The Woman's Film
Social Problem Films
The following analysis classifies the class-A feature films of the major Hollywood studios into six broad production trends: (1) prestige pictures; (2) musicals; (3) the woman's film; (4) comedy; (5) social problem films; and (6) horror films. The names given to the production trends are those used in the trade; the arrangement of the trends reflects a hierarchical ranking based on relative production costs, duration, and box-office performance. Individual trends are broken down into their component production cycles—comedy, for example, is broken down into sentimental, screwball, comedian-centered, and so on—and each is discussed from the perspective of product differentiation, studio by studio. As pointed out in the Introduction, the discussion is informed by contemporaneous polls and awards, especially Film Daily's Ten Best, and industry discourse in the trade press and in reviews.
The prestige picture was far and away the most popular production trend of the decade. Before defining the trend, some statistics are in order. From 1930 to 1933, the years of the Depression, fourteen of the forty films that made it to Film Daily's Ten Best, were prestige pictures; from 1934 to the end of the decade, about half of the films on the lists fell into this category. Of the sixty-seven pictues on Variety's Top-Grossing Films lists, close to thirty were prestige pictures. Compared to the total output of the majors, prestige pictures accounted for a small percentage, but compared to the total production budgets, they accounted for a lion's share. Moreover, prestige pictures played a crucial role defining the public image of a company.
The prestige picture is not a genre; rather, the term designates production values and promotion treatment. A prestige picture is typically a big-budget special based on a presold property, often as not a "classic," and tailored for top stars. Motion Picture Herald identified four types of properties used for these pictures: (1) nineteenth-century European literature, such as the novels of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Alexandre Dumas père, and Victor Hugo; (2) Shakespearean plays, notably A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet; (3) best-selling novels and hit Broadway plays written by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors "that have been acclaimed by the classes and bought by the masses," such as Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse, and Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures; and (4) biographical and historical subjects taken "from originals or from books and plays produced by authors of known worth," especially biographies of European and American "great men," natural disasters (the San Francisco earthquake, the Great Chicago Fire), folklore (the adventures of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men), and war (Civil War, Crimean, and the Great War).1 Thus, the prestige picture encompassed different genres, several motion-picture styles and other production trends—musicals, biopics, historical dramas, women's films, and even horror films.
Regardless of the genre, prestige pictures were injected with plenty of star power, glamorous and elegant trappings, and elaborate special effects. Irving Thalberg devised the concept of multistar vehicles to make MGM's top prestige pictures. Industry practices dictated that one or two names were necessary to carry a typical class-A picture, but MGM, having the largest roster of stars in Hollywood, infused some of its prestige pictures with a galaxy of stars to generate maximum impact at the box office. Grand Hotel (1932), for example, listed six stars, four of whom were among the biggest draws in Hollywood—Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery. Rasputin and the Empress (1932) was designed as a vehicle for the three Barrymores—John, Ethel, and Lionel—the royal family of the American stage, and was the only picture in which they appeared together. Dinner At Eight (1933) listed eight stars, five of whom lived up to their billing—Wallace Beery, the Barrymore brothers, Marie Dressier, and Jean Harlow.
Because of the technical difficulties and added expense of using Technicolor, prestige pictures were shot almost exclusively in black and white. Nonetheless, all prestige pictures were high-ticket items, ranging in cost from $1 million on the average to $4.1 million for the most expensive picture of the era, Selznick's Gone With the Wind (1939). In addition to having bigger budgets, these pictures were longer than the 70-90-minute running time of the average feature. Hell's Angels (1930), which was released with a 135-minute running time, held the record for sound films until MGM's The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which lasted 4 minutes short of three hours. Selznick's Gone With the Wind lasted 220 minutes and set a new record.
At the exhibition level, prestige pictures were given splashy premieres and the roadshow treatment. Conventional class-A pictures lasted 80-90 minutes and were normally exhibited on a "grind" basis during first run—that is, on a continuous-performance basis. Prestige pictures, with their longer running times, were particularly suited to roadshowing, which entailed twice-a-day performance, intermissions, and reserved seats. Because the practice also meant higher ticket prices, higher film rentals, and extended runs, this pattern of release had the potential of recouping production costs much faster than normal. However, roadshowing had a downside. Because the practice required an expensive exploitation campaign to be effective, it increased a company's exposure when a picture met resistance at the box office. Roadshowing was popular during the 1930 season, dropped out of favor for two years during the Depression, and then resumed its privileged status for the remainder of the decade, when from six to ten prestige pictures were typically accorded this treatment each year.2
The prestige picture, having its roots in the earliest days of the feature film, was an established production trend at the very start of the decade. Nearly all the titles on Film Daily's Ten Best in 1930 were prestige pictures and ranged in style from comedy of manners (Pathe's Holiday), to drama (MGM's Anna Christie), to historical biopic (UA's Abraham Lincoln), to stage-bound melodrama (Warners' Old English), to war pictures (Universal's All Quiet on the Western Front). The war picture, with three examples, was the most popular cycle on the list: Tiffany-Gainsborough's Journey's End (directed by R. C. Sherriff) and United Artists' Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes), in addition to All Quiet. This last film, which ranked number one, made a strong pacifist statement. Based on Erich Maria Remarque's classic antiwar novel, the picture signaled Universal's intent to carve a niche for itself in the first-run market. To help adapt the novel, Universal hired the playwright Maxwell Anderson, the author of the famous antiwar drama What Price Glory? Produced at a cost of $1.45 million by Carl Laemmle, Jr., the picture starred Louis Wolheim and Lew Ayres and was acclaimed for its vivid and graphic portrayal of trench warfare. To make this landmark picture, Universal constructed a small town consisting of thirty-five standing sets and staged the battle scenes over a thousand acres of the studio's Irvine ranch. Lewis Milestone, the director, enhanced the realism of the spectacle by bringing "all the fluidity of silent films to the camera—which freely tracked and panned and soared over the battlefields or the little German town. … At the same time Milestone imaginatively explored the possibilities of sound." Universal's first entry into the prestige market, All Quiet won Oscars for best picture and best director.3
Declining admissions during the Depression put a damper on the production of silent-style epics, musical extravaganzas, prestige costume pictures, and other expensive productions. Going against the grain of the market, RKO risked $1.5 million in 1931 to produce Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles), an epic Western starring Richard Dix that was based on the Edna Ferber best-seller. The picture began with an awe-inspiring re-creation of the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush that used thousands of extras racing pell-mell on horseback, in wagons, and on foot to stake out claims on the millions of acres on the Cherokee Strip. Although the picture received rave reviews, won an Academy Award for best picture, and even made it to the top echelon of box-office winners in 1931, earning $1.38 million, it still lost money.
Paramount's The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille) fared better the following year. This, the first historical costume epic of the sound era, marked DeMille's return to the studio after a hiatus of seven years and revived his flagging reputation. Waldemar Young and Sidney Buchman adapted Wilson Barrett's play, which was first filmed in 1914. Charles Laughton gave an outstanding performance as a petulant Nero; Claudette Colbert, as his lascivious wife, Poppaea; Fredric March, as the prefect of Rome, Marcus Superbus; and Elissa Landi, as the Christian maid Mercia. DeMille spent eight weeks and $650,000 to make what the New York Times called "an opulent and striking pictorial spectacle."4 The spectacle included Christians being fed to the lions, gladiator fights, revealing costumes, erotic dancing, and Poppaea taking a bath in a four-hundred-gallon pool of asses' milk. The Sign of the Cross failed as a road-show attraction, but redeemed itself in general release.
In 1933, Fox released one of the most highly praised and successful prestige pictures of the period, Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933). It was based on Noel Coward's pageant of the twentieth century, the hit of London's 1931-1932 season, and celebrated the experiences of a British upper-class family and their servants from New Year's Eve 1899 to the same evening in 1932. The film remained faithful to its source in most respects. Reginald Berkeley's adaptation repeated the episodic structure of the original and contained vignettes of Jane and Robert Marryot against backdrops of soldiers departing for the Boer War in South Africa, the funeral of Queen Victoria, the voyage of the Titanic, the Great War, the Jazz Age, and the Depression. The picture was produced in Hollywood, but the principals—Clive Brook, Diana Wynyard, and Frank Lawton—and other members of the cast were British. Period music was used to capture the spirit of each age, and William S. Darling's authentic-looking settings of Edwardian England—an upper-class home, a pub, a music hall, and Trafalgar Square, among others—evoked a strong sense of nostalgia. Produced by Winfield Sheehan at a cost of $1.25 million, Cavalcade won Academy Awards for best picture, director, and art direction and grossed close to $4 million during its first release, much of which came from Great Britain and the Empire.
These few pictures were exceptions, for studios mostly had to devise cheaper, alternative ways to sustain prestige production. Warners fed the prestige market by releasing a series of vehicles designed around George Arliss, an aging British character actor. The series began with Disraeli (Alfred E. Green) at the close of 1929. Making his American theatrical debut in 1902, Arliss played the title role of Louis N. Parker's Disraeli several times on stage and once in a silent film. By the time Arliss made the sound version, the role had became his trademark. Disraeli was an enormous hit and enjoyed long runs in New York and other large cities worldwide.
Thereafter, Warners produced motion-picture versions of Arliss's other stage vehicles. Old English (Alfred E. Green), based on John Galsworthy's novel The Stoic, made it to Film Daily's Ten Best in 1930. Arliss's subsequent prestige vehicles for Warners included two biopics, Alexander Hamilton (1931) and Voltaire (1933), both of which were directed by John Adolfi. Arliss's pictures did not earn money: for one thing his acting style was considered old-fashioned; for another, his films were stage-bound. Nonetheless, Arliss was a publicrelations success. As Variety put it, "allowing that none of this English star's films may have been dynamic successes, nevertheless, it may be said that the Arliss releases were an opening wedge and many a film will profit by the pioneering of this British actor and his type of work."5
United Artists released two noteworthy pictures by Samuel Goldwyn, Street Scene (King Vidor, 1931) and Arrowsmith (John Ford, 1932). Prestige for Goldwyn meant Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates. was based on Elmer Rice's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about big-city tenement life. Since the play was regarded as a masterpiece of American naturalism and had been produced in many countries, Goldwyn decided to respect the original and brought Rice to Hollywood to write the screenplay. Goldwyn signed Sylvia Sidney to play the lead and hired nearly a dozen actors from the Broadway cast to reprise their roles in the film. Richard Day designed an authentic-looking single set of a Manhattan West Side street, complete with elevated tracks that preserved the unity of place of the original production. Alfred Newman added an extra dimension to the film by composing a main theme reminiscent of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to conjure up the hustle and cacophony of city life. Arrowsmith was based on the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Sinclair Lewis, who in 1930 became America's first Nobel laureate in literature. Lewis's novel was an exposé of the medical profession. As adapted by playwright Sidney Howard, the film subordinated the exposé elements of the novel as it followed an idealistic young doctor and hopeful scientist, Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman), and his unselfish wife, Leora (Helen Hayes), from a small-town practice in North Dakota, to a research institute in New York, to an isolated island in the West Indies, to a farm in Vermont. Richard Day's sets included an impressive streamlined modern research facility, the McGurk Research Institute, which is used "as a symbol for the sterile, antihumanistic values ascribed to in the 'pure' science idealism of Dr. Arrowsmith." In producing pictures such as these, the New York Times said, Goldwyn was a "pioneer picture producer who has quite often shown a desire to lead the public rather than follow it."6
MGM, the only studio to go through the Depression unscathed, had the most success exploiting the prestige picture. Describing the company's position in the industry, Fortune said in 1932 that "for the past five years, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has made the best and most successful moving pictures in the United States. No one in Hollywood would dream of contradicting this flat statement." To produce the yearly roster of pictures, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg operated without fiscal constraints. As Ronald Haver put it, they felt free "to spend as much as necessary to do it right. This lordly disregard for money was one of the things that made picturemaking at MGM such an obsession with the people who worked there during its years of greatness."7
Twelve MGM pictures made it to Film Daily's Ten Best in the years 1930-1933, four of which were prestige pictures—Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930), Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), The Guardsman (Sidney Franklin, 1931), and Rasputin And The Empress (Richard Boleslawski, 1932). Practically all of the studio's twenty-two films on the list in the rest of the 1930s fell into this category. Going into the thirties, Irving Thalberg looked to the theater for story ideas and talent to make his prestige pictures. MGM had held back Greta Garbo's talking debut as long as possible, worried that her Swedish accent would be unacceptable for the new medium. Thalberg found the perfect vehicle in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, a naturalistic drama about a waterfront prostitute that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921. In one sense, Anna Christie departed from the typical Garbo vehicle in that "Garbo wore only the drabbest of clothes amid the most sordid surroundings"; in another sense, it continued her established pattern. Garbo played a poor farm girl who runs away from drudgery, becomes a prostitute, falls for a seaman, loses him when she tells him of her past, but wins him back in the end. Garbo's accent sounded natural in the role because the heroine was also Swedish. Moreover, the adaptation built up suspense by delaying her entrance until well over thirty minutes into the film. And when she said her first lines, "Gimme a viskey. Chinger ale on the side. An' don't be stingy, babee," audiences applauded. Variety said, '"Garbo talks' is, beyond quarrel, an event of major box office significance."8
Thalberg next signed the most glamorous and sophisticated couple of the American stage, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, to make The Guardsman. Produced at a cost of $374,000, the picture was a faithful adaptation of Ferenc Molnár's comedy of manners, which the Lunts originally performed for the Theatre Guild in 1924. Variety said of the picture, "To the sophisticated it is all sublimated high comedy; to the commonality of gum chewers, it will be either a dark mystery or a sacrilege."9 The failure of the picture convinced the Lunts to confine their considerable talents to Broadway.
Failing to develop the Lunts into motion-picture stars, Thalberg tried to transform his wife, Norma Shearer, into "the screen equivalent of a great lady of the theater." To begin, Thalberg teamed Shearer with Robert Montgomery in Private Lives (Sidney Franklin, 1931), an adaptation of Noel Coward's sophisticated comedy, which he designed as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence and which had enjoyed long runs the year before in London and New York. Thalberg then teamed Shearer with Clark Gable in Strange Interlude (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932), MGM's second adaptation of a Pulitzer Prizewinning drama by Eugene O'Neill. This controversial play had been a hit starring Lynn Fontanne during its original 1928 Broadway run, but Thalberg's production was only politely received, mostly because of its unconventional use of voiceover to replicate the play's asides that were spoken directly to the audience to reveal a character's thoughts.
Thalberg's sorcery worked better for Grand Hotel, a multicharacter picture based on Vicki Baum's best-seller Menschen im Hotel. MGM acquired the motion-picture rights to the book for $6,000, but with the proviso that the studio would finance a dramatization of the novel on Broadway. William A. Drake did the adaptation, which was produced by Herman Shumlin for $55,000. The play was a big hit and earned MGM a handsome profit as well as the property. Drake wrote the screenplay with Frances Marion (uncredited). The all-star cast contained Greta Garbo as the world-weary ballerina Grusinskaya, John Barry-more as the luckless Baron von Geigern, Joan Crawford as the hotel stenographer Flaemmchen, Wallace Beery as the ruthless industrialist Preysing, and Lionel Barrymore as the downtrodden clerk Kringelein. In addition to the illustrious cast, the appeal of the picture resided in the art deco sets designed by Cedric Gibbons, in the gowns by Adrian, and the influential Grand Hotel narrative formula, which interwove the stories of a cross section of humanity within a single setting. Produced at a cost of $700,000, the picture was given road-show treatment and grossed nearly $2.6 million the first year of its release. It won the Academy Award for best picture and ranked number one on Film Daily's Ten Best.
Producing Rasputin And The Empress, Thalberg united the royal family of the American stage for the first and only time the Barrymores would appear together on the screen. Lionel had joined MGM in 1926; John had signed a non-exclusive contract with the studio in 1931; but Ethel had remained content with the theater. In getting her to do Rasputin, Thalberg hoped to entice her to sign a long-term contract. John, who was billed first, played Prince Chegodieff, Rasputin's assassin; Ethel played the czarina; and Lionel played the mad monk Rasputin. Written by Charles MacArthur and directed by Richard Boleslawski, a Russian-trained Polish expatriate, this historical epic of the tragic Romanovs cost $1 million. Although the Barrymores received good notices, the picture could not recover the huge outlay and became one of the studio's costlier failures.
Thalberg's heart attack in 1932 convinced Louis B. Mayer to reorganize the studio by creating autonomous production units to replace the central-producer system. To share responsibility for MGM's prestige pictures, Mayer hired his son-in-law, David O. Selznick, another "boy genius," who had just finished a successful production stint at RKO. For his MGM debut, Selznick followed in Thalberg's footsteps by producing Dinner At Eight (1933), based on the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber 1932 comedy hit containing interlocking stories about the behind-the-scenes events leading up to a posh Manhattan dinner party. Envisioning a multi-star vehicle along the lines of Grand Hotel, Selznick chose Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz to write the screenplay. George Cukor, who had just finished Little Women for RKO, was brought in to direct. The picture cost only $387,000 to make, received excellent reviews, and returned more than $3 million in rentals to MGM.
Two prestige pictures released in 1933 forecast the future course of the trend. The first, UA's The Private Life Of Henry VIII, was a historical biopic produced and directed in Great Britain by Alexander Korda. Starring Charles Laughton in the title role, the picture premiered at the Radio City Music Hall on 12 October 1933. Produced at the modest cost of £60,000, the picture grossed about $500,000 in the United States, an enormous amount for a British picture, and much more abroad. Laughton's virtuoso performance won him an Academy Award, the first Oscar ever awarded to a British-made film. Korda also proved to the world that a British film could match the spectacle and lavishness of anything produced in Hollywood, which sparked a brief interest in the United States in British costume pictures and historical biopics in general.
The second 1933 prestige film, RKO's Little Women (George Cukor), was considered the first picture of the decade based on a literary classic to be turned into an artistic and commercial success. Initiated by David O. Selznick before he joined MGM, the project was revived by his successor, Merian C. Cooper, as a vehicle for RKO's newest star, Katharine Hepburn. Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman adapted Louisa May Alcott's novel, winning an Oscar for their efforts. Variety described the picture as a superb "human document, sombre in tone, stately and slow in movement, but always eloquent in its interpretations. … There doesn't occur a picture in recent film history pro duced with so uncompromising a degree of sincerity, or one that so wholeheartedly aims at an honest realization of a significant novel of another era." Earning $800,000 in profits, Little Women became one of RKO's biggest hits of the decade.10 It was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture and ranked number five on Film Daily' Top Ten list of 1934.
A second wave of prestige pictures hit the market early in 1934 "in numbers so thick as to constitute the champion of cycles since sound came in," said Variety.11 They consisted mostly of historical biopics, among them MGM's Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian), Viva Villa! (Jack Conway), and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin); Paramount's The Scarlett Empress (Josef von Sternberg) and Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille); UA's House of Rothschild (Alfred L. Werker).
MGM's The Barretts of Wimpole Street ranked number one on Film Daily's Ten Best. Based on Rudolf Besier's genteel dramatic biography of Elizabeth Barrett, which had enjoyed a long Broadway run with Katharine Cornell in the starring role, The Barretts of Wimpole Street united three Oscar winners—Norma Shearer, who played "the captive maiden" Elizabeth Barrett; Fredric March, "the dashing young knight" Robert Browning; and Charles Laughton, Elizabeth's "cruel ogre father." The New York Times said, "For the high-minded aspiration which went into the production, there can be nothing less than a shout of benediction. Hollywood could make no more fitting answer to her critics than this." The picture not only gave Shearer her most widely acclaimed great-lady-of-the-theater role but also earned a substantial profit.12
The number of prestige pictures rose dramatically thereafter, and for the remainder of the decade they constituted 50 percent of the pictures on Film Daily's Ten Best. The traditional explanation for the revival of the prestige picture was that pressure from the Legion of Decency forced the industry to launch its Better Pictures Campaign of 1934. For example, during the height of the Legion of Decency campaign, Variety reported,
Buffeted by church and reformer into the greatest amount of space ever concentrated in the country's newspapers over any other two months in its history, and faced with another accounting of its stewardship to the public in the fall, filmdom is taking advantage of the national recess on a clean screen to do some things it has never done before. It is delving furiously into major company archives for facts [to produce period pictures]. ("What the Public Wants," 7 August 1934, p. 1)
Looking back to the causes of the revival, the Motion Picture Herald observed two years later,
An increasing demand for better pictures, crystalized in the Legion of Decency movement in 1934, led to the voluntary adoption by the industry of higher standards of production and the resultant success of a group of literary masterpieces, so-called, made into pictures has been so great that today a larger number of the "million dollar" productions than ever before are built around notable literary successes, either old or new. ("Producers Aim Classics," 15 August 1936, p. 13)
But these explanations ignore the economics of producing prestige pictures. The ability of prestige pictures to attract audiences was well understood by Hollywood. However, the heavy investments required to make these pictures placed them out of reach of most companies until general economic conditions improved and operations stabilized. Stated another way, the majors waited out the worst of the Depression and revived the trend when people had more disposable income to spend on entertainment.
Improved conditions at the box office meant that prestige pictures could resume their privileged places on production rosters. By 1936, the so-called million-dollar grosser was "no longer the rarity it [had] been during the long, lean years following the 1929 attack of indigestion in [the] industry," said Variety. Typically only a dozen or so pictures grossed $1 million in any given year. But in 1936 forty surpassed that mark. Concurrently, the million-dollar production became commonplace. Variety reported that at least thirty-five titles on the 1937-1938 release schedules cost more than $1 million, and of these, two or three had budgets of more than $2 million.13
To broaden the potential market for prestige pictures, Hollywood even flirted with producing Shakespeare. Educated middle-class Americans were not habitual moviegoers. In 1936 the Hays Office estimated that 36 million such people attended the movies infrequently, as little as once a year or only for special pictures. Warners spearheaded the crusade to capture this market by producing A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), a decision that Variety described as "probably the biggest gamble ever taken by any picture company or producer." The decision to produce the first Shakespearean talkie also marked a switch in policy at Warners away from "its exclusive image as producer of popular realist films" to big-budget prestige pictures.14
Warners planned to re-create for the screen Max Reinhardt's outdoor production of the play presented at the eighteen-thousand-seat Hollywood Bowl during the summer of 1934. Germany's most important stage producer and director, Reinhardt had immigrated to Hollywood to escape Nazi persecution. Reinhardt's innovative staging of Shakespeare's play, which included "a lovely ballet of the fairies and a startling performance by a boy actor named Mickey Rooney in the role of Puck," attracted capacity crowds and prompted Variety to announce, "Shakespeare had made good in Hollywood!"15
Pulling out all the stops, Warners budgeted $1.3 million for the picture, an extremely large amount by the studio's standards, and scheduled a seventy-day shoot. Warners hired Reinhardt to direct the picture, but since Reinhardt had little experience with the ways of Hollywood, the studio assigned contract director William Dieterle, a former pupil of the impresario, to co-direct. Screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Mary McCall, Jr., preserved the play almost word for word. Anton Grot designed a fantastic fairy-tale forest on two large soundstages and magnificent interior sets and props. Because Grot's immense forest overpowered the actors, cinematographer Hal Mohr was brought in to redesign it and to devise a new lighting system. He won an Academy Award for his efforts. Erich Wolfgang Korngold arranged and elaborately executed the score, using Mendelssohn's incidental music for the play. The two ballet sequences were directed by Nijinska. The cast was drawn mainly from Warners' contract-player roster. Dick Powell played Lysander; James Cagney, Bottom; Victor Jory, Oberon; Joe E. Brown, Flute; Olivia de Havilland, Hermia; and Anita Louise, Titania. To play Puck, Mickey Rooney was borrowed from MGM.
Warners launched the picture simultaneously in New York and London on 9 October 1935 and then in other capitals around the world the next day. A gala opening at the Warners Theatre in Beverly Hills was set for the following week. To prepare audiences for the roadshow release in the United States, Warners distributed low-priced editions of the play to schools, literary societies, and cultural groups; planted stories and photographs of the principal cast at work in hundreds of magazines and newspapers; and gave away recordings of Mendelssohn's incidental music to radio stations. "Not a schoolchild lives in America today who hasn't heard about the picture, written essays about it, and then ducked seeing it, if possible," said Variety.16
The picture was a succès d'estime. For example, the New York Times said, "If this is no masterpiece, it is a brave, beautiful and interesting effort to subdue the most difficult of Shakespeare's works …. It is a credit to Warner Brothers and to the motion picture industry." Variety also praised the picture for its publicrelations value and added that Warners would not be perturbed if it lost $500,000 on the project.17
Hollywood's next venture into Shakespeare, MGM's Romeo and Juliet (1936), surpassed Warners' A Midsummer Night's Dream in lavishness and scope. Starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, the picture was produced by Irving Thalberg at a cost of $2 million. To assist Cedric Gibbons and Adrian in the design of the sets and costumes, the studio dispatched Oliver Messel, a British art expert, to Verona, Italy, where his staff took thousands of pictures so that the Renaissance could be captured on the screen as never before. Talbot Jennings created a cinematic adaptation of the play by trimming about a fourth of the verse and by opening up the action beyond the confines of the stage. George Cukor, who brought Little Women and David Copperfield to life, was entrusted with the direction. Choreographer Agnes de Mille staged the period dances at the Capulet ball.18
An ecstatic Frank Nugent of the New York Times said, "Never before, in all its centuries, has the play received so handsome a production … the picture reflects great credit upon its producers and upon the screen as a whole. It's a dignified, sensitive and entirely admirable Shakespearean—not Hollywoodean—production." MGM's exploitation campaign was even more extensive than Warners' and reached millions of people. However, when the picture posted a $900,000 loss, Variety concluded that the Shakespeare cycle was a "B.O. Washout … over almost before it got around the first curve. What started out to be the beginning of a new era of enlightenment at the studios and the propulsion that was to fill the theatres with new audiences has ended on a note of disappointment."19
Thereafter, biopics, costume-adventure pictures, adaptations of literary masterpieces, and even the class-Á Western became the staples of prestige production. Of the group, the biopic was most esteemed. The motion picture most responsible for building this reputation was Warners' The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, 1937), starring Paul Muni. One of the most honored motion pictures of the era, The Life of Emile Zola won an Academy Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best picture and made it to the number-one spots on the Film Daily and New York Times Ten Best lists. Muni had won an Oscar the year before for his performance in the title role of The story of Louis Pasteur (William Dieterle, 1936), which launched a series of biopics that made him, in Nick Roddick's words, "a kind of thinking man's Lon Chaney, impersonating the great men of history … aided by extensive make-up jobs." Muni and the Warners biopic set a high standard, and the appearance of a star in a biopic was taken as an index of his or her seriousness as an artist.20
Biopics depicted European personages at first, but by the end of the decade the focus shifted more to American heroes such as Alexander Graham Bell, Knute Rockne, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Abraham Lincoln. Hollywood preferred foreign biographies because they "carried with them virtually no audience preconceptions, and were thus more easily adjusted to contemporary values." For example, the New York Herald Tribune said that Twentieth Century's The House of Rothschild (1934) "belongs very definitely to the type of historical narrative that is concerned, not with escape, but with a parallel to present-day conditions. With a shrewd eye on the current plight of the Jews in Hitler's Germany, the picture shows its Semitic family as the victims of race hatred and Nordic oppression." In an attempt to explain the shift to Americana in biopics, Paul Vanderwood noted that Hollywood was following the lead of historians, biographers, and writers who reacted to deteriorating world conditions by burrowing "backward into the national consciousness to discover how their predecessors had survived the pressures of their most difficult times."21
The costume-adventure film was revived by two 1934 hits—MGM's Treasure Island (Victor Fleming) and Reliance-United Artists' The Count of Monte Cristo (Rowland V. Lee). A spirited adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic, Treasure Island starred Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins. Containing "as fine a lot of cutthroats as ever have infested a film," Treasure Island was one of the year's biggest box-office attractions. The Count of Monte Cristo, based on Alexandre Dumas's historical novel, had been made several times as a silent. Reliance's version, which was named to Film Daily's Ten Best, starred Robert Donat as Edmond Dantès in his American film debut. "A walloping melodrama of revenge, conceived on the grand scale," Monte Cristo "is made in heaven for the manufacturers of the costume film drama," said the New York Times.22
Adventure films dealt "with make-believe, with soldiers-of-fortune, explorers, pirates, avengers, rescuers and trouble-shooters" drawn from Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, and other masters of historical fiction.23 The perfect escapist fare for an audience coming out of the Depression, the swashbuckler
University of Wisconsin Press, 1982], pp. 13-14">
dealt with the heroic virtues. Usually there was an idealized hero defending the honor of a lady in a chivalrous and charming manner. Evil-incarnate villains were to be dispatched, but in a "romantically violent," stylized series of action set-pieces that were usually rendered with less than graphic reality. Color, dash, romantic order, and excitement prevailed, and in the end, of course, there was the triumph of good over evil. Here was audience wish fulfillment on a grand scale.(Rudy Behlmer, ed., The Sea Hawk [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982], pp. 13-14)
Warners became the leading purveyor of costume-adventure pictures by producing a series of Errol Flynn swashbucklers; however, just about every company tried its hand at the cycle.
The popularity of the costume-adventure picture also helped revive the prestige Western. Consigned mostly to the Â ranks since Cimarron went down to defeat in 1931, the class-Á Western had been kept alive almost single-handedly by Paramount, which produced Texas Rangers (King Vidor, 1936), The Plains-man (Cecil B. DeMille, 1936), Wells Fargo (Frank Lloyd, 1937), and The Texans (James Hogan, 1938). Beginning in 1939, as reported by Variety, there flowed from Hollywood "the rootin', tootin', shootin'est, bowie-knife-wielding bunch of ride-'em'-cowboy, major budget westerns the picture biz has witnessed in a decade."24 According to the trade paper, it was a "tossup" whether Paramount's Union Pacific (Cecil B. DeMille) or Fox's Jesse James (Henry King) revived the cycle, but that season also saw the release of UA's Stagecoach (John Ford), Warners' Dodge City (Michael Curtiz), Fox's Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford), and Universal's Destry Rides Again (George Marshall), among others.
The comeback of the class-Á Western can be attributed to fact that "oaters," as they were known in the trade, had never really lost their appeal. As Variety observed, "a good western picture never misses at the box offce. From the earliest film days … the western has held its place against all other types of popular stories. There have been times when the majors have left the field to the independent producers. But they return. Then the western, produced on a grand scale, is revived and invariably, when well done, is handsomely rewarded." Another cause was the "surge of Americanism sweeping the country" as tensions in Europe increased. Hollywood no doubt wanted to boost national morale by producing these pictures; but it might also have anticipated the closing of foreign markets by tailor-making a cycle mainly for domestic consumption.25
Of note here is that two Westerns released in 1939 were accorded prestige treatment. Testifying to the potential drawing power of the cycle, Warners and Paramount launched Dodge City and Union Pacific, respectively, with special premieres in locales, as Variety put it, "indigenous to the subject matter" of the pictures. Premiering its picture, Warners dispatched trains carrying 350 stars and studio executives from Hollywood and New York to Dodge City, Kansas. The trains stopped at cities along the way to promote the picture, making the "hinterland feel … as important and big with its $3 premiere as Hollywood in the past with its five- and ten-dollar openings." The festivities at Dodge City, which had a population of 10,000, attracted a crowd of 75,000. In total, Warners spent $75,000 on the premiere and considered the money well spent.
Paramount's premiere of Union Pacific was even grander. President Roosevelt was enlisted to strike a telegraph key from his desk to start the celebration in Omaha, Nebraska, which included a banquet and parade that attracted over 250,000. Afterward, Paramount planned a ten-thousand-mile train tour carrying the film's stars and studio publicity men to coincide with the opening of the picture in first-run cities.26 As will be discussed later, Selznick took this publicity practice to its apogee when he launched Gone With the Wind.
The principal producers of prestige pictures after 1934 consisted of MGM, Warners, and United Artists in that order. 20th Century-Fox was a close runner-up and produced a series of biopics that included Lloyd's of london (Henry King, 1936), The Prisoner of Shark Island (John Ford, 1936), Suez (Allan Dwan, 1938), Jesse James (Henry King, 1939), Stanley and Livingstone (Henry King, 1939), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (Irving Cummings, 1939), Swanee River (Sidney Lanfield, 1939), and Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939). All were "romances of personal success and triumph over adversity."
Three Fox pictures made it to Film Daily's Ten Best—In Old Chicago (1938), Alexander's Ragtime band (1938), and Stanley and Livingstone (1939), all of which were directed by Henry King. The first two pictures are prestige musicals and are discussed in the following section. Stanley and Livingstone, an example of "Hollywood's fervent Anglophilia," owed much of its structure to Warners' Life of Emile Zola. Spencer Tracy played Henry Stanley, the American newspaperman, and Cedric Hardwicke, Dr. David Livingstone, the British explorer and missionary.
RKO and Paramount lagged far behind other members of the Big Five. RKO followed up Little Women (1933) with John Ford's The Informer (1935), a "sleeper" starring Victor McLaglen that found its own way to the public. Dudley Nichols adapted Liam O'Flaherty's novel set in Dublin about a despicable drunk who would lie and betray anyone to save his own skin. Shot in seventeen days at a cost of around $260,000, the picture opened to adulatory reviews, but it withered at the box office. However, after being named best picture by the New York Film Critics and after winning Oscars for best director, best actor, and best adaptation, word-of-mouth advertising revived the picture.
