David Bordwell (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “Explanation of Style, Styles of Explanation”
In The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985), Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson, and I tackled several questions, but the overarching one was: What are characteristic features of style and narrative in American studio filmmaking, and how might we explain them historically? This talk proposes to survey some of the answers, chiefly those presented as explanations, and then trace their presuppositions about artistic continuity and change. The talk goes on to trace how later research projects suggested some refinements in those explanations. The talk ends with a consideration of recent explanatory arguments I mounted in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.
In the course of this talk, I’ll be distinguishing several types of explanation and considering the central role of norms in analyzing artistic styles. I’ll also argue for the usefulness of two conceptual tools I’ve deployed in later work: the problem/solution model of artistic activity and the idea of schemas as a through-line within an aesthetic tradition. The last part of the talk concentrates on the how the problem/solution couplet and the notion of schemas inform a trend of “middlebrow modernism” in adjacent arts, and point toward explanations of 1940s innovations in Hollywood storytelling.
Knowledge Mobilization for Classical Hollywood Cinema
This roundtable workshop on the mobilization of classical Hollywood cinema in relation to contemporary students and the public features three participants whose work relates to archiving, digital humanities, and educational outreach:
Eric Hoyt (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Media History Digital Library)
The Media History Digital Library (MDHL, http://mediahistoryproject.org) has digitized over 2 million pages of books and magazines related to film and broadcasting history for broad public access. In this brief presentation, I will discuss the collaborative model, open source technologies, and affordances of copyright law that have made this project possible. I will also reflect on the MHDL’s discovery tools (Lantern and Arclight) and how they can be leveraged toward greater engagement with the contexts of Hollywood history. Finally, I will address the challenges of leading a project without any full time staff and invite suggestions from conference attendees for ways to improve the MHDL collections and user experience.
Mary Huelsbeck (WCFTR), “Classical Hollywood Research: How Can Archives and Researchers Help Each Other?”
Over the past twenty years, technology has increased the ways in which researchers can discover and access archival collections. Online finding aids have made it easier to find collections of interest while digital copies of documents, photographs, film and audio bring primary sources to the researcher in the comfort of their own home or office. But not every archive has the ability to offer digital surrogates of collections online. What other ways can archives help researchers find and access material? And in what ways can researchers help archives who struggle with limited resources and small staffs?
Ross Melnick (University of California – Santa Barbara)
Cinema Treasures (http://cinematreasures.org) was launched in December 2000 with detailed information for 125 cinemas and featuring 25 photographs. Today, the site contains user generated metadata, narrative histories, as well as a trove of user commentary for almost 50,000 global cinemas in over 200 countries with more than 200,000 digitized photographs, theater advertisements, blueprints, and other ephemera. In my brief presentation, I will discuss the challenges of operating the site for nearly two decades, the balance it strikes between editorial oversight (from London) and user content generation and curation, and how Cinema Treasures has been used by historians, preservationists, journalists, and exhibitors to conduct a wide range of research. Finally, I will discuss how the site helped launch my current book project on Hollywood’s ownership of global cinemas between 1923-2013 and how the site can be matched with other digital resources for research on film exhibition in the U.S. and around the world.
Theresa Scandiffio (TIFF), “What’s Old Is New Again: Showcasing Classical Hollywood Cinema”
How do we, as film curators and educators, encourage diverse audiences to experience and appreciate the innumerable ways film is a powerful medium? How do we influence the film industry, education, heritage and arts/culture sectors to see film as an invaluable art form? These questions are not new. For over a century, film curators and preservationists, such as the visionary Iris Barry, have been building film-based museums, cinematheques and libraries as sites where audiences could cultivate an appreciation for film and connect it to their everyday lives. The Toronto International Film Festival was born from the deep traditions of these cultural institutions dedicated to foster cinephile culture. This talk will map out how TIFF’s September Festival and year-round home (TIFF Bell Lightbox) mobilize historical and contemporary art house cinema to inform, engage and connect its audience to film as an art form and communal experience. Focusing on classical Hollywood cinema, I will demonstrate how audiences of all ages – from pre-schoolers and teens through later life learners – are encouraged to have direct access to the curation, education and preservation of film via activities such as: watching film restorations, attending talks, accessing reference materials, interacting with object-based installations, and more. And, in doing so, I will show how classical Hollywood cinema offers impactful experiences relevant to contemporary audiences.
Tino Balio (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “MGM: Landmarks in the Decline of a Major Hollywood Studio”
During the heyday of Hollywood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reigned supreme. Irving Thalberg, MGM’s production chief, had placed his stamp on the central producer system by reining in maverick directors, by building a star roster to rival any in the industry, and by producing a remarkable series of hits. After his premature death in 1936, Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s studio chief, sustained MGM’s reputation by introducing the producer-unit system which apportioned MGM’s production roster among autonomous producers. Loew’s Inc., MGM’s parent theatre chain, survived the depression unscathed, the only major to do so. But MGM was a conservative company and watched as other studios innovated sound and the widescreen revolution and was late in the switch to independent production. By the sixties MGM, sans the Loew’s theatre chain, was in decline and was ripe for takeover. A defining moment occurred in 1969, when Kirk Kerkorian, a Las Vegas entrepreneur, made a successful bid for the company. There followed a tumultuous thirty-six year period when Kerkorian bought and sold MGM three times. Meanwhile, MGM functioned as a second-tier company. In 2005, Kerkorian sold MGM to a consortium of investors led by Sony Corporation of America. MGM became a private company under a new name, MGM Holdings. MGM Holdings ended up a hybrid – a company with a historic brand and a film library containing mostly non-MGM titles that earns the lion’s share of its revenue distributing reality television shows. It is a far cry from the glory days of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg.
