J.E. Smyth - Reconstructing American Historical Cinema - From Cimarron To Citizen Kane.pdf

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Unformatted text preview: Reconstructing American Historical Cinema This page intentionally left blank RECONSTRUCTING American Historical Cinema From Cimarron to Citizen Kane J. E. Smyth THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY Publication of this volume was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Copyright © 2006 by The University Press of Kentucky Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth, serving Bellarmine University, Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson Historical Society, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University. All rights reserved. Editorial and Sales Offices: The University Press of Kentucky 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008 10 09 08 07 06 5 4 3 2 1 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Smyth, J. E., 1977Reconstructing American historical cinema : from Cimarron to Citizen Kane / J. E. Smyth. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN-13: 978-0-8131-2406-3 (alk. paper) ISBN-10: 0-8131-2406-9 (alk. paper) 1. Historical films--United States--History and criticism. 2. Motion pictures and history. I. Title. PN1995.9.H5S57 2006 791.43’658--dc22 2006020064 This book is printed on acid-free recycled paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials. Manufactured in the United States of America. Member of the Association of American University Presses For Evelyn M. Smyth and Peter B. Smyth and for K. H. and C. G. You might say that we grew up together. This page intentionally left blank There’s a lot of words we haven’t covered yet. For instance, do you know what this means, “I’ll get you on the Ameche”? Of course not! An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it. . . . Like, you know, in the movies. —Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) in Ball of Fire, 1941 This page intentionally left blank Contents List of Illustrations . . . xi Acknowledgments . . . xiii Introduction: Toward a Filmic Writing of History in Classical Hollywood . . . 1 One: Traditional and Modern American History 1. The New American History: Cimarron, 1931 . . . 27 2. Contemporary History in the Age of Scarface, 1932 . . . 57 Two: Resolving Westward Expansion 3. Competing Frontiers, 1933–1938 . . . 89 4. The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941 . . . 115 Three: Civil War and Reconstruction 5. Jezebels and Rebels, Cavaliers and Compromise, 1930–1939 . . . 141 6. The Lives and Deaths of Abraham Lincoln, 1930–1941 . . . 167 Four: Veterans of Different Wars 7. War in the Roaring Twenties, 1932–1939 . . . 197 8. The Last of the Long Hunters, 1938–1941 . . . 225 Five: Hollywood History 9. Stars Born and Lost, 1932–1937 . . . 251 10. A Hollywood Cavalcade, 1939–1942 . . . 279 Conclusion: From Land of Liberty to the Decline and Fall of Citizen Kane . . . 307 Appendixes . . . 341 Notes . . . 367 Selected Bibliography . . . 413 Index . . . 435 This page intentionally left blank Illustrations Cimarron’s multiethnic, racial, and gendered West . . . 36 Estabrook’s projected text titles . . . 38 A white merchant-pioneer tells the Indians to get out . . . 39 Estabrook’s annotated copy of Cimarron . . . 40 The vulture’s eye view . . . 43 Sabra’s frontier rhetoric elicits a sad smile from Yancey . . . 46 LeBaron, Ree, and Estabrook receive Academy Awards . . . 50 Darryl F. Zanuck at Warner Brothers, ca. 1930 . . . 58 Rico alters the clock . . . 64 Small-time crook Rico reads the headlines for Diamond Pete . . . 67 Little Caesar makes the headlines . . . 67 Rico checks his press coverage . . . 67 Establishing the period in The Public Enemy, 1931 . . . 69 Documentary shots of Chicago: State Street . . . 70 The Union Stockyards . . . 70 War is declared, but Tom and Matt are oblivious . . . 70 Mummifying the gangster . . . 72 Al Capone handles the commissioner . . . 75 Who killed Big Jim in 1920? . . . 79 Courting “press-tige” . . . 79 Writing history with a new instrument—the machine gun . . . 79 Happy Valentine’s Day from Tony Camonte . . . 81 Mae West in She Done Him Wrong, 1933 . . . 94 Text foreword for The Last of the Mohicans, 1936 . . . 101 Twentieth Century–Fox research library, ca. 1939 . . . 102 DeMille’s historical staff in the late 1930s . . . 109 Close-up of Geronimo . . . 123 The final chase in Stagecoach . . . 124 Opening credits of The Plainsman . . . 132 Julie and her maid share a similar taste in dresses . . . 155 The color of the dress is red, but what is the color of the heroine? . . . 157 Julie sings with “her children” . . . 157 The politics of race and dress . . . 159 xi xii Illustrations Scarlett and the South rise again . . . 161 The oath . . . 161 “Reconstructed” southern woman . . . 161 Trotti’s foreword for Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939 . . . 177 An uncertain hero’s first speech . . . 