Today we follow the rise of the Hollywood studios, and their occasional challenges. This has been our subject in days past, also. So far we’ve watched four studio features – THE WIZARD OF OZ, BLADE RUNNER, CITIZEN KANE and FANTASIA – in their entirety, and seen clips from many more.
It’s probably impossible to have an Intro to Film class without dealing with the work of the studios. Film – le Septieme Art as the French called it – was the original art form of the twentieth century, and Hollywood overhangs that art form like a colossus.
Yet Hollywood, as a base for the industry, happened entirely by chance. In the early years of the 20th century filmmaking was based on the east coast, and dominated by one major patent holder, Thomas Edison. It was to avoid the power of Edison that other producers decided to head west and seek a regime less oppressive, and much sunnier. Films were in those early days frequently made out of doors, and the better the weather, the more shooting could be done.
So the story goes, scouts for the emergent studios headed west on a train for Arizona, a state famous for its numerous sunny days. Then, as now, if you were crossing the country by rail you changed trains Chicago. There, in Chicago, the scouts boarded a train for Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff, as you know, is in northern Arizona. It has an elevation of 6,900 feet – higher than Boulder. And like Boulder, it gets lots of snow. The train arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. The film crew took one look at the blizzard, got back on the train, and carried on to California. Had they only taken the other Arizona train, the one that goes through Tucson, the history of film, or at least of the studios, might have been very different. Instead of Arizona, California – and specifically Hollywood and Culver City, in Los Angeles – became the home of American film.
Today Los Angeles is still a corporate headquarters, but less of a production base. Hollywood films are made abroad, or in other states where “production incentives” encourage the outsourcing of the shoot. But for several decades in the 20th century, Hollywood and Culver City was where American films were actually made. Studios, big or small, had offices for writers and producers, workshops and costume shops, sound stages, and editing rooms.
There were some fifty small studios, and almost a dozen large ones. The biggest studios were vertically integrated – that is to say, they produced the films, distributed them, and owned the cinemas in which they played. In those days every major city had a movie theatre called the Paramount, and another one called the Fox, owned by those studios. We still have a Fox in Boulder, though it no longer plays films.
All the major studios made Westerns, because for thirty years the Western was the most popular film genre. Beyond that, most of them specialized in certain types of film.
MGM – the studio which made THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND – made bigger-budget pictures and was famous for its musicals. It aimed to make a film a week: 52 films a year.
United Artists was a small independent studio set up by the actor/director Charlie Chaplin, the actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and the director D.W. Griffith. It aimed to retain creative control for its filmmakers, and distributed films for independent producers. UA began the James Bond franchise. In 1981 it merged with MGM.
Warner Bros. was famous for its gangster movies, and its Merrie Melodies cartoons.
RKO was a lower-budget, “quality” studio. It made KING KONG, CITIZEN KANE, and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It also distributed films for Disney, a studio without a distribution network. In 1948 it was acquired by the aviation millionaire Howard Hughes. In the fifties Hughes sold the studio to General Tire and Rubber, which ran it for a few years, then shut it down.
Universal produced ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, then settled into a series of low budget “franchise” horror films about the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man.
Disney produced full-length animation films, and later live-action films for children. In 1953, it created its own distribution company, Buena Vista.
Republic Pictures made inexpensive Westerns till the sixties, when it was acquired by CBS TV.
Columbia (later Sony), Paramount and Fox were bigger studios without a specific specialty – though they all made Westerns! This lack of specialization has become more common today, as the surviving studios concentrate on the same type of product: superheroes, talking animals, broad comedy, and special effects. In 1983, a Universal executive told me that the studio directed its output towards someone with a mental age of 15. One can only speculate what mental age Hollywood targets today.
It’s also worth comparing the contemporary output of Disney – the one studio which specifically targets children – with the work it once did. In 1937, as you may recall, Walt Disney’s studio took a risk and made the first full-length American animation feature: SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.
This wasn’t the first feature-length cartoon. That honour goes to Lotte Reiniger’s film THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (Germany, 1926), a silent animated film based on the stories of Schaherazade. But Disney’s film was the first full-colour animation feature, and the first with sound. Budgeted at $250,000, it’s final cost was almost $1,500,000 – a huge sum for any feature, unheard of for a cartoon.
