2019 Film Essays

Hollywood Confronts Itself: Cynicism and Self-Doubt in the 50s

The official narrative of 1950s America is that this was a time of consensus and plenty. The USA had emerged from World War II as the predominant global power, and it sought to reverse the social disruptions of the wartime period and reinstate the patriarchal order. This would be achieved by enshrining consumer culture as the country’s unofficial faith. Those asked to return to subordinate roles would be mollified by all the glittering attractions a new world of novelty could provide. But beneath the veneer of tranquillity, there were tensions at play. Questions had been posed which could only be deferred for so long. A sense of restlessness began to be addressed tentatively, and was confronted with increasing boldness as the decade progressed. Battles were being waged on multiple fronts of this unacknowledged war, claims were being sought from historically neglected constituents.

Even Hollywood began to doubt itself, its status as a central pillar in the cultural edifice being called into question by suburban sprawl and the rise of television. “The movies” no longer seemed invulnerable, competing in a landscape of expanding options in which the citizen came to be defined by their leisure choices. This uncertainty began to be articulated by some of the industry’s most incisive tribunes of cynicism, but the helmsman of such lavish spectacles as An American in Paris (1951) and The Band Wagon (1953) seemed an unlikely voice of dissent. Vincente Minnelli’s 1950s was peppered with downbeat offerings like Lust for Life (1956) and Some Came Running (1958), but he was one of the least likely workers in the “Dream Factory” to air the town’s dirty laundry. With The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Minnelli emulated a trio of films made in 1950 which took the mythology Hollywood had sold to the world and treated it with an unprecedented level of candour and complexity.

Sunset Blvd. is an anxiety dream of obsolescence. Hollywood’s fear of irrelevance is embodied in washed-up silent film star Norman Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Death and dissolution hang over the milieu that writer/director Billy Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett create, framed by the body in the opening scene. The body belongs to down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gilles (William Holden), whose fate seems to articulate Wilder and Brackett’s feelings about what the industry does to the creative impulse: it is a resource, relentlessly expended and endlessly replenished. The town Sunset Blvd. presents is stalked by a gnawing fear that the institution of the movies will become as risible and anachronistic as Desmond; a figure who wallows in a quagmire of nostalgia; whose dilapidated mansion is a mausoleum commemorating the industry’s cultural primacy. All that is left is to preside over the ruins. Desmond is a spectre of elegance and grandeur, trapped in the images she is doomed to replay until they turn to dust. Sunset Blvd. is Hollywood haunted by its own haggard reflection, and Wilder scoffs at such horror. Sunset Blvd.’s use of the macabre is calibrated at a consciously hysterical pitch; it is the revenge of the town’s peripheral players.

In a Lonely Place introduces viewers to screenwriter Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) with a shot of his eyes in the rear-view mirror. The eyes are restless, predatory, scanning the landscape for something they know they will not find. They instantly bring to mind a similar shot in Taxi Driver (1976). It is an apt comparison, as Dix and Travis Bickle occupy the same psychological terrain. They are veterans for whom the war never ended; they are unable to engage with the world on the accepted terms; their impassive veneer slips only for explosions of violence. Like Bickle’s taxi, Dix’s car becomes a vessel for projecting his rage. Director Nicholas Ray and writer Andrew Solt present Hollywood as a haven for the maladjusted, where intemperate impulses can be spun into creative gold. Laurel (Gloria Grahame) succeeds briefly in channelling Dix’s fury to productive ends; she fills the missing centre Dix would rather die than relinquish, and their relationship descends into one of masochistic possession. The creative impulse is shown to be both ennobling and eradicating; the writer is once again trapped in the machinery. Ray’s films are a seam that runs through 50s cynicism; from the sexual politics of Johnny Guitar (1954) to the nascent youth culture of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to the suburban addiction of Bigger Than Life (1956). His vision is the inverse of the strength and optimism Hollywood set out to project through the decade.

The critique of Hollywood in All About Eve is somewhat more oblique, practicing a distanced hostility which is couched as animus across the coasts. Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz depicts the theatre world as Hollywood in miniature, its rancorous junior partner in the entertainment complex. In order for Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) to eclipse her hero and mentor Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and progress to the West Coast, she must hone her killer instinct on the stage. For Eve, Margo is a monument whose contours reveal a secret; if she studies them assiduously enough, she will ascend into the pantheon of idols. But Eve forgets the lesson inherent in her study: the imperious yet imperilled status of the star in a firmament of endless novelty. Mankiewicz posits celebrity as a form of infantile disorder, one which has overtaken culture; it was an astute thesis then, and still feels germane. In order for Margo to become a fully-formed woman, she must liberate her humanity from the tyranny of make-believe, disentangling herself from the mysticism of symbols. George Sanders is the voice of cynicism as theatre critic Addison DeWitt; he brings a modern sensibility to proceedings, a grinning assassin who grasps the terms of the fame game all too well and sneers at any expression of sincerity regarding it. It is his point of view the film privileges.

Limelight (1952) finds Charles Chaplin grappling with his status in a Cold War polarity and a changing artistic landscape. Chaplin plays Calvero, a music hall “tramp comedian” whose best days are behind him, whiling away his days in an alcoholic haze. When Calvero saves Thereza (Claire Bloom) from suicide, he is newly energized by the possibility of helping the despondent ballet dancer to return to the stage. Chaplin’s final American film is an extended reverie on his own travails, which seeks to comprehend whether any of what he has gifted to the world will endure. Limelight presents moribund structures and decaying certainties; Calvero plays out his past glories in his dreams, a hypnagogic vaudeville performed in an existential arena. Chaplin heralds the wit and ingenuity with which the illusion of art is constructed, positing that desire is the primary engine of creation, propelling the artist towards a vision that transcends meaning. The star is the vessel for public desire, but these desires change. Calvero avers that the crowd is “a monster without a head” which “can be prodded in any direction.” He realises that the love of the crowd can quickly descend into pity, that the old routines lose their value in a reconfigured world. Chaplin and Buster Keaton appear together as a nobility of the dispossessed; the “old weeds” who refuse to bend with the prevailing wind, clinging resolutely to the illusion that refuses to be dimmed by experience.

Chaplin’s assistant director on Limelight was Robert Aldrich; a director who seemed uniquely attuned to the less salubrious currents running through 50s America. In films like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Attack! (1956), Aldrich saw the possibility of the grotesque behind Hollywood’s radiant veneer. With The Big Knife (1955), Aldrich and writer James Poe presented the most thoroughgoing excavation of the grotesque in their own backyard hitherto attempted. Rather than seeking to open up Clifford Odets’ play, Aldrich and Poe use the theatrical roots of The Big Knife to its advantage, creating a stiflingly oppressive milieu without sacrificing the cinematic. Aldrich frames Bel Air with Dutch angles, and shoots his leading man — granite-featured movie star Charles Castle (Jack Palance) — in low angles which lend him an illusory potency. Castle is a disillusioned tough guy who finds himself enmeshed in a delicate game of brinksmanship with the outside world, trapped in the battle to maintain the illusion carefully cultivated by the studio’s autocratic head, Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger). The Big Knife postulates that the movie star is the appearance of the regular distorted beyond all proportion. Charles is a punch-drunk heavyweight who hasn’t grasped that the fight is fixed. Victory is restricted to the screen. The studio operates with the logic of a criminal conspiracy; anything is permitted “for the good of the company,” its assets must be shielded from “the wolves and the knives” that lie in wait beyond Hollywood’s opulent cage.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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