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Filmmaker Whit Stillman selects essential books about Hollywood
May 31, 2008; Page W8
1. The Genius of the System
By Thomas Schatz
Inspired by the French critic André Bazin's comment that what was admirable in classical American cinema was "not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system," Thomas Schatz chronicles the creation of the studio system that made the films of Hollywood's golden age. He interweaves the stories of Warner's, MGM, Universal and independent producer David O. Selznick to show that the genius was not so much of the system as of the talented film executives who knew how best to profit from the people and properties at their disposal. MGM, for instance, devoted a quarter of the budget of a star-studded film such as "Dinner at Eight" to story and script. (Today story costs might more typically be pegged at 2.5%.) At Paramount, studio chief B.P. Schulberg turned ex-newspaperman Herman J. Mankiewicz loose to hire his former colleagues. As he famously wired Ben Hecht: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."
2. The Parade's Gone By . . .
By Kevin Brownlow
Kevin Brownlow's books are great, over-researched labors of love. His first work was this sprawling oral history of the silent era, "the richest in the cinema's history." Buster Keaton remembers his single day of formal education, which he played for laughs -- the school thought it advisable that he not return. Actor James Morrison describes the ruination of the thriving Vitagraph studio: "I left Vitagraph in 1918 when they brought in efficiency experts. When that happened, the art of the company disappeared. Here were three people dividing two million dollars a year -- and yet they brought in efficiency experts." The experts' idea: Cut down on the amount of film that directors could shoot; Vitagraph was soon history. Brownlow concludes that, at its best, silent cinema's "photography glistened and gleamed, lights and gauzes fused with magical effect until the art of lighting reached its zenith. It was not merely the stories or the stars that gave magic to the silent screen. It was the patience, hard work, tenacity, and skill of the silent-film technician -- the man who, in less than ten years, had developed a craft and perfected an art."
3. When the Shooting Stops . . . the Cutting Begins
By Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen
The dourest of men, Ralph Rosenblum was the editorial genius behind many of the great modern film comedies, including the first films of Woody Allen, Herb Gardiner and Mel Brooks. Rosenblum's account of the editing-room transformation of "The Producers," "Take the Money and Run" and "Annie Hall" is a film education in itself and a counterweight to the usual debate over the primacy of either script or direction. Rosenblum's bête noire is the cult of the film director. In his memoir only three directors -- Allen, Gardiner and Sidney Lumet (the first two also writers and so more tolerably "auteurs") -- come off well. "The myth that the director is the sole creator of his film is a burden on almost everyone in the movie business, including the director," he and co-author Robert Karen write. Particularly revealing is Rosenblum's description of how the beautiful ending to "Annie Hall" -- when Allen, as Alvy Singer, muses on the absurdity and necessity of romantic love -- was concocted in a taxi and recorded in a sound booth barely an hour before a key audience screening.
4. Between Flops
By James Curtis
Film directors are generally duds as biographical subjects, but the great exception is Preston Sturges. As James Curtis relates in "Between Flops," Sturges was a wastrel of an inventor and man about many towns when he wrote his first play out of pique at an actress girlfriend. His second play, "Strictly Dishonorable" (his reply to a young woman who questioned his intentions), became a major Broadway hit of the 1920s. Later, as a screenwriter at Paramount, he found a sympathetic studio executive in William LeBaron. Sturges offered to sell the studio his script for "The Great McGinty" for a dollar -- he was then getting upwards of $30,000 -- if they would allow him to direct it. The result was one of the great winning streaks in film comedy, including such classics as "The Lady Eve" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." But LeBaron was followed as production head by songwriter-producer B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva -- "a small, abrasive Italian with a production sense limited primarily to musicals," Curtis writes -- who proceeded to drive out the studio's most valuable asset.
By François Truffaut
Simon & Schuster, 1967
The encounter between the Anglo-American master of one movie generation and the Continental leader of another became film history's most remarkable dialogue. Both men propagate the "visual fallacy" in filmmaking, the overvaluing as "cinematic" the purely visual, while giving short shrift to the aural -- sound, music and dialogue. But a great film could have been made of their exchanges alone. "I saw 'Spellbound' again recently and I must admit that I didn't care very much for the scenario," Truffaut comments. "Well, it's just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis," Hitchcock replies. The back-and-forth continues, until Truffaut says: "I hope you won't be offended, but I must say I found the picture something of a disappointment." "Not at all," the master responds, taking control: "The whole thing's too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing."
Mr. Stillman is a film director and novelist.
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