Afterward, RKO had little commercial success with its prestige pictures until 1939. Among the many fine pictures released by the studio that year were two outstanding prestige pictures produced by Pandro S. Berman, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle, 1939), a horror picture based on the Victor Hugo classic, starring Charles Laughton, and Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939), a costume adventure picture based vaguely on a Rudyard Kipling poem, starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Paramount produced only one prestige film that made it to the Film Daily list after 1934, Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Henry Hathaway, 1935), a Kiplingesque adventure film produced by Louis D. Lighton about a gallant band of British fighting men who guard the northern frontier of Britain's empire in India. Cecil B. DeMille, Paramount's main purveyor of prestige films, faltered throughout much of the decade. After the conversion to sound, DeMille switched from depicting "the marital misadventures of the leisured class" to historical and frontier epics, such as Cleopatra, The Plainsman, and Union Pacific.27 Although Cleopatra is best remembered today for its immense stylized sets, writhing and gyrating dancers, gaudy showmanship, and Claudette Colbert's provocative costumes, Union Pacific, a saga of the first transcontinental railroad, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck and complete with spectacular train wrecks, Indian sieges, and colorful characters, was his most successful picture at the box office.
Among the Little Three, Columbia was the only other studio besides UA to produce a prestige picture. Columbia's only entry, Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), was based on James Hilton's novel about a Utopian civilization hidden in Tibet called Shangri-La and was produced at a cost of over $2.5 million, an incredible sum for the studio. Coming nowhere close to recouping its production costs, Lost Horizon was responsible for the drop in Columbia's profits from a high of $1.8 million in 1935, the year following the release of It Happened One Night, to a mere $180,000 in 1938.
Analyzing MGM a second time, Fortune reported in 1939 that the studio "has for at least eight years made far and away the best pictures of any studio in Hollywood. Metro's gross revenue from film rentals has been consistently higher than that of other studios, and as a result Loews', Inc., has been and still is the most profitable movie company in the world."28
Irving Thalberg, in his capacity as a special-projects producer, delivered three prestige pictures before his untimely death in 1936—Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd, 1935), Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor, 1936), and The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937). Mutiny on the Bounty was the most successful. Based on novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, this adventure classic starred Charles Laughton as the sadistic Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty and Clark Gable and Franchot Tone as his antagonists, Fletcher Christian and Roger Byam. Produced at the then-astronomical cost of $2 million and shot largely on location using life-size reproductions of the ships Bounty and Pandora, the picture grossed $4.3 million, making it one of the biggest moneymakers of the decade. The New York Times called it "just about the perfect adventure picture."29Film Daily's poll ranked it number one. In the Academy Award sweepstakes, all three leads—Laughton, Gable, and Tone—were nominated as best actor, a first in the history of the awards. They lost to Victor McLaglen in The Informer, but Mutiny on the Bounty captured the Oscar for best picture.
Thalberg got the idea of doing The Good Earth after attending a Theatre Guild dramatization of Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1932 that starred Claude Rains and Alla Nazimova. Thalberg spent three years and $2.8 million on the picture, the most MGM had spent on a film since Ben-Hur (1925). To make this epic about Chinese life as authentic as possible, Thalberg dispatched a second unit to China, where it shot 2 million feet of footage to be used for process shots to create the proper atmosphere. Cedric Gibbons and unit art director Harry Oliver worked two years designing and constructing a replica of a Chinese province, complete with peasant huts, palace, and rice paddies on five hundred acres in the San Fernando Valley. Meanwhile, the script by Talbot Jennings, Tess Schlesinger, and Claudine West underwent constant revision. Paul Muni was borrowed from Warners to play the farmer Wang, and Luise Rainer was chosen to play his wife O-lan.
Thalberg died early into the shoot, and Albert Lewin, his associate, took over. MGM released the picture with the dedication "To the memory of Irving Grant Thalberg," which marked the first time a Thalberg project at MGM carried his name. A. Arnold Gillespie's special effects depicting a plague of locusts attacking the crops and Karl Freund's camerawork created a picture of immense visual appeal. Frank Nugent of the New York Times called The Good Earth "one of the finest things Hollywood has done this season or any other."30 A month after the picture's release, MGM scored a great publicity coup when Rainer and Muni were voted Academy Awards for their previous year's performances in The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Great Ziegfeld, respectively. At Academy Award time the following year, Luise Rainer won the best-actress Oscar for her performance as O-lan, which accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of winning back-to-back Oscars.
David O. Selznick, who had rapidly become Thalberg's equal as a producer of prestige pictures, specialized in translating literary masterpieces to the screen. Little Women had vindicated his "long-held belief that, contrary to industry tradition, classics were not taboo screen material, but could, with proper care and intelligent handling, be turned into artistic and commercial smashes."31 Selznick put his ideas into practice in 1935, his last year at MGM, by turning out three such pictures, all of which made it to Film Daily's Ten Best and were enthusiastically received.
David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935), adapted from the Dickens classic by Howard Estabrook and Hugh Walpole, starred Freddie Bartholomew, Selznick's newest discovery, in the title role. In a bit of offbeat casting, W. C. Fields played Micawber, and Roland Young, Uriah Heep. Although Selznick and Cukor had scouted England for suitable locations, the film was ultimately shot on the MGM lot at a cost of little over $1 million. The New York Times hailed it as "gorgeous photoplay which encompasses the rich and kindly humanity of the original so brilliantly that it becomes a screen masterpiece in its own right. The immortal people of David Copperfield … troop across the … screen like animated duplicates of the famous Phiz drawings, an irresistible and enormously heartwarming procession."32 A great hit with the public, the picture ranked number one on Film Daily's Ten Best.
Selznick next produced Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935), a vehicle designed for Greta Garbo. Playing opposite John Gilbert in 1927, Garbo had made a silent version of the Tolstoy novel for MGM entitled Love. In Selznick's remake, which was written by Clemence Dane, Salka Viertel, and S. N. Behrman, Fredric March played her lover, Vronsky; Basil Rathbone, her husband, Karenin; and Freddie Bartholomew, her son, Sergei. Mounted with a scrupulous regard for period authenticity, Selznick's picture emphasized the implicit social criticism in Tolstoy's novel by depicting Muscovite society of the 1870s as decadent and frivolous. Although Anna Karenina cost well over a $1 million, Brown's direction of this poignant, tragic story, which brought the best out of Garbo, made the picture a critical and commercial success.
For his final MGM entry, Selznick turned to another Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities (Jack Conway, 1935), which "outdid even David Copperfield in spectacular scope and dramatic force."33 Adapted by W. P. Lipscomb and S. N. Behrman, the picture had an impressive cast headed by Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton and dramatized memorable scenes of the French Revolution such as the storming of the Bastille, mass rioting for meat, and the kangaroo-court trials leading to the guillotine.
After Selznick left MGM to become an independent producer, the studio promoted Hunt Stromberg, one of Thalberg's associate producers, to the prestige ranks. Stromberg came through for the company by producing a string of commercial and critical successes that included the Thin Man series, the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy operettas, and two big-budget prestige extravaganzas, The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard, 1936) and Marie Antionette (W. S. Van Dyke, 1938). (The Great Ziegfeld is discussed in the following section.)
Marie Antoinette, which marked Norma Shearer's triumphant return to the screen after a two-year hiatus, was based on Stefan Zweig's biography. Produced with a running time of 160 minutes (trimmed to 149 minutes after the first runs) and at a cost of $2.3 million, Marie Antoinette was MGM's most lavish extravaganza of the decade. Bosley Crowther described why:
Mayer and Stromberg instructed Cedric Gibbons, the studio's head designer, to prepare the most exquisite and impressive settings that could be conceived. Versailles itself was slightly tarnished alongside the palace Gibbons whipped up. He did some exquisite reproductions of the buildings of eighteenth-century France. Ed Willis, the head of the prop department, was sent to Europe to buy furniture and rugs. He stocked his department for all time with the antiques he bought for Marie Antoinette. The costumes were nigh museum items. There were 152 roles to be garbed. The studio's great technical departments were triumphantly tested on this film. (The Lion's Share, p. 244)
As the queen of France who died on the guillotine during the revolution, Shearer gave the performance of her career. Fine support was given by Robert Morley, John Barrymore, Joseph Schildkraut, and Gladys George, among others. Tyrone Power, on loan from 20th Century-Fox, was the nominal leading man, but his presence was lost in the spectacle. Although the picture grossed a handsome $3 million, it was not enough to recoup the negative cost.34
Of the remaining MGM prestige pictures, several deserve mention. The first, San Francisco (W. S. Van Dyke, 1936), was a disaster film with songs. Anita Loos wrote the screenplay from a story by Robert Hopkins, and John Emerson, Loos's husband, co-produced the picture with Bernard Hyman. Set on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco in 1906, the picture teamed Clark Gable, as Blackie Norton, the owner of a music-hall saloon, and Jeanette MacDonald, as Mary Blake, an aspiring prima donna torn between the cabaret and the opera house. MacDonald's numbers alternated between rousing popular songs ("Would You?" and "San Francisco"), religious numbers ("Hosannah" and "Nearer My God to Thee"), and operatic arias. A ten-minute earthquake sequence, the creation of special-effects artist A. Arnold Gillespie and editor John Hoffman, marked the climax, which the New York Times described as "a shattering spectacle, one of the truly great cinematic illusions; a monstrous, hideous, thrilling debacle with great fissures opening in the earth, buildings crumbling, men and women apparently being buried beneath showers of stone and plaster, gargoyles lurching from rooftops, watermains bursting, live wires flaring, flame, panic and terror."35 Produced at a cost of $1.3 million, the picture was a huge hit, making it to Variety's and Film Daily's honor rolls, and inspiring a cycle of big-budget disaster pictures.
Louis D. Lighten, a new producer to MGM's ranks, produced the greatly admired Captains Courageous (Victor Fleming, 1937), an adventure picture featuring Freddie Bartholomew and Spencer Tracy that was based on Rudyard Kipling's tale about "an imperious and detestable young scamp who toppled from a liner's rail off the Grand Banks, was picked up by a Portuguese doryman … and became a regular fellow during an enforced three-months' fishing cruise."36 Tracy, who won his first Oscar for best actor, became a star with this picture.
MGM's prestige lineup also includes two noteworthy British pictures, The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Both were produced by Victor Saville at MGM's Denham Studios outside London to meet Great Britain's quota requirements for foreign film companies. The quota requirements specified that foreign film companies had to distribute a certain number of pictures each year produced in Great Britain by an all-British cast and crew, with the exception of the director and one star. The law assumed that the presence of these talents in a picture would be enough to make the it palatable for an American audience.
The Citadel (King Vidor) was based on A. J. Cronin's novel "about a young Scots doctor who changes objectives in mid-career and has to be jolted back into the line of humble medical service again." Ian Dalrymple, Frank Wead, Elizabeth Hill, and Emlyn Williams wrote the screenplay. Robert Donat headed the British cast, playing Andrew Manson, M.D., a character whom Cronin patterned after himself. The American contingent consisted of King Vidor and Rosalind Russell, who played Donat's wife. According to the New York Times, Vidor succeeded in making a film having "the pace of a Hollywood production, the honest characterization typical of England's best films, and the sincerity and depth which are proper to no country but are in the public domain of drama."37
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sam Wood), another vehicle for Robert Donat, was based on James Hilton's sentimental novella about a gentle teacher at an English public school. The New York Times described the story as follows: "The Mr. Chips of the Hilton [fictional] biography was the somewhat dull young pedant who came to Brookfield's ivy-grown walls in his twenties, took quiet root there, languished miserably for a decade or two and then, under the tender cultivation of a woman's hand became such a human, quizzical and understanding person that all Brookfield eventually began to regard him as an institution."38 R. C. Sherriff, Claudine West, and Eric Maschwitz wrote the screenplay. Greer Garson, making her screen debut, played Chips's wife. Donat's tour de force performance, in which he aged from twenty-four to eighty-three, was so moving that he beat out Clark Gable in the Academy Award balloting for best actor. A smash hit everywhere, the picture topped the Film Daily poll.
Warners ranked second in the number of prestige pictures that made it to Film Daily's Ten Best. After the failure of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the studio turned to the American theater and produced a classic of quite another sort. The Green Pastures (1936) was based on Marc Connelly's Pulitzer Prize-winning folk drama, which told the creation myth in "terms that a southern black preacher might have used to explain Genesis to his Sunday school pupils." Opening in 1930, the play enjoyed a five-year run on Broadway and on the road with an all-black cast. Warners spent $800,000 to replicate the play. Connelly did the adaptation and shared the directing with William Keighley. And like its Broadway counterpart, the film had an all-black cast featuring Rex Ingram as De Lawd, Oscar Polk as Gabriel, Eddie Anderson as Noah, and Frank Wilson as Moses. Although the nation's press lavished praise on the picture, it did only moderate business. "American racial sensibilities had begun to change [by 1935]," explained Thomas Cripps, and "the movie could make only a fraction of the monumental impact of the Broadway production; it neither celebrated nor memorialized racial history; it merely repeated itself."39
Warners got the prestige formula right in 1936 when it produced The Story of Louis Pasteur, Anthony Adverse, and The Charge of the Light Brigade. "Thereafter the pattern was set for the rest of the decade," said Nick Roddick. "Energies were concentrated on one major prestige production per year, which almost invariably turned out to be Warners' most successful movie." The key production personnel who shaped the Paul Muni biopics consisted of associate producer Henry Blanke, director William Dieterle, cinematographer Tony Gaudio, and editor Warren Low. Pasteur established the narrative formula for the pictures, which Variety described as follows: "As is usual with films using historical figures as protagonist the menace is the impersonalized symbolism of ignorance and redtape.… In each instance the farsighted and heroic central figure fought with narrow-minded and unimaginative defenders of things as they are and won a victory over the obstructive elements."40
The conflict in Pasteur is between "crusading science, on the one hand, and entrenched medical stupidity, on the other," as personified by the French Academy of Sciences and its president. Pasteur, like most biopics, played fast and loose with the facts. The New York Times noted that the picture ignored the work of such scientists as Lister and Koch, and made Pasteur "the only voice crying out in a wilderness of medical ignorance for physicians to wash their hands, boil their instruments and so avoid infecting their patients with puerperal fever." But in defense of the picture, Roddick said, "The screenplay's aim is to make the impact of the hero's discoveries accessible to audiences who know little and care less about preventive medicine in particular and scientific discoveries in general."41 The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemingly made a similar assessment by awarding Sheridan Gibney and Pierre Collings an Oscar for their screenplay. Muni won the Oscar for best actor.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937) was clearly designed as a sequel. "Pasteur fought bacteria, while Zola opposed lies.… Like Pasteur, who had to face obstacles, Zola had to suffer from defamation, prison, flight, and deportation." However, Zola was designed to make more of a political statement than Pasteur. From the very inception of the project, "the Dreyfus affair" was to be the central focus of the story and Zola's literary career the "backstory." By highlighting Zola's fight to free Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who "was in 1894 accused on the flimsiest evidence (presumably because he was Jewish) of selling military secrets to the Germans and condemned to Devil's Island for life," Warners alluded to anti-Semitism and placed the picture squarely in its tradition of social consciousness. The New York Times said of the picture, "Rich, dignified, honest and strong, it is at once the finest historical film ever made and the greatest screen biography, greater even than The Story of Louis Pasteur, with which the Warners squared their conscience last year."42 Among the honors heaped on the picture, an Academy Award was given to Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg for their screenplay. Paul Muni was edged out for the best-actor Oscar by Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous, but Joseph Schildkraut, who played Alfred Dreyfus, received the award for best supporting actor.
Juarez (1939), the third Muni biopic, was a portrait of Benito Juárez, the Mexican patriot and liberator who overthrew Napoleon Ill's puppet regime in Mexico in 1867. The screenplay, written by John Huston, Wolfgang Reinhardt, and Aeneas MacKenzie, was based on a play by Franz Werfel and the novel The Phantom Crown, by Bertita Harding. Brian Aherne played Maximilian; Bette Davis, his wife, Carlotta; and Claude Rains, Napoleon III. Produced at a cost of $1.25 million, making it by far the most expensive biopic in the series, Juarez had far wider scope than the previous Muni biopics, and true to Warners' tradition of social consciousness, it made the most overt political statement of the series. As Variety remarked, the picture introduced "historical data that contains current timeliness. There is frequent mention of the Monroe Doctrine, of one-man rule over the lives and destinies of millions, and of the rights of the common man to possess land and work out his own salvation." However, the picture left audiences cool. Juarez "had more going against it than its obvious technical and artistic flaws," said Paul Vanderwood. "In 1939 most American were either confused by or unconcerned with international events; not many understood the ideological arguments at hand."43
Warners' costume-adventure films fared much better at the box office. Two pictures signaled the shift, Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, 1935) and Anthony Adverse (Mervyn LeRoy, 1936). A remake of a 1923 Vitagraph silent, Captain Blood, described by Variety as "a lavish, swashbuckling saga of the Spanish main," was released in December 1935 on the heels of MGM's Mutiny on the Bounty. Casey Robinson adapted Rafael Sabatini's rousing historical novel set in the West Indies of the 1680s about a doctor-turned-pirate who leads his "Brotherhood of Buccaneers" to fight for the cause of England. Warners had originally signed Robert Donat for the lead, but for unknown reasons, he bowed out. The studio then decided to take a gamble on a relatively unknown contract player from Australia, Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland, who had come to Warners' attention in A Midsummer Night's Dream, was chosen to add romantic interest. The opening scenes dragged, there were inconsistencies in the plot, and the picture contained only one spectacular scene, the climactic sea battle; nonetheless, it was enthusiastically received. It also made stars out of Flynn and de Havilland.
If Captain Blood showed signs of Warners' economizing, Anthony Adverse exhibited an uncharacteristic extravagance. Frank Nugent of the New York Times introduced the picture as follows:
America has the tallest buildings, the longest subways, the most chewing gum, the hardiest flag-pole sitters, Hervey Allen's 1,224-page Anthony Adverse and the Warner's gargantuan film edition of it. If size is your deity and you feel you will be impressed to hear that eighty-odd speaking parts and a cast of 2,000 have shared the task of translating Anthony into film, then you will relish the Strand's new picture. (NYTFR, 27 August 1936)
Produced at a cost of more than $1 million, this 141-minute version of Allen's 1933 picaresque novel probably "set Warners on a course of large-scale costume pictures which would continue through to the end of the decade," according to Roddick.44 Starring Fredric March in the title role, this episodic picture is set in the Napoleonic era and follows the adventures of a young man from Naples to Africa, the Caribbean, and Paris. Although it received mixed reviews, the picture became Warners' most successful picture of the year and even won four Academy Awards, including best supporting actress (Gale Sondergaard, receiving the first-ever Oscar in that category), cinematography, and score.
Having discovered a new star in Errol Flynn, Warners embarked on a cycle of costume-adventure pictures that combined the talents of Flynn with Olivia de Havilland and Michael Curtiz. In all these pictures, Flynn plays "a man for whom moral and political decisions are unambiguous, and who is provided with the chance to put these decisions into practice through direct physical action." Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lush musical scores added immense charm to the cycle.45
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) solidified the cycle. Adapted from the Tennyson poem by Michel Jacoby and Rowland Leigh, the picture was probably inspired by Paramount's Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Henry Hathaway, 1935), which starred Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone. Variety called Light Brigade a "magnificent production" with countless exploitation possibilities in which Errol Flynn "lives up to the promise of previous film efforts as the youthful major [Geoffrey Vickers] who sacrifices all to avenge the slaughter of his comrades."46 The "tremendous sweep" of the surging charge of six hundred cavalrymen riding into the "valley of death" with "sabers forward and lances leveled through a deadly thunder of cannon and rifle fire" provided the spectacular climax.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) marked the triumph of the cycle. Originally planned for Jimmy Cagney, Robin Hood is Flynn's finest picture, for he and his role are perfectly matched: "In Errol Flynn, Sir Robin of Sherwood Forest has found his man, a swashbuckler from peaked cap to pointed toe, defiant of his enemies and England's, graciously impudent with his lady love, quick for a fight or a frolic," said Frank Nugent of the New York Times. Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian provided the love interest, which was "properly motivated and nicely woven into the plot fabric," unlike the usual clumsy and arbitrary treatment romantic scenes received in the typical costume-adventure picture.47 The storybook cast featured Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Claude Rains as Prince John.
Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller fashioned an original screenplay based on legend and lore that contained pageantry and color, a clearly articulated populist message, humor, and a spectacular climax. Warners spent close to $2 million to produce the picture, considerably more than Douglas Fairbanks's 1922 silent Robin Hood, which at $1.5 million was the most expensive picture produced up to that time. Brilliantly photographed in three-strip Technicolor, the action shifted between scenes in Sherwood Forest, shot on location in Chico, California, and the town of Nottingham and its castle. Michael Curtiz's vigorous direction, together with Sol Polito's fluid camerawork and expressionistic lighting, articulated the picture's key moments. Carl Jules Weyl, who designed the monumental sets, was the first and only Warners art director of the decade to win an Oscar. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score, which also received an Academy Award, added a stirring musical dimension. The Adventures of Robin Hood was named to several ten-best lists and has achieved the status of a classic.
Flynn's last swashbuckler of the decade, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), began the downward trajectory of the cycle. The picture was based on Maxwell Anderson's historical drama Elizabeth the Queen, which starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the Theatre Guild production of 1930. The script by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie retained much of the poetic quality of the original. A Technicolor production containing stylized sets by Anton Grot and an outstanding score by Korngold, the picture was directed by Michael Curtiz as a series of tableaux rather than as an action film. However, the picture was really Bette Davis's. Playing an aging but still vital Elizabeth, she held the center of focus. Flynn, as the young Earl of Essex and a suitor, was not up to his role. As the New York Times put it, "Flynn is a good-looking young man who should be asked to do no more in pictures than flash an even-toothed smile and present a firm jaw-line. His Essex lacked a head long before the headsman got around to him."48 Following The Sea Hawk (1940), an almost entirely formulaic swashbuckler, Flynn specialized in Westerns and, after December 1941, war films.
United Artists ranked third as the company with the most prestige pictures to reach the Film Daily Ten Best in the 1930s. Twentieth Century Pictures was UA's principal producer of high-quality fare from 1933 until it merged with Fox Films in 1935. During its two-year association with UA, Twentieth Century delivered eighteen pictures, including two hit prestige pictures, The House of Roth Schild (Alfred L. Werker, 1934) and Les Miserables (Richard Boleslawski, 1935)49
After 1935, UA's principal producers of prestige pictures were Sam Goldwyn and David O. Selznick. Goldwyn remained UA's most prolific partner, delivering twenty pictures to the company from 1935 to 1939. His biggest hit was The Hurricane (John Ford and Stuart Heisler, 1937), an adaptation of the novel by James Nordhoff and James Norman Hall that starred Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. The most memorable thing about the picture was the twenty-minute storm sequence at the end. The handiwork of special-effects expert James Basevi, this climax, said the New York Times, contained "a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine. It is a hurricane to fill your eyes with spindrift, to beat at your ears with its thunder, to clutch at your heart and send your diaphragm vaulting over your floating rib into the region just south of your tonsils. The Basevi hurricane, in a good old movie word, is terrific."50
But Goldwyn's reputation as a producer of class pictures was sustained by three he made in collaboration with William Wyler, Dodsworth (1936), Dead End (1937), and Wuthering Heights (1939). All experimented with adaptation, and all made it to Film Daily's Ten Best. Producing Dodsworth, a prestige woman's film, Goldwyn again turned to Sinclair Lewis, but this time via a stage version by Sidney Howard that was produced in 1932 with Walter Huston in the title role. Howard's dramatization consisted of fourteen scenes interrupted by curtains. In adapting his play for the screen, Howard retained the "master scene" structure, but rewrote much of what took place off-stage into the action. "A story of the disintegrating marriage of a middle-aged couple" during a European grand tour, the film starred Walter Huston in the role he created on Broadway; Ruth Chatterton played the wife, "a silly, shallow, age-fearing woman of ingrained selfishness and vulgarity," and Mary Astor was "the other woman." "An attempt to explore a level of experience which the movies had shunned," Dodsworth was hailed by Variety as "a superb motion picture which yields artistic quality and box office in one elegantly put-together package."51 Dodsworth was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, but won only for Richard Day's art direction. The film did a respectable business of nearly $1 million.
To produce Dead End, a prestige social problem picture, Goldwyn spent $165,000 to acquire the rights to Sidney Kingsley's long-running stage hit, a considerable amount for the time. Like Elmer Rice's Street Scene, which Goldwyn adapted in 1931, Kingsley's naturalistic drama depicted tenements as the breeding ground of crime. It starred Sylvia Sidney as Drina, "the same optimistic city-dweller she had played in Goldwyn's Street Scene," and Joel McCrea as Dave Connell, who is sucked back into the slums after six years of studying to become an architect. Goldwyn borrowed Humphrey Bogart from Warners to play "Baby Face" Martin, an ex-con who returns to his old neighborhood after ten years unrepentant and unreformed. Leo Gorcey and five other players from the stage production (who became known as the Dead End Kids) were chosen to reprise their roles as juvenile delinquents. Lillian Hellman did a "near-literal film adaptation" of the play, and true to the original, confined the action to a single setting, the waterfront along New York's East River, to intensify "the claustrophobia felt by their trapped characters." Richard Day designed "a realistic set that jammed slums right up against a luxury apartment, wooden docks, and an inlet of the East River into which the Dead End Kids could dive. It offered many different levels and angles with which Wyler and Toland could create visual interest."52 Considered an "important" picture of social protest, Dead End grossed more than $1.4 million.
Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights was one of the most widely admired pictures of the decade, winning the New York Film Critics award for best picture, among other honors. Based on Emily Brontë's strange tale of a tortured romance, it starred Laurence Olivier as the demon-possed Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as his beloved Cathy. Originally written on speculation for UA's Walter Wanger, the screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur did a major job of surgery on the novel by going "straight to the heart of the book," exploring its shadows and drawing "dramatic fire from the savage flints of scene and character hidden there." Art director James Basevi recreated an authentic version of the Yorkshire moors in the San Fernando Valley and, at Goldwyn's insistence, advanced the period of the setting from the Regency to the Victorian to better show off Merle Oberon and the women. William Wyler's sensitive direction, Gregg Toland's chiaroscuro lighting and deep-focus photography, and Alfred Newman's evocative score created "one of the most distinguised pictures of the year," in the opinion of New York Times reviewer Frank S. Nugent.53 More attuned to popular tastes, Variety observed,
Wuthering Heights will have to depend on class audiences. Its general sombreness and psychological tragedy is too heavy for general appeal. With that setup, and lacking socko marquee dressing, picture is more of an artistic success for the carriage trade.… Stark tragedy is vividly etched throughout. Tempo is at a slow pace, with many sequences devoted to development of psychological reactions of the characters. It's rather dull material for general audiences. (VFR, 29 March 1939)
Wuthering Heights grossed $1.2 million in the United States, a respectable amount, but not enough to break even. Presumably, the uncompromising treatment of the story kept the masses at bay.
David O. Selznick joined United Artists in 1935. In forming Selznick International Pictures (SIP), Selznick described his production policy: "There are only two kinds of merchandise that can be made profitably in this business, either the very cheap pictures or the very expensive pictures." Concerning SIP, he said, "There is no alternative open to us but to attempt to compete with the very best."54 Selznick produced nine pictures for UA before he made Gone With the Wind. Prestige pictures based on literary classics figured prominently in his roster, among them Little Lord Fauntleroy (John Cromwell, 1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937), and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Norman Taurog, 1938).
However, only A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937) made it to Film Daily's Ten Best. Based partly on RKO's What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932), which Pandro S. Berman produced when Selznick was executive head of the studio, A Star Is Born was essentially a celebrity biopic based on composites of Hollywood types. Effectively using Technicolor, the movie presented "the most accurate mirror ever held before the glitering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel and ecstatic world that is Hollywood," in the opinion of the New York Times.55 Janet Gaynor played the Cinderella role of Vicki Lester, and Fredric March, Norman Maine, her alcoholic husband, who once was the biggest star in Hollywood. William Wellman and Robert Carson won an Oscar for their original story.
Selznick acquired the motion-picture rights to Margaret Mitchell's 1,037-page novel Gone with the Wind for $50,000 in June 1936, just as it hit the market. After the novel was accepted by the Book-of-the-Month Club, Macmillan, the publisher, boosted the original print order to forty thousand from ten thousand. Rave reviews, the Pulizer Prize, and word-of-mouth publicity made Gone with the Wind, the first novel of a thirty-five-year-old Atlanta housewife, the most popular American novel ever written to that time. By 1937, one year after publication, "sales of the novel had reached the astonishing figure of 1,375,000, with no let-up in sight, confirming the book's unofficial status as a modern classic." By the time of the film's premiere in December 1939, more than 2 million copies of the book had been sold.56
If there ever was a presold motion picture, Gone with the Wind was it. As Roger Dooley put it, "Gone with the Wind seems never to have lost its grip on the public imagination since the novel was published. From 1936 to 1939 the amount of publicity it received, some promoted by Selznick, much spontaneous, was unparalled in this century."57 American fans took over the job of casting the role of Rhett Butler. Clark Gable, named in a national poll as the "King of Hollywood," was the public's unanimous choice for the part of Rhett Butler. However, he was securely tied to MGM. To borrow Gable from the studio as well as money to complete the financing of the picture, Selznick approached his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. Driving a hard bargain, Mayer offered Gable's services and $1.25 million in financing, but demanded in return the distribution rights to the picture and 50 percent of the profits for five years. Selznick had no choice but to sign on the dotted line.58
Finding someone to play Scarlett was another matter. Of all the devices Selznick used to generate interest in the film, the talent search proved the most effective. Selznick had used the ploy before, but this time he received the cooperation of nearly "every female performer between the ages of Shirley Temple and May Robson" who had decided she must have the part.59 Selznick's people toured the country, auditioning candidates from high school, college drama departments, and community theaters. Finally, on 13 January 1939, Selznick announced that the Scarlett O'Hara sweepstakes had been won by Vivien Leigh, a young British actress who was comparatively unknown in this country.
Developing the picture, Selznick was obligated to remain faithful to the source, yet the epic size novel presented enormous difficulties. Using the talent search to gain time, Selznick hired Sidney Howard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, to develop the script. Starting on the mammoth project in 1937, Howard continued to work on the construction and dialogue of the second half while the picture was in production.60 In addition to Howard, Selznick's production staff consisted of seasoned Hollywood professionals that included the distinguished production designer William Cameron Menzies, art director Lyle Wheeler, costume designer Walter Plunkett, special-effects designer Jack Cosgrove, cameramen Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan, and composer Max Steiner. Selznick chose George Cukor to direct, but personal differences between Cukor and Gable shortly into the shoot forced Selznick to replace Cukor with Victor Fleming.
Gone with the Wind "was innovative in many ways in the film industry: cost, length, fidelity to the source, and especially the way it pushed the frontiers of Technicolor photography to their limits of excellence."61 It cost $4,085,790 to make—more than any picture had ever cost in the entire history of the American film industry. Running more than three and a half hours, the picture was nearly twice the length of a conventional feature.
Using a premiere to launch a picture was a common practice, but the Gone with the Wind premiere in Atlanta on 15 December 1939 established a new high for motion-picture publicity. According to Newsweek, "Governor E. D. Rivers proclaimed Friday, the day of the premiere, a public holiday throughout the state; all state buildings were closed and the Confederate banner flew from the Capitol masthead beside the flag of the United States. Atlanta went the governor two better; Mayor Hartsfield declared a three-day festival."62 Half of Atlanta's 300,000 population lined the streets to greet the motorcade that carried the film's stars, feature players, and executives from the airport to their hotel. The city presented an appropriate facade, celebrating the architecture and finery of the 1860s, with its citizens dressed up in the hoop skirts and claw-hammer coats of the antebellum era. The highlight of the festivities was a charity ball at the City Auditorium the night before the premiere.
A few days after the Atlanta premiere, the picture opened in New York simultaneously at the Capitol and the Astor on a reserved-seat basis. The Hollywood premiere took place on 27 December 1939 at the venerable and prestigious Cathay Circle Theater in the Wilshire District. January marked the beginning of the national roadshow play-off, the most prestigious form of release. In all the key cities, the picture was shown on a reserved-seat basis at top ticket prices and with an intermission after an hour and forty-five minutes.
At Academy Award time, Gone with the Wind won an unprecedented eight Oscars in most major categories. Hattie McDaniel received an Academy Award for supporting actress, which marked the first time a black had ever been nominated, let alone honored. In recognition of Menzies's contribution, Selznick created the special credit "Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies." Since there was no precedent for what Menzies had done, the Academy awarded him a special plaque at the Oscar ceremonies to recognize his "outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood." Clark Gable did not win the Oscar for best actor; that honor went to Robert Donat for his title role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Nor did Steiner win an Oscar for his score, oddly enough, because the Academy rules for the music category did not distinguish between dramas and musicals. The Oscar that year went to the musical classic The Wizard of Oz. However, Selznick won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his efforts as producer.
