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The Crack-Up: The Early Days of Hollywood, with David Bordwell

February 8, 2019

Movie star Douglas Fairbanks at a war bond rally at the Sub-Treasury building, New York City, April 1918. CREDIT: Paul Thompson/Public Domain

TED WIDMER: Hi. This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to The Crack-Up, an occasional podcast series with authors of pieces in The New York Times about how we still live in a world dramatically changed by the year 1919.

Today I'm really happy to welcome my friend David Bordwell. He's a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, a very noted film historian, and he wrote a wonderful piece on how Hollywood emerges very strong from the end of World War I and then a lot of changes in the year 1919.

David, welcome to The Crack-Up.

DAVID BORDWELL: Thank you, Ted.

TED WIDMER: Can you tell us a little bit about what your piece outlined for readers?

DAVID BORDWELL: Sure. There are a lot of events going on in 1919 around the world, and we could have done several pieces about the developments in other countries or in the development of filmmaking as a narrative art form, a popular entertainment. But we decided to focus more on the two big changes that took place in the American film industry, what was coming to be called Hollywood in that year of 1919.

The first change was really a revolt of the most popular stars, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin, and the most famous director, D. W. Griffith, in deciding that they wanted more control over how their work was shown in the movie theaters of America. So what they did was form a service company called United Artists (UA), and the goal of United Artists was essentially to sell or rent their films to exhibitors, to theater owners across the United States. That way they'd cut out the middle person, the middle agency of distribution, which was then starting to come under the control of big companies, of names that we'll recognize, like Fox and MGM and things like that. They decided to detour around the powerful emerging film companies.

The other big event of the year was a kind of response partially to what United Artists was forming, and another company, which was coming to be known as Paramount, decided that the most efficient way to sell its product was to own the product from the moment of its conception, when screenplays were being written and films were being shot, through distribution, the service that sends the films out to various theaters, and exhibition as well, that is, to own theaters as well.

So the plan by Adolph Zukor, boss of Paramount, was essentially to control the product from the beginning right up to the point of consumption. That was called "vertical integration" back then—it still is being called that—and Zukor's initiative to do that was a crucial step forward in making Hollywood a very powerful industry.

TED WIDMER: David, these two developments are almost the opposite of each other. You have four stars who want to have more creative control of the art that they are making, and then on the other side the corporations, including Wall Street money, are consolidating and putting big money into owning the process. So it's a tension that we still see today of art versus money.

DAVID BORDWELL: Absolutely. There were three stars and a star director, in effect, D. W. Griffith, and what they decided to do was they had enough clout in the industry to actually dictate a lot of terms. They all made very successful pictures and with big salaries.

Most stars were content to either simply take their salary from a production company, a studio, or they would set up their own production company but then contract it to the studio. So they were somewhat more independent, those other stars, but they were still working through the studio system. What the UA figures decided to do was essentially bypass the studio system and go straight to the theaters.

But this came, as you say, at a time when the industry is consolidating. Theater chains are being created, big chains, and they depended on the star vehicles for sure. But they also depended on a steady and reliable output of product. If you own a theater in 1919, you're probably showing four to seven movies a week because unlike today, movies changed much more frequently. So they needed a lot of product. And the studios grew up in order to supply that steady stream of product. The star vehicles were the golden items on the list, but most films were not star vehicles in the same sense, and exhibitors just demanded something to put on the screen.

TED WIDMER: How was demand in 1919? Is it huge?

DAVID BORDWELL: Huge. Not quite as huge as during the war years but still very big. There was a slight falling off—and this happens after a war typically because you've got people coming back, setting up families. This happened especially after World War II. There you had the growth of suburbanization, television, a lot of things happen that cut theatrical attendance.

There was a little bit of that at the end of the 1910s as well. It came back much more strongly, though, in the 1920s when people had a lot of money to spend.

TED WIDMER: Because most theaters are in downtown cities, so as people move out to suburbs it's harder to get in, is that it?

DAVID BORDWELL: That's partly it. Certainly the big theaters, the most prosperous and profitable theaters, were in the downtown areas of cities. And as you know, at this period we're starting that long process that Robert Gordon talked about, about how gradually urbanization is taking over. From 1920 to 1940 a huge number of people stopped living on farms. They migrate to the cities, and that's where the big movie theaters are. So the companies can grow with this new urbanization.

But basically what happens, as you say, is that theaters needed reliable product and a lot of it, and the stars were really the jewels in the crown. The stars realized this.

But at the same time what the studios and their distributors did was execute a policy which is loosely called today "block booking." It's more complicated than this, but basically if you owned a theater, you would have to take a batch of films, sometimes as many as a whole year's output from a studio, in order to get the prime items.