Maria Belodubrovskaya (University of Wisconsin-Madison),“The Adventures of Classical Plotting in the Land of the Bolsheviks”
This paper discusses thematic construction, a particular approach to storytelling undertaken by Soviet filmmakers during the Stalin period in direct defiance of classical Hollywood norms. In contrast to classical plotting, as well as historical-materialist narration prominent in the 1920s, Soviet films of the 1940s and 1950s sometimes dispensed with space, time, and story logic in favour of thematic and situational expression. Thematic construction developed between 1936 and 1938 when, as a result of the 1936 campaign against formalism in the Soviet arts, classical plotting and with it such devices as criminal investigation, romantic pursuit, character psychology, goal-oriented action, deadlines, and suspense, were denounced as form for form’s sake. The resultant approach to storytelling, which attempted to focus on ideas and scenes instead, answered to the ideological demands of socialist realism, but often resulted in sluggishly structured and propagandistically ineffective films. Even so, thematic construction as a narrative mode set the stage for the Soviet art cinema of the 1960s, while the films that applied this approach masterfully elevated it to the level of an independent early alternative to Hollywood classicism.
John Belton (Rutgers University), “The Uncanny Nature of the Digital Image”
Bazin’s notion of the ontology of the photographic image argues that the image shares the being of the object it represents through their co-presence in time and space at the moment in which the image is formed. Metz argues that the recreation of the object at the moment of projection provides the “past presence” (Barthes) of that object with a present presence, with a “sense of ‘there it is.’” Digital imaging forces us to re-think notions of ontology in terms of gradations of presence. Two factors compromise notions of digital cinema’s ontological status: 1) sampling and quantization and 2) compression. The former translates the continuous data of the pro-filmic event into discrete numbers and the latter reduces the total amount of data by eliminating so-called redundancy. Both processes eliminate data present in the original image in an attempt to render that image “manageable,” i.e., to enable extremely large image files to be stored, processed, or transmitted from one place to another. Sampling reconstructs the original image by means of samples extracted from it, i.e., by a partial recreation of it. Compression eliminates pixels that have the same values (i.e., so-called “mathematically redundant” in formation) and data that lies outside the range of human perception. Compression, for example, employs an algorithm that compares the pixels in one frame with those in the next, registering the difference between frames rather than each entire frame. As a result, data from a previous frame is regularly used in each subsequent frame, deliberating its original sense of presence with an inescapable “pastness.” These eliminations diminish the illusion of presence, resulting in an uncanny (Jentsch) simulation of the pro-filmic event.
Vincent Bohlinger (Rhode Island College), “Seeing Red: Soviet Film Censorship in the U.S. in the 1920s-30s”
This paper examines how Soviet films were censored in the United States through a study of the correspondence between Amkino (the American distributer for Soviet films) and the Motion Picture Division of the Education Department of the State of New York (the principal censoring organization). I offer an account of the censorship process, in which sometimes Amkino attempted to appeal decisions. I discuss the specific rationales cited for censorship requests – including “indecent,” “inhuman,” and “sacrilegious,” among others – and offer specific examples of what exactly seemed to qualify for each category of offense. In light of the seemingly competing ideological agendas of the Soviet film industry and the Motion Picture Division of the New York Education Department, I conclude my paper by highlighting a peculiar but entirely unsurprising contradiction. Often that which was singled out for censorship would be graphic, violent, and/or otherwise exploitative examples dramatizing what the Soviets believed to be the horrific excesses of imperialistic and capitalistic regimes. However, the reasons given for the removal of such imagery always evaded any overt ideological rationale in favor of strictly content-based readings.
Stefan L. Brandt (University of Graz), “Movie Daze: Hollywood Cinema as Rhizome”
The lecture takes its cue from two influential works in film theory: The Classical Hollywood Cinema (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson) and Post-Classical Hollywood (Langford). While Bordwell et al. argue that Hollywood cinema is shaped by a classical, universal formula (realism, invisible storytelling, emotional appeal, etc.), Langfield observes a paradigm shift in the post-World War II era, after which the aesthetics and function of Hollywood films have changed significantly. My talk aims at challenging these divisions into ‘classical/non-classical’ and ‘classical/post-classical,’ rather suggesting the model of the ‘rhizome’ (Deleuze & Guattari) to explain the contiguities in Hollywood cinema across genres, contexts, and timeframes. Following Deleuze, “the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play various regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.” As opposed to vertical models of cultural expansion, the concept suggests a smooth kind of interaction, in which the main tenets are equilibrium and circulation. The rhizomatic structure of Hollywood cinema will be exemplified through analyses of selected movies from various periods and genres, e.g., The Grapes of Wrath / Finding Dory, and Sunset Boulevard / American Beauty, which I read as ‘companion texts’ due to their use of similar motifs and techniques of storytelling.
Chris Cagle (Temple University), “Mannerism and the Baroque: Postwar Cinema and Art History Analogies”
Hollywood classicism has persisted as a concept, from Bazin through 1970s film theorists’ notion of a “classical realist text” to Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson’s model of a classical film style. The idea of a uniform cinematic form has dominated the way the field understands and periodizes Hollywood’s studio era. However, by the 1940s Hollywood’s classicism was starting to wear at the seams. This paper analyzes two of the major alternative analogies used to describe late-studio era filmmaking style: mannerism and the baroque. In their original art historical context, the terms reflected a move away from the ideals of aesthetic harmony in Renaissance art. The terms “mannerist” and “baroque” have appeared at times in film criticism and scholarship but not always with a full reckoning of the analogies. In directorial style and cinematography, mannerism and the baroque help make sense of medium-term shifts in film style. Daisy Kenyon (Preminger, 1947) and The Paradine Case (Hitchcock, 1947) exemplify 1940s mannerism, whereas Executive Suite (Wise, 1956) and Seconds (Frankenheimer, 1966) exemplify the baroque tendencies of the 1950s and 60s. Beyond their role as periodizing concepts, moreover, mannerism and the baroque, like classicism, can each describe an aesthetic that cuts across period.