The box-office returns matched the picture's epic scope. By the end of May 1940, the picture had grossed an astonishing $20 million. No picture had ever come close to this. This gross was from the first roadshow play-off. Yet to come were the general release and the return engagements. When the results were in, Gone with the Wind had established a box-office record that stood for more than twenty years.
The musical, the only new production trend to grow out of the talkies, had become box-office poison by the summer of 1930. That season, said Variety, "marked the end of the gold rush west and the long portage back by many of the New York contingent…. They pushed the musicals beyond the pale of public acceptance, so they can't make pictures with tunes any more, or at least for a few months." Hollywood released sixty musicals in 1928 and over seventy in 1930, but by 1932, the number had fallen to less than fifteen. Musicals proliferated after the conversion to sound because the public, at least at first, grew tired of endless dialogue. Musicals, moreover, created ancillary profits for the music-publishing and phonograph companies newly acquired by the majors. As Alexander Walker pointed out, "between 100,000 and 500,000 sheets of a song could be sold, and an equal number of discs, within a month of a successful musical's release. (Without a film behind it, a song was usually lucky to sell 30,000 copies in three months.)"63
In its rush to capitalize on sound, Hollywood initially experimented with three types of musicals, the all-star revue, the Broadway adaptation, and the backstager. The revue was used by producers to showcase stars and contract players and to offer "proof positive that everyone could now talk, sing and dance at least passably well."64 Modeled after vaudeville and burlesque and perfected by Florenz Ziegfeld, Earl Carroll, and other Broadway showmen, the revue was essentially a series of comic sketches, gaudy musical numbers, acrobatics, and even short dramas presented in a variety format, each introduced by a master of ceremonies. Elaborate routines, especially big dance numbers, might be photographed in two-strip Technicolor. Shot straight on in front of the proscenium, this type of musical was the most stage-bound of all. Among the more memorable revues are MGM's The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Warners' The Show of Shows (1929), Fox's Movietone Follies of 1929, Paramount's Paramount on Parade (1930), and Universal's King of Jazz (1930).
The Broadway adaptation transferred operettas and musicals to the screen. Warners led the way with its production of The Desert Song (Roy Del Ruth, 1929), which was based on the popular operetta by Sigmund Romberg; it was followed by MGM's The Rogue Song (Lionel Barrymore, 1930) and Paramount's The Vagabond King (Ludwig Berger, 1930), which were adaptations of Franz Lehár and Rudolf Friml operettas, respectively. The most successful adaptations, RKO's Rio Rita (Luther Reed, 1929) and UA's Whoopee! (Thornton Freeland, 1930), were based on Flo Ziegfeld hits.
Rio Rita, a musical western extravaganza, grossed an incredible $2.4 million. Whoopee! did even better and started a series. Produced by Sam Goldwyn at a cost of $1 million, the picture was an adaptation of a smash musical comedy built around Eddie Cantor. To bring Eddie Cantor to the screen, Goldwyn hired Ziegfeld to co-produce the picture and Busby Berkeley, the dance director, to restage his numbers. Goldwyn also hired most of the original Broadway cast to repeat their roles. Calling Whoopee! the best musical comedy to date, Variety liked just about everything in the picture—its effective use of Technicolor throughout; Cantor's comic antics and his songs, particularly "My Baby Just Cares for Me" and "Makin' Whoopee"; and Berkeley's numbers, particularly the Lady Godiva routine that was shot with an overhead camera. A personality-centered musical, Whoopee! made little attempt to integrate the comedy routines, songs, and story. Nonetheless, Cantor's feature-film debut grossed over $2.6 million worldwide and started a popular series that included Palmy Days (1931), The Kid From Spain (1932), and Roman Scandals (1933). All were released through United Artists.
The backstage musical was the most enduring cycle of the lot. MGM's The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont, 1929), the studio's first sound feature, set the pattern for all the show-business pictures to follow. Promoted as "All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!" The Broadway Melody was "the first movie to use songs both within a story and as part of a Broadway show being performed, and it was the first to have an original score created specifically for its use." The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed contained several hits—"You Were Meant for Me," "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," and the title song, "Broadway Melody." The screenplay by Edmund Goulding contained in pristine simplicity the main elements of the cycle—backstage romances, wise-cracking chorines, an imperious impresario, a dilettante backer, and big-hearted moments. Charles King played a song-and-dance-man, and Bessie Love and Anita Page, two sisters from the Midwest who try to break into show business. Chosen by exhibitors nationwide as their premiere sound attraction, the picture made over $4 million by the end of 1929 on an investment of $2,80,000. So many imitations of The Broadway Melody were rushed into production that within a year, Variety published an article entitled "Ingredients for Backstage Talkers" that satirized all the hackneyed elements of the cycle.65
Of all the early experiments to enliven the musical, none were as innovative as Paramount's continental fairy tales. These pictures eliminated much of the staginess that had characterized the early sound musical by shooting the musical scenes with some flexibility and by integrating story, locale, and scoring through editing. The cycle was short, consisting of three pictures directed by Ernst Lubitsch and one by Rouben Mamoulian. Built around Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald, all are set in Europe rather than America and all are highly stylized.
Ernst Lubitsch's first sound film, The Love Parade (1929), started the cycle. A frothy operetta set in the mythical Central European kingdom of Sylvania, The Love Parade teamed Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald for the first time. Chevalier, the international music-hall star whom Variety called the "'it' man from France," had starred in one other talkie; MacDonald, fresh from the musical-comedy stage, here made her motion-picture debut. Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey composed the score, and Ernest Vajda and Guy Bolton wrote the script, which was based on a French play. Lubitsch's use of the moving camera, editing, and off-stage business that inventively blended song and action led Variety to call The Love Parade "the first true screen musical."66 A big hit, the picture made it to Variety's list of top-grossing pictures in 1930 and made MacDonald a star.
Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (1932), which concluded the cycle, was even more innovative in the way it expanded what Gerald Mast calls "the choreography of space." This Ruritanian operetta was written by Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young, and George Marion, Jr., from a French play. Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart wrote the score, which contains three of their most memorable songs—"Isn't It Romantic?" "Mimi," and "Lover." Of the picture's many cinematic highlights, none is more inventive than the opening sequence. Variety described the sequence as follows:
It is dawn over the vacant, sunlit street of Paris. First a street worker hammers at the pavements, a cobbler pounds at his last, a vagrant snores in a doorway and a knife grinder grates over his grindstone. Gradually other sounds of the waking day work into a jazzy cadenza as the camera walks into the bedroom of the gay young tailor (Chevalier) waking to a new day with a song on his lips. Roulade is "Isn't It Romantic?" a rollicksome canticle that seizes everybody he passes on the street, until a squad of maneuvering militiamen out in the country bring it to the ears of the Princess heroine. (VFR, 23 August 1932)
Because the cycle contained so-called risqué, naughty, and salacious moments, it is commonly assumed that the continental fairy tale operetta was a casualty of the Breen Office. However, Variety offered another explanation for its demise when its review of Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) implied that the producers of the picture were out of touch with the audience: "Their trouble is gauging the fan mentality, which they constantly outdistance by that foreign flair for matters classing as politely risqué comedy…. what they do is funny at the Criterion, for $2, but may not register so solidly out of town." Its review of Love Me Tonight said the picture would probably "miss slightly for general release" because it was based on an original source "alien to American ideas" and the story was "innocent of that commodity called American hoke, and few pictures go to the heights without it within Mr. [Herbert] Hoover's borders."67
Warners discovered a formula to revive the musical in 1933 when it produced three Busby Berkeley musicals in a row, 42nd Street, Gold Digers of 1933, and Footlight Parade. Motivated in part by exhibitors who demanded something to compete with music headliners on radio and by the poor box-office returns of revues, Darryl Zanuck decided to resurrect the backstage musical. Unlike the Lubitsch-type operettas, these Berkeley musicals were set in the very real world of Depression America and told gritty stories of backstage life spiced with platoons of chorus girls, upbeat music, and sex. The pictures were admired for their realism. Variety, for example, said of 42nd Street, "Everything about the production rings true. It's as authentic to the initiate as the novitiate."68
What made the series distinctive, of course, was Busby Berkeley's production numbers. Berkeley had used chiaroscuro and kaleidoscopic camerawork—including traveling shots, rhythmic cutting, and his famous overhead shots (the "Berkeley top shot")—at Goldwyn in the dance numbers for the Eddie Cantor musicals. At Warners, Berkeley took advantage of the studio's enormous technical resources to perfect these techniques and made himself into a legend in the process.
The Berkeley musical contained two types of music, rehearsal numbers sprinkled throughout the film and the formal Berkeley pieces, which Gerald Mast calls "Big Musical Numbers," typically performed one after another at the climax in the following characteristic sequence: (1) a song built on a "sexually suggestive location"; (2) an "abstract-geometric number"; and (3) a "social-commentary number." The songs that form the basis for the numbers also follow a pattern: a fox-trot first, a waltz second, and a march third. The screenplays contained nothing to suggest the songs or how they might be staged. To produce the musicals, the songs came first, with lyrics by Al Dubin and then the music by Harry Warren; afterward, Berkeley took over.69
Berkeley's collaborators were director Lloyd Bacon, whose principal job was to keep the action moving at a fast pace; art director Anton Grot; costume designer Orry-Kelly; cinematographer Sol Polito; and songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin. In front of the camera, Warners used familiar faces from its stock company: Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as the favored romantic team; Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel, Aline MacMahon, and Glenda Farrell as tough-as-nails gold diggers; and Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, Louise Fazenda, Frank McHugh, and Hugh Herbert as favorite clowns.
Launched by a coast-to-coast publicity campaign, 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon) became a smash hit, a milestone that Variety labeled "the Broadway Melody of 1933."70 Adapted by James Seymour and Rian James from a novel by Bradford Ropes, the picture incorporates ingredients from such pioneering efforts as MGM's The Broadway Melody (1929) and Warners' On with the Show (1929). 42nd Street follows a Broadway-bound musical comedy called Pretty Lady from its first rehearsals to its out-of-town tryout. Along the way, the audience is introduced to a slave-driving director (Warner Baxter), a lecherous financial backer (Guy Kibbee), an over-the-hill star (Bebe Daniels), juvenile leads (Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell), hard-boiled chorus girls (Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel), plus other assorted types.
The story uses a hoary Cinderella plot device: the temperamental leading lady sprains her ankle just before opening night and is replaced by an unknown chorus girl, who thereby becomes a star. Ruby Keeler, who plays the unknown chorus girl Peggy Sawyer, receives the following pep talk from Warner Baxter, the director, just as she goes on:
Now listen to me—listen hard…. Two hundred people—two hundred jobs—two hundred thousand dollars—five weeks of grind—and blood and sweat—depend on you. It's the life of all these people who have worked with you. You've got to go on—and you've got to give—and give and give—they've GOT to like you—GOT to—you understand…. You can't fall down—you can't—Your future's in it—my future's in it—and everything that all of us have is staked on you—All right, now I'm through—but you keep your feet on the ground—and your head on those shoulders of yours—and go out—and, Sawyer—you're going out a youngster—but you've GOT to come back a star! (Rocco Fumento, ed., 42nd Street [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980], p. 182)
Keeler goes on to perform the first big musical number of the picture, "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," a duet with Clarence Nordstrom staged on a honeymoon train to Niagara Falls. Although the number resembles a conventional theatrical prologue and could have been sung and danced on a Broadway stage, Berkeley added an impressive stunt: he breaks apart the Pullman car like a jaekknife and moves his camera down the aisle to leer at amorous couples in their compartments. The second big number, "Young and Healthy," is a kaleidoscopic piece sung by Dick Powell and displays a bevy of chorines on a huge revolving platform. For "42nd Street," a spectacular six-minute finale, Berkeley used his full bag of tricks. After starting out with Ruby Keeler singing the title song and tap dancing atop a taxi, the number opens up into an expressionistic ballet that mixes melodrama, farce, and comedy, and concludes with a cutout of the New York skyline that parts to reveal Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell atop a skyscraper waving to the camera.
Warners had completed 42nd Street by the end of 1932, but held up the release after the first preview until a sequel was put into production. Written by Erwin Gelsey and James Seymour, Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy) is based on Avery Hopwood's play Gold Diggers, a well-worn property Warners had used for a silent in 1923 and for a musical, in Gold Diggers of Broadway, in 1929. Gold Diggers of 1933, like 42nd Street, focuses on the difficulties of financing a show during hard times. In Gold Diggers this problem is resolved by Dick Powell, an aspiring songwriter who puts up the cash to bankroll the show he has written. But as the title implies, the picture is also about gold-digging chorus girls. A subplot traces the efforts of Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon to stymie the efforts of Powell's stuffy older brother and the befuddled family lawyer to break up Powell's engagement to show girl Ruby Keeler. A Cinderella plot device is also used in this picture; this time the juvenile lead suffers a bout of lumbago, and Powell goes on in his place.
Given a free hand by the studio, Berkeley created numbers that were longer and more elaborate than previously. The picture opens with a rehearsal number for a Broadway revue, "We're in the Money." Offered as a morale booster for Depression audiences, the song was performed by chorines (led by Ginger Rogers) clad only in large, strategically placed gold coins. The big musical numbers consist of "Pettin' in the Park," a risqué piece displaying girls in skimpy lingerie and in nude silhouette; "The Shadow Waltz," a pageant featuring a stageful of hooped-gowned dancers who play neon-lighted violins and create a series of geometric patterns; and "Remember My Forgotten Man," Berkeley's paean to America's unemployed inspired by the then-recent march on Washington of desperate World War I veterans.
Busby Berkeley's third musical of 1933, Footlight Parade, is based on an original screenplay by Manuel Seff and James Seymour. Footlight Parade remixes all the ingredients of the first two pictures and throws in James Cagney for good measure. To create jobs for out-of-work performers, Cagney gets the bright idea of producing live musical prologues to whatever picture a theater is showing. Of the three big musical numbers, "By a Waterfall," an elaborate aquacade showing a hundred girls diving, swimming, and cavorting, is the most elaborate in the three Berkeley pictures of 1933. The "Shanghai Lil" finale modifies the Cinderella plot device by permitting Cagney to replace a drunk actor at the last moment and thereby make his first appearance as a dancer on the screen. This finale concludes on a patriotic note; performing a series of military drills, the chorus holds aloft football-stadium cards to form the NRA eagle, the flag, and a likeness of President Roosevelt.
Warners sustained the series by producing Gold Diggers of 1935 (Busby Berkeley), Gold Diggers of 1937 (Lloyd Bacon, 1936), and Gold Diggers in Paris (Ray Enright, 1938) and by producing spin-offs of the series such as Wonder Bar (Lloyd Bacon, 1934), Fashions of 1934 (William Dieterle), and Hollywood Hotel (Busby Berkeley, 1937), which featured Berkeley's typically elaborate routines. Gold Diggers of 1935 marked Berkeley's first effort as sole director and contains his most elaborate and complex creation, the white-piano number "The Words Are in My Heart." The picture also contains the most famous song of the series, Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "Lullaby of Broadway," which not only made it to the number-one spot on radio's "Your Hit Parade" but also won for Warren and Dubin an Academy Award for best song.71 After this picture, Busby Berkeley's musicals lost their originality, and by 1939, the Warners musical had sunk so low that the studio allowed Berkeley, Dick Powell, and Harry Warren to walk off the lot when their contracts expired.
The Berkeley musicals naturally inspired other studios to develop formulas of their own to capitalize on the new interest in musicals. Variety's annual list of top-grossing movies reveals that musicals reached the peak of their commercial popularity in 1936. In that year, four of the top seven hits were musicals: RKO's Swing Time and MGM's San Francisco, The Great Ziegfeld, and Rose Marie. The majors produced around thirty musicals in 1933, but by 1936, the number had risen to fifty.
While Warners was perfecting the Berkeley extravaganzas, RKO was working on a more intimate and sophisticated series of dance musicals built around Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. A newcomer to the movies, Astaire had performed in New York and London with his sister, Adele, in musicals specially designed for them by some of the greatest names of the American musical theater, among them the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and the team of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. Ginger Rogers, on the other hand, was a familiar face, having just played a sassy gold digger in Warners' first two Berkeley pictures. Unlike the Depression milieu of the Berkeley backstage musicals, the archetypal Astaire-Rogers picture is set in a fantasy world of luxury, elegance, and romance, where people spend their lives in evening dress and frolic the night long. Unlike the musical sequences of the Berkeley pictures, which are elaborate decorative appendages, the numbers in the Astaire-Rogers pictures are integrated into the narrative. Astaire and Rogers appeared in nine films together during the thirties, but the height of their popularity was 1935-1937, a period when their pictures made it to the annual lists of box-office champs. Describing the great appeal of their pictures, Arlene Croce said,
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, p. 5">
Certainly no greater dance musicals exist. Oddly enough, the dance emphasis that made them unusual also made them popular. Although Astaire and Rogers did many things in their movies besides dance—the way they looked and read their lines and wore their clothes and sang in their funny voices has become legendary, too, and they could make a song a hit without dancing to it—it was through their dancing that the public grew to love them and to identify their moods, the depth of their involvement, and the exquisite sexual harmony that made them not only the ideal dancing couple but the ideal romantic team. No dancers ever reached a wider public, and the stunning fact is that Astaire and Rogers, whose love scenes were their dances, became the most popular team the movies have ever known. (The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, p. 5)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together for the first time in Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland, 1933). RKO's answer to the Busby Berkeley backstager, the picture is a show-biz musical about an itinerant dance band. In an attempt to counter the Warners musicals, the picture combined Latin songs and dances with spectacular aviation production numbers, the most famous of which was the finale, a Berkeley parody that had "scores of chorus girls, anchored to the wings of airplanes, dancing and doffing their clothes for all Rio to see." The picture featured Dolores Del Rio; Astaire and Rogers, who perform with the band, received fifth and fourth billing, respectively. Fred and Ginger dance together only once, in "The Carioca," a group number that started a dance craze that swept the country. Although the story was slow and lacked humor, Variety pointed out, "the main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire…. Not that Astaire threatens to become an ocean-to-ocean screen rage, but here he shows enough to indicate what he could do with good material. He's assuredly a bet after this one, for he is distinctly likeable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself."72
Now more sure of itself, RKO inaugurated the Astaire-Rogers series of musicals, which was to constitute the studio's most distinguished output of the decade. RKO assigned producer Pandro S. Berman to develop the series. It was Berman who organized the production unit and had the sense to give it plenty of room to maneuver. The core unit would consist of director Mark Sandrich; dance director Hermes Pan; screenwriters Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor; cameramen J. Roy Hunt and David Abel; art director Van Nest Polglase and associate art director Carroll Clark; costume designers Bernard Newman, Walter Plunkett, and Irene; and music director Max Steiner. The songs for the Astaire-Rogers pictures were written by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and George and Ira Gershwin, to name only a few.73 The distinctive visual look of these pictures was created by Hunt and Abel, who took advantage of new monochrome film stocks that could maximize contrasts in black and white, and by Polglase and Clark, who introduced "the fixed architectural institution that soon became known as the B.W.S. (Big White Set)." Berman hired Ginger Rogers, of course, and to round out the cast, he signed supporting players who were masters at the art of sophisticated farce—Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Alice Brady, Helen Broderick, and Erik Rhodes.
The musicals were custom-built for Fred Astaire, who, by agreement with the studio, choreographed his solos and duets and outlined the ensemble numbers. He also controlled the development of a number. As Arlene Croce noted, "the songs did not pass through an arranger before they came to him. They came to him directly, and the arrangement was laid out, after weeks of rehearsal, at Hal Borne's piano. Astaire is himself a trained musician and knew how to manipulate a composition for maximum theatrical effect without distortion."74 Preparing the dances, Astaire worked in seclusion, rehearsing only with his assistant dance director, Hermes Pan, and pianist Borne. After Astaire perfected a number, Hermes Pan taught it to Rogers. During shooting, Astaire oversaw the camera-work and afterward the editing of the numbers. Regardless of who directed the pictures, the shooting styles of the dances are identical: Astaire had the dances recorded in full shot and in long takes using the "Astaire dolly," which was specially constructed by Mark Sandrich so that it could track, glide, and turn with the pair perfectly.75
The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich, 1934) launched the series. It was based on Cole Porter's musical hit of 1932, Gay Divorce, which starred Astaire and marked the last time he would dance on Broadway. RKO changed the title of the original because the Breen Office would never permit the institution of divorce to be gay; however, it would allow a "gay divorcée." The adaptation by George Marion, Jr., Dorothy Yost, and Edward Kaufman contained the archetypal ingredients of the Astaire-Rogers musical: Astaire falls in love with Rogers at first sight, but his advances are thwarted by incidents involving mistaken identity. The complications are resolved through a series of song-and-dance numbers (usually three) performed by Astaire and Rogers that function as courtship rituals. Among the many charms of The Gay Divorcee are two Fred and Ginger duets—"Night and Day," perhaps the most effective seduction dance in the series, and "The Continental," a seventeen-minute follow-up to "The Carioca" that attempted to out-Berkeley Berkeley in spectacle. Although RKO unsuccessfully promoted the Continental as a new ballroom dance, the number (music by Con Conrad and lyrics by Herb Magidson) won the first Oscar awarded to a song.
In addition to the duets, the picture contained solos sung and danced by Astaire. They, too, are worked into the plot and function to showcase Astaire's brilliant phrasing of a song and the range of his dancing talent. Describing Astaire's opening solo in The Gay Divorcee, "Looking for a Needle in a Haystack," Variety said that RKO "has a star whose libretto is written by his own dancing feet. The manner in which Astaire taps himself into an individual click with that 'Looking for a Needle in a Haystack,' a hoofing soliloquy in his London flat, while his man hands him his cravat, boutonniere and walking stick, is something which he alone elevates and socks over on individual artistry."76
RKO repeated this formula with slight variation in three pictures, Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935), Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936), and Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937). Meanwhile, RKO produced two Astaire-Rogers pictures as spacers that reverted to the double-romance plot of Flying Down to Rio—Roberta (William A. Seiter, 1935) and Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936). Roberta, based on the 1933 Broadway hit by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, was intended as a showcase for the studio's newest star, Irene Dunne. Dunne and Randolph Scott play the romantic leads, and Astaire and Rogers revert to the secondary roles of comic and soubrette. Dunne sings three Harbach and Kern hits, "Yesterdays," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and "Lovely to Look At," the last performed as a finale to accompany a lavish fashion show and musical entertainment. Roberta was a big hit, earning $770,000 in profits and boosting the careers of Dunne, Astaire, and Rogers.77
Follow the Fleet, the fifth film in the series, has a score by Irving Berlin. Fred and Ginger have center stage in this picture, but he is offcast as a gum-chewing sailor, and she, as a dance-hall hostess. Moreover, the locales—a battleship, a dance hall, and a schooner—are anything but continental chic. Not until the finale are Fred and Ginger returned to more familiar surroundings. Performing at a benefit, they don evening clothes to do "Let's Face the Music and Dance," a serious number resembling a one-act drama.
Top Hat, the quintessential Astaire-Rogers musical, is essentially a remake of The Gay Divorcee. Describing the similarity of the two pictures, Variety said, "It's like the Walla-Walla gag—they liked it so well they made it twice." Top Hat is based on an original screenplay by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, and contains music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Each of the five production numbers are gems: "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)," Astaire's opening dance solo, introduces him as an American dancer in London who is footloose and carefree, and cleverly motivates his meeting with Rogers; "Isn't This a Lovely Day" and "Cheek to Cheek" are among the most appealing duets in the series; and "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails," the title number, which Astaire sings and dances with a male chorus, is a classic of its kind. The picture concludes with "The Piccolino," a scintillating production number that had fun satirizing the exhibition dance. The playful spirit of the picture was nicely captured by the Big White Sets, especially the fantastic Venice set. After smashing box-office records at New York City's Radio City Music Hall during its opening run, Top Hat went on to become the most profitable RKO picture of the decade, earning more than $3.2 million in film rentals. And for their efforts, Astaire and Rogers "rose to the number-four spot on the exhibitors' list of top star attractions."78
Swing Time contains a score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields and is based on a screenplay by Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott. Against a backdrop of glittering New York nightclubs, Fred and Ginger win acclaim as a dance team. The picture is noted for its fetching songs, particularly "The Way You Look Tonight" which won an Academy Award for best song, and a sensational dance number, "Bojangles of Harlem," an homage to the Broadway headliner Bill ("Bojangles") Robinson. In the dance number, Astaire danced in blackface against a triple silhouette, "a bravura example of creative special effects."79
Shall We Dance, the only Astaire-Rogers picture with a score by the Gershwin brothers, varies the formula somewhat by casting Astaire as a ballet dancer who would rather be a hoofer, by introducing the pair on roller skates in "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and by using masks with the likeness of Ginger Rogers on them for an unusual finale, "Shall We Dance." The picture earned a profit, but familiarity with the plot formula was causing audiences to shrink.
RKO experimented further to sustain the series. Carefree (Mark Sandrich, 1938), "a clever spoof on psychiatry" that was just as much screwball comedy as dance musical, contained songs by Irving Berlin and fresh dance routines by Astaire. Nonetheless, it was the first Astaire-Rogers picture to lose money. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (H. C. Potter, 1939), the least characteristic picture in the series, is a biopic that follows the adventures of a legendary husband-wife dance team from their first meeting in 1910 in New Rochelle to Vernon's death in an airplane training accident at the end of World War I. Unlike its predecessors, this vehicle does not contain an original musical score; instead, the picture uses more than forty authentic songs from the period to revive the dance routines created by the couple. This picture, too, lost money, and thereafter, Astaire and Rogers developed separate careers.
The Busby Berkeley backstager at Warners and the Astaire-Rogers dance film at RKO were the most innovative forms of the musical spawned by its revival. In the second half of the thirties, MGM dominated the production trend. The studio launched not only a popular series of operettas designed around Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy but also a series of dance pictures centered on Eleanor Powell. And for good measure, MGM produced a few blockbuster prestige musicals as well.
Credit for reviving the operetta should probably go to Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures. In an attempt to cash in on the musical, Cohn fashioned a modest programmer in modern dress for the soprano Grace Moore, One Night of Love (Victor Schertzinger, 1934), about an aspiring American singer in Europe who falls in love with her voice teacher and who is transformed by him into a Metropolitan Opera star. Although Moore's first go at the movies four years earlier at MGM had flopped, One night of Love became a surprise hit, and at Columbia its box-office returns were surpassed only by another sleeper, IT Happened One Night.
Grace Moore made four more musicals at Columbia; following the pattern established by One night of Love, they combined opera and popular music. Jumping on the operetta bandwagon, RKO signed the opera star Lily Pons; Paramount hired Gladys Swarthout, Kirsten Flagstad, Jan Kiepura, and Mary Ellis; and Fox brought back Lawrence Tibbett and Nino Martini. As John Kobal said, "None of the men … and few of the ladies of the high C's ever established themselves as successful screen personalities."80 The trend died out in 1938 almost as abruptly as it began—with the sole exception of MGM's Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy series.
The most successful singing team of the decade, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made eight operettas together. Five were produced during the thirties and based on beloved works by Victor Herbert (Naughty Marietta, W. S. Van Dyke, 1935; Sweethearts, W. S. Van Dyke, 1938), Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart (ROSE Marie, W. S. Van Dyke, 1936), and Sigmund Romberg (Maytime, Robert Z. Leonard, 1937; The Girl of the Golden West, Robert Z. Leonard, 1938). Describing the team, Ethan Mordden said, "The little-known Eddy shared billing with the famed MacDonald, his stolidity side by side with her vivacity. Eddy was the singing tree, immobile, and MacDonald the ornate kite trapped in its branches. Either one alone was a still picture; together they told a story."81
MGM had a series in mind from the outset and assigned producer Hunt Stromberg, a Thalberg protégé, to develop the formula. W. S. Van Dyke and Robert Z. Leonard alternated as directors. For the most part, the pictures were set in exotic locales—New Orleans in the eighteenth century, Paris during the Second Empire, and the Canadian north woods—at some indeterminate time. MGM discarded the original librettos and substituted new, streamlined scripts that were infused with wit, humor, and sentiment and that focused on central love plots. Naturally, MGM lavished all the resources at its command on the pictures. Herbert Stothart, MGM's music director, arranged the scores, excising outdated or unwanted songs and adding new ones. The numbers he chose for the films were integrated into the narrative and consisted of some of the mostbeloved songs of the musical stage, such as "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" and "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" (Naughty Marietta), "Indian Love Call" (Rose Marie), and "Will You Remember" (Maytime).
Although the pictures are considered high camp today, all were big commercial hits, especially Rose Marie and Maytime, which made it to Variety's annual list of top grossers. The recognition the pictures received was considerable; Naughty Marietta, for example, was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture and won Photoplay's coveted Movie of the Year award.
In addition to launching the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy series, MGM countered Warners' Gold Diggers series with a backstage musical series of its own. Taking its name from MGM's 1929 hit The Broadway Melody, the pictures were built around the virtuoso tap-dancing talents of Eleanor Powell. After a false start in her debut, Fox's George White's 1935 Scandals, she recovered and became known in Hollywood as the Queen of Tap. The pictures in the series were Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Born to Dance (1936), and Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed wrote the songs for the Broadway Melody pictures, and Cole Porter, the songs for Born to Dance. All three pictures were directed by Roy Del Ruth and shared many of the same production staff, which included screenwriters Jack McGowan and Sid Silvers, choreographer Dave Gould, art director Cedric Gibbons, costume designer Adrian, orchestrator Roger Edens, and editor Blance Sewell.
Structurally, the Eleanor Powell pictures are a cross between the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley and the dance films of Fred Astaire. Like the former, the films contain thin plots that furnish the pretext for the musical numbers, and like the latter, the films spotlight the virtuoso dancing of the star. To this formula, MGM added showmanship and spectacle. The staging of the production numbers is "brilliant, and the choral undertones and orchestral arrangements slick, and everything is treated with an air of understanding as to how a musical number should be presented."82 Stylistically, the photography is influenced by René Clair and Berkeley. Concerning Powell's unusual dance style, Variety said,
Buck dancing, which is Miss Powell's forte, is basically lacking in grace and anyone who tries it is apt to very often appear awkward. Miss Powell manages to overcome that by the inclusion of ballet work in her tap routine, and thus offers the most versatile display of solo hoofing that motion pictures have yet produced. As yet she lacks the "ideas" that background Fred Astaire's work and that all great dancers must have to go beyond the strictly dancing class, but the "ideas" will come, because the ability is there in abundance. (VFR, 9 December 1936)
To broaden the appeal of these pictures, MGM provided Powell with plenty of backup. In Broadway Melody of 1936, her supporting cast included comedians Buddy Ebsen, Sid Silvers, and Jack Benny; in Broadway Melody of 1938, the cast included George Murphy and Sophie Tucker, and the fifteen-year-old Judy Garland, who sang "a plaint to Clark Gable's photograph" entitled "Dear Mr. Gable."
Exploiting the musical even further, MGM had other tricks up its sleeve. In 1936 it produced the first "disaster" musical, San Francisco (actually a drama with songs, discussed earlier as a prestige picture), and the first big musical biography, The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard). A three-hour musical biopic loosely based on the life of the master showman Florenz Ziegfeld, The Great Ziegfeld was the most lavish Hollywood production up to that time. The New York Times said the picture "cost Metro about $500,000 an hour.… It is there…in the glittering sets, the exuberantly extravagant song-and-dance numbers, the brilliant costumes, the whole sweeping panoply of a Ziegfeld show produced with a princely disregard for the cost accountant." A highly romanticized version of Ziegfeld's life written by William Anthony McGuire, this backstage musical starred William Powell in the title role and Luise Rainer and Myrna Loy as his two wives, Anna Held and Billie Burke. A thin plot provided the excuse to introduce "a medley of guest stars impersonated or in the flesh" and "specialty numbers of no relevance to plot or characters." Roadshowed for five months in twenty-three theaters, The Great Ziegfeld grossed nearly $5 million worldwide during its first release, making it one of MGM's most successful pictures of the decade.83 At Academy Award time, it picked up Oscars for best picture and best actress (Luise Rainer). As might be expected, it inspired imitations, which included MGM's own The Great Waltz(1938), a musical biopic about Johann Strauss; Paramount's The Great Victor Herbert (1939); RKO's The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939); and Fox's Rose of Washington Square (1939), an homage to Fanny Brice.
Describing the appeal of MGM's Technicolor spectacle The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), Variety said, "There's an audience for 'Oz' wherever there's a projection machine and a screen."84 Inspired by the success of Walt Disney's musical fantasy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), MGM turned to L. Frank Baum's popular children's saga The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published in 1900 and had formed the basis for a hit Broadway musical and two silent films. Writers Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf modified the story by introducing a crotchety but loving aunt, a busybody spinster witch, a Brooklyn-accented clown lion, and a midwestern medicine-show wizard.
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy at a cost of $2.8 million, The Wizard of Oz made a star out of seventeen-year-old Judy Garland and contained a flawless cast that included Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr. The picture's charms include the now-familiar songs by E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, particularly the Academy Award-winning "Over the Rainbow," which Judy Garland sings in the opening sequence; the fanciful settings by Cedric Gibbons and William A. Horning, which used color in countless imaginative ways; and the special effects of Arnold Gillespie, which include "a cyclone made out of a woman's stocking and an army of flying monkeys suspended by thousands of piano wires."85 The Wizard of Oz made it to the Variety and Film Daily honor rolls, but because of the record production costs, the picture did not break even the first time out.