You want the Mary Pickford film? Fine. Mary made two or three a year. Okay, you get those, but then you get a lot of other stuff maybe you don't want, but you have to pay for those and show those in order to get Mary. The stars were very powerful, but they resented the fact that they were being used as kind of loss leaders to get people into theaters on occasions when there wasn't one of their pictures playing. They thought they'd do better selling their pictures as one-off items.

TED WIDMER: Did any of them after they founded United Artists find creative satisfaction if not financial? Did they make beautiful movies?

DAVID BORDWELL: Yes. They got to do what they wanted. This is the period, for instance, when Mary is getting older. She's still playing adolescent roles, but she yearned to play more serious roles, things that were not what she called her "Cinderella" parts. So she still makes the films with the recognizable Mary image, but she's also exploring things. One famous example is the film she made with Ernst Lubitsch, who came to America, Rosita, where she still plays somewhat of a sort of gamine-type role, but she has a more expressive range I guess you'd say. She's working with a much bigger director, too.

The best example, though, is Fairbanks, because Fairbanks really changed his image after he got involved with UA. He went from being a kind of likable, knockabout guy, kind of average Joe involved in comic situations to a hero, what we would now call almost a superhero. He starts to play Zorro, Robin Hood, the Black Pirate, many different roles that are quite athletic and vehicles that could show off his athletic prowess. These were films he very much wanted to make, and they were quite successful, but they were very expensive, big spectacles. In that sense, they did get to express themselves artistically.

Chaplin pretty much went on doing what he was doing anyway. Chaplin was sort of a special case.

Griffith was the problem because Griffith owed a lot of films to a lot of other companies, and so he kept coming back and forth. He left UA for a while and came back. But none of his UA films were really as successful as his biggest hits of the 1910s.

TED WIDMER: When you mention Fairbanks and how athletic he was in his movies, that leads to a question about what is new about the new American style. You're very good in your piece about how Europeans have been in the lead, but suddenly Americans not only have all this money, but they're bringing a new style of directing and acting into these movies.

DAVID BORDWELL: They definitely are. They self-consciously set out to make a movie that would be very gripping for an ordinary audience, and it took the world by storm. The style was very different from what had been seen before.

The older style was more theatrical: the camera sits in one spot, the actors move through the space. Sometimes that was very, very delicately done. I would argue that the films in that apparently more theatrical style have a real beauty of their own. But they don't have that percussive dynamism that American films develop. They don't have the quick tempo, the rapid change in the plots, the fast cutting. Things like close-ups of actors, close-ups of details like hands or props, become much more salient in American cinema than they are in other countries' films, and they just take the world by storm because they're very easy to follow.

They're exciting. There's a lot of energy on the screen. The plots are full of incident, and the storytelling style of the visuals, the pictorial style, is very dynamic and easy to understand. So America develops a style—it has been called the "continuity" style because it flows along so effortlessly that it's very easy to follow.

TED WIDMER: I feel like that tension is still there. There are animated, computer graphic kinds of movies where there are three things happening per second, as if that makes a movie better, so we're still sort of looking for the perfect balance between the older style and the newer one.

DAVID BORDWELL: To some extent, that's right. If you look at a film like Roma today, that's very much closer to the more traditional style of the silent era before the Hollywood continuity system gets locked in. Whereas if you go see a movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, those films are just dazzling. They have so much going on that overload kicks in.

TED WIDMER: I remember when Jim Jarmusch started in the 1980s it was so exciting to see those very long scenes where the camera never moves. I hadn't fully appreciated what you just said, that that's from an older kind of theatrical style. It's so interesting.

But maybe—I don't know if we need Jim Jarmusch in there. I'm just excited by your answers.

DAVID BORDWELL: Essentially what happens is that that style gets reinvented every few years by somebody, not just Americans. For instance, there was a whole trend in 1990s Asian films toward a kind of minimalist look, that way of long takes, distant camera, moving the figures around in the frame. Very exciting, very interesting visually, but very much felt as a reaction against the fast cutting of the big blockbusters of Hollywood.

TED WIDMER: So if it's too busy and too distracting all the visual and sound effects, then people go slow, and that's beautiful for a while, and then they get bored and speed it up again?

DAVID BORDWELL: Maybe. I don't know. I think it's more that people are trying to distinguish different kinds of material, certain content or dramatic issues they want to bring out.

Like with Roma—I don't know if you've seen it—but what Cuarón does—

TED WIDMER: I have.

DAVID BORDWELL: You have. So you can see that he's trying to get you into that family, soak you into that family's lifestyle, the rhythms of its routines and the spaciousness of the landscapes, but also that amazing house they live in. So it's aesthetic, and it really is trying to suit the style to the story and the themes they want to communicate.

TED WIDMER: You mention that the feature is developing, the longer form of film. That's happening on both sides of the Atlantic?

