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Posts Tagged ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald’

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(Reposted from my defunct film-only blog — Cailloux de Cinema. I’m finally ready to start following through on this one.)

This Alternative Film Guide piece on Mark Vieira’s new book on Hollywood’s first “Boy Wonder” (Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of MGM) intrigues me, but not for the reasons you might think.

I’m sure it’s a fine book, and I have no doubt that I’ll be checking it out–but, at the moment, I’m more interested in the metacritical issues that its publication raises.

To put it succinctly–enough with the Thalberg already!

Please don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not objecting to the lionization of the Lion on (Pauline) Kaelian grounds. I love MGM’s early sound catalogue (and it does seem to me that Thalberg’s rep depends upon the films he oversaw during the 1930s, doesn’t it? That’s what the hagiographers focus on. And I want to stress that point because, paradoxically, the studio’s really innovative period came during the late 1920s–with Sjöström and Vidor). I am eager to concede that they made some fantastic films–and (again, unlike Kael) I love Norma Shearer.

However, I must confess that I am baffled by the widespread fixation upon Thalberg. I just don’t see any warrant for it.

Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fault? I mean, The Last Tycoon IS awesome. But if you make up a list of the great Hollywood films made between 1929 and 1937, how many Thalberg films would be there? Tastes vary of course, but what MGM films provide an experience to match All Quiet on the Western Front, Waterloo Bridge, Dracula, Frankenstein, Back Street, The Old Dark House, Counsellor At Law, Imitation of Life, Little Man What Now?, The Black Cat, The Bride of Frankenstein, My Man Godfrey, Remember Last Night?, Show Boat (Universal); The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Man’s Castle, It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century, Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (Columbia); The Smiling Lieutenant, Animal Crackers, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Trouble in Paradise, Love Me Tonight, Duck Soup, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, Peter Ibbetson, Desire (Paramount); The Last Flight, Blonde Crazy, Jewel Robbery, One Way Passage, Five Star Final, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Baby Face, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Petrified Forest, Stranded, Living on Velvet, They Won’t Forget (Warner Brothers); Little Women, Dangerous Corner, Alice Adams, Swing Time, Stage Door (RKO); Bad Girl, Six Hours to Live (Fox); Cynara, Dodsworth, These Three (Goldwyn); Our Daily Bread (Vidor) etc ad infinitum?

Again, I’m sure there’s lots of room for disagreement here… and I do think that MGM releases like Daybreak (a Jacques Feyder film from 1931 that everyone ought to see!), Possessed (1931), Freaks, Red Dust, Queen Christina, Mad Love, A Night at The Opera, Libeled Lady and Fury belong on a list with the above items (along with movies produced by Thalberg’s in-house rival David O. Selznick–who somehow always comes in for a beating in Thalberg-love-ins, and the article that prompted this post is no exception!–like Dinner At Eight, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities)… but there’s no way anyone can convince me that MGM’s films were appreciably BETTER than what the other studios were putting out.

The only difference is that they made money, during the “depths of the Depression.”

Is that any reason for us to get excited about the guy?

Apparently, yes.

And perhaps that’s valid–much of this scholarship, after all, is grappling with the question of Hollywood’s steadying influence upon the country during an insane period in its history. And MGM certainly can take the lion’s share of the credit for that.

But if you wanna talk aesthetics and politics–film for film, MGM lags FAR behind Universal during the early-to-mid-1930s. No?

So wherefore Thalberg?

I get that this was a guy whom intellectuals (i.e. writers) could (and can) take seriously–even though he was primarily responsible for the system that obliterated the screenwriter’s autonomy in Hollywood. And I get that his life story appeals (in a creepy way) to people of all political persuasions who cherish the idea that integrity and success can (or, at least, at one time, could) go hand in hand in America. And Fitzgerald’s investigation of the damage that really living the Horatio Alger dream can do to a potentially sensitive mind is truly unparalleled.

But wouldn’t it be even more fruitful to study the career of a mogul who leaped into the key role at his studio (the same one that gave Thalberg his start–and by virtue of the same nepotistic good fortune) at the dawn of the sound era, determined to present America with prestigious films that proceeded from an almost uniformly, and, ultimately, suicidally counter-hegemonic position (on the economic, cultural and psychological levels)?

Wouldn’t it be great to see some books about Carl Laemmle Jr.?

All I know about this guy is what I read from the movies.

Oh sure, there’s some stuff about him in Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System–a bizarre mixture of insight and maddening conventionalism that is at its weakest when it tries (and it wisely doesn’t try very often) to analyze the films (as texts) themselves.

And I guess I should read this book–although it looks like more of the same, in terms of its misplaced emphasis upon Junior’s faemmle ties, rather than what he did with his six years as a production head.

There’s a lot of stuff out there on Universal’s horror unit too–but, in my experience, none of these works (including Kevin Brownlow’s documentary–which is good as far as it goes, but, like the filmmaker himself, has DECIDED limitations) ever takes the, to me, logical step of connecting these films up with the amazing things that Milestone, Borzage, Stahl, Wyler and even non-horror James Whale were doing at the studio during the same period.

Come on–let’s have a book (or at least a series of blog posts!) on the Lost Tycoon.

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Wine of Youth (1924)

King Vidor’s first film for the newly created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wine of Youth lulls the viewer into a comfortable  rhythm with its Jazz Age jocularity–and then rips the skin off its “comedy of manners” facade to expose the capillaries of a culture in (perennial) crisis. Perry Miller famously described Transcendentalism as “the first of a succession of revolts by the youth of America against American Philistinism.” Wine of Youth tracks yet another of those tidal movements within the sea of sea-changes that is the American social scene.