180 Mastering Blackstone’s Commentaries and the common laws of Poor Richard’s Almanac . . . 184 Raymond Massey’s swearing in . . . 190 Tray full of pawned war medals . . . 200 The Great War splits the couple in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, 1939 . . . 214 Ginger Rogers as Irene Foote Castle in Patria . . . 215 Overdetermined images . . . 219 Mark Hellinger’s modern history . . . 220 Sergeant York reads The History of the United States . . . 232 Alvin York: a twentieth-century Lincoln . . . 232 Revisiting old “texts”: the Daniel Boone connection . . . 233 Clara Bow in Call Her Savage, 1932 . . . 252 David O. Selznick with his father, Lewis J. Selznick . . . 253 A Star Is Born: introducing the “text” . . . 270 John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, 1933 . . . 271 Jean Harlow’s memorial at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre . . . 273 John Bowers, ca. 1924 . . . 275 Esther tries stepping into Norman Maine’s footsteps . . . 276 Esther is stopped in her tracks by the past . . . 276 Norman Maine’s slab . . . 276 Facing custard pies from the past . . . 292 Opening shot: someone else presents George M. Cohan . . . 302 Independence Day, 1878 . . . 302 Remembering “Over There” . . . 302 Remembering the Great War . . . 328 Kane’s declaration . . . 329 The “vault” of the Thatcher library . . . 330 Thompson reads Thatcher’s journal . . . 331 Reading from the text of history to the cinematic West . . . 332 Historical completion and “the Union forever” . . . 332 Acknowledgments Many people assisted in the shaping and production of this book, but none of it would have been possible without the help and patience of dozens of film archivists and librarians. My thanks to the staff at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, the University of Southern California’s Cinema-Television Library and Warner Brothers Archive, the Warner Brothers Corporate Archive, UCLA’s Arts Library Special Collections and Special Collections, Yale University, the Huntington Library, Brigham Young University, Boston University, the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I am especially grateful to Leith Adams, James D’Arc, Lauren Buisson, J. C. Johnson, and Jenny Romero. But above all, I want to thank the invaluable Ned Comstock, Noelle Carter, and Barbara Hall. Yale University, the Huntington Library, and Indiana University all supported this project with generous grants and fellowships. I want to thank Dudley Andrew, Charles Musser, Michael Denning, and Alan Trachtenberg for their help when this project was emerging as a doctoral dissertation at Yale. My colleagues and students at the University of Warwick provided me with a new forum for my ideas, and I am grateful for their support and friendship. David Culbert, Peter Rollins, and Robert A. Rosenstone published my early writings on history and film, and some of that work has become part of this book. Robert witnessed my first challenge to mainstream American historiography, and I’ll always be grateful for his rigorous editing and unflagging enthusiasm for Lamar Trotti and Darryl F. Zanuck. I am deeply indebted to my editor, Leila Salisbury, for skillfully guiding this project to completion. Some of the pleasantest days of my life were spent discussing Cecil B. DeMille with Mickey and Patrick Moore. I’ll always remember them with affection and awe. Noel Taylor is another who made my many visits to Los Angeles unforgettable. But I owe five ladies debts for their support and kindness, which I hope someday to repay, if only in part: Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Marsha Hunt, Ann Rutherford, and Janet Leigh. And, as always, my love to Evelyn, Peter, Rose, and Lillie. xiii This page intentionally left blank Introduction Toward a Filmic Writing of History in Classical Hollywood We believe that we have as much right to present the facts of history as we see them . . . as a Guizot, a Bancroft, a Ferrari, or a Woodrow Wilson has to write these facts in his history. —D. W. Griffith, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, 1916 When D. W. Griffith published his defense of historical filmmaking in 1916, there was little doubt why he believed that filmmaker-historians needed a spokesman. Public controversy had yet to subside over his Civil War and Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). Although Griffith had already filmed eleven southern period pictures, including The Honor of His Family (1909), His Trust (1910), and The Battle (1911), he had never before made such lengthy, complex, and controversial use of American history. Griffith’s decision to venture into major American historical filmmaking was undoubtedly prompted by the success of Thomas Ince’s The Battle of Gettysburg (1913), released on the fiftieth anniversary of that engagement.1 However, Griffith not only scripted the heroic sacrifices of Confederate and Federal soldiers and the national reconciliation of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership; he