Before its merger with Twentieth Century in 1935, Fox's musical production consisted of an assortment of production styles and themes. Happy Days (Benjamin Stoloff, 1930), Fox's contribution to the musical revue cycle, was presented at the New York Roxy in Fox's 70-mm Grandeur System wide-film process. Fox also produced a series of romances with songs that teamed Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Delicious (David Butler, 1931) was noted for its Gershwin score and an imaginative seven-minute dream sequence, "New York Rhapsody," the music for which Gershwin later reworked into a concert piece for piano and orchestra, the Second Rhapsody.86
Shirley Temple took over as Fox's top box-office attraction in 1935. The new "Leading Waif," Shirley Temple ranked number one at the box office four years in a row, from 1935 to 1938. Most of the twenty-four pictures she made for Fox were essentially sentimental comedies, with songs and dances added. They told simple stories and contained little in the way of production values. And they were cheap to make, costing between $200,000 and $300,000.
The titles of her pictures say much about how she was marketed; she played in Bright Eyes, Curly Top, Dimples, and a series of "Little" pictures—The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Our Little Girl, Poor Little Rich Girl, Little Miss Broadway, and The Princess. In these films, Shirley suffered vicissitudes worthy of the most lurid Victorian melodrama. As William Everson put it, "Shirley had an incredible traumatic history of mothers who were run over by buses or done in by pneumonia, of fathers who were away at war or awaiting execution, with long periods in stern orphan asylums in between. Her problems ranged from the Victorian era and the Civil War to being chased by a sex maniac in New York."87 Typical of the child and adolescent pictures of the time, Shirley played a fixer-upper, a matchmaker, or a good fairy who invariably reunited her parents or straightened out the romance of two young people. Two of her pictures made it to Variety's annual list of box-office champs—Curly Top (Irving Cummings, 1935), a musical adaptation of Mary Pickford's Daddy Long Legs, which featured her singing "Animal Crackers in My Soup" and "When I Grow Up," and The Littlest Rebel (David Butler, 1935), a comedy set in the Civil War that featured her dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
Shirley's songs have been described by John Kobal as "among the most vivid of the musical memories of the 30s." The songs that are most closely identified with her, such as "On the Good Ship Lollipop," "Baby Take a Bow," "Animal Crackers in My Soup," "When I Grow Up," and "That's What I Want for Christmas," became hits on their own, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of sheet music and placing her up there on the charts with Bing Crosby, Nelson Eddy, and Alice Faye.88
After fixing the formula for the Shirley Temple pictures, Darryl Zanuck devised a musical formula for his newest find, Sonja Henie. A three-time Olympic figure-skating champion from Norway, Henie appeared in nine movies for Fox, six of which were produced in the 1930s:One in a Million (1936), Thin ice (1937), Happy Landing (1938), My Lucky Star Second Fiddle (1939), and Everything Happens at Night (1939). Sidney Lanfield, Roy Del Ruth, and Irving Cummings directed her, and Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, Richard Greene, and Ray Milland played her leading men. Every film contained at least one spectacular number to show off her ice-skating skills. In My Lucky Star, for example, she performed an ice version of Alice in Wonderland, a sequence that was shot in sepia. Of her acting skills, Variety said in its review of Happy Landing,
Obviously Miss Henie still hasn't heard about acting. But as long as she's given stories like Happy Landing, handled so shrewdly and surrounded by such competent support, she continues to be a click. Roy Del Ruth has wisely minimized closeups and hasn't given the lady too many lines. Apparently her sole effective expression is an infectious smile, more than offsetting a rather monotonous way of reading dialogue. Still, she's cute, appealing and a genuine thrill on skates. (VFR, 26 January 1938)
Around the low, mellow singing voice of Alice Faye, Zanuck crafted a backstage musical formula that made her the studio's top musical star of the late 1930s. Zanuck placed her in modern stories at first, such as King of Burlesque (Sidney Landfield, 1936), Sing, Baby, Sing (Sidney Landfield, 1936), Wake Up and Live (Sidney Landfield, 1937), and You (Norman Taurog, 1937). and You Can't Have Everything (Norman Taurog, 1937). Describing the formula for these pictures, Variety said, "Zanuck has developed a formula for this kind of entertainment…which is an expert piecing-together of story, melody, blackouts, nightclub specialties and production numbers. The fact that it looks as if it were easy to make is the best evidence that it is well done."89
Then, taking his cue from MGM, Zanuck produced two big-budget period musicals, In Old Chicago (1938) and Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), leading some to rename the studio "19th Century-Fox." Directed by Henry King and designed as vehicles for Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, and Don Ameche, both pictures made it to Film Daily's Ten Best. In Old Chicago was a disaster musical inspired by MGM's San Francisco. Based on a script by Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien, In Old Chicago, like MGM's disaster film, portrayed the bawdy and ostentatious life of a mighty American city in its youth, interwove musical numbers into the narrative, and featured a spectacular disaster sequence. Produced at a cost of $1.8 million, it was set in 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire. William S. Darling and Rudolph Sternad designed the sets, and H. Bruce Humberstone led a special-effects team that created a spectacular fire sequence lasting twenty-five minutes. One of the top-grossing films of the year, In Old Chicago was nominated for six Academy Awards and won the Oscar in two categories: the best supporting-actress award went to Alice Brady for her role as Molly O'Leary and the assistant-director award went to Robert Webb for his direction of the disaster sequence.
Alexander's Ragtime Band, like MGM's The Great Ziegfeld, was a musical biopic loosely based on the life of a great showman and started out early in the century and progressed to the present. The Great Ziegfeld was a tribute to Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld; Alexander's Ragtime Band was a tribute to Tin Pan Alley's "most famous lodger," Irving Berlin. Produced at more than $2 million and containing twenty-six Berlin tunes, this "cavalcade of American jazz," as the New York Times described it, became one of the highest-grossing pictures of the decade. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Zanuck followed up the picture with another period musical, Rose of Washing ton Square (1939), a fictionalized biopic of Fanny Brice that starred Alice Faye and Tyrone Power.
After the demise of the Chevalier-MacDonald continental fairy tale, Paramount devised a completely new strategy. Influenced by the enormous success of MGM's Grand Hotel, with its all-star cast and single setting that motivated the interweaving of multiple subplots, Paramount produced The Big Broadcast (Frank Tuttle, 1932), a loosely structured musical that linked a number of radio stars: Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Boswell Sisters, the Mills Brothers, Kate Smith, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway and his band, and Vincent Lopez and his orchestra. George Burns, the harried station manager who is besieged by creditors, carries the story. Assisting him is his incompetent secretary, Gracie Allen. The radio station itself motivates the guest appearances, each of which is introduced on camera by the same announcer who handled that function on the star's weekly broadcasts. Bing Crosby played just himself, a happy-go-lucky crooner and a top name at the radio station. Paramount highlighted his musical numbers and exploited the radio audience's familiarity with his material by giving him only one original song, "Please," written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger. His three other songs were hits he created on his radio shows, the best-remembered being his signature song, "Where the Blue of the Night."90
Paramount followed up the success of The Big Broadcast with International House (Edward Sutherland, 1933). W. C. Fields and Burns and Allen headed the roster which included Rudy Vallee, Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd, Baby Rose Marie, and Bela Lugosi. International House, like The Big Broadcast, has a loose, episodic structure that interweaves specialty and musical numbers, but it differs from its predecessor by relying on parody for much of the comedy. The target of the parody is the same Grand Hotel that provided the idea for the series. The Grand Hotel in the Paramount picture is located in Shanghai, where a group of quarantined travelers are shown specialty acts on an experimental television set perfected by a local doctor.
The formula had fully proved itself, and Paramount exploited it three more times by producing Big Broadcast pictures of 1936, 1937, and 1938 (released in 1935, 1936, and 1938, respectively). All are held together by nonsensical plots, and all are basically vaudeville revues spotlighting radio talent. The 1937 picture marked the beginning of Jack Benny's long association with Paramount, and the 1938 picture marked Bob Hope's movie debut. It is in this picture that Hope sings "Thanks for the Memory," which went on to become his signature song.
Bing Crosby was the only radio name who also became a motion-picture star. As a result of the warm reception he received in The Big Broadcast, Crosby decided to branch out into the movies and signed his first multiple-picture contract with Paramount in 1933; he was already a top radio attraction and his records were selling in the millions. However, Crosby refused to take star billing in the movies until his third picture, Too Much Harmony (1933), believing that an unsuccessful try at movie stardom might damage his career. But Paramount surrounded him with top comic talent and glamorous leading ladies and tailor-made his roles, which allowed him to exude an aura of friendliness and easygoing charm that made him a durable star attraction.
Crosby made around three pictures a year, and although some were panned by critics, all were good box office. Today, the films are remembered primarily for their songs. For example, College Humor (Wesley Ruggles, 1933) contained one of Crosby's biggest hits, "Learn to Croon," by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston; She Loves Me Not (Elliott Nugent, 1934), one of Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin's best-known songs, "Love in Bloom"; MISSISSIPPI (Edward Suther-land, 1935), a Rogers and Hart score studded with three hits, "Soon," "Easy to Remember," and "Down by the River"; and Waikiki Wedding (Frank Tuttle, 1937), which made it to Variety's list of box-office winners and featured Crosby crooning Hawaiian songs, including the Oscar-winning "Sweet Leilani," by Harry Owens.
Concerning the musicals of the Little Three, Columbia's principal strategy was to devise vehicles for Grace Moore, as previously mentioned. Universal's principal contributions to the genre consisted of Show Boat (James Whale, 1936), its second version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway musical, and a series of Deanna Durbin pictures. Show Boat was the last major production of the Carl Laemmle regime. (Universal's first version of the musical started out a silent, but was hurriedly turned into a part-talkie in 1929.) Believing the public had grown tired of the show-stopping songs in the original, Carl Laemmle, Jr., gave the order to strike all the numbers with the exception of "OI' Man River." However, as the picture went into development, he had a change of heart and instructed Hammerstein, who was writing the screenplay, to restore the originals and even to add new songs. Starring Irene Dunne as Magnolia and featuring Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal, Charles Winninger as Captain Andy, Paul Robson as Joe, and Helen Morgan as the ill-fated mulatto Julie, this version of Show Boat is generally regarded as one of the all-time great musicals.
Universal's new management had the good fortune to discover an adolescent star who almost single-handedly stabilized the shaky financial supports of the company. Of Deanna Durbin's box-office power, Fortune said, "It has long been a common Hollywood assumption that Durbin had been keeping that underprivileged studio [Universal] from bankruptcy single-handed." She was a teenage soprano "whose sweet, bell-like tones, pretty face, unspoilt personality and eye for fun" made her "the logical successor to the mantles of MacDonald and Dunne, in spite of the age difference."91
The architects of her pictures were producer Joseph Pasternak and director Henry Koster. Before coming to Hollywood, Pasternak and Koster worked as a production team at Universal's Berlin studios. Pasternak produced all ten of Durbin's earliest pictures, and Koster directed six. (Pasternak left Universal for MGM in 1941.) The other members of the production unit consisted of screenwriter Bruce Manning, cameraman Joseph Valentine, and music director Charles Previn. Called "Pasternak Specials," the Durbin pictures contained either Cinderella or Little Miss Fix-it stories. In all of them, she sang selections from the classical repertoire or grand opera and new pieces specially composed for her.
Playing Little Miss Fix-it in her first Universal picture, Three Smart Girls (Henry Koster, 1936), the fifteen-year-old Durbin became a star and launched two hit songs, "My Heart Is Singing" and "Someone to Care for Me," by Gus Kahn, Walter Jurmann, and Bronislau Kaper. "Miss Durbin stands out not only as 'a darling child' personality, but as a winsome little dramatic actress whose talents do not end with an ability to hit the high registers," said Variety. Soon after, Durbin signed a new contract that paid her $1,500 a week and committed her to three pictures a year.92
To produce her next picture, One Hundred Men and a Girl (Henry Koster, 1937), Universal budgeted $600,000, twice the amount spent on Three Smart Girls. Since the goal was to spotlight Durbin's "classical" talents, Universal wrote in a part for Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who is enlisted by Durbin to form an orchestra of one hundred unemployed musicians. The task completed, Maestro Stokowski leads the orchestra as she sings Mozart's "Exsultate, Jubilate" and "Libiamo," from Verdi's La Traviata. After this picture, Universal doubled Durbin's salary to $3,000 a week.
Durbin's other thirties pictures are Mad About Music (Norman Taurog, 1938), That Certain Age (Edward Ludwig, 1938), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (Henry Koster, 1939), and First Love (Henry Koster, 1939). Variety's review of Three Smart Girls Grow Up nicely sums up their reception:
A warm, thoroughly delightful family entertainment that seems certain for big grosses and lots of holdovers. It will enhance Universal's standing in general and say the same for the film industry. Escape literature with smiles, heart-tug, lustre, and a collection of thoroughly nice people, the film is a welcome antidote to the front page headlines. It should tear up records like they tear up treaties in Europe. (VFR, 22 March 1939)
United Artists' producers released only a few musicals after 1934, among them The Goldwyn Follies (George Marshall, 1938) and Walter Wanger's Vogues of 1938 (Irving Cummings, 1937). Walt Disney, a former UA independent producer who moved to RKO, produced a musical that was in a class by itself. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), produced by Disney for RKO release, was the first full-length animated feature and the most successful musical of the decade. Based on the Grimm fairy tale "Little Snow White," Snow White was the creation of teams of writers, composers, sequence directors, supervising animators, and sound-effects people, among others. It took the Disney organization three years and $1.5 million to make, but the expense and effort paid off. The picture ran continuously at popular prices for five weeks in its New York run at the Radio City Music Hall, playing to 800,000 persons and taking in over a half million dollars, an unprecedented amount for the period.93 At the conclusion of its first theatrical release, the picture set another record—$8.5 million in film rentals. The hit songs in the picture were "Some Day My Prince Will Come," "I'm Wishing," "Heigh-Ho," and "Whistle While You Work." Variety said of the picture,
Snow White was a surprise, an animated, feature-length cartoon, which, the industry predicted, would be of mild and limited interest only; a jolt and a challenge to the industry's creative brains. Only reason why it wasn't followed up by a flood of similar cartoon features, merely on the basis of its astonishing grosses, was that elaborate animations of this kind are so staggeringly expensive to make. (Jack Jungmeyer, "Film Production Trends," 4 January 1939, p. 8)
By 1938, the series musical had just about run its course. Among the pictures that were conceived of as potential series were Paramount's Artists and Models (1937), Universal's Merry-Go-Round OF 1938 (1937), RKO's New Faces of 1937, and UA's Vogues of 1938 (1937) and The Goldwyn Follies (1938), but none caught on. By the end of 1938, studios started closing down their musical production units. Variety reported that Warners purged all "contract cleffers from its music department"; let the option lapse on its "chief songster," Dick Powell; and cut its musical schedule "to lowest program in a long time." At Paramount, Boris Morros, the head of the music department, quit.94 But when America entered the war, audiences welcomed back this trend.
Although the origin of the term woman's film is unknown, the cycle typically refers to a type of motion picture that revolves around an adult female protagonist and is designed to appeal mostly to a female audience.95 Hollywood assumed that the motion-picture audience was mostly female, although the industry never collected the empirical evidence to substantiate this claim. Whatever the "true" composition of the audience, producers wanted to attract women and differentiated their product accordingly. Introduced as a production trend in the teens, the woman's film was enriched by the talkies and during the thirties it flourished. In the first half of the decade, the woman's film accounted for over a quarter of the pictures on Film Daily's Ten Best. Although the percentage decreased thereafter, it remained a production staple and culminated in the biggest woman's attraction of them all, Gone With the Wind.
Woman's film is a term of convenience to describe a range of pictures commonly referred to as fallen-woman films, romantic drama, Cinderella romances, and gold-digger or working-girl stories. The titles of such pictures are often taken from the names of their heroines or make some reference to women's conditions. The conflicts in the pictures involve interpersonal relationships that present the heroine with dilemmas the resolutions of which usually entail loss. According to Molly Haskell, the heroine in women's films must "sacrifice her own welfare for that of her children,… give up her (sometimes illegitimate) child for its own good,… abandon respectable marriage for her lover,… give up her lover (or possibility of one) because he is married,… relinquish her career for love,… [or] give up love for her career."96
Producers did not necessarily assign such projects to women writers. Like other artistic personnel, screenwriters were expected to be versatile. Sarah Y. Mason, a writer on Little Women (1933), shared the Oscar with Victor Heerman for best screenplay, but Frances Marion, the most prominent woman screenwriter of the period, won Oscars for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931), which were hardly woman's pictures. As it happened, the finest examples of the woman's film were written by men.
A few directors specialized in the trend. Dorothy Arzner, one of the few female directors in the history of Hollywood, made a half dozen pictures during the thirties, all of which were woman's films, among them Christopher Strong (RKO, 1933), Nana (Goldwyn, 1934), and Craig's Wife (Columbia, 1936). Among the men, John M. Stahl, for example, directed all three of Universal's big woman's films, Back Street (1932), Only Yesterday (1933), and Imitation of Life (1934). Josef von Sternberg handled all but three of Marlene Dietrich's thirties vehicles at Paramount, among them Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Blonde Venus (1932). Clarence Brown directed Greta Garbo's early talkies, including Anna Christie (1930), Romance and Karenina (1935) at MGM. And George Cukor directed some of the better efforts of Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, and other great female stars at several top studios. However, these directors were the exceptions; even so-called action directors such as Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, and Mervyn LeRoy, and horror-film specialist James Whale contributed to the trend.
The fallen-woman cycle dominated the woman's film early in the decade. A bifurcated cycle, the fallen-woman film consists of the kept-woman film, a type depicting a woman in an illicit sexual relationship who uses her sexuality to provide her with wealth and a rise in social status, and the maternal melodrama, a type depicting "an errant mother who comes back into contact with her child after many years and conceals her true identity for fear of her evil past."97 "Sinful Girls Lead in 1931," said Variety, indicating the high-water mark of the cycle. "Important ladies of the screen… found smash films the wages of cinematic sin. The Great God Public, formerly considered a Puritan censor, voiced its approval with admission fees that fully endorsed heroines of easy virtue…. Public taste switched [from heroines on pedestals] to glamorous, shameful ladies, pampered by penthouses, coddled by limousines, clothed in couturier smartness." Commenting on the popularity of maternal melodramas, Variety added, "More babies were wrenched from their mothers' arms in 1931 than in any previous film year; more tears were shed over unofficial motherhood and the final renunciation that washed records clean. Every infant torn from a sobbing mother brought a happy smile to the box office."98
For ideas to make these pictures, Hollywood drew from continental sources, such as Tolstoy's Resurrection and Anna Karenina Zola's Nana; American progressive literature, such as Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Jennie Gerhardt, David Graham Phillips's Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise, and Sinclair Lewis's Ann Vickers. From the stage, Hollywood tapped Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, Robert E. Sherwood's Waterloo Bridge, and Zoë Akin's Morning Glory. Turning to popular contemporary women's writers, Hollywood fed on the novels of Fannie Hurst, such as Back Street and Imitation of Life, and stories from True Romance to Ladies Home Journal by Adela Rogers St. John, Maurine Watkins, and Mildred Cram.
In adapting these works to the screen, Hollywood did not infuse them with a Victorian morality that punished the errant woman. According to Lea Jacobs,
In a whole body of films devoted to working-class girls in an urban milieu, the stereotype of the injured innocent or world-weary demimondaine gave way to any one of a series of self-consciously "modern" American types: flappers, gold diggers, chorines, wisecracking shopgirls. While the heroine could be a kept woman, a trickster, or simply out to marry a millionaire, the stories revolved around the problem of obtaining furs, automobiles, diamonds, and clothes from men. Thus, the downward trajectory of the fall was replaced by a rise in class. (The Wages of Sin [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991], p. 11)
Jacobs also argues that maternal melodramas typically "downplay the heroine's degradation and decline in favor of upward mobility" through work or marriage.99
It was just this plot structure that made reformers wince. Noting that the new Production Code in 1930 was supposed to outlaw immoral pictures, the Outlook and Independent said that Hollywood "is dedicated to the proposition that America is the most sex-conscious nation in the world. You question it? Examine a bouquet of successful movie titles snatched at random from the electric lights of Main Streets from Portland to Portland: Single Standard, Street Girl, Half Marriage, Fast Life, His Captive Woman, Dangerous Woman." Movies such as these were supposed to have exercised "a pernicious influence upon women." For example, an editorial in the Christian Century appraising Hollywood's 1932 output said, "The leading ladies of the screen… sold themselves short in functions ranging… from noble prostitution to carefree concupiscence. When one considers the number of young girls who pattern their behavior after motion picture screen stars, we need not be surprised if there is an increase of strumpetry along our main streets in the near future."100
Noting that only a few fallen-women films were produced in the latter half of the thirties, it is tempting to point to the so-called stricter enforcement of the Production Code as the cause. After all, the Code was supposed to uphold the "sanctity of the institution of marriage" by condemning adultery and illicit sex and by outlawing "excessive or lustful kissing," among other things. A review of Hollywood's output from 1930 to 1934 reveals that the popularity of the cycle waned after 1931. Studios that produced seven or more fallen-women films in 1931 cut back to two or even one such film in 1932 and 1933. Moreover, parodies of the cycle appeared after 1931, for example, the vehicles MGM fashioned for Jean Harlow. Such reworkings of the formula "suggest that the cycle was beginning to pall and that its conventions were sufficiently (over-)familiar to warrant burlesquing." The fallen-woman films produced after 1934 conformed to the Code by treating potentially offensive material with greater ambiguity, but to repeat, the Code itself did not cause the cycle's decline.101
MGM produced more fallen-woman films than any other studio. In 1930 the studio released six fallen-women films; in 1931, ten; in 1932, three; in 1933, one; and 1934, two.102 As a group, the MGM films are distinguishable from the output of other studios by their star power and by their special handling. Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow generated the star power, and MGM's publicity machinery, the special campaigns and roadshow releases.
In 1931, the peak year of the cycle, fallen-woman films represented a remarkable 22 percent of the studio's output. The Sin of Madelon Claudet, which starred Helen Hayes, generated the most interest, making it to the number-ten spot on Film Daily's poll and winning the Oscar for best actress. Variety said, "Wistful Helen Hayes shot to meteoric success as Madelon Claudet, a besodden wretch of the Parisian by-ways. Buffeted from pomp to prison, slipping into pitiably made-up decrepitude—all because she loved unwisely and too well—she became the overnight sensation of cinema land."103
Beginning in 1933, MGM's big names were no longer associated with the cycle, suggesting that from the studio's perspective the cycle had gone downhill. Thereafter, MGM produced other types of women's pictures, ranging from sophisticated (but not sinful) dramas starring Norma Shearer, to contemporary romances starring Joan Crawford, to historical romances starring Greta Garbo.
Norma Shearer specialized at first in adult romantic dramas playing "ultraemancipated heroines." Her first three thirties pictures—The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930), Let Us Be Gay (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930), and Strangers May Kiss (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)—deal with infidelity and, according to Gavin Lambert, are "gift-wrapped in the conventions of the time":
Each time she is finally reconciled with her husband, or the man who wants her to settle down and marry him, and each time an "excuse" is made for her infidelities, she feels neglected or misunderstood or the husband is unfaithful first. From Long Island to Paris, Mexico to Madrid, her partying takes Norma back to the Jazz Age; then, weary of pleasure, she accepts the post-Depression verdict of her suitor in Strangers May Kiss: "We like to mix our drinks, but we take our women straight." So the double standard continued to triumph, and audiences were equally delighted by a life of risk and a return to safety. (Norma Shearer: A Life [New York: Knopf, 1990], p. 137)
After this group of pictures, Shearer's theater-based vehicles range in style from the comedy of manners, to drama, to melodrama. The most adventuresome was Strange Interlude (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932), a drama based on Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize play. Playing Nina Leeds, Shearer assumed the role Lynn Fontanne had created in the original Broadway production of 1928. C. Gardner Sullivan and Bess Meredyth compressed the five-hour play to less than two hours. Shearer plays a neurotic woman who has to confront loss of love, insanity in her family, and the shifting affections of several men in her life. A case study of Freudian sexuality, the role required her to age from eighteen to her late sixties, during which she has "a romantic fixation on her father, escapes from it into marriage and motherhood, still feels confined, liberates herself again with an affair, and ends up as a kind of Jocasta to her Oedipal son."104
O'Neill's play was experimental for its time, using asides to reveal the characters' thoughts and feelings. The picture handled this by having a character voice his or her actual words and then by having the character articulate his or her subconscious thoughts in a voice-over while adopting an appropriate facial expression. Variety called Strange Interlude "a critic's and a woman's picture," but "the hinterland" was cool to the picture, and it ended up $90,000 in the red.105 Thalberg's strategy did not really pay off until The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934), a widely acclaimed and profitable prestige picture.
Garbo invariably played either a vamp who broke men's hearts or a disillusioned woman of the world who falls hopelessly and giddily in love and suffers and sometimes dies when her lover deserts her on hearing of her past. After her sensational talking debut as a washed-out prostitute in Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930), Greta Garbo varied her image of a fallen woman playing an Italian diva in Romance (Clarence Brown, 1930), a Parisian artist's model in Inspiration (Clarence Brown, 1931), a carnival kootch girl in Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931), a German spy in Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1932), and a chanteuse in a Budapest night club in As You Desire Me (George Fitzmaurice, 1932). In Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), the only picture in this group that departs from this formula, she plays one of her most famous roles, the world-weary Russian ballerina Grusinskaya.
Reviewers fretted over her Swedish accent and her ability to read lines at first, but then complained that the stories Thalberg chose for her were unworthy of her talents. Reviewers also lamented the choice of her leading men. In her first talkies, she played opposite Charles Bickford, Gavin Gordon, and Robert Montgomery. Not until she teamed up with Clark Gable in Susan Lenox did her leading man have what fan magazines called "masculine S. A." Gable's presence revived the formula and helped make the picture one of Garbo's biggest successes. Her love scenes with John Barrymore in Grand Hotel were even more impressive.
Garbo's five-year contract with the studio expired in June 1932. Then at the height of her mass appeal, Garbo decided to vacation in Sweden, where she planned to remain until the studio gave her a new contract with a say in the choice of properties. After eight months, she agreed to return to the studio if she could make a picture based on the seventeenth-century Swedish monarch Queen Christina and if John Gilbert could be her co-star. Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933), a biopic produced by Walter Wanger, marked a new phase of her career, in which she played tragic heroines in a series of prestige historical dramas.
Ranking behind Garbo and Shearer in status, Joan Crawford sustained her career playing the role of the "independent" woman, "who through choice or circumstance was forced to survive in modern society on her own." Although her social station varied from film to film, she played a kept woman in Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931), a prostitute in Rain (UA; Lewis Milestone, 1932), and a woman on the make in Chained (Clarence Brown, 1934). In all her films, the problems she confronted "were what were thought to be 'women's problems' in the 1930s: finding the 'right man,' being in love with the 'wrong' man, raising children, and earning a living in a man's world."106
By the time Jean Harlow joined MGM in 1932, the fallen-woman cycle had just about run its course. But the studio used the cycle to good advantage by capitalizing on Harlow's flare for comedy. Her best pictures, Red Dust (Victor Fleming, 1932) and China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935), contain hot-love-in-the-isolated-tropics plots in which she plays Sadie Thompson types opposite Clark Gable. She also played a memorable role as "a petulant, nouveau riche wife" in Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933).107
Following the pattern of MGM, Paramount's fallen-women films also peaked in 1931 and then went down to practically nothing by 1934. At first, the studio relied on Ruth Chatterton. Two pictures typify her work, Sarah and Son (Dorothy Arzner, 1930) and Unfaithful (John Cromwell, 1931). In the former, Chatterton repeated the Madame X role she did for MGM in 1929 and played a "faithless wife who pays and declines and weeps and is at length defended in a murder trial by (unbeknownst to him!) her own son." Variety called this maternal melodrama a "three-handkerchief weepie." Of the latter picture, Variety said, "A first-class woman's story done in a modernized version of Arthur Wing Pinero; it's the sort of thing that Mrs. Pat Campbell used to moan through, only it has been jazzed up in the current style and if the femme fans don't go for it complete, the Empire State building is a bungalow."108
Paramount pinned its hopes on Marlene Dietrich. Like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich was one of the biggest stars of the thirties, and like Garbo, she devoted herself mostly to playing vamps. Her image as a femme fatale became fixed playing Lola-Lola in von Sternberg's first talking film, The Blue Angel (1930), produced in Germany as a co-venture of UFA and Paramount. The picture was shot simultaneously in German and in English for worldwide distribution. In creating the Dietrich myth, von Sternberg said, "What I did was to dramatize her attributes and make them visible for all to see."109
After the success of the Berlin premiere, Paramount thought it had found a foreign star to rival Garbo and therefore signed Dietrich to a contract to work with von Sternberg on Morocco (1930). To introduce her to the American public, Paramount held back the general release of The Blue Angel in the United States until after Morocco hit the market. The Blue Angel was really Emil Jannings's picture, and besides, Paramount wanted to present its own version of the Dietrich persona first.
Playing opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco, Dietrich plays another cabaret artist, Amy Jolly, but unlike Lola-Lola, she is not a calculating destroyer of men; in a role reversal, it is she who falls hopelessly in love and is humbled by her lover. At the conclusion of the picture, Dietrich decides to be a camp follower and goes off into the desert (in high heels, no less) to her young French Legionnaire. Jules Furthman did the screenplay, which was based on the novel Amy Jolly, by Benno Vigny; Lee Garmes, the cinematography; Hans Dreier, the sets; and Travis Banton, the costumes. Released on a grind basis in New York rather than as a roadshow (Paramount knew the audience for this type of picture), Morocco was introduced by a huge publicity campaign that emphasized a rivalry with Garbo. Variety's estimate of the picture was as follows:
The Dietrich girl has the Continental acting tricks, like Garbo. One is the tragic face—always tragic. Miss Dietrich perhaps smiles once in the entire picture, although in one section of it she's a cabaret singer and sings two songs, also in the Continental way. Otherwise the German girl looks quite nice and has an expressive face with features that photo well. But what she really holds in the talent line will have to be brought out by a stronger picture than Morocco. (Variety, 19 November 1930)
The Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration resulted in five additional pictures: Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlett Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). In these pictures she played, respectively, X-27, a World War I spy who sacrifices herself for her lover by going to the firing squad; Shanghai Lily, China's most famous white prostitute; Helen Faraday, a famous nightclub entertainer; a degenerate Catherine the Great; and Concha Perez, a Spanish fille de joie. Following the precedent established by Morocco, Dietrich performs suggestive songs more often than not in bizarre costumes against exotic sets, courtesy of Travis Banton and Hans Dreier. What made them distinctive, of course, was von Sternberg's unmistakable visual bravura.
The early Dietrich-von Sternberg films were considered art films and were accorded greater liberty in the depiction of "immoral" behavior. The National Board of Review, which commended films "for their artistic merit and for progress in the course of film art," named Morocco and Dishonored to its list of Ten Best American Films. Shanghai Express, considered the finest of the group, received Oscar nominations for best picture, best direction, and best cinematography (Lee Garnies) and won in the latter category.
However, the Dietrich-von Sternberg magic began to lose its appeal with Blonde Venus. For one thing, von Sternberg's style became too mannered and too exotic for general tastes. For another, the plots become trite and fragmented. Blonde Venus was written by Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren from a story by von Sternberg and combined tropes from the maternal melodrama and the fallen-woman film. Starting out a happily married wife and mother, Dietrich is taken on a downward trajectory to become first a cabaret singer, then a kept woman, and finally a prostitute; after bottoming out, her fortunes improve as she becomes a famous singer, the toast of Paris, and then a regenerated wife and mother as she is taken back by her husband. The nightclub number she performs in Paris, "Hot Voodoo," is one of her most unusual; she appears in a huge gorilla suit accompanied by spear-carrying chorus girls.
