Dwight MacDonald on film; 1930s: America and France
In the 20s in a silent period and most of these famous directors began then I mean Van Waffen-SS and John Moore and Claire who were probably the two most important French directors there have been those who are making inside of films right. Made an absolutely lovely film that I've seen a couple of times because of the Italian straw hat which is a very good illustration of what the movies can do extremely well in the same way that the Buster Keaton films were. This is FOSS by lobby sure was like 19th century hack playwright and it's a typical fight with everybody running around like mad and with artificial and forth Prot. But it's done with great pacing great timing great style. And is still extremely extremely funny. That sound came along when I was the first of actor anyway to really solve the problem of sound and he was really a
genius in this way. He sobbed out very very quickly in fact his three most celebrated comedies are the patty which was made in 1930 young which is made the next year and which I think is the best one which was made I think in 33. When. You are listening to Dwight MacDonald on film during the past decade Mr. McDonald has been perhaps the senior critic among American film critics and during this past year he was distinguished visiting professor of film history and criticism at the University of Texas. These programs were drawn from that lecture series the topic for this program is the American and French cinema of the 30s. And now once again here is Dwight MacDonald. Now I'm back how many American film watch that in the early 20s then you had
the great period at like 10 from 1950 to 25 then you had these great comedies Keaton Chaplin and so on and you had straw men you had who with that weld I would cite the three most brilliant of actors that we produced. From the prior beginning of cross the entrepreneurs were at work in the movies I mean this was too profitable field you know lastly Gauguin Zucker Lemley Fox. There were people that had been with us and once dismissed as Pat's presses and God knows that's what they were and in any spiritual sense anyone and many of them wrote actually that really three seconds proprietor's some of them were Yeah I am part of the same methods in the run in the movie industry. But the cost of making a film grew very very much that was one sad thing. The Birth Of A Nation cost $100000. To mend is to give a 1915. Bread and I can 25 Ben-Hur the early Abene her cost six million dollars in 1920 the average feature cost forty thousand eighty thousand dollars and twenty nine it cost two hundred thousand dollars. So therefore movies
became more and more a big business by the end of the 20s. Before sound this is in the bank was moved in. Jacobson has excellent book and if you are interested in this subject of American movies up to thirty nine there was Jack whose book is very good he said. The reign of the directed by 1926 came to an end. Producer supervisors began to apply the ideas select the talent to that of actor and spirit entire policy in conception. The director became so broad that it to the producer and to the what I call a front office that is that big studios now this is chains across the last seven or eight years with the rise of these so-called independent companies which are founded by either actors or directors and controlled by them. Unfortunately we're going to this lighter in the chorus but unfortunately the great improvement it seems that the. Veteran Hollywood people directors even and actors just about as bad as the. Zoo causin Langley's and Louis B Mayer is. And then Jakob's as
businessmen and executives they began to emphasize the obvious aspects of the commodities and had selling points such as Euro Star names production value meaning big elaborate expensive sets and box office appeal and so on. Across a sure fire method was a duplicate past successes as is the great trouble with television today. In other words movies became too valuable a commodity to be left to the artist because I don't like to paint and I want their own way. So you now have the assembly line established. In which a director is not allowed to cut his own film or to write the script to even choose the actors in many cases. Or to pass on the music either. Now then the other great blow was the coming of sound the first sound film wasn't 26 by 27 you had to face talkie The Jazz Singer without Johnson. Twenty nine sound was thoroughly established now as Jenkins points out and as I pointed out in my first lecture you mustn't think that the coming of sound in itself was a bad thing.
