Picture, by Lillian Ross

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[NB I read the 1952 edition published by Penguin, not the 2002 one with a new introduction by Ross and a foreword by Angelica Huston]

There is some irony in a book about the making of a film being better known than the film itself, but the truth is that history has not been kind to John Huston’s 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage.  Why that should be can be understood by reading Lillian Ross’s book about a film that could have been a masterpiece, but which was damaged in the pursuit of box office receipts and by inter-office politics.  Ross, a staff writer on the New Yorker, began following the project in the spring of 1950, in its very early stages.  Her aim was to use this single film as a lens through which to scrutinise the industry as a whole, and she chose a propitious film, one that exemplified what was good and bad with Hollywood and its methods.  To achieve her goal, she followed the entire process using what was essentially participant observation, finding out how the business worked from the inside.

Nowadays we might consider Ross’s presence as ‘embedded journalism’, a phrase associated with war reporting, but one that suits the situation, a cold war of sorts, in which she found herself.  She tracks the film’s pre-production, production and reception, sketching the characters of those most associated with its creation, notably of course its charismatic director John Huston.  Her degree of access was extraordinary, making one wonder what the people she was following thought they would get, and what they thought of it afterwards.  She does not seem to have been particularly self-effacing, so perhaps they somehow assumed that what they said would be treated off the record.  The result is a picture of people who routinely have conversations with zero information content, who produce banalities just for something to say, or tend to the hyperbolic in order to persuade everyone, themselves included, that things are going well.

We are used to this documentary style now, but in 1952 it must have been a revelation to the average keen cinema-goer who did not appreciate the convoluted process by which what they watched reached the silver screen.  The book is an antidote to the Hollywood publicity machine’s portrayal of the studios’ product in a positive light, with no sense of the compromises and ruthlessness involved.  For a ‘dream factory’ it was a place where dreams were readily trodden on, even those of someone with Huston’s stature.  To give an idea of their aesthetic impulses, Huston and producer Gottfried Reinhardt’s intention was to evoke Matthew Brady Civil War photographs.  They saw the film in prestige terms, a careful treatment of a literary classic, even while Reinhardt acknowledged the difficulty of rendering the interiority present in Crane’s novel onscreen   Such high-flown aspirations cut no ice with the studio top brass, however, intent on maximising the bottom line.

This is not then just a book about the making of a film, it is a report on the Hollywood system before the ascendancy of the director as auteur, where executives could ride rough-shod over the creative decisions of the director and producer.  It is also a book about the relationship between the film people in California and the money in New York, and the conflict between making art and providing large salaries to senior executives and satisfactory dividends to stockholders.  It was a difficult time for the studios, wrestling with the 1948 antitrust Paramount Decree which forced the split between production and exhibition; falling receipts, and television and other leisure activities growing in popularity; the continuing importance of the Hays Code in determining what was allowed on screen; and the McCarthyite witch-hunts which saw reds under beds in Hollywood.

Ross supplies a great deal of information on MGM and studio politics, and the relationships between the senior executives at MGM and its parent company Loew’s is teased out.  It soon becomes obvious that Huston’s project was caught up in a feud between MGM boss Louis B Mayer and Dore Schary, recently made Vice-president in charge of production.  Schary had been enthusiastic about the idea of filming The Red Badge of Courage, while Mayer disliked it.  The dispute, in addition to being a component in their power struggle, hinged on their differing visions of cinema.  Mayer wanted wholesome fantasy, but Schary was more interested in realism and social comment.  Their dispute over The Red Badge of Courage was arbitrated by Nicholas Schenck, who was the president of Loew’s Inc. in New York. Mayer lost, and left the company which bore his name during the film’s previews.  Whether in the event he was proved correct in his estimation of public taste, which did not on the whole warm to the film, is difficult to determine: MGM, deciding that the film would not make a profit, refused to put money into its promotion. instead giving it a limited release as the bottom half of a double bill.  It was a rather self-fulfilling strategy.

Filmmaking is shown to be a collaborative process in which individual artistry often gets squeezed (Huston’s penchant for including interesting faces, for example).  Ross draws out the indifference shown by those who have power towards those who do not, the sycophancy of those lower down the pecking order, how quickly spurious allegiances can shift, and the extent to which insincerity covers personal interactions.  Albert Band provides a particularly egregious example of this, with Reinhardt generously helping his career, only to have Band refuse to feed Reinhardt’s wife’s dog when Reinhardt wanted to get away for a couple of days when the film was in trouble.  Early cuts of the film shown to studio staff and friends were initially positive, but Ross brilliantly juxtaposes later critical opinions with the enthusiastic ones expressed earlier, as positions shifted in line with senior management’s views.

