Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pirouettes: Notes On Intertwined Arcs

The world's most elegant dancer and one of Hollywood's most influential producers were both born today, their careers linked by a famous screen test report: "Losing Hair. Can't Sing. Can Dance a little." That was the dire estimation of one RKO executive about stage star Fred Astaire's chances in Hollywood. But David O. Selznick, then in charge of production at the studio, would sign him anyway, loan him out for a small number in MGM's Dancing Lady (1933), then pair him with Ginger Rogers in Flying Down To Rio that same year. The rest is history.

The question is: what kind of history?

Selznick was no stranger to flight: one of his more striking successes at RKO was giving the go-ahead to Merian Cooper's epic folly, King Kong, a film whose climax finds the title character under fire from a squadron of bi-planes (one of the pilots we see is Cooper himself, who had a colorful career as a World War I ace, and later held considerable stock in Pan American Airways). In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, set in 1932, Celia Brady narrates her fight from the East Coast to Hollywood, describing, “the world from an airplane I knew,” the “sense of that rip between coast and coast” where “it was vaguely like a swanky restaurant at that twilight time between the meals." Those restaurants and nightclubs are the settings for any number of wonderful Astaire-Rogers films, where the couple do changes and variations on a routinized set of narratives and character types. Selznick is a professional product of such routinization, having come up through the studio system that Thalberg and Mayer perfected a decade before, but even as he thrives in it (moving from Paramount to RKO to MGM, where he produces Dinner At Eight, Viva Villa and David Copperfield), he also longs to break free and start his own company.

In a later passage from Tycoon, the central producer Monroe Stahr (a thinly veiled portrait of Irving Thalberg, who'd fired Selznick from MGM in 1926) talks about filmmaking through the analogy of train travel and surveying: "You have to send a train through somewhere. Well, you get your surveyors’ reports, and you find there’s three or four or half a dozen gaps, and no one is better than the other. You’ve got to decide—on what basis? You can’t test the best way—except by doing it. So you just do it.” That's the assembly line of studio production in a nutshell: a vast, heavy, work-intensive set of interconnected tracks designed to get the movie from point A to point Z as quickly as possible. It's efficient and impressive: but it's also set on one path, with little room for adjustment (you'd have to be as quick, as debonair and agile, as Fred Astaire in Swing Time, leaping from one train car to the next to avoid being tied down by unwanted relationships; Astaire astride a train car in his striped pants and tails is one of the most playfully surreal of all Classic Hollywood images).

David O. Selznick is not Fred Astaire, but he maneuvers pretty well, and the company he sets up in 1935 (just as Swing Time is in production) will allow him an even greater freedom to circulate. Selznick International Productions will be like the bi-plane to the studios' Kong: a quick, swerving and sometimes irritating symbol of how to leave the ground and move through the light air of high-end production. It exists in a symbiotic relationship with the majors, drawing on their talent and their distribution system, but using those resources to make a smaller number of films at high cost, for potentially sky-high returns on investment. As opposed to the straight-ahead tracks of MGM, more independent-minded producers and directors like Selznick, Cooper and Schoedsack have the freedom to go in circles and change course more rapidly (and, of course, run the risk of crashing). It is a working methodology that relies, paradoxically, on veering off-course (Selznick was notorious for delaying on projects, and for endless memos), and Classic Hollywood also depends on such changes of course. It is, officially, a vertically integrated system, but in practice, it is something far less organized, exploiting this sense of whim and circulation, in a manner similar to that of the camera’s effect as described by Walter Benjamin in his “Work of Art” essay: “Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of a tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.”

No one walked the boulevards like Astaire: David Thomson would later note the perversity of On The Beach's odd decision to keep this most elegant of performers cooped up in a race car: why not make him a golfer, Thomson asked (his tongue, I assume, only partly-in-cheek), walking the post-apocalyptic golf courses of Australia? At least then, Thomson rightly noted, we could watch him swing a club or two. 1939 finds Astaire and Rogers doing their final film for RKO, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle; following that release, Astaire is a free agent, and he goes to Paramount for two dazzling films with Rita Hayworth (one of his most underrated screen partners), You'll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier. Hayworth brings out Astaire's sardonic edge, the romantic schemer that we only caught glimpses of in his films with Rogers: the narratives of both films are so well-worn that just a touch of this more cynical tone is enough to make the familiar feel a bit postmodern: they know that we know the arcs of the fairy tale stories they are presenting, and that self-awareness gives the movies a cool charm (somehow, winking at the camera burnishes the film's rich romanticism, rather than undercutting it).

