This is the latest in Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood directors and the actors they worked with. This essay expands the range of matters Bruce considers by considering the notion of authorship in classical Hollywood cinema. The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.
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The concept of the film director has its origins in the first full decade of cinema when Richard Abel notes that Georges Méliès insisted that the filmmaker must be the author as the key marker of difference between the cinema and the theatre - “he must be the author (scriptwriter, director, designer and often an actor) - essentially an auteurist position. In the succeeding decades key questions about the nature of creativity in the cinema along with essential questions like is the cinema principally art or commerce, narrative or descriptive, expressive or revelatory, a popular or elite form and not least, is the filmmaker a metteur en scéne (director in the theatre sense) or an auteur (in the literary sense) in his/her own right? Barrett Hodsdon recounts in part 1 of The Elusive Auteur the waning and waxing of this latter critical and theoretical history in relation to the rise and ascendancy and ultimate disintegration of the studio system.
The rise of auteurism also marked that of cinephilia or was it the other way around? Dubbed “the auteur theory,” it was not so much a theory as an attitude Andrew Sarris conceded, a critical policy of uncovering a hierarchy of creativity based on directorial thematic and/or stylistic consistency. It amounted to a challenge to the dominant idea of the traditional art cinema that had been promoted after 1945. In demanding an accommodation of non-art films it was a departure, in serious discussion of the cinema, from the canons of taste . The passion, even animosity generated were as Thomas Elsaesser notes, “signs of affective cinephilia.”
|Andre Bazin (and Agnes Varda)|
cover of Cahiers du Cinema, 91
|Cover of Movie|
From a lofty vantage point, the “forest critic” by implication was taken to task by Sarris for tending to pay regard to only the tallest of the individual trees. He, like the arborist, knew that the real measure of overall health of the forest lay beneath the canopy. Below the pantheon of directors accredited with “a personal vision of the world” was the second line of auteurs (on “the far side of paradise”) who fell short only because their vision is more fragmented and/or disrupted for career or other reasons. On the third level were grouped directors termed “likeable but elusive” who, in the main, were what I designate as the third line of auteurs unsung because of difficult styles or unfashionable genres which resulted in their virtues being less apparent but potentially redeemed “by their seriousness and grace.” I've included in the second and third third lines as auteurs directors who were then regarded as accomplished stylists but without an overarching theme – so-called metteurs en scène . I will return to the auteur/metteur en scène distinction and crucially, that between auteurism and other director centred criticism in part 11. While still based on his rankings of individual directors, the listing below is a provisional restructuring of Sarris's systematic uncovering of a then relatively undiscovered Hollywood arranged in a critical hierarchy which, while not without flaws, provoked and excited us at its first airing in Film Culture in 1963. For those whom he anticipated would dispute the rankings Sarris claimed in defence that “the auteur theory itself (remains) a pattern theory in constant flux...(not) a constellation of directors in fixed orbit.”
The pantheon of auteurs (alphabetical): Chaplin. Flaherty, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Keaton, Fritz Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophuls, Renoir, von Sternberg, Welles.
|F W Murnau|
The second line: Aldrich, Borzage, Capra, Cukor, De Mille, Edwards, Fuller, Kazan, Kubrick, Jerry Lewis, Losey, Mackendrick, Anthony Mann, J L Mankiewicz, McCarey, Minnelli, Peckinpah, Penn, Preminger, Ray, Siegel, Sirk, Stevens, Preston Sturges, Tashlin, Tourneur, Ulmer, King Vidor, von Stroheim, Walsh, Wilder.
