‘Reinventing Hollywood’ Educates, Illuminates and Connects Films Past and Present

David Bordwell effectively argues that the change in the era of bold, different, sometimes difficult films from the '40s made a permanent mark of cinematic storytelling that resonates to this day.

The party line for nearly half a century has been that the only “new” Hollywood worth memorializing came with the conclusive hurricane of
Easy Rider (1969) and sizzled through to 1977, when features like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind put an end to the daring young men (Ashby, Coppola, Altman, DePalma, Scorsese, Lucas, and more) and welcomed another, safer age of the Hollywood blockbuster. Those daring young men either died or adjusted to the demands of the marketplace, never again to offend so brazenly and present their mission statements so bravely.

It’s a safe party line for several reasons. First and foremost is that those establishing the record usually don’t want to go beyond their own immediate memory reference points. Connect radical reinvention to an increasingly unpopular war overseas (Vietnam) and the old party line is easy (for some) to embrace.

In his new study
, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor David Bordwell provides a convincing argument that the greatest visionaries in Hollywood history, after the transition from silent film to sound, came in a period he places between 1939-1952. The greatest filmmakers of the time (Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and more) took conventions from theater, literature, and radio drama happening around them and interpreted these stylistic devices in their films. Consider the fact that Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were in the theater, and young lions like Welles were bringing their unconventional soundscapes to cinema. Cinema seemed to have no choice but to adapt or die.

It’s difficult to argue with Bordwell’s premise, especially as he expresses it in his introduction “The Way Hollywood Told It”:

“Forties films [like The Magnificent Ambersons, His Girl Friday, and The Best Years of Our Lives] have lived on for decades and have sunk into the consciousness of millions… Filmmakers [like]… Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan and Terence Davies have paid tribute to the cinema of the period.”

Later in the book, Bordwell ties in mystery films like
Jacob’s Ladder (1990), The Usual Suspects (1995), and Shutter Island (2010), arguing that the foundation conventions of flashbacks, voice-over narration, and psychological conflict set down by ’40s renegade filmmakers still resonate today. How he gets to the state of present-day filmmaking (Hollywood or not) depends on how comprehensively he covers the era in question, and it’s a difficult task. Bordwell’s point is clear. We would not be here now, with the great stylized noir noir thrillers from Steven Soderbergh or the block construction storytelling of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, had it not been for the masters who toiled away for the studio system in that period before, during, and after World War II.

The curious reader whose reference points for ’40s films are such classics as
Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) will have to search through the index to be satisfied, but it’s worth the effort. The first two titles, adaptations of James M. Cain novels, worked different sides of the era’s storytelling approaches. In the first, Director and co-screenwriter Billy Wilder understood that the flashback approach (very popular for the era) was about “Inevitability suspense”.

“…Double Indemnity uses the flashback to create the sort of ‘doom’ plot associated with Cain’s novels and film noir generally…Flashbacks trade on…hindsight bias…Once we know an outcome, we tend to think that it was obvious before the fact.” It didn’t hurt that stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were desperate, vicious, and shamelessly conspiring to kill her husband in order to collect insurance money. It was a film dictated by a dying man (much like Wilder’s later classic “Sunset Boulevard”) and the thrill of these stories was in knowing from the start how things ended up.

Mildred Pierce, which Bordwell includes in a section called “Telling It Backward, or Sideways, or In Bits” we see how some approaches in film were ingeniously misleading. Was this title character the killer? “Mildred’s opening sequence is a masterpiece of cunning 1940’s misdirection, but at least it hints, however fleetingly, at what will prove to be the truth.” Everything we know about Joan Crawford’s shameless sacrifice as the mother to a heartless daughter is in the eyes, the shadows, and all the shades between.

It’s a Wonderful Life, Bordwell has an overwhelming task. He needs to effectively incorporate how this remarkable film so successfully and ingeniously absorbs various styles to represent the best of the era. It’s a post-WWII Frank Capra film starring James Stewart as George Bailey, a hapless Bedford Falls Buildings and Loans financier at the end of his ropes. As the film starts, angels are praying for him to pull through his crisis of faith. There’s a 90-minute flashback tracing his life and times, and as Bordwell points out, it follows another tradition of the era: “The embedded story uses a minor schema of the period the biography of the exemplary ordinary man… a goal-oriented protagonist, but his goal is maddeningly frustrated by accidents.”

It’s a bold, audacious film for the time. Clarence the angel (Henry Travers) is a loveable character, but his presence is not all innocence. “The film has already synchronized George’s past with that of the audience, binding them through public events like Depression and war…” What’s remarkable for Bordwell is how this era he’s examining was able to dwell in the shadows of the murder mystery noir and also highlight films like
It’s a Wonderful Life, a hybrid of fantasy/wish fulfillment life and love after death that was still not afraid to go dark when and if necessary.

