Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"His Cyclonic Attack" - Theodore Dreiser Picks the Six Worst Pictures of the Year from New Movie Magazine, January 1932

HOLLYWOOD'S industry represents millions upon millions of hard-earned money, pays salaries far more fabulous than those of general, king, scientist or artist, buys rights to literary masterpieces at figures in the hundred thousands, and what does it all come to? Merely the cheap sex story! 

Hollywood has one Almighty it swears by. This is luxury, against which background sex flourishes. But luxury, the fashion parade, great halls, servants polishing the ladies' toe nails, etc., etc., for these Hollywood stands; as for anything else — be it economics, science, politics, medical discoveries, the ordinary and yet so human and intense wear and tear of life, or what you will, it has no eye nor ear — the disdain, really of a drunken reveler. Yet it remains a truth, even of the elements in which Hollywood is so much interested, that time, ease, and a reasonable amount of money do open opportunity for instincts of love, art and beauty which might otherwise be filched. 

But if Hollywood ever heard of this finer interpretation of what it is so interested in, no evidence of it is visible in the box-office hits of the year. Rather luxury on the screen exists merely for its own sake. Characters bask in sheer silks, on Oriental rugs amid palatial environment. Never is it an inspiration to something more pleasing to the mind, more useful or aesthetic. 

Yet people accept the grand show — crowd to it by the millions, and why? Because America, with all of its prosperity talk, is luxury-starved. Hence the man with twenty-five cents, gazing rapturously at a pseudo-display of millions and all that that implies. But Hollywood, creator of this illusion, how much wiser, more helpful and encouraging to people would it not be to show them intelligent leisure and intelligent spending as the developer of love and beauty. After all, most of our lives are fought out without millions.

And many of them are colorful and strange and even beautiful. But does Hollywood know that? Can it be made to see? No, it cannot. For its head is as empty as its purse is full. Not only empty luxury, but empty faces. The cheap sex story depends on the beautiful features of the stars' faces, and on that alone to arouse the emotion called love. 

How did Constance Bennett's character in "Bought" inspire Nickey, her boy friend writer? No hint of that in the picture, except by close-ups of a pretty face. In fact, inspiration in movie love is ridiculous to think about because it is absolutely lacking. Tell me, in "The Road to Singapore," what was there? Miss Kenyon reclined and posed sensually several times, Mr. Powell lit several cigarettes masterfully, a dozen or so South Sea natives beat tom-toms. And there you are. 

In fact, the movies are so silly that I find it almost impossible to discuss them seriously. There is no least suggestion of that mind yearning desire of a man toward a woman or a woman toward a man that we call spiritual and that sometimes lives even after sex is burned out, no poetry or romance of the nature to introduce genuine feeling. Instead Hollywood offers only a meaningless sensuality that is faithless the moment the other's eyes are turned. Every man is the sweetest man in the world to the girl. Every girl is a night out, even to the sweetest man. Such is their fickledom. 

No more relation or understanding at all is needed to make a movie marriage. During the entire show, "A Free Soul," Norma Shearer didn't care two cents about her old polo-player sweetheart, but he made a convenient thing to go to in the end, so, presto, marriage. It has to be! In the movies. And quick, too! 

And again no intelligence, no sense even, is needed for the girls. The less the more human, thinks Hollywood. And what accomplishment if any is required in the sex story to bring about emotion? Why, the lighter the better. The only accomplishment of "Bad Girl" was having a child and that was an accident. 

For the most part Hollywood's silly sex stories, are often the most ridiculous melodramas or even worse — just plain hokum. Indeed such motion pictures as "Brought" or "A Free Soul" are nothing but modern versions of the hardy old melodramas of whiskey days. In "A Free Soul" the drunken, yet betimes pseudo-heroic father, Lionel Barrymore, with Norma Shearer, smart hardwood version of his little Nell, was a fair duplicate of that most blustering, foolish type of stage play which infested America more than a generation ago. Progress? Ridiculous!

Whereas in "A Free Soul" the father, a lawyer, dies at the bar (of the law court), defending his daughter's future husband, charged with murder, in "Bought" the little Nell turns out to be the daughter of the naughty old man, now good. 

To return to "The Front Page," it is not even melodrama; it's just tomfoolery. Chasing men around the table and in and out doors and windows to get a newspaper story. But Hollywood has no interest in encouraging the people to think or to know. Of course not. The useless psychology of the carefree. The medicine man of the aborigines. That's what Hollywood is to the whole world. And yet Hollywood sends this primitive stuff to civilized countries all over the earth with the idea that it has something to give them.

So many movies are not only just plain hokum, but they are socially meaningless, and worse, debasing. For almost always they concern the lives of wasters who apparently do nothing, contribute nothing and, worse yet, do not care to, and even think it is small-minded to do so. 

Any comprehension of the social structure as it stands today is out, particularly if it approaches the need of doing something beneficial or useful to others of mankind, in return for necessities received from that mankind's labor. You would never believe, from a Hollywood movie, that any one really had to work in order to eat. No Hollywood film knows the meaning of it. 

Sorrow (real sorrow) — it, too, is gruesome, and hence out.

So, in "The Road to Singapore," William Powell merely dined and wined and groomed and rode horseback. But at whose expense? No one knows. With ease without work or return of any kind to any one being taken for granted (without examination) by the public -- one senses a socially lax and uncomprehending people, to whom anything can happen and will. 

And it is the Hollywood movie as it is now that is helping this thing along. 