DAVID BORDWELL: Yes, yes. In fact, it starts pretty much in Europe with the Italians. The Italians start to make longer films, but most European countries are moving away from the short 10- or 20-minute film to longer pictures that are an hour or more. And America picks that up. It's a little slow at first because exhibitors resisted it, but the people who really made the decisions on this were the producers, and they decided that it was easier to make, say, one 60-minute film than three 20-minute films. And the audiences liked it, too.

It also enhanced the star system because this way you could have actors who were really featuring in these major productions that would give them a lot more product.

TED WIDMER: There's a great detail in your piece which is not about how talented Americans were or how they were making faster, new kinds of movies, but just the simple availability of film stock, which was so restricted in Europe during the war, but here everything's easier to get.

DAVID BORDWELL: Absolutely. In general, the war benefited America quite a bit because it killed the European producers' markets around [inaudible] as well as in their home countries, but it also cut the supply of raw stock and other equipment.

As you know, movies were then made on nitrocellulose film stock, and nitrocellulose was crucial for munitions in the war, so it had to be rationed. Whereas in America, we weren't involved in the war, so the flow of raw film stock was very much still there.

TED WIDMER: You mentioned just now talking that these new American films are so popular that they become popular in other countries. Is that a new feature of 1919, that we are beginning to export our movies?

DAVID BORDWELL: No, that starts a little earlier. By 1915 or so, America has really gotten a strong hold in overseas markets. Very soon after the war starts you have Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford especially as well as Griffith's big film Birth of a Nation, but for European markets an even bigger film was his second big feature, Intolerance, and those really swept the world.

The popular audiences liked them, and the intelligentsia liked them. It's interesting. Intellectuals really took up the cause of American cinema in most countries. They saw that this was a dynamic new form of storytelling that was very well suited to the medium, and they saw it as a kind of proof that film could be a distinct art form.

TED WIDMER: I love something in your piece. A lot of it is about capitalism and profitability, but then you have Lenin saying that in the new Soviet Union they love cinema, too.

DAVID BORDWELL: Absolutely. American films were somewhat restricted by the blockade, but they eventually got into the popular market.

In fact, in the early 1920s, when Lenin started the New Economic Policy, they had to import American films to keep the theaters going. Audiences really wanted to see them.

TED WIDMER: Funny. So even in the pure communism of Moscow in 1919 you've got a little taste of American capitalism.

DAVID BORDWELL: Yes. And the young filmmakers of the Soviet Union are imitating American films.

TED WIDMER: People like Eisenstein.

DAVID BORDWELL: People like Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein love American cinema, and they start to copy this style, and that really throws out the classic, heavy-acting, slow-moving theatrical style that was prominent in Russia during the Tsarist days.

TED WIDMER: That's fascinating.

How about one last question, David? You end with a thought about Netflix and how we're getting new forms of vertical integration. Do you think this is dynamic tension, and we'll always have stars and directors pushing back against that and trying to develop their own channels of distribution, or are we stuck with this system for a long time?

DAVID BORDWELL: Oh, I think there will always be the counterpressures. But it's not only just stars. It's usually the talent in general, the directors as well, and powerful screenwriters, too.

They want independence, and they will always try to find ways to get it. And one way that has historically been common was for them to band together. It has never really worked, but UA was the template for that.

It has never really worked very effectively, because again as with UA, filmmakers when they're left to their own devices take a long time to make movies, they make expensive movies, and we can't have that assured output that the exhibitors need. So I think the pressures are always against these independent outfits forming a real kind of counterweight to the system. The system is still extremely powerful, and now that you have I think the emergence of a kind of vertical integration—Netflix is going to release, they say, 50 films this year.

TED WIDMER: Wow.

DAVID BORDWELL: That's twice as much as any American studio makes.

TED WIDMER: Wow. I hadn't realized that.

DAVID BORDWELL: Netflix is buying up talent. They're buying directors, they're buying actors. They're having huge success with a film like, say, Bird Box with Sandra Bullock. That has been a colossal success just on streaming. It had a very brief theatrical run, but basically it's a streaming success. So a lot of the talent wants to work for Netflix because Netflix is just throwing so much money at them.

TED WIDMER: David, thank you so much. I hope our listeners will become your readers and read your wonderful piece in the Times. Thank you.

DAVID BORDWELL: And they can visit our blog anytime. We put up a blog every week or 10 days about developments in film.

TED WIDMER: Can you give us the URL of your blog?

DAVID BORDWELL: It's www.davidbordwell.net/blog.

TED WIDMER: Fantastic. This has been another episode of The Crack-Up. Thank you all for joining us, and thanks to David Bordwell from the University of Wisconsin.

DAVID BORDWELL: Thank you, Ted.

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