Before Peter Bogdanovich became a famous director with a dazzling three-picture run in the first half of the 1970s--"The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc” and “Paper Moon"--he was a pioneering film scholar. A decade earlier, he had conducted a series of interviews with some of the most distinguished directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age and used some of these interviews as the basis of ground-breaking monographs.
When he wrote his studies on John Ford, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, there were virtually no film schools, no film sections in libraries and bookstores, no life achievement awards and, in fact, no American Film Institute. Hollywood was a closed system presided over by aging moguls; if you wanted to become a director, there was virtually no way to learn how.
Bogdanovich, a film nut from his earliest years who had seen a prodigious number of movies--5,316 screenings up to 1970 by his count--taught himself about directing by simply watching and listening. He visited film sets for Esquire and sought out and interrogated his heroes. Others with the same ambition learned from him. As director Robert Benton once told me, “Bogdanovich’s monographs were the closest things we had to textbooks.”
This was the feverish era of early “auteurism,” the French invention that set out to privilege the director in the filmmaking process, claiming to discern distinct directorial signatures in studio movies even though scripts and casts were imposed by others. By deploying these ghostly traces of authorial personality as a standard of judgment, the auteur theory flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day and experienced tough going among people who cared about such arcane debate--New York intellectuals, students and a scattering of film buffs in pockets like Cambridge, Berkeley and Hollywood.
Everybody knew, as Alfred Hitchcock put it, that the studio practice was “to cast directors and writers as you would cast actors.” Pauline Kael wrote a blistering essay called “Circles and Squares,” in which she excoriated her then-archrival, Andrew Sarris, the leading proselytizer for auteurism in this country. Cineastes were quick to embrace the auteurial claims of foreign directors like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and French New Wavers like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but nobody seriously considered, say, Hitchcock or Ford to be great artists. They made genre movies, thrillers and westerns, and in Hitchcock’s case, his English period was generally considered far superior to his more commercial (and therefore trashier) Hollywood phase. Sarris and Bogdanovich thought otherwise and championed the American directors nobody else took seriously.
Today, of course, auteurism is no longer controversial. Kael eventually became as much of an auteurist as Sarris, and it is difficult now to recall that the towering reputations enjoyed by many of the directors Bogdanovich interviewed are of relatively recent origin. Still, in recent years, there has been a bit of a backlash against auteurism that has given rise to nostalgia for the studio system. It is credited, along with the powerful producers who were its pillars, with creating many of the stylistic trademarks auteurists attributed to directors while at the same time providing directors with much more support than they had in the post-studio era, enabling them to be productive into old age, unheard of in contemporary Hollywood, where early burnout is common.
The interviews in “Who the Devil Made It” (the title is borrowed from a phrase of Hawks, who preferred movies that bore the personal stamp of the director) encompass nearly the entire span of motion picture history, from the early days of Allan Dwan, who began working in the D. W. Griffith era, to Sidney Lumet, who is still active. In between, we hear from blue-chip directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang as well as from a smattering of the so-called Hollywood professionals like Robert Aldrich, Raoul Walsh and Don Siegel; the “kings of the Bs” like Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer; and a couple of wild cards like legendary animator Chuck Jones, the formidable Otto Preminger and Jerry Lewis’ favorite director, Frank Tashlin.
As Bogdanovich freely admits, most of this material has been published before (he made recent additions to some of it), but these interviews are as fresh and vivid as if they had been conducted yesterday. Bringing them together provides a real service for students and film buffs who may not have seen them in the obscure film journals in which they first appeared. For the general reader, they provide an invaluable one-volume view of cinema history from a director’s point of view that serves as a reminder that movie-making did not begin with “Wayne’s World.”
The interviews have benefited from the long and close relationships Bogdanovich established with some of his subjects, who appear uniformly relaxed and unusually frank. The interviews are followed by useful filmographies and prefaced by introductory sketches peppered with anecdotal, serial and first-person observations, so that this collection becomes as much about Bogdanovich as it is about his subjects--and all the better for it.