While Astaire was wrapping up his time at RKO and making his modern-edged musicals, Selznick was figuring out his future by lingering in the past. Only a year after starting his company, he bought the rights to Gone With The Wind, the book that would secure his legend. Of course, we say that knowing the future that, in 1936, David O. Selznick is still trying to figure out. He delays constantly, doing screen test after screen test; pushing screenwriter Sidney Howard on rewrites (and bringing in everyone from Ben Hecht to our old friend F. Scott Fitzgerald to do further work on the script); doing Technicolor tests with a team of cinematographers. He doesn't have the money or the resources to make this epic, but also feels that, as he says in one memo, only an independent film company such as SIP can do it justice. He is using the most advanced storytelling technology ever devised to translate a novel about a long-gone (and in many ways, never-was) world to an audience on the verge of World War II, and the endless future it will bring. And success lies in slowing the whole thing down. Selznick had a tendency to get lost in details, and an epic prestige production like Gone With The Wind offered him plenty of chances. The search for Scarlett O’Hara alone took nearly two years, $92,000, and 162,000 feet of film for screen tests (for a total running time of more than 24 hours; the famous crane shot of Confederate wounded at the Atlanta train station utilized 1,500 extras and 1,000 specially rigged dummies; production designer William Cameron Menzies created 3,000 sketches for the film, which were used to design 200 sets; 59 leading cast members and 2,500 extras would wear 5,500 items of costuming, ride 1,100 horses and utilize 450 vehicles; and the production would shoot 449, 512 feet of film, cut to 20,300 feet to create a 222 minute movie whose budget would swell over the course of three years from $1.5 million to $4.25 million. When they burn Atlanta (the first sequence shot for the film), they are burning the old sets of King Kong on the back lot.

Finally, after years of dallying, planning, shooting and re-shooting, previews and more re-takes, the film has its premiere in the real Atlanta; the cast flies down on a DC-3 with "MGM's Gone With The Wind" stenciled on the side. Gable’s never flown before, and wife Carole Lombard holds his hand, joking “if we’re going to crash, we might as well go down together." It was a sadly prescient joke—Lombard would die in a plane crash three years later. Today, however, they arrive safely, just after the arrival of Vivien Leigh, who hears the band playing “Dixie,” and declares in all earnestness that it is a “good omen” for the film’s success that its theme music is already so popular. Her plane had to circle for hours, like one of the bi-planes swatted by Kong, because the flowers that were to be presented to her by Atlanta’s mayor had not yet arrived. Selznick was so nervous about how it would all go that he doctored an important photo: the famous publicity still of the cast in front of the theater for the premiere is actually a composite, created in Hollywood because Selznick was afraid he wouldn’t get good shots with all the large crowds sure to gather.

Gable gets bored during the movie, so he chooses not to return to the theater after intermission, instead consuming two bottles of Chivas Regal with Lombard, Raoul Walsh, and Marion Davies. It was clear that Selznick had a “blockbuster” on his hands, even though that word would not come into use until the world war that had been precipitated on the day of Wind’s first preview: it was a term would be coined by British pilots for the aerial bombs dropped on German cities. One of the stars of Gone With the Wind, Leslie Howard, would return to England soon after the movie's premiere, and throw himself into propaganda efforts for the Allies. He made films, gave speeches, and wrote articles for the war effort, until he was killed in 1943, when a plane returning to London from Lisbon was shot down by the Nazis; according to Wind historian Herb Bridges, “It was speculated that either they thought Churchill was aboard, or they knew the actor was on a secret intelligence mission for the Allies."

The same year that Wind triumphantly blows through Atlanta, Rules of the Game has a less auspicious debut in Paris. It, too, finds its central metaphor in flight, and its tragic denouement is the logical dark end that, with a bit of tweaking, every Astaire-Rogers movie might have had. The characters Astaire is currently playing for MGM have a bit of darkness around them: the con-man of 1945's Yolanda and the Thief (whose surreal dream sequences are echoed that same year by Selznick's Dali-designed Spellbound) or the jewel thief of The Ziegfeld Follies' best number, a poignant, open-ended dance-as-short story with Lucille Bremmer. Astaire announces his retirement as the war comes to an end, but agrees to replace a broken-legged Gene Kelly in Easter Parade, and continues to dance for another decade.

