IN the golden years of Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1950s, the golden boys were not really the actors but the directors.
John Ford said he would want to be remembered as the man who made Westerns. That plea is convincing but in her book, Great American Film Directors, author Dian G. Smith has this to say about Ford: “Yet some of the best of the more than 135 films Ford directed during his half-century in Hollywood are not Westerns, and his Westerns are not simple shoot-’em-ups.” For Smith, Ford’s films tend to revolve around the themes of community, family, traditional values, sacrifice and defeat. Ford is known for How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man.
With the name Frank Capra comes funny films about men and women who did not look odd but glamorous. In her book, Smith quotes Capra as having described his style as “comedy in all things.” Capra labored for so many years, in and out of Hollywood, before hitting the formula. It was in 1934 with his film It Happened One Night, a story about a journalist and a heiress meeting on a bus ride, that the “screwball comedy” is said to have been born. The film would win all the major Oscars and would leave the director anxious about not being able to do the same excellent job again.
We can never be sure if Howard Hawks suffered the same anxiety but he would never win Oscars for his films though most of them were box-office hits. He would only get his honorary Academy Award in 1975, when he was hailed as “a giant of the American cinema whose pictures, taken as a whole, represent one of the most consistent, vivid and varied bodies of work in world cinema.” Hawks was the man behind the tandem of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Noted for such films as To Have and Have Not and Bringing Up Baby, Hawks had several technical tips on how to achieve a fast pace in his film. He allowed the overlapping of dialogues by letting actors jump on lines, adding “a few unnecessary words at the beginning of each line—‘Well,’ or ‘I think’—so that the sense would not not be lost when the lines overlapped.”
Who does not know Alfred Hitchcock? Asked to direct two films in Germany, Hitchcock would have the chance to view F. W. Murnau’s film. According to the book by Smith, that exposure would influence
the young filmmaker with “the use of light and shadow and strange camera angles to create atmosphere, and the presentation of ideas in visual terms.” The lessons we learn from Hitchcock are all captured in this book. One is the use of dialogue in cinema: “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” The director would always break down the script into shots and have them done on a storyboard by an illustrator. The result, according to Smith, was a “precut picture.” Hitchcock indicated camera angles and set design and colors. Some of his films are: Murder!, Rebecca and Psycho, the last made more famous by a 1998 remake by Gus Van Sant, doing a shot-to-shot remake and copying Hitchcock’s camera movements and editing.
A shift from silent to talkie created a space for George Cukor to be a dialogue coach to actors expected to talk in movies. Smith talks of Cukor’s achievements in “being able to get good performances from talented but temperamental women.” George Cukor was known for being a women’s director in films that starred Joan Crawford (The Women, A Woman’s Face), Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight), Katharine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Judy Garland (A Star is Born), just to name a few great faces and, perhaps, temperamental actresses. For all his identification as a woman’s director, Smith notes how three male actors won Academy Awards for their roles in Cukor’s films. These were James Stewart (A Philadelphia Story), Ronald Coleman (A Double Life) and Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady). Through the quotes made by Smith, George Cukor has words about the camera: “Unless moving the camera is going to contribute to something to the scene in question, let it remain at rest.
In Smith’s book are two directors who became doubly famous as actors. They are Orson Welles and John Huston.
Welles was known for his partnership with John Houseman in Mercury Company, their repertory theater. In 1938, Time Magazine honored him as “the brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years.”
It was, however, not until his film Citizen Kane that Orson Welles’s name shone the brightest. The book mentions the many contributions of Welles to cinema. One of these is the filmmaker’s “use of deep focus, which keeps in focus everything from 2 feet to 70 yards.” Welles pays tribute to montage in Smith’s book when he says: “Montage is not an aspect, it is the aspect…the images themselves are not sufficient; they are very important but they are only images. The essential is the duration of each image, and what follows each image.”
Fans remember John Huston for his role as the corrupt millionaire father of Faye Dunaway’s character in Roman Polanski’s timeless masterpiece Chinatown. John Huston, however, is quoted in the book as saying that he did not take acting seriously, and that he did it for the money and because it was much easier than directing. And yet this is the man who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, and who would direct classics, like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In the last film, he would win the Academy Awards for Best Director and the Best Supporting Actor for his father, Walter Huston. In 1985, he directed Prizzi’s Honor, where his daughter Anjelica Huston received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.