"The Triumph of American Film"
By incorporating in the title of the first episode the phrase, “The World Discovers a New Art Form,” Cousins had pointed to a stress on the emergence of narrative cinema globally but with no indication of one country becoming dominant in the field. The title of the second episode, however, is explicit about its emphasis on one national cinema during a particular era: “1918-1928: The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels.” Cousins begins by showing footage of World War I, then switches back to the Hollywood landscape and the lead it took in capturing a world audience in the aftermath of the devastating conflict. In his commentary, he returns to his theme of
He continues by showing Marilyn Monroe’s dresses and a strikingly lit scene from Desire (1936) with Marlene Dietrich as examples of the careful attention paid to the creation of stars. The elaborate dolly shot used in Gone With the Wind (1939) is then seen. He displays the technology used in photographing Hollywood’s dreams—two cameras, one developed in World War II, the other coming into use in the 1960s--and the movie theatres acquired by the studios so that the films made in “boring buildings” could be seen by audiences in grand palaces. He quotes author Henry Miller as calling the
The problem with Cousins’ presentation is that, with the exception of The Thief of Bagdad, he has yet to show any example of actual
Perhaps sensing that he had strayed too far from the American cinema of the ‘20s, Cousins returns to The Thief of Bagdad, showing extended footage from a film he says could stand for many of the
In suggesting, however, that the film was in any way typical of the
In content, too, The Thief of Bagdad was a trail blazer. Despite its fantastic narrative, it was unusual in its time in presenting the Islamic civilization of the Middle East with sympathy and respect, a decided departure from the many
Cousins then asks the rhetorical question whether the
He begins by analyzing Buster Keaton in terms of his mastery of cinematic techniques. He demonstrates Keaton’s fascination with cinematography through a clip from The Cameraman (1928), his ability to think like an architect in devising a gag for One Week (1920), his editing technique with a repetition of the Sherlock, Jr. dream sequence previously featured in the first episode, his employment of the special properties of film to show his character leaping from one high building to another in The Three Ages (1923). He also includes from the 1965 documentary, Buster Keaton Rides Again, an example of Keaton’s continuing ingenuity toward the end of his life in conceiving gags. Scenes from his large-scale Civil War masterpiece, The General (1927), including the destruction of a real train, illustrate the extent to which he was able to film amazing and elaborate gags to express his comic vision. Using off-screen footage of the comedian in later years, Cousins notes that Keaton later lost this freedom when he was at MGM and for years was forgotten. As an example of Keaton’s continuing influence, he also includes a clip from Elie Sulieman’s Palestinian film, Divine Intervention (2002). He transitions to the next segment on Charlie Chaplin by excerpting the famous scene from Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) in which the two artists worked together.
The section on Charlie Chaplin is the most fully developed with choice footage from three of his features. Cousins emphasizes Chaplin’s elaborate use of body language, showing his painstaking rehearsal of a scene in City Lights (1931), followed by an excerpt of its execution in the completed film. The Kid (1921), Cousins points out over scenes from the film, drew on the comedian’s memories of childhood poverty in
While there is less time given to Harold Lloyd, reflective of the unfortunate dearth of critical attention paid to him over the years compared to the tremendous amount of writing on Chaplin and Keaton, Cousins is to be commended for including him in the pantheon alongside the other two where he certainly belongs. Utilizing an excerpt from Luke’s Movie Muddle (1916), he points out that Lloyd started out with a character influenced by Chaplin in the “Lonesome Luke” series before creating his own screen persona, a nerdy-looking young man in glasses who turns out to be, as Cousins puts it, “a ballsy dreamer.” He first shows this character in footage from Haunted Spooks (1920) and then demonstrates Lloyd’s daring on a high building in Never Weaken (1921) despite suffering in real life from vertigo and the loss of several fingers on one hand. Next, he highlights the tremendous thrilling climax in the legendary feature, Safety Last (1923), in which Lloyd encounters every conceivable obstacle during his climb up a towering building, an ascent which finally brings him to the top where he is reunited with his girl. Lloyd’s influence on other filmmakers is then illustrated by a scene from Ozu’s silent comedy, I Flunked, But. . . (1930), in which college students act in a manner similar to that of the American comedian.