Selznick slows down in the mid-forties, too: following the back-to-back Best Picture triumphs of Wind and Rebecca, he stops producing films and concentrates on loaning out his impressive stable of stars and directors (including Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck) to other studios, a low-effort/high-reward business that keeps him flush while he plans his next move. That move is a war movie, of a sort: there are no battle scenes in Since You Went Away, no scenes of marching men or gathering war clouds; there is a scene in an aircraft hanger, but it's the setting of a war bonds dance, not a bombing mission. Because of the absence of so many of the war film's tropes, though, the movie is forced to open up to other, extraordinarily resonant emotional spaces: like Wind, this is a movie about life on the homefront, but a far richer and more rewarding one.

I think it's the best movie about World War II that Hollywood made while the war was still occurring. From the pieta of Claudette Colbert and her two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) gathered in the living room to read a letter from their "Pop" who's overseas; to the almost Rossellini-like images of the girls hoeing their Victory Gardens in the bleached sunlight; to Joseph Cotten's dry interactions with Monty Woolley; to that extraordinary moment when Jennifer Jones chases after the train carrying a gawky Robert Walker, and then is framed by shafts of light in the station, weeping, Since You Went Away is a powerful testament to the power of melodrama to express absence, longing, and a need that is at once personal and political, national and individual. And its narrative is organized not around the plane, but the train-- from departing soldiers to families racing to meet loved ones, and just missing them.

It feels so different from so many of Selznick's films for two reasons: one, it's the space where this most literary of producers (who generally preferred adaptations) gives himself over to the visual (Lee Garmes's images are beautifully shaded, occasionally noirish); and it is one of the last times that Selznick addresses the present. Wind is an historical piece, Duel In the Sun a Western, Rebecca and Spellbound set in the headspace of Hitchcock's obsessions. By 1949's Portrait of Jennie, this drifting through an uncertain space and time will be narrativized in the tale of a painter (Joseph Cotten) who falls in love with his youthful model (Jennifer Jones), who barely seems to age, and who dresses in clothes from the turn-of-the-century.

The mysteries and ravages of time have become Selznick's obsession, and the film is a surreal and evocative mystery tale whose narrative flow seems secondary to its delicately anachronistic tone and impressionistic camera framings. The film is set in 1934, that moment when Selznick was pondering that move from MGM to independent production, and it's hard to resist reading some of the Cotten character's longing and regret as Selznick's own.

Four years later, Astaire will also engage with the past-- and his own sense of aesthetic mortality-- but his will be unsurprisingly jauntier: it's called The Band Wagon.

The train is central here, too-- I earlier described one of my favorite scenes from this film, whose setting against a stopped train is so powerfully thematic. Twenty years later, Astaire will walk through that train set in the documentary That's Entertainment!. Astaire observed that, "The set was a mess. All the windows on the trains were broken….As I walked along, I noticed that the carpeting was torn and the seats of the train were missing. But I suppose nothing should last forever.” Selznick would have a similar response wandering the old spaces of SIP in 1964 with his friend Ben Hecht, and stating with a melancholy finality that only ghosts of an epic Hollywood past remained. But both men faced the past stoically, echoing those remarks from Tycoon's Celia Brady several decades earlier: “At the worst, I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house. I knew what you were supposed to think about it but I was obstinately unhorrified." A few years after Selznick rejected that limited definition of Astaire's screen test, he really did have to deal with a star who could only "dance a little": Clark Gable was not a good dancer, so for Wind's famous dance at the auction with Vivian Leigh, the filmmakers crafted movable floor beneath his feet to make his appearance smoother. Fred Astaire never had those kinds of problems, and neither did Jean Renoir, whose bounding up the stairs as Octave in Rules of the Game would later be described by Andrew Sarris as the most exquisite kind of choreography, in his seminal piece "Notes On The Auteur Theory in 1962": [Octave] gallops up the stairs, turns to his right with a lurching movement, stops in hoplike uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and, then, with marvelous postreflex continuity, resumes his bearishly shambling journey." It is, Sarris writes, a “musical grace note of that momentary suspension."

One could debate whether Selznick and Astaire were auteurs (I would say yes), but they certainly found a way to momentarily suspend the onslaught of narrative and time and intense labor, in order to offer us the spaces within which we could truly appreciate the "musical grace notes" that cinema lives for.