I mean a run that necessarily at all. But the trouble was that for a number of years they really want reverted to photograph stage plays they finally learned how to use sound track on a country sound as a very important part of the movie but had a bad effect in fact. Well anyway in the 30s I would say that there were roughly three categories of American films that were good and more than just a few isolated instances I mean I mean there's a film you know we've seen a John Ford the uniform of an admirable film not of the greatest kind but a very good film. And then of course as Citizen Kane There are a few other individual films that are quite good for the Hawks mostly. But in general there were three categories of films that looking back on it seemed to have maybe it's not due to that Brit have a kind of a vibe and a style of the US that we don't have anymore and they were are typically all federalists on the elastic at a time and film
Gangster films as Little Caesar Public Enemy the Westerns. Ford stagecoach and so on. And finally something that I've been especially on The Late Late Show on television. What I used to call screwball comedies. Now you might think comedy in general but there was several kinds of comedy there was a cross W.C. Fields and and this. But then it was also a kind of a social for Pinnacle comedy which is called Comedy nothing sacred. The title itself is a perfect description of this John. Nothing is sacred with anybody who find the business of commercial exploitation of poor people and young becomes in this thing Bringing Up Baby and The Great McGinty. I don't think you get that late show down her movies. Well. Anyway I will
try to show at least one of them one of them. Now. One of the reasons that the Hollywood film for the serious cinema they weren't terribly good but still when you see them on The Late Late Show on television they do have a vitality and interest which the Hollywood films today don't have and I think one of the reasons is because in Hollywood they developed in the 20s and 30s especially the 30s. A whole series of really literally hundreds almost anyway scores of what I call bit players who you see in film after film and who do their own little business quite well. Now this is one rough sort of a rule of thumb it seems to me about movies. At least I've noticed that the better movies and this doesn't mean only just masterpieces and great movies it means even just the you know the kind of Hollywood movies sometimes you have got a pretty good grade B movie which is usually much better than the so-called
big production kind of movies. And one of the things that I've noticed is that the minor parts are all very well taken and otherwise that they develop the to some extent the lesser characters and I get good people apply them. Now this was much more true in the 30s than it is today. But anyway the monopod built up for instance in this movie. If you see this public enemy today. However I should remind you by the way this is really my opinion absolutely for a straight film The Public Enemy by William Wellman made in 1931. I think it was the first of the great gangster films there are three important American Gangster films Little Caesar Public Enemy and Scarface. I think this is the best of them and this is James Cagney's greatest of all and James Cagney in time was one of the great movie actors in Hollywood. So do see it if you haven't seen it already. But anyway one of the things you are not with in this is that the monopod
extremely well in France is one of the mind of plotters taken by none other than Jean Harlow. And she was absolutely just. You know. The latter as I can make out whether she's trying to kid a sort of a floozy who has pretensions to gentility or whether she really thinks that she is gentle I don't know but anyway it's a taboo a good pot. This is a famous one you know where the phrase brutal aggression against women took place in the movies of innocent Up till then and when Cagney. Breakfast Table scene with his wife for not going to his mistress but anyway sort of a wife and whether a long time is over from a clock. And he picks up. Half a grapefruit and gives it to a lot of the puss you know well I mean you know what we've been saying since the end of his book and that was that this was going to mark the subject of censorship it was so hard to find such brutal behavior
towards a woman. This was the scene and you see many other things and if you do say it it's like the birth of a nation you mustn't be put off by kind of banging our serviettes ponts are often rather embarrassing really. But it's done in this purely conventional stylized riots a series of Pablo's really in fact look at it that way if you see it in a recent example of one kind of cinema. The structure was roughly like that of 10 days it took the world that you saw Eisenstein's film series of tablets each of them centered around one particular idea and then you go on to something else it's not I now it's heaven time it's not a play it's not a novel it's a value a different sort of a thing. And now. We have insight I think much about the French film we've talked about the German films of the 20s and the
Russian film and the American film The French film does not have it doesn't have the same kind of national character that these other three national cinemas have. I think the only thing you can see that French films of this period had in common. Well they were all usually elegant rather objective and rather done with a great deal about taste and imagination and the use of the medium. That is I'm now speaking of the fines from before the new way. That is up to about six or seven years ago especially about the French film of the 20s 30s and 40s. Well now all this time then we'll talk a little bit about this movie. The film is called as they're often conduct and it's the guy whose dates from nine thousand five to 1934. You can see he died at the age of 29.
