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The Hollywood professionals

2.01.2011

Besides these major directors, a veritable army of skilled journeymen were trained to handle everyday directorial assignments. The studios supervised the careers of not only their actors, but also their directors, cinematogra-phers, and other key creative personnel, acting as a sort of finishing school for talent in support of the system. Directors often advanced to their positions from the cutting room, where they learned how to put a film together from the “coverage,” or footage that had been shot for each film they were assigned to edit. Such directors included William A. Wellman, known as “Wild Bill” for his rough manner and habit of carrying a gun on the sets to emphasize his authority; he created hard-hitting gangster films such as The Public Enemy (1931), which made a star of James Cagney. Indeed, for one of the key sequences in the film, Wellman insisted that real machine-gun bullets be used to blast away a section of a brick wall, just moments after Cagney had ducked behind it. Wellman also directed a variety of other films, including A Star Is Born, examining the vagaries of Hollywood, and the biting comedy Nothing Sacred (both 1937).


Frank Borzage, one of the most underrated directors of the 1930s and 1940s, scored his first big hit with the silent melodrama Humoresque (1920). His style is often dismissed as deeply sentimental, but he won an Academy Award for Seventh Heaven (1927) and went on to create, among many other works, the Hemingway adaptation A Farewell to Arms (1932), Little Man What Now? (1934), about the rise of Fascism in Germany, the charming musical Flirtation Walk (1934), the religious drama The Green Light (1939), and the lavish biblical spectacle The Big Fisherman (1959). Borzage emerges as a conscientious craftsman who always brought to his material an extra measure of dignity, coupled with a fluid visual style that extracted the most from his performers.


Mervyn LeRoy, another deeply underrated auteur, specialized in hardboiled films, such as Little Caesar (1931), which catapulted Edward G. Robinson to stardom. LeRoy directed an astonishing six films in 1932, including I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, an exposé of prison gang conditions in the southern United States; Three on a Match, a sordid tale of adultery, kidnapping, drug abuse, and alcoholism; and Two Seconds, in which a convict sees his entire life flash before his eyes in the time it takes to execute him.


William Witney became the foremost action specialist in Hollywood, and his rise to the director’s chair is typical of the era. Witney began in films as a messenger boy, and after years of work he found a position at Republic as a script supervisor. In 1937, after much lobbying with the front office, Witney began to direct serials, often paired with director John English. Their partnership became the best directorial team in sound action serials, creating chapter-plays such as The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (both 1941). The serials were shot quickly and economically, costing $200,000 to $300,000 apiece, with shooting schedules of thirty to forty days. Witney was also the person who created modern choreographed fight scenes; he learned how to plan and block a movie fight by watching how Busby Berkeley constructed his dance numbers on the sets of his 1930s musicals. Serials were made by a group of talented professionals working at a furious pace, doing at least fifty to sixty setups in a typical day. In terms of stunt choreography, miniature work, camera work, and narrative pacing, Witney and English have influenced a whole new generation of action filmmakers, especially Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who would pioneer the big-screen blockbuster “comic book” film in the mid-1970s.


Allan Dwan began as a filmmaker in 1911, directing hundreds of pictures for a variety of studios during the silent era. When sound came in, Dwan made the transition effortlessly. He directed the very successful Dumas adaptation The Three Musketeers (1939) and the very funny sex comedy Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945), way ahead of its time in its realistic view of marriage and infidelity. Other notable Dwan films include Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), one of the finest movies produced at Republic, and The Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), in which Joan Leslie learns to defend herself in a violent frontier town, only to be set upon by the traditional male hierarchy for overstepping a woman’s role. Dwan is important because he managed to immerse himself completely in his projects and never allowed his style to impose itself on his material. At the same time, the quiet assurance of Dwan’s mise-en-scène is evident in all his work, which is remarkable for its modesty as well as its self-assurance.


Edward Dmytryk came to prominence in the late 1940s as one of the key architects of the postwar genre of film noir (literally “black film”), offering a cynical view of humankind. Dmytryk’s breakthrough effort was the Boris Karloff horror film The Devil Commands (1941), an interesting and offbeat entry in which Karloff attempts to contact the spirit of his dead wife who has been killed in an automobile accident. The micro-budgeted Hitler’s Children (1943), a lurid tale of the Hitler Youth, featuring forced sterilizations and the requisite amount of goose-stepping, was one of the top-grossing films of that year. By the mid-1940s, Dmytryk had moved on to “A” pictures such as the detective thrillers Murder My Sweet (1944) and Cornered (1945), as well as the war film Back to Bataan (1945) and the wartime romance Till the End of Time (1946). During this period, he also developed his signature lighting technique of simply splashing one light on the wall of a set and letting the shadows dominate the frame. This dark, evocative method perfectly suited the subject matter of Dmytryk’s darker films, and, as he noted, it also saved time.


John Huston, who would go on to greater triumphs as a director in the 1950s and 1960s, made an auspicious debut with the classic crime thriller The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor. His later films in the 1940s included Across the Pacific (1942), a wartime thriller that reteamed Bogart, Astor, and Green-street; the World War II documentary The Battle of San Pietro (1945), which showed frontline combat with a realism hitherto unapproached by the cinema; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), a rousing adventure film, starring Walter Huston (John’s father) and Bogart in a tale of gold and greed in the Mexican mountains; and Key Largo (1948), one of the last great gangster films from Hollywood’s Golden Age, again with Bogart, teamed with Bacall (now his wife) and co-starring Edward G. Robinson as aging crime boss Johnny Rocco. With just these few films, Huston established an individual style that favored the actors over camera movement and evinced a strong instinct for narrative drama.



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