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 If Hollywood and the younger generation had discarded Victorian standards, it was soon apparent that a great many other Americans had not. Clubwomen, church members, and civic organizations were shocked by newspaper accounts of Hollywood scandals. Civic groups called upon the authorities to ban certain films. The press and Church and political leaders agreed that crime and sin needed to be checked, not only in films but also in the stars' private lives. The public demanded that some sort of restraints be placed on the film capital and its actors before the entire industry became an international disgrace. As early as 1915, Congress reacted to public criticism by holding hearings on the industry's financial activities as well as on the morality of films. In order to avoid having the federal government meddle in their productions and regulate films through censorship, the movie magnates established their own National Board of Review, and in 1919, the studios formed The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry. Those desiring censorship were still not mollified, though.
To protect their films, the studio heads agreed to curb the outrageous behavior of some of the leading stars and to present more enlightening films. In October, 1922, fifteen producers met and elected Will H. Hays the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Hays, Postmaster- General in President Warren Harding's cabinet, was appointed czar and given the authority to police the morals of the movie industry. His job was to reform those who were misbehaving and to improve public relations.
Although in theory the Hays Office attempted to correct corruption both on and off the screen, in practice it merely succeeded in keeping most of the sensational stories out of the newspapers and in having certain stars promise not to misbehave in public. As for films, there was little one could do to prevent the studios from offering more risqué themes and stories, especially since these films made money. One step the Hays Office took was to establish a code, issued to all studios, declaring that bad or sinful characters in the movies always had to be punished. No matter what happened during the picture, if the immoral characters were punished at the conclusion, the picture received a seal of approval. Directors proceeded to bypass restrictions by adding the requisite endings involving punishment for the evildoers. Characters who had lived riotous lives and broken the moral code were conveniently killed in the last few minutes of the film. By staving off the strong objections of moral critics throughout the 1920's, Hays was able to avoid any drastic action by most of the religious or civic groups.
When the committee for morality did establish standards, one of the most important directors affected by the code was the perceptive Cecil B. DeMille. In order to get around the rules, DeMille, always one step ahead of his fellow directors, simply turned to preaching without omitting sex. Bible in hand, DeMille presented his first sandal epic, The Ten Commandments (1923), in which he employed the perfect formula for box office success: violence, sex, and religion. He followed with King of Kings (1927). DeMille led, and other directors followed. They gave the public what it wanted-sin, nudity, and corruption-and to appease the Hays office, punished the offenders in the last ten minutes.
It has been suggested that the American hunger for a cultural tradition is evident in the yearning for things that are European. Having no royal family or nobility on which to lavish their attention, Americans tend to adulate other heroes, one of whom is the movie star. American audiences were eager in the 1920's for a more sophisticated version of romance than that proffered by Mary Pickford and the Gish Sisters. Even the pseudo-sophistication of the flappers Clara Bow and Joan Crawford did not fill the bill.
The American audience was searching for new types-the adult romantic lover who combined sexual experience with courtesy and flair, who could seduce and still remain a hero, and the worldly woman to whom sex was neither a danger nor a joke, who combined mystery with real flesh and blood. By the very nature of things, the actors who played these parts simply had to be Europeans, real or manufactured. Gloria Swanson tried to recreate her image by taking several European jaunts, but the audience really wanted new faces and new types. French, German, and English theater talent disembarked in New York and caught the train for Hollywood.
The arrival of directors, stars, and technical personnel from Europe, especially from Germany, in the period immediately following World War I, had helped to make the early American films the best in the world. The combination of European artistry and American money had secured Hollywood's preeminence in filmdom. The Europeans brought into postwar America a new concept of reality and a new star image that contrasted with America's ingénues and farmboy heroes. Among the first directors who came were Maurice Tourneur, Ernst Lubitsch, E. A. DuPont, F. W. Murnau, Paul Leni, William Dieterle, Karl Freund, and Ludwig Berger. From Hungary came Michael Curtiz and Paul Fejos, and the actress Vilma Banky. From Mexico came the actors Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland, and Dolores del Rio. Jacques Feyder journeyed from France. Sweden contributed not only the incomparable Garbo but also the directors Mauritz Stiller and Victor Seastrom, one of the first directors to introduce deeper psychological characterizations to the screen. To these newcomers, Hollywood offered fame and a great deal of fortune, if they were successful.