And he only made four films and only two that are particularly famous and this is one of them which he made in 1933 and the next year of his death he made something called a lotta lotta. Which is the more conventional kind of a film. It's a movie about the captain of a barge on the Psion and his young wife and a strange elderly deckhand on the bhajan. And it's a sort of magical realistic and type-A type of class life. In France and it has some drive I get over things in it. I enjoy this one more. It's an extremely subjective and very very in a sense very difficult film. Now let me put it in its historical setting in the 20s in a silent period. Most of these famous directors began then I mean Ron Robinson and
Clare who are probably the two most important French directors there have been those who are making films made an absolutely lovely. Film that I've seen a couple of times called the straw hat. Which is a very good illustration of what the movies can do extremely well in the same way that the Buster Keaton films were. This is I was a late 19th century hack playwright and I was a typical Fox. With everybody running around like mad and with artificial and forced plot I mean what happens is that a young man isn't as white there was wedding and he's riding a horse in the pocket with the horse is cropping some bushes and by accident. Gets hold of the hat of a very respectable married lady who was embracing a cavalry officer in the bushes and
eats the house up and her husband is very jealous and she knows that she has to have this hat or a replica of it all as he will merely say that she has been unfaithful to him. So that fortunate young groom spends most of the day and frantically going around Paris trying to find a hat like that one that was for us. And he's pursued by the cavalry officer with that. Well anyway one thing leads to another. It's after a complete nonsense but it's done with great timing great style and is still extremely extremely funny. That sound came along when I was the first of actor anyway to really solve the problem of sound and he was really a genius in this way. He sobbed very very quickly in fact his three most celebrated comedies. The patty which was made in 1930 young which is made the next year and which I think is the best one which was
made I think in 33. In these comedies long before Lubitsch as a matter of fact they're liberated the camera that was one of the great problems with the four years of sound for technical reasons that I had to have the camera in the same place and I also had to have it masked by those enormous pads and everything so that the noise of the machinery wouldn't get into the soundtrack and so forth. But discovered ways of getting around this. And he liberated the camera and in fact he really made his early sound films almost as fluid as it sounds a bit. He developed a certain kind of technique a combination of songs and drama. I don't know what you call it I'm not musical comedies they're not exactly opposite the characters based on the song. Every now and then without any apology whatsoever but it somehow doesn't think the thing's not in the craft. He still is alive I think he hasn't done very much for many many years he's one of those
peculiar as I was saying in the Feist lecture one of the strange things about the cinema as against other arts is the way in which people find things and then drop out of sight or do very very mediocre things for the rest of their lives sometimes somewhat have happened. The other great actor John made his two films at the end of the 30s. One of them is grand illusion which is probably the question I guess the greatest value the cost of an anti-war film that's a little crude way to put it it's a film about the First World War. But it's nothing that you might expect to have no fighting and whatsoever. But it's about life in a prison camp in Germany. That was that night and then in 40 he made the one we're going to see here to the gang and it's really an extraordinary film this rules of the game about the high life in France I
have a weakness for films about high life you know whether men wear white tie and tails and I will die in one way out of a diety in the kitchen sink is there but you know I really like to think how the other half lives. But this shows you that even these French aristocrats so bloody rich and so on even that they're just about as awful as the rest of us do not. I was really one of these kind of modest that I don't know who the hell is about the French film because in a sense he is French. In a sense he's one of these peculiar sports that don't seem to have very much connection really with even his own country and his own son and I go out on Powell for instance in American literature who is a great favorite of mine and I'm glad he's on the bottom right now as a matter of fact and one of the odd things about Paul is that he doesn't seem to
fit in anywhere in American literature. In fact he could just as well have been writing in Guatemala. Paris or Berlin or anywhere else just isn't part of it. The way that Melville and harped on and Whitman and someone or more even Henry James is more of an American in that sense than power was when I was somewhat the same. He lived in complete poverty in fact the story is that one of the reasons he died well not really of salvation but anyway of a certain kind of malnutrition perhaps. Which means of course that in his lifetime he was not known at all except for a few people like cock post and I should have mentioned John Cocteau the light rail as you know how is it. Who also made some of the modeless film Beauty And The Beast is one of my favorites and the blood of a poet. He made out in 1931 Cocteau was one of the guys early admirers and this movie Zero for conduct zero the cond weed
is the most anarchistic movie ever made in every possible it's an acoustic in its theme which is the revolt of schoolboys against the youth against our. Kids against Adam. And it's an acoustic in the way that it's made because it's a very positive film to follow because it's extremely subjective it's subjective both in a sense that the guy does anything that at any time with the camera motion fast motion all kinds of sayings and all kinds of scenes which you are never quite sure whether they're exactly they're are not. And also subjective in the fact that that I don't know anything which gets filed underneath the skin of the characters so to speak not at all in the traditional novelistic sense of a train cock as there are many characters in it really.