Disappointed by the poor showing of Blonde Venus, Paramount tried to revitalize Dietrich's image by assigning Rouben Mamoulian to direct her next picture and by developing Hermann Sudermann's Song of Songs, a novel that had presented "histrionic opportunities to Duse, Bernhardt, Modjeska, Pola Negri and Elsie Ferguson." In Song of Songs (1933), Dietrich starts out an innocent peasant girl, becomes a sculptor's model, and then drifts from lover to lover. Paramount gave the picture a prestige send-off by arranging a roadshow engagement. Variety's verdict: "Beautiful and artistic in montage and cinematog raphy, but these elements have been permitted to eclipse the basic box-office intent. What matter the beautiful pan shots, idyllic scenes in the wildwood, the cinematic portrayal of the unsophisticated, peasant girl's amorous outpourings if it doesn't entertain?"110
The two Dietrich-von Sternberg pictures that followed, The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), were appreciated by the cognoscenti for their sophisticated themes and for the striking beauty of their settings and their photography, but what André Sennwald of the New York Times said of the latter probably held true for both: von Sternberg's work was "misunderstood and disliked by nine-tenths of the normal motion picture public."111
Trying to tap the woman's-film market using a foreign art-film model did not work. Devising another strategy, Paramount produced woman's pictures based on controversial American novels. An American Tragedy (Josef von Sternberg, 1931) and Jennie Gerhardt (Marion Gering, 1933), were based on Theodore Dreiser novels and starred Sylvia Sidney. Both pictures deleted the social criticism and merely relied on the "lurid curiosity value" of Theodore Dreiser's name. The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts, 1933), an adaptation of William Faulkner's Sanctuary starring Miriam Hopkins, was "a sordid tale," said Variety. "No amount of seasoning to camouflage the basic rancidness of the theme can square it. It's hazy, befogged and replete with loose ends which, for obvious censorial reasons, can't be made to jell."112
Paramount's A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932), the first film adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel, fared best. Described by Variety as "the femmes' All Quiet—the romantic side of the great holocaust," the picture co-starred Helen Hayes as the English nurse in war-torn Italy and Gary Cooper as an American ambulance driver.113 In its Broadway roadshow release, the picture ended with an "orthodox novel finish," in which Hayes dies with her unborn baby. For the general release, Paramount gave exhibitors a choice of two endings, the original or a happy, Pollyannaish fade-out. Nominated for the best-picture Oscar and voted into Film Daily's Ten Best, A Farewell to Arms achieved prestige status.
With actresses like Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, and others on its roster, RKO tried to corner the woman's-film market, releasing six fallen-woman pictures in 1931 alone. RKO had so many box-office draws under contract that it differentiated its fallen-woman pictures by star and by type. For example, Constance Bennett typically played more sophisticated roles, whereas Helen Twelvetrees typically played working-class heroines. Capitalizing further on the woman's picture, the studio also produced maternal melodramas.
A free-lance actress, Constance Bennett worked for Warners and MGM in addition to RKO. In 1931, her peak year, she made five hit pictures and was ranked second only to Garbo in the polls. Her RKO films include Born To Love (Paul L. Stein, 1931), The Common Law (Paul L. Stein, 1931), Lady with a Past (Edward H. Griffith, 1932), and What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932). The first three are either fallen-woman films or maternal melodramas. The last one is a Cinderella story about a waitress who becomes a movie star. Produced by David O. Selznick, What Price Hollywood? presented a romantic view of the movies and became the prototype for Selznick's A Star Is Born (1937).
Ann Harding became a star in Pathé's Holiday (Edward H. Griffith, 1930), a comedy of manners based on the Broadway hit by Philip Barry. Harding received an Oscar nomination for best actress, and the picture made it to Film Daily's Ten Best. After the studio merged with RKO, she starred in another Philip Barry comedy, The Animal Kingdom (Edward H. Griffith, 1932). Her talents as a sophisticated actress were also used in a series of melodramas, imparting to them "a reality they didn't deserve." The Life of Vergie Winters (Alfred Santell, 1934), in Variety's opinion, was "one of those sobbers with the distinctive knack of drawing tears easily, naturally, and not forcing them. The women will go for it, and that's bound to mean business."114
The popularity of this group of female stars was short-lived. Constance Bennett, who was washed up at RKO by 1933, had several things going against her; she repeated the same roles in too many pictures too often. A star like Garbo made two films a year, but Bennett turned out four to six. Describing the quality of her scripts, Variety said that the formula of Born to Love "has been used by every film producer who could afford to buy a camera. … In Born to Love Constance Bennett is ruined again and has another baby. One of those war babies." Describing her acting style, Variety said that in it was becoming as "stereotyped as the stories themselves." The Common Law115
After the collapse of these stars, RKO pinned its hopes on a newcomer, Katharine Hepburn. The actress made a sensational motion-picture debut playing a devoted daughter opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (George Cukor, 1932), a role played by Katharine Cornell on Broadway. In her next picture, Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933), Hepburn played Lady Cynthia Darrington, a daring lady aviator who falls passionately in love with Sir Christopher Strong and commits suicide when she finds herself pregnant. The role, said Richard Jewell, "created a screen persona for Miss Hepburn that she would build upon for the rest of her career—independent, intelligent, courageous but, at the same time, vulnerable and sadly wistful due to her separation from orthodox life styles."116 Christopher Strong died at the box office, but Hepburn had better luck with Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933), winning an Oscar in a Cinderella story about a struggling young actress who gets her big break and becomes a star. Hepburn solidified her reputation in Little Women (George Cukor, 1933) and helped revitalize the prestige picture.
Just when the fallen-woman cycle was thought to be dead, RKO released Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934). Based on the novel by Somerset Maugham, the picture starred Leslie Howard as a clubfooted medical student who is obsessed with a "sluttish waitress." To play the role of Mildred, the waitress, RKO borrowed Bette Davis from Warners. Although the picture lost money, critics were awed by Davis's performance. Life called it "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress." Davis returned to Warners a star, and RKO, prouder but poorer, concluded its fallen-woman cycle.
Warners relegated the fallen-woman film to programmers, a category some where between the expensive class-Á film and the low-budget Â picture. During the early thirties, none of Warners' woman's films made it to Variety's, Film Daily's, or to anyone's list. Warners pinched pennies during the Depression, cutting production costs to the bone and investing in few big names. Rather than produce a few high-grade pictures, the studio relied on volume and concentrated on sensational stories to attract audiences. Such a policy accounts for the large number of fallen-woman films churned out by the studio well past the cycle's peak.
Warners released two fallen-woman films in 1930, eight in 1931, six in 1932, nine in 1933, and seven in 1934. Having no female names on its roster to speak of, Warners lured away two Paramount stars, Kay Francis in 1931 and Ruth Chatterton in 1932. Francis's biggest hit at Warner was (Tay Garnett, 1932), not a fallen-woman film but a poignant shipboard romance about two doomed lovers. Awarded the Oscar for best original screenplay (Robert Lord), the picture became a classic of its kind. Ruth Chatterton, a specialist in weepies, made six films for the studio, among them One Way Passage The Crash (William Dieterle, 1932) and Female (Michael Curtiz, 1933). In the former, she played an unfaithful wife devasted by the stock market crash of 1929; in the latter, she played an executive of a large automobile company by day and an aggressive seductress by night.
Barbara Stanwyck served her apprenticeship at Warners and Columbia, having non-exclusive contracts at each studio. At Warners she was saddled with undistinguished material. In Illicit (Archie Mayo, 1931), she played an unconventional woman "unburdened by morals" who feels that marriage kills love and who seeks solace elsewhere. In Ladies They Talk About (Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, 1933), Stanwyck is an inmate in a women's prison, which Variety described as "a great retreat, the sort of a place where a lot of gals might like to spend a vacation until something or other blew over. They roam about as they please, play bridge, listen to the radio and have their cells fixed up like hotel rooms." In Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933), she is a working girl on the make. Variety said, "Baby Face is blue and nothing else. It possesses no merit for general or popular appeal, is liable to offend the family trade and can count only on juve attendance."117
Capitalizing on the popularity of the Busby Berkeley musicals, Warners produced a series of low-budget gold-digger films. They were designed for Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, who basically repeated their Berkeley roles in such pictures as Havana Widows (Ray Enright, 1933), Convention City (Archie Mayo, 1933), and Kansas City Princess (William Keighley, 1934). Unlike the typical fallen-woman heroine, the true gold digger was "as gaily amoral as Robin Hood," said Roger Dooley, and she "kept a wise-cracking tongue planted firmly in her well-rouged cheek. Since her willing victims were usually potbellied stage-door Johnnies played by actors like Guy Kibbee, Eugene Pallette and George Barbier, who could quarrel with such an equitable redistribution of wealth?"118
Ever resourceful, Warners produced another variant of the woman's film that depicted the working woman in the urban jungle who was not willing to trade on her sex. These pictures depicted successful business and professional women, but they did not compete directly for a man's job. Barbara Stanwyck is the title character in Night Nurse (William Wellman, 1931); Bette Davis, a fashion illustrator in Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933); and Key Francis, a pediatrician is Mary Stevens, M.D. (Lloyd Bacon, 1933). Although Ruth Chatterton played an executive of a motor car company in Female, her role reflected the times in its characterization of women; Chatterton, having inherited the company from her father, runs it only until she falls in love and marries, after which she turns the company over to her husband so that she can remain home to raise a family.
Fox produced only a few fallen-woman pictures during the early thirties. Its biggest female draw was Janet Gaynor, one of the "purest" stars in Hollywood. For her talents, Fox attempted to exploit the Cinderella romance. Her first effort, DADDY LONG LEGS (Alfred Santell, 1931), a remake of a Mary Pickford silent, was a "smash," said Variety: "It is one of those rare talkers with universal appeal. … The picture will attract the women. It has everything for them from motherless children to a Cinderella-like romance. As such the film looks like happy matinee harbinger and something theatres have been looking for." Although the picture "threatened to unloose a series of similar productions from the coast studios," Variety observed that this anticipated cycle "never fully came to life."119
Columbia's principal contribution to the trend consists of two Barbara Stanwyck pictures directed by Frank Capra, The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). In the former, a combination of social criticism and romance, Stanwyck plays a con artist, the evangelist Florence ("Faith") Fallon, a role modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson and inspired by Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry; in the latter, she plays a New Englander who is held by a Chinese warlord in Shanghai. Both repelled and fascinated by the artistic and villainous sides of the warlord's character, she ultimately succumbs to his spell and surrenders herself to him. Although he rejects the offer and commits suicide, the approval given to miscegenation by the movie raised the hackles of more than one censor.
Universal contributed three memorable pictures to the trend, all directed by John M. Stahl. Back Street (1932), based on Fannie Hurst's novel about a married man and his self-effacing mistress, featured Irene Dunne and John Boles. Variety called it "a winner. It's a tear-jerker, without being artificially sentimen tal, impressing in the main as a human document faithfully translated into celluloid and sound."120
Imitation of Life (1934), also based on a Fannie Hurst novel, starred Claudette Colbert, a young widow with a baby girl, who goes into the pancake business with her black maid, played by Louise Beavers, who also has a baby girl. Over time, the business makes both women wealthy, but neither derives much joy from the venture—all because of their daughters. Colbert discovers that she and her daughter, Rochelle Hudson, love the same man, Warren William; Beavers sees her daughter, Fredi Washington, a black born with white skin, "miserable being unable to adjust herself to the lot of her race and unable to take her place among the whites." Said Variety,
Picture is stolen by the Negress, Louise Beavers, whose performance is masterly. This lady can troupe. She took the whole scale of human emotions from joy to anguish and never sounded a false note. It is one of the most unprecedented personal triumphs for an obscure performer in the annals of a crazy business. Fredi Washington as the white-skinned offspring was excellent in the funeral scene when overcome by remorse. (Variety, 27 November 1934)
Stahl's Magnificent Obsession (1935) co-starred Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. Based on the best-seller by Lloyd C. Douglas, it was the studio's most prestigious picture of the year. Taylor, a playboy, is responsible for an automobile accident that results in Dunne going blind. Taylor's remorse turns to love for Dunne, and he becomes a reformed man. Inspired by a magnificent obsession to become an eye surgeon, he not only achieves his goal within six years but also wins a Nobel Prize. He then makes amends to Dunne by performing an operation on her that restores her sight.
The Breen Office did not kill the fallen-woman film, nor did self-censorship affect the durability of the woman's film in general. After 1934, mistresses and demimondaines were no longer found in modern dress, but they could be detected in period costumes. Garbo, for example, received her greatest acclaim playing a courtesan in Camille (1937). Lea Jacobs has demonstrated how a little bit of ambiguity in the depiction of illicit sex could go a long way in satisfying the censors.121
Fewer women's films were produced after 1934, not because of pressure from bluenoses but because top actresses tried their hands at screwball comedy. A production trend without melodramatic excess, screwball comedy depicted a new relationship between the sexes, wherein the hero and heroine are social and intellectual equals. It is true the studios tried to revive the maternal melodrama in 1937 by producing That Certain Woman, Confession, and Stella Dallas. But Variety probably expressed the majority sentiment, saying that "all three are carefully and well made. What will happen if they are but forerunners of a cycle of films about renunciating mothers, however, is too horrible to contemplate."122
Paramount had no bankable female stars in the mid-thirties to replace Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. Following the success of Little Women, RKO saw Katharine Hepburn slip in the polls to the point where exhibitors labeled her box-office poison. Hepburn staged a brief comeback in Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935), an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a small-town girl who is snubbed by society, and tried to sustain it in Quality Street (George Stevens, 1937), an adaptation of J. M. Barrie's play about "a lady teetering on the brink of spinsterhood and casting about for a husband before all hope is gone," but the picture bombed. RKO closed the decade by releasing one of the finest romantic dramas of the period, Love Affair (Leo McCarey, 1939), which co-starred Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Coauthored, directed, and produced by Leo McCarey, the picture was described by Frank S. Nugent as having "the surface appearance of a comedy and the inner strength and poignance of a hauntingly sorrowful romance."123
The sheer power of MGM's top stars enabled the studio to coast along as the most important producer of woman's films. Garbo and Shearer made fewer and fewer pictures each year, but each one was an event that riveted media attention. Quantity was further affected by the death of Jean Harlow in 1937 and by the decline of Joan Crawford. As economic conditions improved in the second half of the decade, MGM declared Crawford's working-girl image outmoded and tried to convert her into a screwball heroine. The attempt failed. MGM checked her decline only temporarily by casting her as Crystal, a hard-boiled perfume clerk who steals the heroine's husband in The Women (George Cukor, 1939), a part that resembled her Flaemmchen role in Grand Hotel.
The Women achieved a status of its own in the woman's film. Based on Clare Boothe Luce's smash Broadway hit, which Roger Dooley calls a "comedy of bad manners," the picture was produced by Hunt Stromberg and adapted by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. Containing not a single male role, the cast of one hundred and thirty was headed by a galaxy of stars, notably Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Paulette Goddard. Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times described the picture as "a sociological investigation of the scalpeltongued Park Avenue set, entirely female, who amputate their best friends' reputations at luncheon, dissect their private lives at the beauty salon and perform the postmortems over the bridge table, while the victims industriously carve away at their surgeons. It is a ghoulish and disillusioning business."124 Audiences loved it, nonetheless, even the five-minute Technicolor fashion show staged by Adrian that was inserted into the black-and-white footage. At year's end, the picture was named to the Ten Best lists of Film Daily and New York Times.
By the end of the decade, Warners had nudged MGM from its lofty position as the preeminent producer of woman's films. Warners accomplished this feat by discovering the right formula for displaying the enormous and varied talents of its leading lady, Bette Davis. The actress introduced something new to the woman's film, the classical protagonist, described by Joanne Yeck as "neither the sacrificial mother nor the romantic lover," a "headstrong, intelligent, yet imperfect" woman who had to work through a particular problem.125 The formula was introduced in rudimentary form in Dangerous (Alfred E. Green, 1935), a rickety melodrama written by Laird Doyle that reverses Davis's man-wrecking role of Mildred in Of Human Bondage. Davis won an Oscar for Dangerous, but she did not reach artistic maturity until Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938). In this picture, screenwriters Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, and John Huston adapted Owen Davis's play to fashion a heroine to rival Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara. As Julie Marsden, Bette Davis plays a willful, arrogant, and selfish Southern belle whose behavior has tragic results. She is rude to her guests by arriving late to her own party; she insults all of New Orleans society by insisting on wearing a shocking red dress to a ball and loses the man she loves to another woman; and she baits her suitor to a duel that costs him his life. Davis is hysterical, irresponsible, and even wicked, but when Près, the love of her life, is stricken with yellow fever, she reveals a new dimension of her character—sacrifice. She begs Pres's wife, Amy (Margaret Lindsay), to let her accompany the dying Près into quarantine with the promise that if he lives, she will send Près back to her. Having fought hard for such a role, Davis was vindicated in her battle with Warners by winning her second Oscar for best actress.
Now at the height of her powers, Davis took on a series of roles that won her the title of First Lady of the Screen. She next did five pictures in little more than a year, in each giving a virtuoso performance of suffering and courage. Two of the pictures, JUAREZ (William Dieterle, 1939) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz, 1939), are prestige biopics. In the former, she plays a monarch, the Empress Carlotta, who goes mad, and in the latter, a monarch, Queen Elizabeth, who sacrifices love for duty. However, Davis was more effective in dark victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939) and in The Old Maid Goulding, 1939), vehicles specially crafted for her by producer Hal B. Wallis, director Edmund Goulding, and screenwriter Casey Robinson. Dark Victory was based on the hit Broadway play by George Emerson Brewer, Jr., and Bertram Block that starred Tallulah Bankhead; it is about a fast-living Long Island socialite who is afflicted with a malignant brain tumor and meets death finely. Dark Victory "brought the woman's film to its apogee," said Bernard Dick. "Nothing lay beyond it, for there is nothing beyond death met finely." Davis's honest approach and her craftsmanship transformed a potentially maudlin performance into "a great role … designed for a virtuosa," which was admired for its eloquence, tenderness, and "heart-breaking sincerity."126
Davis gave another outstanding performance in The Old Maid. A drama of rival motherhood set during the Civil War, The Old Maid is based on the Pulitzer Prize play by Zoë Akins adapted from Edith Wharton's novel. It co-starred Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Charlotte (Bette Davis) has a daughter by a suitor (George Brent) who dies in the war and allows her childless cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins) to rear the child as her own. As "Aunt" Charlotte, Davis watches her daughter grow up and has to endure the loss of motherhood, the resentment of the daughter and the rival mother, and the prospect of living out her life as an alienated old maid. The subtlety of Davis's interpretation revealed Charlotte's growth as a woman in accepting her lot and Davis's own powers as an actress.
United Artists came into its own during the second half of the decade, when its two most important producers, Sam Goldwyn and David O. Selznick, practically specialized in the woman's film. Goldwyn tried to create a continental star to rival Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich by grooming a young actress from the Ukraine, Anna Sten. After a two-year buildup during which she tried to learn English, Sten made her debut in Nana (Dorothy Arzner, 1934), a free adaptation of Emile Zola's classic. The picture failed miserably, partly because Goldwyn emasculated the story for American audiences and partly because Sten mangled her English. Goldwyn tried to launch her in a second vehicle and again failed.
To reach the woman's-film market, Goldwyn went another route and produced These Three (William Wyler, 1936), which was based on Lillian Hellman's controversial Broadway play The Children's Hour. Because the play alluded to lesbianism, the Hays Office ruled that Goldwyn "could not use its title or its plot or even mention the fact that he had acquired it." To salvage something from the original, Goldwyn hired Hellman to adapt her own play. Having been given free rein, Hellman retained the psychopathic schoolgirl (Bonita Granville), her two teachers (Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon), and the girls-school setting, but changed the substance of the lies that destroy the lives of the two women from allusions to lesbianism to nonmarital sex. Frank S. Nugent said, "The film has preserved through the magic of Miss Hellman's adaptation, the very heart of the original" and named the picture to the New York Times Ten Best list.127
Goldwyn's Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937)—a remake of his 1925 silent starring Belle Bennett—was less sensational but more successful at the box office. It starred Barbara Stanwyck and proved the durability of Olive Higgins Prouty's novel of maternal love and sacrifice. Frank Nugent noted that "at the Music Hall … there were muted audiences that shed a communal tear and cleared their communal throat as Stella made the gallant gesture and abandoned her daughter to the proper influences and the wedding vows of Richard Grosvenor 3d."128
While Selznick was preparing Gone with the Wind, he found time to produce two other woman's films, Made for Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939) and Intermezzo (Gregory Ratoff, 1939). The former starred Carole Lombard and James Stewart in a comedy-drama about the vicissitudes of a young married couple. Variety called it "an exquisitely played, deeply moving comedy drama. It is a happy combination of young love, sharp cleancut humor and tearjerker of the first water."129 The latter picture, which introduced Ingrid Bergman to American audiences and turned her into a star, tells the story of a famed concert violinist (Leslie Howard) who falls in love with his musical protégée.
In buying the motion-picture rights to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Selznick had acquired not just a historical novel set during the Civil War but an epic that depicted the Civil War from the perspective of a female protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara.130 By no means a sweet, domesticated heroine, Scarlett "symbolized a sassy restlessness with the twentieth-century arrangement of women's roles" and progressed through several stages of development:
New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989], pp. 16-17">
First, as a selfish socialite unrequitedly in love with Ashley Wilkes, the poetic dreamer who never comes to terms with the New South. Next, as the restless wife of three men—Charles Hamilton (for spite because Ashley is marrying Melanie), Frank Kennedy (to pay off the plantation Tara's postwar taxes), and Rhett Butler (for sexual pleasure, though eventual tragic separation). Most of all, as the pragmatist who moves with the times, getting on with delivering a baby singlehandedly while the Yankees approach Atlanta, doing business with Yankees during Reconstruction in order to pay the bills, and then resolving to mend her broken heart by retreating to Tara to begin again. Like all of us, she has problems with everything and everyone: her parents, siblings, children, her sex life, her bank balance. And she is surrounded … by an array of complex, vital and comic characters who flesh out a historically acute and fictionally rich picture of the South at its greatest crisis. (Helen Taylor, Scarlett's Women [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989], pp. 16–17)
The women of the novel are familiar types. In addition to "the vain, proud, uppity Feminine Woman (Scarlett)," the novel contains "the capable, loyal, wise Female Woman (Mammy), the pure, genteel Real Lady (Melanie), and the trapped-in-the-past Fallen Woman (Belle Watling)."131 Denigrated by the trade press but sustained by a loyal female audience, the woman's film revealed itself as a durable and venerable production trend throughout the decade. In transferring Scarlett O'Hara and her milieu to the screen, Selznick was amply rewarded by the woman's-film audience for his efforts.
As America's principal purveyor of entertainment, Hollywood packaged comedy in many forms. In 1929, Variety surveyed the major studios and classified production trends into seven categories. Comedy was divided into two—comedy drama and comedy. The types subsumed under comedy drama consisted of society, rural, city, mystery, college, and domestic, and the types under comedy consisted of farce and action-adventure. A quarter of all the films produced by the majors in 1929 could be classified as comedies of one sort or another.132 Although comic types metamorphosed into the sophisticated, low-life, anarchistic, sentimental, folksy, screwball, populist, or romantic, the production trend remained a key component of every studio's roster.
Because the talkies required "voiced verbal humor," the silent comedians of the twenties found themselves "being replaced by the invading, wise-cracking horde from vaudeville and burlesque."133 The three greatest silent comedians, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, made the transition, but their careers were all affected. Chaplin fared the best, retaining his popularity not by capitulating to the talkies but by defying them. However, his production output dropped from seven films during the twenties to two during the thirties, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). Chaplin enjoyed the freedom to produce silents because as an independent producer he used his own money to finance his pictures and as an owner of United Artists he controlled their distribution.
Shortly before the release of City Lights, Chaplin argued in an article for the New York Times that pantomine and comedy "represented a universal art which could not, or should not, be ousted by the current 'hysteria' for talkies." Pantomime, he claimed, "is a universal language, while speech as a form of communication is restricted to those who understand it."134 The early talkies indeed seemed primitive compared to the beauty of late silent pictures, but Chaplin resisted dialogue also because his pictures typically did their best business in foreign markets, which would have been largely foreclosed to him had he used English.
City Lights premiered on 6 February 1931, three years after the introduction of sound. Containing a musical score and sound effects, City Lights, was essentially a "film of the twenties," exhibiting "many of the narrative and comic conventions of The Gold Rush and Circus." Acclaiming it as one of Chaplin's greatest achievements, Variety said, "He never talked … in vaudeville before going into pictures, and, having made himself the foremost exponent the world knows today, there doesn't appear any reason why he should talk. With his ability to create and take familiar situations to make them look differently he can go on making successful silent films until he chooses to retire—so long as they entertain." City Lights, grossed more than any other previous Chaplin picture and eventually earned a profit of $5 million, an extraordinary accomplishment for the time.135
Modern Times premiered on 5 February 1936. In it, Charlie remains mute, but he sings some jabberwocky that he made up to the tune of a Spanish fandango. The picture contains a musical score, some sound effects, and a few vocal elements. Unlike Chaplin's earlier films, Modern Times contains topical allusions to the Depression and to social problems, among them the dehumanizing effects of the assembly line, the class struggle, unemployment, and homelessness. "The critics welcomed back the well-loved figure and paid tribute to his undiminished pantomimic skill, but found the film uneven," said Theodore Huff.136 Part of the problem was the ambiguity of the film's political message. Modern Times grossed $1.4 million domestically, placing it on Variety's list of top-grossing pictures. Overseas, the picture fared even better. The picture was a box-office hit, but compared to Chaplin's earlier efforts, it was a disappointment.
Buster Keaton fared the worst. Abandoning independent production during the transition to sound, Keaton joined MGM as a contract player and thereby turned over artistic control of his pictures to the studio. MGM experimented with ways to use his talents, but the solution—teaming him with Jimmy Durante in The Passionate Plumber (Edward Sedgwick, 1932) and What! No Beer? (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)—finished his career. As Roger Dooley put it, "Durante's aggressive, verbal style of comedy virtually wiped Keaton's understated deadpan humor off the screen."137
Harold Lloyd sustained his career by producing his own pictures as an independent. Releasing mainly through Paramount, he turned out a picture every two years: Feet First (Clyde Bruckman, 1930), The Cat's Paw (Sam Taylor, 1934), Milky Way (Leo McCarey, 1936), and Professor Beware (Elliott Nugent, 1938). At first, Lloyd did not bend to the talkies to satisfy his fans. For example, Mordaunt Hall of theNew York Times said that Movie Crazy, Lloyd's most effective picture, "hardly benefits by sound. It is essentially the old silent school technique."138 However, beginning with The Cat's Paw, Lloyd adapted the techniques of sound production by subordinating gag development to story development, by relying on strong supporting casts to build up the comedy, and by adapting material from other media. In so doing, his pictures lost their individuality.
Sentimental comedy, or "folksy comedy," as it was sometimes called, was the popular favorite during the early thirties. Exploited mainly by MGM and Fox, the trend revolved around down-to-earth stars. At MGM the cycle actually began in the late twenties when Marie Dressier revived her fading silent-screen career by teaming up with Polly Moran to make a series of low-budget comedies. Over the next six years, they made eight pictures together and became a highly successful female comedy team. Playing plain older women of the type usually described as "battle-axes," the two were typically cast as "friendly enemies" in rough-and-tumble comedies "addressed to the banana-peel sense of humor" and containing a dollop of sentiment. These pictures appealed to "the mob" and did their best business away from the "class spots," said Variety. Among these pictures were Caught Short (Charles Reisner, 1930), Reducing (Charles Reisner, 1931), and Politics (Charles Reisner, 1931).139
MGM's cycle of sentimental comedies took off when the studio teamed up Dressier with Wallace Beery in Min And Bill (George Hill, 1930), a vehicle written by Frances Marion and Marion Jackson and based on the Lorna Moon novel Dark Star. Min is "a hard-boiled old gal, landlady of a fishing village inn, catering exclusively to sea rats but acting a lot tougher than she really is," and Bill, an old salt, is her sweetheart. Essentially a melodrama, the major thread of action concerns Dressler's attempt at keeping the abandoned child she has raised from her alcoholic mother. Discovering that her daughter is engaged to a wealthy young man from a prominent family, the mother returns and plans to insinuate herself back into her daughter's life. Just before she can reveal herself, however, she starts a fight with Dressier and ends up being shot dead. The ending of the picture shows Min watching the happily married couple sail away on their honeymoon and then being identified as the murderer and led off the dock by a policeman. Providing an antidote to these sentimental moments are scenes of broad humor, such as when Min catches Bill with the mother on his lap and "breaks up every loose article in the room in giving Bill a licking."140 Not only did Min And Bill become the biggest box-office draw of the year, but it also earned Dressier an Oscar for her performance.
MGM teamed Dressier and Beery a second time in Tugboat Annie (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933), a sequel of sorts adapted by Zelda Sears and Eve Greene from a Saturday Evening Post series by Norman Reilly Raine. In this movie, Dressier plays "a game old woman, the captain of a tugboat, who is inordinately proud of her son (the captain of a liner) and has an ineradicable fondness for her husband (the tugboat's chief liability), who [she says] 'has never struck me except in self-defense.'" Said Variety, "Those who will be irritated or annoyed by the story's hokey, sobby, stale baloney nature are likely to be a very small minority. The average Dressier-Beery fan, of whom there are many, will eat it up as is without asking for Worcester sauce."141
Minus Beery, Dressier made Emma (Clarence Brown, 1932), a vehicle designed for her by Frances Marion. In this picture, Dressier is a servant who devtoes her life to raising the children of a widower only to see them turn on her in her old age. "The hoke sympaty … has been laid on very thick," said Variety." There is a courtroom scene that is the height of strong-arm bathos and some of the passages toward the end are absurd in their determination to pull tears by claptrap device. Nothing but Miss Dressler's astonishing ability to command conviction saves some of these sequences from going flat "142 Dressier died of cancer in 1934, and her passing was deeply mourned by the public.
Wallace Beery made it to top-ten lists every year until 1935. An experienced character actor like Dressier, he sustained a faltering career during the transition to the talkies by playing lovable old rogues with hearts of gold. Given his looks, he had little choice. He once said, "Like my dear old friend, Marie Dressier, my mug has been my fortune." Min And Bill also made Beery a star, a position he solidified in The Champ (King Vidor, 1931) by winning an Academy Award for best actor. Beery plays a broken-down ex-heavy weight fighter who is training for a comeback, a role written for him by Frances Marion. At his side is his young son, played by Jackie Cooper. A nine-year-old veteran of the Our Gang series, Jackie Cooper became the first child star of the decade in Paramount's Skippy (Norman Taurog, 1931), a kid's picture based on a popular comic strip that ranked number three on Film Daily's Ten Best and that earned Taurog an Oscar for best direction. Using Cooper to good advantage, MGM pulled out all the stops at the conclusion of The Champ. Describing the pathos of this scene, Variety said, "The tears are drawn by [Jackie Cooper] alone. The Champ, his father and his idol, dies at the finish. The kid goes into a crying panic. He walks from one sympathizer to another in the dressing room, rejecting each condolence with a scream for the Champ."143
Folksy comedy at Fox meant Will Rogers. Rogers was Fox's first important star in the sound era. A cowboy philosopher, cracker-barrel humorist, actor, and news commentator, Rogers was one of the best-loved Americans of his time. Starting out in show business in 1904, he performed roping acts and cowboy tricks in wild-west shows. Moving to vaudeville, he embellished his act with humorous comments expressed in an Oklahoma drawl. His Broadway career reached its zenith in 1917 when he became a star attraction in the Ziegfeld Follies. Performing off and on there until 1925, "his home-spun philosophy and cracker-barrel wit made him a surprising hit with New Yorkers: he spoke with seeming sincerity and without malice. He was Mr. Everyman—it was soon realized that he spoke for Mr. Joe Public."144 In 1922, Rogers started writing a series of syndicated articles for the New York Times that were carried by some 350 newspapers with an estimated 40 million readers.
Rogers's stage character was transferred directly to the screen. The formula for his pictures was simple. What Variety said about Handy Andy (David Butler, 1934) can apply to just about all his pictures: "There's no doubt or hesitation about this one; it's all Will Rogers and all box office. There isn't any sophistication and there isn't any sheen—just Will Rogers." An insight into his act is found in Variety's review of Lightnin' (Henry King, 1930):
There is a scene where Lightnin' [Will Rogers] discourses solemnly with a bevy of fluttering Reno divorcees the ins and outs of alimony, and it's a gem for homely philosophy. There's also Lightnin's epic tale of how he "drove a swarm of bees across the prairie in the dead of winter without losing a single bee." The play is a mine of artless nonsense of the same sort, rising to the final scene, old Bill in court, where his devoted but headstrong wife has been inveigled into a divorce suit. Here is a bit of action that plays unerringly upon the heartstrings, with Rogers handling it for every ounce of appeal. (VFR, 3 December 1930)
Two of Rogers's pictures made it to Film Daily's Ten Best and to Variety's list of hits, State Fair (Henry King, 1933) and Judge Priest (John Ford, 1934). Fair, his greatest success, was adapted from Phil Stong's best-seller by play-wright Paul Green and Sonya Levien and featured Janet Gaynor and Lew Ayres. Said Variety,
Henry King has nicely caught the spirit of the simple story and has turned in a production that has the charm of naturalness and the virtue of sincerity. No villain, little suspense, but a straightforward story of a rural family who find their great moments at the state fair, where paterfamilias captures the title for his prize hog, the mother makes a clean sweep in the pickle entries, the boy gets his first vicarious but satisfying taste of romance, and the girl finds a more lasting love. … State Fair promises to be a winner all the way down the line. (VFR, 31 January 1933)
After Rogers's death in 1935, Shirley Temple kept sentimental comedy alive at Fox for the remainder of the decade.