Liz Clarke (Brock University), “Doing Her Bit: Women and Propaganda in World War I”
In popular thought, the war genre is often divided between masculinist combat films—Pork Chop Hill(Milestone, 1959) and Saving Private Ryan(Spielberg, 1998)—and women-centered home front films—Mrs. Miniver(Wyler, 1942) and Coming Home (Ashby, 1978). While scholarly histories of the war film have never excluded a discussion of women, the suffering wives and lovers of World War II home-front films are arguably assumed to be the main role women have played in war films historically. This view of the war film’s history ignores the very active women of American silent film. The 1910s were a decade during which female characters in war adventure stories dominated. The Civil War girl spies and cross-dressing soldiers were frequent characters of early narrative American films, while the serial queen heroines became popular in film serials of the mid-1910s. It is in this context that heroic female characters were deployed in films that were either directly or indirectly about World War I. In the films and serials marked by discourse around “preparedness,” and even after April 1917, when America entered the war “over there.”
This paper will demonstrate that patriotic films of the early World War I era focused on female characters and female heroism, as a result of the particular history of American film subjects and imagined audiences. What is unique about women in films during the World War I era is the traces of the 1910s action heroines. Rather than staying home and depicting wartime service in industry—such as World War II’s Rosie the Riveter—the women of the early World War I era were meant to inspire participation in the war effort—namely, recruitment—by doing it themselves. Film such as The Little American (DeMille 1917), Johanna Enlists (Taylor 1918), Joan of Plattsburg (Goldwyn, 1918), Miss Jackie of the Army (Ingraham 1917), Her Country First (Young 1918), Arms and the Girl (Kaufman, 1918), andDaughter of Destiny (Irving, 1917) allow us to rethink our impression of “home-front” films or women’s roles in wartime films.
Steven Cohan (Syracuse University), “Another Hollywood Picture? A Star Is Born (1937) and the Self-Reflexivity of the Backstudio Picture”
In 1937, New York Times critic Frank Nugent wrote a column about “the surprising number of back-studio pictures which have been dashing down the Times Square pike in the last few months.” Although Nugent noted that the cycle did have antecedents, he believed that A Star Is Born (1937), still considered the quintessential backstudio picture, “is commonly supposed to have started things. … Where the process will end,” he wrote, “for the cycle apparently is just beginning, no one—this round-eyed corner least of all—can predict with any assurance.” Today, the end point of backstudio pictures is as unpredictable as it was in 1937. In a book coming out at the end of this year, I examine cyclical inflections of this genre as it has responded to and registered historical transformations of the American film industry. In my paper for the conference, I want only to consider the self-reflexive ground of the backstudio picture. Even the most memorable and complex of backstudio pictures contextualize their depictions of filmmaking in their own production as Hollywood artifacts. Such self-reflexivity was and still is a primary means of their generic identity. For detailed illustration, I will follow Nugent’s lead and look closely at the 1937 A Star Is Born through its marketing campaign, trailer, and mise-en-scene: despite its claims of going truly behind the scenes, A Star is Born exemplifies the self-reflexivity of earlier backstudio films like Show People and later ones like Singin’ in the Rain, The Player, and Hail, Caesar!
Blair Davis (DePaul University), “Science Fiction and Genre Hybridity in the Classical Hollywood Era”
The history of science fiction’s evolution in Hollywood is thoroughly complex and still underexamined. Sci-Fi’s emergence as a dominant genre in the early 1950s was preceded by numerous fits and starts (mostly at the level of the B-film and the serial) and marked by extensive cross-genre mingling. This paper examines some lesser-known science fiction films of the 1930s and 1940s, from feature films like Universal’s The Invisible Ray (1936) Man MadeMonster (1941) and Columbia’s The Devil Commands (1941) to such cliffhanger serials as Super Serial Productions, Inc.’s The Lost City (1935) along with Republic’s The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) and King of the Rocket Men (1949). The hybridity at work in how these films handle sci-fi genre tropes and images complicates the canonical understanding of sci-fi’s Hollywood origins. It also points towards larger patterns in Classical Hollywood regarding how studios of all sizes regularly treated film genres in fluid rather than fixed ways, and as constant sites of experimentation where the boundaries between genres were tested, bent and occasionally broken.
Peter Decherney (University of Pennsylvania), “Digital Humanities Goes Hollywood: Measuring Star Wars Fan Engagement”
I will present the findings of an ongoing project that seeks to measure fans’ engagement with Hollywood franchises, including franchises from both classical and post-classical Hollywood. More specifically, I will talk about fan fiction and its reuse of dialogue from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. My team and I have created software that aggregates tens of thousands of works of fan fiction and allows us to see which elements of the script are most generative for fan’s creative work. Which scenes do they replay and rewrite? Which lines of dialogue spark imaginations? We can also use metadata to gain insight into the characters, narrative tropes, and even emotions that fans engage with most. Using Digital Humanities techniques raises many methodological questions, which have implications for classical Hollywood films as well as films that have appeared since the diffusion of the internet. How can we break films or industry data into discrete units to be analyzed? Are the tools of digital humanities up to the task of analyzing audiovisual media? What is gained and lost by so called “distant reading” of thousands of works at a time, seeing the forest rather than the trees? And, finally, should this work be done by humanists or social scientists or do they need to work in tandem?