But in the sense of trying moves that you look at the teachers most of the time from the point of view of the students. While this one sounds a tad original is now an accepted done in of I look for why you will see that these teachers couldn't really have looked like this but this is the ride that they look to the boys that we been in against them. James Agee has written so Rao about this movie that I think I will simply read a couple of paragraphs by him describing it. That is trying to do it myself. He had very bad luck in his life and all kinds of ways one of them was that he he writes for Henry Robinson lives for fourteen years and. But they're going good. And another was that when he was a film critic It was precisely the time when almost nothing was going on in the cinema. In other words he was a film critic from let's say 43 to forty
seven or eight. It was even before the break when you say this is really an for the Louvin day and the only thing that was going on then was the films and that was something of course open city and so on. But that was the only sign of life. Everything else was dead everywhere and except for the Italians two films were running about. Luckily for him and one of them was Chaplin's most of ADO which he wrote endlessly about I personally didn't like them as much as he did but anyway it said his it so was found in the other one was this beagle found so anyway and the nation he wrote about zero for conduct he says on one scene. Anyhow the film is quite bewildering even if you want to stand it's main device. As I was allowed to do. You know often if you find it hard to follow something and don't think this is a sign of you know that you're stupid about the odd of the sentiments on one of the best critics are often those like edgy who. Who do find
it hard to accept novelty because for one thing anything new is very hard to understand anyway. But if you know the device the world image itself becomes essential to the palm and your pleasure in it. As I see it the trick is simply that the god gets deeper inside his characters and most people have tried to one film is not worried about transitions between objective subjective fantastic and subconscious reality and mixes as many styles and camera tricks as abruptly as he sees fit. All was using the rights of the right moment. I assume that he intended as one of his main points to insisted that these several levels of reality are equal in value. It's an interesting point since the ending of the half in which it seems to me that you have the same point made that after the hero fall on the table and shot himself. Then he springs back to life. But on a different plane and on the plane of the fantastic and on Will and of artistic creation. And the implication destiny
is that this is also equal in value to the real world. So anyways as I assume intended to show that these several levels of reality are equal in value and interpenetrate there and I would accept this aesthetically for its enrichment of poetic perception metaphor and device even if I rejected it intellectually. That's another thing too of the ending of eight and a half is always objected to rationally and quite rightly that it doesn't make any sense just lots of stuff in here doesn't it. And yet there is another plane you see and the more important planet. Which is a poetic perception metaphor and device. It seems clear to me that on the wild level of zero the unprejudiced I could learn its way around such intricate treatment as naturally as it learned to link the many disparities which make up the basic vocabulary of conventional movies. Most movies including many of the best have been made chemically and under great handicap.
In an important sense I think I was far from unconventional. He was merely making much of the rest of the alphabet of the movies available. He has gone as far in this I think as Eisenstein adoption in a very different direction of course and a great deal that he has done in this film is that it should be regarded less as inimitable experiment than as the conquest of more of the foreground on which further what can be done. It is as if he had invented the wheel. Many others were finding out at some stage but nobody had anything remotely like his ability is trying to find further uses for it. And one is sure to be branded as a solemn snob incapable of quote enjoying movies. If one so much is there to speak in favor of these elementary devices by which enjoyment could be and launched and the model of that is don't listen to certain aspects of Miss Pauline Kael who does try to make one feel that if you take the movie seriously as odd and the light in new original
experimental techniques and so on that you're being a little bit too much of a cultural snob and so on. The bright thing is I think that the audience is one of them and so forth and so on the beach is a masterpiece of many ferocious one called a compassionate one and the hyperbole the admiration the sympathetic teacher will inspire the undervote of the thought of light shopping. Another one and spied a penny of the snoops against Groucho Marx. The more I kept telling lobster dressed in an undetected suit the headmaster was a pompous murderous shrieking midget. Well you can see a lot for yourself so. Good luck you have been listening to Dwight MacDonald on film but in this programme Mr McDonald has discussed the American and French cinema of the 30s. These programmes were drawn from Mr MacDonald's lecture series during his recent tenure as distinguished visiting professor of
- Dwight MacDonald on film
- 1930s: America and France
- Producing Organization
- University of Texas
- KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
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- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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- The 1930s: America and France; Zero for Conduct
- Series of lectures by Dwight MacDonald on film: its makers, its history, its future.
- Film and Television
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Announcer: Miller, Phil
Producer: Jordan, Bill
Producing Organization: University of Texas
Producing Organization: KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
Speaker: Macdonald, Dwight
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University of Maryland
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- APA: Dwight MacDonald on film; 1930s: America and France. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-sx648w8h