also pursued American history into the postwar era. The second half of The Birth of a Nation was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s Reconstruction novel The Clansman (1905). Griffith’s choice to film one of the most racially transfiguring and socially contested periods in national history from what many of his contemporaries considered a blatantly racist, white southern perspective out1 2 Reconstructing American Historical Cinema raged much of black and white America.2 Even before its release, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) campaigned to suppress and censor the film, and after its release, critics accused Griffith of “capitalizing race hatred” and of making an “aggressively vicious and defamatory” film.3 Curiously, one of his most prominent critics, Francis Hackett of the New Republic, felt that the projected text “titles” were as offensive and incendiary as the most violent images of blacks attacking white women and profaning the Senate chamber and of Klansmen riding to the rescue “in defense of their Aryan birthright.” “My objection to the drama,” he wrote, “is based partly on the tendency of the pictures but mainly of the printed lines I have quoted. The effect of these lines, reinforced by adroit quotations from Woodrow Wilson and repeated assurances of impartiality and good will, is to arouse in the audience a strong sense of the evil possibilities of the Negro and the extreme propriety and godliness of the Ku Klux Klan.”4 Moving Picture World’s W. Stephen Bush also noticed that the film’s “controversial spirit” was “especially obvious in the titles.”5 Griffith had chosen to intensify the historical discourse of his film with projected text. Intertitles, though derivative of early slide lecturers and onstage narration of nonfiction films, introduced the unique combination of projected text and images; Griffith’s historical “narrative” fused two seemingly distinct discourses on screen. But his text did not simply give continuity to the visual narrative or compound the historical prestige associated with Civil War cinema; it provided historical detail and arguments about slavery and Reconstruction that were lightning rods for national controversy. Having to watch a Civil War and Reconstruction film that was at times reminiscent of Mathew Brady’s poignant photography was one experience, but having to read a film’s historical perspective interspaced with Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People was another.6 Griffith’s images and text forced the audience to take sides. When the directorscreenwriter defended his film, he took the offensive, claiming, however erroneously, that the entire narrative was “authenticated history.”7 Although scholars have since pointed out that African Americans did not overrun Congress or the senates of southern states during Reconstruction and that the Klan served purposes other than keeping black people under control,8 Griffith was interested in projecting a final image of white solidarity. Showing abrasive Yankees annexing old plantation lands and overtaxing the impoverished inhabitants would not have helped his vision of white unity any more than images of Klansmen going after carpetbaggers and white Federal soldiers would have. “History” may have translated as Introduction 3 conflict to Griffith, but the unresolved struggle between white and black Americans overshadowed the Civil War heroics of the Camerons and the Stonemans. Although Griffith understood that traditional writers of history were influenced by their own personal view of the past, and that objectivity was difficult to achieve, he asserted repeatedly that The Birth of a Nation was “accurate” and more objective than previous written histories of the era. Actress Lillian Gish would recall Griffith justifying the elaborate production in order “to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.”9 As historians have since pointed out, the initially polarized and polemical early histories of the war were superseded by massive attempts at conciliation that avoided overtly “northern” or “southern” perspectives.10 But by the first two decades of the twentieth century, historians such as Ulrich Phillips were laying the foundations for the rise of white southern history. Griffith was part of a larger revisionist movement bent on reclaiming a regional historical perspective in Civil War and Reconstruction discourse. Griffith attributed his capacity for historical objectivity to his status as a filmmaker. Shortly after the film’s release in April 1915, he was interviewed by Richard Barry in the Editor and predicted that filmmakers would eventually replace writers as historians. In his imagined film library, “There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be present at the making of history. All the work of writing, revising, collating, and reproducing will have been carefully attended to by a corps of recognized experts, and you will have received a vivid and complete