(Now, what exactly is the French equivalent for “Duh!”?)

Of course Sam Wood is an artist, but no more or less than Tay Garnett, or Arzner or Lupino or Sjöström or Ozu or anyone who has ever directed a film. When a director chooses where to place a camera, he or she has made an artistic decision, and is, by definition, an artist.

The problem arose when the term ‘auteur’ crossed the pond and was stupidly – in some cases – deliberately, mistranslated as ‘author’. The notion that a film director is the sole author of a film is far and away the most preposterous and ludicrous concept ever expressed in film journalism. Andrew Sarris - an otherwise sensible man - has a lot to answer for.

“But, but… You can always recognize a Ford/Hawks/Hitchcock/ movie!!”

Yes, that’s true; their names are on the fucking credits.

Apologies for my mostly off-topic bombast. Like all of us, I suspect, I like some of Sam Wood’s films, and dislike others. As to the "authorship" of Saratoga Trunk, credit (or blame) Wood, Ferber, Casey Robinson, Hal Wallis, Ernest Haller and Max Steiner in roughly equal parts.

Dan Callahan said...

The thing that drives me crazy about Wood's two films with Ingrid Bergman is how he makes such a fetish of her close-ups. It's nice sometimes in the Technicolor of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," but "Saratoga Trunk" would be a half hour shorter without all the endless coverage of her face in that black hair.

Personally, Wood sounds contemptible, and he's one of my least favorite directors. I tend to groan when I see his name on anything; "ponderous" is a good word for him. Watching his recently restored "Beyond the Rocks" with Swanson and Valentino was a dismal experience; it's all staged in such a stiff, medicinal way. He's just no fun, and is usually dull/heavy/unpleasant. Even his Marion Davies comedy, "The Fair Co-Ed" is leaden.

Wood definitely has a recognizable style, and it puts me right to sleep. I do second your championing of "good movies by non-pantheon directors" point, just not in his case.

The Siren said...

Ah, poor Sam...looks like his revival is a ways off, despite Dan S.'s support (thanks!). Dan, surely you don't find the Marx movies ponderous? :D I wouldn't call Wood's best movies ponderous, but nearly all of them run long. Then again, perhaps that's the same thing.

David, I just saw Address Unknown as well, and while it does attest to Menzies' stunning design sense, the camera movement and blocking weren't as effective as Wood's in Kings Row or Our Town (neither were the performances, for the most part). I would say Saratoga Trunk and Address Unknown show that the men were better off with each other.

Wood's politics don't seem much reflected in his work; Devil and Miss Jones is pro-union, Kings Row is a bleak view of small-town Americana and John Ford tartly remarked that the only Marxist film he'd seen out of Hollywood was For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Yojimboen, I think Truffaut's assertion, to which I allude in the piece, that the worst movie Renoir ever made would still be more interesting than a movie by Delannoy is a pretty large gauntlet; although it's hard to argue with if only because Renoir didn't make any bad movies, at least none that I've seen. (I don't know if I have seen any Delannoy, come to think of it.)

The score was very pretty in Saratoga Trunk, albeit a mite repetitive which I find frequently with Steiner. And I should have mentioned Haller; I usually try to because he isn't as well known as he should be.

The Siren said...

P.S. to Dan Sallitt -- I agree on both Negulesco and Hathaway. To be clear, I'm not arguing for Wood as an auteur even in their sense; I think he was a workhorse director with, as David says, good taste in material. I'm saying he seems to get no respect at all, and that ain't right.

jonerik said...

Art does not track politics; they are separate. Knut Hamsun was imprisoned by Norway after WWII for his support of Hitler (surely you are familiar with the film on this very topic starring Max von Sydow as Hamsun! John dos Passos, who wrote the classic, radical "U.S.A." trilogy became a reactionary anti-Communist in his later years. Adolphe Menjou, a great actor, was a rabid right-winger, I've heard. I've also heard Clint Eastwood is a Republican but you wouldn't know it from his films. I'm sure I could think of other but you get the point. Sam Wood was a competent or even great director, but this did not give him any special insight into politics. Just because one agrees with Barbara Streisand's or Robert Redford's poltitics doesn't make their politics relevant to their art either.

