PART I: Hollywood and the new morality
What cultural phenomenon can compare with the global spread of American movies after World War I? No communications medium emanating from any one country had ever extended a voice so expansively. No military power, no imperial administration, had cast its leadership so far and wide. Only the world’s great religions had comparable reach. To be sure, these faiths held an infinitely more important place in the lives of their adherents than did American movies. Yet films from the United States were able to connect with spectators of many beliefs.
A considerable part of this remarkable supremacy derived from a single word which came to symbolize the American motion picture industry: Hollywood. The name was new to history. A western district in Los Angeles, at the turn of the twentieth century it had been a rural outpost, a few houses among the fruit groves. As a burgeoning motion picture community, it was able to develop its own resonance, its own mystique. New York already possessed broad cultural significance, as did Rome, Paris, and Berlin. Hollywood meant only one thing: American movies. [i]
When equating the expanding reach of Hollywood to historical religious expansionism, Sklar makes reference to Hollywood’s voice. A voice, no doubt, with something to say; first and foremost reflecting its influences, ideologies and attitudes, and also shaping and influencing ideologies and attitudes for many viewers. But what are these attitudes and ideologies?? In his ultra-comprehensive tome A History of Narrative Film, David Cook writes the following:
The mood of postwar America was one of bitterness, disillusionment, and cynicism not unlike that of the post-Watergate era, but intensified… The “new morality” was an adjunct of this mood. It rejected the “old morality” of Victorian idealism for a fashionable materialism which emphasized wealth, sensation, and sexual freedom. The “new morality” encouraged the widespread use of drugs (mainly nicotine and alcohol; in Hollywood, cocaine), female liberation (women won the vote in 1920), and sexual promiscuity. Its spread was facilitated by the decade’s relative economic prosperity and by simultaneous revolutions in communications (mass distribution of films; the booming of network radio) and transportation (mass marketing of the private automobile; the beginnings of commercial aviation). Politically, however, the period was characterized by violent strike-breaking, anti-Bolshevism, and right-wing reaction.[ii]
Sound familiar? While not an exact match, the shifting cultural sands of America in the 1920s greatly resemble the values, tenants and mindset of recent decades, the first decade of the 2000s in particularly.
Consequently, the next decade, the 1930s, with the Great Depression and the rise of the Third Reich, would serve as a sobering wake-up call to those blindly indulging in the pleasures of the 1920s “new morality” – not unlike how it took the economic crisis of 2008 to jolt many Americans out of their own self-indulgent materialism and excess. Of course, when it comes to disasters that could be interpreted as missed wake-up calls, they’re not all of the economic variety. Those are simply the ones that hit us where we feel it most – in the wallet.
Rampant success gave way to fevered excess, and just around the corner, progress itself threatened the bubble to burst. In some ways, it was a moment not so different from our own; a place on the cusp of its first and greatest turbulent technological revolution.
But, considering the biblical view of humanity, missed wake-up calls should be no surprise. Look at the Israelites of Mt. Sainai, delivered miraculously by God from their enslavers, the Egyptians. There were scores of supernatural plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and numerous other incredibly blatant indicators of God’s central role in saving them. Yet what did they do? As Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Commandments, the Israelites had turned to rampant paganism, worshiping a man-made golden calf.
Their blindness to their own history seems absurd, but then we must remember that we ourselves are really no different. It’s been said that every sixth generation or so needs a wake-up call, and the 1920s were the decade on the cusp of just such a thing. But before any such thing would occur, let the stage be set:
It was decade of writers Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Elliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Virginia Woolf. It saw women gain the power to vote and Charles Lindbergh fly across the Atlantic, but it also saw fascism take hold of Italy, Stalin take power in the U.S.S.R., and the early rise Nazism in Germany. Penicillin was discovered, and Big-Bang Theory was coined. It was the Jazz Age, and the decade roared. Mankind was in flux, and loving every minute of it.
PART II: “I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille.”
