"The 1930s: The Great American Movie Genres"
The fourth episode is entitled “The 1930s: The Great American Movie Genres and the Brilliance of European Film.” With one exception, Cousins remains true to the title throughout so that, as in the preceding episode, it largely has a unity often lacking in the first two. He begins with a sequence from a 1931 American film, Confessions of a Co-Ed, pointing out some of the technical difficulties the filmmakers first encountered when adopting sound. Then he excerpts from Rouben Mamoulian’s classic 1932 musical, Love Me Tonight, praising the director’s brilliant innovative approach to the new medium.
As the title indicates, his presentation of
After that, Cousins turns his attention to the Western, although curiously, neither of the two splendid John Ford films he selects to illustrate his point—The Iron Horse (1924) and My Darling Clementine (1946)—were made in the ‘30s. Howard Hawks reappears when Cousins deals with comedy. The two examples shown from the ‘30s are the classic screwball comedies, Twentieth Century (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), both directed by Hawks. He then discusses Hawks as a person and shows documentary footage of him in his last years.
He returns to the musical genre with an appreciative commentary on Busby Berkeley, showing as an example of his work the “Forgotten Man” number in Gold Diggers of 1933 and noting its strong social content about the Depression. The last genre he features is the animated cartoon as developed by Walt Disney. He shows earlier examples of animation in the silent era—Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)—and then lauds Disney as a true innovator. This is demonstrated with clips from the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy (1928), and Disney’s legendary first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). He observes that Disney became less innovative with his increasingly conservative politics, illustrated by his support of the blacklist.
In contrast to Cousins’ previous treatment of
However, due perhaps to the limitations of the episode’s running time, there are some notable omissions that Cousins might have included had he devoted the entire episode solely to
In his treatment of genres, Cousins appears to suggest that the ones he discusses were the most significant in that era, although, in truth, there were some fairly obvious oversights. The war film genre is an especially startling omission given its wider political and social importance as well as the major role it played in advancing the art of cinema at that time. Indeed, one of the most powerful and innovative films in the early sound era, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), is not included at all, a rather glaring historical elision originating in Cousins’ book which did not even mention this landmark film. The ‘30s is fondly remembered as the golden age of adventure films but none of the celebrated works in the genre, such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Gunga Din (1939), are presented in this episode. There is nothing about the very popular series of biopics which included two best picture Academy Award winners, The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Nor is there a single example of the social protest dramas of the ‘30s for which Warner Bros. became famous, not even the intensely dramatic and influential I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Other notable genres missing from this episode are mystery films like the Thin Man series, the romantic love stories in which director Frank Borzage was a master, and the so-called "woman's film," specialists of which included John M. Stahl, Edmund Goulding, and the one female director in the studio era, Dorothy Arzner.
Additionally, Cousins makes no mention, either in his book or his series, of a major chapter of American cinema history that has attracted an immense amount of attention in the last two decades—the pre-Code films made in
But while pre-Code cinema has been recognized by many historians as a rebellion against traditional moral and social attitudes, these films emerged from an all-encompassing trend in the studio system as a whole rather than being the work of a few lonely mavericks on the outside as depicted by Cousins in the second episode. Perhaps for this reason, Cousins was not prepared to discuss a style of filmmaking that called into question on a fundamental basis the thesis he had advanced in the preceding episodes.