Dan Callahan said...

I like his Marx Brothers movies, but I much prefer their five early Paramounts. I also like "Devil and Miss Jones" and "Our Town," but I'm pretty positive that's due to the actors and the scripts involved. I don't know much about his methods, but "endless takes" sounds about right.

I've seen Delannoy's "The Eternal Return," which is good, but very influenced by Cocteau's visual style and source material.

That dictum Truffaut threw out is too extreme, but I can't really argue with its basis. There are times, though, when we need to admit a great director made a bad film, and a fair to middling director surpassed themselves; both judgments can be difficult.

gmoke said...

"King's Row" over "Frenzy"?! That tracking shot down the staircase and into the street as the strangler claims his victim is still something that takes my breath away. And the doomed Anna Massey? Jon Finch has few if any redeeming characteristics as the lead I will admit but Barry Foster was a really good villain.

Truth be told, I've never seen "King's Row" all the way through.

Dan Sallitt said...

Siren: maybe "ponderous" isn't the best word anyway. Certainly the guy worked in an entertainment industry and took on all sorts of projects, including Marx Bros. movies that are not allowed to be objectively ponderous. But I sense a shade of solemnity even in lighter fare like Hold Your Man; and in work like Kings Row there's something weighty and airless about the stasis. These are the Wood films I like best, so I mean to sound descriptive, not critical.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Clint Eastwood IS a Republican -- but of the pre-Karl Rove school. He's what was once known as a "Rockefeller Republican" -- which in today's Republican party would mean a communist.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I don't blame Sam Wood for shooting Bergman in close-up. He can't get enough of her -- and who could?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Truffaut's article ""A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema" has been widely misunderstood as simply establishing la politique des autuers as a general principle. Au contraire -- it's a foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing tract, written in protest agains the screenwriting team of Aurenche and Bost -- two leftists that Truffaut excoriates for being anti-Catholic.

Truffaut's explicitness on this point is crystal clear. In fact it inspired Bertrand Tavernier to hire Aurenche and Bost to write for him, in protest.

Truffaut is a fascinating filmmaker. But he wasn't much of a film critic, and in his younger days he was a real little shit.

Yojimboen said...

Re Jean Delannoy, I once had a friend in Paris (sadly departed, now) who insisted that Delannoy was the unsung Master of French Cinema; and he wasn’t alone. If anything Delannoy was the anti-auteurist (even though he wrote most of his films), he could turn his hand to any subject, any style and invariably make it work.

L’Eternal Retour is a great film but admittedly had a great script by Cocteau. His La Symphonie Pastorale is quite fine – Michelle Morgan was never better. Playing a French “Johnny Belinda” (2 years before that movie), she won the Best Actress award (the film won the Grand Prize) at the reborn Cannes Festival in 1946.

Sadly, and I would submit, quite unfairly, Delannoy was scorned by the Cahiers clique, hence Trauffaut’s rude comparison with Renoir.

He was a solid journeyman director, underestimated and neglected; sort of like Sam Wood, I suppose.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Duvivier was wildly underrate by the Cahiers crowd. He was an Absolute Master.

Marilyn said...

I haven't got much of an opinion on Wood as an auteur; that he's had his share of good and bad is about par for the course of most directors, even Hitchcock.

However, if I were to pick the top 10 worst movies ever made, Pride of the Yankees would be on it, possibly in the #1 position. The fact that it was rushed out to capitalize on the sentiment surrounding Lou Gehrig's death is no excuse for the hopeless mistakes that Wood can certainly be credited with making.

The Siren said...

