June 20, 2012
With the release this Friday of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this week’s most overhyped buzz word will be “mash-up.” In music, a mash-up combines two separate songs into a new work. On an episode of TV’s “Glee,” for example, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” merges with Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” I cherish the 1961 single “Like Long Hair” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, which turns a theme from Rachmaninoff’s C Sharp Minor Prelude into a raunchy rock instrumental. Frank Zappa was expert at finding unexpected connections. At a Mothers of Invention concert he once promised, “We’re going to butcher two of your favorite songs,” then had his musicians play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Them’s “Gloria” at the same time.
The most famous video mash-up may be Robocop vs Terminator by AMDS Films, which has been seen millions of times around the world. YouTube is the repository of choice for fan mash-ups, like the many Buffy vs. Twilight entries. (Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed has been seen over 3 million times.) There you can also find examples of re-cut trailers like a version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by Robert Ryang that makes the horror film look like an upbeat family comedy.
Seth Grahame-Smith, a screenwriter and producer who grew up on Long Island and Connecticut, gets credit for initiating a cycle of mash-up novels with his 2009 work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the first of his novels to reach the screen, and it follows what has become the formula with the genre.
First, the all-important title. Like a “Wheel of Fortune” answer, it must combine two elements that are thought of as unrelated. Jane Austen and zombies, for example, or Lincoln and vampires. Tim Burton, director of Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows as well as a producer on this project, wanted to option the novel before Grahame-Smith had even finished it. “It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see,” Burton said in the film’s press notes.
Second, capitalize on popular trends, notably vampires. In fact almost all of the current crop of mash-up novels rely on horror elements, because who wants to read Abraham Lincoln: Geneticist or Abraham Lincoln: Financial Advisor?
Third, go downscale rather than highbrow. Reviewing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, New York critic Sam Anderson noted that “the sea-monster subplots, considered independently, rarely rise above pulp clichés,” and that reading the original in tandem “sadly diminished” the mash-up.
This formula isn’t limited to mash-up adaptations. Snakes on a Plane relied on the same principles, and was even sent back for reshoots when executives determined the first cut wasn’t vulgar enough.
“Lincoln’s life story is an archetypal superhero origin story,” Grahame-Smith said in the film’s press notes. “He’s as close to an actual superhero as this country’s ever seen.” It’s hard to argue with the author’s approach, at least from a financial standpoint. Grahame-Smith is currently adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and his 2012 novel about the Three Wise Men, Unholy Night, for the screen, and contributed to the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Bekmambetov made educational films and commercials before turning to features and television miniseries. His Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), based on a fantasy novel by Sergey Lukyanenko and released here by Fox Searchlight, depicted a battle between supernatural forces that took place in a contemporary version of Russia. In them Bekmambetov perfected a style of hyperkinetic action as illogical and pointless as it was exciting. (Production has not yet started on Twilight Watch, the third part of the trilogy.)
Mash-up films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—with a hero already known to virtually every United States citizen merged with consumer-approved horror elements—are a marketing department’s dream. So much so that you’d think someone would have tried it before. Which is why Fox publicists desperately hope no one mentions Cowboys and Aliens.
Oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t even the first film to use bloodsuckers in the Civil War. In 1993′s Ghost Brigade, aka The Killing Box, aka Grey Knight, the North and South have to join forces to defeat zombies who are massacring the troops.
Here are some earlier films we might call mash-ups today:
Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Victorian-era sleuth Sherlock Holmes finds himself in the corridors of power searching for missing microfilm in this 1943 mystery. Universal released three Holmes films set in World War II, all starring Basil Rathbone and featuring anti-Nazi story lines. Would Abraham Lincoln have as much success fighting the Axis as he did with the undead?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A mash-up for the ages, this film came about because Universal had both the vaudeville comedians and a stable of monsters under contract. Costello reportedly said, “My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that” when he first saw the script, but he has some priceless jokes in a story about two baggage clerks who accidentally help Dracula revive the Frankenstein monster. When the lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot warns Costello that he will turn into a wolf when the moon rises, the comedian replies, “You and twenty million other guys.” The film was successful enough to lead to four more monster teamings.