Following his presentation of
Then he discusses Jean Vigo starting with excerpts from his anarchistic Zero de Conduite (1933) with students rebelling against a repressive boarding school, a perspective that led to its being banned in
While Cousins has now abandoned the somewhat strident polemics of his earlier contrast between
Some years before Cousins’ series began production, in association with the Anthology Film Archives there was a major touring retrospective entitled Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941, followed by the release of many of the films in this exhibition on a DVD set. This remarkable series included numerous examples of cinematic experimentation from the earliest attempts to works of the ‘20s and ‘30s paralleling analogous films in
Thanks to this series, a later generation of cineastes gained a new insight into these radical American experiments with film form. Some were the work of men who went on to play major roles in feature production, such as Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich with their powerful critique of the Hollywood system, The Life and Death of 9143: a Hollywood Extra (1928), and Charles Vidor with his dynamic adaptation of an Ambrose Bierce Civil War story, The Bridge (1929). There were inspired amateurs far from the center of American film production like the team of James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Webber who brought a startling, fresh approach to narrative cinema with The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1933). Joseph Cornell had a unique method of his own, transforming contemporary
None of these works were cited in Cousins’ book where his position was very consistent with the traditional view refuted by Unseen Cinema—namely, that avant-garde filmmaking in the
Cousins’ reductionism in the series exceeds even the presentation in his book of French cinema in the ‘30s. There, he did give full recognition to Rene Clair’s remarkable, innovative musicals of the early ‘30s and their influence on Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. He also commented favorably on Julien Duvivier’s powerful classic, Pepe le Moko (1937), and the effect of Hawks’ Scarface on the film. However, in his discussion of the ‘30s in the fourth episode, there is no sign of either Clair or Duvivier, partly perhaps due to time limitations but also it would seem that their inclusion might have complicated his effort to draw a rigid distinction between a genre-dominated
There were other major French directors of the ‘30s whom Cousins did not include in his book and who, accordingly, failed to appear in the series. Among the missing were such brilliant filmmakers as Jean Gremillon, Raymond Bernard and, the most baffling omission of all, Jacques Feyder. Widely and deservedly revered as the father of French poetic realism, Feyder is essential to any serious consideration of French cinema in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Whether it was that Feyder’s extraordinary films were not in consonance with Cousins’ emphasis on the avant-garde or it was simply another “fit of absent-mindedness” on his part, Feyder’s elimination from the book, like Cousins’ similarly mystifying failure to so much as mention his equally celebrated German contemporary, G. W. Pabst, was one of the many flaws that was repeated in his series.
After the presentation of
Cousins then discusses Jean Renoir, the great humanist of French cinema in the ‘30s. He interviews actor Norman Lloyd who knew and worked with Renoir in
Cousins demonstrates Renoir’s lack of judgmentalism further with excerpts from his World War I classic, La Grande Illusion (1937), showing the comradeship between the French aristocratic POW and his captor, a German officer of the same class, played by Erich von Stroheim. The latter also treats the ordinary French soldiers who are his prisoners with equal consideration. Here, however, Cousins’ failure to consider the war film as a genre leads him to make the questionable statement that La Grande Illusion was unusual among cinematic depictions of World War I in the ‘30s in that it avoided the commonplace stereotypes of “goodies” and “baddies.” In fact, a large number of films in the cycle—from Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Wellman’s Wings (1927) in the silent era to Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (both 1930) and a year following Renoir’s film, Edmund Goulding’s 1938 remake of The Dawn Patrol—are notable for the absence of individual villains with war itself as the principal antagonist. Where La Grande Illusion broke new ground was in its detailed depiction of class structures among those who fought the war and its elimination of spectacle in favor of a narrative based almost entirely on the characterizations of its protagonists.
Following the section on Renoir, Cousins suddenly leaves
In this segment, Cousins repeats several inaccuracies from his book that could easily have been corrected. Peixoto was, in fact 22, not 19, when he directed the film, information Cousins could have found in a number of sources, including my own article on the director, published well in advance of his book. Additionally, the claim that Eisenstein praised Limite stems from a clever bit of self-promotion on Peixoto’s part. In 1965, an essay on Limite was published in a Brazilian journal and attributed to Eisenstein. But in his last years, Peixoto admitted to a friend that he had written the article himself. In 2000, eight years after his death, the essay was republished as a text authored by Mario Peixoto. Eisenstein could not have seen Limite as, during its first screenings in
More disputatious than this, however, is Cousins’ statement that Limite is the earliest extant innovative South American film. Given his book’s highly unsatisfactory treatment of the continent with the early histories of most of its national cinemas entirely omitted, this claim of his seems to have been made without any real investigation into the subject. Certainly, by most standards Alcide Greca’s Argentine feature, El Ultimo Malon (The Last Indian Rebellion; 1918), would be considered highly innovative anticipating as it did Flaherty’s Nanook of the North by four years in its visual anthropology. Greca, a noted novelist, teacher, journalist and politician of radical sympathies, wrote and directed this remarkable film in which he used an indigenous cast to recreate an actual incident from 1904 rooted in the oppression of the Mocovi Indians by the whites. In its blending of documentary and narrative techniques combined with impassioned social criticism, El Ultimo Malon represented a milestone in world cinema. Yet as its absence from Cousins’ book indicates, it is still largely unknown outside of
Another extraordinary film from South America is Pedro Sienna’s El Husar de la Muerte (The Horseman of Death; 1925), a powerful historical drama from
Even more than with other South American countries, Cousins’ commentary on Limite should be considered in the context of what he wrote in his book about early cinema in
In writing his book, it would seem that Cousins had somehow overlooked such standard sources as Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia and Georges Sadoul’s Encyclopedia of Filmmakers, both of which praise Humberto Mauro, the man long recognized as one of the greatest directors in
Peixoto’s masterpiece thus did not emerge in a cinematic vacuum in his country. There were a number of other notable films made in
Perhaps by the time he came to make the series, Cousins had developed a fuller knowledge of
Cousins, however, remains intent on shaping film history to fit the particular thesis he is propounding. But whereas in the earlier episodes dealing with the silent era he used a broad brush to paint the dynamics of film history as a titanic struggle between an all-powerful Hollywood studio system and those resisting this cinematic onslaught, now with sound and a group of films presumably somewhat more familiar to the intended audience his presentation has been recast as a contrast between a talented and creative Hollywood expressing itself through sharply defined genres and filmmakers elsewhere utilizing apparently more novel forms of cinematic experimentation.