Which brings us back to Cecil B. DeMille, by most indications, a complex man of faith, showmanship, and compromise. David Cooks writes:
“The most successful and flamboyant representative of the “new morality” in all of its manifestations was Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959). A virtual incarnation of the values of Hollywood in the twenties, DeMille had an uncanny ability to anticipate the tastes of his audiences and give them what they wanted before they knew they wanted it.”[iii]
And furthermore, the blurb on the back of a DeMille biography by Charles Highman reads as follows:
Cecil B. DeMille! His name alone conjures up extravagant Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings, Samson and Delilah, and The Sign of the Cross, full of teeming crowd scenes, half-naked revelers worshiping golden idols, Christians bravely facing lions, and other grandiose visions. While most regard him simply as an exploitative cynic who craved commercial success at any cost… The DeMille who emerges here is a true artist gradually overwhelmed by financial pressures. A moralist and perfectionist, stubborn, decent, loyal, and ruthless when he had to be, DeMille believed devoutly in the Bible, and made films with missionary zeal to uplift the masses in and age of materialism and hedonism.[iv]
Much of what DeMille would do would set trends for not only his own sometimes-notorious filmography, but for all of filmmaking, extending even to today.
For more on DeMille’s faith, let’s look further into the book, as the author details his own drive to uncover the true Cecil B. DeMille:
…DeMille, so far from being a cynic, was a devout believer in the Bible… A deeply committed Episcopalian, he literally accepted every word of the Bible without question, and went on record as saying that every word of it with the exception of the Book of Numbers could be filmed exactly as it stood.[v]
As Higham goes on to detail, DeMille’s forty-plus year career was marked with much innovation in its early years. Much of what DeMille would do would set trends for not only his own sometimes-notorious filmography, but for all of filmmaking, extending even to today. It began with a bang in 1914, directing Hollywood’s first feature length Western, a film called The Squaw Man. He followed that with a string of Westerns and stage adaptations. Regarding DeMille’s ground-breaking use of lighting, Rudolf Arnheim, his seminal book “Film as Art” details the following information and anecdote:
Light, just as other properties of film, has been called to serve definite decorative and evocative purposes only as film developed into an art. In the early days any conspicuous light effect was avoided, just as perspective size-alterations and overlapping were shunned. If the effects of the lighting sprang to the eye too obviously in the picture, it was considered a professional error. The American director Cecil B. de Mille (sic) tells an instructive story to this effect:
“I had been accustomed to stage work, and I wanted to use a particular light effect, which I had used in the theater, for a film I was then shooting. In the scene in question, a spy came creeping through a curtain, and in order to make the effect more mysterious, I decided to light only half the spy’s face and to leave the rest in darkness. I looked at the result on the screen and found it extraordinarily effective. I was so pleased with this trick lighting that I used it throughout the film, that is, I used spotlights from one side or the other – a method which is now freely practiced. After I had sent the film to the distributor’s office I got a telegram from the manager that surprised me considerably. It ran: – ‘Have you gone mad? Do you suppose we can sell a film for its full price if you only show half a man?’”