Forbidden Planet. Filmmakers have always turned to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about repurposing older material, for inspiration. Anthony Mann’s Western The Man From Laramie used plot elements from King Lear, for example. The Oscar-winning West Side Story placed Romeo and Juliet on New York streets. The Boys From Syracuse reworked The Comedy of Errors, while Kiss Me Kate is a musical updating of The Taming of the Shrew. The MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet was a pretty clever adaptation of The Tempest, a play that author Tony Howard argues is also the basis for the excellent 1948 Western Yellow Sky.
The Valley of the Gwangi. This 1969 Western with special effects by stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen pits cowboys against dinosaurs some 40 years before Cowboys and Aliens. The film may not have the most credible plot line, but for a while it was an underground favorite on college campuses. Not to be confused with lower-budget efforts like Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (1966) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
“Second City TV” I know, not a film per se, but the writers and performers on SCTV masterminded a series of brilliant mash-ups during their sketch comedy series. Among my favorites: “Play It Again, Bob,” in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to persuade Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to appear in his next film; “Bowery Boys in the Band,” in which Robin Williams tries to hide his alternative lifestyle from his fellow gang members; and a scene in which Floyd (Eugene Levy) from “The Andy Griffith Show” asks a favor from The Godfather (Joe Flaherty).
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
March 22, 2012
Critics love to impress readers with obscure films, titles that most moviegoers rarely get the chance to see. Something similar happened with Margaret, a drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. But in a twist, critics are helping to bring this film back to the public.
Margaret was named to several of last years’ Top Ten Films lists, even though it played in the U.S. briefly in only two theaters, one in Los Angeles and one in New York. When the film dropped out of circulation, Jaime N. Christley, a critic with Slant, started an on-line petition (since closed) to bring it back. The Film Society of Lincoln Center scheduled a screening on February 25 with Lonergan and much of the cast in attendance. Now, remarkably, the film is receiving more screenings, starting tomorrow, March 23.
First, a little history. Lonergan, a playwright (This Is Our Youth), screenwriter (Analyze This) and director (You Can Count on Me), began writing Margaret in 2003, although he had the idea since high school and thought of it as a feature film since 1995. He began shooting the film in 2005, finishing that December apart from some pick-up shots and reshoots.
Editing took three years, in part because Lonergan was supposed to hand over a two-hour movie to distributor Fox Searchlight. A lawsuit between producer Gary Gilbert and Fox Searchlight ensued; Lonergan is currently involved in a separate lawsuit which prevents him from talking about many of the production details.
The Margaret Fox Searchlight eventually released in September, 2011 “is the version that was completed in 2008,” Lonergan told moviegoers at the February screening. “I think it’s wonderful and I’m very proud of it.”
Margaret clocks in and just under 150 minutes, which can seem either too long or too short. (The Hunger Games, which opens Friday, runs 142 minutes.) The film follows teenager Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin, after she inadvertently helps cause a fatal accident on the streets of Manhattan.
Traumatized, she reaches out to adults for advice and comfort. Single mom Joan (actress J. Smith-Cameron) and divorced dad Karl (played by Lonergan) do not respond the way Lisa wants, and teachers (played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, among others) also fall short. On her own, Lisa campaigns to right what she perceives as an injustice, taking on the police, the legal system, and strangers in a quest as quixotic as it is poignant.
“I was trying to look at that phenomenon when you suddenly become aware of the world, and all the horrible and interesting things in it, as though no one else had noticed them before,” Lonergan told the audience. “You haven’t been worn down yet. You’re 17 and you think something can be done about it.”
The director recalled a comment Elaine May told him: “Only a teenager could think she could have that big an effect on the world.” “We get tired,” Lonergan went on. “We get to be thirty and say, ‘You know what, I’m just going to make my life right, and the people around me right.’ At best most teenagers find that to be hypocritical and weak.”
The film’s title comes from “Spring and Fall,” a 1918 poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In it, Margaret grieves over leaves falling from a tree. As Lonergan put it, “I remember being in ninth or tenth grade at a friend’s house, and a little sparrow flew against the window and knocked itself out, killed itself. I felt, ‘Oh my god, that sparrow just died.’ Now I could walk past a dozen dead sparrows without blinking an eye.”