Ross depicts Huston as a self-dramatist who sees himself as the star of his life, someone who considers his interactions with others in terms of a screenplay.  He is shown to be generally unhappy, his surface enthusiasm hiding an emotional emptiness.  In terms of the book’s structure it is a shame that Huston disappears from the last section, away in Africa making The African Queen.  That absence let him off the hook when it came to defending The Red Badge of Courage’s integrity, a thankless task left to Reinhardt, who put up a rearguard action in difficult circumstances, but it leaves a hole in the book that less colourful characters are unable to fill.  The final section is devoted to a visit by Ross to Loew’s head office which she hoped would allow her to get “closer than I ever had before to the heart of the matter.”  That was a forlorn hope because the matter had no heart, there was only a series of differing opinions and power plays. She interviews various personnel, culminating with Arthur M Loew, president of Loew’s International Corporation, and Schenk, the real power at Loew’s.  But the brown-nosing and banalities she records are no different to those in California.

On this evidence, The Red Badge of Courage must join that band of films that could have been great but were compromised by studio interference.  What sank it were preview scores that were polarised but generally negative.  Remarkably though, the studio chose to preview the film to audiences that would not have been interested in a depiction of the American Civil War in any case (in one, showing it to bobbysoxers who had just seen Harvey), yet their flippant scores and comments were taken seriously.  The result was an endless round of recutting and trimming of scenes, the dropping of some altogether, and the addition of a voice-over designed to emphasise that the source novel, and by osmosis its screen adaptation, was a “classic.”

So can anything be said in the studio’s defence?  Well, the risks were not insubstantial, the film having cost over $1,642.000 according to Ross.  That tended to drive out sentiment towards the creators, as well as any elements which appeared to be dangerously novel and therefore audience-unfriendly.  The studio after all had an obligation to staff and shareholders to make money.  People like Mayer were contemptuous of those he thought were concerned primarily about art at the expense of profit, because such a view was economically unsustainable.  He accused Reinhardt of wanting to be an artist as if it were something to be ashamed of, in contrast to his desire for unadorned sentiment, and he considered The Red Badge of Courage to be too gritty.  At least he was consistent in his opposition, whereas Schary was at first supportive, using the making of the film as part of his feud with Mayer, but quickly changing his tune (no doubt under pressure from New York) when it became clear that the film was not going to be a success.  He oversaw the butchery of those scenes that made it a work of art in an effort to please, as Reinhardt constantly pointed out, cinemagoers who would never like it whatever form it took.  Even then if failed at the box office, so the damage was to no purpose.  For their part, Reinhardt and Huston were well aware of the economics of making films, but did not see that as opposed to making something artistically valid.  There were no easy answers to the art vs commerce conundrum then just as there are no easy answers now, making Picture a fascinating contribution to that perennial debate.

Clearly Huston and Reinhardt misjudged the mood of the studio as well as that of the country.  Perhaps the depiction of a young soldier’s fear of battle, even if he is redeemed later, did not chime in a country that had not long finished fighting in a world war and now found itself embroiled in Korea, which did not want moral ambiguities and to see a young man’s psychological turmoil – especially if that young man is the highly-decorated war hero Audie Murphy – in the face of danger.  As it happens, Ross’s portrait of Murphy is one of passivity, his blankness perhaps a residue of his experiences, the authentic face of war.  The only person truly to come out of the book with a red badge of courage is Reinhardt, who, with his increasing world-weariness as the film moves ever-further from his vision, seems older than his years.  But he shows himself to be intelligent and shrewd, saying what he thinks when all around are revising their opinions in order not to be controversial.  It is a source of real pleasure, and something of a surprise, when he is given his own film to direct.

Nobody at MGM wanted a failure, but there was no clear sight of what would make The Red Badge of Courage successful.  As a result it was denied the status of classic that Reinhardt so dearly wanted, but Picture in a different way managed to become a classic in its own right.  Unfortunately that makes the film’s fate all the more poignant.  After a number of scenes had been cut as a result of the previews, to Reinhardt’s distress, Schary asked him if anybody would miss them.  Reinhardt would of course, even if those who never knew they had been there wouldn‘t, and similarly we miss those scenes because Ross has told us about them.  Yet even though they are gone for good, her book remains some consolation for their loss.

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