Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Thirty(one) Most Anticipated Films of 2015

Hey, have you guys heard they're making a new Star Wars movie?

Conventional wisdom dictates that all of the good, award-worthy movies come out at the end of the year while all of the billion-dollar popcorn movies run May-July.  Don't get me wrong, I'll consume all of that as well, but it is almost always the films that fall between the cracks that make the biggest impression on me.  Here's what I'm most looking forward to as we wave goodbye to the 2014 Oscar™ parade caboose.  For a much shorter read, check out a list of My Wife's Most Anticipated Films of 2015.


30. White God (Fehér Isten) (d. Kornél Mundruczó)
This Hungarian film opened to mixed reviews at Sundance despite winning the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.  It looks like a pretty hokey drama but a pretty sweet B-horror.  It'll be interesting to see how the two are reconciled.
U.S. limited release: 27 March 2015


29. Seymour: An Introduction (d. Ethan Hawke)
Another audience favorite (taking second runner-up for the People's Choice Award in Best Documentary at Toronto last fall), Ethan Hawke's examination of concert pianist Seymour Bernstein is hopefully the musical equivalent of Golub.


28. Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller)
His first non-Happy Feet movie in almost two decades, George Miller's return to roots looks like the best kind of over-the-top, Drive Angry, grindhouse exploitation.
U.S. release: 15 May 2015


27. The Look of Silence (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Danish documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer has won huge accolades on the festival circuit with his sequel to 2012's The Act of Killing.  This is sure to be harrowing.
U.S. limited release: July 2015


26. Ned Rifle (d. Hal Hartley)
The third, final and-- if it lives up to the hype-- best chapter in Hal Hartley's extended Henry Fool trilogy casts Parker Posey alongside Aubrey Plaza.  The film is scheduled for screening at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and will hopefully get a limited U.S. release by the summer.


25. 3 and 1/2 Minutes (d. Marc Silver)
On the heels of #blacklivesmatter, Marc Silver's documentary debuts at the Sundance Film Festival and recounts how gun culture and racial bias culminated in the 2012 death of 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida.  Like last year's Citizenfour, this appears to be a timely, relevant and uncompromising historical document and, hopefully, work of art. 


24. Round Up (d. Sufjan Stevens)
This is a weird Sufjan Stevens "documentary" that appears to be an environmentalist art installment of a slow-motion rodeo.  Maybe this one is only for me, and who knows if I'll ever even be able to see it.
Release: It'll probably show up on Vimeo in like three years.


23. Killers (d. Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto)
This seems like a crazier (and probably more straight-genre) version of I Saw The Devil.  Brutal.
U.S. limited release: 23 January 2015


22. It Follows (d. David Robert Mitchell)
This looks like a really stylish genre piece in the vain of Starry Eyes and The Guest.  This is the kind of thing that seems fit for VOD nowadays, but I hope I can see this somewhere outside of FilmBar.
U.S. limited release: 27 March 2015


21. High-Rise (d. Ben Wheatley)
The prolific Ben Wheatley has given us Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England all since 2011.  I don't even know what this movie is about; I'll be there.


20. Mistress America (d. Noah Baumbach)
Baumbach has found his muse in Greta Gerwig in what looks like a combination of mumblecore and screwball comedy.  #mumblescrew
Release: I'd guess limited late-summer


19. The Witch (d. Robert Eggers)
Sundance darling that apparently sounds like exactly what it is.  You had me at "witch."


18. Spring (d. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)
In their follow-up to the genre-bending Resolution, Benson and Moorhead return with a "romantic horror" which looks to buck convention while making me real uncomfortable.  This is a lot of what I loved about Under the Skin and Trouble Every Day, so I have high hopes for this one.
U.K. release: 17 April 2015; hopefully U.S. will follow suit


17. Nie yin niang (d. Hsiao-Hsien Hou) 
His first feature since 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon, marking his longest professional hiatus by some distance, this film-- which I know nothing about (including pronunciation)-- is on here by reputation alone.  It's currently listed on IMDb as in post-production and sounds like the kind of thing that will debut at Cannes and half of the audience won't be into it.  


16. The Sea of Trees (d. Gus Van Sant)
I'm hoping this is Van Sant's return to form (like "Death trilogy" form, not self-congratulatory crowd-pleasing form) in teaming with Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts in something that sounds an awful lot like Gerry.  Gerry with trees.


15. Z for Zachariah (d. Craig Zobel) 
I can't say enough good things about the under-recognized Compliance, but where Zobel turned huge performances from a non-recognizable ensemble cast, his latest currently credits only Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor who are, possibly, the last known survivors on earth.  This title may compete on my short list of "favorite Z-titled films" alongside Zelig, Zero for Conduct, Zero Dark Thirty and a few Zatoichi pictures.
Danish release: 16 April 2015.  Thanks, IMDb.


14. The Duke of Burgundy (d. Peter Strickland)
Technically, this thing is already out.  From the guy who brought us Berberian Sound Studio and the Björk: Biophilia Live concert film, the unofficial prequel to Anchorman.  
U.S. limited release and VOD: 23 January 2015


13. Kamakura Diary (Umimachi Diary) (d. Hirokazu Koreeda)
A domestic drama adapted from the manga of the same name, this thing seems to be right up the alley of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Life, Nobody Knows).  I wouldn't be surprised if this thing debuts at Cannes as it's set to open in Japan a month later.
Japanese release: 13 June 2015 


12. Love in Khon Kaen (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) 
From Thai director Weeransethakul's website, Love in Khon Kaen "tells of a lonesome middle-age housewife who tends a soldier with sleeping sickness and falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms, and romance." Sounds par for the course for the guy that brought us Uncle Boonmee.


11. The Lobster (d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
From the crazy Greek who brought us Dogtooth, here's hoping that The Lobster follows the recent European arthouse tradition-- alongside Attenberg and Borgman-- of confounding fever dream.
U.S. limited release: March 2015


10. From the Dark (d. Conor McMahon)
Irish creature-feature which casts only two actors.  From the director of Stitches.


9. Crimson Peak (d. Guillermo del Toro)
"But basically what it is is a really, really, almost classical gothic romance ghost story, but then it has two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing in a very, very modern way. Very, very disturbing, it's a proper R rating. And it's adult."
— Guillermo del Toro
So, basically, Pan's Labyrinth with Jessica Chastain?  This could skyrocket close to #2 on my list, but my excitement is tempered by my disinterest in returning to Pacific Rim
U.S. release: 16 October 2015


8. Green Room (d. Jeremy Saulnier)
I'm looking for Saulnier to catapult to the forefront of American directors (genre or otherwise) after the exceptional Murder Party and Blue Ruin with this killer tagline: "A young punk rock band find themselves trapped in a secluded venue after stumbling upon a horrific act of violence."  Starring Imogen Poots and featuring Patrick Stewart as a Neo-Nazi. 


7. Darkness by Day (El día trajo la oscuridad) (d. Martín De Salvo)
I've been excited about this movie since I first heard of its existence and it still has no U.S. distribution.  I hope someone picks this up before it hits Latin American torrents.


6. Yeezus: The Film (d. Hype Williams)
No one knows anything about this movie, including if it even exists.  Kanye released a teaser trailer last February.  Expect me to be camping out if this gets a theatrical release.


5. Tomorrowland (d. Brad Bird)
The next in the proud tradition of theme-park related films, Brad Bird will again play King Midas to something that would sound like a dumpster fire in anyone else's hands.
U.S. release: 22 May 2015


4. '71 (d. Yann Demange)
Full disclosure:  I've seen this one and it rules.  I don't expect this to play well this side of the Atlantic, but it should further flex Jack O'Connell as an A-list actor where his last few American features let him down.
U.S. release: 27 February 2015


3. The Hateful Eight (d. Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino continues his foray into historiological metafiction through redemptive violence and blissful cinematic commentary.  Inglourious Basterds was no mere Dirty Dozen knock-off, Django Unchained re-Americanized the essence of the spaghetti Western, and we have every reason to believe The Hateful Eight will play genre in a way that pays healthy respect to, but completely transcend expectation and source material of, its Magnificent Seven reference.  I mean, look at that poster.
U.S. release: 13 November 2015


2. Midnight Special (d. Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols may very well be the next true American auteur.  Midnight Special seems to follow familiar themes in Take Shelter and Mud of the disillusionment of childlike wonder and the seams where the fabric of paternal leadership begins to tear.
U.S. release: 25 November 2015


1. Knight of Cups (d. Terrence Malick) / Untitled Terrence Malick Project (d. Terrence Malick)
I'm cheating by ending this list with a twofer, but it is an unprecedentedly exciting place in cinema where the short distance between 2011 and 2015 can produce as many Terrence Malick films as the previous 39 years.

What do I know about Knight of Cups?  Very little.  I don't even understand what the title possibly refers to, and I'll keep it this way.  Remember when The Tree of Life was coming out and people were touting how it took Malick a long time to balance the harsh representation of fatherhood with the developing technology which made the dinosaurs look legitimate?  There was no way to wrap my mind around a statement like that without actually seeing it, and my visceral and emotional connection was heightened by this ignorance.  I know Christian Bale is in it.  I know Natalie Portman is in it.  I know Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett and Nick Offerman are in it.   I know '70s posterboy Ryan O'Neal adds Terrence Malick to his already crowded résumé of New Hollywood directors he's worked with (including Stanley Kubrick, Peter Bogdanovich, Blake Edwards, Norman Mailer, Richard Attenborough).  But I'm not convinced any of them could even tell us what it is about at this point.

I know even less about the second feature.  Including its title.  I know it has a slightly improved cast (if that can be fathomed) with a few carryovers and I know the two films were shot, more or less, concurrently. Maybe Untitled will come out in 2015?  If not, the recent trove of Malick will hold me over for a lifetime.

I also know To The Wonder is my favorite film of 2013, and I know The Tree of Life is my favorite film of my lifetime.  That's all I need to know.  By all means, watch the trailer.  But I haven't.

U.S. release: 11 December 2015 (Knight of Cups)

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Friday, January 9, 2015

The 40 Best Films of 2014


What does the cultural barometer tell us about ourselves in 2014?  I think our films tell us that we are resilient.  Look at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken: these films aren’t Jessica Chastain crying in the back of a military transport, they’re about heroes doing heroic, American things.  Funny, then, that the latter is a story of forgiveness that never gets to the forgiving, and the former is a tale of war-caused PTSD which ends before its real-life protagonist’s life is cut short by a veteran with PTSD.  They’re jingoistic smoke and mirrors with the guts to only look at the smoke.