Disillusioned when they found themselves required by contract to make films mechanically, penalized when they failed to produce slick American products, restricted not only by the studios but also by the Hays Office, and tired of empty stories, many foreigners refused to join the Hollywood establishment and returned to studios in Berlin, Vienna, London, and Paris. Mauritz Stiller, misused by MGM and given no chance to show his true ability, went home to Sweden. Emil Jannings disliked the hackneyed scripts that were handed to him and left for Germany. Pola Negri returned to Berlin and was eventually driven into obscurity by the advent of sound. Nevertheless, many Europeans stayed on to become internationally famous, leaving their marks not only OR the silent films but also on film in the decades that followed.
American fans loved the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, and the German director was an immediate success. His deft direction and editing elevated many performers into top stars, including Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Miriam Hopkins, and Claudette Colbert.
Lubitsch's formula for success was the witty, superficial sex comedy. Like von Stroheim, he dealt with the lives and mores of upper-class Europeans, but unlike von Stroheim, he portrayed them as nice but naughty, just as Americans imagined them to be. His films had touches of irony, satire, and amusing observations of human foibles.
For a decade, "The Lubitsch Touch" was synonymous in the industry with brittle comedies that treated sex with a certain slyness. Lubitsch specialized in sophisticated triangle plots, and his movies in the 1920's and 1930's liberated films from such provincial ideas as the one that sex and money often mean unhappiness. For years, Lubitsch's concept of comedy was the pattern at Paramount Studios. Young American directors often copied his witty, urbane, and commercially successful style. His best American films were The Love Parade (1929], Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Ninotchka (1939), and To Be or Not To Be (1942).
F. W. Murnau, an outstanding German director, arrived in the United States on the eve of the sound era (1927) and was employed by Fox Studios. With the brilliant scenarist Carl Mayer, also from Germany, he fashioned the impressionistic Sunrise (1927) for Janet Gaynor. Unfortunately, Murnau was able to make only four films in Hollywood before his tragic death.
Sunrise brought prestige to Fox Studios and eventually took its place as a visually beautiful screen masterpiece. The film is a study of opposites, in which (he rhythm and harshness of the city are contrasted with the ease and tranquility of country life: dark is contrasted with light, evil with good, illusion with reality, salvation with sin. Murnau's sensitive direction, Charles Rosher's photography, Koger Gliese's sets, and the compelling acting of the three principals helped make the picture one of the most lyrical and poetic epics of the 1920's. It was the last great silent picture turned out by West Coast studios. Thirteen days after its release, A1 Jolson's The Jazz Singer, the first film with sound, had its premiere in New York. Murnau's masterpiece was a fitting swan song for silent films.
By stretching categories, Josef von Sternberg can be classified as a member of the talent emigration from Europe. Born in Vienna, he worked in American films for fifteen years (1914-1929) and had, by the late 1920's, established a reputation in Hollywood, where he directed The Salvation Hunters (1924) and then Underworld (1927). He achieved outstanding success directing The Last Command (1927-28) with Emil Jannings, and on the strength of this film was invited to Germany to make Jannings's first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). There he further demonstrated his directorial style, camerawork, and extraordinary taste in decor before he returned to Hollywood. After the advent of sound he turned out seven glossy adventure films with his star, Marlene Dietrich. Von Sternberg believed in lavish sets, eroticism, skillful lighting, and long silences. His collaboration with Dietrich eventually ended, but not before he had made her one of the outstanding sex goddesses of the 1930's.
The theories of filmmaking that the Europeans brought to Hollywood in the last years of the silent era were to dominate American films in the 1930's, and continue well into the 1940's. Their treatment of stories, their views on sex, their handling of dialogue, and certainly their knowledge of lighting helped raise the American screen to new heights of artistry.
Any history of the American movies must include the European director- actor Erich von Stroheim. On the screen, von Stroheim, with his stern features and bull neck, was the perfect brutal Prussian officer. The publicity department dubbed him "The Man you Love to Hate." World-weary, elegantly dressed, often toying with gloves, monocle, and riding whip, von Stroheim underlined his portrayal with a touch of cruelty. No matter how often he played the same role, he managed to bring originality to each performance. He shaded his intelligent portrayals with cynicism and irony; his eyes reflected his disillusionment and sometimes his depravity. Merely by kissing the hand of a beautiful woman he could suggest a secret meeting without saying a word. He could be debonair, gallant, and nonchalant, all the while suggesting the sadist lurking underneath the charm. With true stoicism and resignation he would meet his comeuppance at the film's end. For two generations of fans, von Stroheim embodied the Teutonic military type.