The film was rejected until de Mille (sic) hit on the idea of bluffing his customers by referring to the recondite authority of a great European artist. He wired back: “If you fellows are such fools that you don’t know Rembrandt chiaroscuro when you see it, don’t blame me.” That did it. The distributor launched the film with the slogan: “The first film lighted in the Rembrandt style,” asked double the usual price, and got it.[vi]
David Cook, a film historian far more typically critical of DeMille than the admiring Higham, hones in on what many perceive as the central quality of the filmmaker’s work – his dualistic blend of piousness and vulgarity. He writes: “DeMille made the bathtub a mystic shrine and the act of disrobing a fine art, as ‘modern’ marriages collapsed under the pressure of luxuriant hedonism. These films did not simply embody the values of the ‘new morality’; they also legitimized them and made them fashionable.” Begrudgingly, he then offers:
A few of his films, such as Male and Female (1919) and Union Pacific (1939), are classics of their genres, but on the whole DeMille was a great showman, rather than a great director, who incarnated the values of Hollywood in the twenties throughout his career. He was extravagant, flamboyant, and vulgar, but he possessed a remarkable instinct for the dualistic sensibilities (some would simply say “hypocrisy”) of his middle-class American audiences, who paid by the millions for over fifty years to sit through his kinetic spectacles of sex, torture, murder, and violence so long as some pious moral could be drawn from them at the end.[vii]
For a different opinion, let us turn our attention to celebrated filmmaker and film historian Martin Scorsese, who in January of 2010, received the American Foreign Press Association’s prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony. In his acceptance speech, he took the opportunity to celebrate DeMille himself:
William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even passed.”… DeMille was the ultimate showman, and seeing films was an event… The world as he dreamed it was bigger than life, blazing color. Fast moving, easily understood. When you saw a DeMille picture, it stayed with you. There was the power of the shared experience with a big audience. And always within the spectacle, was a strong story on a human scale. He made the pictures so that we may live in their wonders. He was there from the beginning when film was born, he helped create the narrative style and language we use today, helped shape film as an art form, as a business, and as a mythical landscape. He led the way for all of us. When we look at his films, or Hitchcock or Kubrick, we all remember that motion pictures are part of a continuum of a living, on-going history.
Scorsese’s pro-DeMille pronouncements come across like a breath of fresh air for those who continue to appreciate DeMille’s utterly ham-fisted spectacles. Today he stands as an iconic example of a director – indeed, a personality– who perhaps inflated too greatly, believing his own hype the entire time, while the general public happily lapped up whatever latest marvels he had to display. Sure, he made his share of enemies along the way (his unsuccessful 1950 attempt to impose his will over the Director’s Guild of America has historically been
viewed as a wrongheaded bullying maneuver), but DeMille is the 1920s director who would go on to essentially define Hollywood – for better or for worse. With his trademark boots and Mounties trousers, he even defined, in the mind of the public, how a director should dress. (That is, until the 1970s “film school brats” arrived with their scruffy beards and blue jeans.) DeMille and his work burned bright (as the beacon he so righteously postured it to be) for a very long time, but eventually, perhaps not so soon following his death on January 21, 1959, he and his brand of spectacle would be kicked to the cultural curb, doomed to be viewed as archaic museum pieces, every last one of them.
From a point of view of pure storytelling, one thing that makes the Bible rich as literature, to believers and non-believers alike, is the way re-occurring motifs pop up throughout, ultimately pointing the way to its great revolution, the work of Jesus Christ. Sharp-eyed observers will do well to recognize that this pattern of re-occurring motifs turns up throughout the vast run of human history itself, civilizations rising and falling in not dissimilar ways. In that vein, if the story of 1920s Hollywood is one of being given and inch and taking a mile in terms of creative freedoms, and then dearly paying the price later, then the career of actor turned filmmaker Erich Von Stroheim is a foreshadowing micro chasm of that same story.
PART III: “There were three young directors who showed promise in those days: D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and…”
Erich Von Stroheim, born in Vienna as Erich Oswald Stroheim – the “Von” added purely for vanity (which was also the case of director Joseph Von Sternberg, who would rise to prominence in the 1930s, discovering actress Marlene Deitrich, and making a string of films with her) – began as an assistant to the great D.W. Griffith, having a hand in such milestone epics as The Birth of a Nation and Intolorance before landing a gig as assistant director and military adviser on Griffith’s World War I epic, 1918’s Hearts of the World. The military adviser credential was no doubt due to his mythic claim that he derived from Austrian aristocracy, and had been a cavalry officer in his youth. But his first fame would come to him for playing brutal Prussian villains, as he also did in Hearts of the World (a small role)[viii]. He was dubbed and marketed as “The man you love to hate”. Being in the right place at the right time with the right people allowed him a chance to direct his own material.