Lisa Dombrowski (Wesleyan University), “Authorship and the Modulation of Classical Narrative Norms in Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man (1998) and Gosford Park (2001)”
Spanning the 1950s through the 2000s during shifting modes of filmmaking practice in Hollywood, the iconoclastic pictures of director-writer-producer Robert Altman provide a unique opportunity to explore authorship and the transformation of classical narrative norms in the post-studio period. This paper focuses on Altman’s production practices and reception as a writer-director during the explosion of American independent cinema in the 1990s; as such, it builds upon Mark Minett’s work on Altman’s early 1970s films and how his process of transposing script to screen “expanded the content, techniques, and ambitions of classical Hollywood.” In the decade following the commercial and critical revival of Altman’s career after the success of The Player (1992), Altman directed and collaborated on the screenplay for two genre films that respectively marked a critical and commercial high and low: Gosford Park (2001), an upstairs-downstairs murder mystery scripted by Julian Fellowes; and The Gingerbread Man (1998), a thriller based on a screenplay by novelist John Grisham. Drawing from the correspondence, script drafts, scripts notes, and teleplays of the two films found in the Robert Altman Collection at the University of Michigan Ann-Arbor as well as interviews and press, this paper explores the practices utilized by Altman and his collaborators to write and shoot generic material; the influence of classical and non-classical norms on their formal decision-making; and how the process of collaboration and the completed films’ varied expression of classical norms shaped their reception as authored by Robert Altman. This paper expands our understanding of how classical norms are inflected in post-studio independent filmmaking and highlights how collaboration and shifting critical attitudes toward classicism complicate authorial branding.
Kyle Edwards (Oakland University), “B-Film Production and Risk Management at Warner Bros. Pictures in the late 1930s”
This presentation examines the operations of the B-film unit at Warner Bros. Pictures, with emphasis upon the degree to which this production category enhanced the company’s ongoing efforts to maximize efficiency, a corporate strategy that profoundly influenced Warner Bros’ perception of the value and function of the films it produced, distributed, and released in the 1930s and 1940s. Led by producer Bryan Foy and closely monitored by studio executive Jack Warner, the Warner Bros. B-film unit allowed the company to accelerate the story development process, pare budgets and shooting schedules, and maximize the use-value of contract labor. While the B-film offered the opportunity to increase productivity and decrease waste–and, more generally, to limit the considerable uncertainty associated with motion picture production–it also carried unexpected risks, as this presentation will consider in its analysis of the dissolution of Warner Bros’ B-unit and the company’s abandonment of several B-film series in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Ryan Jay Friedman (Ohio State University), “Segregating Excess: The African American Specialty Number and the Classical Musical”
This paper uses the convention of the African American musical specialty to rethink the much-debated concept of “cinematic excess.” In Hollywood studio musicals from the late 1930s through the late mid 40s, African American singers (e.g., Lena Horne) and dancers (the Nicholas Brothers, the Berry Brothers) perform in intra-diegetic nightclub settings, entertaining audiences that include the films’ white stars. Denying African American performers the position of characters with a part in the narrative—they appear “as themselves”—these scenes were edited in such a way to make it easier for racist censors in Southern states and cities to excise them. This spectacular segregation identifies the black musical specialty as a very literal case of cinematic excess, a category articulated by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in their initial theorizations of classical Hollywood: those formal elements that appear to be “unmotivated” with respect to classical aesthetics. Occurring within a genre that is, in the first place, prone to excess of various kinds, the African American musical specialty both belies what I term the “racial motivation” of classical Hollywood and stages (especially during World War II) a renegotiation of the right to appear and to speak on the American screen.
Philippa Gates (Wifrid Laurier University), “Controlling Race and Racism: The Production Code Administration and the Representation of Chinese/Americans”
While scholars have documented the impact of the Production Code on the representation of sex and violence, its effect on the representation of race has not been explored to the same degree. The Production Code Administration (PCA) files reveal a sensitivity to the fact that some depictions and dialogue were offensive to Chinese audiences—even if the concern was mainly over the potential of lost revenue. Memos between the PCA and film producers disclose a growing dissatisfaction of the Chinese government with American representations of Chinese people with serious ramifications: the Chinese government often demanded that films be edited prior to release in China; in some cases, it denied distribution altogether; and, on a number of occasions, it threatened to close the Chinese offices of American studios. Despite the self-consciousness among some studios in terms of racial representation and the desire to appease the Chinese government, other producers still presented scripts and films to the PCA that would meet with disapproval and protest, including for I Cover the Waterfront (1933), The Cat’s Paw (1934), Hair-Trigger Casey (1936), Border Phantom (1937), Outlaws of the Orient (1937), Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949), and The Breaking Point (1950). Through the examination of correspondence between the PCA, Hollywood studios, and the Chinese Consul, this paper explores the issues regarding these films in terms of race and racism, as well as some of Hollywood’s narrative and representational strategies to avoid Chinese censure.
Mark Glancy (Queen Mary University London), “Parallel Lives: Cary Grant on Screen and in the Pages of Film Fan Magazines”
The advent of the Media History Digital Library enables film historians to take a newly broad view of popular film culture during the Hollywood studio era. In particular, the ability to access and search across film fan magazines sheds new light on how films and stars were represented to fans, and it offers the opportunity to explore widely disseminated extra-cinematic narratives and images that accompanied film releases. My paper uses these fan magazines to examine Cary Grant’s star persona in the 1930s. I am especially interested in investigating the differences between his star persona as represented in films and as represented in fan magazine profiles. I contend that the films and fan magazines offered parallel yet very distinctive stories about stars. The magazines were governed by different narrative conventions (the ‘real life story’). They addressed a specific component of the film-going public (the most ardent filmgoers). And they were not bound by the system of censorship that applied to films (the Production Code). Thus, rather than seeing the magazines stories as texts that are merely ancillary or supportive of more important film stories, I argue that they are vital to understanding the full range of a star’s appeal as well as the parameters of the popular film culture during the studio era.