In 1918, von Stroheim persuaded Carl Laemmle of Universal Studios to let him direct a script (written by himself] called Blind Husbands. Impressed with the young man's audacity, Laemmle gave the thirty-three-year-old Austrian a contract that permitted him to design sets, direct, and if he chose, appear as the star of his own film. Thus began the career of one of the most original, brilliant, stubborn, enigmatic, and undisciplined directors in all screen history. Blind Husbands (1918], with its eternal triangle theme, was an artistic and financial success, establishing the young director as a perceptive interpreter of European society. The picture suggests that neglected wives have the right to seek solace and love where they can. The mood throughout is wry, occasionally sentimental, and sometimes vicious. Von Stroheim's third film, Foolish Wives (1921], tells a tale of decadent high life on the Continent; it, too, has touches of sardonic wit and fills the screen with sensuality, symbolism, and seduction. Merry-Go-Round (1922] recreates the moral decay of the Hapsburgs' Vienna, but because Irving Thalberg, a studio executive, lost patience with von Stroheim's whims, temperament, and extravagance, Rupert Julian completed the film.
In The Wedding March (1926-28] von Stroheim again returns to his native Europe and dissects the moral corruption in Vienna of 1914. Maude George, George Fawcett, and George Nicholas give brilliant performances as older, jaded characters, ravaged by both age and spent passion. A highlight in the film is a visit to an elegant bordello, where the director makes cynical observations on human vice. In The Wedding March, von Stroheim jarred and amused his public by having dowagers smoke cigars and dressing both men and women in corsets, older women in chin reducers, and men in moustache pressers.
Von Stroheim's greatest accomplishment is Greed (1923], his film version of Frank Norris's novel McTeague. Much of the Austrian's reputation today rests on the merits of this film, and the picture indeed deserves to be recognized as one of the screen's most magnificent films. Directorial effects, realistic sets, masterful acting, brilliant photography, and a daring theme make this film superior screen fare.
McTeague, published in 1899, was written in imitation of the naturalistic style of Emile Zola. The novel had been Frank Norris's rebellion against the popular fiction of the 1890's, which he called "the literature of chambermaids." Filled with dull, ordinary people, murder, an unhappy ending, and a depressing theme (greed for money), the book was not' thought to be screen material. Von Stroheim, however, loved the novel and was determined to turn what some considered a distasteful book into an interesting film.
The director, with a cast headed by Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, and Gibson (lowland, and cinematographers Ben Reynolds. William Daniels, and Ernest Schoedsack, departed for San Francisco, to the very streets where the novel was set; von Stroheim insisted on capturing the realism of the book.
The story tells of McTeague (Gibson Gowland), who leaves his job as a gold miner in California to become an unlicensed dentist on Polk Street in San Francisco. McTeague is a man of slow wit and abnormal strength, a victim of circumstance and environment. He marries, but his wife, (Zasu Pitts) becomes a miser, loving gold more than her husband. The boorish dentist eventually murders his greedy, penurious wife, and dies after a brutal fight in Death Valley. The ugliness and greed of mankind is exposed.
Because he wanted authenticity, the director insisted upon photographing the murder sequence in a building where a similar murder had actually occurred. For the Death Valley scenes, both crew and cast spent weeks working in the hot sun of the desert. The director's relentless driving of his cast paid off, for the actors were either inspired by or determined reward von Stroheim with magnificent portrayals.
Greed was filmed in less than ten months at a cost of $750,000. The Herculean task of editing however, took longer. Initially, von Stroheim cut the endless celluloid to forty-two reels and finally pared the film to twenty-four reels. Next, Rex Ingram cut the remaining reels to eighteen. MGM then turned the footage over to June Mathis, a screenwriter. It was finally released as a ten-reel film. Only the main thread of the story remains, and all the subplots have been dropped. Unfortunately the discarded thirty-two reels of film were scraped for their silver coating1
Greed was a financial and critical failure. Many of viewers, as well as the audiences, hated it. One writer referred to it as "an epic of the sewer." It was the carefree 1920's, and moviegoers preferred entertaining, romantic stories. Today the film ranks as a screen masterpiece.
Years later, von Stroheim was paid homage by such directors as Max Ophuls, Orson Welles, and Jean Renoir. Although only a portion of his work remains, its high quality places him among the four or five most important directors of American films.
No survey of the 1920's is complete without an examination of its most famous male and female sex symbols, Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo.
June Mathis, a scenario writer at Metro, impressed with the Blasco Ibafiez novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, persuaded Metro Studios to cast a minor player in the main role. The novice was Rodolpho Alfonzo Rafaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D'Antonguolla. Metro agreed, and the young Italian shortened his name to Rudolph Valentino. Within a week after the film's release, he was a raging success. From 1921 until his death in 1926, it is doubtful whether Chaplin, Fairbanks, or Pickford at the heights of their popularity attained the tremendous popularity bestowed on the Italian newcomer.