Losing that sense of sorrow and injustice is what Lonergan tries to detail in Margaret. But for me, Margaret is special for what it is, not what it is about. Lonergan is a superb writer, but more important, he is a patient one. You Can Count on Me is one of the more heartbreaking movies in recent memory precisely because it unfolds so casually, so unerringly.
Like that film, Margaret is uncomfortably intimate. Lonergan shows us what we would rather not see about his characters: how they fail, make mistakes, give up, ignore or betray each other—the same way we all do. Despite this, Lonergan still finds what redeems his characters, and why we should care about them.
Margaret is also a film in which every location feels authentic. This is what New York City is like: beautiful, chaotic, ghastly, all at once. One shot that sweeps through the Metropolitan Opera has a jaw-dropping grandeur; another, in which Lisa is accosted by toughs, can make you cringe.
One scene in the middle of Margaret crystallizes the problems Lonergan had in editing the film. In it, Broderick gives an interpretation of lines from King Lear; a student (played by Jake O’Connor) offers a different, contradictory meaning. Their extended argument is a comic highlight, “even though it doesn’t actually further the plot,” as Lonergan admits.
“What I think it does do and why it wasn’t just a fun scene that we could cut out was that it is representative of how impossible it is, taken from the teacher’s point of view,” the director went on. “If he can’t convince one kid in one class of one point of one line from Shakespeare, nor can the kid convince the teacher to take another look at the line in any way whatsoever—meanwhile Lisa is trying to do something which much much more difficult.
“I think the reason the scene was written and the reason that it stayed in the movie, to me it’s right on the money of what she’s up against: the fact that people just think what they think.”
This is the beauty of Margaret, a film that expands from its premise to embrace different points of view, to offer reasons for perceived wrongs, to show how one person finds her place in the world.
I’ll gives the last words to Richard Brody of The New Yorker: “Margaret runs the risk of falling into undeserved oblivion—albeit only temporarily. It will be remembered, years and decades hence, as one of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders, and will leave historians to ponder and rue its lack of recognition in its own day.”
February 24, 2012
With 11 Oscar nominations and a slew of other awards, Hugo is one of the most honored films of 2011. “Everything about Hugo to me is poignant,” screenwriter John Logan told me. “From the broken orphan to the old man losing his past to the fragility of film itself.”
The story of a young orphan who lives in a Paris train station and his momentous discoveries, Hugo marks director Martin Scorsese’s first film for children, and his first using 3D. The movie was based on Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo: The Shooting Script has just been published by Newmarket Press/It Books. Along with Logan’s script, the book includes photos, full credits, and production notes.
Mr. Logan took time out from his intimidatingly busy schedule to speak by phone about working on Hugo. “The reason we all made the movie is because we loved Brian’s book,” he says. “It works on so many levels—as a mystery story, an adventure novel, an homage to cinema. The challenge in adapting it was keeping tight control over the narrative. Because despite the 3D and the magnificent special effects and the sets and the humor and the sweep and grandeur of it all, it’s actually a very austere and serious story. Secondary to that, and this part really was challenging, was hitting what I thought was the correct tone for the piece.”
Since Selznick’s book was a 500-page combination of text and illustrations, Logan had to eliminate some characters and plot strands to fit the story into a feature-film format. “Also there were things we added,” says Logan. “We wanted to populate the world of the train station. What Marty and I talked about was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) by René Clair. Like those films, we wanted Hugo’s world to be filled with characters, and I had to write vignettes to dramatize them. Particularly the Station Inspector, played so memorably by Sacha Baron Cohen. We wanted to build that character up to be more of an antagonist to Hugo, so I did a lot of work there.”
Film history is a key element in Hugo, whose plot hinges on early French cinema. And as part of his homage to older styles, Logan incorporated as many cinematic devices as he could. Hugo has voice-over narration, flashbacks, a dream-within-a-dream segment, silent sequences, flip animation, and even scenes that recreate early 20th-century filmmaking techniques. “We tried to suggest all the different ways of telling a story on film,” Logan explained. “Even the trickiest devices in the world, like the nightmare within a nightmare, which is straight out of Hammer horror films. We wanted Hugo to be a cornucopia of cinema, a celebration of everything we do in movies.”