A recurring theme in this year’s films is the uncanny valley: doppelgangers abound, enemies disguised as ourselves, emasculation of and prescribed heroes and, in the case of Doc Sportello, learning he couldn’t see the mirrors for the smoke.  We need the movies not for, as Detective Rustin Cohle says, the “transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel,” but to see what is ugly about ourselves and why this demands we approach others with grace.  This bumper crop projects our lives back upon us, reminding that sometimes what is hardest to watch is the most necessary.  Our resilience was never called into question, only its cost.

With no intention of being contrarian, my list avoids the much fawned-over Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance) and I find much of their praise misguided herd mentality.  The best of the three, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a hell of a gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless and one that would be better served with a more cohesive through line and character depth.  Writer Guild and ACE editing nominations belittle much of the work on my list which didn’t have the luxury of twelve years.

I used to be an unabashed, card-carrying member of the Cult of Wes Anderson and still hold The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited in my top 100 films of all time.  Crushing to me is that, since the naval-gazing increased with his last two features, he has finally achieved universal acclaim.  His work has become a parody of itself and leaves me hollow where it was once edifying.  The notes are pristine, but they ring untrue.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is ramshackle, fun and a throwback to classic screwball comedy—kind of in the same way Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight is a throwback to classic romantic comedy.  One is seen as a shallow disappointment, one has bloggers lobbying behind it for Best Picture nominations.  Both lie somewhere in the middle.

Birdman is another beast altogether.  Perhaps the most critic-proof of the three, the film attempts to both vilify Hollywood’s franchise inclination (a lazy critic’s m.o.) and eat its cake too, lecturing a one-dimensional critic.  Embarrassing, then, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Godzilla are all better and more human films.  The indictment on critical herd mentality isn’t unfair, only misplaced: the critic’s job is to trace culture’s de Broglie-Bohm theory.  To express what is objective, in our souls, about the arts.  To expose pretention and put words to the poetic ineffable.  Birdman, as it turns out, is indeed quite effable.  Eff Birdman.

The punchline is all of this is likely moot as far as the Academy is concerned, for The Imitation Game certainly looks most like a Best Picture™.  Kudos for being honest enough among the contenders to eponymously name its feign at art.

I initially intended to wait to compose my list until A Most Violent Year grew legs into the Phoenix suburbs.  As it turns out, that won’t be until at least January 23.  It is with a heavy heart that the film joins a short list of contenders which I found no way to see in 2014: A Girls Walks Home Alone At Night, National Gallery, Citizenfour, The World of Kanako, Stray Dogs, Mommy and three films which have yet to find distributors: Darkness by Day, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga and Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait.  I hope this working list is usurped by a few of these in the year to come.  Conversely, it was hard to bite my tongue and leave Yann Demange’s ’71 off the list as it is due for U.S. distribution in February.  Even with spots reserved for the possibility of two Terrence Malicks, it’s assured a top ten finish in 2015.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Best Short Films of 2014

Before I wrap my list of favorite films of the year, I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorite short films from 2014.  Academy Award nominations will frustrate completists in a couple of weeks and I feel safe in my prediction that, not only will none of these compete for a prize, their online availability proves that (sorry, Academy) the Internet is the most viable medium for the format.

10. Sean (d. Ryan Reichenfeld)

SEAN from Ryan Reichenfeld on Vimeo.

Ryan Reichenfeld of Justin Timberlake music video fame has created an oddly philosophical everyman piece about a teenage Jack In The Box employee from Lake Havasu, Arizona: a naive nihilist in the land of Spring Breakers.


9. Breathe (d. Laron Murray)

Eric Garner BREATHE from Laron Murray on Vimeo.

Turning a dying man's pleas into a spoken word call to justice and solidarity, the brevity of Laron Murray's Breathe is harrowingly self-referential.


8. Are You Okay (d. Bret Easton Ellis)


Following the ever-growing trend of blurring the line between short film and music video, Bret Easton Ellis's cut of Dum Dum Girls' "Are You Okay" certainly benefits from one of the finest dream-pop songs of the year and from Dee Dee Penny's long-established persona of grindhouse feminism.  (see also Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself" with similar bubblegum-goth, L.A. subversion in another of the best music videos of 2014).


7. Verbatim: What Is A Photocopier? (d. Brett Weiner)

Brett Weiner's New York Times Op-Doc is a word-for-word historical recreation highlighting the unintentional humor of legal deposition.


6. Kid Danny (d. Andrew Cohn)















ESPN's best "30 for 30" short film of the year catches up with Danny Almonte who-- amidst a teenage Miguel Tejada scandal--  threw a perfect game in the 2001 Little League World Series.  Typical of the best ESPN films, it is both sappy and redemptive in the best way.

I've fought with ESPN's video player for the whole year, so it is of no surprise that their embed feature doesn't work now.  The film can be viewed here.


5. Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' (d. Travis Mills)

Jack London's A Piece of Steak - Clip - 52 Films in 52 Weeks from Running Wild Films on Vimeo.

The pinnacle of Travis Mills's "52 Films in 52 Weeks" project (though closely followed by Ring Lardner's 'Harmony'), the adaptation of Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' (quotations added to avoid an awkward insult) is a one-man highlight reel put on by Jonathan Medina.

As the only film on the list not currently available online (I suspect Mills is curbing his proliferation in preparation for his upcoming "Lose Yourself"-moment in his next film, Durant's Never Closes), keep an eye out as this will be available again at some point in the year.


4. The Dream (d. Errol Morris)


The best of Errol Morris's trio of Op-Doc "Peace Films," the biographical documentary of Nobel winner Leymah Gbowee avoids schmaltz and approaches profundity.


3. Gan-Gan (d. Gemma Green-Hope)

Gan-Gan from Gemma Green-Hope on Vimeo.

The heir to Joseph Cornell.  A Scott Stark contemporary without a shred of pretension.


2. The Time-Eaters (d. Harry Dodge)

The Time Eaters—Harry Dodge from Futurepoem on Vimeo.

A Kierkegaardian Before Sunrise re: hydrophilic chemistry, the cremasteric reflex and pie crusts.


1. Too Many Cooks (d. Chris "Casper" Kelly)


I initially wrote this off as a clever (and musically brilliant) meta riff until it subverted my expectations so many times I could no longer keep track.  There's a serial killer (the only uncredited character) who stands in for us as we demand these characters live out this hell in a piece that finds commonality between "Roseanne" and Lars von Trier's The Kingdom.  It's a condensed, Internet-era marriage of Chris Elliott's "Action Family" and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland which manages the impossible: it is sincere in its irony.

It also understands itself to its core: an Adult Swim "infomercial" that I only wish I discovered while awaking from a hangover, on the couch, at 4:30 A.M.  I want to meet the person who unknowingly walked into that nightmare.  I Am A Strange Loop, indeed.  (See also their follow up-- and cousin-- Unedited Footage of a Bear).

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Friday, August 22, 2014

The Golden Age to the New Hollywood Era: Hollywood post-World War II



Hollywood’s Golden Age—an era bookended by the christening of sound motion pictures and the Supreme Court’s anti-trust verdict in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. —was a time of vast proliferation in terms of studio output and tremendous profit for a handful of vertically-integrated production companies who dominated the market. Even if per capita attendance never again reached the heights of the silent era (Pautz 83), the coincidence of monopolistic business practices and the prominence of cinema as the dominant form of media ensured that the Golden Age was the industry’s most profitable era (Dirks).


The fallout from the Paramount Decision necessitated change in theatrical exhibition and, as television began to replace the cinema as the dominant form of media, the Hollywood film industry was strong-armed into diversification. The Big Five and Little Three (who dominated as much as 99% of the annual movie market share in 1964) caved to media conglomeration for capital but saw their market shares consistently drop throughout the New Hollywood Era (Finler 40). This era saw Hollywood engage new practices in business and aesthetics partly in response to legislation (both theatrical exhibition and decency regulations changed due to the Supreme Court’s Paramount Decision and its overturning of its 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruling in 1952, respectively), but mostly to jockey for competitive edge. If cinema was to no longer be the dominant media platform, deviation from the Classical Hollywood Style in terms of content, form and business practice would vie to get audiences back in seats and to obtain fragmented pieces of the leisure dollar as modes of exhibition evolved.

The ramifications of the Paramount Decision are what ultimately changed the course of the Hollywood industry forever. The Golden Age of Hollywood was so prolific and profitable because of the stranglehold a handful of studios had on the production, distribution and exhibition arms of the industry. In 1948, the Supreme Court found the eight Hollywood production studios “conspired to and did restrain and monopolize interstate trade in the exhibition of motion pictures…and that their combination of producing, distributing and exhibiting motion pictures violated §§ 1 and 2 of the [Sherman] Act” (United States v. Paramount Pictures 131). This conspiracy demanded exhibition houses charge minimal admission prices, elevating quantity over quality. 

A significant portion of income for Production houses during the Studio Era came from block-booked lineups and major studios created B-movie units to round out pre-sold double bills with low-budget productions. As Hollywood studios retained the rights to production and distribution but no longer had control of exhibition, B-movies decreased in value. Exhibition houses demanded films of higher quality and B-units from the major studios were phased out. Production values (and costs) increased as a result of more discriminatory booking and the prolific number of Hollywood films (many of which, B-movies) produced during the Golden Age quickly dropped.

To capitalize on their smaller number of films, production companies began to distribute their big budget films through roadshow exhibition, protecting their assets by moving away from long-term contracts with movie houses. Studios travelled their elite programming and charged higher rental fees to independent theaters who, in turn, charged more per ticket for big-budget productions. Pouring huge budgets into roadshow features proved to be a gamble for production studios; while 20th Century Fox’s extravagant The Sound of Music surpassed Gone with the Wind as the all-time rental leader in 1965, the production costs of Cleopatra almost bankrupted the studio two years earlier despite being the highest grossing film of the year (Hefferman 424). This would not be an isolated event. Roadshow features were culturally safe (often historic, biblical or literary) to appeal to large audiences, epic in scope to present an awesome spectacle television couldn’t provide, but extravagantly—sometimes irreparably—expensive.