Reinventing Hollywood is an academic study, and Bordwell takes his time to carefully establish the economic and social world of the time. He illustrates what was happening in the studio system, how quickly films were conceived, developed, and distributed in what he calls “The Five Fat Years” (roughly the first half of the decade), the A pictures (prestige) and the B pictures (roughly 75-minutes, also-rans, with stars indistinguishable from each other.) However, it’s when he starts with his discussion of the 1940 film version of Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town that this book becomes most compelling. How did this bare-boned play about small town death and after-life translate to the screen?

“The film of ‘Our Town’ illustrates how mild modernism prodded filmmakers to innovate. The devices gathered here- interruptive flashbacks, voice-over narration, inner monologues, ambivalent fantasy sequences, direct addresses to the viewer-would proliferate in the years ahead.”

It’s a convincing argument from Bordwell, made especially more convincing when he moves on to the remarkably different and difficult journey
Death of a Salesman (1951) had in its first journey from stage to screen. “The original Death of a Salesman production is indebted to movie structure and technique,” Bordwell writes. For Miller, there were two aims. The first was to explore “…character subjectivity in two uncommon ways” and “…to present the past as simultaneous with the present.” Elia Kazan, director of the original stage production, noted to Miller that “none of these dream-figures are actually in the past.” That Miller would end up condemning this film version of his play for straying too conclusively from the main set (the house of Willy Loman) seemed to indicate that not all the visions of the renegade ’40s filmmakers were clearly manifested on screen.

Bordwell carefully spells out his arguments about flashbacks, especially the different way they were (and are) used in literature and film. “In fact, film flashbacks are oddly unliterary in being freed from the character recalling… them. A novel’s flashback is traditionally confined to the knowledge of the character experiencing it… a film flashback is almost never restricted to what a character could plausibly know.” He makes a clear and effective delineation between recalling (perhaps through the gauze of romanticized sentimentality) and recounting (more likely a character being called upon to account for their actions on a given day.) It can be a little difficult to follow, but Bordwell presents it in a clear, effective manner. There are embedded flashbacks, second layer flashbacks, and core flashbacks. Their shared goal, of course, is always to reinforce the theme. It’s how the filmmakers use these tools that separates the minor from the major players.

Once he establishes the variations of flashbacks in the films of the era, Bordwell argues that “Flashback construction is the most visible way that Hollywood dramaturgy of the 1940’s broke a story’s continuity.” How did they do it? In the instance of a classic like
The Best Years of Our Lives, the filmmakers allowed us to pick our heroes. “Each of its three protagonists… could have provided a film on his own… The men represent three branches of the service… The film’s exceptional length allows each story line to bring in secondary characters…” The only way such a film could earn its length and the trust of the audience, then and now, is to demonstrate skill in juggling the characters without any visible subsequent damage.

There are flashbacks, multiple plot lines, and then there’s real time. Alfred Hitchcock’s
Rope (1948) was one of the first and best examples of a film that unfolded in “real time” (roughly 90 minutes) as two young men host a dinner party. They’ve killed a third, placed the body within the location, and we know it within the first act. Their professor (James Stewart) manages to uncover the truth, and the strength of the film (then and now) rests in Hitchcock’s style, his technique. For Bordwell, “Hitchcock… offered filmmakers models of what to do and what to avoid.” With such efforts as the lethal suburban domestic suspense murder mystery Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the classy Notorious (1946), and the gothic Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock developed the template from which so many others would follow.

Again, Bordwell has an enormous task here. How do you encompass the impact of such larger than life characters like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles without letting that narrative overwhelm his mission? In “Hitchcock and Welles: The Lessons of the Masters”, Bordwell notes the differences. “Circumstances made Welles peripatetic.” After 1941’s masterpiece
Citizen Kane, (which periodically alternates with Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo as the most lauded film of all time), Welles, was usually on the run away from others and towards validation.

“During Hitchcock’s final years [he died in 1980] his reputation among cinephiles grew hugely, despite films that didn’t find favor with either critics or a large public. Welles went out with an emotionally piercing Shakespeare adaptation… a litter of unfinished products. Both men were sometimes denounced as mountebanks, but eventually they ruled film culture.”

It’s this comprehensive and clear-headed assessment that makes Bordwell’s book
a thick, academic volume that educates, illuminates, connects the past with the present, and at times thrills with this picture of American culture at a crossroads. The reader is able to envision a studio system churning out product under the mandate of Selznick or Mayer or others in the studio system. The growth of auteurs like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges was powerful to watch. Add to that Charlie Chaplin’s audaciously charming serial killer in Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and the players became more daring, more complex. Reinventing Hollywood brilliantly and effectively shines a necessary light on an era that came after the golden age of the late ’30s and before the ’50s, when the studios were on their final leg and dealing with the power of TV. Dive deep into this book and follow Bordwell as he successfully proves that revolutionaries, renegades, and visionaries were as strong in the ’40s as they were in the ’60s. The likes of the players Bordwell analyzes may not be working now, but history and retrospect will probably find a way to find today’s great risk-takers overturning the tables and making us see common themes from yet another angle.

RATING 8 / 10