It was a gamble which paid off. Within a year, SNOW WHITE had earned triple its budget at the American box office. The film was a success, and that success inspired the other studios to emulate it. MGM began work on an even-bigger-budget colour children’s film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Paramount insisted that Max Fleischer – creator of Popeye and Betty Boop – produce a full-length, full colour cartoon feature, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.
Animation films take time to make, and GULLIVER’S TRAVELS wasn’t ready for the theatres till Christmas 1939, by which time Disney had completed a second cartoon feature, PINOCCHIO. Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, Disney’s animations had multiple directors. For PINOCCHIO there were two supervising directors, five “sequence directors” (including one T. Hee) and eight animation directors. PINOCCHIO’s budget, like SNOW WHITE’s, had skyrocketed, from $250,000 to $2,500,000. But again it was a critical, and ultimately a financial, success.
PINOCCHIO opened in February 1940. In November of that year, Disney premiered yet another animated feature. But this one was no fairy tale. It was a deliberate attempt to make animated high art: FANTASIA. This is a portmanteau film, of several segments. The credited director was Norman Ferguson, but there were ten uncredited directors as well — each working on a cartoon to accompany a piece of classical music – by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Schubert, and other composers.
Particularly memorable, for this viewer at the age of eight, were the music and images of the Stravinsky Rite of Spring sequence, and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.
The musical score took two months to record. It was conducted by Leopold Stokowski at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and recorded onto 35mm film on nine “sound cameras”. 33 microphones were used. A new sound system, “Fantasound”, was developed for theaters, most of which proved unwilling to purchase and install it. All sound films up to this date had a mono soundtrack: FANTASIA was the first feature made available in stereo.
Probably no studio would make FANTASIA today. Some of its scenes have a certain risque quality; there is nudity, there is black magic, there is a depiction of the theory of evolution. It was a risky venture in 1940 – not initially popular with audiences. An advertising campaign to make it seem less high-brow – “FANTASIA – It’ll Amaze Ya!” did not succeed. Finances aside (the film cost $2.25 million, and enjoyed multiple re-releases), FANTASIA is an extraordinary achievement. Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, CITIZEN KANE and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, it’s an example of what a studio does well – spends money, and employs skilled artists and technicians with the goal of making a high-end work of cinematic art.
We screen FANTASIA.
In recent years, the studios have complained that “piracy” of their products causes jobs to be lost. But this is a specious argument, since reduced production and runaway production are official policy. Philippe Daumon, the head of Viacom (which owns Paramount, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET and Comedy Central) said that the huge profits of TRANSFORMERS justified a corporate strategy of “reduced inventory” – i.e. fewer films, with more money spent promoting them.
In fact, over the years the studios have suffered comparatively few setbacks. In 1918, the Webb-Pomerene Act exempted Hollywood from anti-trust regulations abroad. Thereafter, the studios were able to operate as an export cartel, fixing prices, and essentially running a monopoly in the distribution of American films. In the 1930s the studios pre-empted a censorship movement by creating their own Production Code Administration, which set “standards” and influenced what films were made.
Domestically, the Paramount decision of 1948 – United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. – broke the vertical integration of the studios. The Supreme Court decided that their control of production, distribution and exhibition violated anti-trust laws, and the studios were obliged to sell their theaters and to cease “block booking” practices (by which, in order to screen one of studio’s pictures, a theatre was obliged to book them all).
At the same time, television was perceived as a direct competitor, to which Hollywood responded with more colour films, and various widescreen formats. The 4X3 frame of CITIZEN KANE was now the aspect ratio of a television set, and by the mid-1950s films advertised themselves as being shot in Cinemascope, Panavision, Vistavision, 70mm, and even Cinerama, a three-camera system with approx. 2.6:1 aspect ratio.
In the wake of the Paramount decision, the studios reduced levels of production and increased print rental fees. The idea of making fewer, bigger-budget films appealed to the producers, but not to the exhibitors, many of whom preferred a wide variety of product for double features, and lower rental fees. Ironically, the studio reduction led to an increase in independent film production, as small, black-and-white production companies picked up the slack. On September 10 1958, Variety – the daily record of studio production – made its first mention of a company called American International Pictures: AIP.
“American International Pictures, with a background of more than 50 films over a four-year period in the $100,000 to $250,000 cost bracket, has earmarked an upcoming feature, EVE AND THE DRAGON, for a $1,000,000 budget.