Higher rental prices may have, for studios, offset the loss from producing fewer films, but exhibitors had to innovate new strategies to fill seats as attendance declined into the 1950s. The advent of drive-in theaters captured new youth and family-oriented baby-boom markets, particularly in rural and suburban areas. Though something of a novelty, the drive-in created a new experience which juxtaposed the intimacy of a car’s private space with the camaraderie and spectacle of public entertainment. Films even became secondary as some drive-ins featured shuffleboard, miniature golf and dine-in areas. 

Pre-show drive-in shuffleboard
Inner-city theaters—once the hub of cinema in the Golden Era—struggled as “confiscatory rentals and extended first runs in large suburban theaters meant that last season’s hits began their subsequent runs in the inner city virtually played out” (Hefferman 419). These exhibitors stayed afloat by targeting specific audiences with their programming: they reran kiddie fare, played niche sci-fi and horror films to a growing cult of genre, and even targeted its ethnic crowd with social problem pictures (Hefferman 419). Niche programming became key for several small and second-run theaters and, although the Paramount Decision freed exhibitors from studio pricing, it wasn’t until another Supreme Court decision came in 1952 that exhibitors could take advantage of a new trend in foreign and independent cinema as the loosening of the Production Code made such a cinema of attractions possible.

The second Supreme Court decision that forever tousled the Hollywood industry as it moved toward the New Hollywood Era was the 1952 overturning of its initial ruling on 1915’s Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. In order to consolidate concerns of state-mandated censorship boards following the 1915 ruling that denied the extension of First Amendment rights to motion pictures, and to repair a poor public image of Hollywood lasciviousness due to off-screen scandal, Hollywood executives forged a trade association to protect its economic interests. In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began work on a Production Code which went into effect in 1930 and ran through Hollywood’s Golden Age. This self-policing found Hollywood studios willing to abide by zealous mandates against portrayals of miscegenation or sexual inference to prevent a bad apple from spoiling the bunch.


The Production Code prevented any major studio from exploiting indecency in an effort to elevate the cinema as legitimate in the public eye and, with vertical integration still intact, the Code was “enforceable because of the lock the five majors had on first-run exhibition. Film lacking a Code seal could not play in affiliated theaters. Barred from the lucrative first-run market, it was economic suicide for the majors to make films that would not be granted Code approval” (Schaefer 381-2). The Production Code was, therefore, more a matter of economic security than morality; studios abided by the rules to jibe with exhibition as well as to guard the public perception of trade credibility.

However, the judicial stance on decency changed, coinciding with the Paramount Decision. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas stated in 1948, “‘we have no doubt that moving pictures, like newspapers and radio, are included in the press whose freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment,’ opening the door for a challenge to motion-picture censorship” (Schaefer 382). This challenge would come four years later in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson which overruled 1915’s Mutual Decision, defanged the Legion of Decency and allowed theaters—now unbound by monopolistic tendencies—the freedom to exhibit edgier foreign and independent films without a Production seal.

Jack Valenti, MPAA President 1966-2004
With the Production Code increasingly difficult to enforce, censorship growing passé with evolving cultural mores, and new art-house and genre audiences to exploit, the major studios reframed regulation in the form of the MPAA rating system to again protect their economic advantage. A statement by MPAA president Jack Valenti in 1968 (the same year the new rating system went into effect) does rhetorical work in distancing the stance of the production studios from the now culturally unpopular connotation of “censorship” while preemptively self-policing to avoid government intervention. Valenti asks, “Can censorship cure the portrayal of violence in the media? …I would have a larger question. I would ask: Can censorship curb violence in the society? I think it’s a truism that movies are not beacons but rather mirrors of society” (Valenti 71). That is to say, censorship under the Production Code did not cure societal ills, but the new market could be legitimized. The resulting MPAA ratings system was the best of both worlds for the production studios: the R rating allowed grittier content forbidden on television and “became a gateway to the legitimate film marketplace: a code of production, distribution, and exhibition serving the major players in the industry” (Sandler 258). Just as it would have been “economic suicide” to release a film without the Production seal during the Studio Era, the MPAA phased out their X rating—bowing instead to censorship—to avoid legal injunctions preventing exhibition. The MPAA’s X rating would become New Hollywood’s economic suicide, while the legitimized R rating would become immensely profitable as it allowed for thematic and formal variations on the Classical Hollywood Style.

As exhibition increased its independent and foreign fare, and the MPAA legitimized boundary-pushing content with its R rating, the Hollywood industry saw audiences return as they altered thematic and formal content. The Godfather was one such success story which was “a critical and commercial smash with widespread appeal, drawing art cinema connoisseurs and disaffected youth as well as mainstream moviegoers,” pulling audiences away from their televisions and correcting a 7-year skid in box-office attendance (Schatz 292). What this statement presupposes is that, though the narrative tendencies for films which would come to be known as “blockbusters” were always at the forefront of studio concerns, art-house crowds and “disaffected youth” were significant audiences to consider. The success of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider in the late 1960s indicated to studios that genre revisionism with auteurist sensibilities could be profitable despite their shift from the Classical Style (Grainge 409). Though films of the Studio Era often had a distinct house style, directors—considered employees rather than artists—perpetuated an invisible style in both sound and visuals. As studios began to terminate long-term staff contracts following the Paramount Decision, it also grew increasingly difficult for a director to retain familial crews to develop a singular look. Films of the Classical Hollywood Style were, therefore, enterprisingly corporate and stylistically invisible.

John Cassavetes directing Faces with hand-held camera
The curio that was art-house cinema along with disaffected youth receipts led studio executives to take a gamble on the auteuristic tendencies of New Hollywood directors. Many of these directors employed distinct visual style and reflexive genre play which ran contrarian to Classic Hollywood invisibility. Robert Altman innovated overlapping dialogue through use of multi-track mixers, John Cassavetes experimented with handheld cameras, long takes and deliberate pacing and Woody Allen authored films of non-linear narrative, all on the studio dime. Where deviations from the Classic Style toward the end of the Studio Era came in the form of novelty to rival television viewership (the inherent reflexivity of CinemaScope and 3D), reflexive tendencies in the New Hollywood Era were framed as singular, artistic visions.

The profitability of the auteur style, however, was unsustainable despite the promise of a “new cinema” that came with corporate conglomeration at the end of the Studio Era. Horizontal integration would encourage the prominence of the blockbuster as synergistic output could incorporate returns throughout a wider media spectrum. Certainly studio executive always preferred homogenized entertainment in times of economic depression. Declining attendance in the 1950s encouraged safe, pre-sold releases and epics and musicals from pre-existing material dominated the box-office throughout the decade. Strangely enough, when the majors began being absorbed into corporate conglomeration—beginning with MCA’s takeover of Universal Pictures in 1962 during another studio depression—low-risk homogeny wasn’t their primary concern.

Michael Cimino amid shooting one-million feet of film for Heaven's Gate
In an attempt to reach a youthful audience with youthful leadership, the media conglomerates largely replaced studio dinosaurs with “brats” who also saw promise in the art-house and disaffected youth crowds. Noel King describes this New Hollywood as “a brief window of opportunity…when an adventurous new cinema emerged, linking traditions of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking with the stylistic innovations of European art cinema” (268). Such adventure from a wider pool of resources would also bankroll such big-budget auteur flops as William Friedkin’s Sorcerer in 1977 and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980—the latter bankrupting United Artists—to increased studio anxiety. Even “brats” like Francis Ford Coppola whose prior work had been highly successful at the box-office saw their directorial power fade. Much like the industry’s treatment of Orson Welles at the height of the Studio Era, the New Hollywood Era saw the climate grow tenuous between single-minded directors and big business.

Screenwriter William Goldman summed up the corporatization of the film industry by saying, “Most of the studio guys I’ve met are really smart, but they don’t care much about the movies. As slots, yes. As merchandising tie-ins,—oh my—yes. As theme-park rides, you betcha! And that’s the problem. They are mostly ex-agents or business school types. They care about slots and profits and product and Burger King cross-promotions” (King 271). On the surface, this is undeniably true: the entrenching of the high-concept blockbuster demands larger budgets to films of broad appeal with the promise of large returns across multiple outlets through horizontal integration and cross-promotion. The fallacy of Goldman’s quip is the presupposition that “film as film” has ever been a primary motivating concern among studio executives.

The Studio Era’s vertically-integrated control of exhibition and its shift to roadshow distribution weren’t about “film” any more than the Production Code (or subsequent MPAA rating system) was about morality. Blockbuster films of the New Hollywood Era may be high-concept and pre-sold (like the adapted epics of the 1950s), but they aren’t diametrically opposed to auteur cinema of the late-’60s and early-’70s: both were considered low-risk in their time and exploited a welcoming demographic. The diversification of media left the film industry with no choice but to invite corporate conglomeration. Legislation pulled the rug from their monopolistic strength in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the competition for post-World War II leisure dollars made it impossible for the industry to sustain itself as it had at the beginning of the Studio Era when, in 1929, it earned 83 cents of every entertainment dollar spent in America (Mintz). As public consumption of media evolved, Hollywood diversified its market into the New Hollywood Era. Any industry concern for “film as film” cannot be divorced from the shrewd economic practices which define its history.




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Works Cited


Dirks, Tim. “The History of Film: The 1940s.” Filmsite. AMC Networks, LLC., n.d. Web. 9 Aug. 2014.

Finler, Joel Waldo. The Hollywood Story. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Hefferman, Kevin. “Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968).” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 418-434.

Grainge, Paul, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

King, Noel. “‘The Last Good Time We Ever Had’: Remembering the New Hollywood Cinema.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.

Mintz, Steven and Sara G. McNeill. “The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture.” Digital History. Digital History, 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2014.

Pautz, Michelle. “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000.” Issues in Political Economy, Vol. 11 (2002): 70-87. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Sandler, Kevin S. “CARA and the Emergence of Responsible Entertainment.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.. 249-264.

Schaefer, Eric. “The End of Classical Exploitation” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 380-391.

Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 287-306.

United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. 334 U.S. 131. 131-180. No. 79. US Supreme Court. 1948. Web. (9 Aug. 2014).