expression.”11 Griffith had an almost pristine faith in the camera’s exceptional status as an interpretive tool of history, its recording apparatus providing filmmakers with advantages in objectivity that traditional writers of history lacked. But the following year, his perspective in The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America changed, focusing instead on the continuities between historical filmmaking and traditional historiography. What prompted this new outlook? Perhaps the censorship storm over The Birth of a Nation had chastened him. What is more likely is that Griffith recognized that his power as a director and historian was vested in his interpretation of history. Merely recording facts from the past was documentation; the projection of history involved active engagement with historical evidence.12 Filmmakers had every right to be historians, he wrote, and to “present the facts of history as we see them.” Although late-twentieth-century film historians have dismissed 4 Reconstructing American Historical Cinema Griffith’s view of history as a simple, pernicious, but potent national myth influenced by the triumphant chauvinism of George Bancroft, the Whiggish equation of history and progress, and violent racism,13 Griffith himself embraced the connection with Bancroft and the American historical tradition. Bancroft, the premier American historian of the nineteenth century, was a scholar possessing both academic and popular respect.14 Griffith’s claim of professional ties was his way of legitimizing filmmaking as a powerful form of historiography in 1916.15 Although The Birth of a Nation endorsed national unity and strength through clearly defined racial and cultural conflicts, Griffith compromised Bancroft’s historical trajectory of inevitable progress and development. After all, The Birth of a Nation is a monument to the historical crisis of war and disunion. Griffith was driven by two competing historical visions of America: the reassuring, triumphant nationalism intoned by Bancroft, and his own desire to contradict, to correct, and to narrate the South’s struggle against northern “progress,” making a history of rebellion and opposition to the traditionally construed forces of history the central narrative of nineteenth-century America. His film did more than simply record or document history with the camera’s capacity for reenacted realism. Although filmgoers and critics had long been astounded by cinema’s capacity to record events in the present, President Woodrow Wilson was the most prominent spectator to recognize Griffith as an intermediary between American history and 1915 America, remarking that The Birth of a Nation was “history written in lightning.”16 Griffith agreed, seeing himself and his peers as historians, and claimed that “the motion picture is at least on a par with the spoken and written word.”17 More than any other filmmaker of his generation, he exploited cinema’s potential to write and rewrite the text of American history, to compete with and even exceed the scope, complexity, and audience of traditional writings about the past. Historical cinema was more than a recording apparatus, an instrument of reenactment, or the passive handmaiden of historical writing. By allying himself publicly with the great writers of history and absorbing the discourse and iconography of historiography through projected text and documents, Griffith proved that filmmaking could engage traditional historical discourse on fundamental and multivalent levels. Griffith offered the possibility of a filmic “writing” of American history. But when filmmakers chose to become historiographers—literally, “writers of history,” whether in ink, in celluloid, or in lightning—Griffith found that they were often subject to professional historians’ contempt and public controversy. The Birth of a Nation set the standard for Hollywood’s Introduction 5 future historical work (the preliminary research and the publicized if contested claims to historical authenticity; the adaptation of the discourse of traditional historiography through projected text inserts, documents, and historical characters; the transformation of a period novel into a more historically assertive film, linking fictional protagonists to visually and textually documented historical events; the massive cost; the public adulation and outrage), yet few filmmakers dared or wanted to equal its mammoth cost and public controversy. Instead, from 1916 to 1927, American historical feature filmmaking became a prestigious but only occasional part of Hollywood’s A-feature output. This ranged, in the silent period, from biographies (Davy Crockett, 1916; The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1924) to reenactments of famous events in history (America, 1924; The Iron Horse, 1924; Old Ironsides, 1926) to adaptations of historical novels (The Last of the Mohicans, 1920; The Scarlet Letter, 1926) to more ...
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