Daniel Goldmark (Case Western Reserve University), “Pixar’s Memories”
The ever-increasing popularity of Hollywood animation, driven in part by the dominance of Pixar, has come about not just through technological advances or the breaking down of decades-old biases about cartoons being just for kids, but also through the emotionally nuanced storytelling deployed recently by studios. Practically all of Pixar’s features are overrun with issues of nostalgia; their most recent films—Inside Out, Finding Dory, Cars 3—have gone further than simply reveling in the remembrance of times past (real or imagined), and have explored the creation of memory and the reasons why memories fade or endure. Sound and music have played key roles in the recollections and impressions of all these films, with 2017’s Coco breaking one of Pixar’s cardinal rules (no musicals!). In this presentation I look at some trends in scoring and sound design to show how the melodies of childhood—and adulthood—are being used to drive the stories of recent Hollywood animated features.
Barry Keith Grant (Brock University) “Steps Through the Forbidden Zone: Race, Genre, and Science Fiction Film”
Issues of race are addressed so infrequently in science fiction cinema that it might be described, to borrow from the name of the taboo place in Planet of the Apes, “as the forbidden Zone.” Especially during the classic studio period, science fiction, like every other genre produced by Hollywood, was a decidedly white (as well as masculine) world. This overdetermined whiteness in Hollywood science fiction may seem somewhat curious, given that the genre, by its very nature, allows for, or more precisely demands, alternatives in its premises from the world as we know it. SF supposedly embraces new world for old, yet the possible new worlds imagined by American SF have all too often supressed the tensions of race relations in America. My paper will discuss the normative white gaze of Hollywood SF, focusing on several touchstone films that have challenged this hegemonic gaze at both the thematic and generic levels, including The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, Brother from Another Planet, and Meteorman.
Helen Hanson (University of Exeter), “Looking for Lela: Genres of Industry Discourse and Production Histories of Classical Hollywood”
Despite her important contribution to classical Hollywood’s most polished golden age musical, Lela Simone is little known in film history. Undertaking music supervision for Arthur Freed’s MGM Unit (1944-1957) the German-born Simone displayed an aptitude for exacting technical supervision, overseeing pre-scoring and synchronisation of iconic musical numbers for which the Freed unit have become famous, including Easter Parade (1948), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Gigi (1958). Simone is little known because she worked behind the scenes, but also because her work might be labelled as ‘generic’, unexceptional compared to the ‘talent’ of stars or the ‘agency’ of producers or directors. This paper will demonstrate the centrality of her work to the exemplary production of genre by the Freed Unit. Analysing archival and industrial sources, the paper will trace how genre operates within three interrelated areas of production history. Firstly, genre informed the classification of work roles, separating roles above and below the line; secondly, genre shaped production routines, and thirdly, the shared conventions of technical crafts, such as work with sound and music, formed ‘genres of expertise’. These three aspects of genre are intertwined in Simone’s career, and the paper will examine the tensions between genre as unexceptional, and as representing the ‘best’ of classical Hollywood’s mode of production.
Scott Higgins (Wesleyan University), “Vincente Minnelli’s Decorative Virtuosity”
This paper explores the concept of virtuosity in classical Hollywood cinema through the study of Vincente Minnelli’s compositional style at MGM. Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson describe formal virtuosity as a matter of fulfilling classical goals with finesse, economy, and ingenuity. The concept encourages us to seek artistry in films that embody, rather than resist, studio-era standards of “invisible” technique. An auteur who excelled within the bounds of a single production unit, Minnelli crafted meticulous images and brought all the resources of his studio to bear on the seamless coordination of production design, cinematography, and performance. Formal analysis of Minnelli’s compositional techniques (staging, framing, décor) reveals a decorative style that is at once exceedingly intricate and easily grasped. Ever the window decorator, Minnelli arrays color, shape, movement, and detail to serve story while also engaging visual perception in a rigorous, playful and sometimes challenging manner. Specifically, Minnelli often arranges actors and objects in a circular fashion that drives attention around the frame and toward the center. Analysis of the “Minnelli swirl” reveals a director who encourages aesthetic appreciation of a composition while simultaneously reinforcing its narrative center.
Eric Hoyt (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “Art, Commerce, and Plastic Surgery: The Trade Papers of 1920s Hollywood”
The migration of American motion picture production to Southern California, and the construction of permanent studio facilities in and around Los Angeles, was largely a movement of the 1910s. However, the advent of “Hollywood” as a culture and community—detached from the rest of society within its own “colony” and associated with movies, money, sex, sun, and busloads full of aspiring actresses—only truly took form during the 1920s. As film historians have shown, newspapers and fan magazines both played important roles in disseminating the ideas and imagery of what constituted Hollywood. What has received less attention is how the industry’s Los Angeles trade papers participated in the ways in which movie workers conceived of themselves as belonging to this community. Hollywood Reporter (established in 1930) and Daily Variety (established in 1933) were the film industry’s two best known and longest-running Hollywood trades. However, no fewer than nine trade papers emerged in Hollywood before either Reporter or Daily Variety arrived on the scene. This paper tells the story of those forgotten papers, including Camera!, Film Mercury, Film Spectator, and Hollywood Vagabond, and what they meant to the people who lived and worked in Hollywood. Because lengthy runs of these four publications have recently been added to the Media History Digital Library, this presentation will also seek to help scholars contextualize and interpret these valuable and under-utilized sources.