Valenti, Jack. “The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.” Screening Violence. Ed. Stephen Prince. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 62-75.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

From Silent to Sound: Hollywood 1927-1931


Slapstick auteur Charlie Chaplin seems to inform the opinion of many film historians that the ushering in of Hollywood’s sound era was more of an end than a beginning. Douglas Gomery describes the shift as “tainted by an overlay of sadness in that Hollywood has been seen as preventing what might have been—a group of progressive filmmakers serving a working-class audience—adopting instead an overt profit-maximizing structure” (“Hollywood” 20). 

To Chaplin, a silent innovator who largely refused change (releasing both City Lights [1931] and Modern Times [1936] as essentially silent films in the sound era), the demise of the silent era was even more melancholy: “just when they perfected it, he said, it was all over” (Bogdanovich). Indeed, in terms of business practices, the introduction of sound strengthened the oligopoly, putting box-office revenue into even fewer hands through the Great Depression. However, although their product suffered in the early sound years as filmmakers needed to develop the technology and create a new visual language, sound film has endured not merely as a for-profit venture, but because it found powerful ways to integrate what was always a part of the theater-going experience into a new art form.


When Al Jolson pronounced “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, synchronous sound must have looked like another spectacle of attraction used by cinema since its penny arcade days. And, initially, a successful spectacle too: “attendance figures moved upward slightly when sound first took over, but the numbers radically dropped within the first eighteen months, and they’ve been dropping ever since” (Bogdanovich). Of course, in the era of the vertically-integrated system, overall attendance figures aren’t as important to production companies so long as their own seats are being filled. 

Sound became an expensive tool for the major studios to tighten their stranglehold on production, distribution and exhibition. Gomery says, “the popularity of the talkies enabled new companies such as Warner Bros. to rise to power and join the small list of major studios including Paramount, Loew’s, and other powerful corporations of the silent era, which not only retained but increased their power” (“Hollywood” 20-21). So it was business as usual for the major studios even if, in many cases, their casts of stars required some tweaking.

The sound era wasn’t kind, as many Hollywood stars found it difficult to make the transition from pantomime to dialogue, but audiences approached star vehicles in much the same way they always had. When audiences had to adapt from the cinematic length of shorts to features, Paul Grainge says, “audience concentration spans would stretch … in direct correlation with their worshipping of stars” (Grainge 93). The idolization of John Barrymore, Greta Garbo and Douglas Fairbanks was analogous to that of Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, only with additional sensory stimulation. The biggest studios protected their assets by holding large “stables” of actors under contract through the studio era.

However, if overall attendance diminished in the sound era, it’s likely due to how both audience experience of the theater space changed with the advent of sound and how this business model from the big companies limited opportunities for independents. As cinemas came into their own in the 1920s, “vaudeville acts and popular singers entertaining audiences while a reel was changed gave way to orchestras and Wurlitzer organs. Sound effect machines such as the Kinematophone became popular before up-market theaters began to expect specially prepared scores to accompany each film” (Grainge 96).

Balaban & Katz's The Chicago Theater (c. 1921)

Silent film was never silent, it was always accompanied with music from anything between extravagant orchestras in the largest chain theaters to pianolas at second-run theaters. Audiences went to the movies to be entertained, but not just by the film itself. In his analysis of a large, independent chain theater in the 1920s, Gomery states, “remarkably, one of the variables that did not count in Balaban & Katz’s rise to power and control was the movies themselves. Indeed, the company grew and prospered despite having little access to Hollywood’s top films” (“Rise” 105).

The cinema was a new form of entertainment accessible to the working-class, and it stands to reason that the sustained success of silent films (especially within the context of falling attendance of the sound era) had to do with not only the gala atmosphere of the biggest theaters, but the performance aspect in cheap second-run theaters. Mark Jancovich suggests that audiences weren’t initially smitten with synchronous sound pictures because silent “film showings were still associated with the presence of live music” (Jancovich 162).

American Federation of Musicians ad, Portsmouth Herald, 1 Oct. 1930
American Federation of Musicians ad, Syracuse Herald, 2 Sept. 1930

Not only did the introduction of sound to motion pictures leave many local musicians and vaudeville acts without work, the cost of upgrading synchronous sound equipment was often too much for smaller, independent theaters. If independents like Balaban & Katz could be highly successful without screening Hollywood’s major films, the major production studios found a way, with the advent of sound, to bolster their product by offering no alternative.

Vertically-integrated studios had the initial capital to pour into upgrading their theaters to be equipped with sound and, when they began to only produce sound films, independents and second-run theaters had a difficult time keeping up. “In many rural areas, cinemas closed and those cinemas that did stay open changed their practices,” meaning service took a back seat to concessions, and live entertainment was sacrificed to upgrade to sound equipment (Grainge 189). The business behind the transition to the sound era meant more than mere equipment, it changed the way American audiences experienced the theater. As the Depression waged on, the sound era took away from working-class audiences the appearance of luxury and live entertainment in exchange for talkies and popcorn. Total attendance may have decreased, but the “big five” ensured that the remaining attendees were in their seats.

Yet not everyone on the major studios’ payrolls was happy with the change. Sound film brought with it an aesthetic shift which, arguably, detracted from film’s artistry. Alfred Hitchcock lamented that “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” and the aesthetic montage innovations of artists like D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein support this theory (Chapman 93). A visual medium for which D.W. Griffith laid the groundwork, narrative silent film was “constructed through parallel editing … consist[ing] of shots of two or more separate but usually parallel locations interwoven to advance the film’s plot” (Bernardi 32). Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein extended the art of montage, proving silent film to be a new diegesis of lyricism, movement, attraction and narrative.

Donald Crafton says of Eisenstein that in, “probably referring to [Chaplin’s] The Kid (1921) he notes that the lyrical may coexist with the disruptive attraction” (Crafton 64). In furthering the discussion of how to understand this filmic language, Tom Gunning adds in his response to Crafton, “Eisenstein called … for a montage of attraction, and noted that, in this structure, elements of narrative could be introduced in such a way as to lose their usual claim to coherence and diegetic realism” (Gunning 73). Expressive pantomime acting, variations of shot length and juxtapositional montage allowed silent filmmakers to create a sophisticated visual language which could stimulate emotions and ideas. This language was raised to high artistry, but montage changed when sound took over.

Seventh Heaven (1927)


Coincidently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held their first Academy Awards presentation in 1929, the last year that silent pictures would be prominent in future Hollywood productions. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was presented with an award for “Unique and Artistic Production” in, tellingly, the only year it was ever awarded. Frank Borzage was presented the “Best Director, Dramatic Picture” award for his work on the silent feature Seventh Heaven, capping his tremendous run of moving, artistic silent romances (including Street Angel [1928] and Lucky Star [1929]). Two of the most artistically adventurous directors of their day, Murnau and Borzage advanced the language of silent film at Fox. These pictures are rich in the Kierkegaardian artistic virtues: the aesthetic, the moral, the religious and the dramatic. Borzage and Murnau were recognized within the industry as important film artists of their day and their silent pictures are considered canonical today.


Yet the lyricism these directors achieved through cross-cutting, expressive acting and mise-en-scene diminished in the early years of sound film. Borzage’s first sound film, They Had To See Paris (1929), feels clunky and uninspired compared to his string of silents for Fox. Takes are longer and more static, the pace is slowed due to the tempo of dialogue, and the compensational reframing and panning feel jarring. The early years of sound film treated dialogue as a gimmick rather than integrating it into the art form cinema had already established and, with the possible exception of Ernst Lubitsch, it took a number of years for even the most artistically recognized directors to recreate the graceful language cinema once had. These same years were needed for technology to advance in a way that allowed for camera and actor movement to be fluid with synchronous sound: They Had To See Paris also suffers—like many early sound features—as its acting is forcedly stiff, its characters talking at a microphone. The artistry of cinema may not have been “all over” as Chaplin rued, but the early years of sound film were a step back in terms of artistry.

However, if early sound films lacked a certain visual artistry in its early years, it advanced much of the work it was already doing in terms of creating an invisible narrative style that incorporated music. Silent film had already moved in its early decades from a style of cinéma vérité to that of narrative character subjectivity. Grainge said of the evolution of silent film, “initially placed before the shot in which dialogue took place, it became common for intertitles to come just after the character had begun to speak. This further enhanced the development of character subjectivity, the responsibility of narration transferring from the third person of the expository titles to the dialogue titles of individual characters” (Grainge 29-30). The transition to sound made this even more effective, as voice intonation became synonymous with character and took away the reflexivity caused by intertitles.

Furthermore, the music itself made sound features a more unified artistic product. Silent film is something of a misnomer as music was always performed alongside screenings. What synchronous sound allowed in the moving picture was not only incidental sound within the world of the narrative, but invisible score which could stimulate emotion in a very calculated fashion. The transition to sound “led to the development of non-diegetic musical scores, or the addition of music that was not supposed to represent sounds actually heard within the world of the film but rather acts as an interpretation of the action, implying menace, action or tragedy” (Grainge 188). The silent era saw scores being produced for movie-house orchestras for a cohesive dramatic experience, but the sound feature incorporated these elements into a single, unalterable unit. Such unity contributed to the strength of Hollywood’s invisible style as the music became less performance and more about influencing mood.

The transition to sound certainly changed audiences’ cinematic experience at the beginning of the 1930s. Major studios tightened their grip on the types of movies being made and where and how they would be shown. Luxurious, independent theaters were hurt not only by the Great Depression, but by the expense required for the new technological upgrade. Audiences had their options limited; not only did major studios help ensure their top product would be seen, second-run theaters and independents had trouble keeping up with the service and experience the theater once provided.

Artistry also took a back seat as top directors experienced a rough learning curve for both cinematic language and technology and, although new invisible camera methods were innovated, dialogue largely replaced Eisensteinian montage as a form of cinematic language. Yet sound proved to be more than a middling gimmick; music moved from orchestral and mediated to integrated and invisible contributing, just as spoken dialogue would, to the invisibility of Hollywood’s narrative style. Hollywood may have sacrificed some of its complex visual language with the coming of the sound era, but its tendency to invisible narrative structure grew stronger with the coming of sound.



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Works Cited

Bernardi, Daniel. “The Birth of a Nation (1915): Integrating Race into the Narrator System.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 29-36.

Bogdanovich, Peter. “1928: The Last and Greatest Year of the Original Motion Picture Art, B.S. (Before Sound).” Blogdanovich. IndieWire, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Jul. 2014.

