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Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age

George Stevens, Jr.

At the American Film Institute

(Vintage)

There’s a common trait among directors who developed their careers in the old Hollywood studios. Suggest that their movies are “art,” or mention the word “auteur,” and there’s a better than even chance you’ll hear vigorous objections—probably a variation on “We just wanted to entertain people!” or “Like the studio boss said, if you want to send a message, go to Western Union!”


I’ve heard this kind of thing from studio-era directors as different as George Cukor and Otto Preminger, and other interviewers have similar examples to share. Critic turned filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich made it a running gag in his 1971 documentary Directed by John Ford, where Ford hollers “Cut!” every time Bogdanovich gets anywhere near one of the dreaded a-words.


Or as Howard Hawks puts it in this book, “Motion pictures are entertainment, and if you’re going to preach, if you’re going to force your ideas on the audience, you’re taking chances ... and everybody I know who’s tried it gets into trouble.”


All of which means you won’t find many high-sounding statements of artistic purpose in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute, assembled by George Stevens, Jr., who ran the AFI from 1967 to 1980. Perhaps because his father was the golden-age director George Stevens, he knows enough about Hollywood nuances to set the tone from the very title of his book, which says “moviemakers” rather than “filmmakers” or, perish the thought, “auteurs.”


That said, a surprising number of the moviemakers represented here show an outspoken commitment to the idea that a movie can express—and should express—the director’s personal vision. Although the words don’t come up often, many of these filmmakers do see themselves as artists and even auteurs, no matter how many other personnel contributed to their productions.


You might expect this from Frank Capra, who called his autobiography The Name Above the Title, and sure enough, he states the principle clearly. “You’ve got a chance of making a film that means something,” he says, “if one person guides it from beginning to end. One man, one film.” Ditto for Elia Kazan, who says that in some “subtle or not-so-subtle way, every film is autobiographical.”


But it’s a little less predictable coming from a savvy show-biz player like, say, Rouben Mamoulian, who inspired enough confidence in Paramount and MGM to be entrusted with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich vehicles. “Art is individual,” he says. Although all members of a production team have “their own character, their own ideas, their own aims,” the director must “fuse [these] into a unity.” If you can’t manage that, “you might as well give up.” Other directors make similar remarks.


A chief pleasure of this volume is the opportunity it allows for tracing important themes, such as the relationship between filmmaking and self-expression, through the thoughts, musings, and declarations of top-level professionals with extensive first-hand experience. Stevens drew the book’s material from question-and-answer sessions at “master seminars” held for AFI students.


Sometimes a key issue is disappointingly sidestepped; nobody presses Kazan about his cooperation with Hollywood’s commie hunt in the McCarthy era, for instance, although Stevens mentions it in his introduction. But some of the discussions are deliciously forthright. A questioner tells Fred Zinnemann he’s reputed to be “rebellious and tough-minded,” and Zinnemann responds, “I’m just rebellious because I don’t want to make shit.”


While blunt talk like this is always refreshing, touches of modesty can be even more striking. The discussion with King Vidor contains a lovely example. He recalls an occasion when someone asked him if he used a lot of metaphor in his work, which made him realize he’d never thought of his movies as metaphorical, and wasn’t even sure what the concept meant.


Reading this, I thought Vidor was leading up to a speech about being “just an entertainer.” Instead, he tells how he looked up “metaphor” to get its definition and figure out its relevance to film, which he paraphrases as “some [symbolic] truth with different [concrete] things on the screen.” Then he started wondering, “do I think of one thing and have someone doing something else [in the movie] to suggest it? Then I began to fill in some gaps in my memory. For example, there’s a scene in The Crowd with the boy walking up a stairway. A while back I was in the house in which I was born, where I hadn’t been since I was 10 years old, and I walked upstairs and I was in the exact scene from The Crowd.


“Over the years,” Vidor goes on, “I have learned that things will be dug out of your unconscious.” This was especially true in the silent movies where he refined his talent, because they required “symbols and graphic arrangements ... I think with that scene in The Crowd I was trying to suggest [metaphorically] a painful moment in my youth that I felt without being entirely aware of it.” No wonder The Crowd is one of the silent era’s most profound films, and that Vidor’s overall career was artistically sophisticated to its bones—even if he did have to direct the 1956 production of War and Peace, which he candidly admits was “just a job.”


On a lighter note, it’s interesting to notice the contradictory statements that inevitably crop up when diverse professionals speak about the past. India’s great Satyajit Ray disses Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist for claiming he invented the “bounced light” technique in the early 1960s, while Ray says he was using it in 1954. Well and good, but cinematographer George Folsey says he developed it as early as 1943. Historiographical nit-pickers can worry who (if anyone) is right; the rest of us can enjoy the reminder that memory is the most slippery of human endowments.


What is Satyajit Ray doing in a book about Hollywood filmmakers? Not to mention Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and also Jean Renoir, who at least made some American pictures? Stevens doesn’t suffer from the foolish consistency that bedevils little minds. His volume is proudly eclectic, focusing mainly on Hollywood directors (25 of them) but tipping its hat to others.


It also salutes film’s collaborative nature by including a producer, four cinematographers, and two screenwriters. One of the latter, Ernest Lehman, indulges in the special pleading for his particular craft that’s mercifully absent from most of the book. By contrast, Ray Bradbury is witty and ornery, saying he’s “begun to hate” the movie version of his book The Illustrated Man yet happily defending François Truffaut’s underrated film of his Fahrenheit 451, which he calls “very peculiar” but loves anyway.


Stevens’ introduction to the Bradbury session is also rich, noting that the genius of science fiction still writes on an old-fashioned typewriter and dismisses the Internet as a creative tool. “Stay away from that,” Bradbury admonished writers in a 1996 interview. “Stop talking to people around the world and get your work done!” Now that’s entertaining.

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By Betsy Sharkey
21 May 2012
Pieces of history — capturing moments and moviemakers in time — is exactly what this book does best, creating a treasure-trove to flip through and savor.
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