Um, not sure what to say about Pride of the Yankees since you haven't left me much breathing space there...

David, I know it's supposed to be a sacred text and all but A Certain Tendency gives me a bigger pain the older I get. The French New Wave was great but the older stuff they were so determined to tear down was too, in many instances; Duvivier being a great example. We are all in David Cairns' debt for his efforts to revive the man's reputation. I am still so peeved that I missed Un Carnet du Bal at Lincoln Center.

Yojimboen, you whet my appetite for Delannoy! And Michele Morgan, yum.

Dan Callahan, when it comes to the Marx Brothers, I never understand the oft-stated preference for their Paramounts; to me it's a question of hilarious or paralyzing, they're both great. But then I am so hopeless a fan that I can happily watch any of their later waning-years efforts too.

Gmoke, forgive me, but I absolutely loathed Frenzy. I am not saying it's a poorly executed movie; Finch is inadequate but it's got gobs of Hitchcock's skill, like the brilliant tracking shot you mention. It's just so deliberately, viciously unpleasant. I saw it in a theater and walked out feeling the same way I did when I got set up on a blind date with a freshly divorced man who was barely attempting to conceal his disdain for women in general at that point.

Dan S, there is definitely a certain trapped feeling to Kings Row...

gmoke said...

Siren, no forgiveness is necessary. I understand your reaction and how uncomfortable "Frenzy" could make some people of delicate sensibilities. There is no one to root for, the murders are very graphic, and what humor is in the film is extremely black.

Did enjoy "The Devil and Miss Jones" when it was on cable recently although it felt a little stiff. Contrast it with "The More the Merrier" and I wonder how it might have played with Joel McCrea instead of Bob Cummings. Still, it is the most left-wing movie I've ever seen from a major studio and, now that I know about Mr Wood's politics, it is particularly piquant.

Did you know that Frank Capra was a lifelong Republican? His scriptwriters, particularly Robert Riskind (who was married to Fay Wray and missed the blacklist only because he died of cancer), earned him the reputation for being such a small d democrat.

Yojimboen said...

I always found Frenzy to be mid-way between tacky and unacceptably distasteful; quite horrid in fact. Anna Massey was a talented actress who was not well served by her director. The famous tracking shot – theoretically impossible to pull off using available equipment – was just something Hitchcock threw in for the pros in the audience to figure out. The story was that during all the location work, Hitchcock barely left his car. It showed.

Yojimboen said...

Surely one of the most glorious events in H’Wood history was the time Robert Riskind walked into Capra’s office, dropped 120 blank pages on his desk and said, “There you go, Frank, give that the fucking Capra touch!”

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I like some of Wood's films (Goodbye Mr. Chips, the Marx Brothers movies) a lot and I find others (Pride of the Yankees, For Whom the Bell Tolls) dull and unremarkable but that might be partially due to the casting since generally speaking Gary Cooper tends to leave me cold.

I'm amused by the sudden interest that's grown around Julien Duvivier in the last two years. When I wrote my own defense of his work back in 2007 there was almost no information about the director available online and there hadn't been a revival of his films shown in NY yet. Now he seems to have a lot of defenders besides myself such as Cairns.

There are lot of fine filmmakers who are waiting to be rediscovered and their work reevaluated. Duvivier I can obviously get behind and did, but Sam Wood's work just doesn't appeal to me as much. I suspect that individual tastes and trends in film criticism have more to do with why some director's are more respected than others and commonly referred to as "auteurs" among film enthusiasts. If Sam Wood had more people championing his work like yourself and a revival of best films were shown in NY opinions about Wood would probably change rather quickly.

And put me in the pro-Frenzy camp. I think it's a great Hitchcock film but extremely bleak and dark. Probably his darkest film and very much a product of its time.

Yojimboen said...

Latest word is NYC Cablevision customers may be blacked out of tomorrow’s ABC OscarFest. Hmm… lucky you.