Chapman, James. Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present. London: Reaktion Books, 2003.

Crafton, Donald. “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 61-71.

Gomery, Douglas. “Hollywood as Industry.” American Cinema and Hollywood: Critical Approaches. Ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 19-28.

Gomery, Douglas. “The Rise of National Theatre Chains.” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 103-119.

Grainge, Paul, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Gunning, Tom. “Response to ‘Pie and Chase’.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 72-73. 

Jancovich, Mark and Lucy Faire. “Translating the Talkies: Diffusion, Reception and Live Performance.” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 156-164.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Jason Goes to Production Hell: The Making of Freddy vs. Jason



Film producer Gary Sales sums up the allure behind—and the success often had in—making cheap, exploitation films in a 1982 interview with Variety. He explains his commercial success with slasher films of the era saying, “we realized that you need a product for which there is a ready-made market” (“Horror Pics” 20). Though strictly formulaic, the teen slasher films of the 1980s proved that the genre film can be produced economically and rake in profits. Few franchises understood this better than Paramount Pictures’ Friday the 13th series and New Line Cinema’s A Nightmare on Elm Street: the former saw a worldwide box-office gross of over $226m from eight films in the 1980s with a combined production budget of $19.9m (Bracke 314-315),; the latter grossed nearly $172m from five films throughout the decade on a budget $28.8m, earning a deficient New Line Cinema the nickname “the house that Freddy built” (The House that Freddy Built).

The overwhelming franchise success is almost exclusively due to their iconographic villains, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger and, as devoted fanbases financed the sequels, the concept of a crossover film began gestating in the late 1980s. After fifteen years of rumors, copyright exchanges, restructured production staffs, seventeen solicited scripts and massive rewrites, Freddy vs. Jason hit theaters in 2003 and became the highest grossing installment for either franchise.

The idea for a crossover film was not a new one. According to former Co-chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye, “Paramount did, at one point [in the late 1980s], approach us with the idea of doing a Freddy and Jason movie. But they basically wanted what we wanted—to license them the rights to Freddy Krueger and go off and make their own movie, which we were not anxious to do” (“Genesis”). By the early 1990s, both franchises had waned in popularity and, following unsuccessful short-lived anthology television spin-offs, Paramount Pictures gave up their distribution rights to the Friday the 13th franchise. Creator and director of the first Friday the 13th film, Sean S. Cunningham states that by 1991 he “reapproached Phil Scuderi [to whom rights reverted after Jason Takes Manhattan] and the original backers from Boston about getting the rights back to Friday the 13th so I could control the property, and I could control the money, and I could go to New Line and try to make Freddy vs. Jason” (Bracke 218).

Cunningham established Crystal Lake Entertainment after securing the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise and made a deal with New Line Cinema to begin development on Freddy vs. Jason in 1994. New Line would own the rights to a reported 17 commissioned screenplays by a dozen screenwriters at a cost exceeding six million dollars (Bracke 267). Though Cunningham calculated the iron was hot for the monster mash-up as New Line seemed disinterested in resurrecting the Nightmare series, development on Freddy vs. Jason came screeching to a halt in 1994 when New Line announced that Wes Craven would return to helm a post-modern take on Freddy. Refusing to give up on the project, Cunningham conceded to put Freddy vs. Jason on the backburner and resurrecting Jason for a concurrent renewal of interest with Freddy Krueger. Though it was never his intention to form Crystal Lake Entertainment or partner with New Line Cinema to make another Friday the 13th film, Cunningham co-produced 1993’s Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday with his true mission in mind.


The single most memorable and oft-discussed scene from an otherwise forgettable Jason Goes to Hell is its epilogue. After Jason has been defeated and the film’s protagonists walk off into the sunrise with their baby, a dog unearths Jason’s hockey mask and, in a Carrie-like moment, the film ends with Freddy Krueger’s claw reaching out of hell to grab it. Narratively anachronistic and apropos of nothing, the moment is a carefully conceived gag by producer Cunningham and director Adam Marcus that generated massive amounts of buzz amongst the fanbase.

Marcus recalls, “I called Mark Ordesky and Michael De Luca at New Line and asked, ‘Can we have the claw?’ And it was very funny ‘cause they were a bit covetous of it. They asked nervously, ‘What are you going to do with it? And why?’ But when we told them out idea, they flipped” (Bracke 268). At the first test screening, the “entire test audience got up on their feet and cheered,” and Cunningham finally sparked the interest at New Line he fought for (Bracke 269). Development began, and scripts started coming in by 1994, but with them, a new list of challenges.

Freddy vs. Jason’s journey from concept to screen was long and unconventional. As existing franchises, the high-concept to be sold to a ready-made market creates a unique set of challenges: fan expectations for both franchises must be considered, and the internal story-worlds must coalesce. A website built as a companion to The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia DVD has made available five of the seventeen screenplays licensed by New Line Cinema, each by different screenwriters or teams, including the final draft by Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift which was chosen for Freddy vs. Jason.

Each version represents unique challenges faced by the screenwriters to bring these two characters into an acceptable world with a narrative fans would enjoy. Yet, despite drastic differences in story and tone, certain narrative elements—namely, the presence of a cult of “Fred Heads” trying to resurrect Freddy Krueger and the use of a sleep drug—find their way into many of these screenplays. The similarities suggest someone at New Line was very enthusiastic about—if not outright coaching—certain story ideas from early in the developmental stage.

One of the first commissioned scripts, Lewis Abernathy’s Nightmare 13: Freddy Meets Jason, makes an earnest attempt at merging the two universes. The central conflict revolves around a “Fred Head” cult attempting to resurrect Freddy and a group of teenagers needing to resurrect Jason to battle him. Some coincidences are a little too convenient—Elm Street and Camp Crystal Lake are within driving distance, and any old teenager can easily bring the fiends back from the dead—but the ideas gained momentum. Of the several incarnations that followed, the basic premise from Abernathy’s original script is the closest of the runners-up to the final product.



Its problems, those New Line likely had irreconcilable issues with, are in tone and character. The screenplay’s third act resembles a later Nightmare on Elm Street picture in that its horror is traded for cartoonish humor. Future screenwriters like Peter Briggs were afraid to approach the material because its premise sounded like a WWE fight, and Abernathy’s version fuels this fear. Freddy and Jason have a physical boxing match in hell, officiated by Ted Bundy and attended by Lee Harvey Oswald, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Popeye. Another character battles a giant booger named “Boogerman” in “Freddy’s nostril cavern”: a far cry from the dark tone in the first act in which a mentally handicapped thirteen-year old girl is kidnapped with the intention of being raped (Abernathy 84).

Furthermore, his Jason Voorhees is not the Jason fans love. He becomes a pawn for the teenagers to defeat Freddy and is sympathetic toward their cause. He interacts with people and, though he doesn’t speak, drives an ambulance at one point and is much more approachable than his historical representation. Twisted humor is an important element to both franchises, but New Line wisely decided to move in a direction more snarky than slapstick.

One of the stranger early screenplays was conceived by Peter Briggs. Briggs gained notoriety after selling his adaptation of Dark Horse Comics’ Alien vs. Predator to Twentieth Century Fox (another multi-franchise “versus” concept which spent years in production hell) and was hunted down by New Line producer Michael De Luca in early 1995 to take a stab at the material. Though reluctant, Briggs accepted the proposal and wrote a treatment and eventually a screenplay not much interested in the existing Nightmare or Friday universes.


Briggs’s version of the story is that development worker at New Line, Wyck Godfrey told him “’what we want to do is something that is kind of like The Omen in tone, we want it to be dark and heavy’” (Diggle). And dark it is, if convoluted. His version of Freddy vs. Jason is something of a sequel to Jason Goes To Hell in that its protagonists defeated Jason ten years earlier. The tone juxtaposes millennial tension with fantasy horror elements as a centuries-old cult uses prophecies to resurrect Freddy and Jason who are now ancient evils. The screenplay is rife with hell imagery (one slug line reads “EXT. “PLAIN OF BONES” – HELL – ZERO HOUR”) and its stakes bring about the end of the universe (Briggs 12). When De Luca passed the screenplay up to Co-chairman Robert Shaye, Briggs was met with silence and was eventually told, “’it’ll cost twice as much as we’re prepared to spend,’” but one questions if a combination of Briggs’ tone and lack of interest in the franchise hurt his chances (Diggle).

New Line was closer to the formula they were looking for by 1998, as thematic devices and narrative events in Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s third draft of Freddy vs. Jason coincide with those in the final product. Unlike the attempts by Abernathy and Briggs, the Aibel/Berger screenplay doesn’t spend much of its narrative focus on outside characters (the “Fred Heads” of the former) or creating its own mythology (Freddy and Jason as puppets being controlled by an ancient underworld demon of the latter). The Freddy cult is still prevalent (just as it is in the Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift version which was eventually adapted), but it is a catalyst rather than the antagonist of central action.

Tonally, too, this version of the screenplay respects its fans and brandishes a similar humorous voice to the one the film eventually took on. Though the Aibel/Berger screenplay is also wise to respect franchise history without being a direct narrative sequel, what may have hurt its chances was that it is a little too post-modern in tone. Owing something to the meta tendencies of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and the self-referential treatment of Scream (1996), what is unique about Freddy and Jason in the Aibel/Berger screenplay is that they are understood as movie characters.

One character tells us in obvious dialogue, “Jason Voorhees is just a movie character. He isn’t real.” (Aibel 58) while another tells us, “I wouldn’t worry about Mr. Frederic J. Krueger. I’ve seen all the movies” (Aibel 19). It’s all a little too tongue-in-cheek, and presents logical anachronisms when they turn out to be real life characters with no explanation (David Goyer and James D. Robinson would run into similar problems with their version, A Nightmare on the 13th, in which Jason and Freddy are villains with established motives, but exist only in the protagonist’s head, later materializing).

Another faux pas that would surely have been worked out in a rewrite, but couldn’t have boded well with New Line development, is that this screenplay has Jason speak: a severe misunderstanding of the character. Nevertheless, the screenplay presents us with many elements in such a successful fashion that they would serve as an outline for the Shannon/Swift version: Freddy is trying to reenter the modern world by public consciousness, pharmaceuticals are developed for dream sharing, and the showdown eventually takes place at Camp Crystal Lake so that Jason can “pull” Freddy into the real world. Shannon and Swift would run with these elements, but construct them around a convincing universe rife with consistency of story logic. Perhaps too much story logic.