What Cousins does not address, however, is that some of the very works he cites as alternatives to Hollywood-influenced categorization were themselves part of recognizable genres. La Quai des Brumes is, in fact, like the American gangster films highlighted earlier, a masterpiece of the crime genre. While, as I noted earlier, La Grande Illusion dispensed with the battle scenes of many films about the First World War, it is nevertheless one of the greatest achievements in the cycle of war films that flourished in the ‘20s and ‘30s. And most film historians writing about Ozu have hailed him as a master of a specific, characteristically Japanese genre—the shomin-geki or shoshomin-eiga, defined as a genre depicting the lives of ordinary people. Other major directors of this genre included Mizoguchi, Naruse, Yasujiro Shimazu, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Heinosuke Gosho.
As is so often the case, Cousins here uses a word broadly and somewhat loosely in his attempt to draw distinctions. The dictionary defines a genre as an artistic work with a certain style, form or subject matter. In that sense, virtually all films can be viewed as belonging to one genre or another. Even avant-garde cinema exhibits particular characteristics that might be said to constitute a genre. To be sure, there are often clear distinctions between how a film is created under one set of circumstances and another in the same genre with a very different production background. Such extraordinary masterpieces of cinematic experimentation as Gance’s Napoleon, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible are all part of the recognized genre of biographical films. But what sets them apart from most biopics produced by the studio system is that whereas films in the latter have customarily been built around the talents of a celebrated star, the works by Gance, Dreyer and Eisenstein are preeminently the personal visions of their directors.
Cousins’ preoccupation with what he defines as non-genre films in opposition to Hollywood trends continues when he returns to
This follows closely the organization in his book in which his discussion of the Themersons’ work appeared immediately after he dealt with Limite. He wrote there that the Themersons’ now-lost avant-garde short, Europa, made in 1932, was
This is a very superficial and questionable treatment of
During the 1920s, there were Polish silent productions that were shown throughout
With the adoption of sound, there were a number of remarkable Polish films in the ‘30s ranging from Juliusz Gardan’s Wyrok zycia (Life Sentence; 1933), an intense drama of woman’s oppression comparable to similar films then being produced in China and Japan, to the rollicking comedy, The Twelve Chairs (1933), an excellent adaptation of the satiric Russian novel co-directed by Poland’s Michal Waszynski and Czechoslovakia’s Martin Fric.
This oversight is especially poignant as the course of Polish cinema was brutally interrupted and production halted for a number of years by the German invasion in 1939. Few of those active in
Maintaining the same approach toward the other two major film-producing countries in East Central Europe in the interwar period, Cousins in his book was even briefer in his comments on Czechoslovakia and Hungary despite their many excellent films in those years. Just about all he wrote concerning them was that Alexander Korda began his career in the early Hungarian cinema, that after Czech director Gustav Machaty's Ecstasy (1933) was a success and the Barrandov studios were built in 1933 production in Czechoslovakia rose to around forty films by 1939, and that there was a significant director in Hungary, Istvan Szots, who was active in the early 1940s. Nowhere did he mention Martin Fric's wonderful Czech comedies like Zivot je pes (A Dog's Life; 1933), Hej rup! (Workers, Let's Go!; 1934), and Kristian (1939), or such outstanding Hungarian dramatic films as Paul Fejos' Tavasz zapor (Spring Shower; 1932), Laszlo Kalmar's Halalos tavasz (Deadly Spring; 1939), and Andre de Toth's Ket lany az utcan (Two Girls on the Street; 1939). In Cousins' documentary series itself, there is nothing on the prewar Czech and Hungarian cinemas. Not until the 1950s will he be ready to discuss filmmaking in those countries.