Kathryn Kalinak (Rhode Island College), “Re-Sounding Success: Musical Recycling in the Hollywood Studio System”
Cutting-edge scholarship of music for classical Hollywood cinema is now extending the boundaries of a field mapped out by scholars in the wake of Claudia Gorbman’s groundbreaking book, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (1985). This presentation contributes to the lively current discourse of classical Hollywood music scholarship by considering a phenomenon that Kalinak terms musical recycling in Hollywood scoring, wherein a composer quotes from himself (and in the Hollywood studio system, it is always a him.) Recycling, in fact, turns out to be a distinctive feature of film scoring in Hollywood’s classical studio era where it became almost a by-product of the system. In short, recycling creates a kind of aural intertexuality in which one film speaks to another through its music.
Patrick Keating (Trinity University), “Analyzing Hollywood Lighting through Videographic Criticism”
In works of videographic criticism, a scholar uses audiovisual tools to make an argument about film or media. This format, which has grown considerably in the last five years, has proved to be particularly effective at close analysis. In this talk, I will argue that the video essay offers an opportunity to develop richer analyses of film lighting. During the classical Hollywood period, lighting was a dynamic force, shaping the meaning of individual scenes by changing from shot to shot. It can be difficult to describe this dynamism in print, because the scholar is forced to select a few moments that can be illustrated with a handful of frame enlargements. Happily, the video essay allows the scholar to analyze the scene moment by moment, pointing out significant shifts as they unfold over time. I will support my argument with clips from an original video essay, with examples from Ninotchka and other films.
Charlie Keil (University of Toronto), “Hollywood Classicism as Collaboration”
Hollywood’s emergence as an industrial system depended on the hierarchical and stratified distribution of labour, but it was also structured around interdepartmental and intradepartmental collaboration. Indeed, the idea of creative collaboration was (and is) central to the image of “Hollywood” as it was promulgated by the industry and as it came to define the Classical Hollywood system. This paper will examine how diverse types of collective labor functioned across three distinct yet overlapping areas: moving from the national to the local, we examine the early studio system’s bicoastal management structure, the growth of a regional infrastructure in ancillary industries and production zones, and the promotion of Hollywood as an idealized space for living and working in the local journal Holly Leaves. Across each case study, we trace how obstacles to settling in Los Angeles were central to the production of Hollywood’s emergent identity – an identity that knit together the industrial and aesthetic foundations of the classical studio system.
Christina Lane (University of Miami), “Re-Scripting the Workplace: Joan Harrison, Hitchcock, and the Case of Foreign Correspondent”
As we sift through inherited precepts that have been central to our understanding of the classical era, we do well to re-assess gendered labor relations, especially as they intersect with authorship and the studio system. With the emergence of new archival materials and approaches, revisionist historical methods, and a certain “democratized” (fan-based or technology-supported) access to information, we may not only make new discoveries but also re-evaluate or resituate previous explanations. Looking at the development of Foreign Correspondent(1940), I will examine the working relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and one of his most crucial collaborators, Joan Harrison (who had previously written Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and Saboteur). The objective will be to crystallize the precise nature of Harrison’s role on the project and illustrate how her labor (both on Foreign Correspondentand more generally) was obscured, first by her male contemporaries, and later by the critics and biographers who canonized the director. As I will show, this erasure was the product of gendered industry structures that privileged formal (and/or male-centered) workplace interactions over more informal (and/or female-centered) modes of collaboration. When we begin to account for the personal and familial relationships that marked Hitchcock’s professional practices, it becomes clear that Harrison functioned, in effect, as Hitchcock’s creative producer from his final British production through his early, transitional Hollywood films.
Richard Maltby (Flinders University), “New Cinema History and Classical Hollywood”
In the preface to The Classical Hollywood Cinema in 1985, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger wrote that: “if we have taken the realms of style and production as primary, it is not because we consider conditions of reception unimportant…An adequate history of the reception of the classical Hollywood film…would require another book, probably as long as this.” While that book remains unwritten, there is now a considerable body of work examining the conditions of Classical Hollywood’s circulation and consumption, much of it identified under the rubric of new cinema history, which aims to construct a social history of the experience of cinema. New cinema history argues that for most of its history, the primary relationship that most audiences have had with cinema has been with movie-going as a social experience, not with the content of individual movies. My paper explores whether a negotiable middle ground exists between aesthetic histories of Classical Hollywood’s textural relations and social histories of Classical Hollywood as a cultural and commercial institution.
Adrienne L. McLean (University of Texas at Dallas), “What Should I Do? Fan Magazine Advice Across Time”
This project considers the Hollywood fan magazine from the 1930s through the 1950s as a combination of the trade paper, the woman’s magazine, and the “hobby book.” Fan magazines were largely supported by the promotion and publicity of Hollywood films and players, and of course devoted considerable space to gossip and “star news” as well as physical culture, fashion, and beauty advice. But throughout the classical era many fan magazines, like other mass-market periodicals, also strove to function as “all-purpose advisers,” in magazine historian Nancy Walker’s terms, and offered guidance to their largely female and working-class audience on marriage and child-rearing, food preparation and nutrition, sewing and handicrafts, and home building and decoration. I will pay particular attention to the Photoplay feature “What Should I Do?” in which eight to ten letters from readers on a wide range of topics were “answered” each month, first by Bette Davis (1942-1943) and subsequently by Claudette Colbert (1944-1953) and Spring Byington (1956)—although Davis was quickly forced to admit that Photoplay had “given her” the help of staff writer Fredda Dudley, who continued into at least the Colbert years. “What Should I Do?” antedated better-known advice columns like “Ask Ann Landers” and “Dear Abby,” and in addition to tracing how the advice changed over what were obviously fraught and consequential years in U.S. women’s history I will also compare “What Should I Do?” to some of its contemporary imitators.