The first draft of Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift’s Freddy vs. Jason clocked at 148 minutes and is careful to establish a credible universe heavy on expositional back story. “It was overly long and overly complicated and very, very dense,” says senior V.P. of Production at New Line, Stokely Chaffin. “This may be the American Beauty of horror films, but it’s not American Beauty and it probably shouldn’t be two-and-a-half hours long” (“Genesis”). New Line brought in David Goyer (who was already paid for a draft of his own vision of Freddy vs. Jason) to write an uncredited revision of the Shannon & Swift screenplay. 

Goyer was able to collapse scenes and characters which subsequently escalated the drama and intensity. Goyer’s consolidation brings the runtime down to 97 minutes without sacrificing Shannon and Swift’s vision. One of the expositional cuts, however, eliminated the much-explored “Fred Head” cult so popular in the project’s developmental stages. The backstory is established in a couple minutes of Freddy Krueger voiceover which establishes the premise that Freddy has been publically forgotten and can’t rise to power without people being scared of him. In Goyer’s rewrite it is Freddy himself who scours the depths of hell to find Jason to instill fear back into Elm Street’s populace. Unlike Shannon and Swift’s screenplay, Goyer’s rewritten prologue establishes this by minute three. Goyer’s revision of the Shannon/Swift screenplay was something that both New Line’s developmental team liked in terms of story, and Cunningham’s camp at Crystal Lake Entertainment found acceptable in terms of universe consistency, but the script wouldn’t be the only obstacle between concept and screen.

In 2000, New Line Cinema would undergo a shake-up in the upper ranks of executive production. Michael De Luca, longtime proponent of the project and friend of Sean Cunningham stepped down as President of Production at New Line, and it fell onto Co-chairman Robert Shaye to find a new production executive to tackle the project with enthusiasm. Shaye explains, “when we changed our head of production, we renewed this imperative to [new President of Production] Toby Emmerich that we had to find someone who is going to get behind this” (Bracke 271-2). The project fell to new hire Stokely Chaffin who nurtured the promise De Luca saw in Shannon and Swift’s treatment, and would be the keystone in connecting with David Goyer to polish the project. Chaffin also interviewed dozens of directors before finding the perfect match of enthusiasm and experience in Ronny Yu.



Principal photography began in September 2002, and the film was released in August 2003. The production budget of $32 million was restrictive, though helped by much of the film being shot in Vancouver, Canada. Highly unusual and the source of much of the production hell Freddy vs. Jason experienced is the fact that nearly $7 million—over twenty percent—of its $32m budget was spent on ten years of script development. 

The investment would pay off for New Line, as the film’s nearly $115 million worldwide box-office pull outperformed every film from either franchise by leaps and bounds. Freddy vs. Jason is a unique Hollywood success story which spent years in development hell despite an early green-lit concept, iconic characters and a built-in audience. Ultimately it is the push and pull between Sean Cunningham’s rulebook of unbreakable universe rules and New Line’s commitment to story which met the expectations of fans from both franchises. The iconic pop culture status of Freddy and Jason exponentially compound the built-in audience of the typical slasher film and, though the road to bringing the two together was far from smooth, the box-office receipts prove the developmental investment was worthwhile.




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Works Cited

Abernathy, Lewis. Nightmare 13: Freddy Meets Jason. Film script. NightmareOnElmStreetFilms.com. 12 Feb. 2014.

Aibel, Jonathan and Glenn Berger. Freddy vs. Jason (third draft). Film script. 1998. NightmareOnElmStreetFilms.com. 30 Jan. 2014.

Bracke, Peter M. Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. London: Titan Books, 2005.

Briggs, Peter. Freddy vs. Jason. Film script. NightmareOnElmStreetFilms.com. 15 Feb. 2014.

Diggle, Andy. Peter Briggs Interview. AliensCollection.com, 1996. Web. 17 Feb. 2014. <http://www.alienscollection.com/andydiggle.html>

“Genesis: Development Hell” (supplementary material on DVD release of Freddy vs. Jason). 2003. DVD. New Line Home Video, 2004.

“Horror Pics a Crowded Path to Boxoffice, But Lucrative.” Variety March 3, 1982: p. 20.

The House that Freddy Built. Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz. New Line Home Video, 2006. DVD.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Gender War in the Comedies of Preston Sturges

To confine the classic era of screwball comedy between the years 1934 and 1942 as many scholars do (Duane Byrge in The Screwball Comedy Films, Wes D. Gehring in Screwball Comedy: Defining a Genre) not only canonizes Howard Hawks as the genre’s innovator, but leaves the best films of Preston Sturges in a chronological purgatory. True, during the Second World War some of the genre’s key tropes began to change out of historic necessity. The wearing-on of the Great Depression made it difficult for audiences to continue to identify with aristocratic, leisurely madcap couples without a certain resentment, and the realities of war’s effects on the American psyche made it increasingly difficult for audiences to accept the small-town, political-minded crackerbarrel hero’s naiveté. Further, newfound independent desires of women born out of their unprecedented shift to the workplace were followed by their counterparts on screen. Gender roles perpetuated by Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey and Frank Capra with the onset of the screwball comedy (itself “supplant[ing] the cracker-barrel figure in American humor”) began to equate the comedic male with the anti-hero (Gehring 6). But despite the moral difference between these two types of comedic male, in terms of gender studies the point is moot: hero or anti-hero, the male is still the central figure.

Women have an increased agency in these screwball comedies, but it is doled out with a condescending share of skewed worldview, illogical at best, hysterical at worst. Unlike the comedies of Capra and Hawks, the films of Preston Sturges (late to the screwball party, but innovator of a his own brand of anarchy during the war years) are not only unafraid to knock masculinity down a peg but offer their female characters an agency rivaled only in that other female-oriented genre, melodrama. Where traditional romantic comedies and melodrama both tend toward reestablishment of patriarchal ideologies in their resolutions, Sturges’s films appear uninterested in the status quo. Though owing to the screwball tradition, the comedies he wrote, directed and in many cases produced once the American war effort was in full swing subvert traditional gender roles even within the genre. His screwball comedies before America entered the war, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story subvert patriarchy though frustration of their male characters and an application of the female gaze. His wartime films, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero express female independence by mimicking the societal prominence of women and subjecting masculinity to roles conventionally delegated to women: domesticity and mother worship. His postwar comedy, Unfaithfully Yours suggests war has changed gender roles and patriarchal reestablishment (as represented by the male gaze) is no longer possible in his newfound jolted world. Through both characterization and formal technique, the romantic comedies of Preston Sturges present an increased agency for its female characters who author their destinies while holding influence over their male counterparts.

There is a certain liberation in the comedic genres for both genders. Male representation historically holds a monopoly on the tragic hero as patriarchal ideologies allow only men to write their own destinies and take on efficacious adventure. Women, according to the patriarchal view, are placed in domestic settings; heterosexual love their only adventure. Women aren’t excluded from tragedy, only their agency within it is. Therefore, the feminized version of tragedy—the melodrama—still lacks potency of cause-effect individualism. Female “weepies” are exercises in victimization, positioning “the spectator as powerless to avert the catastrophes they enact, and in fact produce those tears out of that powerlessness” (Rowe 41). If George Cukor’s The Women and John Stahl’s Imitation of Life suggest female agency through female-centered narratives and sheer screen time, the women’s power is undermined by domestic ideologies. These women still define themselves by their relation to men.

The narrative comedy, conversely, often subverts gender conventions. Comedy’s anarchy disrupts authoritarian hierarchy. What it reestablishes (though often still patriarchal, as the films nearly always end in romantic marriage, established sexual roles, female domesticity and male dominance) is the “Oedipal story, or the formation of the couple”: a victory for the male character (Rowe 44). Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth seems similar in thematic structure to Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story, only McCarey’s take resolves with the male lead embracing his ex-wife after admitting the error of his ways. The trajectory is solely male as the wife desires nothing but reconciliation by the beginning of act two. Similarly, Howard Hawks’s My Girl Friday gives narrative agency to its male lead who rescues his ex-wife from marrying his rival, only to remarry him. Domestication is the lone result even for a successful businesswoman, and the film’s very title views the woman as possession. The men of screwball comedy achieve autonomy over their father and, though often made a fool of along the way, find their own success and identity in family. This doesn’t offer women the same autonomy—their role is well-established as domestic. Traditional screwball comedy of the prewar era placates the appearance of female independence that arose out of the 1920s. These women are granted limited agency and romantic adventure, but the films reinstate a patriarchal ideology which ends in female domestication. Screwball comedy plays with gender in a way which raises question as to who wears the pants in the relationship (literally, as Katharine Hepburn’s character would attest in Bringing Up Baby). Only in Preston Sturges’s prewar screwball comedies, female agency doesn’t end with marriage.

Even by the strictest definition, Sturges’s two films immediately preceding American intervention in the war, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, certainly quality as screwball. They are both domestic narratives structured around leisure and wealth which present their male leads (Henry Fonda’s Charles and Joel McCrea’s Tom, respectively) with a great deal of gender- and social-frustration. Capitalism has done right by the men in these films. The new love interest of Claudette Colbert’s Gerry in The Palm Beach Story, Mr. Hackensacker comes from a family of big oil (or “The Erl King” as his private yacht reads). In fact, she has only found her way to divorce through the handsome cash gift from a rich, leisurely and nearly-deaf Wienie King. Gerry’s husband, Tom seems to be the only male finding difficulty in his finances and this is the sole problem with his marriage. However, this “problem” is narratively structured in Sturges’s screenplay in an unrealistic fashion through screwball tropes. Tom’s financial problems aren’t a result of working-class drudgery; instead, Tom takes on a leisurely occupation of “inventor”, trying to sell his conceptualized suspended airport rather than working his fingers to the bone. The film presents very real domestic problems of finance, but paints Tom as a screwball character whose life is defined by leisure and whose profession is not recognized as serious employment. Gerry subverts patriarchal ideology as the males’ only power is in wealth. Hers lies elsewhere. Male gaze is thwarted as Claudette Colbert is often covered in a long overcoat or oversized men’s pajamas. At one point, as Hackensacker is lavishing gifts upon Gerry, Colbert is wearing a long skirt, long-sleeved blouse, white gloves and a wrap hat which covers her neck. Hackensacker unironically asks, “aren’t the sleeves a little short?” as if to suggest the power of female allure rests somewhere beyond nudity.