Following this segment on the great comedians, Cousins returns to The Thief of Bagdad and its visual splendor which held so much appeal for a world audience. But then he makes a decidedly strained comparison in once again identifying the
The reintroduction of The Thief of Bagdad is intended by Cousins for one clear purpose, namely, to serve as a transition to those filmmakers in
In other respects, Cousins, using clips from the film, effectively makes the point that Nanook had a major impact on audiences by showing real people apparently filmed in their daily lives, although he also acknowledges that Flaherty was willing to stage scenes to convey his vision. But after noting that Flaherty’s film established the documentary as a major force in cinema, he seems to go off course again. He follows the footage from Nanook with scenes from documentaries made decades later—Forough Farrokhzad’s The House of Black (1963), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), Jorgen Leth’s The Perfect Human (1967) and its spin-off, Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions (2003), and Susan Dynner’s Punk’s Not Dead (2007). With the exception of Farrokhzad’s outstanding and poetic study of life in an Iranian leper colony, none of these films bear any similarity to Nanook nor does he say they were specifically influenced by Flaherty. In neither his book nor his series does he give examples of documentaries in the ‘20s and ‘30s directly inspired by Flaherty’s pioneering work, such as the celebrated films by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Grass (1925) and Chang (1927). By turning into a mini-history of documentaries, the end effect of this segment is to take away the viewer’s attention from the stated subject of this episode—1920s
Getting back on topic, Cousins discusses in turn Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928). For the most part, his treatment of these two great films is excellent with intelligent commentary on their remarkable, pioneering realism. In this, he was aided by Kevin Brownlow’s skilled documentation of the films in his Hollywood: The Pioneers from which Cousins not only derived insights and factual data but also portions of interviews that Brownlow conducted for his celebrated series.
Following the lead of Hollywood: The Pioneers, Cousins introduces the segment on von Stroheim with a striking and sinister close-up of him from his first film as a director, Blind Husbands (1919). He speculates that von Stroheim might have been influenced by Flaherty’s realism when he made Greed, although this is most unlikely as the director had already announced in early 1920 his intention of bringing Frank Norris’ McTeague to the screen, two years before the release of Nanook. In addition, von Stroheim's brilliant technique, with its painstaking exploration of psychology and dissection of society, was a vital part of all the films he directed prior to the appearance of Nanook.
Cousins' speculation about the documentarian inspiring von Stroheim seems to stem in part from the very limited time that the episode allowed for a proper exposition. In his book, on the other hand, he was quite perceptive in writing that Flaherty, Lois Weber and von Stroheim developed their highly individual visions of reality independently. Particularly outstanding among films faithfully presenting the early 1920s were two masterpieces released in 1921, Weber's The Blot and William C. deMille's Miss Lulu Bett, both of which were intensely realistic depictions of American small-town life. Anticipating Greed in its use of natural interiors--scenes filmed inside actual houses rather than on studio sets--The Blot shows uncompromisingly the poverty that beset educators in an aggressively commercial society. Miss Lulu Bett, with simple eloquence, portrays the rigid conformity of a provincial community against which its long-repressed heroine finally rises in revolt. Despite the praise in his book of Weber's strong social consciousness, however, Cousins did not mention The Blot which she made for her own independent company and is considered by many her greatest work. As for Miss Lulu Bett, neither the film nor its director was acknowledged by Cousins, perhaps because its production by a major studio flies in the face of his assertion that the Hollywood dream factories in those days were devoted exclusively to manufacturing glamorous escapism.
With its epic scope, Greed was a true landmark, a culminating achievement in cinematic realism, and Cousins is right on target in comparing it to the works of Zola and Dostoyevsky. In his segment on the film, he includes the Brownlow interview with screenwriter Anita Loos in which she praises von Stroheim as a poet and an artist, one of the few true geniuses in
Then Cousins shows haunting images from the director's masterpiece, powerful scenes in Greed of the growing estrangement between two former friends, Trina (ZaSu Pitts) with her gold coins, the harrowing disintegration of her marriage to McTeague, the final deadly confrontation in the desert wastes of Death Valley, filmed in blazing heat as von Stroheim, seeking the ultimate in realism, pushed his actors to the limit. He includes part of another interview from Hollywood: The Pioneers, this one with cinematographer Karl Brown who expresses the feeling that early in his life von Stroheim must have suffered such pain and humiliation that he decided to use film as a weapon. That weapon, as Cousins correctly points out in this instance, one of untrammeled realism, targeted the unreal romantic fantasy that appeared in many popular films. He mentions how Greed, which the MGM producers hated, originally ran many hours before it was drastically cut for release. Cousins also includes footage of von Stroheim’s return visit to
Cousins then considers King Vidor’s The Crowd, accurately describing this uncompromising depiction of a
After these segments on the two monumental American films of the 1920s which challenged glamour and romantic escapism, Cousins then makes a sharp overseas detour. From the vistas of 1920s
A closer parallel to The Crowd can be found in another film from Soviet Russia—Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1927), a realist masterpiece made at exactly the same time as Vidor’s classic. Like The Crowd, Room’s film powerfully presents the pressures of daily life in a modern urban environment. The menage a trois that ensues when a man who has found work in Moscow is forced to share an apartment with an old army buddy and his wife due to the housing shortage, the unusual conclusion when the woman leaves both men to go on her own rather than abort the child resulting from the liaison—this was a portrayal of the life of ordinary people with a striking realism that directly opposed conventional ideas of domesticity. In a further counterpart to Vidor’s challenge to
Cousins observes that Protazanov’s film was very different from the Soviet works he will cover in a subsequent episode. Then he turns to a film by another great Russian director contemporary with Protazanov, Evgenii Bauer. He includes remarkable scenes from Bauer’s 1915 masterpiece, After Death, the story of a man who becomes obsessed with an actress he meets and whose spirit returns to haunt him after her untimely death. Cousins shows Bauer’s brilliance with composition and staging, his skillful use of tinting, his sensitive direction of players—all accompanied by insightful commentary. Unlike with many other directors, however, Cousins says nothing about Bauer’s life or his fate—his death in 1917 in his early fifties after four intensely creative years as Russia’s foremost director, a passing that preceded by just a few months the dramatic changes in Russian life, including its cinema, affected by the Russian Revolution. In and of itself, however, the segment on Bauer’s After Death is quite striking.