Paul Monticone (University of Texas at Austin/ Rowan University), “Industrial Institutions, Media Industry Studies, and Classical Hollywood Cinema”
As the twenty-first century approaches its third decade and film (or cinema) studies evolves into media studies, scholars continuing to the research the midcentury Hollywood cinema must situate their work within a broader, more fragmented field, where the study of the Classical Hollywood Cinema no longer stands center of the discipline. This paper offers a methodological reflection on my dissertation research, which examined the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) as, what economic sociologists term, a “cultural producer for economic action.” As a borderline institution between the Classical Hollywood Cinema itself and what Wasson and Acland call the “fuller spectrum” of cultural history of which cinema is a part, the MPPDA, like many of the adjacent institutions Staiger identifies, mediates broader cultural determinants’ influence on the industrial and aesthetic system of classicism. In order to trace these determinations, this project adopted an interdisciplinary method, which drew, in part, from the burgeoning subfield of media industry studies. This paper assesses both how the methodological innovations of media industry studies can enrich continued research on the studio-era film industry and argues that the body scholarship analyzing Classical Hollywood Cinema can offer valuable insights to media industries studies and pedagogy, and thus remain central to study of media in the twenty-first century.
Charlene Regester (UNC-Chapel Hill), “White Bodies with Black Souls – Sam McDaniel as a Marker of Blackness in Double Indemnity (1944) and Ice Palace (1960)”
African American actor Sam McDaniel (brother to academy award winning actress Hattie McDaniel) appeared in an extensive number of films over the course of his career but in most of these roles he was relegated to serving as an extra or atmosphere player. Despite the insignificance of his role(s) and marginalization endured onscreen particularly in films produced in the classical Hollywood cinema era, McDaniel’s roles were much more valued than originally believed. It is argued that Double Indemnity and Ice Palace through the virtual absence of blacks, yet minimal appearance of McDaniel capitalize on his black presence to influence the construction of whiteness associated with these films. In Double Indemnity the black presence is introduced to darken the white characters with whom he is paired as these characters descend into immorality. In Ice Palace, McDaniel’s black presence demonstrates how white males become embodiments of blackness — one white male transcends his racial identity when he marries interracially, while the other is marked as “black” due to his socioeconomic class; a marking which he attempts to escape.
Thomas Schatz (The University of Texas at Austin), “Hollywood Classicism in the Conglomerate Era:The Case of Universal Pictures”
My presentation will address the persistence of the classical paradigm in contemporary Hollywood. More specifically, I consider the ways in which the film industry’s recovery since the late 1980s, after decades of steep decline, is related to the M&A waves that began in 1989 with the Time-Warner merger and Sony’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures, and culminated with GE’s creation of NBC Universal in 2004. At that point a new media oligopoly (the so-called Big Six global media conglomerates) had a veritable lock on the industry, recalling the structure and control of the industry during the classical era. In the process, Hollywood effectively reinstituted – and substantially reconfigured – the “studio system” of old, and with it the complex interplay of “film style and mode of production” that characterized classical Hollywood. Indeed, David Bordwell argues (in The Way Hollywood Tells It) for the persistence of the classical style in contemporary Hollywood, but does little (in the absence of Kristin Thompson and especially Janet Staiger, his co-authors on The Classical Hollywood Cinema) to connect that persistence to the contemporary Hollywood mode of production – which is considerably more complex than the classical-era system, given the vertical and horizontal integration of the media empires in which the major studios now operate. I address those connections in my presentation, using Universal Pictures (and NBC Universal) as a case study.
Bradley Schauer (University of Arizona), “Stocking the Stables: Universal-International’s Talent Development Program, 1949-1956”
Due to a sharp drop in film production in the aftermath of World War II, major Hollywood studios began to release actors from their seven-year contracts, as the industry transitioned into a system based on freelance labor. One key exception was Universal-International, which ran an elaborate and costly talent development school from 1949 to 1956, and maintained a large roster of contract players. This paper explores the reasons why U-I embraced star contracts at a time when other studios avoided them. It also details the production, distribution, and marketing challenges faced by the studio as it tried to transform unseasoned young talent into major stars at a time when exhibitors were reluctant to show films that lacked well-known actors. While a few stars such as Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis emerged from U-I, overall the talent development program failed to produce stars on a consistent basis, partly because the action-oriented program pictures for which the studio was known acted as an impediment to star development.
Will Scheibel (Syracuse University), “Gene Tierney, ‘Troubled Beauty’: Star Labor, Mental Health, and Narratives of Recuperation”
This paper derives from my current book project on actress Gene Tierney, tentatively titled Out of a Misty Dream: Gene Tierney, Female Stardom, and Hollywood’s Homefront. Following years of wartime promotion as a great beauty from the Twentieth Century-Fox lot, Tierney became one of the first Hollywood stars to battle the stigma of mental illness publicly. By examining her image at the end of the 1950s, I want to investigate the process of star rehabilitation at a particular historical moment (the last years of the Classical Hollywood era) and within particular ideological determinants (discourses of female labor and mental health) evident in popular press coverage. I argue that the alignment of Tierney’s image with professional acting (as opposed to the “natural” charisma of stardom) redefines social roles for women in the postwar era in terms alternative to the domestic sphere, yet reinscribes a traditional construction of femininity by attributing Tierney’s illness to marital and maternal trauma, which precipitates the need to get back to work. As the press reconciled work, on the one hand, and marriage and motherhood, on the other, its narrative of female recuperation masks a social expectation for women to “work through” illness to prove their professional capabilities, stabilizing Tierney’s star image at a moment of potential disturbance.