"Aren't the sleeves a little short?"


When a man appears to leer at Gerry from a train bunk, she subverts this look by stepping on his face for a boost into the upper bunk. It’s a none-too-subtle symbol employed by Sturges which suggests perhaps power is not held in the male gaze, but he is captive to it. The slapstick of the scene mocks patriarchal values, just as when Tom falls down the stairs and embarrassingly has his pants (a symbol of manhood) ripped off in the apartment hallway. The male, as symbol of patriarchy, is mocked while women refuse to be objectified.

This stifling of screwball comedy’s patriarchal values through frustration of the male lead is much the same for Charles in The Lady Eve. Charles is heir to an ale fortune which, though he has no interest in the venture, has provided a leisurely life as an ophiologist, exploring the Amazon for snakes on his father’s dime. Any conflict, including romance, seems mere triviality in Charles’s life as his identity is not defined by his employment. Hollywood’s traditional male-dominated heroic genres from adventure to detective/mystery and tragedy of historical epic have equated male autonomy with occupation. The wealth and leisure that comes along with the structure of screwball comedy often eliminates this professionalism. Genre roles are twisted and female agency is gained in part because of this disallowance of male identity through occupation. Yet, as Gehring argues, if the “goal of the genre [is] to bring the joy of childhood’s spontaneity to an adult [male] grown brittle,” the increased female agency owing to the genre’s male frustration is tempered by the common screwball representation of women as hysterical (Gehring 10).

The male learns that life in an irrational world must be conquered by a dose of craziness—a craziness the female must embody. So, in a case of two-steps forward, one-step back, the female in screwball comedy is an agent of her destiny and filmic action, but it comes with a condescension that, while technically a case of role-reversal, women acting in the position of men must also be illogical. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant’s comic rigidity is contrasted by a real questioning of Katharine Hepburn’s sanity. Yet these roles are shifted in Sturges’s prewar screwballs. Gerry leaves Tom in the first act of The Palm Beach Story, leaving a note for him proclaiming it her only “logical” option, but it is the male characters who are the eccentrics: The Wienie King bankrolls strangers and Tom builds unfeasible airport models. There is strength in Sturges’s female leads and a notable buck to Hollywood’s trend: Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck not only play the characters that primarily pull the strings in their narratives, they also each receive top billing. The same cannot be said of the female leads in Twentieth Century, It Happened One Night or His Girl Friday.

In addition to Sturges subverting patriarchal ideologies through mocking masculinity, he employs thematic and formal tools that deny power to male gaze and suggest a female gaze in his prewar screwball comedies. This subversive take supplants assumed patriarchal power by making the female leads authors of their own destiny. Elizabeth Abele argues:

Though the narrative and the gaze in a screwball comedy may attempt to follow traditional male patterns, the screwball heroine continually subverts them. Though she presents herself as a prospective object of the male gaze, she rarely remains motionless or stops talking long enough to conform to the fully objectified position. (Abele)

The women in Preston Sturges’s screwball comedies are keenly aware of the power of their sexuality so, while they acknowledge a gaze, they use it to their advantage. "I was broke, too when I was about your age, but I didn't have a figure like you've got,” the Wienie King tells Gerry in The Palm Beach Story. “I had to use my brains,” as if a financial success story carries with it a patriarchal bias as well as a testament to masculine logic. Only this logic is character specific; we don’t see these patriarchal ideologies play out in Sturges’s screwball or post-screwball narratives. True, his male characters are defined by modern, gender-specific frustrations, but the female characters are near-equals and never (thematically or formally) is their power merely sexual. It is usually the male characters’ narrow views within the narrative, not Sturges’s voice, which rings patriarchal and, in the end, untrue. The Wienie King is not the only character in The Palm Beach Story who must surrender to Gerry’s ascendancy: Tom is constrained by both his patriarchal views and his masculine lack. “$700 ...Just like that? ...Sex didn’t even enter into it?,” Tom asks, confounded by his wife’s capability and certain of her infidelity when Gerry is gifted a large sum of money. According to Tom’s ideology, sex is a woman’s only power, just as provision is only a man’s duty. His confusion and frustration are drawn out of a recognition that his wife (having remained faithful) was able to accomplish what he could not, and when his business dealings finally do reap their reward, it is again due to Gerry’s manipulation.

Gerry was always the driving agent from the beginning of their marriage (in a pre-credit montage, we see that Gerry has bound her twin sister in order to trick Tom into taking her hand at the alter), and the two renew their vows at the end of the film only after Gerry is able to take credit for every one of Tom’s supposed achievements. Furthermore, Gerry’s success is not one built on Tom’s patriarchal values of honesty and hard-work, but conniving deceit and recognition of gender and youth as a tool. Antiestablishment, indeed. And while Gerry spends the entire picture concocting what appears to be a life of domesticity, the film makes very clear that Gerry has no desire to be a housewife. She can’t cook or sew, and has little inclination to care to do so. The domestication of women, a conventional assumption within patriarchal ideology, is inverted in the world of Preston Sturges. Though women may desire marriage—by social pressure or other—the domestication that occurs in Sturges’s comedies results in the metaphoric castration of husbands.

Just as Sturges avoids patriarchal screwball tendencies which “celebrated the sanctity of marriage, class distinction and the domination of women by men” through his narrative themes, his work seems tuned into progressive female representation—and female spectatorship—as his formal work is often neutral in terms of gaze (Sklar 188). The camera work Sturges chooses to employ is highly economical, a slave to the screenplay, and spends no time lingering on its females condescendingly or lasciviously. Male characters are certainly drawn to the sexual mystique of their female counterparts, but it is often represented by the female’s power over him. In The Lady Eve, we get a rare point-of-view shot from Henry Fonda’s Charles. Jean has already asserted her power, telling him “you’ll have to kneel down,” so Charles looks up, a slave to the one his desires, and the shot is distorted to symbolize Charles being drunk on perfume (her allure). Sturges’s most explicit example of literal female gaze comes in The Lady Eve. As women vie for Charles’s attention, Jean pulls out a pocket mirror and watches his every move.



We see the action through her mirror—a pictorial representation of the female gaze—and Jean narrates over her voyeuristic display. This agency is a rare example that flies in the face of Kaplan’s theory when she argues, “men do not simply look; their gaze carries with it the power of action and of possession which is lacking in the female gaze. Women receive and return a gaze, but cannon act upon it” (Kaplan 31). Quite the contrary, Jean’s voyeurism and narration assert her power over Charles who becomes an objectified pawn in her control. Jean’s power is even omniscient as her narration dictates how Charles will act: “Look at the girl over to his left. Look over to your left, bookworm, there’s a girl pining for you. A little further, just a little further, there.” In a film which already undermines patriarchal ideologies, Jean’s female gaze through Sturges’s formal technique present us with a female who is in control of her actions and desires as well as the actions of others. It is not simply a case of a woman stepping into the role of men in which women are still objectified; Charles becomes the objectified and Jean’s desires, whether romantic or financial, are met solely through the power of her own action.

When men aren’t being bested by their female counterparts, Sturges’s own symbolism and wordplay suggest implicitly what the Production Code wouldn’t allow explicitly. Sturges’s suggestiveness is usually in the same vein of his mockery of masculinity: despite the charade of patriarchal order, women hold the power in domestic relationships. Kay Young argues screwball comedies are unique in that women are given agency in active roles without playing “masculine” leads. A symbolic castration is present in these strong female roles as “the American man of screwball comedy retains his sexual organ but comes perhaps to wonder just what to do with it” (Young 196). This is very much the case of Charles in The Lady Eve who is content staying in his cabin with his pet snake locked up. The Wienie King in The Palm Beach Story is seemingly rendered impotent by age, yet made his fortune in the sausage business. Masculinity is neutered as Sturges refuses his male leads to define themselves by profession, renders chivalry archaic (Hackensacker of The Palm Beach Story laments, “Chivalry is not only dead, it’s decomposed!”) and symbolically removes their libido. If prewar screwball comedies sought to reinstate patriarchal ideologies to keep women in a domesticated role, Sturges refuses them by offering his female characters increased agency while decreasing male power. As the role of women would become more socially visible with the onset of the American war effort, Sturges’s female characters, too, would grow more independent.

The American workforce took a hit as men went off to war, and the number of working women increased from 12 million before the war, to 18 million by 1944 (Campbell 100). These women attained a disposable income (with little product during the war time on which to spend it) and an independence from domesticity they hadn’t seen before. Film attendance, now more female than ever, “continued to grow and be strong throughout this era. Between 1942 and 1945, Americans spent 23% of their total recreational dollar on films (compared to 2% today)” (Pautz 71-72). These working-class women could identify with the strong, independent characters they saw on screen. While the female leads in many screwball comedies were wealthy heiresses, how much more could these women identify with a Gerry Jeffers or Trudy Kockenocker? These young working women were “suddenly transported into a realm of excitement, prominence and wealth ... the women in the movies had the same objective as the middle- and working-class female inhabitants of Muncie, Indiana” (Lent 331).

The questions of female agency and the domestication of men become more clearly defined as Sturges’s work progresses out of the screwball genre. Unlike conventional screwball comedy which at least tempers demasculinization with beautiful men (Cary Grant may have been forced into a woman’s robe in Bringing Up Baby, but he was still Cary Grant), the increased power of women in Sturges’s films is coupled by emasculated male leads represented by milquetoast, comedic anti-hero Eddie Bracken. Bracken became the perfect face for Sturges’s American masculinity during World War II. The humor in his nebbish portrayals subverts traditional patriarchy while a now more-female audience is empowered through masculine mockery.  Cary Grant he is not.