Von Stroheim’s true legacy would be the arc of his directorial career. Virtually the opposite of DeMille, Von Stroheim absolutely refused to compromise his artistic side – absolute refusal to a monumental degree.
Beginning with Blind Husbands in 1919, his films were, and continue to be celebrated for their forward thinking sophistication, their European aesthetic, and their dark morality. He tended to act in them as well as write and direct them, usually playing some sort of arrogant, morally dubious European aristocrat in a uniform and monocle. These were big movies, and very long – some only rivaled by Griffith’s grandest spectacles in terms of sheer physical scope and magnitude. For 1922’s Foolish Wives, the casino, the hotel, and the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo were reconstructed to scale on the Universal backlot in the San Fernando Valley. When Von Stroheim refused to reign in his vision, and refused to stop spending so manically, the studio opted to exploit the extravagance of the production as “the first million dollar film production”. But Von Stroheim had the talent to justify his stubborn extravagance, as many of his films operate in and around the territory of utter brilliance.
There is also a certain mythology surrounding many of the films, as most tend to be regarded as “butchered masterpieces”, due to the studio having seized control over them in post production, and cut them down from their initially intended, tremendously long running times. The single film said to be his greatest, 1924’s Greed, was initially 42 reels of film in length – that’s nine hours. Ultimately, it was pared down to 2 ¼ hours, the excised footage now lost for the ages, and considered one of the great tragedies in all of cinema history. Regarding the greatness Greed, David Cook offers this: “Because Von Stroheim was an original master of the long take and built up his most powerful effects within shots rather than editing between them, many of the film’s greatest sequences have survived intact. Even as it stands, Greed is overwhelming in its psychological intensity; Von Stroheim used strikingly clear deep-focus photography and a documentary-like mise-en-scene to totally immerse us in the reality of the film. His camera moves very little, and in a manner forecasting the work of Michelangelo Antonioni (the divisive, staid Italian visual master of several decades later), the narrative proceeds through a gradual accretion of detail in which the time and space of the characters become our own.”
Von Stroheim’s true legacy would be the arc of his directorial career. Virtually the opposite of DeMille, Von Stroheim absolutely refused to compromise his artistic side – absolute refusal to a monumental degree. And of course, it cost him dearly, and it cost him quickly. By the end of the 1920s, Von Stroheim’s time as a game changing visionary director was over, and he was reduced to acting in low budget cheapies, like the truly odd ventriloquist dummy movie from 1929, The Great Gabbo. He did get a few more prime chances to shine greatly as an actor, though – The first being Jean Renoir’s 1937 wartime prison camp masterpiece, The Grand Illusion, and the other being Billy Wilder’s 1950 meta-reality-fueled film noir gem, Sunset Blvd, in which Von Stroheim plays a once great silent film director, now serving as butler for an aging movie star played by a ghoulish Gloria Swanson – herself a onetime Von Stroheim leading lady in a film with a troubled production.
Just as Von Stroheim’s stubborn refusal to compromise his grandiose way led to his creative demise, Hollywood itself, by taking crazy advantage of the then-voluntary Production Code, and its overseer’s lack of spine, ultimately opened the door for much greater and stricter censorship. As bawdy, tawdry and inappropriate as the pre-code films could be, they later became at least as equally dull, predictable and morally patronizing for a time once the pendulum swang the other way in 1934, under the rule of Joseph Breen. If there was a happy medium out there, Hollywood, nor Von Stroheim ever found it.
PART IV: Hollywood finds (and loses) it’s voice
But, before the movies could be muzzled, they would have to learn to talk. Thus we arrive at The Advent Of Sound – the single greatest revolution in the history of filmmaking. If D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation transformed movies from a mere flickering novelty and into a bona fide art form accepted by the masses, then the also racially and ethnically shameful film The Jazz Singer – the first talking feature film – would be the film to turn that art form back into a novelty, at least for a while. (The racial and ethnic shame stem from the film’s star, Al Jolson, performing in blackface. Like the insulting racial stereotypes of The Birth of a Nation, here we have another film vital to history, impossible to ignore, but plagued with elements we now find wholeheartedly unacceptable.) But any artistic limitations that the arrival of talking pictures would bring – and there were many backward steps in order to account for the cumbersome new technology of recording voices while filming – it must be said that, when taken as the inevitability that it really was, the advent of sound brought a lot of pluses.