Unfortunately I live close enough to hear the bleacher-squeals as the Manolo Blahniks hit the soggy red carpet. Yippee.

The Siren said...

Y., fortunately we're Time Warner customers (and that may be the only time I ever have or will type that).

Vanwall said...

There were a lot of mechanics in the Studio directors system, guys who worked the flat rate book like servicing a transmission or aligning the front end for all it was worth, and put out workmanlike products that put butts in the seats. Wood was more of a "don't force it, get a bigger hammer" kinda mechanic, not the kind you'd exactly trust with the Studio Rolls Royce, I'm thinkin', but his rep became kind of like Clarence Brown's, viewed as a non-factor in the overall excellence of any well-thought of film, and dismissed altogether in a critical flop.

I do value Clarence Brown, (almost criminally under-appreciated), more - much more, however, than Wood, and part of this is Wood's real life persona, by most accounts not a pleasant person regardless of his politics, and it was certainly part of his directing style - he seemed to miss the point about working with actors, or anyone else in movies, something Brown was a master at.

I think he had the luck, or savvy, to have people around him who made good or even great films, but that's something the Big Studios insured would happen. I can't really tell where Wood starts and leaves off in his directing, but at the end of his career in the forties, he made some unusual films, films that seemed to be not only against the grain of his personal beliefs, they were at the forefront of changes in the attitudes of film-goers and film makers. If he wasn't so stolid and reserved in style, you'd think he'd've been viewed as favoring the sordid and leftist - "Kitty Foyle", "Kings Row", "The Devil and Miss Jones", "For Whom the Bell Tolls", and above all, "Ivy" - this short résumé from that period would make me sit up and take notice, regardless of director.

He may have been the ultimate Studio director, tho, that's for sure - if he had a style it was sublimated for the Studio's benefit.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Intruder in the Dust clearly indicates that (by Wood's standards) Clarence Brown was a communist.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, what an excellent summation. I heartily second your take on Clarence Brown -- and look at me, I even left him off my little list! It wasn't supposed to be a compendium or anything but still. You're right, while the style is well-nigh invisible there is too much there in the good movies for us to dismiss Wood altogether. One or two good outings and you can chalk it up to Ivan's Blind Squirrel Cinema Theory. But a half-dozen or so, that is more than luck or coworkers I think.

As for his personality, I think I would have felt the exact same way as Groucho. But Ingrid Bergman, as far as I know a liberal in her politics and certainly devil-may-care in her personal life, was very fond of Sam Wood (as he was of her); perhaps because he seems to have done a great deal to get her parts she wanted, Maria and Clio. Selznick didn't think Bergman could play a Creole bad-girl and Wood argued that Bergman could do anything.

Kimberly, warmest congrats on your new gig at Movie Morlocks! Yes, there are a lot of directors who need & deserve re-appraisals. I think David is also working on Autant-Lara and I've been banging the drum for Leisen (who no longer seems to need anyone's help) and Negulesco as well as Wyler (hugely popular but strangely undervalued in some circles) and Brown. I think the little ripples we start in the blogosphere, such as you with Duvivier, do eventually fan out to the general cinephile consciousness. Although in dark moments I feel like I'm bailing out the Titanic with a teacup, and the lesser-known old films are doomed to be a rarefied taste for the cognizent few, like string quartets or late Henry James.

Vanwall said...

David -

"Intruder in the Dust" is one I consider a great and important film, and almost deliberately forgotten to death - a strong picture with a sure hand behind it, and a wonderful cast - Claude Jarman Jr's best, IMHO; a remarkably real performance from the always under-rated David Brian, who is as good a Faulkner character interpreter here as anyone in film; and especially the great Juano Hernandez - could the man ever give a weak performance? I see his name in any credits, and I wanna watch that film.