Writing silent scenes as opposed to those with dialogue was “almost like using two different parts of the brain,” Logan said. One part “writes description, which is prose and relies on adjectives, leading a reader and a moviegoer through the action in a sort of kinetic way. The other part of your brain writes dialogue, which has to find the perfectly chosen phrase with just enough syllables, not too much, the appropriate language for the individual character in the individual scene to express what’s going on.”
I found the flashbacks in Hugo especially intriguing and asked Logan to show how he found entry and exit points into the past for a scene in which Hugo remembers his father. “The danger is, if you leave the present narrative for too long and get engaged in a narrative in the past, you’ll have to jump start getting back into the reality of the present,” he says. “And always you want to follow Hugo’s story. So going into the memories about his father, I had him looking at the automaton—which is also when we reveal it to the audience for the first time—and Hugo thinking about the genesis of the machine and therefore his relationship with his father. The transitions for me were always about what Hugo is thinking and feeling.”
Like the clocks, toys, and projectors within the story, Hugo is itself “a precise, beautiful machine”—which is how Logan introduces the train station in his script. For Scorsese and his crew it was an immense undertaking. (One traveling shot through the station early in the film took over a year to complete.) When Logan began work on the project, the director hadn’t decided to use 3D yet. But the author insisted that technical considerations didn’t impact his writing.
“That’s just not the way I work or the way Marty Scorsese works,” Logan argued. “I wrote the script I needed to write to tell the story to be true to the characters, and the technical demands followed. The reality of filmmaking, of bringing a script to life, which are the technical requirements, follow. So I never felt limited in any way to write any particular way.”
Still, some changes to the script were made on the set. “Marty is pretty faithful in shooting,” he says. “But he’s also very generous with actors in exploring different avenues and different ways of expressing things. And of course Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
I use intimidating to describe Logan not just for his skill, but his working habits. In addition to adapting the Broadway hit Jersey Boys for movies, he is collaborating with Patti Smith on a screen version of her memoir Just Kids, and has completed the script for the next James Bond film, Skyfall. In addition to Hugo, last year saw releases of two more of his screenplays, Rango and Coriolanus, adding an Oscar-nominated animated feature and a challenging Shakespeare adaptation to his credits.
It’s just “kismet” that all three films came out in 2011, Logan thought. “Movies achieve critical mass at completely different times for a hundred different reasons,” he added. “You know I’ve been working on Hugo for over five years, and it just happened to come out when it did because that’s when we got the budget to make it, post-production costs took a certain amount of time, this release date was open. But it just as easily could have opened this year depending on any of those factors. Any pundit who says, ‘Well this is a big year for nostalgia about Hollywood’ because Hugo and The Artist are coming out at the same time knows nothing about movies.”
At its heart, Hugo is about broken people seeking to become whole—a consistent theme throughout Logan’s work over the many styles and genres he has mastered. He has written about painter Mark Rothko (the play Red), Howard Hughes (The Aviator), and the demon barber himself in Tim Burton’s version of the musical Sweeney Todd. “Yeah, I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken,” he said. “I’m not interested in happy people. It just doesn’t draw me as a writer. Theater people say you are either a comedian or a tragedian, and I’m a tragedian. And the vexing, dark characters, the ones where I don’t understand their pain or their anguish, they are the characters that appeal to me.”
December 16, 2011
If you’re reading this blog, your interests probably extend beyond current DVD and Blu-Ray releases. This is a great time to collect obscure titles as the industry scours its vaults to make one last killing in the home video market. And the holidays are a great excuse to stock up on movies. But get them while you can: there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop the trend to the cloud.
As a critic I get a lot of screeners. They are both a blessing and a bane, especially as the piles of unwatched DVDs teeter higher around the TV every day. I’ve also reached the age where it’s better to get rid of things than add to them. So it takes something special to convince me to spend more money on a technology that will soon be obsolete. Like the five titles listed below. Some are guilty pleasures, some required viewing.