The difficulty arises that, much more than the Aelita footage that preceded it, this sequence has no discernible connection to the rest of the episode concerned with 1920s
This kind of misplacement is especially regrettable as the pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, including Bauer, one of the true geniuses of early cinema, was largely unknown in the outside world for decades. Only with the end of the first Cold War and the opening of the Russian archives in the late 1980s did this major chapter of film history finally become accessible in the West. It was essential that a documentary series on film history help further the continuing recognition of early Russian cinema by placing it in its proper context, as Cousins had done in his book. But by dumping it in the midst of an episode on 1920s
In an effort to justify his inclusion here, Cousins aligns Bauer with realistic filmmakers who went on to challenge Hollywood’s romantic outlook, thereby further confusing the issue by locating the pre-revolutionary Russian cinema within his favored binary. But while Bauer did direct a number of realistic films, After Death is not at all an example of realism but is rather a cinematic masterpiece of the Symbolist movement that dominated Russian art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an era of creativity known as the Silver Age. Symbolism was a rebellion against the realism and naturalism that had been so prevalent in
Cousins has constructed his entire series around a theory pitting a Hollywood attempting to dominate the world with its escapist fantasies vs. a number of efforts, mainly in other countries, to challenge the particular vision of life fostered by the Pacific Coast colossus. This results in a reductionist interpretation in which seemingly every alternative vision of cinema is anti-Hollywood and committed to “realism,” even if the filmmakers’ well of inspiration had nothing to do with a particular repudiation of Tinseltown nor was motivated by an adherence to realism as an artistic movement.
Cousins’ characterization of Bauer in After Death as a realist would also appear to be intended as a transition to the next segment on the great Danish director, Carl-Theodor Dreyer, and his silent film masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), made in
Undeniably, there are definite parallels between Dreyer and the rebel American filmmakers who were highlighted earlier. This segment, therefore, does not seem as awkward an interjection as the one on Protazanov and Bauer that just precedes it. Dreyer’s silent film directorial career does belong to the postwar decade and his cinematic vision was incontrovertibly at odds with studio artifice. The refusal to use make-up on the actors in The Passion of Joan of Arc, the insistence on absolute realism to the point that the players seemed to be really living and suffering like the characters they were portraying—these all bore a similarity to methods employed by Flaherty, von Stroheim, and Vidor.
Even so, there are specific historical aspects to the evolution of Dreyer’s art that Cousins does not address. The director’s fierce independence arose from his years of experience as a scriptwriter at Nordisk and his desire to make films that were very different not from Hollywood’s but from the more standardized Danish productions that the studio had made. In his battle to establish himself as a director in the late 1910s, he was inspired not only by the Scandinavian masters Christensen, Sjostrom and Stiller, but also by D. W. Griffith, the American filmmaker Cousins had labeled as “over-remembered.” Yet
From one perspective, it seems a bit odd that Dreyer, who never worked in
While it would hardly have been possible for Cousins to have included all these examples in his series, it is telling to discover how much was missing in his book to begin with and how that would have necessarily influenced what he chose to emphasize in his documentary. In his book, he makes no mention at all of Fejos and Shipman although both have enjoyed a renaissance of interest in recent years. Ingram he merely refers to in passing in his book as an adherent of the kind of “closed romantic realism” characteristic of the
There can be little doubt about the intensity with which Cousins goes about promulgating his theory. The earnest nature of his presentation about Hollywood's domination is far removed from the lighthearted satire of Sergei Komarov's A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927), a very amusing Soviet film about the enormous popularity of Pickford and Fairbanks in the Russia of the 1920s. The story of a humble theatre usher who becomes a sudden celebrity after a chance meeting with Mary Pickford in which she kisses him, it was built around a scene Mary had filmed with leading actor Igor Ilyinsky at the Mezhrabpom Studio in Moscow during her 1926 visit with Fairbanks. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this film, with its delightful mixture of irony and admiration for Hollywood and its star system, plays no role in Cousins' much more serious critique of the American cinema's effect on world filmmaking.
In summary, Cousins’ second episode, intended to document the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s and the rebels who emerged within its ranks, begins by illustrating the system in that period with clips from sound films made years later along with one elaborate 1920s production that was made independently of the big studios. He then gets back on track by properly discussing the three great comedy stars and the three great maverick directors, marred only by a comparatively slight lapse into a history of documentaries. But next he takes the episode into another country in an earlier era that has nothing whatever to do with