“The filming of Gone With the Wind was like a party on the set that Selznick was giving each day,” actress Evelyn Keyes remembers. “Especially since the dialogue was always being handed to us at the last minute as if he was thinking of some charade to play."The best story about David Selznick comes from his Wind screenwriter Sidney Howard, who arrived in Hollywood in 1937 to begin work on adapting Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Instead, he was roped into rewrites on Selznick’s current project, The Prisoner of Zenda. Howard agreed to help, and asked how Selznick wanted a scene rewritten. “I don’t know,” Selznick replied. “I haven’t read it yet."

“Provided you ignore what you are reviewing, you can successfully devote yourself to false literary criticism,” the Surrealist godfather Andre Breton tantalizingly wrote, and Selznick’s work, often dealing in adaptation, balanced between a faith in words (both written and spoken) and a passionate desire for cinematic excess which words can’t properly convey, offers an interesting litmus test for how one understands movies. What if, far from being a criticism of Hollywood excess, Howard’s anecdote—and, particularly, Selznick’s final line—is the key to comprehending the whole, abnormal game? Or to paraphrase a key line from that key Astaire film, The Band Wagon, should there be any difference in our minds between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse, and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet?

10 comments:

Greg said...

Wow, this is a great piece Brian. Informative, thoughtful and insightful all at once.

I've loved both documentaries I've seen on Selznick, the first being the making of GWTW documentary done years ago for TNT and the second being the American Masters doc on Selznick and Hitchcock.

He's a fascinating figure to me and does represent a lot of what I think to be Hollywood and how it works. He spent lavishly which only sometimes, perhaps even rarely, produced results. He said his father taught him never to save money, just spend it when you have it because you could be dead tomorrow. That expains a lot about Hollywood excess and Selznick.

Brian Doan said...

Thanks, Greg! I'm fascinated by Selznick, too, and like both documentaries you mentioned. Have you read David Thomson's Selznick bio? It's big and a bit ungainly, but there's a lot of fascinating stuff in there. I believe it's out of print, but it's worth tracking down at the library if you are interested in Selznick and that period of Hollywood (which I know you are).

Greg said...

I haven't read that but I will look for it at the library store where I get all my movie books. Thanks.

Bob Westal said...

Interesting piece Brian -- I'd never to think to make the connection, and the fact that Astaire and David O. shared a birthday probably doesn't say much for astrology, but they certainly were on an interesting parallel track. You're right that Selznick was an auteur, and I say this as more or less a non-fan. His stamp is all over even "Rebecca", which is probably why it's by far my least favorite film among Hitchcock's most highly regarded films. I've never loved "Gone With the Wind" either as a whole -- though some sequences are amazing. (I think that may have come up here before.) Still, many of the films he was less involved with pretty great, and I'm certainly willing to give "Since You Went Away" and "Portrait of Jennie" a shot -- though I think one viewing was perhaps enough for "Duel in the Sun."

On the other hand, I still get a little thrill every time I drive or better yet stroll by Culver Studios. That's one movie "set" at least that been kept in good repair all these years. (I grew up just a few miles from it, but it was years before I realized it was Tara/Selznick Studios.)

Astaire is a different story. I'm not sure I'd call him an auteur, exactly, but he is certainly one of the biggest talents in film history...no mixed feelings from me there and there is no denying his impact, including his highly underrated acting and his maligned singing voice, which I think goes down easier with modern ears corrupted by demon rock and roll and used to less traditional singing voices. But, as far as dancing is concerned, I'm convinced the only two men who could even touch Astaire were the Nicholas Brothers.

Brian Doan said...

Bob, I'd love to see Culver-- that great title card shot of it at the beginning of all those SIP films is so intriguing. I like Astaire's singing, too-- his phrasing was so precise, and despite his narrower range, he brought real color and feeling to the songs (I read somewhere that the great Tin Pan Alley composers of the 30s always wanted Astaire to debut their songs, because they knew he would handle them well). And I'm not the biggest fan of DUEL IN THE SUN, either, but do check out SINCE YOU WENT AWAY-- I don't think you'll regret it.

Java Bean Rush said...

I'm just going to say it: I am thoroughly intimidated by you and the rest of the cinephile bloggers out there that I didn't know about until recently (e.g. Self-styled Siren).

I feel like a mere Classic Movies dabbler compared to most of you out there.

Great job.

Brian Doan said...

Thanks, Java! That's very kind of you.

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