By situating the material in a personal context, Bogdanovich lets his own ambition to direct burn brightly through these pages and invests the material with a contagious passion and concreteness, a “how’d ya do-itness” that distinguishes these sessions. His interview with Hitchcock, for example, is a revelation, easily as good as Truffaut’s famous conversation with the director. Hitchcock’s lucid explanations of his notion of “pure cinema” as montage, the nuts and bolts, pro and con of suspense versus surprise and the detailed analyses of classic sequences like the shower scene in “Psycho” constitute no less than a textbook for wannabe and veteran directors.
The book is chockablock with odd facts and fascinating anecdotes, some funny, some not. Hawks talks about discovering Lauren Bacall, Cukor about doing the same for Katharine Hepburn. Cukor confesses to never “getting” Sergei Eisenstein, not being able to make heads or tails of his writings on film editing. Hitchcock once said, only half joking, that “actors are cattle,” and when he walked on the set of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” he found a corral with some cows in it, courtesy of the picture’s star, the irrepressible Carole Lombard. Walsh, given to practical jokes, stole John Barrymore’s body from the mortuary, transported it to the home of the actor’s best friend, Errol Flynn, and propped it up on the sofa to await the return of the doubtlessly inebriated star. And, in case you were wondering why Walsh wore an eye patch, he lost his eye as a young man when a rabbit jumped up and shattered the windshield of his car.
In a darker vein, the great Lang talks about leaving Germany the same day Goebbels, who had summoned him to the Ministry of Propaganda, told him Hitler admired his films and asked him to head up the Nazi film effort. Ironically, he was blacklisted in Hollywood for signing the wrong petitions, joining the wrong organizations and attending a Henry Wallace fund-raiser at the home of William Wyler. Bitterly, he says, “Motion pictures have been betrayed by those who are only concerned with how much money a film makes. It has become much more important to make money with pictures than to make pictures that make money.”
What shines through all these interviews is each director’s sense of professionalism and modesty, refreshing when compared to the egotism that runs amok among today’s millionaire directors. These men didn’t consider themselves artists; they would never have dreamed of using the possessory credit. To a man, they eschewed the flamboyant stylistic flourishes that became de rigueur in the ‘70s, the decade of the director. Says Cukor: “I think one should not be aware of technique of any kind.” And Hawks: “I just use the simplest camera in the world. Let the audience see exactly as they would if they were there.” And Siegel: “I try very hard not to do exercises in camera technique except where they are directly helping me tell the story.”
Bogdanovich’s stated ambition is to excavate the authorial personalities within the movies, but he is often frustrated by the directors themselves. At one point, for example, he asks Lang if Spencer Tracy’s “final speech in ‘Fury’ could be interpreted as a personal statement of your disenchantment with Germany.” Lang modestly attributes the speech to the screenwriter Bartlett Cormack.
All the directors Bogdanovich interviewed have horror stories about the old moguls, whom they contemplate with a mixture of fear, loathing and affection. But the interviews make clear that directors who were independent, resourceful and, most important, profitable could and did exert a considerable degree of control over their pictures.
When he worked for David Selznick in the ‘40s, Hitchcock was appalled by the producer’s insistence on approving every setup before he was allowed to roll the camera. Once, during World War II, Selznick asked him to shoot Jennifer Jones selling war bonds. It was a simple waist shot, but before he could say, “Action,” the script girl announced, “Mr. Selznick must see this.” Next door to the set was a cavernous ballroom with one bentwood chair. Hitchcock placed it in the far corner of the room, sat down and, when Selznick arrived, boomed, “All ready for you, David.” Even Selznick was embarrassed and said meekly, “I was just wondering if it’s ready for you.”
Despite the wit and energy evident in these interviews, this is finally a sad book, an elegy for auteurism. As Bogdanovich writes in the introduction, “The authorial personality we used to look for in the best of movies has virtually disappeared even as a criterion. This book is about how much we all gained; and what we have lost.”
But surely, the authorial personality is alive and well among the independents and some enterprising young Bogdanovich wannabe capable of discerning it among the mega-budget blockbusters of directors like Joel Schumacher, James Cameron and Jan De Bont. The real sadness here has nothing to do with movies; it has to do with aging, the inevitable passing of time, which swallowed up the directors of this generation as it has swallowed up the directors of Bogdanovich’s own.