Katherine Spring (Wilfrid Laurier University), “Trading on Songs: The Emergence of the Musical as Genre in the Trade Papers”
This paper considers the early film musical in relation to Altman’s account of new technologies that are “born nameless…with multiple monikers rather than a single stable name.” Many of Hollywood’s earliest sound films, including the celebrated The Jazz Singer, were labeled musicals only ex post facto, and contemporaneous studio publicity and reviews in popular and trade papers did not refer to them as such. As I have argued, the frequency with which song performances appeared in Hollywood’s earliest sound films of different genres muddies the widely accepted definition of the film musical as a genre in which linear narrative passages are interspersed with nonlinear moments of song numbers. How did the musical emerge as a genre descriptor in extratextual discourse? To what extent did industrial publications shape their readers’ expectations of the nascent genre? To answer these questions, I analyzed hundreds of film reviews and summaries that appeared between 1928 and 1931 in daily (Film Daily), weekly (Variety), and monthly (Motion Picture News Booking Guide) publications. My findings suggest that film reviewers and trade press editors were not so much creating genre categories for the public as they were responding to distributor priorities in the marketing of their films and capitalizing on contemporaneous understandings of musicality.
Janet Staiger (University of Texas-Austin), “Scripting Protocols and Practices: Screenwriting in the Package-Unit Era”
One of the issues about Classical Hollywood Cinema studies is to what extent a film is “classical” or not. The answer to this hinges on four features: industrial structure, mode of production, narrative forms, and stylistic choices. Bordwell’s, Thompson’s, and my initial 1985 project was to describe and explain the relationships among these features during 1915-1960, now referred to as the “studio era.” We did gesture to post 1960, and all three of us have discussed continuities and differences from the “studio” years. My paper will focus on (1) recent developments in analyzing screenwriting practices (including describing the script as a “blueprint” and broadening the documents associated with a screenplay) and (2) the need to retain awareness of how the mode of production affects screenwriting practices. As an example, I will consider how independent contracting of screenwriting labor in the package-unit system since the 1970s has produced simultaneously demands for greater rigidity and yet “violations” in scripting protocols and practices since screenwriters now have to expect a script will circulate amongst many potential readers. This situation becomes an impetus in screenwriting advice to foreground authorship and insure that potential buyers read at least the start of the “spec” script.
Shelley Stamp (University of California, Santa Cruz), “Selling Noir’s “Red Meat” to the Female Market”
Using original publicity materials including pressbooks, trailers, posters and tie-in campaigns, this paper examines how films noir were marketed to American audiences in the 1940s, demonstrating a significant, previously unacknowledged outreach to women. My research challenges longstanding assumptions about noir, including what Andrew Spicer calls its “generally masculine orientation” and his presumption that noir played primarily to “urban working-class males.” How does our view of noir change if we consider the demonstrable evidence that women were actively solicited as viewers and that they likely constituted a large portion of its original audience? Noirs were marketed to women through conventional means like merchandizing tie-ins for fashion, beauty and food products, as well as advertising campaigns focused on romance. In fact, pressbooks frequently outlined two parallel campaigns, one emphasizing crime and violence, presumably geared toward male customers, and another emphasizing heterosexual romance, presumably aimed at women. Yet within these “femme” promotions, as they were called, it is possible to see an emphasis not only on romance, but sexual explicitness, a selling point not conventionally associated with female audiences. Moreover, women were encouraged to feed a “curdling” fascination with violence eroticized at the hands of “killer” male heartthrobs; they were invited to fashion themselves after noir’s transgressive women; and, ultimately, to reject canned romance in favor of an unsentimental, even fatalistic, view about Hollywood’s favorite end point – the heterosexual couple.
Kirsten Moana Thompson (Seattle University), “The Color Revolution: Disney, Du Pont and Faber Birren”
This paper argues that Classical Hollywood research in the 21st century must expand its research on the moving image to consider its wider role in visual culture, exploring in greater depth the material and aesthetic histories and business relationships between studios like Disney and other corporations through the midcentury phenomenon known as the Color Revolution. It examines some of the aesthetic, philosophical and material dimensions of color production in classical cel animation as its case study. Drawing upon my research into Disney’s color production and its legal relationships with the Du Pont Company and the renowned color consultant Faber Birren, I will outline this new approach as an expanded cultural and material history of synthetic color which contextualizes and reframes some of the distinctive aesthetic properties of Disney’s rich and vibrant color palette of the thirties. Exploring the professional cross-connections between Walt Disney and Faber Birren, one of the most influential corporate American consultants in colour design, marketing and aesthetics, and Du Pont, whose chemical research provided the colour pigments, inks and nitrate cels used in Disney’s Technicolor films, will enrich our understanding of the role that Classical Hollywood, and more particularly, Disney animation played in the colour revolution of the early twentieth century.
Kristin Thompson (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “The Frodo Franchise: Researching an Ongoing Event”
In 2002 I decided to write a book on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, even before the second installment had appeared. The result was The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (2007). Such a project would seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom that an historian needs to wait for the perspective of time before tackling a subject. Yet the rapid changes that have taken place in the Hollywood industry since the end of the 20th Century, while not leading to the end of classical filmmaking, may require historical studies that respond quickly to those changes. My paper suggests that some topics would be impossible to research if one waited until an ongoing event ended before beginning to do the research and write up the results. How does one decide that an ongoing event is significant enough to warrant a book before it ends? How does one go about researching it? Even over a decade after the publication of The Frodo Franchise, the franchise lives on. Fifteen years after the third LOTR film came out, new collectible objects based on it continue to be released. Amazon has announced a television series based on the LOTR appendices, although to what extent it will be related to the original films is yet to be seen. Clearly in the franchise-oriented system of modern Hollywood, one can seldom assume that the franchise and possible sequels surrounding a single film have ended.