“Stan Shpetner will develop film from his original idea which entails early man and late monster in a prehistoric adventure setting. Shpetner also will produce pic, slated to roll in the Matto Grosso jungle of South America late this year.”
None of this was true. AIP didn’t make a million-dollar dinosaur movie in South America. But they got a mention of their company in Variety. And, if the story was otherwise accurate they, had already achieved something considerable — producing and distributing over 50 independent films in only four years. Instead of EVE AND THE DRAGON, Sam Shpetner wrote and produced a gangster film, THE BONNIE PARKER STORY (USA, 1958), for AIP.
AIP was the brainchild of James H. Nicholson, a film salesman, and Samuel Z. Arkoff, a Hollywood lawyer. They made and distributed low-budget features targeting the teenage audience – films like I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (USA, 1957), HIGH-SCHOOL HELLCATS (USA, 1958) and HOT-ROD GANG (USA, 1958). Nicholson and Arkoff fell in with a young director of Westerns, Roger Corman. For a while they concentrated on teenage movies, gangster, and science fiction films. Then in 1960, Corman directed a horror movie based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, HOUSE OF USHER (USA, 1960). It was a big budget gamble for AIP – costing $300,000 – and was their first film in colour. The gamble paid off and led to a series of films directed by Corman, based on Poe stories – including THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (USA, 1961), THE RAVEN (USA, 1963) and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (USA, 1964).
(We view the splendid trailer for THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.)
The Corman/AIP/Poe cycle was financially very successful. It – together with the other films Corman directed at that time – provided work for a generation of American actors and filmmakers at the very beginning of their career. Jack Nicholson, Robert DiNiro, Francis Coppola, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese all worked for Corman the director, or Corman the producer.
Corman was famously fast. He aimed to make his films in 15 days, and decades later that was still his philosophy: he advised me and Jon Davison to shoot SEARCHERS 2.0 in 15 days, when we shot that film for him in 2007. In 1963, Corman completed shooting of THE RAVEN in 13 days. To take advantage of the cast and crew – still under contract – Corman swiftly concocted and shot another film over the remaining weekend: THE TERROR (USA, 1963), starring Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff.
!n 1966, Corman made a different type of “youth movie” for AIP – an outlaw biker film, entitled THE WILD ANGELS, starring Peter Fonda. It wasn’t the first of these films – Marlon Brando had played an outlaw biker in THE WILD ONE in 1953, and many low-budget films dealt sensationally with “juvenile delinquency” – but the biker movie proved especially popular, and AIP followed it with a series of similar films, including THE GLORY STOMPERS (USA, 1967), starring Dennis Hopper. Another independent company, Fanfare, made an outlaw biker movie titled HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS (USA, 1967), starring Jack Nicholson. And that same year, Corman directed a screenplay written by Jack Nicholson about the LSD scene in Los Angeles, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. THE TRIP (USA, 1967) cost $100,000, and made $10 million at the box office.
We view a clip from THE TRIP in which Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern go to score LSD from a “Psychedelic Temple”. Note Corman’s mise-en-scene! Even though this is a low-budget, swiftly-made film the sequence contains a 360 degree pan (following a joint around the room) followed by a 360 degree crane shot (following Fonda and Susan Strasberg around the upper balcony).
Today, THE TRIP and the biker films seem a little dated, even quaint. It’s hard to believe that these were ground-breaking motion pictures. But back in the 1960s THE TRIP and THE WILD ANGELS were important films. Hugely popular with American youth culture, they were banned by the state film censor in England for decades. THE TRIP only received a British release – on DVD – in 2004.
Aware of the challenge from Corman and AIP, the studios attempted to make hipper, “youthier” films as well, encouraging younger talent like Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, and Faye Dunnaway. Dennis Hopper, in the only essay or manifesto he ever wrote, spoke of his generation’s reverence for post-war European cinema.
“Who needs Disneyland with-glass-sound-stages-so-people-can-watch Studios? Props? Heavy equipment? Thirty people on a crew? … Big old-fashioned sound stages that cost them more to run and build sets on when the whole damn country’s one big real place to utilize and film and God’s a great gaffer. Shoot natural light! Use light-weight reflectors! Bergman makes films with six on a crew. Wouldn’t you?”