Studios like MGM were quick to orchestrate the all-singing musical movie spectacular – feature films consisting of little more than big name actors of stage and screen showing up to sing and dance. Moviegoers, at least for a time, didn’t mind a lack of substance in their entertainment.
Voices are important to us. We light up at the mere sound of the voice of certain people, and likewise, we privately mourn upon realizing that we’ve forgotten the voices of long-deceased loved ones. Imagine a world where you’ve never heard the voice of your favorite film actors. That was the world for everyone, pre-1927. It’s easy to dismiss the advent of sound as yet another technical milestone that “changed everything”. But in this case, it really did change everything.
Ever since movies were born in the late 1800s, synchronized sound was an ideal, a goal of film exhibition innovators. Many systems and their inventors competed to be the one to achieve the holy grail of widespread acceptance, but no one would for years. Not until 1927, well over thirty years later. The two major contenders in the race were the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, championed by Sam Warner of the four Warner Brothers studio moguls, versus the sound-on-film system, AKA Movietone. Vitaphone may’ve won the race, premiering successfully first, but it is sound on film that eventually prevailed as the standard.
But prior to either system, the art of moviemaking – the language of visual storytelling – had become tremendously sophisticated. It had gone from the kind of rudimentary, broad, theater-stage-like framing (the kind of presentation that enabled some in film’s earliest days to believe it wasn’t a projected image at all, but rather live actors behind lit muslin) to a fully formed and universally understood visual language, complete with the now secondhand vernacular of close-ups, tracking shots, extreme long shots, establishing shots, and much more. (For a particularly bravura example, see the “Introduction to New York” sequence from the 1928 silent classic, The Crowd, below.) But the introduction of sound at this point threatened to upend all of that. The reason was the unwieldy nature of the sound equipment – the incapability of the then tried and true silent filmmaking process (often consisting of the director talking the talent through a given scene while the camera rolled film) with the newfangled microphones and recording gear.
The initial resulting pictures to emerge from this early phase tended to be very static, the camera and actors careful not to move and inch, for fear of interfering with the microphone’s pickup pattern. Lots of wide shots of people at desks, sitting, talking, barely even turning their heads. Fortunately, this confinement didn’t last, as things progressed to the point where talking & singing spectacles were the order of the day. Through it all, audiences were enamored. Silent films quickly became regarded as passé, kicked aside for the new crop of mediocre talking pictures. Studios like MGM were quick to orchestrate the all-singing musical movie spectacular – feature films consisting of little more than big name actors of stage and screen showing up to sing and dance. Moviegoers, at least for a time, didn’t mind a lack of substance in their entertainment. One such film, The Broadway Melody, was the first talkie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (despite a noticeably locked-down camera).
PART V: 1920s Hollywood and Today
Which brings us to another comparison between then and now. In the comparatively recent year of 2009, James Cameron’s warmed-over science fiction eco-sermon Avatar, with its eye-popping 3-D effects propelling it to break one box office record after another, became a serious Oscar contender. At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder, “if Avatar wins Best Picture, how long would it be before embarrassment sets in, as it has for The Broadway Melody win? Even now, four years out, we’re still asking how long it will take for the razzle-dazzle effect of Avatar’s 3D to wear off, allowing it to settle in as merely another viable tool in a filmmaker’s considerable toolbox.