1. Seven Chances. Kino has been doing a tremendous job releasing Buster Keaton’s oeuvre on Blu-ray and DVD. Any of the comic’s features would make a wonderful gift, but Seven Chances, from 1925, is one of his lesser-known works. Plus it just came out in an “Ultimate Edition” with a newly restored color for the opening reel. (Eric Grayson gives an absorbing account of the restoration on his Dr. Film blog.) Based on a Roi Cooper Megrue play, it’s a sort of variation on Brewster’s Millions, with Keaton playing a financier who has to marry by 7:00 p.m. in order to inherit $7 million. It’s delightful to see the comedian in a relatively sophisticated role, just as it’s always a treat to see his athleticism emerge in carefully worked out gags that in my opinion have never really been equaled. Just as worthwhile is Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection (1920-1923), a two-disc set that includes some of the finest comedy shorts ever made.
2. The Rules of the Game. This 1939 Jean Renoir film examined the French social structure in such a pitiless light that it provoked a riot on its release. A shaken Renoir tried re-editing it, but soon left France for the United States. The negative was lost during World War II, and so essentially was the film until it was reconstructed in 1959. An account of a weekend party at a country chateau, the film veers from comedy to tragedy without ever losing its wry, detached tone. Bravura passages, like an unnerving hunt in the fields, and cinematography that predicts the New Wave twenty years later make The Rules of the Game seem timeless. This is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and if you haven’t seen it you owe yourself this excellent Criterion edition. (And check out some other great films in the Criterion Collection, like Carlos and Island of Lost Souls.)
3. Havana Widows. “Pre-Code” refers to a brief period between the transition from silents to sound and the imposition of stricter censorship regulations in 1934. For years pre-Code films were regarded as creaky antiques and largely neglected by studios. Now, thanks to growing demand, it’s easier for us to appreciate their looser morals and racy, occasionally raunchy subject matter. Warner Bros. made the fastest and funniest pre-Code films, like this 1933 romp starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as blondes on the make. Somehow the plot has them stripping down to their lingerie with surprising frequency. Havana Widows will never be mistaken for a Jean Renoir film, but as escapist entertainment it’s hard to top. (It’s paired on this made-to-order disk with another Blondell feature, I’ve Got Your Number.)
4. Popeye the Sailor 1933–1938. Warner Home Video has released three collections of Popeye cartoons, but I think this is the best. It includes Popeye’s first screen appearance (in the Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor) as well as his two-reel Technicolor extravaganza, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. More important, it includes titles like I Yam What I Yam, The Dance Contest, For Better or Worser, and A Dream Walking that helped establish Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy as some of the most popular cartoon characters on screen. You might be surprised how gruff, funny, and adult the pre-Code Popeye’s muttering can be.
5. Remember the Night. Over the years this has become my favorite Christmas movie, perhaps because its humor and romance are tinged with so much remorse and loss. Barbara Stanwyck plays an unrepentant thief, Fred MacMurray an up-and-coming assistant district attorney, and through a masterful set-up by screenwriter Preston Sturges, both have to spend the Christmas holidays with MacMurray’s angelic mother Beulah Bondi on her farm in Indiana. One part sparkling comedy, one part aching romance, one part harsh reality, the film sets a mood that I find unshakable. An early scene of Stanwyck and MacMurray dancing to “Back Home Again in Indiana” never fails to bring me to tears. Making small talk, MacMurray asks Stanwyck if her mother is still alive. Her response—”I hope so”—shows how deeply the film can cut.
Editor’s note: There is one book for film buffs that Daniel didn’t mention: his own! America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010: A Viewers Guide lays out everything you need to know about the 50 newest additions to the National Film Registry, including Dog Day Afternoon, The Muppet Movie and lesser-known films akin to what you’ve read here on the blog. If you enjoy Reel Culture, you’ll enjoy his book.
November 4, 2011
The lag between current events and their appearance in films is hard to explain at times. It’s been almost three years since Bernard Madoff was arrested, for example, and Hollywood is just getting around to criticizing him in the amiable but toothless Tower Heist. Movies that dealt with the 2008 economic collapse—like Company Men and the more recent Margin Call—felt outdated when they were released, no matter how good their intentions.