Dennis refers to Ingmar Bergman, the director of SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (Sweden, 1955) and THE SEVENTH SEAL (Sweden, 1957). His generation admired a variety of directors, but they all revered some kind of European film.
The writers of BONNIE & CLYDE, Robert Benton and David Newman, wanted a French director – Francois Truffaut, or perhaps Godard – to direct that film. They thought only a European could bring the light touch, the small-crew aesthetic, their script needed. Fortunately they were wrong, and in 1967 an intellectual American director, Arthur Penn, turned their screenplay an American masterpiece.
We watch BONNIE & CLYDE.
BONNIE & CLYDE wasn’t a masterpiece in the traditional Hollywood vein. It broke all the rules of the Production Code, which had forbidden illicit sex, disrespect for authority, and sympathizing with criminals.
And in 1968, the confluence of Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper – misunderstood by Hollywood, nourished by Corman – came up with the outlaw biker movie to end all outlaw biker movies, the film which came to symbolize this new, rebellious American cinema: EASY RIDER.
Dennis Hopper, the director of EASY RIDER, had been through “old school” Hollywood as an actor, playing juvenile delinquents and making Westerns with John Wayne. But it was Roger Corman, and another independent production company, BBS, which gave him the opportunity to direct.
We screen a clip from EASY RIDER, in which Captain America and Billy (Fonda and Hopper) are arrested for parading without a license, and meet the lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) in jail.
By the late 1960s, whether they were working for a studio, like Penn and Peckinpah, or whether they were independent, like Corman and Hopper, a new generation of American auteur directors had taken over the industry and were crafting the best American films in years.
Some called them the “New Hollywood”. I prefer the term the New American Cinema, since Hollywood would soon exclude so many of its brightest young directors. All shared a youthful, rebellious aesthetic. They knew how to make films quickly, independently, on their own terms. For a brief few years the film industry was genuinely in touch with its audience – coming from the same place, sharing the same concerns, opposing the same war, listening to the same music, doing the same drugs. In the late sixties and early seventies, the audience – you – wasn’t just a “demographic”. These filmmakers weren’t yet members of the White LA MIllionaires’ Club known as the Directors Guild. They were the audience’s peers.
Dennis Hopper’s enthusiasm – for low-budget films the filmmaker actually cared about, and for the individuals who would make them – was contagious. He wrote, before becoming a director, in the most optimistic and heroic style,
“Film is an art form, an expensive art form, it’s the Sistine Chapel of the Twentieth Century, it’s the best way to reach people. The artist, not the industry, must take the responsibility for the entire work…
“But where are the angels? … Better still, WHERE’S THE CASH?
“But even better still, WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE TO GIVE THE CASH TO?? Not to worry. No, not to worry. They’ll be here when it’s their turn to change the balance of power in the good old American Way; then my generation will have its say. Our grandfathers and fathers made it what it is today, they invented it. Can we sustain it? Because we’ve lost it. Can we fill the movie gap? And take back our invention? And surpass the Europeans? Yes, when that Individual comes to town. Remember him? The Individual? Well, then, when it’s his turn. Yes, we’d better do it then. Or I’m going to die a very cranky Individual, and I won’t be alone. It’s time for a transition shot.
Directors’ Odysseys: Orson Welles, Dennis Hopper, Charles Burnett
These three directors are all considered auteurs. Being an auteur director isn’t an easy thing. If you work in the mainstream, as a director-for-hire, you will have a reasonable expectation of a job, and of a decent pay day. An auteur comes up with his or her own project, and develops it into a screenplay, then looks for money to get the screenplay made. Unless he or she is very fortunate and has a “development deal” with a financier or producer, the auteur is going to end up spending their own money developing projects which may, or may not, get made.
Welles, Hopper and Burnett – though very different individuals – have one thing in common: their first feature was exceptionally original. There had never been a film like CITIZEN KANE, or EASY RIDER, or KILLER OF SHEEP. So it was easy for critics to compare these directors’ later work to their first film, and to say, “Ah, Orson Welles never made a movie as good as CITIZEN KANE!” Whereas it wasn’t so easy for any of these directors to raise the budget that they needed, or to recreate the circumstances of their first work — even if they wanted to, which probably they did not.