But I digress – in any case, the novelty of early sound did wear off. After a brief artistic setback, the technology no longer hindered things. We can compare this to a major media revolution that is currently happening – the fall of traditional newspapers and magazines in the wake of the internet. With print media withering all over the country (be it the demise of Newsweek‘s print incarnation, or the slow cutback induced shrinking of so many daily papers), what will be the fate of journalism itself? Journalism is just one avenue that is threatened by the digital revolution of the here and now, just as competent visual storytelling in the cinema was threatened in the 1920s. The movies prevailed, and, despite massive threats and shifts that would continue to come along, they stand as tall as ever as THE dominant medium in the entertainment field today, as high as they have stood. Only time will tell the fate of journalism amid today’s digital revolution, or for that matter, the impact it will make on cinema itself.
The story of individuals can tell the story of a specific time in a specific place, or even a specific country at a certain time. If you take a step back from examining the plight of Erich Von Stroheim – a man of remarkable talent whom, it might be said, took too much too fast and was subsequently ruined for it – you see that his is the same arc as 1920s Hollywood itself. As 1920s Hollywood had the advent of sound to propel it into risqué waters, Von Stroheim similarly had Carl Laemlle taking a bet on him, putting him on the map as a director of big-spectacle dramatic pictures almost overnight. If you take yet another step back, now examining the whole of America in the 1920s, you can see again how it is the same story arc.
DeMille and Von Stroheim were, in their own very different ways, about merging ground-breaking spectacle with deep moral ideas. That their innovations gave way to bloat followed by rumble-gut inducing stillness is no reason to turn our noses up at the feast they have left us.
But then again, when one considers the unrelenting brokenness, the epitome of humanity’s vile side, that Von Stroheim presented so ingeniously, it could very much be said that the truths he told are the fundamentally jarring kind that while not immediately clear, are far more resonant than so much of what DeMille ended up doing: churning out massive costume dramas in an eye-catching but all too predictable fashion. DeMille opted to forsake the kind of artistry and film language innovation that he displayed so confidently with The Cheat in favor of being the ringmaster of The Greatest Show on Earth. By parting the Red Sea with Charlton Heston in 1956 (a remake of the first half of his 1920’s silent The Ten Commandments), DeMille continued to “wow” people, even innovate on a certain vital level.
But by then DeMille was functioning purely as a brand, a showman. For transitioning into such, a stark difference than where he was in the 1920s, he was rewarded with a long career, and name-above-the-title immortality. By contrast, Von Stroheim was the director. For testing limits and insisting on integrity (no matter the price), The Great Gabbo awaited him. In the meantime, the movies would continue to have plenty to say, well beyond the 1920s, even if that decade of film making, one that began with such promise, wrapped by suffocating itself by virtue of fulfilling that promise. Sound itself had ironically silenced the art form. This silence would fortunately prove to be more of a hiccup, but the cautionary impact of it all would never become irrelevant.
To put too fine a point on Hollywood of the 1920s would be reductive, reducing a rich, vibrant, complex, twisted and over-indulgent era into the world’s most glorified sermon illustration. That is not my purpose. Nor is it my purpose to hold up DeMille, Von Stroheim and synchronized sound as the absolute key aspects of the era. Silent comedy (an art form still enjoyed today far more readily than Von Stroheim or even DeMille of any era) and the salacious pre-code era warrant their own explorations and contextualization, none of which would fail to correspond with the story told here. (Meanwhile, overseas, the cinemas of German, Scandinavia, and elsewhere were also firing up with their own essential, formidable flare-ups.) DeMille and Von Stroheim were, in their own very different ways, about merging ground-breaking spectacle with deep moral ideas. That their innovations gave way to bloat followed by rumble-gut inducing stillness is no reason to turn our noses up at the feast they have left us.
[i] Robert Sklar, A World History of Film (New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002), 92.
[ii] David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, Second Edition (New York; W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990), 207.
[iii] Cook, 230.
[iv] Charles Higham, Cecil B. DeMille (New York, N.Y.; Da Capo Press, 1973), back cover.
[v] Higham, x.
[vi] Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1957), 72.
[vii] Cook, 231.