The “Wine of Youth” in question is pressed from the soul of our protagonist by the impossibly conflicting demands of “authenticity” and “self-authorization” (call it “will”, if you will). It’s an intoxicating (that means “poisonous”, y’know!) paradox–we equate “freedom” with “choice”, when, in fact, every choice is the abrogation of freedom. Vidor’s film follows one “flaming youth’s” flickering awareness of this phenomenological fact. The person in question–the amazing Eleanor Boardman (in the first of a string of King films–culminating with The Crowd):

The film introduces us to a series of three Marys (each of whom, we are asked to believe, represents the “typical” young woman of her generation). Mary I (destined to become “Granny” in the present-day portion of the film) is shown careening toward marriage to the tune of a polka, sometime during the 1870s. Twenty years later, Mary II (aka “Mom”) waltzes to a similar fate–although not before she voices a few concerns about the ersatz quality of love that is “merely declared.” These quibbles come to naught when Mary II’s beau puts his lips to more convincing use, causing her to exclaim “ours is the greatest love the world has ever known!” These events lead directly to the creation of Mary III–who enters the story with some very definite ideas about indefiniteness:

Will our protagonist emerge from the film with her protean agon intact? Well, as you might expect, no. However, her journey toward the terminus is handled in such a way that we cannot but assume that the terminal case made by “THE END” will inevitably be reopened at some future date–and that Mary IV, whomever she proves to be, can expect a subpoena circa 1945.

Mary III (we’ll just call her “Mary” from now on, since she’s the one in the spotlight) has 2 suitors (“and she ain’t ashamed”)–Ben Lyon (Mr. Serious) and William Haines (Mr. Callow). Boardman’s knowing performance communicates the fact Mary is aware that this specious “choice” is no choice at all. What she really wants is the freedom to throw herself into the social whirl without being courted all of the time. Unfortunately (for her!), her sultry skepticism pokes an eye in even the most powerful storm, creating a pocket of pure pensiveness in the midst of these Fitzgeraldian frolics:

Mary knows that “flapping” isn’t freedom–but she longs to take flight. After a lot of tame bourgeois shenanigans, she hits upon a plan–she and her 2 guys will take a “trial honeymoon” (free of societal pressure and matrimonial maneuvering), in order to forge a more “authentic” understanding of each other. Natually, this shocks Mary I

and amuses Mary II (who understands her daughter’s urge without condoning it–or believing that the gambit has any chance of clarifying matters):

Once Mary III (I guess we need the numbers back after all) leaves the stage, her two elders have it out in an exchange which culminates (after Granny claims that Boardman is “in danger”)  in these very Thoreauvian echoes of Walden‘s “lives of quiet desperation”:

“Danger” is the Vidorian (not to mention Emersonian, Melvillian, Hawthornian, Fullerian, etc) status quo–the inevitability that must be avoided at all costs.

But how?

Certainly NOT by making a chastely illicit run up to the country, no matter what illusions those gusts of open road might conjure up:

The film quickly disabuses its heroine and its viewers of the notion that freedom is so easily won. Soon after the group hits the beach, Lyon gets sulky and Haines gets pervy, leaving Mary in a state of, uh, consternation?

She quickly realizes that the dread “society” cannot be escaped–it can only be confronted… and not head-on either, but rather “aversively” (as Emerson and Stanley Cavell would say). Turn your back on “society” and it’ll assault you in your tent (as Haines attempts to do!) Try to “face” it and all you’ll get is Harpo Marx playing “mirror”. The best we can do is fight our way unclear to a vantage upon the world informed by equal parts Rapid Eye Movement and sidelong glance.

So Mary fakes an attack of appendicitis and goes home–and this is where Wine of Youth gets really interesting. Discovering that everyone is out looking for her, Mary is amused until she hears the angry rumble of the family’s return. She hides in a closet and grabs a ringside seat (alongside the viewer) at one of the most upsetting conjugal disputes this side of Alice AdamsIt’s a Wonderful Life or Woman Under the Influence. Mary’s delinquency provides the spark which ignites a very desiccated marriage. During the next few minutes, this goofy lark of a film turns deadly serious, with Mom (played by the intense Eulalie Jensen) unleashing every poisonous postscript she’d been withholding since the day she made her own “choice”. Near the end of the battle, which simply must be seen to be understood, Mom tells Dad that she’d like to kill him with her bare hands. The pantomime might look a tad silly in a still–however, in motion, it scorches “abject despair” into the sign lexicon.

When Mary emerges from her cache to fling the enormity of her parents’ lifelong deception into their faces, they make a valiant effort to rewrite the story by contorting themselves into a warped imposture of “family feeling”:

Of course, in Mary II’s own long-ago words–“love” cannot be called into being by fiat. This declaration of dependence upon one another–an act of willful reinvention that makes a mockery of any and all notions of “authenticity”–fails to convince Mary III

But the crazy thing is that–after a melodramatic McGuffin involving a bottle of poison that never quite gets swallowed–Mary II and Dad actually discover that they HAVE talked themselves into something like a state of passion for one another. Their tale concludes in a manner that, in many ways, anticipates Stanley Cavell’s “comedy of remarriage” genre! Meanwhile, a strangely dutiful Mary III (inspired by a willful urge to rewrite her parents’ story by claiming it as her own–and attempting to call the placid relationship she had dreamed of rebelling against into “genuine” being? With no coherent “American Dream” to dream against–the revolt against philistinism collapses?) trudges back to the suitor who didn’t try to attack her on the honeymoon and, pretty much by default, throws herself “completely” into the throes of a purely rhetorical “grand passion” that builds the bourgeois sepulcher she grew up wanting to tear down (if she could only fix its position). Her (and the film’s) final words?

Even better than the real thing?

next time–The Big Parade!

good night friends!

Dave

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