Orson Welles was born – a little like Charles Foster Kane – into a wealthy, distant family. He was a prodigy. His fame as a radio and theatre actor/director got him an invitation to Hollywood. His first film, CITIZEN KANE, was recognized almost immediately as a masterpiece, yet it won him few admirers. Welles was too unique, too original, too secure in his belief in his own genius, to make many friends in Hollywood. KANE didn’t make money, but RKO were proud of it, and keen to make another picture with Welles.
Welles returned to directing theater, and began work on a quasi-documentary called IT’S ALL TRUE, to be shot in Latin America, with a message of unity meant to counter Nazi influence there. He also planned to produce, direct and star in an anti-Nazi thriller, JOURNEY INTO FEAR. One of the few Hollywood directors who befriended Welles was King Vidor – who had directed the black and white scenes of WIZARD OF OZ. Vidor invited Welles to a two-week stay aboard his yacht. Welles took advantage of the time to write a screenplay based on a novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington (In 1939, Welles had adapted the book for a radio production by the Mercury Theatre). It is the story of an upper-middle class, white American family in a midwestern city, and its decline, over several decades. Welles had a crew in Mexico, shooting IT’S ALL TRUE, when he began rehearsals for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, the film. In October 1941, only five months after CITIZEN KANE opened, production of AMBERSONS began.
While shooting in Los Angeles, Welles screened the Mexican rushes of IT’S ALL TRUE, whose Mexican shoot he had entrusted to another director, Norman Foster. He was also anxious to film the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, himself, in mid-February. So, somewhat astonishingly, Welles began to rush his work on AMBERSONS, shooting from 8 a.m. till late at night and fighting with his DP, Stanley Cortez. Welles fired Cortez on New Year’s Day, 1942. Production ended on January 22. Welles began preparations to direct JOURNEY INTO FEAR, talking to actors and selecting a cinematographer. Then he changed his mind, shut down production of IT’S ALL TRUE, and assigned Norman Foster to direct JOURNEY INTO FEAR, instead.
What a waste of money and energy! Meanwhile, AMBERSONS was over budget – planned to cost $850,000, the total spend was now over a million. In the process of getting out of his JOURNEY INTO FEAR contract with RKO, Welles gave up his right to a “final cut” on AMBERSONS.
Reading about Orson Welles, one gets the impression that he was happiest when working on multiple projects simultaneously. Directing plays and films, or live radio and films, are different things. In a play, or a live broadcast, the performance is everything. When the curtain rises, the director’s work is done. Of course the director may watch the show and give the actors and technicians notes, and may make changes to be incorporated into the next evening’s presentation. But then, again, the play is in the actors’ hands. In a film, the editing is everything. Good editing can make a weak performance strong. Skillful selection of images, juxtaposition and timing can create tension or make an audience laugh, or weep. Film is an editor’s medium. And good editing takes time, and demands the attention of the director. Welles clearly understood that editing was important – he was working with a great film editor, Robert Wise – and perhaps he thought that this was something he could leave to others. Unfortunately this was not so. Auteur directors certainly need to give their cast and crew autonomy, but they also need to be involved and present at every stage of the process. If they aren’t there, somebody else will be.
Pickup shots on AMBERSONS were done in Welles’ absence. Some of the scenes he had rushed through were re-done. Carnival ended, but Welles remained in Rio, planning to shoot some more. On March 15 1942, he received a print of AMBERSONS, and cabled Wise to make changes. But it was too late. RKO had previewed the picture in Pomona, California, and the audience response was poor. Wise removed several minutes but a second preview also proved negative. Welles said he could make changes only if Wise brought another print to Brazil. RKO instructed Wise to remain in Los Angeles. More scenes were re-shot, in Welles’ absence. Wise cut the picture down from 135 minutes to 88 minutes. In desperation, Welles proposed a happy ending to the studio; it seems likely that RKO had already shot one.
Even in its shortened version THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was admired by some critics; but audiences had little time for it. It opened on a double bill with a Lupe Velez comedy, MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST (USA, 1942). The United States was now at war with Japan and Germany, young men were being conscripted into the military, and most people had more urgent concerns than the fate of Indianapolis aristocrats.