"Intruder in the Dust" is a good example of getting great work out of a cast - few Studio directors were as adept at that as Brown was - and an object lesson in the differences between Wood, who sometimes over-close-upped in a fetishist way, IMHO, and a lot of other directors that may have doomed him to irrelevance - it's never stiff, never less than fluid, and unstinting in its lessons. It raised hackles then, and it still doesn't pull punches today, and if that was a communist leaning film, bring it on, Comrade!

Yojimboen said...

First, good news about your cable supplier, chère Madame; now, I have about 50 friends and relatives in Manhattan (Cablevision customers) who will miss Oscar; they’ll be at your house at 8 sharp if that’s okay?

M VW – cogent stuff, as always, but I do trip over that unsettling tendency of ours to judge the artist as well as the work. Difficult as it is to separate the two, I submit it’s crucial to our ability to fully understand and appreciate any art. Should one refuse to listen to Richard Strauss (Arturo Toscanini: "To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.") or watch Triumph of the Will? Do Wyler’s infamous autocratic cruelties lessen the force of TBYOOL?

As an animal lover my stomach churns every time a Hawks or Ford or Curtiz stunt-rider wire-trips a galloping horse (usually breaking its leg). What’s the choice? To avoid those filmmakers?

HUAC? The problem is that those pious ‘friendly’ faces who smarmily testified are inextricably woven into our lives; six-degrees away from half the movies we admire. Shit, man, I like Ward Bond! And The Fountainhead is way, way sexier than Duel in the Sun! Loathsome as Robert Taylor was in private, do we sacrifice seeing Cukor/Garbo’s Camille?

(Always excepting that pompous arsehole Menjou)I’m afraid there isn’t much room for moral reflection in experiencing art.
We edge too close to that slope and glissando-glissandi we’re all in a pile in the middle of the living room carpet, Jim Carrey blasting from the flat screen while we wrestle desperately for the remote.

Vanwall said...

M Yo -

Oh, agreed heartily about private lives and screen performances being separated, if not, I couldn't stand Coburn's performances; hell, I even skive off Menjou's odiousness from his portrayals, and I think Wood would've been just as abrasive and disjointed a director whether he was in jackboots or a Komsomol frock and kerchief - altho that hammer and sickle would've come in handy for his style, I think.

Wood certainly had something in 'im tho, to be able to have such a diverse and long career, altho for the life of me I can't quite figure out what it was - "The Amorphous Sam Wood", or "Invisible Un-style, the Conundrum of Wood Work", or maybe it was such that it entered your visual cortex and thence the brain like insidious osmosis. There are more than a few directors today that could benefit from changing a little in that direction, BTW.

Vanwall said...

Siren -

Thanks for the kudos, BTW, I'm quite chuffed now! ;-) Look, my head is Hindenburgerish. BTW, I meant to ask if you ever got my late addition to the blogathon in the wrap-up? Luv yer blogg.

The Siren said...

Y., about those trip wires; I have always wondered something. It's pretty easy to spot a tripwired horse once you know what to look for (if anyone is wondering, a spectacular fall, basically--sometimes a complete flip; a trained horse falls on its side). And they are all through that celebrated chase in Stagecoach.

But -- after that, I don't see them much in Ford movies at all. Maybe a couple in Fort Apache but I have never spotted any in The Searchers, for example. I always wondered if the horse-body count on Stagecoach was high and he either swore off them altogether or cut way back.

But I think it took years to get anything done about tripwires. They are ALL OVER Heaven's Gate, made in 1978 for Chrissakes. And Henry Fonda talked about the horses that died on his Fritz Lang shoot; but not from tripwires, Lang just pushed them too hard in the high altitude.

Really there are very few directors of the past or present who strike me as lovable and not that many who were even tolerable. It isn't a profession that often attracts the kindly, gentle or humble, always excepting the sainted Renoir.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I have to go over to the final tally at moviepreservation.blogspot and make sure everything got added.

Arthur S. said...