Elsewhere in Europe, Cousins discussed in his book Florian Rey's La Aldea Maldita (The Accursed Village; 1930). Often considered the greatest Spanish silent film, Rey's masterwork used advanced cinematic techniques and outstanding location shooting in a dramatic story of poor villagers forced by drought to migrate to the city. Although Cousins wrote that La Aldea Maldita was, like the works of Weber, Flaherty, von Stroheim and Vidor, a "naturalistic dissident" film, the stringent demands of the time allotted to the earlier decades of filmmaking evidently prevented its inclusion in the series. With no other example of the first 64 years of Spain's highly productive cinema appearing in the documentary, either, it is not until the seventh episode and Bunuel's Viridiana (1961) that a Spanish film is finally featured in the series.
Following his look at
Yet from 1930 to 1933, next to the
Essentially, Cousins reprises the kind of approach that so marred his presentation of
Despite his dispiriting characterization of German cinema in the early ‘30s, Cousins’ treatment of Leni Riefenstahl is, on the whole, quite good and well-balanced. While critical of her association with the Nazi regime, stating that “she apparently approved of the moral obscenity of her paymasters,” he does not allow this to completely overwhelm his appreciation of her as an artist. He states that next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, she was, of all the directors of the 1930s and 1940s, the one who most thought in terms of film. Utilizing footage from her classic features, The Blue Light (1932)--as astonishing an achievement as her spectacular documentaries--Triumph of the Will (1935),
What remains regrettable is that Cousins’ emphasis on Riefenstahl’s two mammoth productions has quite overshadowed everything else going on in German-language cinema in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Not only does he bypass the outstanding accomplishments of late Weimar cinema, he has not taken into account, either in his book or his series, the related though distinctly separate cinema of pre-Anschluss Austria where such masterpieces as Paul Fejos’ Sonnenstrahl (Ray of Sunshine; 1933) and Willi Forst’s Maskerade (1934) were created. In addition, he ignores the many fine German films that continued to be made in the ‘30s and ‘40s in spite of the restrictions imposed by the Third Reich—from Reinhold Schunzel’s exhilarating, inventive, widely influential comedy classic, Viktor und Viktoria (1933), to Helmut Kautner’s lyrical triumph of poetic realism, Under the Bridges (1945). Other outstanding German films from those years containing bold stylistic experimentation include Luis Trenker's Der verlorene Sohn (The Prodigal Son; 1934), the story of a Tyrolean mountaineer who travels to the New World with remarkable scenes shot in New York City prefiguring neo-realism, and Frank Wysbar's Fahrmann Maria (Ferryman Maria; 1936), a striking late example of expressionism in which a young woman operating a ferry struggles with a character representing death itself.
In the '30s, Italy and the Soviet Union also made films blending sound and image in new, inventive ways, works that were vital in the development of the new medium. Yet, as with their German contemporaries, these films are absent from Cousins' presentation. As I wrote earlier, his failure to make the distinction between the regimes and the film artists in
It is a perhaps melancholy truth that for centuries many of the world's great artistic achievements were created under tyrannies, not democratic systems. The course of cinema history in several countries proved no different with brilliant, innovative works continuing to be made even amidst despotic regimes. Hence, at a time when the Soviet cinema was supposedly dominated by dogmas of socialist realism, there were such amazing films as Boris Barnet's Okraina (Outskirts; 1933), a moving pacifist story set in World War I blending pathos, drama, comedy and eloquent character observation in a Chekhovian manner; his By the Bluest of Seas (1936), a work of lyrical beauty with strains of both exuberance and melancholy; and Abram Room's Strogiy Yunosha (A Severe Young Man; 1936), a complex narrative incorporating experimental, abstract imagery with extraordinary, audacious compositions in an examination of human nature and society centered around unconventional characterizations. The rediscovery in recent years of such challenging works from the Soviet Union of the 1930s, while creating a definite stir in the West, has, however, been difficult to fit in with the kind of standardized perceptions of film history that seem to have exerted a considerable influence on Cousins' interpretation.
After his segment on Riefenstahl, Cousins turns to
Cousins concludes the fourth episode on a similarly high note with scenes from three classic American films made in 1939, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Again, his commentary is quite perceptive. He observes that far from being escapist as many have thought, Gone With the Wind actually criticizes such an approach when the heroine, who has had an unrealistic view of life, comes up against the hard realities of existence during the war and its aftermath. With this appreciative perspective on these films, Cousins sets the stage for the next episode.