Although some critics debated the merits of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921], the appearance of Valentino electrified the audience. This young matinee idol changed the image of the screen hero. Valentino was
exotic, sensual, aloof, and elegant He fulfilled the fantasies of female fans, offering them dreams of love and escape. With his style and magnetism, he was the greatest romantic idol the screen had yet seen.
Valentino initiated a new era in the cinema. Until 1921, Latins were always presented as villains, with slicked down hair and bad intentions. But Valentino appeared as a romantic, courteous lover whose looks suggested hidden fire, passion, and the promise of something even more exciting. Because he made love and danced with such natural grace, women literally swooned over him, and although men tended to ridicule his dapper clothes and pomaded hair, the "Continental Lover" was here to stay. The public demanded that the rural personifications of Charles Ray and Richard Barthelmess, the cowboy William S. Hart, and the dashing Douglas Fairbanks move over and make room for the smoldering Valentino. The good, clean-living, fun-loving, shy American hero had a rival. Greta Garbo, like Valentino, has passed into the realm of screen myth. Other actresses have been more dedicated and more talented, but none possessed more glamour. Garbo's reputation rests on a mere twenty-six films, twenty-four made in America. Most of these were far-fetched melodramas, unworthy of her talent Critics and fans considered her the most beautiful and magnetic star the screen has ever presented.
In 1927 Garbo was cast in roles completely opposite to the emotionally childish flappers portrayed by Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. Publicized as a "Continental Beauty" with a restrained style of acting, MGM groomed her to portray a siren to whom men surrendered willingly. Unlike vamps in the tradition of Theda Bara or Alia Nazimova, Garbo had class, elegance, warmth, and electricity. She brought beauty, mystery, and reserve to her characterizations.
Garbo's early films were clumsy melodramas, but she graced their clichéd plots with her very presence. In most of her twenty-four films at MGM, the scenario department worked her into a set formula. She personifies the doomed, destructive heroine who sacrifices all for love. Her characters are complex, slightly neurotic romantics, who almost always bring about their own downfall. The plots usually concern a restless woman who falls desperately in love (either she or the hero is already married), the two steal a few illicit meetings, spend a few short, happy hours or days together, discard social standards, and let adulterous love bring ruin upon themselves and others.
Garbo objected in vain to this incessant role stereotyping. She was, however, confined to her screen image, and MGM would not heed her demands to play the role of a "plain woman." Consequently, she reappeared in the same role only slight variations. Nevertheless, she held the audiences with her magnetism. In Anna Karenina (1935) Garbo captured the torment of the Leo Tolstoy heroine, and in Camille (1936) she managed to raise soap opera to the level of art. Her only comedy is Ninotchka (1939), a landmark of sophisticated (nil.
In the 1920's, the studio publicity department was a powerful branch of the industry, and by 1924 it had evolved the "personality cult." Garbo and Valentino were among their first great successes. This manufactured stardom paved the way for publicity campaigns for such stars as Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich in the 1930's, Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable in the 1940's, and Kim Novak and Marilyn Monroe during the 1950's.
The studios learned to package their product, to create a personality, to select stories that further enhanced that image, and then, with high- powered publicity, to sell the product to the public. With proper publicity, the studio could persuade the public that almost anyone was a star. Unfortunately, real actors and actresses were sometimes overlooked in favor of the more salable products.
The 1920's had been profitable for the expanding American film Industry. The war had virtually wiped out production abroad, and Hollywood, with its combination of seemingly unlimited capital and professional expertise, had learned how to make, sell, and exhibit its products. On the West Coast there was an abundance of talent, reputable directors, superior performers, qualified artists and craftsmen, and the best of equipment. But the studio tycoons hindered growth. They were primarily concerned with making money. Unlike the theater in the East, which supported and encouraged experimentation, Hollywood was afraid 1 Before 1948, motion pictures were made on nitrate film coated with thin layer of silver. Depending on where it was stored, nitrate film lasted only about twenty-five years. However, if not kept at the proper temperature, it soon disintegrated. Many films were placed in the studio faults and forgotten. As a result, they crumbled into powder. Sometimes the studios decided that certain films silver could be scraped and collected for new Sims. Thus many pictures were lost because of careless storage or scraping. After 1948, nitrate film was replaced by acetate, which can last as long as 500 years. Recently developed reproduction machines permit nitrate films to be transferred to acetate, and thus many older motion pictures have been saved. Eastman House in Rochester, New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C., are all making efforts to preserve these early pictures by means of this method.
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