Sophisticated comedy, which was at the opposite end of the spectrum from sentimental comedy, practically glutted the market during the transition to sound. Used primarily to showcase glamorous female stars, these pictures typically received prestige treatment. Suffice it to say here that plays by Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, and Ferenc Molnár satisfied Hollywood's perennial hunger for prestige and "represented the kind of distinction that studio heads could recognize without difficulty: the distinctions of rank and power and money. The 'classy' film is essentially an upper-class kind of film: a celebration of the elite and privileged," as James Harvey put it.145 Although MGM specialized in the type, Paramount arguably produced the best example, Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932). The film contains outstanding performances by Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis; wonderful art deco sets by Hans Dreier; and a witty and clever script by Samson Raphaelson. Although Dwight MacDonald considered the picture a masterpiece, saying it "comes as close to perfection as anything I have ever seen in the movies," the picture found the going rough outside the biggest key cities.146
Explaining why even the best sophisticated comedies were coolly received, James Harvey said that these movies had "nothing to do with what Hollywood movies in general did best: evoking specifically American qualities of experience and consciousness. And that consciousness was programmed, whatever the actual and rampant injustices of American society, to a certain uneasiness on such subjects as class and wealth and privilege. … Such topics would nearly always be touchy, to some degree, in American films." Variety offered other explanations; its review of Trouble in Paradise stated, "Swell title, poor picture. Will have b.o. trouble. Despite the Lubitsch artistry, … it's not good cinema in toto." For one thing, "the mugg fans are sticklers for realism and the Continental abadabba, with which Trouble is flavored, doesn't click." For another, the plot is "predicated on a totally meretricious premise. Herbert Marshall is the gentleman crook. Miriam Hopkins is a light-fingered lady." And Kay Francis, "a wealthy young widow … decidedly on the make for Marshall," appoints him as her "secretary."147
Hollywood had better luck raiding Broadway and vaudeville for comic talent and developing various forms of comedian-centered vehicles to showcase their routines. During the shift to the talkies, Paramount signed the Marx Brothers, Mae West, and W. C. Fields; Goldwyn, Eddie Cantor; RKO, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey; and Warners, Joe E. Brown, to name a few. The comedian comedies that made it to Film Daily's Ten Best and to Variety's top-grossing films lists are the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers (Norman Z. McLeod, 1932) and two Mae West pictures, She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933) and I'm No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933). All were released by Paramount.
The Marx Brothers' pictures are examples of anarchistic comedy. A comic form that emerged when producers attempted to absorb certain aspects of the vaudeville aesthetic into the classical Hollywood cinema, anarchistic comedy, said Henry Jenkins, is anarchistic in both form and content: in form, such films "press against traditional filmic practice, moving from the classical Hollywood cinema's emphasis upon linearity and causality to a far more fragmented and atomistic textual practice," and in content, "they often celebrate the collapse of social order and the liberation of the creativity and impulsiveness of their protagonist."148 In practice, anarchistic comedies are episodic, containing just enough connective tissue to string together sequences that enable the star to demonstrate his or her routines—for example, Eddie Cantor's blackface routines, Harpo Marx's harp solos, Bert Wheeler's female impersonations, and W. C. Fields's golf or pool tricks. Vaudeville stars are given names and social positions and play roles, but often they break loose from the constraints of the narrative by reverting to their stage personas. In so doing, they consciously break the "fourth wall" convention of classical Hollywood cinema by using such devices as direct address to the camera and reflexive gags.
In addition to borrowing from vaudeville, anarchistic comedy borrowed elements of slapstick from American silent comedy; the convention of incorporating songs, dances, and instrumental solos into the narrative from the musical stage; and comic forms of wordplay from "the lunatic school of writers" of the twenties, writers such as Stephen Leacock, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Robert Benchley.149
Two studios specialized in anarchistic comedy, RKO and Paramount. RKO developed a type of anarchistic comedy around the team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Between 1930 and 1937 the team turned out features like so many sausages, "with Woolsey a kind of road-company Groucho and Wheeler like a combination Zeppo and Harpo." Their comic formula included vaudeville patter laced with sexual double entendres, cavorting in drag, cardboard villains, romantic subplots, and songs. A favorite tack of theirs was to lampoon movie fads, for example, gangsters (Hook, Line And Sinker, Edward Cline, 1930), prison (Hold 'Em Jail, Norman Taurog, 1932), costumers (Cockeyed Cavaliers, Mark Sandrich, 1934), and Westerns150 (Silly Billies, Fred Guiol, 1936). Although their routines had gone stale after a couple of years, their following sustained them until the team ended with Woolsey's death in 1938.
Unlike Wheeler and Woolsey, the Marx Brothers caught the fancy of the critics and enjoyed media attention throughout their careers. The earliest Marx Brothers films included Groucho, a verbal comedian noted for his double entendres, wacky monologues, and sardonic asides who became identified with his crouched walk, painted mustache, leering eyes, and perpetual thick cigar; Harpo, a pantomimist and gifted harpist who communicates by honking a taxi horn and who became identified with his fright wig, crumpled top hat, oversized trousers, and capacious overcoat, "from which he could produce anything from a lighted candle to a cup of coffee"; Chico, a dialect comedian and pianist who resembles a vaudeville Italian; and Zeppo, a straight man and juvenile who typically played romantic roles.
The Marx Brothers' first two pictures, The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, 192g) and Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman, 1930), were actually transcriptions of their hit Broadway shows and were shot at Paramount's Astoria Studio on Long Island by day while the team performed on stage by night. Afterward, the team moved to Hollywood and made a remarkable series of anarchistic comedies consisting of Monkey Business (Norman Z. McLeod, 1931), Horse Feathers (Norman Z. McLeod, 1932), and (Leo McCarey, 1933). Although Duck Soup is generally regarded today as their masterpiece, Horse Feathers was the most successful. The butts of their satire are institutions, social fads, and the movies themselves. The Marx Brothers got away with subverting the law, government, international diplomacy, and other institutions not because of "their sheer madness" but because their pictures use satire "only as New Yorker cartoons do, lightly, echoing the popular consensus" and because their "comic method will not allow a sustained focus on any one thing."151
A blend of vaudeville, the musical stage, and slapstick comedy, the Marx Brothers style was a collaborative effort of producer Herman J. Mankiewicz; directors McLeod and McCarey; writers Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S. J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone; and gagmen Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman. Kalmar and Ruby were also responsible for most of their songs. Concerning their routines, Variety's jaded reviewers saw little that was new. For example, the reviewer of Monkey Business considered the picture "mostly a patchwork of all previous Marx efforts. … Boys closely follow their established methods of reaching a point and immediately rushing for the next gag. … Show people will see nothing new in the film as regards the boys and much that is familiar. But that doesn't necessarily count in the majority of places this feature will play right now." Believing that the romantic subplots, songs, and musical specialties affected the pacing of their comedy, the Marx Brothers wanted to drop all vestiges of the musical stage from their pictures, but exhibitors apparently loved these elements, particularly Chico's and Harpo's solos, and pressured the studio to retain them.152
To showcase Mae West, Paramount developed a form of comedian-centered comedy that was closely allied to burlesque. A personality comedienne with a style all her own, West gained notoriety during the twenties in vaudeville and on the stage, writing, producing, and directing her own plays, several of which were either closed by the police or caused a commotion. Her trademark was a provocative walk with a toss of the hips, bawdy songs, and quips. In show-biz parlance, her routine was a two-act—a comedienne with a straight man—but in her case, a series of straight men feeding her quips. Describing the verbal humor of West's Belle of the Nineties,Variety said, "The Westian pepigrams are reeled off in orthodox variety manner; somebody, anybody (her maid, an admiring swain, the on-the-make muggs, a casual stooge) asks her a simple question and she never answers in straightforward manner. Always a wisecrack. But that's the West technique."153 But West's comic style was not merely verbal; it also consisted of a special acting style:
Miss West's acting style is at once both traditional and burlesque. Unfortunately, there is a certain confusion possible here because one means both that Miss West's style is in the tradition of American Burlesque, or "burleycue," and that it is a burlesque of that tradition. Whatever one may think of that tradition, it must be granted that Miss West has brought it to its classic culmination. One may use such a word as "classic" because of the extreme objectivity with which Miss West both recognizes and employs her materials. So perfectly does she now sum up in her own person—her speech, gestures, and carriage—the main elements of her tradition that she no longer requires a story or even a backdrop. She would be effective on a bare concert stage. (William Troy, "Mae West and the Classic Tradition," Nation, 8 November 1933, p. 548)
West's first two starring pictures for Paramount, She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933), grossed $2.3 million and $2.2 million, respectively, and became the studio's biggest hits of the decade. She Done Him Wrong was an adaptation by Harvey Thew and John Bright of West's smash Broadway play Diamond Lil. As Variety pointed out, "deletions in the script from its original 1928 legit form were few, with only the roughest of the rough stuff out. … The swan bed is in, but for a flash only, with Mae doing her stuff on the chaise lounge (sic) in this version." The songs—"Easy Rider," "I Like a Man What Takes His Time," and "Frankie and Johnny"—were "somewhat cleaned up lyrically."154
A Mae West craze swept the country and to capitalize on the notoriety of its new find, Paramount rushed I'm No Angel into production. West wrote the story and dialogue. Said Variety, "Needless to say this opus will scarcely get on the reformers' recommended lists. But with the tide running the opposite way perhaps the spleen of the moralists isn't such a factor right now. And anyway, Mae West is today the biggest conversation-provoker, free space-grabber and all-around box-office bet in the country. She's as hot an issue as Hitler."155 On the basis of these two pictures, West was voted the eighth-biggest box-office draw of 1933.
West planned on calling her third picture It Ain't No Sin, but the Breen Office, no doubt reacting to the groundswell of protests against her films by women's clubs and civic and religious organizations, demanded a new title and revisions of certain scenes and dialogue. The result, Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey, 1934), was "sufficiently denatured from within and yet not completely emasculated." By the end of the year, Paramount had more than doubled West's 1933 salary of $220,000, which made her the highest-salaried woman in the country.156
To tailor vehicles for Joe E. Brown, Warners developed a special brand of comedian-centered comedy called affirmative comedy. Affirmative comedy, said Henry Jenkins, "subordinates performance almost totally to the demands of characterization" and depends "less upon extended sequences of comic performance or even upon individual verbal gags than upon small bits of character business and narratively integrated situations which display the comic protagonist's awkwardness or social ineptitude."157 By emphasizing plot and character over performance and comic spectacle, affirmative comedy contrasts sharply with anarchistic comedy. If anarchistic comedy was most popular in big cities, affirmative comedy found its niche in rural areas.
Joe E. Brown's trademark was "his beady eyes, cavernous mouth, and air of amiable idiocy." Brown appeared in twenty-three films for the studio from 1929 to 1936, most based on the same formula "of the timid soul compelled to perform some impossible feat of daring or athletic prowess." Brown's top films include three baseball pictures—Fireman, Save My Child (Lloyd Bacon, 1932), Elmer the Great (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933), and Alibi Ike (Ray Enright, 1935)—in which he plays "a bush league baseball player with phenomenal talent as a pitcher or hitter" and Earthworm Tractors (Ray Enright, 1936), which was based on the Alexander Botts character, a super-tractor salesman, who had been providing "entertainment fodder" for Saturday Evening Post readers for years.158
Comedian-centered comedies lost much of their appeal by 1934, which "the trade press attributed to their over-exposure and their failure to produce a consistently high-quality product." As Henry Jenkins notes, "Almost all of the comedians had long since exhausted the repertoire of 'tried and true' material they had developed through the years in vaudeville and were forced to venture into new territory without the benefit of audience-testing and revision."159 Responding to decling ticket sales and exhibitor dissatisfaction, studios either pink-slipped fading stars or attempted to revamp their vehicles to conform to Hollywood entertainment norms.
Irving Thalberg tried the latter, signing the Marx Brothers to a contract in 1935. For their first MGM venture, A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935), Thalberg instructed writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind to cut the number of gags and arranged for the team to pretest new material before live audiences in West Coast theaters. Thalberg also wanted to balance their routines with romantic subplots. Although their anarchy was tamed and their films resembled musicals with love plots, Thalberg's renovation worked. A Night at the Opera was a big hit, grossing twice as much as Duck Soup, and led to a series that included A Day at the Races (Sam Wood, 1937) and At the Circus (Edward Buzzell, 1939), among others.
Mae West was not as fortunate. Revamping her act in 1935, she departed from her usual bawdy 1890s style to play a Western oil heiress who breaks into society in GOIN' TO TOWN (Alexander Hall, 1935). (The picture was originally titled Now I'm a Lady.) It was a "commendable attempt" that went awry. "No amount of epigrammatic hypoing can offset the silly story," said Variety. West returned to her ususal 1890s milieu in Klondike Annie (Raoul Walsh, 1936), playing a character Variety called "a prostie and a murderess." "As a picture it is again Mae West with the usual formula of wisecracks. That is no longer enough," said Variety, which added, "Miss West really ought to let someone else have a word as to her stories."160
In 1934 a new comedy cycle struck the public's fancy, one variously labeled "madcap," "daffy," or "screwball." Launched by three surprise hits, Columbia's It Happened One Night (Frank Capra) and Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks), and MGM's The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke), the cycle peaked in 1936 with the release of Columbia's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra) and dropped out of fashion by 1938. According to Variety, "Changes in the taste of the candy that pours out of Hollywood have included a very definite trend away from screwball comedies…. This occurred early in the spring when a deluge of this type of picture finally started keeping people out of the theatres, with some very worthwhile comedies in this class going down to ignominious defeat at the box office."161
Influencing literally scores, if not hundreds, of pictures, the screwball comedy had its roots in silent slapstick comedy, in the satirical writing of Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, and Herman J. Mankiewicz, and in Broadway of the 1920s, particularly the carefully synchronized gag comedy of playwrights George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Marc Connelly, and Moss Hart. In Hollywood the style was perfected by directors such as Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, George Cukor, Gregory La Cava, Wesley Ruggles, and George Stevens, by screenwriters such as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, Robert Riskin, Dudley Nichols, Norman Krasna, George Seaton, Claude Binyon, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and by stars such as Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, and Katharine Hepburn.
It Happened One Night, which starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert on loan-out from MGM and Paramount, respectively, opened in February 1934 to positive reviews, but word-of-mouth made it one of the year's biggest hits. At Academy Award time, the picture swept the five most prestigious Oscars, including the one for best picture. Although this film has traditionally been considered the beginning of the screwball cycle, contemporaneous sources saw the picture as a continuation of ongoing trends. Noting that Robert Riskin's screenplay about a runaway heiress who falls in love with a tough reporter was based on a short story in Cosmopolitan by Samuel Hopkins Adams entitled "Night Bus," Variety, for example, identified the picture as the fourth version of the overland-bus cycle. Others considered the picture as just another version of Grand Hotel—a "traveling hostelry" film similar in structure to such Grand Hotel spin-offs as Fox's Transatlantic (1931), Paramount's Shanghai Express (1932), and Columbia's own American Madness (1932). Seen from this perspective, It Happened One Night did not pop out of nowhere, but materialized from Columbia's strategy of following trends.162
Capra's so-called breakthrough film, Lady for a Day, which Columbia had released the previous year, followed the same strategy. Based on a tale by Damon Runyan, the film combined elements of the Cinderella and sentimental comedy cycles. And its star, the seventy-five-year-old May Robson, who played Apple Annie, the whiskey-soaked street woman, came from the same mold as MGM's down-to-earth star Marie Dressier. The picture ranked number four on the Film Daily Ten Best and was nominated for four Oscars. It Happened One Night, like Lady for a Day, contained just the right combination of script, acting, and direction to make it special. Said Variety, "The story has that intangible quality of charm which arises from a smooth blending of the various ingredients. Difficult to analyze, impossible to designedly reproduce. Just a happy accident."163
Columbia's Twentieth Century, produced and directed by Howard Hawks, was adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from their 1932 Broadway hit. Set on the Twentieth Century Limited en route from Chicago to New York, the picture starred John Barrymore, a Svengali-like theatrical impresario, and Carole Lombard, his protégée who walks out on him to go into the movies. Again, critics did not see the picture as a trendsetter but as another variation of satirical comedy. For example, Motion Picture Herald said, "Fundamentally, it's a ridiculous burlesque of stage people; a hare-brained egotistical producer and explosive temperamental star and the satellites around them." Barrymore, not Lombard, received most of the attention. For example, the Film Daily said, "Besides being refreshingly off the beaten path in the way of satirical comedies, this adaptation of the Broadway play has the value of the biggest and most versatile performance ever given by John Barrymore. Other choice morsels [include] hilarious situations, nifty dialogue, swell supporting work by Miss Lombard, Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns."164 The picture did well in larger cities, but in the rest of the country, only so-so. In popularity, it was eclipsed by MGM's The Thin Man.
A murder mystery with a comic romantic subplot, The Thin Man starred William Powell and Myrna Loy. MGM acquired the rights to Dashiell Hammett's novel soon after it was published in 1933, but because the story contained "sadism, masochism and kindred unfilmable stuff," screenwriters Frances Good-rich and Albert Hackett had to clean it up, while retaining "some of the flavor of the book that brought the advance plugs."165 MGM probably got the idea of casting William Powell as Nick Charles after observing his success as Philo Vance in Warners' S. S. Van Dine detective series. The studio probably got the idea of teaming him with Myrna Loy after observing the chemistry they generated together in the recently released Manhattan Melodrama.
MGM apparently conceived the picture as a programmer by scheduling an eighteen-day shoot and by budgeting a modest $200,000 on the production. The Thin Man was a comic variation on a dramatic genre, as was It Happened One Night. The film closely followed the basic plot of Hammett's murder mystery, but inserted into the narrative line a secondary plot involving Nick and Nora Charles. Describing the comic romantic interplay between Powell and Loy, Variety said,
What appears to have been the most successful part of the Hackett-Goodrich team's adaptation is that they captured the spirit of the jovial, companionable relationship of the characters, Nick, retired detective, and Nora, his wife. Their very pleasant manner of loving each other and showing it was used as a light comedy structure upon which the screen doctors' performed their operation on the Hammett novel…. For its leads, the studio couldn't have done better than to pick Powell and Miss Loy, both of whom shade their semi-comic roles beautifully. (VFR, 3 July 1934)
Nick and Nora soon became a national craze and elevated Powell and Loy to stardom.
Although every studio contributed to the screwball cycle, three specialized in it, Columbia, Paramount, and MGM. Columbia followed up It Happened One Night with The Whole Town's Talking (John Ford, 1935). If Columbia varied the Grand Hotel formula to make the former picture, it varied the Little Caesar formula by producing a parody of a gangster film to make The Whole Town's Talking. Written by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, the picture starred Edward G. Robinson, who played a double role of villain and hero, and contained the theme of lamb biting wolf, of David defeating Goliath, a theme Capra would develop in the Deeds-Smith-Doe triolgy.
Capra followed up It Happened One Night with Broadway Bill (1934). Placed into production before It Happened One Night caught on, Broadway Bill can be considered a male version of Lady for a Day. Robert Riskin's screenplay was based on a Runyonesque story by Mark Hellinger about the troubles and jams of Dan Brooks, played by Warner Baxter, "the hopeful owner of a stout-hearted horse, Broadway Bill." Broadway Bill played on the heartstrings like Lady for a Day; Variety reported that when Broadway Bill dropped dead after winning his race, the audience was left "bawling in the Music Hall's $1.65 mezzanine."166
After It Happened One Night's Academy Award sweep, Columbia continued following trends, but revised its production strategy by injecting madcap elements into its comedies. The studio naturally wanted to capitalize on its success with Claudette Colbert and borrowed her from Paramount again to make She Married Her Boss (Gregory La Cava, 1935), a comic variation of the traditional sob-and-hanky melodrama. Said Variety, "A couple of years ago the same story would probably have been handled as a heavy, tragic domestic treatise with everything sour until the sweet ending. But It Happened One Night and The Thin Man have changed a lot of things and smashed numerous precedents, among them stories such as this one."167
Although She Married Her Boss did only so-so business, Columbia decided to use product variation a second time in designing two vehicles for Irene Dunne. Dunne had previously specialized in melodramas and musicals, but Columbia offcast her in Theodora Goes Wild (Richard Boleslawski, 1936) and The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937). Playing opposite Melvin Douglas in the former, Dunne played a "female Mr. Deeds" in a "distaff version" of Capra's Mr. Deeds, noted a review. Playing opposite Cary Grant in the latter, a comedy of remarriage, Dunne had better luck; the picture made it to Film Daily's Ten Best, McCarey won an Oscar for best direction, and Irene Dunne and Cary Grant temporarily topped Myrna Loy and William Powell as the wittiest screwball couple of them all.
After Katharine Hepburn bought up her contract with RKO, she convinced Columbia to do a remake of Holiday (George Cukor, 1938), a comedy of manners based on the Philip Barry hit first filmed in 1930 by Pathé with Ann Harding in the lead. Having understudied the lead in the original Broadway production, Hepburn had a special affinity for the play and convinced Columbia to produce it with Cary Grant as her co-star. Variety said of the picture, "Miss Hepburn, after a whirl at historical drama and a wild farce in her recent assignments, is back in her best form and type of role in Holiday, which is a modern drama. Her acting is delightful and shaded with fine feeling and understanding throughout."168
Columbia's reputation as a producer of comedies rests mainly on three big Capra hits, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Capra's stature had grown to the extent that beginning with Mr. Deeds, Columbia placed Capra's name above the title of his pictures. Screenwriter Robert Riskin collaborated with Capra on the first two pictures, and Sidney Buchman, on the third. Columbia borrowed Gary Cooper from Paramount to star in Mr. Deeds and James Stewart from MGM to star in the others. Jean Arthur, Columbia's only contract star, co-starred in all three. If one line of screwball featured the madcap adventures of wealthy heroines in comedies of remarriage, these three Capra pictures followed another line by depicting "utopian fantasies" in which the little guy always comes out on top.169 For example, the eponymous hero Longfellow Deeds, a rural innocent from Mandrake Falls, Vermont, inherits $20 million from a rich uncle and gets the happy idea of helping out needy farmers by giving each one a cow and two acres of land.
You Can't Take It With You (1938), Riskin's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, depicted the wacky antics of the Sycamore family. Said Variety, "Lionel Barrymore plays the harmonica, his married, middle-aged daughter is typing plays that'll never sell, with a kitten cutely used as a paperweight; one of her daughters is practicing dancing; her husband is at the xylophone, and others are testing firecrackers or doing something else." Capra and Riskin rewrote the play by transforming the character of Anthony P. Kirby, a wealthy industrialist, into a principal part and by shifting the conflict from snobbish conventionality versus spirited self-expression to greedy capitalism versus the little guy. Graham Greene said of the film, "The director emerges as a rather muddled and sentimental idealist who feels—vaguely—that something is wrong with the social system."170
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington pits Jimmy Stewart, a young senator, against the political machine and tears it to pieces. Variety described Mr. Smith as "typically Capra, punchy, human and absorbing—a drama that combines timeliness with current topical interest and a patriotic flavor blended masterfully into the composite whole to provide one of the finest and most consistently interesting dramas of the season."171
The three Capra pictures were named to Film Daily's Ten Best and won numerous awards, including special recognition for Capra. You Can't Take It With You, the most acclaimed of the group, was hailed by Time as "The Number 1 cinema comedy of 1938" and received Academy Awards for best picture and best direction. The box-office performance of these pictures was another matter. Columbia budgeted $500,000 for Mr. Deeds, double the amount it had spent on It Happened One Night, and made money doing so. But for Capra's subsequent pictures, including Lost Horizon, Columbia permitted budgets to escalate to $1.5 million and more, which went beyond the capability of the pictures to return profits. As a result, Capra's pictures earned Columbia enormous prestige, but little profits.172
Having had long experience in sophisticated comedy, Paramount was nicely positioned in the screwball-comedy sweepstakes. It started out with an offbeat entry, Ruggles Of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, 1935), a comedy of displacement starring Charles Laughton as Ruggles, the British valet imcomparable, who is won in a poker game in Paris and is brought by his new master to the American frontier. McCarey's direction, Laughton's outstanding comic performance, and the support of an excellent cast, made Ruggles a box-office leader and placed it on Film Daily's Ten Best.
When Claudette Colbert returned to the studio a star after It Happened One Night, Paramount attempted to recreate the Gable-Colbert chemistry by developing "in-house" vehicles that teamed her with Fred MacMurray. The job of developing these vehicles went to the studio's top director-writing team, Wesley Ruggles and Claude Binyon, who fashioned two love triangles, The Gilded Lily (1935) and The Bride Comes Home (1935), in which Colbert chooses an average American guy over pampered and wealthy suitors. Unlike It Happened One Night, in which she played a runaway heiress, these films cast Colbert as a working girl—a secretary in the first and a magazine editor in the second. Also unlike IT Happened One Night, which takes place mainly along a southern rural highway, these picture take place in an urban milieu of "skyscrapers, nightclubs, and fancy hotels favored by the rich … as well as the homely apartments, front stoops, spaghetti joints, park benches, and city buses frequented by the not-so-rich."173
Binyon and Ruggles enlarged the triangle to a quadrangle in I Met Him in Paris (1937). In this picture, Colbert plays a working girl who goes to Paris for a hard-earned vacation and is pursued by playboy Robert Young, playwright Melvyn Douglas, and hometown boy Lee Bowman. Said Variety, "Long after audiences will have forgotten what this picture is about, the studio probably will be showing the film as one lesson in what a comedy picture ought to be…. But it's not the story. It's not the acting. It's not the production. It's the many infinitesimal touches stuck into the script and action by the adaptor, Claude Binyon, and the director-producer, Wesley Ruggles."174
After taking the triangle formula about as far as it could go, Paramount assigned writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder the task of getting extra mileage out of Colbert. They did so by placing the screwball conventions in a French milieu. In Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Ernst Lubitsch, 1938), Colbert played opposite Gary Cooper, but the picture flopped. In Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939), she played opposite John Barrymore. The picture received fine reviews, but was lost in the flood of great movies that year.
In addition to producing a virtual Claudette Colbert cycle, Paramount extended its range by creating vehicles for Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur. After winning recognition for her gifted performance in Twentieth Century, Lombard's career stalled as she was loaned out by Paramount from studio to studio. She finally came into her own at Universal playing opposite William Powell in My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936). Commenting on her role as an endearing and zany heiress, Variety said, "Miss Lombard has played screwball dames before, but none so screwy as this one. From start to finish, with no letdowns or lapses into quiet sanity, she needs only a resin bag to be a female Rube Waddell. And she has no exclusive on eccentricity, for her whole family, with the exception of the old man, seem to have been dropped on their respective heads when young."175 Powell plays the Bullock family butler. A tramp, he is collected in a scavenger hunt at the city dump by Lombard. However, it turns out that he is actually the scion of a blue-blooded Boston family who went on the bum as a result of a broken love affair. Attempting to straighten out the wacky Bullock family, Powell naturally becomes ensnarled by Lombard.
Returning to Paramount a star, Lombard played opposite Fred MacMurray in three pictures in a row: The Princess Comes Across (William K. Howard, 1936), Swing High, Swing Low (Mitchell Leisen, 1937), and True Confession (Wesley Ruggles, 1937). None of the pictures clicked, and because Paramount tried to turn her and MacMurray into a regular team, she signed a non-exclusive contract with David O. Selznick.
Borrowing Jean Arthur from Columbia for Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937), Paramount produced its zaniest farce. A variation of the Cinderella cycle written by Preston Sturges, the picture was "reminiscent of those old custard pie and Keystone chase days," said Frank Nugent of the New York Times. Arthur plays a poor stenographer who, while riding to work on a Fifth Avenue double-decker bus one morning, is hit by a brand new sable coat that has been flung out of an apartment window by tycoon Edward Arnold in a fit of pique over his wife's extravagance. "Upon Miss Arthur's head it falls and with it, in one of those farce-illogical chains of circumstance, comes the reputation of being the tycoon's mistress, her lodgment in the imperial suite of the Hotel Louis (Luis Alberni, manager) and her unbeknownst encounter with the tycoon's son, Ray Milland, who has been earning a busboy's living in the automat."176
MGM was seemingly well positioned to exploit the screwball cycle, having on its roster Clark Gable and the William Powell-Myrna Loy team. It Happened One Night revitalized Clark Gable's career, and he remained in the box-office top ten for the rest of the decade. However, he achieved this feat not by performing screwball comedy, since comedy was not really his strength, but by reverting to virile roles in romances and action pictures, playing opposite MGM's leading ladies, particularly Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow.
MGM's first attempt at exploiting Powell and Loy following The Thin Man was Evelyn Prentice (1934), a courtroom melodrama. The picture was a bust. In the film, Powell and Loy are married to each other, but as the New York Times said, the picture provided them "with almost no opportunity for the kind of ripping and urbane humor at which they proved themselves so adept in The Thin Man." MGM tried doubly hard the next time by mixing ingredients from It Happened One Night and The Thin Man into a concoction called Libeled Lady (Jack Con way, 1936). An heiress-newsman picture, it contained a galaxy of stars, among them Spencer Tracy as a newspaper editor, Jean Harlow as his fiancée, William Powell as a reporter, and Myrna Loy, as a millionairess. Said Variety, "Stripped of its encumbrances, picture seeks to tell of what befalls Powell when, as the trouble-shooter for a newspaper, he undertakes to frame a young millionairess and thereby compel her to drop a $5,000,000 libel suit. The expected occurs; he falls in love with her."177 Taking another approach, MGM assigned Powell and Loy to Double Wedding (Richard Thorpe, 1937), a pale imitation of Universal's My Man Godfrey, which had teamed Powell and Carole Lombard.
MGM discovered that Powell and Loy were not bankable as a team outside the Thin Man context. MGM therefore initiated a series, which, during the thirties, consisted of After the Thin Man (1936) and Another Thin Man (1939). Like the original, both starred Powell and Loy and used the same director and writers—W. S. Van Dyke, and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. After the Thin Man topped the original, making it to Variety's annual list of box-office winners, but Another Thin Man failed "to measure up to the high entertainment standard set by its predecessors," said Variety.178 The drawback—MGM domesticated the couple by giving them a year-old son.
In 1939, while MGM's Andy Hardy series had just about killed off the screwball cycle, the studio looked to the cycle for help. Greta Garbo, who had her largest following overseas, saw her career threatened by the spreading hostilities in Europe. MGM therefore assigned writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch the task of devising a fresh formula that would increase Garbo's drawing power in the domestic market. The team fashioned Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939), a gem about a gloomy Communist envoy from Moscow who falls in love with a Parisian playboy (Melvyn Douglas). MGM's ads for the picture proclaimed, "Garbo laughs!"—a bookend to the "Garbo talks!"promotion that introduced her first talkie. Said Variety, "It's high-caliber entertainment for adult audiences, a top attraction for the key deluxers, and rates better grosses from the subsequent houses than has been the case in Garbo's last three pictures."179 Although the picture received four Oscar nominations, it proved a disappointment at the box office.
RKO also looked to screwball comedy as a means of rehabilitating the career of its biggest star, Katharine Hepburn. RKO had trouble getting Hepburn's persona right after she made it to Hollywood's top echelons in 1933 starring in Little Women and Morning Glory. Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935) made money, but she then appeared in a series of flops that included Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936), A Woman Rebels (Mark Sandrich, 1936), and Quality Street (George Stevens, 1937). Finally, the studio got it right by casting her opposite Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937). Based on the Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman play about a group of aspiring actresses living in a theatrical boardinghouse, the picture earned a modest profit, received four Oscar nominations, and became the only RKO comedy of the decade to make it to the Film Daily Ten Best. Actually, Stage Door "didn't really change the Hepburn persona," notes Kathleen Kendall. "In fact, it sealed in the original Hepburn legend of the patrician heroine, entitled to put on airs and still be rewarded, because she's basically a good egg."180
In addition to rehabilitating Hepburn's career, Stage Door indicated that Ginger Rogers could be effective without Fred Astaire. She would dance with Astaire in two more musicals in the thirties, but both understood that the series was winding down. To develop a separate persona for her in Stage Door, RKO cast her as a wisecracking young hopeful, a role similar to those she had played early in her career at Warners. Rogers enlarged her skills as a comedienne in Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938), Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939), and Fifth Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939). Bachelor Mother was the most successful; RKO's biggest sleeper of the decade, it earned over $800,000.
After Stage Door, Hepburn made Bringing Up Baby (1938). Inspired by The Awful Truth and co-starring Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby was produced and directed by Howard Hawks and written by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde from an original story by Wilde. Although the picture is regarded today as one of the most hilarious comedies of the era, it lost $365,000, partly because the public had grown tired of sophisticated comedies, but also because Hawks allowed the production to run far over budget.
Universal and United Artists also released screwball comedies of note, the best of which were tailored for Carole Lombard. Universal, as previously noted, produced My Man Godfrey, which teamed Lombard with William Powell. After joining David O. Selznick, Lombard made Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937), a screwball comedy of sorts written by Ben Hecht that satirized the newspaper business. Although Variety called it "one of the top comedies of the season," the picture did less than expected. The screwball cycle had played itself out.
Since Warners' stars lacked the urbane sophistication of Cary Grant or the daffiness of Carole Lombard, the studio hardly participated in the screwball comedy craze. Warners produced comedies, but looked to Broadway as a source. "Most of the Warners' stage-to-screen adaptations were comedies in the middle range: inoffensive, often veering towards farce, and studded with juicy roles for their 'stock company' players."181 Three Men on a Horse (Mervyn LeRoy, 1936), based on the classic American farce by John Cecil Holm and George Abbott, started Warners' cycle. Frank McHugh, the studio's popular featured player, had the role of Erwin Trowbridge, "the simpleminded writer of greeting card verse who becomes entangled with horse racing gamblers because he can pick winners." Tovarich (Anatole Litvak, 1937), based on Robert E. Sherwood's translation of the Jacques Deval comedy, starred Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer on loan-out, playing former members of the czarist imperial household forced to take jobs as servants in the home of a Parisian banker. Boy Meets Girl (Lloyd Bacon, 1938), a spoof of Hollywood based on the 1935 Broadway smash hit by Sam and Bella Spewak, teamed up James Cagney and Pat O'Brien to play a pair of manic screenwriters.