Welles remained in Brazil until RKO shut down the still-unfinished IT’S ALL TRUE. He gave up his interest in the picture, and over the years much of the negative was thrown away. A version cut from the surviving footage was released in 1993, eight years after Welles’ death. In that film, Welles is seen describing IT’S ALL TRUE as “a large Technicolor documentary.” But all the remaining footage from the film is black and white.
This was quite a unique achievement. In the wake of CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles had embarked on three films simultaneously, and completed none of them. If you search for him on IMDB, he is listed as having 47 film director credits. But this is entirely misleading: the list includes short films, films that were never finished, films that were directed by other people (such as JOURNEY INTO FEAR), and “making of” documentaries.
After his post-KANE debacle, Welles completed very few features. This is not to say that he was idle. He was always busy, mounting stage plays, acting in other people’s films, raising money to make his own films, starting to shoot projects, then abandoning them.
As a studio director he made two notable films noir – THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (USA, 1947) and TOUCH OF EVIL (USA, 1958), whose opening sequence we earlier considered.
(What is film noir? Another French expression which we’ll look at more closely when we turn to film genres. For now, a film noir is a type of pessimistic American crime thriller, shot in black-and-white, with a visual style which references both German “Expressionist” cinema, and CITIZEN KANE.)
Remarkably, Republic Pictures – home of the B-Western – approached Welles in 1948 and proposed a “dream” project: a feature film of MACBETH, starring and directed by Welles. There were strings attached: Republic was a low budget studio and they wanted the film shot in 15 days. But Welles complicated matters by deciding that, to save time, the actors would mime to a pre-recorded version of their dialogue, playing over loudspeakers. This was a crazy idea, demeaning to the actors, and to Welles himself, playing the lead role. When the shoot was done, Welles left for Rome. The cast re-dubbed their performances in his absence.
In 1949 and 1950, Welles directed and starred in a feature version of OTHELLO, shot in Morocco and Italy. He ran out of money frequently, and was baled out by Fox Studios, which acquired 60% ownership of the film for $75,000 cash – money which Welles then took to the casino in Monte Carlo. He finished OTHELLO in 1952, and it was raptly received at the Cannes Festival. But it received a limited release.
In 1957 Welles began shooting a feature version of DON QUIXOTE in Spain – a project he would never complete. In 1962 he directed a remarkable version of THE TRIAL (France, 1962), based on the novel by Franz Kafka, in Zagreb and Paris. The lead actor was Anthony Perkins, fresh from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (USA, 1960), and Welles gave Perkins the best note possible for the actor playing Joseph K, usually thought of as an innocent man caught in a totalitarian machine. “You are guilty”, Welles told Perkins just before the camera rolled. “Of what? Of what?” Perkins asked. But Welles said nothing more, and the actor made the film haunted by the knowledge that his character was guilty, of an unknown crime.
THE TRIAL is visually outstanding, though its soundtrack is mysteriously bereft – as if someone lost interest in the film in post-production, and the usual tapestry of dialogue, audio effects and music – what we now call sound design – had not been made.
Welles kept working on DON QUIXOTE. In 1964, he directed a Spanish-financed Shakespeare mash-up, based on scenes from the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. Though it was largely ignored on its release – a black-and-white film in a time of colour, a Shakespeare film when such things were not popular – it remains a fine film, and a testament to what Welles could do, as an actor and director, with a proper budget and shooting schedule.
He continued to initiate projects, and struggled to raise money to fund them. Acting was his ace in the hole. Welles was a great actor, not shy about accepting inappropriate or even stupid roles, all of which he invested with energy and inspiration. My favourite example comes from a film which almost no one knows about. It appears in none of Welles’ biographies. It’s an Italian Western called TEPEPA (Italy/Spain 1969), and Welles plays a Mexican general, during the time of the Revolution. If you see an English-language version (there is one, called BLOOD AND GUNS), the most impressive aspect of Welles’ performance is his refusal to adopt a faux-Mexican “Frito Bandito” accent, in the manner of lesser American actors. Welles simply says his dialogue in his normal voice, and is entirely convincing.