As someone who used Truffaut's ''The Films in My Life'' as a guidebook to all things old Hollywood, Bunuel, Bergman, Renoir, Rossellini along with the short blurbs he wrote for the New Wave, I certainly would argue that Truffaut was an excellent critic.

In any case, the political content of ''A Certain Tendency of French Cinema'' sits alongside Truffaut's examination of literary adaptation. His idea of auteurism which he argues in that piece was derived from how film-makers adapt literature whether literal-minded screenwriters strip a work of its complexity for some topical values or try to be faithful to the "spirit" of the work as opposed to Bresson who used the language of film to be faithful to both letter and spirit in Diary of a Country Priest. Truffaut in a few years went on to become one of the signatories of a famous petition against the French occupation of Algeria. The right-wing parts of the phrase was Truffaut attacking pictures for being easy liberal works rather than challenging audiences. This comes out too in his piece on Touch of Evil which I find even more bizarre because he sees the film as making a case for Orson Welles' "genius intuition".

And Truffaut wasn't entirely anti-Duvivier, he befriended him when he became a film-maker and mourned not telling him that one famous actress in Hollywood loved the songs in Carnet du Bal. He also admitted to liking some of Claude Autant-Lara's films like ''La Traversee du Paris'' even if Lara was cinema du papa and an anti-semite. Bertrand Tavernier has also noted that Truffaut's diatribe was against post-war cinema of the 50s and not the cinema of the 30s and 40s. One of Truffaut's favourite films was Le Corbeau by H-G Clouzot.

The main point of auteurism was a philosophy of criticism that insisted on looking at movies closely rather than grandly generalizing here and there.

And Siren, you underestimate Hatari and especially The Long Gray Line enormously. Frenzy leaves me mixed but the former two are great films.

gmoke said...

Renoir's gentleness may have come from his father. In the son's biography of his father, there's a mention of the fact that his father forbid his mother to shave her legs because of the possibility of drawing blood and losing vital essence.

Yojimboen said...

A French woman who didn't shave her legs? Hmm... I could say something. But won't.

Arthur S. said...

Shades of Bunuel's ''El'' there...though of a more benign nature. Renoir pere often insisted his son to be dressed as a little girl to model for his paintings and absolutely forbade him to cut his hair.

Here's petit Jean Renoir as une jeune petite fille,
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_oGfhqj7G_ks/SaV7eEfGKmI/AAAAAAAAAcM/gJa3LdGFDfI/s400/image9034.jpg

Renoir despite being a "saint" was often noted for temper tantrums which Henri-Cartier Bresson noted in his tribute(on the Criterion booklet for La Regle du Jeu).

Woody Allen is probably the most lovable film-maker, the reason crews love working with him was that he was so efficient all of them finish a day's work by six. Clint Eastwood likewise.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"The right-wing parts of the phrase was Truffaut attacking pictures for being easy liberal works rather than challenging audiences."

pas de tout, Artur! Re-read the ssay. It's the sort of right-wing screed that today would have been written by Andrew Breitbart -- if he knew how to write.

Yes Truffaut changed. But then so did Godard and Rivette. The New Wave was a very center-right group starting out. Only Rohmer began and ended and old-school genuine conservative. He made two political films: the hilairous musical comedy about small-tweon electiosn The Tree The Mayor and the Mediatheque and the spy thriller Triple Agent, which I rank among his very finest works.

Neither got U.S. release -- though Triple Agenet is (happily) on DVD.

Dan Sallitt said...

Arthur - I'm a big fan of Truffaut's writing - I think he's probably the best short-form film critic ever - but one must take into account that he was young and evolving rapidly during the years when he wrote the most. I still admire "Certain Tendency," warlike as it is: it was intended to alienate and to force side-taking, and it continues to do so today. But it required only a few years for Truffaut himself to become quite uncomfortable with the tone of that period. One can find common ground between that young Truffaut and the one who later praised Duvivier and Clouzot publicly, but both his personality and his stated belief system were shifting. Similarly, there's evidence in addition to this article for the young Truffaut's temperamental affinities with the French right wing - you may have read biographies, or commentary from Truffaut's peers - even if he, like other Cahiers writers, took public left-wing stands within a few years. None of this invalidates Truffaut's early work: one simply needs to take care when placing him in categories.