The film industry isn’t opposed to tackling social issues as long as a consensus has formed around them. Movies have always defended orphans, for example, and can be counted upon to condemn crimes like murder and theft. (In fact, a Production Code put into effect in the late 1920s ordered filmmakers to do so.) From the early days of cinema, the rich have always been a reliable target, even though the message within individual titles might be mixed. Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and studios like MGM loved detailing how luxuriously the wealthy lived before showing that they were just as unhappy as the poor. And in some films, like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), the poor were vicious and cruel.
Like Greed, D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) was adapted from works by Frank Norris, a San Francisco-based writer who died before completing a trilogy of novels about American business. A Corner in Wheat attempted to show how a greedy businessman inflicted starvation on the poor, but worked better as sort of moving picture version of a political cartoon. Other filmmakers followed Griffith’s example with more insight but largely the same message. As the Depression took hold, features like Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale (both 1933) and Little Man, What Now? (1934) portrayed the country’s economic downturn as the result of mysterious, even unknowable forces.
Comedians actually did a better job depicting economic conditions than did more serious directors, perhaps because many screen clowns positioned themselves as outsiders. In shorts like Easy Street and The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin took poverty as a given, and immersed viewers into the lives of the poor. The jokes in his feature Modern Times had serious things to say about the impact of assembly lines and surveillance monitors on workers. It also aligned Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” screen persona firmly with the left when he picks up a red construction flag and inadvertently finds himself leading a Communist march.
Buster Keaton made an even more daring connection in his short Cops, filmed not that long after anarchists exploded a bomb on Wall Street. Riding a horse-drawn wagon through a parade of policemen, Keaton’s character uses a terrorist’s bomb to light a cigarette. It’s a stark, blackly humorous moment that must have rattled viewers at the time.
Today’s Occupy Wall Street protests are reminiscent of the tent cities and shanty towns that sprung up across the United States during the Depression. Sometimes called “Hoovervilles,” they were the focal points of often violent clashes between the homeless and authorities. My Man Godfrey (1936) opens in a shanty town and landfill on Manhattan’s East Side, and details with cool, precise humor the gulf between the rich and the poor. Unusually for the time, director Gregory La Cava offered a cure of sorts to unemployment by getting the rich to build a night club where the shanty town stood. In It’s a Gift, one of the best comedies of the decade, W.C. Fields treats a migrant camp as a simple adjunct to his story, an exotic backdrop where he spends a night during his trip to California. It’s a brave gesture for a character who could have been swamped in despair.
Fields’ journey to a West Coast promised land evokes the Dust Bowl migration documented by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. When adapting the film version, director John Ford sent camera crews into actual labor camps to document conditions accurately. With its uncompromising screenplay and superb acting, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) stands as one of the finest films to address economic inequality.
Released the following year, Sullivan’s Travels, a comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, included a sobering, seven-minute montage of soup kitchens, breadlines, flop houses, and missions. The film’s main character, a pampered director of lamebrained comedies like Hay Hay in the Hayloft, sets out to find the “real” America by disguising himself as a hobo. The lessons he learns are as provocative today as when the film was originally released.
World War II changed the focus of Hollywood features. Training barracks and battlefields replaced slums and tent cities as the film industry embraced the war effort. Social problems still existed after the war, of course, but in message dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), filmmakers tried to offer solutions—to unemployment among veterans, for example. In the 1950s, movies zeroed in on individuals and their neuroses rather than on a collective society. A Place in the Sun (1951) stripped away most of the social commentary from the original Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy to concentrate on the dreamy romance between stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) was more about a former boxer’s crisis of conscience than it was about a system than exploited dockworkers. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) reduced juvenile delinquency to a teen’s romantic and familial problems.
In the 1960s, Hollywood began to lose its taste for social dramas, preferring to target films to a younger audience. Message films are still released, of course: Norma Rae, Silkwood, The Blind Side, Courageous. But more often than not the message in today’s films is hidden in the nooks and crannies of plots. Is Battle: Los Angeles about our military preparedness? What does Cars 2 say about our dependence on foreign oil? Filmmakers seem to have taken to heart the old line attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. “If you want to send a message,” the producer said, “call Western Union.”