Twentieth Century-Fox also lacked the wherewithal to produce screwball comedy. But, unlike Warners, "Fox kept trying, turning out great numbers of such films all through the time of their vogue. But Fox screwball always seemed imitative and pale, never first-rate or even quite convincing." The problem rested with its stars. Said James Harvey, "It's one of the oddities of Darryl Zanuck's tenure as studio production head that the contract stars—Loretta Young and Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Don Ameche and Sonja Henie (the first ice-skating star)—were consistently less interesting than the stars at the other studios."182 In an attempt to build Tyrone Power and Loretta Young into romantic leads, the studio rushed them into several co-starring vehicles in 1937—Love Is News (Tay Garnett), a venture into the reporter-heiress cycle; Cafe Metropole (Edward H. Griffith), a mixture of the Grand Hotel and Tovarich formulas; and Second Honeymoon (Walter Lang), a variation of the familiar triangle drama. Afterward, Zanuck confined Tyrone Power and Loretta Young to Fox's prestige output.
The decline of screwball comedy in 1938 corresponded to the rise of sentimental comedy, particularly the family film. Direct ancestors of television sitcoms, the plots of these domestic comedies focused on minor incidents in a supposedly typical American family. Roger Dooley has noted, "The cast was often made up of convenient stereotypes—e.g., the henpecked father, the social-climbing mother, the daughter whose choice of the right young man determines the happy ending, perhaps a bratty younger brother, … and usually a peppery older relative, a grandparent or spinster aunt, to comment tartly on the others. A comic maid was also standard." Unlike the screwball family, which was noted for its eccentricities, the families in sentimental comedies were "considered in the main stream, reflecting more or less normal American folks at home."183
Twentieth Century-Fox probably inaugurated the family sitcom in 1936 when it introduced the Jones Family. A low-budget B series featuring Jed Prouty, a small-town druggist, as Pop; Spring Byington as Mom; Florence Roberts as Grandma; and Kenneth Howell and others as the youngsters, the Jones Family films were released at the rate of around three pictures a year. The series lasted from 1936 to 1940, and its principal director was Frank Strayer.
MGM's Andy Hardy series was by far the most successful. Mickey Rooney, the star of the series, became the number-one box-office draw in 1939. The series started out with A Family Affair (George B. Seitz, 1937), a B picture featuring Lionel Barrymore and Mickey Rooney that was based on Aurania Rouverol's play Skidding, about a small-town judge and his family in Carvel, Idaho. The warm response to the picture suggested a sequel, You're Only Young Once (George B. Seitz, 1938), which focused attention on the judge's son Andy. In this picture, the Hardys go on a vacation to Catalina Island, where Andy discovers the excitement of kissing girls. Three changes were made in the cast: Lewis Stone replaced Lionel Barrymore as the judge, Fay Holden replaced Spring Byington as the mother, and Ann Rutherford was added to the cast as Polly Benedict, Andy's girlfriend.
Four months after the release of this picture, MGM produced Judge Hardy's Children (George B. Seitz, 1938), which developed the father-son relationship further. The fourth film of the series, Love Finds Andy Hardy (George B. Seitz, 1938), complicated the action by introducing Judy Garland as the young girl visiting next door. By now, said Bosley Crowther, "the word had got out that [the Andy Hardy pictures] were grossing three or four times their cost. And well they might, for they were genuinely charming, warm and likeable little films. Mickey Rooney was the new sensation and Andy Hardy was the ail-American boy."184
Love Finds Andy Hardy earned the distinction of making it to both the Film Daily and Variety lists. By 1939, nineteen-year-old Rooney had become MGM's most valuable property, and his multiple talents enabled him to take on serious drama (Boys Town, 1938) and musicals (Babes in Arms, 1939) as well as comedy. As other studios got on the family-picture bandwagon, the decade ended where it began—with sentimental comedy firmly in place.
In his social history of America during the thirties, Frederick Lewis Allen has described the extent to which movies mirrored the times:
As for the movies, so completely did they dodge the dissensions and controversies of the day—with a few exceptions, such as the March of Time series, the brief newsreels, and the occasional picture like "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" or "They Won't Forget"—that if a dozen or two feature pictures, selected at random, were to be shown to an audience of 1960, that audience would probably derive from them not the faintest idea of the ordeal' through which the United States went in the nineteen thirties. (Since Yesterday [New York: Harper and Row, 1939], P. 222)
The social problem film, which includes the gangster and crime picture, played a minor role in the production strategies of the majors. However, it is misguided to condemn Hollywood for ignoring the economic and social upheavals created by the Depression and for concentrating instead on escapist fare for its survival. Defining itself as a purveyor of entertainment, Hollywood never considered it a duty to analyze society or the economy. Any attempt to do so would have opened the industry to the charge of producing propaganda. Moreover, any proposal to solve a social problem would carry a political liability and fragment the audience. Hollywood steered clear of this mine field and continued to do what it did best—provide "harmless entertainment" for the masses. Motion pictures might allude to the Depression or even exploit an issue, but the goal was always profits, not social justice. Journalists, do-gooders, and other civic-minded people believed Hollywood was shirking its responsibility, but no one offered to pick up the tab should attempts at producing message pictures fail.
One studio did devise a formula to capitalize on social problems, and that studio was Warner Bros. Considering itself "The Ford of the Movies," Warners pared budgets to the bare bones during the Depression in an attempt to pay off company debts. What better way to keep costs down than to produce fast-paced topicals based on stories plucked out of the day's news? Darryl F. Zanuck, Warners' head of production until 1933, called this cycle "headlines" pictures—which is to say a type of picture based on a story that had "the punch and smash that would entitle it to be a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily."185 The policy successfully differentiated Warners' roster from its competitors' even after Zanuck left the studio in 1933.
But in exposing gangsters, inhumane prison conditions, yellow journalism, and so forth, Warners did not meet the social problems head on; instead, the studio typically sidestepped issues by narrowing the focus of the exposé to a specific case or by resolving problems at the personal level of the protagonist rather than at the societal level. Variety called the process "Burbanking," referring to the location of Warners' studio in Burbank, outside Los Angeles.
A good example of Burbanking is found in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932), perhaps the most sensational social problem film of the period. Based on Robert E. Burns's lurid account of his experiences in a Georgia prison camp, Fugitive was named to Film Daily's Ten Best and was voted best picture of the year by the National Board of Review. Written while Burns was in hiding, his exposé generated considerable notoriety when serialized in True Detective magazine in 1931 and then as a book in 1932. After acquiring the rights to the book, Warners hired Burns to work undercover in Hollywood as a technical adviser on the screenplay, which was written by Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes, and Sheridan Gibney. Prison life in Fugitive is brutal: the workday begins at 4:30 in the morning and ends after dark, prisoners are shackled, the guards are sadistic, and the living conditions are squalid. Making such conditions even more horrific is the fact that the hero, James Allen (played by Paul Muni), a decorated World War I veteran who had been reduced by circumstances to wandering the country as a vagrant, is sentenced to ten years of hard labor for a crime he had been conned into committing.
The ending of the picture is the starkest of any social problem film of the period: Muni has escaped from the chain gang and become a successful engineer and civic leader in Chicago, but when his identity is revealed to the police by his spiteful wife, he is arrested and voluntarily returns to Georgia with the promise that the state will pardon him in ninety days because he had "rehabilitated" himself. After Muni is locked up, however, the warden suspends the pardon indefinitely. Escaping the chain gang a second time, Muni again becomes a fugitive. At the close, he appears from the shadows, a defeated and beaten figure, for a furtive meeting with his sweetheart. Describing life on the lam, he says, "I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends, no rest, no peace." A distant police siren startles him, and as he disappears into the night, she asks him, "How do you live?" and he answers, "I steal."186
Highly regarded for its gritty realism at the time of its release, Fugitive is considered by some today as one of the "first true problem films" by going "beyond the brief putdowns of brutality and capital punishment to fully reveal what is wrong in the prison camps and who is responsible." It is true that the film indicts the courts, the penal system, and vengeful state officials, but American capitalism as a whole is depicted as fundamentally just. Because public sentiment up north was with Muni's character and social agencies there had worked on his behalf to clear him, the movie implies that if the chain gang is removed and the administration of justice in Georgia is reformed, all will be well.187 Moreover, by focusing on the plight of the protagonist, the film obscures such issues in the story as why the state of Georgia tolerated the chain-gang system, why the federal government turned its back on World War I veterans, and why the economy had turned sour.
The gangster picture was the most popular social problem picture of the early thirties. It is easy to see why: first, the cult of the gangster had made headlines for a decade, ever since the start of Prohibition; second, gangster pictures were relatively cheap to produce and easy to mount; and third, the gangster picture could exploit the full possibilities of sound. Warners' Lights of New York (Bryan Foy, 1928), the first all-talking movie, introduced audiences to the distinctive, rough, argot-ridden dialogue of the gangster—words such as molls, mugs, gats, rods, and cannons. Audiences also heard the explosive rat-tat-tat-tat of the machine gun and the screeching of wheels as a car turned a corner to shoot at a cop or a member of a rival gang. The first sound gangster pictures depended on dialogue for their effectiveness, but producers soon realized that action was more important. By 1930, "every major had taken its crack at one or more gangland films," said Variety, and the "racketeer stuff was cold."188
The classic gangster cycle, consisting of such pictures as Warners' Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931) and The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931), and UA's Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932), traced the rise and precipitous fall of the urban, often immigrant gangster involved in heavy racketeering and bootlegging during Prohibition. The protagonists of the pictures—Cesare "Rico" Bandello (Little Caesar), Tom Powers (Public Enemy), and Tony Camonte (Scarface)—were suggested by notorious men of the era, Rico and Tony by Al Capone, and Tom Powers by Earl "Hymie" Weiss. The pictures also contained most of the iconographic characteristics of the genre. The milieu of the gangster was the city, in particular its dark streets, dingy rooming houses, bars, clubs, penthouse apartments, mansions, and precinct stations. The gangster typically wore nondescript and wrinkled clothing at first, but as he moved to the top, his clothing changed to flashy, custom-tailored stripped suits with silk ties and suitable jewelry, fedora hats, spats, and tuxedos. Being a modern man of the city, the gangster had at his disposal the city's complex technology, in particular firearms, automobiles, and telephones. The automobile was a major icon and had a twofold function: it enabled the hero to carry out his work, and like his clothes, it became the symbol of his success.
Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, "was unquestionably the foremost of the gang films for the money," catching "the public appetite for underworld stories at its height," reported Variety. The rise-and-fall structure of the picture was based on W. R. Burnett's novel about a small-time hoodlum climbing to near the top of a big-city racket and staying there briefly before sinking back into obscurity and death. Unlike other gangster pictures that had hit the market, Little Caesar became a standout because of its tightly structured narrative and an effective performance by Robinson. The New York Times said, "Little Caesar becomes at Mr. Robinson's hands a figure out of Greek epic tragedy, a cold, ignorant, merciless killer, driven on and on by an insatiable lust for power, the plaything of a force that is greater than himself."189
Warners' The Public Enemy stars James Cagney. Based on a story about gang lore by John Bright, and scripted by Bright, Kubec Glasmon, and Harvey Thew, it is structured as a semidocumentary about bootlegging that offers a sociological explanation for why Tom Powers grows up to become a "full-grown, vicious, minor hoodlum." Just as Rico's lust for power created a new type of screen gangster, so did Tom's thuggery. As Variety described him, Tom "is a bully behind his gun with men and the same with his fist toward his women…. Pushing a grapefruit into the face of the moll (Mae Clarke) with whom he's fed up, socking another on the chin for inducing him to her for the night while he's drunk, and spitting a mouthful of beer into the face of a speakeasy proprietor for using a rival's product are a few samples of Cagney's deportment as Tom, the tough in the modern gangster's dress and way."190
Scarface starred Paul Muni and was the only gangster picture to make it to Film Daily's Ten Best. Howard Hughes's Caddo Corporation produced the picture for United Artists release. Ben Hecht, who adapted the novel by Armitage Trail, crafted a hero resembling Al Capone and wove into the plot famous gangster incidents of the twenties, such as the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, the murder of "Big Jim" Colosimo in a telephone booth, and the assassination of "Legs" Diamond in his hospital room. In order to qualify for a Hays Office seal of approval and to satisfy state censorship boards, the picture underwent constant revision both during and after production. Among them was a change in the ending from a scene showing Camonte sentenced by the court and hanged, to one in which Tony is gunned down by the police on the sidewalk as he tries to make a break. The final release print carried the new title Scarface: Shame of a Nation and a prologue signed by Edward P. Mulrooney, police commissioner of New York City, condemning gangster rule and demanding that the audience do something about it. But such rhetoric probably fooled neither the reformer nor the film fan. As Variety described it, "Scarface … uses all the modern artillery tricks ever conceived by imaginative scenario writers who read newspapers and contributes a few more of its own. It bumps off more guys and mixes more blood with rum than most of the past gangster offerings combined." Although Variety noted that Scarface was "presumably the last of the gangster films, … it is going to make people sorry that there won't be any more."191
The classic gangster cycle flourished for one year only, 1931; as Richard Maltby put it, "the year 1931 was the best of times and the worst of times to release films about gangsters. They could hardly be more topical, but the climate in which they were released was one in which a generally tolerant press attitude had shifted to outspoken condemnation, expressed in editorial demands to 'end the reign of gangdom.' " The Production Code, which was officially adopted by the industry on 31 March 1930, stipulated, among other things, that crimes against the law should never be presented "in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation"; that the "technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation"; and that the "methods of crime should not be explicitly presented."192 Using the Code for leverage, the Hays Office helped convince producers to put an end to the classic gangster cycle. But the Hays Office was not the major cause of the cycle's demise. By 1931, the market had become saturated with such pictures. Thereafter, the number of class-A crime films of all types dropped markedly. Warners continued with the cycle all the way to the end of the decade, but the other majors cut back on crime-film production to one or at most two a year.
Unlike the gangster film, the prison cycle caused relatively little trouble with the censors. In fact, MGM's The Big House (George Hill, 1930), the picture that launched the cycle, was greatly admired as a social problem picture and made it to Film Daily's Top Ten. Produced by William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures, the film was inspired by actual prison riots in 1929 and by Broadway plays such as The Last Mile and Criminal Code. Frances Marion crafted the screenplay and won an Oscar for her efforts. Chester Morris and Wallace Beery played two of the inmates, and Lewis Stone, the warden. Purporting to present a realistic portrait of prison life, The Big House depicted the processing of inmates, their mealtimes, and their routines in the yard. The picture also introduced what were to become prison stereotypes—the hardened criminal, the semihysterical weakling victimized by both guards and fellow prisoners, the informer, the ineffectual warden, the vicious guard, and the strong-willed leader. And true to form, the climax of the picture presented a thrilling revolt that graphically depicted how officials used hand grenades, barrages, stench bombs, tractor attacks, and other means "to deal with foolhardy prisoners." "Prison life on the half-shell," said Variety.193 Although The Big House was a big hit, MGM had little interest in the cycle and produced only a few crime pictures thereafter.
Warners contributed two controversial pictures to the cycle, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932), previously discussed, and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1933). Both were based on books that had caught media attention, and both were shot in a semidocumentary style. Sing Sing, which featured Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, was released just a few months after Fugitive. The first of several screen adaptations of Warden Lewis E. Lawes's experiences as an enlightened penologist, the picture incorporated Lawes's controversial honor system, which allowed deserving prisoners to take furloughs to visit family and friends. In contrast to the brutal prison conditions in Fugitive, prison life in Sing Sing "wouldn't be a bad place at all to spend a vacation over the depression," said Variety.194 Fugitive depicted a person being unjustly convicted of a crime and thrown into a convict camp; in Sing Sing, Spencer Tracy admits to a crime he did not commit and goes to the electric chair to vindicate the prison's honor system.
Other offshoots of the gangster film include the yellow-journalism, shyster-lawyer, and vigilante cycles. Most were hastily thrown-together exploitation films, concerned more with sensationalism than with examining any putative social problem. Warners' Five Star Final (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931), the only other social problem picture besides Scarface and Fugitive to make it to Film Daily's Ten Best, generated the most heat. A newspaper exposé based on the Broadway hit by Louis Weitzenkorn, the picture starred Edward G. Robinson as the editor of a scurrilous New York tabloid. Pressured by his publisher to build up circulation, Robinson runs a follow-up story to a twenty-year-old murder case. Unearthing the case results in a double suicide by the woman named in the story and her husband. Robinson becomes disgusted with his job, berates his publisher, and resigns from the paper in disgust. The picture ends with a "close-up of the Gazette lying in the gutter; a gob of dirt splatters down on to it, and a broom sweeps it down the gutter with the other garbage." Variety noted that Five Star Final was a "hard rap at the readers of such tabs, … and while these readers will make up a large part of its audience, they won't mind." In other words, this picture contained social criticism, but the criticism was "well within the conventions of entertainment."195
The shyster-lawyer cycle, consisting of such pictures as Paramount's For the Defense (John Cromwell, 1930), Warners' The Mouthpiece (James Flood and Elliott Nugent, 1932), and RKO's State's Attorney (George Archainbaud, 1932), typically featured unethical sharpies who front for gangsters. Vigilante pictures, such as MGM's The Secret Six (George Hill, 1931), Warners' Star Witness (William Wellman, 1931), and Paramount's This Day and Age (Cecil B. DeMille, 1933), not so subtly advocated extralegal means to eradicate gangsters and their ilk. For example, Star Witness, released as a rebuttal of sorts to The Public Enemy, depicted how "gangdom is undermining the U.S. citizenry." A normal middle-class American family that has witnessed an underworld slaying is "terrorized into perjurying themselves when followers of the captured gang leader learn that their evidence is sufficient to send the boss to the chair." However, the grandfather, a Civil War veteran (played by Chic Sale, a vaudeville monologuist who specialized in Americana), is not intimidated and goes to the police. As the "star witness," he delivers a speech to the court complaining that organized crime is run by foreigners who are ruining the country. Variety predicted that Warners would produce a "follow-up film advocating deportation of all alien gangsters."196
As the Depression deepened, Hollywood offered various solutions to solve the country's economic problems. Columbia's American Madness (1932), Frank Capra's first collaboration with writer Robert Riskin, offered a populist solution. Drawing on the Grand Hotel single-setting structure, American Madness takes place in a bank—in the vaults, lobby, board room, cashier's office, and other parts of Walter Huston's First National Bank. After a cashier helps gangsters rob the vaults of $100,000, gossipers exaggerate the loss and start a run on the bank. To stem the flow, the board of directors adopts a tightfisted no-lending policy. Huston opposes the decision by stating "that a bank should serve all the people, not just a selfish few." The conflict is resolved in typical Capra fashion when hordes of "little people" come to Huston's aid by redepositing their meager savings in the bank. "It's swell propaganda against hoarding, frozen assets and other economic evils which 1932 Hooverism has created [and] should be the banker's delight. It's a natural for an A.B.A. tie-up on exploitation," said Variety.197
UA's Our Daily Bread (1934), written, directed, and produced by King Vidor, offered a socialist solution. Inspired by policies of "such widely assorted persons as Walter Pitkin (Clearing House for Hope), Upton Sinclair (EPIC), President Roosevelt (subsistence farms), and the backers of the so-called Ohio plan," Our Daily Bread dramatized the creation of a collective farm by a throng of desperate men and women who have fled the cities. Working together as a community, they vanquish bankruptcy, foreclosure, and drought, the implication being that "what the individual farmer could not stave off, the group can."198
MGM's Gabriel Over the White House (Gregory La Cava, 1933), produced by Walter Wanger for William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures, offered a totalitarian solution. A fantasy designed as a tribute to Franklin Roosevelt and released to coincide with his March 1933 inauguration, Gabriel Over the White House starts out with the president of the United States (Walter Huston) advocating economic policies similar to Herbert Hoover's until an automobile accident knocks some sense into his head. Describing what happens next, Variety said,
The resurrected President goes before Congress in a big scene, asks to be made a dictator to deal with the emergency, and when Congress refuses he declares martial law and takes control. He goes out to meet an army of hunger marchers at Baltimore, calms them and wins them to his policies in an address, sends the army out after the gangsters in an elaborate battle scene with tanks, and for the finish meets the diplomats of the world on the Presidential yacht, with the whole American navy assembled thereabouts, and talks them into paying the American foreign debt and agreeing to a new disarmament pact. (VFR, 29 March 1933)
Variety concluded, "A cleverly executed commercial release, it waves the flag frantically, preaches political claptrap with ponderous solemnity, but won't inspire a single intelligent reaction in a carload of admission tickets."199
After Roosevelt's inauguration, Warners changed its strategy for social problem films. Although fervent Republicans, the Warner brothers not only backed FDR's election efforts but also acted as major propagandists for the New Deal, designing morale boosters that presented "the administration—usually in the guise of federal judges, G-men, or benevolent civil servants—as the solution to all social problems."200
Notice, for example, how Warners dealt with the unemployment problem in Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933). Shot mainly in freight yards, a sewer-pipe city, and other locations, the picture realistically depicts how unemployment created displaced children who formed gangs and wandered the country. Said Variety, "The spiritual travails of these youngsters detached from their families and homes and left to roam the country, battered, rebuffed and hardened by adversity, is something to leave an impression of gloom not easily erased. Every incident, every character ceaselessly brings to mind the most gruesome underside of hard times." New Deal compassion solves the problem. The kids have run into trouble with the police and are brought before a judge with the Blue Eagle on the wall. (The Blue Eagle was the symbol of Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration.) The judge (Robert Barrat), who wears rimless spectacles and is a look-alike for the president, listens compassionately to Frankie Darro's brief on behalf of underprivileged children: "Jail can't be any worse than the street." Barrat responds by saying, "Things are going to get better all over the country…. I know your father will be going back to work soon." Although the judge offers words of comfort, nothing in the film indicates how the NRA or other New Deal projects will revive the economy.201
Warners treated labor unrest in Black Fury (Michael Curtiz, 1935). Militant unionism was at a peak in the mid thirties. The number of strikes in the United States increased dramatically during the Depression and abated only after the passage of the New Deal's Wagner Act (1935), guaranteeing labor the right to organize and negotiate. Perhaps the most tumultuous industrial strife involved the United Mine Workers and its flamboyant leader John L. Lewis.
Black Fury was based on the 1929 murder of a coal miner by company police in Imperial, Pennsylvania. Judge Michael A. Musmanno, who was involved in the case, wrote an original story about it that formed the basis of the film. The picture has a documentary look. Nick Roddick describes it: "Placard-bearing strikers march down the street of Coaltown and kids in the schoolyard shout 'Dirty scabs!' as replacement workers are brought in." Company police are depicted as thugs and the workers as "model representatives of the 'little man.'" However, after this initial presentation of industrial conditions, the narrative shifts to the personal vendetta of Polish coal miner Joe Radek (played by Paul Muni), who heroically fights the company police force and triggers a federal investigation into its operations. New Deal bureaucrats in Washington expose the mob connections of the police, and the workers go back to their jobs, forgetting their former grievances. Another example of Burbanking, the picture switches focus from disgruntled labor versus capital, to labor versus strike-breaking syndicates. Thus, while flying the banner of political militancy, Warners maintained the status quo. "If anything," said Variety, "intelligent capitalism management is given a subtle boost."202
When the social and economic climate of the country improved, Hollywood decided that the time was ripe to revive the gangster film, but "to take the curse off these yarns," studios turned the gangster into a federal agent.203 Warners led the pack with G-Men (William Keighley, 1935), a surprise hit starring James Cagney. A semidocumentary in style, G-Men depicts the making of an FBI agent. Seton I. Miller wrote an original screenplay that interweaves spectacular events from the headlines involving the most notorious characters of the time. The gangsters in G-Men are modeled after "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face"' Nelson, and John Dillinger, who terrorized the Midwest; the good guys are patterned on J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, and Melvin Purvis, a colorful federal agent who helped engineer the gangster busts of the 1930s. James Cagney plays the Purvis character, James ("Brick") Davis. Born on the bad side of town, raised in state orphanages, and arrested for vagrancy and fighting, Davis is Tom Powers of The Public Enemy gone good.
Warners treated Cagney's conversion to the right side of the law as an event of national significance. An ad in the New York Times stated that the picture was dedicated to "the fearless Federal Agents whose heroic exploits and inspiration made this picture possible." Other promotion linking him to The Public Enemy declared that Cagney as a G-man was tougher than ever—"Cagney Is Now Public Hero No. 1!" and "Cagney Finds New Way to Sock Women." Undermining the intent, if not the spirit, of the Production Code, G-Men glorifies violence by staging assaults using tear gas, rifles, pistols, and machine guns and by depicting Davis's motive for joining the Department of Justice as an obsession with avenging the murder of his G-man pal by a hoodlum.
G-Men was a big hit and made it to Variety's list of top grossers for 1935. By year's end, the trade noted that while the G-man cycle "has been considered constructive in presenting a picture of the Government's war on crime, at the same time films of this type were becoming so numerous as to create some resistance on the part of the public and hence an unhealthful condition at the box office."204 Nonetheless, Warners decided to stretch its luck by assigning director William Keighley and writer Seton I. Miller to fashion a G-man type of vehicle for Edward G. Robinson. Bullets or Ballots (1936) substituted a police detective for an FBI agent and based the action on the activities of New York racketeer "Dutch" Schultz. The title of the picture refers to the duty every citizen has to support the political system or suffer organized crime. As Johnny Blake, a "tough, but honest dick," Robinson infiltrates the rackets and brings down a kingpin, but in doing so, he takes on their colors by organizing the most profitable and widespread racket of all, numbers. Thus, for a substantial portion of the film, crime fighter Blake is the city's greatest criminal, "playing the gangster role while not 'glorifying gangsterism.' "205
Not stopping there, Warners devised a gangster vehicle for its top female star, Bette Davis, inspired by New York's District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey's investigation into racketeering. Of particular interest to the studio was the conviction of gangster "Lucky" Luciano on charges of prostitution, a conviction that stuck as a result of key testimony from three prostitutes. Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon, 1937), written by Robert Rossen and Abem Finkel, changes the occupation of the women from prostitutes to hostesses in a clip joint and the setting from a brothel to a cheap nightclub to make it conform to the Production Code. Humphrey Bogart plays the district attorney, and Eduardo Ciannelli, the Luciano-like gangster, Johnny Vanning. Bette Davis and her friends do not feel exploited working for Vanning; on the contrary, they consider themselves lucky to have jobs. They testify against Vanning only after he murders Davis's kid sister and after his henchmen viciously beat up Davis. The resolution of the picture was particularly effective. Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times said, "The five shady ladies who take the stand and testify, with a ganglord's executioner waiting for them to leave the court room, are ennobled for that moment, but not glorified. When the fog swallows them up, there is no after-glow from their halos. Count that a point for realism on the screen."206
Influenced by American drama of social consciouness, the gangster cycle changed further to embrace a sociological analysis of the existence of crime. Sam Goldwyn's Dead End (William Wyler, 1937), a prestige picture based on Sidney Kingsley's Broadway hit, which showed slums as the breeding ground for criminals, initiated the cycle. Treating the criminal "not as a heroic individual but as a social problem," these films, in Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy's words, "were populated by juvenile delinquents about to be initiated into big-time crime and ex-convicts struggling against an intolerant society to go straight. In both cases, sympathy is with the criminal and against the social institutions. But just as the unrepentant gangster had to die, so the reformed delinquents and cons are almost always reintegrated by a redeemer figure."207
At least two pictures anticipated the cycle, Warners' Mayor of Hell (Archie Mayo, 1933) and MGM's Manhattan Melodrama (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934). Mayor of Hell, a junior Big House, takes place in a reformatory where James Cagney, a racketeer with a Jekyll-Hyde character, takes over as superintendent and changes the lives of kids. To explain the cause of juvenile delinquency, the picture tried to demonstrate how a poor environment fosters antisocial behavior. However, the plot muddled the message because, as Variety put it, "the big item which customers have to swallow is that while reforming kids, Cagney sticks to his trade as gang leader."208
Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and William Powell, contained a Cain and Abel plot. Two orphans are raised together on the Lower East side and end up on opposite sides of the law, with Gable as a big-time gambler and Powell as a district attorney. To spare Powell from a mudslinging attack that might spoil his bid for governor, Gable kills the instigator and goes to the chair without revealing his motive. It is Powell as district attorney who convicts him and it is Powell as governor who will not commute the death penalty.
Warners' Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938), a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, stars James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. Like Dead End, the picture shows the squalid living conditions—crowded streets and shabby tenements—that make petty criminals out of the kids. And like its prototype, the picture repeats the Cain and Abel motif: the kids have two models to look up to, a gangster (Cagney) and a priest (O'Brien), boyhood friends from the same neighborhood. The climax occurs in prison just as Cagney is about to go to the electric chair. O'Brien, who is at Cagney's side, wants to squelch the admiration the kids have for Cagney and talks him into turning yellow. After Cagney is strapped in, his screams and sobs are heard, but because the action occurs off-screen, the audience questions whether Cagney is truly frightened or just acting. Nonetheless, Angels ends optimistically, with the kids reconciled to society.
MGM's Boys Town (Norman Taurog, 1938) implied that if big-city slums breed wayward children, then take the kids into the country. Starring Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as Whitey Marsh, a supertough delinquent, Boys Town depicts Father Flanagan's orphanage in Nebraska in its early, experimental stage; it is an idealized community in which "boys of all nationalities and faiths work side by side in harmony, under the benevolent care of a purposeful leader." Mickey Rooney is a cynical newcomer "with a pack of butts in his left-hand pocket, a deck of cards in his right, a Tenth Avenue Homburg cocked over one ear and his mind made up to blow the joint." Although he eventually succumbs to Father Flanagan's and the home's refining influences, Variety, which called the picture "a tear-jerker of the first water," pointed out that "the delinquents are reformed without any change in the slums or in the economic structure that produced them."209 Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for his role as Father Flanagan, as did screenwriters Dore Schary and Eleanore Griffin for their original screenplay.
Warners squeezed extra mileage out of the gangster picture by producing two variants at the close of the decade. A Slight Case of Murder (Lloyd Bacon, 1938), a gangster comedy starring Edward G. Robinson, is based on the Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay farce about "a retired bootlegger who has to get rid of four dead bodies left unceremoniously in his Saratoga home by his enemies in the rackets." Said Variety, "The underworld is turned inside out and scenes which once chilled the spectators with horror are the occasion here for hearty laughter."210
The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939), a quasi-documentary drama starring James Cagney, uses newsreel clips, montage sequences, voice-over narration, and music of the period to demonstrate how social conditions during Prohibition caused the rise of the gangster. Written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, and Robert Rossen from an idea by Mark Hellinger, the picture repeats the rise-and-fall structure of the classic gangster film and contains stock elements from major pictures of the cycle.
Variety observed at the end of 1939 that "underworld pics … are currently as poisonous at the b.o. as dictators are to peace."211 The glut consisted mainly of B pictures. Beginning with the G-Men cycle in 1935, Hollywood adopted a two-tier production policy regarding crime pictures. Most crime pictures were assigned to B production units and consisted of spin-offs of class-A hits. The special-prosecutor film, for example, spun off imitations such as Warners' Racket Busters (Lloyd Bacon, 1938), which probed the trucking racket in New York, and RKO's Smashing the Rackets (Lew Landers, 1938), which exposed the white slave trade.
The prison film spun off three imitations from Warners: Road Gang (Louis King, 1936), a remake of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; Alcatraz Island (William McGann, 1937), which introduces the Rock with caption "America's penal fortress, grim and mysterious as its name, where cold steel and rushing tides protect civilization from its enemies"; and Blackwell's Island (William McGann, 1939), an exposé of a prison under the "virtual command of a ruthless criminal who ran it to enrich his own pockets by exacting tribute from its inmates."212
The class-B juvenile-delinquency cycle exploited the Dead End Kids. Unlike the bigger-budget versions, the sociological background is neutralized in these pictures and the kids' behavior becomes a source of comedy. Among the many films featuring the Dead End Kids are Universal's Little Tough Guy (Harold Young, 1938) and Call a Messenger (Arthur Lubin, 1939), Warners' Angels Wash Their Faces (Ray Enright, 1939).
When the worst of the Depression was over, Hollywood turned to other sensational events besides crime to exploit. Early in the decade, the number of lynchings in the country rose alarmingly. Generally carried out by white middle-class conservatives, lynchings occurred predominantly in the South and in California with the tacit approval of local law agencies. The targets of the lynch mob were almost exclusively blacks, but Jews, Communists, and labor organizers were also singled out. Lynchings, of course, made grisly fodder for the tabloids. Although the frequency of lynchings dramatically declined after 1934, the result of federal legislation and national outrage with such behavior, "Hollywood joined the attack on mob violence at a time when it was still in the forefront of the public's consciousness."213
Hollywood turned out two important pictures involving lynchings, MGM's Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936) and Warners' They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy, 1937). Since social problems just did not fit in with the studio's image of glitz and glamour, Fury was an unusual picture for MGM to produce. MGM made the picture only to secure the talents of the noted German director Fritz Lang, who had recently fled Nazi Germany. Lang waited around for over a year on payroll before the studio found a project fitting for his American debut. Norman Krasna's original screenplay, which was "elemental in its simplicity," satisfied him.