|Alexander Mackendrick directing Tony Curtis,|
Sweet Smell of Success
The third line (directors in my view the most arguably promotable to the 'second line' are in italics): Budd Boetticher, John Brahm, Richard Brooks, Rowland Brown, Tod Browning, Roger Corman, André de Toth, John Farrow, Richard Fleischer, Jules Dassin, Delmer Daves, Stanley Donen, Allan Dwan, Phil Karlson, Gregory La Cava, Mitchell Leisen, Paul Leni, Joseph H Lewis, Mervyn LeRoy, Sidney Lumet, Richard Quine, Gerd Oswald, Robert Rossen, Franklin Schaffner, Robert Siodmak, John Stahl, Charles Walters, Don Weis, James Whale
There were major directors who for differing reasons their oeuvres are difficult to categorise - reputations based on recognised accomplishment but marred by a lack of thematic consistency and, at times, as in the case of Huston and Wellman, evident lack of personal engagement: Lewis Milestone, William Wyler, William Wellman, John Huston, Rouben Mamoulian and Fred Zinnemann. There were also a small number of would-be auteurs like Albert Lewin and Richard Lester, not marked by conclusive failure, scattered through the hierarchy together with 'one shot' directors such as Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter), Jack Webb (Pete Kelly's Blues), Irving Lerner (Murder By Contract) and Alexander Singer (Cold Wind in August). Alexander Mackendrick, an undoubted auteur in the context of British cinema, directed Sweet Smell of Success perhaps the greatest 'one shot' film to come out of classical Hollywood. Abe Polonsky directed and scripted Force of Evil before having his career all but terminated by the black list. There is the seemingly unique case of Edward L Cahn who directed nearly 70 features from 1932-63, his first feature, for its time a notably innovative western, Law and Order, stands as a one shot for him as though he used up any original ideas he had as a director it seems on his first film, but who can verify this for sure? One could go on with interesting “exceptions to the rule” in a system marked by 'the compulsion to repeat' yet with the door left open for the maverick producer, scriptwriter or director.
|Edward L Cahn|
Ten of the eleven directors (plus three additions) in the main from the silent cinema and/or the first decade of sound as listed by Sarris - Clarence Brown, James Cruze, Harry d'Arrast, Paul Fejos, Sidney Franklin, William K Howard, Rex Ingram, George Hill, Henry King, Malcolm St Clair, Victor Seastrom, Maurice Tourneur, Roland West - more or less remain“subjects for further research.”
Nearly all systems
have their limitations. To name a few of many examples, most cinephiles would
have problems ranking Stanley Kramer, Daniel and Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson,
Martin Ritt, Cornel Wilde and Frank Perry as auteurs, metteurs en scène or
superior craftsmen, but neither do they sit comfortably as journeymen or
artisanal directors. They can be largely ignored or a place found for failed
aspiration of the overly ambitious or simply the failure to match form with
content, in other words a graveyard for failed auteurs. When thematic consistency
and style is not sustained amidst quantity, some allowance can be made on their
epitaph for what might be seen as exceptions in their oeuvres such as Bachelor
Party, Hud and The Swimmer. Sarris did provide places
for his naming of the seriously overrated in “Less Than Meets the Eye” and for
the lesser sin of “Strained Seriousness”
|William K Howard|
Sarris made his statement on the minimal presence of women directors not only in Hollywood but in world cinema c1968 in his note on Ida Lupino in “Oddities, One Shots and Newcomers.” He concluded that her seven independently produced low budget features,1949-65, “express much of the feeling but little of the skill which she has projected so admirably as an actress.” Sarris noted only that Dorothy Arzner, who directed 16 features from 1927-43, “put the matter (of women directing) to the test.” That he left assessment of her to his wife Molly Haskell (author of From Reverence to Rape) suggests that, for him, Arzner failed the test at least as auteur. From Hollywood's first decade Lois Weber would seem to have been a genuine experimentalist with film form. As for a black presence in Hollywood, only in so-called “race films” made independently between 1910-50 by Afro-American filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux for Afro-American audiences, did black identity resonate to unequally contest the anonymity or too often patronising caricatures of blacks in Hollywood films.
Main sources: Barrett Hodsdon The Elusive Auteur 2017; Jim Hillier Ed. Cahiers du Cinema The 1950s 1985; Thomas Elsaesser The Persistence of Hollywood 2012; Sam Rohdie Film Modernism 2015; Andrew Sarris “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” Film Culture 27 1962/3, The American Cinema 1968; John Caughie “The Director Comes of Age” The Movie 90 1981; Adrian Martin “Mise-en-scène” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory 2014; V F Perkins “Film Authorship: the Premature Burial” CineAction 21/22 1990; Richard Abel French Film Theory and Criticism an anthology Vol 1