Another independent director who was able to support himself, indeed, to grow quite rich, from acting was Dennis Hopper. Dennis was the child of a single parent who grew up in Dodge City, Kansas. He acted in high school, and earned himself the nickname of the “Shakespeare Kid.” He enjoyed an auspicious beginning, studying at the Actors’ Studio and being made a studio contract player, acting opposite James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (USA, 1955) and GIANT (USA, 1956). Dean only made three features before his death in a car wreck at the age of 24 – but his rebel style and genuine talent made him a role model for a generation of young American actors. When Dennis fell out with an old-school director on a John Wayne Western, he found himself blacklisted. Unable to work, he fell in with the screenwriter Stewart Stern and came up with a story called THE LAST MOVIE, which he planned to direct. He wanted it to be an authentic American art film, in the European vein.
Hopper found work in low-budget, non-studio pictures for AIP. When he directed EASY RIDER, he mixed professional and amateur actors, and made a film which reflected the cultural polarization and violent undercurrents of the day, with a great rock and roll soundtrack. EASY RIDER cost $400,000; it earned its distributor, Columbia Pictures, more than $60 million, worldwide. Universal offered Dennis $850,000 and final cut on the next film he made, which would be THE LAST MOVIE. This was the deal Orson Welles had got. In 1941 it had been a good one. In 1969, it wasn’t a good deal, at all.
For reference purposes, consider the average budget of Hollywood films at this time. In 1969, Warner Brothers spent $1.5 million on an Elvis Presley B-Western, CHARRO!, and $6 million on THE WILD BUNCH; 20th Century Fox spent $6 million on BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, and $24 million on the musical HELLO DOLLY!; and Paramount spent $20 million on a Western musical, PAINT YOUR WAGON.
THE LAST MOVIE was to be shot with an American cast in Mexico or Peru. It was a complex picture, and given Dennis’s proven bankability as a director, it should have received a budget in the $2-4 million range. For Universal, $850,000 was no risk at all. Whereas the director was risking everything: if the budget went over one million, Dennis forfeited his profit participation and his right to the final cut.
Like Orson Welles, Dennis was a powerful, complex character who sometimes worked against his own best interests. THE LAST MOVIE was shot on budget and on schedule, in eight weeks, in Peru, but the editing took a very long time. Under the influence of two directors whom he admired, Nicholas Ray and Alejandro Jodorowksy, Dennis radically re-structured the picture, abandoning its linear narrative, failing to screen a finished cut of the film. He also allowed a documentary crew to come and film him,at work and play, for a film they called THE AMERICAN DREAMER.
In the documentary AMERICAN DREAMER, Dennis discusses Welles, and his own future prospects:
Q: “What’s going to happen if THE LAST MOVIE isn’t accepted as EASY RIDER was?”
Hopper: “What’s going to happen to me? Nothing can happen to me. Because, you know, I was sleeping on a mattress when I edited EASY RIDER, and I can sleep on a mattress again. I have friends. But, you know, THE LAST MOVIE is gonna be accepted. It is gonna be accepted. It’s gonna be much better than EASY RIDER, and if it’s nothing more than like, you know, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, which was like Orson Welles’ second film, and CITIZEN KANE was his first, and made no money, and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS made no money, I’ll be a very happy man. Because it’ll be that good, and if the audience can accept it that’s another thing. Because if the audience doesn’t accept it, then it’ll be a long, long time before we can dream about that audience I thought was there. I could become Orson Welles, the poor bastard. He’s just been turned down by the studio that I’m making this movie for, Universal International, for a half a million dollar picture. You know, for half a million dollars. And if they can’t build up Orson Welles, making a movie for a half a million dollars, and show it in the universities, then fuck ’em! Then fuck the universities, fuck everybody, man. Because then, like, there’s no audience.”
Universal detested THE LAST MOVIE when they finally saw it. It won a critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1971, but received little or no distribution. (If you wish, you can see my documentary about the film here.) Dennis, who had been allowed to return to Hollywood as an actor, now found himself blacklisted as a director: he would direct no more films for the studios, though he found copious work playing bad guys in Hollywood movies like BLUE VELVET (USA, 1986) and SPEED (USA, 1994).
I worked for Dennis Hopper as an actor and screenwriter, and found him to be a uniquely talented director who made a pair of great films and thereafter struggled to raise money to do work of quality. Interestingly, that was Dennis’ take on Orson Welles, as well.
