Can you spot an auteur at 20 paces? In the world of cinema, a true auteur is a filmmaker whose personal style or themes can be traced through even the most diverse and unlikely work. At least that’s how Andrew Sarris explained it in his classic book, The American Cinema (Da Capo, 1968).
In that work, he classified a little-known and often dismissed director named Gerd Oswald under the category Expressive Esoterica. In Oswald’s sparse output of features, Sarris observed that “a fluency of camera movement is controlled by sliding turns and harsh stops befitting a cinema of bitter ambiguity…There are paranoiac overtones in all his films, and the anti-Nazi symbolism is never too hard to detect.”
Oswald is not only expressive but Expressionist in the German sense. He came to it honestly by working with his father, a German director named Richard Oswald who began in the silent era. Gerd Oswald is currently best known for a handful of films, including A Kiss Before Dying (1956), The Brass Legend (1956) and Screaming Mimi (1958). Even this small output hasn’t been sufficiently available for exploration. For example, where is his 1960 German film Brainwashed, based on Stefan Zweig’s Chess Novella?
Oswald spent most of his career in American television and particularly flowered in series that allowed him to indulge his imagination and his taste for baroque, insistent visual style, including The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek. The fact that Oswald stands out as a director can be demonstrated easily in the handful of Perry Mason episodes that bear his name. Although this show favored a flat, frank, unfussy TV style, Oswald’s efforts fairly burst with odd flourishes and graceful panache.
Let’s put his auteurism to the test by examining a film that would seem an outlier in his career, the neglected and inconsequential Bob Hope vehicle, Paris Holiday (1958). In every way a star project dominated by its star, who also produced the picture and essentially wrote it, this project sounds unpromising as a Gerd Oswald joint.
Paris Holiday falls into Hope’s tradition of sending his wisecracking persona through spoofy spy, detective and adventure tropes. The humor lies in his reactions to getting shot at or trapped in brakeless cars or nearly falling down elevator shafts. With its bright widescreen colors and self-conscious opening gags, in which the four main characters introduce themselves via voiceover, it seems to have more in common with the cartoony films of Frank Tashlin than with Oswald’s melodramas.
The first part of the action takes place on a transatlantic liner, where Bob Hope and French comedy star Fernandel play thinly undisguised versions of themselves: famous comedy stars named Bob Hunter and Fernydel. Martha Hyer plays a level-headed lovely who works for the U.S. Embassy in Paris, while Anita Ekberg plays an even more glamorous vamp in the pay of bad guys, but she eventually switches sides because she’s so beautiful.
During Ekberg’s opening voiceover, the blast of the ship’s engine drowns out her revelation of her character’s nefarious plans. This postmodern play on cinematic conventions, which is a common feature of Hope vehicles, foreshadows a similar “joke” in the opening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), when the background music sometimes drowns out the couple’s expository dialogue.
In France, Bob meets briefly with a famous French writer named Serge Vitry, whose name and reputation for brilliant comedies is reminiscent of Sacha Guitry. This too-briefly-seen character is played by the great Preston Sturges near the end of his life, reminding me of Sarris’ observation that what French audiences don’t grasp in Sturges is what Americans don’t grasp in Guitry: the scintillating play of language in high and low vernacular. Alas, this film seems even less like Sturges than like Oswald.
After a lot of running around, the film climaxes in a helicopter stunt with Bob’s double hanging from a rope ladder that sweeps across the tops of buildings and other looming obstacles. Bob is doubled by legendary French stuntman/driver Gil Delamare, who receives a screen credit while another stuntman is credited with flying the copter. Delamare, who died in a 1966 stunt, is a legend in French cinema.
Just as you might think this film is an aberrant and atypical entry in Oswald’s filmography, perhaps the work of a hired hack dominated by boss Hope, we’re confronted by the revelation that the villains are a secret neo-Nazi group infiltrating the French government with counterfeit money, and there are even discreet references to the Holocaust in a scene that comes dangerously close to feeling out of place and needlessly heavy — except for in an Oswald movie. It’s exactly as Sarris called it.
The most paranoid material arrives in the lengthy sequence where Bob is detained in a lunatic asylum for ambiguous reasons. It’s all very comic and ironic, with attempted escapes and whatnot, but it’s also got a genuinely sinister and frustrating edge regarding institutions and bureaucracy. Bob’s hero becomes a helpless pawn, trying to prove his sanity to a committee of judges, as his own friends in the U.S. Embassy conspire to keep him locked up while being unable to explain their cross-purposes. He only knows that even his allies and partners are suddenly against him, and from his point of view the situation has turned into a nightmare.
Unless I imagine it, this is the part of the film where the director feels the most committed (no pun intended) and which he handles with an adroit, discomfiting mix of comedy and paranoia. So here you have the “paranoiac overtones” noticed by Sarris, even though he didn’t single out Paris Holiday as worthy of attention.
Yes, this is Gerd Oswald, the auteur that nobody sees except when he’s at his most flashy and stylized. Under the expressionism is somebody scarred by his and his father’s brush with the Nazi experience in their home country, someone mistrustful of authority figures, someone whose heroes struggle against conformity, and someone who, when the budget allows, likes to bring the razzle-dazzle. This remains true whether he’s working for Bob Hope or exploring The Outer Limits, and thus we recognize a personal filmmaker.
Ladies and gentleman: Gerd Oswald. In our next class, we must begin examining his episodes of Bonanza, Daniel Boone and Gentle Ben. Who knows what we might find once we start looking?