Gareth said...

It's been a long while since I've seen any of Wood's other movies, but I watched the two Marx Brothers films back-to-back, though in reverse chronological order, again at the beginning of the year.

What I found striking about them was how different they felt, with A Night at the Opera a much tighter affair that also has a strong sense of how to translate the Marx Brothers' energy into the cinematic medium. That's obvious in the state room scene, for instance, where the edges of the screen are exploited as a means to accentuate the claustrophobia of the tiny room, but even more so when Groucho rides around from stateroom to stateroom on his trunk, a sequence that's worlds away from the stage. I looked at a couple of Marx Brothers books but none of them are very clear on who might have come up with the shooting scheme for these scenes.

It's strange, then, that in the subsequent A Day at the Races several of the sequences feel as though they're more records of stage sketches, without the rhythm of a filmed scene (a lot of people like the Tootsie Frootsie sequence but it seems a bit flat to me on screen - funny but stagebound); there are several big musical numbers, but they barely involve the Brothers, while there's an awful more filler, too, since the film runs nearly 20 minutes longer than the previous outing.

In other words, I think that A Night at the Opera is a pretty good film, whereas A Day at the Races feels like something much closer to an evening at the vaudeville theatre, notwithstanding the location shooting and the musical numbers. It's hard to assess exactly who gets the credit or blame for any of the differences.

Arthur S. said...

I'm not saying that the piece isn't bizarre but I see it as a wrongheaded argument for an aesthetic idea on Truffaut's part, much of the piece contains enough of the idea to still be worth reading. It's sympomatic of the decisions young men make. Antonioni it came out vis-a-vis that documentary on Veit Harlan gave a good review to Jud Suss when he was around Truffaut's age and I for one would want to know what he was thinking when he said that when he was a committed left-winger for most of his career.

But then I wasn't entirely familiar with the political background of it when I first read it. One point of note is that when Truffaut published "The Films in my life" he left out this piece which was his most well-known work as a critic so maybe that was his shame for some parts of it.

I have seen ''Triple Agent'', David and it is indeed a masterpiece. The greatest spy film ever made.

Juanita's Journal said...

There is way too much of Clio's "mammy" figure, Angelique, played in glowering blackface by Flora Robson and topped with eyebrows that would scare the daylights out of Frida Kahlo.


Poor Flora Robson. She certainly scared the living daylights out of me. And she had received an Oscar nod for this role?

Juanita's Journal said...

Loathsome as Robert Taylor was in private, do we sacrifice seeing Cukor/Garbo’s Camille?

Was this due to his anti-Communist stance?

The Siren said...

Juanita, yes, she did! I can hardly believe it. One of those disguised nominations for makeup, I guess. As for Robert Taylor, while he is far from a personal favorite as an actor, as a person I don't find him loathsome. I don't know that I find him anything at all; he was an odd duck.

Gordon Pasha said...

Kazan’s a stoolie, Polansky is a child molester, Jane Fonda is Viet Cong, Robinson was a red, Wood was a facist, and Riefenstahl made Hitler Ochsenschwanzsuppe. Tell these commentators to leave their politics at their cocktail parties. Watch the screen. Good or bad? Awful or Great? Then go to their meetings.

Gerald

Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

Some time ago, near the time you were enjoying your sitting on couch and diggin' Wood, I had the same impression of the man, here:

http://notesoncinematograph.blogspot.com/2010/03/remembering-sam-wood.html

Quite agree with you about the gents like Del Ruth or Hathaway, and I must say, auteur theory is a good starting point, but not the destination.