Charles Burnett’s first feature, KILLER OF SHEEP (USA, 1977), was shot on 16mm, over a year of weekends. Its total cost was $10,000. In subject matter and tempo it is entirely different from the films of Hopper, or Welles. It has a gentle, measured aspect, and depicts scenes of daily life in a non-violent, ironic, yet sympathetic way. It relies on amateur actors, on natural light. It is totally original and inspired, one of the first films to be selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. KILLER OF SHEEP was Charles’s MFA thesis film at UCLA, the film school I attended. It was an inspiration to all of us who saw it. Years later I got to meet Charles, and we became friends. He told me he’d gone to UCLA for entirely pragmatic reasons. It was the late sixties, and as a young black man, Charles had a very good chance of being drafted, and sent to fight in the infantry in Viet Nam. He didn’t want to do this, so he enlisted instead in the UCLA Film Program, hoping to become a cinematographer.
If Charles had gone to a more technically-focused school, this might have been possible. But at UCLA, everyone in the production program was a director. That was what we did, that was what we wanted to do when we got out of school. So Charles became a director, scripting and shooting his own films. He made two shorts, and then – in 1972 – he started work on KILLER OF SHEEP, shooting where he lived, in Watts, Los Angeles. Charles finished the picture in 1977.
We screen KILLER OF SHEEP.
When we made our films, back in those days, we didn’t think about copyright issues. We just shot to the best of our ability, and then chose some music to go along with it. Charles created a great soundtrack, with songs and music by Etta James, Dinah Washington, Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Paul Robeson, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Unfortunately, he didn’t own the rights to any of it. So, outside of school, or private screenings, KILLER OF SHEEP could not be shown. The film remained legally unscreenable for almost 30 years. (This is why we have a class on fair use, and copyright.)
The music rights to KILLER OF SHEEP were finally acquired by a US distributor in 2007, for $150,000, and a 35mm print was at last made. I don’t know anyone who has seen KILLER OF SHEEP and not been profoundly impressed by it. Armond White wrote in Film Comment that “KILLER OF SHEEP represents the highest example of contemporary black American life put on screen because of Burnett’s integrity to view it purely, without typical corrupted Hollywood devices.” Michael Tolkin, the actor and screenwriter, declared, “If it were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.” Even when the absence of music rights was still an issue, industry executives were surely aware of the film, and could arrange their own screenings. Yet, like Welles and Hopper, Burnett struggled to find money to make feature films.
His second feature, MY BROTHER’S WEDDING (USA, 1983) was largely ignored – another irony, since it’s a fine film, and a colourful, theatrical departure from KILLER OF SHEEP.
We watch a sequence from MY BROTHER’S WEDDING in which the hero, Pierce (Everett Silas) runs to work at the dry cleaners his parents own. The first shot shows an LAPD cruiser following him. A police car following a young, running black man leads us to expect action, a chase. But there is no chase. The cops ignore him. Pierce is running because he’s always late. Pierce takes over from his parents, who leave the store to go to church. A beautiful woman appears in the doorway of the cleaners, and takes off her wedding ring. Romantic music plays as the scene fades to black. But the music does not end. Instead, Burnett fades up on a laundry line hung with baby washing, as the song continues. In both cases the filmmaker plays on our expectations – action, romance – and undercuts them with ironic reality in the next shot.
Charles received a MacArthur Award and used it to write and develop a bigger-budget feature starring Danny Glover and Carl Lumbly, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (USA, 1990). He told me this was a difficult project: this $1.4 million film had no less than twelve producers, none of whom was particularly helpful or experienced at making films. It received critical acclaim and limited distribution. Charles followed with a fourth feature, a comparatively conventional police drama told from the point of view of a black LAPD officer, THE GLASS SHIELD (USA, 1994). Most of his subsequent work has been television drama and documentaries, plus a feature – NAMIBIA: THE STRUGGLE FOR LIBERATION (Namibia, 2007) also starring Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover.
Is there a lesson from these three careers – which in Burnett’s case continues? Only that it isn’t easy being a truly independent film director – but that, in all three cases, it has its artistic rewards.
Into the Issue of the Good Old Time Movie Versus the Good Old Time, by Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider published screenplay, Signet Books 1969, pp. 7-11
School of Hard Knocks:Charles Burnett Interview, Film Comment, December 2002
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind, Simon & Schuster 1999, pp. 26-36 (on the making of BONNIE & CLYDE)
Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius, by Charles Higham, St Martin’s Press, 1985