As World War II works its way into American consciousness, Sturges intrinsically links military service with masculinity. Eddie Bracken’s Norval Jones and Woodrow Truesmith, too, recognize the patriarchal importance of civic duty, but both characters are denied the opportunity to become a patriot on the battlefield: Norval a 4-F rejectee breaks out in “bumps” as a nervous wreck; Woodrow has been discharged due to chronic hay fever. It is no coincidence that each of these Bracken characters is denied the possibility of war hero due to trivialities. The conditions themselves become laughable, much to their characters’ chagrin for, much like everything else in the Sturges universe, the incidentals of fate hold authority over either patriarchal intentions or feminine subversion. Perhaps coincidence is the great equalizer. This doesn’t prevent the women from trying, however for, like Jean in The Lady Eve, teenaged Trudy and Emmy in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek continually get the best of their father, Constable Edmund Kockenlocker who is a symbol of both patriarchy and justice in the town. Trudy’s night out is full of the excitement and decadence Lent spoke of in discussing the desires of the newly independent female working-class (all in the name of patriotism, mind you), but the consequence of pregnancy after a night of dancing, drunkenness, revelry, and a sham marriage is very real and calls for a new kind of hero: a demasculinized Norval, the virgin father of six who devotes his life to a woman named “Kockenlocker.”

Like Hackensacker in The Palm Beach Story, Norval is a sucker for the feminine mystique. And, like Gerry, Trudy isn’t hesitant to lord this power over her admirer, as unpolished as he might be. Again, marriage is desired by the female lead but again she rejects conventional domesticity. Norval admits to taking home economics classes throughout his high school career just to be near Trudy, and it becomes evident that Norval is the more successful homemaker. Trudy becomes the agent of Norval’s misadventures which include taking on a false identity, jailed on (and guilty of) several criminal charges, homelessness and hiding on the lam, all of which leading up to (and somehow narratively compatible to) marrying into the position of presumed father of Trudy’s sextuplets. Norval has greatness “thrust upon” him, and doesn’t have time to be a reluctant hero. He becomes the public scapegoat who must inversely take on the shame Trudy would were her indiscretion revealed. It’s a sophisticated gender role reversal which doesn’t seek to moralize in regards to drunken fornication, but toward the hypocrisy of small-town haughtiness. The film certainly isn’t patriarchal, but is a farce on the feminine desires of the melodrama as well. Norval gets marriage without a domesticated wife and kids without consummation. Trudy gets protection, but not romantic love. The genre rift goes both ways as the film “makes clear that Trudy would never have married Norval but for her pregnancy. She doesn’t give this ungainly clunk the time of day when her mind’s on romance” (Jacobs 298). So unconventional family rules the day when marriage is a consolation anything but romantic or patriarchal.

If male frustration is ignited in screwball comedy by coupling the modernity of urban landscape with female agency, Sturges shifts the setting to small-town America—conservative values in tow—for his two greatest examples of patriarchal obstruction. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek risked chiding the war effort, for it is the anonymous soldier who impregnates Trudy. And just as Norval goes through a gender role reversal, playing societal scapegoat for the castigation a female would likely receive, he also goes through a masculine role reversal, becoming town hero though denied the possibility of military hero or sexual potency. Bracken’s Woodrow in Hail the Conquering Hero is, too, heroized despite deceit, caricature, and military impotence during a time when war made the man. Only rather than rebelling against the father, it is the other half of the Oedipal complex that defines Woodrow: mother worship.E. Ann Kaplan argues, “the domination of women by the male gaze is part of patriarchal strategy to contain the threat that the mother embodies and to control the positive and negative impulses that memory traces of being mothered have left in the male unconscious” (Kaplan 205). If Sturges’s strong female characters don’t already eschew domination by the male gaze, Hail the Conquering Hero must be considered an anti-patriarchal text as its hero, Woodrow embraces mother worship—a philosophy endorsed by both servicemen and the community.

We are told Libby is Woodrow’s life-long love, only he shows little interest throughout the narrative. He appears genuinely relieved when Libby admits to have taken a fiancé in Woodrow’s absence. “That’s marvelous,” Woodrow tells her, calm for an instant. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day. At least I don’t need to worry about you.” It isn’t the only instance where Woodrow’s machismo is challenged. When he explains his dilemma to the Marines on his train ride home, he tells them of Libby (though concerns of her are always secondary to those or his mother) saying, “it’s not only my mother, I’ve got a girl. I mean, I did have.” “What did you tell her?” asks Sgt. Heppelfinger, “You was going in the navy?” This jab at Woodrow’s effeminate stature and nebbish behavior insinuates the possibility of homosexuality: a challenge to the patriarchal masculinity Kaplan argues the male gaze tries to prevent. Yet when the truth of Woodrow’s charade comes out, the most trustworthy man in town, mayoral candidate Doc Bissell comes to his defense saying, “if tenderness toward and consideration of one’s mother was a fault, it was a fault any man might be proud of.”

That the film’s resolution reunites Woodrow and Libby is secondary to the fact that he has made his mother proud and gets to return home to her on an assumed permanent basis. Though the agency of the film certainly rests with its male characters, the feminine influence over their agency challenges Kaplan’s patriarchal strategy. As women held down the home front, they metaphorically shed their domestication. Bracken’s Norval and Woodrow represent the jolted male who returns from war to find his gender roles reversed. Traditional concepts of masculinity are tempered by the agency of girlfriends and mothers and Norval becomes the perfect husband because “he can do all the housework.” These films suggest the shared (if not displaced) domesticity and leveling of gendered power is a good for women.

But power, in the Sturges universe, had shifted with the war. The traditional screwball comedies which urged reestablishment of patriarchal ideologies was never embraced by Sturges. In both theme and form, Sturges acknowledges the desire of the male gaze, but refuses it any leverage. From a Lacanian pretext, one would expect a film like Unfaithfully Yours to be rife with male gaze as much of the narrative takes place in a man’s head. After coming to suspect his young, attractive wife may have committed adultery, virtuoso symphony conductor Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison) spends the entire second act of the film imagining three different ways to confront his wife, Daphne with his newly discovered knowledge of infidelity: an elaborate murder of his wife and framing of supposed co-conspirator Tony, a melodramatic martyrdom in which Alfred nobly pays Daphne $100,000 to leave, and a duel in which Alfred demand the three play a game of Russian roulette until satisfaction is achieved.



Yet this postwar comedy presents us with Sturges’s most frazzled male lead: this third scenario played out in Alfred’s head ends quickly, as Alfred shoots himself in the temple. Formally, these daydreams play out like three different patriarchal genres: horror, melodrama and chivalric romance. Yet Alfred is not only the gazing voyeur but omniscient author of these scenarios. Never one for superfluous camera work, Sturges employs a rare technique emphasizing point of view. As we enter each reverie, the camera long zooms all the way into Alfred’s pupil. In these three daydreams, Alfred holds sole agency and takes on the patriarchal role ascribed to the male lead in each parodied genre, but such masculine grandeur is thwarted when Alfred must carry out his plan in the real world. Alfred’s apartment is turned into shambles through slapstick before all three of his plans fail him in the face of his wife.

A careful combination of Linda Darnell’s sophisticated performance as Daphne and Sturges’s screenplay and form suggests a female gaze trumping Alfred’s agency. Darnell subtly works minor variations into the different portrayals of Daphne which Alfred fails to recognize. In the scenes that take place in Alfred’s head, Daphne “says only the lines that he imagines she would say; and she responds exactly the way his mind thinks she would respond. Of course, she came out as still as a dummy, because she was allowed to say only what was in his mind” (Pirolini 141). Alfred is another of Sturges’s highly patriarchal characters whose hubris fails to recognize his wife’s true agency. Daphne is no “dummy,” she plays into Alfred’s patriarchal ego with a sublime touch absent in Alfred’s imaginings of her.

At the film’s resolution, Daphne tells Alfred, “I know what it’s like to be a great man, that is I don’t really but having so many responsibilities... so much tenseness... watching out for and protecting so many people.” These words, though bearing no truthful testament to anything we’ve seen of Alfred’s character, illicit his response which informs us of Daphne’s intentions. After the reconciliation, Alfred desires to again lavish his wife with riches, asking “will you put on your lowest cut, most vulgarly ostentatious dress with the largest and vulgarest jewels that you possess?” Alfred speaks to Daphne as if she was his possession, but Daphne’s sly manipulation of her husband shows the audience who is in control. Even when Alfred’s phallic imagery gets upgraded from small conductor’s wand to pistol, he renders himself useless in his own mind by losing at Russian roulette. Like the man who has returned home from war to find his patriarchal power impotent in a changed world, any fulfillment of male gaze is granted through the grace of the woman who perceives her own power. Sturges’s male leads grow from patriarchally frustrated in the prewar years to emasculated and destitute at war’s end.

As screwball comedies shifted during the war years and male leads became more anti-heroic, the comedies of Preston Sturges stepped away from traditional patriarchal ideologies that so many screwball comedies sought to reestablish. Female characters not only find increased agency at a time which paralleled female independence in the United States, Sturges couples this female power with formal techniques which suggest a female gaze. For Sturges, masculinity is never associated with capability, and even in his comedies which feature male leads, they fall victim to the feminine power of Oedipal binds. Sturges’s comedies offer subversive gender representation which question patriarchal ideologies. Though his films often end in (actual or presumed) matrimony, the gender roles Sturges employ far from purport domestic stereotype. Sturges’s female characters are never fixed stereotypes. While it would be a stretch to call his films feminist, the combination of female agency and male emasculation defy patriarchal categorization. Marriage is a given—for the best in the societal view of Sturges’s world—but the seemingly patriarchal trappings don’t reestablish the male as the sole proprietor of authority. Women author their own destinies in Preston Sturges’s romantic comedies and men are bound to their agency.



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Works Cited

Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Gehring, Wes D. Screwball Comedy: Defining a Film Genre. Muncie: Ball State University Press. 1983.

Gamman, Lorraine. “Watching the Detectives: The Enigma of the Female Gaze.” The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture. Ed. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment. Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1989. 8-26.

Jacobs, Diane. Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera. New York: Methuen, 1983.

Lent, Tina Olsin. “Romantic Love and Friendship: The Redefinition of Gender Relations in Screwball Comedy.” Classical Hollywood Comedy. Ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 315-331.

Pautz, Michelle. “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000.” Issues in Political Economy, Vol. 11 (2002): 70-87. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Pirolini, Alessandro. The Cinema of Preston Sturges: A Critical Study. Jefferson: McFarland &
Company Inc., 2010.

Rowe, Kathleen. “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter”. Classical Hollywood Comedy. Ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 39-59.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. New York: Random House, 1994. 175-194.

Young, Kay. Ordinary Pleasures: Couples, Conversation, and Comedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. 2001.

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