Not only that, but movie stories like this betray the finer instincts of their character. In this very motion picture just referred to Doris Kenyon left her husband, a doctor, bent on research, investigation and discovery, to go to the suave sap, played by William Powell. And all in the name of love, mind you. And what matter if he is pickled silly half of the time, dictates like a Caesar in the forum and, as far as character goes, is all bluff, just a bag of wind? But he wears pajamas so divinely, the girls breathe. Why think whether better impulses are betrayed or society rendered meaningless? 

It is for this reason that I hold this whole trashy Hollywood business to be a menace. It is in the hands of a money-besotted crew that ought to be booted out, in order that at least some of the more reasonable phases of life, character, humor, drama and tragedy might have a chance. As it is now, and as it was in the jazz period so recently ended, the crook, the fool and the waster have dominated all. Sex has been marketed until all sense of its real value or force has gone. Not only that, but it is consistently used to bolster up and put over wholly mistaken conceptions of life which can only do harm to all. Thus, in any movie, when characters get in a jam, anything happens — the most asinine, the most improbable. In other words, it matters not how society really functions. Hollywood shrugs its shoulders and, in "Bad Girl," for instance, introduces a philanthropic doctor who, out of the goodness of his heart, not only brings the baby to moneyless and reckless parents, but contributes a good sum of money to help the pair along! 

Miraculous, but as life socially worthless, and, worse, betraying to the mind of the dub who thinks something like that will break for him. 

EVEN a picture which might have some social value because it is supposed to be based on history is often weakened sadly by Hollywood boomers who dabble in it. Take, for an example, "Alexander Hamilton." The movie surely does not give the impression that Hamilton was an aristocrat; in fact, it tries subtly to dispel that idea. Yet, in fact, Hamilton did not believe in the people or the Constitution. Rather, he considered that monarchy was best, but that at least the opinions of the property-holding class were always better for the poor people. More, he subtly strove in every way to bring to nothing the dreams of the idealists of his day. But is that in the movie? Tush! Be still! 

The facts about Hamilton are that at the time when the ex-soldiers of the war for American independence were going about carrying rolls of Colonial promises to pay, instead of money, uncollectable scrip from every State from Maine to Georgia, the bright thought came to some bankers of the time that it would be well for the new American Congress to assume all the soldier wage debts of all the colonies and pay them — but not until most of them had been bought in by said bankers and money grafters of the day at ten cents on the dollar. If you don't believe this, read a documented work entitled "The History of Great American Fortunes," by Gustavus Myers. And once it was reasonably all in, the bill was passed, and the soldiers properly bilked, as is meet and right in all such cases. 

But in this movie, we have Hamilton as your ideal hero, honest, kind and true. And his grand bill is passed — at the end, of course. And not only that, but he is greeted and vindicated by Washington himself, who at the time the public is down on Hamilton for his affair with the beauty other than his wife, arrives and amid the roll of drums, the sympathy and tears of Hamilton*s wife, and the admiring faces of his fellow statesmen, tells of his gratitude to and his confidence and faith in him, whereupon Hamilton utters the words somewhere historically accredited to him: "The passage of this bill will bring wide prosperity, a prosperity far beyond present vision." Yet that bill and quite all the movie stuff about it at the end was all a fake. 

The Assumption Bill which this was supposed to be, was passed in 1790. Hamilton's other great bill on the National Bank was made a law in 1791. The end of the picture occurred in 1793. But why not a true Hamilton? He was a picturesque figure, although his being for business interests may or may not be on your political side. Yet he was strong, a fighter. Dictatorial, impatient, debonair and seductive, he believed in the mind of the rich man. 

And concerning all of his ideas surrounding this conception, he believed in himself. In reality, Hamilton was fifty times as strong a figure in real life, as he was in the movies. Yet, Hollywood had to make him sweet. 

In "A Free Soul," the human relationship between Norma Shearer and her father, Lionel Barrymore, was decidedly strained. Yet how improbable their bargain that he, an inveterate drinker, would give up liquor, if she would leave her racketeer lover. Yet the bargain, made and tried for two or three months, on a mountain camping trip, failed. 

But in so many other respects, I find these motion pictures encourage false ideals and ideas about life. In "Bought," a society woman invited Constance Bennett, working in a doctor's office, to a ball, making up the fact that her father was a general in the Indian Army. Well, society just doesn't do those things, no matter how prince charmingly Hollywood arranges it. 

In "The Road to Singapore" are two gross examples encouraging false ideals. Instead of helping her husband, the doctor so much interested in new things coming up every day, his wife chose to scorn his profession and to leave him, a talented person, because he didn't bother with all the social frills in which she was interested. Yet a million to one he never married such a woman — not in real life. 

In the end of this movie, the doctor was made out to be a great weakling, because his wife's lover, William Powell, strutted around debonairly in front of the doctor's pointed revolver and told him to shoot, which he did not/ The doctor's hand crumpled and relaxed over the weapon. Powell went off as a hero; the doctor as a coward. But how socially devastating as well as untrue thus to portray that committing murder or bluffing concerning it, and in such a cause, is strong and heroic — to paint the really decent man as a fool and a coward, and the waster as a hero. Good God ! No brains, no nothing. 

But to talk to Hollywood of mental or social leadership or understanding or truth in any field is hopeless. For that, as it sees it, would not pay. It is hokum that the public wants and hokum it shall have as long as the "long green" can thereby be inveigled into the Hollywood cash-box. Yet I do not charge them with no honor, no decency, no aesthetic taste or pride. They would not know what I was talking about.

--Theodore Dreiser, New Movie Magazine, January 1932

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