Fury did not involve a black victim, nor is the action set in the South; the central character is an auto mechanic, played by Spencer Tracy, who is stopped by the police on his way to visit his fiancée, Sylvia Sidney, in rural Illinois and is booked on suspicion of kidnapping a little girl. Lang was basically interested in mob psychology and presented the "great American institution" of lynching, in the words of the New York Times, "as the victim sees it, as the mob sees it, as the public sees it. We see a lynching, its prelude and its aftermath, in all its cold horror, its hypocrisy and its cruel stupidity."214 However, the plot contrivances that turned the victim to victimizer and the happy ending placed Fury squarely in the tradition of Hollywood entertainment and undermined the social criticism. The picture was praised by the critics and established Lang's career in California, but it withered at the box office.
They Won't Forget took a different slant on lynching. The screenplay by Aben Kandel and Robert Rossen was based on Ward Greene's novel Death in the Deep South, about Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew, who was charged with the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl and lynched in 1915. Like Fury, the picture depicts a small-town lynch mob and captures the boredom and frustration that "makes lynching a perverted form of entertainment." Although They Won't Forget is set in the South, its focus is not on the criminal behavior of the lynch mob but on a cynical local district attorney, played by Claude Rains, who manipulates and inflames people to further his own career. In the tradition of Hollywood entertainment, the picture sidesteps the issue of personal responsibility by implicating the media for not merely sensationalizing the trial but using headlines to arouse the townspeople. However, unlike the ending of Fury, the ending of They Won't Forget is unsettling. After Robert Hale, a schoolteacher from up north, is convicted on flimsy evidence, he is rushed by train to another city to save him from the lynch mob. But the crazed mob is not to be denied; they board the train, drag Hale off, and hang him.
A group of pictures depicting native fascism were inspired by the Ku Klux Klan-like Black Legion, a secret organization operating in the Midwest in the thirties that cloaked "its cowardice, bigotry, selfishness, stupidity and brutality under the mantle of '100 per cent Americanism.'" Columbia's Legion of Terror (C. C. Coleman, 1936), the first out of the gates, attempts "to sketch a story of local dementia plus an indictment of crackpot politico-fraternal organizations," said Variety. Two months later, Warners released The Black Legion (Archie Mayo, 1937). It was based on an original story by Robert Lord, who drew his information from accounts of the Legion's ritualistic murder in 1936 of WPA worker Charles Poole in Michigan. The picture featured Humphrey Bogart as Frank Taylor, an embittered factory worker who joins the Black Legion because a foreigner is promoted to foreman over him. Both pictures depict Legion leaders as racketeers who use Americanism to enrich themselves. And both pictures depict the bigotry and violence of the vigilante groups. However, neither probes underlying social or economic causes for the social discontent.215
The spread of hostilities overseas stimulated a new war cycle in 1935. As Motion Picture Herald put it,
The thunder of hob-nailed marching feet of Mussolini's Italian infantrymen, mingled with the softer retreat of Haile Selassie's unshod but calloused tribesmen, echoes with the roar of bombing planes from Abyssinia across 3,000 miles of ocean and then 3,000 miles of land, and Hollywood is listening, even as the world listens to the newer rumblings of Mars on the Russo-Japanese border and on the waters at Malta and the Suez Canal. ("Hollywood Starts War Cycle," 19 October 1935, p. 18)
But what did producers hear? Pictures in the first cycle of war films, such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Journey's End (1930), and The Dawn Patrol (1930), expressed America's isolationist attitudes created by World War I, but offered few insights into the causes of the war. The second cycle started out with rousing adventure films, such as Paramount's The Last Outpost (1935), Warners' The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and Fox's Under Two Flags (1936), which glorified militarism. When America's involvement in the war became a possibility, Hollywood responded in typical fashion.
Paramount's The Last Train from Madrid (James Hogan, 1937) was the first picture to capitalize on the Spanish civil war. A melodrama featuring Dorothy Lamour and Lew Ayres, it mixes elements of Grand Hotel and Shanghai Express. Variety said, "Studio doesn't take any political chances with this one. The war is on and a group of people are trying to escape on the last train. One is a political spellbinder, another a newspaperman, one's a gigolo, there is a baroness, a girl of the streets, a sweet young thing, a member of the Woman's Battalion. All become vaguely mixed up, but everything works out after a murder, an arrest and a jailing."216
Producer Walter Wanger tried to make a bolder statement about the Spanish civil war in UA's Blockade (William Dieterle, 1938), starring Madeleine Carroll and Henry Fonda. John Howard Lawson fashioned a spy story set in Spain. The picture failed, said Variety, because "it pulls its punches." The opening title reveals that the setting is Spain in 1936, but the two opposing sides are never identified and the real issues of the civil war are never discussed. "The stage and the screen are potent vehicles for melodramatic propaganda," said Variety, "but for a dramatist to take a middle course, in an evident attempt to spare tender feelings, is to fire at his target with blank cartridges."217
Wanger was subjected to considerable pressure making the picture. The Nation asserted that Hollywood waged a private campaign to intimidate the producer, noting that some theaters refused to play the picture. The Catholic Knights of Columbus and the Catholic News branded the picture as propaganda, making the industry wonder whether the charge marked a change in the Legion of Decency's policy of evaluating motion pictures primarily on the basis of moral content. The intimidation did its job, forcing Wanger to change his message picture into just another melodrama. Variety had observed earlier that Blockade was "the key to the opening-up of a vast source of screen material. Upon its success financially revolves the plans of several of the major studios heretofore hesitant about tackling stories which treat with subjects of international economic and political controversy."218
Warners' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, 1939) was the first motion picture to portray the Nazis as a threat to America. The picture was based on Leon G. Turrou's book The Nazi Spy Conspiracy in America, describing his experiences as an FBI agent who directed an operation that cracked a Nazi spy ring in the ranks of the German-American Bund. Warners acquired the movie rights to the book for $25,000 and hired Turrou to serve as technical adviser. Milton Krims and John Wexley wrote the screenplay, and Edward G. Robinson played Ed Renard, a character obviously based on Turrou. This picture also aroused intense hostility, and even Jack and Harry Warner received telephone threats. A theater showing the film in a German neighborhood of Milwaukee was burned to the ground by a group of outraged Nazi sympathizers. Hans Thonsen, the German chargé d'affaires, denounced the film to Cordell Hull, the U.S. secretary of state. Despite the publicity and favorable reviews, the public was not interested.
Like the Depression, the gathering tide of World War II was only dimly seen in motion pictures. Poor box-office returns, pressure from political groups, and an isolationist mentality nationwide convinced Hollywood to refrain from sending any more messages, at least for the time being.
Stylistically the least realistic of all the production trends and certainly the smallest in terms of quantity, the horror film left an indelible mark on the era. Although every studio tried its hand at a cycle, one studio, Universal, specialized in the genre in an attempt to break into the first-run market. No horror picture made it to Variety's top-grossing films lists, and only one such picture made it to Film Daily's Ten Best—Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Strangely, three horror films made it to the New York Times Ten Best list—Universal's Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933) and Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932).
Observing the reception of German expressionist pictures such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), The Golem (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, 1920), and Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922), Hollywood began to take the horror film seriously during the twenties and hired European talent skilled in the making of these films. Universal led the way by importing German motion-picture talent and by producing two celebrated vehicles for Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925).
The first phase of the sound horror cycle, known as the classic period, lasted from 1931 to 1936, during which years around thirty horror films were produced by the eight majors. To be effective, these films had to have sinister settings, expressionistic lighting, evocative mood music, and specialized makeup. Because these elements were costly, most horror films in this period were produced as class-A pictures. In terms of narrative types, these pictures fall into four categories: the mad-scientist film, which constituted over half of the pictures; vampire movies; monster movies; and metamorphosis movies.219
The cycle fed on remakes of silent horror films, literary classics, and popular Broadway plays. For example, MGM's first horror picture of the decade, The Unholy Three (Jack Conway, 1930), was a remake that contained the same stars as the 1925 original, Lon Chaney and Harry Earles. Adaptations of literary works were based on Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Victor Hugo, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the results were often judged by critics on their fidelity or lack of fidelity to their sources. The stage provided not only models for such horror classics as Dracula and Frankenstein but also acting and directorial talent. Universal's great horror stars Boris KarlofF and Bela Lugosi started out in the theater, as did the studio's premier horror-film director, James Whale.
Universal retained its preeminent position as a producer of horror pictures as a result of Carl Laemmle, Jr.'s decision to use the cycle as an entrée into the Big Five's theaters. Horror films had high production costs and could easily qualify as a premium-quality product. And their popularity helped keep Universal afloat during the Depression. Universal built its first horror films around Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The Hungarian-born Lugosi fled his native land for political reasons in 1919, appearing on the stage and in films in both Germany and the United States for over a decade, but did not achieve any real fame until at the age of forty-eight Universal offered him the lead in Dracula, a part originally intended for Lon Chaney. His first line, "I am Dracula. … I bid you welcome!" made him famous and served as his artistic epitaph. At the height of his popularity, he reputedly received as many letters as any romantic screen idol, almost all of which, he said, came from women.
Born in London in 1887 and christened William Henry Pratt, Boris Karloff was forty-three years old when Universal offered him the part of the monster in Frankenstein. His performance earned him the sobriquet "the new Lon Chaney." Karloff made seven thrillers for Universal between 1932 and 1944 and, like Lugosi, numerous B versions at nearly every studio, major and minor.
Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) started the cycle. Although the origin of the character is found in Bram Stoker's British novel published in 1897, the inspiration for the picture was the stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which opened on Broadway in 1927 with Bela Lugosi in the title role and ran a year to packed houses. The production then toured for two years, also with Lugosi in the lead. Universal bought the rights to the play in 1929 as a vehicle for Lon Chaney, but Chaney's death in 1930 prompted the studio to hire Lugosi to recreate his stage role. The film featured Lugosi as Count Dracula, Dwight Frye as Renfield, and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing. Karl Freund did the cinematography, and Charles Hall, the art direction. Promoted as "the Strangest Love Story of All," Dracula opened at the Roxy in New York on 14 February 1931 and quickly became Universal's biggest money-maker of the year. Dracula became the prototype of the vampire picture. It contains a vampire who "terrorizes the surrounding countryside," in this case, Transylvania; "young innocents," particularly females, who "are caught up as potential victims"; "the expert [Professor Van Helsing], who is the only character capable of defeating the threat"; and, "all the familiar apparatus of movie vampirelore," said Andrew Tudor. Count Dracula travels with coffins filled with the soil of his native Transylvania; he has a deranged and enslaved accomplice; he has the power to turn himself into a bat; and he is pursued by a vampire hunter who kills him correctly by driving a stake through his heart. Variety ascribed Dracula's success mostly to the "horror tricks of sound and sight": "the spectral hand reaching out from the slightly raised lid of a coffin; a coffin that disgorges rat-like creatures, … the ominous flapping of ghostly wings as ghoulish bats circle about, … a madman who shrieks in demoniacal rage for spiders to eat, and the stealthy creeping of the human vampire upon his sleeping victim."220
Although Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) has its origins in Mary Shelley's Gothic novel published in 1818, the script by Garrett Fort, Francis Faragoh, and John L. Balderston was based on Peggy Webling's stage adaptation, which opened in London and toured the United States in 1930. The film was a collaboration of British artists, led by director James Whale, art director Charles "Danny" Hall, and a cast headed by Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Boris Karloff as the monster received fourth billing. Universal had originally hired James Whale to direct a prestige version of R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End, a play that Whale had successfully directed in London's West End, but he stayed on to make four of the studio's most important horror films.
Frankenstein became the prototype of the mad-scientist horror film. A scientist "driven by a frenzy for knowledge," Dr. Frankenstein patches together a monster from "human odds and ends" in his laboratory hidden away in the mountains. He is assissted by a dwarf, who steals a brain from the dissecting room of a medical college. The creature is galvanized to life in the laboratory "during a violent mountain storm in the presence of the scientist's sweetheart and others, all frozen with mortal fright." The objects of the monster's malevolence are the townspeople, particularly young innocents. "A surrounding environment (Hollywood nineteenth-century mid-European) … provides both representatives of existing bourgeois authority (police chiefs, judges, physicians) and a population of potential victims who finally rise, en masse, against the threat." At the climax the monster is destroyed "when the infuriated villagers burn down the deserted windmill in which he is a prisoner," said Tudor.221
The laboratory in which Dr. Frankenstein conducts his grisly experiments was designed by Danny Hall. Frank Grove, Kenneth Strickfaden, and Raymond Lindsay created the incredible electrical machinery—conductors, switchboards, huge incandescent bulbs—that filled it. Jack Pierce was responsible for the makeup that transformed Karloff into the monster. A triumph of special effects, Pierce's achievement was described by the New York Times as follows: "Imagine the monster, with black eyes, heavy eyelids, a square head, huge feet that are covered with matting, long arms protruding from the sleeves of a coat, walking like an automaton."222 Unlike Quasimodo in the silent version of Hunchback, who was a repellent sight but basically a sympathetic creature, the monster in Frankenstein is malevolent, and his malevolence is no better seen than when he escapes from the windmill after killing Frankenstein's faithful servant and comes upon a little girl near a lake. When he finishes playing a little game with her, he runs amok and throws her into the water, where she drowns.
The New York Times said, "James Whale … has wrought a stirring Grand Guignol type of picture, one that aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings. … No matter what one may say about the melodramatic ideas here, there is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind." Variety also liked the way the picture delivered its "high-voltage kick" and considered the photography "the last word in ingenuity since much of the footage calls for dim or night effect and the manipulation of shadows to intensify the ghostly atmosphere."223
Dracula and Frankenstein became Universal's number-one box-office hits of 1931 and 1932, respectively, and demonstrated that the cycle had staying power. The question was, how to tap it? The first thing Universal did was to organize its horror production around James Whale and other talented European directors. Giving Whale plenty of room to maneuver, Universal created a stable of distinguished writers such as R. C. Sherriff, John L. Balderston, and Philip Wylie to improve the quality of the scripts and to hire seasoned British actors to support the casts, performers such as Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Thesiger, and Una O'Connor. Danny Hall and Universal's special-effects artists continued to supply the scenic and visual tricks.
Rather than immediately producing sequels, Universal opted for product variation. For Lugosi's next role, Universal cast him as a mad scientist, Dr. Mirakle, in Murders in the Rue Morgue (Robert Florey, 1932), a picture loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe story. For Karloff's next role, Universal cast him as a three-thousand-year-old resuscitated mummy in The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1933). Universal got the idea for this picture from accounts of the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1921, an event that ultimately spawned countless B-horror pictures. Then the studio teamed the two stars in The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934) and The Raven (Louis Friedlander [Lew Landers], 1935). Commenting on this pairing, Variety said, "Universal has proceeded on the theory that if Frankenstein was a monster and Dracula a nightmare, the two in combination would constitute the final gasp in cinematic delirium."224 Although the two pictures were each touted as being based "on the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic," they made only incidental use of the Poe sources. Regardless, these attempts at product variation generated little interest at the box office.
Whale devised other strategies to sustain the cycle. In The Old Dark House (1932), he introduced the "haunted house" formula. An adaptation of J. B. Priestley's novel Benighted by Benn W. Levy and R. C. Sherriff, it tells the story of an assortment of travelers motoring through the Welsh mountains during a dark, stormy night who find refuge in a strange mansion. There they meet the Femm family, consisting of a religious-fanatic hag sister, a pyromaniac-dwarf brother who is kept in the closet, and the head of the family, an insane 102-year-old baronet. Dominating them is a mute, brutish butler, Morgan, played by Boris Karloff. The remainder of the cast consisted of Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, and Lilian Bond.
The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933), adapted from the H. G. Wells novel by R. C. Sherriff, introduced a new character to the horror cycle. Claude Rains, making his motion-picture debut, plays a young chemist who discovers a drug that can make a person invisible. However, after taking the drug, he is unable to concoct an antidote to bring back his flesh and blood, which drives him mad. "No actor has ever made his first appearance on the screen under quite as peculiar a circumstance as Claude Rains does," said the New York Times. "Mr. Rains's countenance is beheld for a mere half minute at the close of the proceedings. The rest of the time his head is either completely covered with bandages or he is invisible, but his voice is heard." A "Roman holiday for the camera aces," The Invisible Man was one of Universal's most creative horror efforts.225
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935) initiated Universal's cycle of horror sequels. Since the monster had died in a blazing fire at the conclusion of the original, screenwriters John L. Balderston and William Hurlbut had to devise a way to revive him. Bride of Frankenstein begins with the same fire, but shows the monster taking refuge in the water-filled cellar of the tower. In this version, the monster is somewhat humanized. No longer is he just "a killer for the killing's sake"; now "he is slightly moonstruck" and yearns for a mate. Dr. Frankenstein therefore conducts an experiment to manufacture a woman for him, an experiment the monster is allowed to watch. Boris Karloff was joined again by Colin Clive as Frankenstein and Ernest Thesiger as the gin-sipping Dr. Praetorius. Elsa Lanchester played Karloff's mate, a "seven-foot, hissing and spitting virago" who looks quite a lot like the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. A high point of Whale's career, the picture contains exceptional process shots by John Mescall and an eerie music score by Franz Waxman. Promoted with the slogan "The Monster Demands a Mate!" the film surpassed the original at the box office and in critical acclaim. The New York Times said, "Mr. Karloff is so splendid in the role that all one can say is, 'He is The Monster' " and added that "the monster should become an institution."226
Dracula's Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936), Universal's second sequel, combined elements of the Dracula legend with Sherlock Holmes mystery fare. Starring Gloria Holden in the title role, Dracula's Daughter was promoted with the slogan "More Sensational Than Her Unforgettable Father!" Disguised as a Hungarian countess, this new vampire, the New York Times said, "manages to be lovely and deadly at the same time. She has not inherited the pointed canines of the late Count, but she wears a black cloak with equal effectiveness and she always manages to leave her bloodless victims with those two telltale marks on the throat, just over the jugular vein." Universal shut down horror-film production following the release of Dracula's Daughter, giving as the reason censorship problems with the cycle in England and other European countries.227 Regardless, by then, the cycle had lost much of its box-office clout.
Of the other horror films in the classical period, Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) has the distinction of being the only one to make it to Film Daily's Ten Best. A prestige picture adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson classic by Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starred Fredric March in a dual role. The picture was noted for its use of sound montage, the subjective camera, scoring, and particularly the wizardry behind Karl Struss's camerawork, which gradually transforms the handsome Jekyll into the bestial Hyde. Describing Hyde, the New York Times said, "In physiognomy this Hyde has the aspects of an ape, with protruding teeth, long eye-teeth, unkempt thick hair leaving but a scant forehead, a broad nose with large nostrils, eyes with the lower part of the sockets pulled down, thick eyebrows and hairy arms and hands—a creature that would make the hairy ape of O'Neill's play a welcome sight."228 Despite Hyde's appearance, the picture downplays horror and nicely motivates the transformation by linking it to Jekyll's suppressed sexual attraction for the barmaid Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins. March's performance in the dual role won him an Academy Award for best actor in 1932.
RKO's King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) has the distinction of being the biggest box-office hit of the cycle. The second of a three-picture jungle series, which was RKO's response to the horror cycle, King Kong was conceived of by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace and modeled in part on H. G. Wells's The Lost World. James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose wrote the screenplay. Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong co-starred. Kong, a fifty-foot ape, and the other prehistoric monsters were the handiwork of puppeteer-animator Willis O'Brien and his staff of special-effects wizards. Establishing just the right mood for the picture, Max Steiner's music was a landmark of film scoring. King Kong's premiere on 2 March 1933 marked the opening of the two largest theaters in the world, New York's Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy, which had a combined seating capacity of nearly twelve thousand. Produced at a cost of $672,000, King Kong grossed close to $2 million during its first release and saved the studio from going under.
MGM responded to the demand for horror films by bringing Lon Chaney and Harry Earles out of retirement to remake their 1925 silent The Unholy Three (Jack Conway, 1930), about the feats of a trio of crooks—a transvestite ventriloquist, a dwarf, and a strongman. However, Chaney died one month after the release of the picture, frustrating MGM's plans to produce a series of Chaney remakes.
Reentering the horror market in 1932, MGM produced one of its most unusual efforts. Indeed, Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) is probably the most sensational horror picture of the period. Written by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon from the short story "Spurs," by Todd Robbins, the action takes place in a European touring circus. A midget from the sideshow falls in love with a "normal" trapeze artist, who then marries him with the intent of poisoning him for his money. When the freaks discover her motives, they chase the woman down one stormy night and change her into a legless giant hen. At the end of the picture, she is shown squatting in a pile of sawdust, a sideshow monstrosity like the other freaks. Harry Earles played one of the midget leads and was supported by carnival performers imported from all over the world. Turning the conventions of the horror film around, Browning wanted the audience to respect and sympathize with the so-called abnormal humans and posed the real threat as coming from "normal" people. Variety said that "as a horror story, in the 'Dracula' cycle, it is either too horrible or not horrible enough. … It is gruesome and uncanny rather than tense, which is where the yarn went off track."229 Others attacked the picture for being exploitative and tasteless, and after a short run, MGM withdrew it from circulation.
Browning directed two other horror films for MGM, both vehicles for Lionel Barrymore. The Mark of the Vampire (1935), a remake of Browning's London After Midnight (1927), combined detective elements with horror by teaming Barrymore as a criminologist and Bela Lugosi as a vampire. The novel thing about the picture, said Variety, was "that the characters suspected of being human vampires, rising from graves at night to attack, are actually a troupe of actors hired by a wily professor-criminologist in order to solve a crime."230
In The Devil Doll (1936), Barrymore plays a refugee from Devil's Island who disguises himself as an old lady and sells human dolls that murder the people responsible for his imprisonment. Barrymore, in a wig and skirt, hobbling on a crutch, provides some of the novelty, but most of the interest resides in a shrinking process whereby humans and animals are reduced to one-sixth their normal size. "Not since The Lost World, King Kong, and The Invisible Man have the camera wizards enjoyed such a field day. By use of the split screen, glass shots, oversize sets and other trick devices cherished of their kind, they have pieced together a photoplay which is grotesque, slightly horrible and consistently interesting," said the New York Times.231
MGM took another tack in the horror cycle when it signed Peter Lorre to Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935). An international star who played the psychopathic child murderer in Fritz Lang's M (1931), Lorre had fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1935. In producing Lorre's first American film, MGM designed a study of "morbid psychology" by remaking a German silent based on the French novel The Hands of Orlac, by Maurice Renard. Lorre, a brilliant surgeon, is driven mad by his infatuation with a young actress in a théâtre des horreurs in Paris. She finds Lorre repulsive, but seeks his help when her husband, a concert pianist, mangles his hands in a train accident. Unable to save the husband's hands, Lorre grafts on the hands of a guillotined murderer. Although the picture was admired for the way Lorre illuminated the recesses of the doctor's mind, it fared poorly at the box office.232
Warners' answer to Universal's Karloff and Lugosi was John Barrymore. Just two months after Dracula's release, Warners brought out Svengali (Archie Mayo, 1931), a costume picture based on the nineteenth-century British novel Trilby, by George du Maurier. By titling the picture Svengali, Warners shifted the focus to Barrymore, the mountebank and musical genius who turns Trilby O'Ferrall (Marian Marsh) into a great singer. Describing the photographic wizardry in the scenes when Barrymore hypnotizes Trilby, the New York Times said, "His eyes appear to lose the iris and become a luminous white. He wears a long dishevelled beard, and he seems to have put something into his shoes to make him even look taller than he really is." Perhaps not a horror film in the strictest sense, Svengali nonetheless resembles Dracula in that both contain malevolent protagonists who exert a mystical influence over their victims.233
Finding the returns on the picture sufficient to make a sequel, Warners produced The Mad Genius (Michael Curtiz, 1931). Based on Martin Brown's drama The Idol, the picture offered Barrymore another flamboyant role, this time as a crippled Russian ballet master who adopts a waif and turns him into a great dancer. The picture flopped, and Warners dropped its option on Barrymore's contract.
With Dr. X (Michael Curtiz, 1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (Michael Curtiz, 1933), Warners hit its stride. The studio differentiated these films from the competition's by setting the action in Manhattan in the present and by introducing inquisitive reporters into the action. Said Richard Koszarski, "Only at Warners could such films have been produced, for only there was the strain of newspaper realism powerful enough to yield no quarter in a struggle with the surreal requirements of the horror film."234 Both pictures were designed around Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and because both arrived relatively late on the horror scene, Warners differentiated them further by using the two-color Technicolor process.
Dr. X, a mad-scientist picture that interweaves strands of the murder mystery with the horror film, "almost makes Frankenstein seem tame and friendly," said the New York Times. Lionel Atwill as the clubfooted Dr. Xavier is "the head of a surgical research laboratory, under the roof of which several maniacal murders have been committed." During the investigation, suspicion points to many people until finally the murderer turns out to be Dr. Xavier's assistant, Preston Foster. Although Foster has only one hand, he is able to strangle his victims—always during a full moon—by creating a spare hand with synthetic flesh that he concocted in the laboratory. Lee Tracy, the reporter on the case, offers comic relief when he is "shut in a closet with dangling skeletons and skulls, hidden on a slab in a morgue under a sheet," and becomes "a victim of noxious fumes."235
Mystery of the Wax Museum used the two-strip Technicolor process to create a splendid example of a metamorphosis picture. Atwill, a disfigured sculptor who conceals his hideously scarred face behind a mask, kidnaps people who resemble historical characters, dips them in boiling wax, and exhibits them in his wax museum. Glenda Farrell, a cynical, wisecracking reporter who discovers the source of his models, and Frank McHugh, her editor, provide the comic relief. The fire at the end, which was inspired by the destruction of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London in 1925, destroys Atwill's waxworks, revealing the models "twisting and contorting into a chilling semblance of decaying flesh." At the climax, Fay Wray, the heroine, strikes at Atwill's mask and exposes "the ghastly face beneath it." Variety's estimate: "It's one of those artificial things whose sole retrospection will inspire an uncomfortable feeling of the physically misshapen and little else. But it doesn't bore and should go well with the B-grade houses and nabes."236
A second horror-film cycle began in 1938 after Universal reissued Dracula and Frankenstein as a twin bill. Remarking on the surprising business generated by the pair, Variety said, "Horror pix were presumably dead. But a double dose of the goosefleshers brought out the thrill-hungry customers in hordes." On the strength of the reissue, Universal rushed Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939) into production. This sequel starred Basil Rathbone in the title role, Boris Karloff as the monster, Bela Lugosi as a mad cripple "who guides the monster on murder forays," and Lionel Atwill as the village police inspector who helps destroy the monster. Said Variety, "Son of Frankenstein will attract substantial business in those houses where audiences like their melodrama strong and weird."237
Tower of London (Rowland V. Lee, 1939), inspired by Shakespeare's Richard III, is set in medieval England during the reign of Edward IV. Basil Rathbone plays Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Boris Karloff, Mord, "a clubfooted and misshapen giant" who is Richard's chief executioner and torturer. The appeal of the picture, said Variety, resided mainly in the court pageantry and the political intrigue, which "neatly dovetailed with display of the various instruments of torture in vogue at the time."238
Jumping on the bandwagon, Warners released The Return of Dr. X (Vincent Sherman, 1939), a sequel starring Humphrey Bogart as a doctor who is electrocuted but then keeps himself alive as a zombie by "sapping from the veins of others the same type of blood that once coursed through his own system." Variety said, "Hardly any device of the shocker school is overlooked. There's a succession of blood transfusion scenes, lots of laboratory abadaba, a couple of startling samples of the walking-dead and the usual anti-climax where the ingenue is saved in the nick of time from the morbid surgery of the scientific friend."239 Paramount did what it knew best and produced a horror comedy, The Cat and the Canary (Elliott Nugent, 1939), starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. Twentieth Century-Fox produced a mystery-chiller, The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, 1939), which marked Basil Rathbone's first appearance as Sherlock Holmes. Columbia, true to form, made a series of four virtually undifferentiated B films starring Boris Karloff.
RKO topped them all by producing The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle, 1939), which Variety labeled a "super thriller-chiller." Based on the Victor Hugo classic, which Universal filmed as a silent in 1923 with Lon Chaney, Hunchback was RKO's first horror picture since the Kong pictures. And like the Kong pictures, Hunchback contained a monstrous character who generated both sympathy and fear. Charles Laughton played Quasimodo, the deformed and imbecilic bellringer of Notre Dame cathedral. Laughton's "twisted and distorted facial makeup" made him a "most repellent character," said Variety, but this pathetic figure ultimately wins audience sympathy when he is unmercifully pilloried, when he defends the church against the mob, and when he twice saves the life of the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara). Pandro S. Berman's final project for RKO, Hunchback was conceived as a prestige picture. Bruno Frank and Sonya Levien adapted Victor Hugo's novel and created a screenplay that "painted the world of King Louis XI in broad strokes, emphasizing the contrast between rich and poor, freedom and repression, and medievalism and enlightenment that marked the era," said Richard Jewell. RKO lavished $1.8 million on the picture, which was reflected in the elaborate sets, particularly the cathedral and square, and thousands of extras for the crowd scenes. Opening at the Radio City Music Hall in time for the Christmas holidays, Hunchback went up against Gone With the Wind. Nonetheless, Hunchback grossed a substantial $3.2 million.240
This survey of production trends reveals the dynamics of the motion-picture market and places in relief the most popular cycles. Studios reduced risk by producing a variety of pictures every season. Only a few pictures provided something different; whenever one struck the public's fancy, a new cycle began. The cycle lasted until either the producer ran out of fresh ideas to sustain product variation or until a flood of imitations hit the market. Usually, it was a combination of both.
Although each studio is said to have had a "house style" based on a "specialty genre," this survey indicates that the Big Five specialized in several trends at once and that these specialties changed in response to the market. For example, MGM started the decade concentrating on sentimental comedies and prestige pictures based on sophisticated Broadway plays and ended the decade concentrating on family films and musicals. Warners branched out from "topicals" during the Depression to biopics, woman's pictures, and swashbucklers. Universal made its mark with horror pictures during the first half of the decade and with Deanna Durbin musicals during the last half.
Since specialty genres represented a studio's most highly differentiated product, they became the responsibility of special production units. As might be expected, several successful units operated out of MGM and Warners, the largest and healthiest companies among the majors. More surprising, a tally of Film Daily's Ten Best lists reveals that the production units connected with United Artists ranked second behind MGM in the number of films so honored. The fact that a handful of independent producers made some of the most highly regarded films in the business is in itself significant, but the point to be emphasized is that unit production propelled Hollywood into a new era of prosperity.
Having said this, production trends resist easy subdivision into historical periods, such as Depression-recovery or pre-Code-Code. The Depression definitely affected production budgets, but with few exceptions, it did not register as subject matter on the screen. Concerning the Code, let us ignore for a moment Richard Maltby's argument (Chapter 3) that the industry started to enforce the Production Code in 1930, which would render pre-Code-Code breakdown for the thirties nonsensical. Contrary to what the print media in the thirties said about the matter, the Legion of Decency boycott in 1934 terminated neither the controversial fallen-woman cycle nor the gangster cycle. Nor for that matter did it initiate the prestige cycle. The fallen-woman film peaked in popularity as early as 1931. The gangster film peaked in 1932 and would have remained a popular cycle, had not pressure groups interceded. Although the industry stopped producing gangster films, it found a way to inject the violence of the cycle into the G-Men films in 1935, a year after the alleged start of Code enforcement.
It is true that the prestige film played a greater role in the market after 1934 and was partly responsible for the industry's recovery. But prestige pictures had been a production staple since the origins of feature films. During the Depression, the few companies that could still afford to make prestige pictures relied mainly on Broadway hits, a strategy that Hollywood adopted when it converted to the talkies. Discovering that such films appealed mostly to urban moviegoers, Hollywood had to devise a different strategy to reach a wider audience. Little Women and The Private Life of Henry VIII, which were produced in 1933, signaled the way. In retrospect, the Legion of Decency campaign gave prestige films a boost. Therefore, the decade is best regarded as a continuum.
That Hollywood used such trappings as "Pulitzer Prize," "Nobel laureate," "Theatre Guild," and "Shakespeare" to promote its prestige pictures should not imply that the industry catered to a mass, undifferentiated middle-class audience. Rather, Hollywood tailored pictures for specific audiences and simultaneously promoted them to reach as many people as possible. Certainly, Min and Bill and Duck Soup were not designed to satisfy similar tastes; the same is true for Top Hat and Babes in Arms, State Fair and The Women, All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms, and so on. However, it is clear that women composed the largest group. The fallen-woman films, maternal melodramas, Cinderella romances, and working-girl films, plus the prestige films leading to Gone with the Wind, all testify to this fact, but much more than this cannot be known with much certainty.