Hollywood rarely makes artistically serious movies, save by inadvertence. An exception was the 1970’s, when Hollywood was indeed a font of popular films that aspired to, and on occasion attained, the status of something not unlike high art. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) were not “great” in the sense that one would apply that word to a bonafide cinematic masterpiece like, say, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) or Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). But their artistic purposes were self-evident, and to see them when they were new was to be persuaded—for a time—that American film had come of age at last.
In fact, however, the seeds of decline had already been planted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—the makers, respectively, of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). The commercial success of these films, with their simple-minded stories and elaborate special effects, led directly to the juvenilization of Hollywood. Once producers discovered that there were vast amounts of money to be made out of visually compelling, dramatically infantile big-budget movies aimed at an audience of teenagers, it was all but inevitable that they would soon be making little else. What followed was an industry-wide plunge to the lowest common denominator of popular taste—the same affliction from which network TV and commercial pop music are similarly suffering.
To be sure, Hollywood has always been a money-making enterprise, and it may well be that our latter-day Age of the Blockbuster is nothing more than a return to the historical norm from which the New Wave of the 70’s was a short-lived aberration. Thus, for all the nostalgia with which American films of the 30’s and 40’s are now recalled, the best of them were unpretentious genre movies—Westerns, musicals, “screwball” comedies, and the bleak, cynical crime stories now known as film noir—turned out by inspired craftsmen who succeeded in transcending the limitations imposed on them by the studios at which they worked. It is these films, and not such nominally “serious” efforts as The Grapes of Wrath (1939) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), for which the studio system will be justly remembered.
Still, even though Hollywood was from its earliest days hostile to the creation of serious art, there was no shortage of high-minded artists who were drawn there by the prospect of working in a new medium whose promise once seemed boundless. As James Agee, one of the few film critics whose work has proved to be of permanent interest, wrote to Dwight Macdonald in 1927:
I don’t see how much more can be done with writing or with the stage. In fact, every kind of recognized “art” has been worked pretty nearly to the limit. . . . As for the movies, however, their possibilities are infinite—that is, in so far as the possibilities of any art CAN be so.
That same note of youthful optimism is sounded, albeit retrospectively, in a pair of newly published biographies of two of Hollywood’s most important filmmakers. Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination is the first independently written, primary-source biography of the key figure in the creation of the animated-film industry.1 Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: Hello Americans is the second part of a three-volume biography of the director and star of Citizen Kane (1941), the greatest film ever to be made in Hollywood.2 Though these two books differ widely in quality, both illuminate the formidable obstacles that the American film industry places in the path of directors who aspire to artistic seriousness.
Walt Disney’s name has been synonymous with innocuous children’s movies, TV shows, and (more recently) Broadway musicals for so long that it is easy to forget how earnestly he was taken in the 20’s and 30’s. Back then, Mickey Mouse, the Disney studio’s flagship character, was admired by such luminaries as Sergei Eisenstein, E.M. Forster, and Arturo Toscanini. Otis Ferguson, the most intelligent American film critic of the day, went so far as to rank Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), the first full-length animated feature film, “among the genuine artistic achievements of this country.”
Alas, Neal Gabler is incapable of explaining why Disney was regarded so highly by his contemporaries, for his interest in Disney is sociological rather than aesthetic. Like most modern-day commentators, Gabler sees Disney’s career as little more than an episode (albeit a major one) in the history of mass culture under capitalism. To the extent that he tries to analyze Disney’s work, he approaches it in a rigidly and reductively psychobiographical manner, arguing that animation was for Disney a way of escape from “the stern, moralistic, anhedonic world of his father.3”
This may well be true, just as it is true that Disney was an opaque personality whose private life was conventional and largely lacking in incident—which does not excuse the fact that Gabler has written about it in so pedestrian a manner. The fact remains, however, that Disney was an artist, if a reluctant one. Graham Greene, one of the most thoughtful observers of prewar Hollywood, was so fascinated by Disney’s early cartoons that he filled his film reviews of the 30’s with suggestive references to Mickey Mouse and his creator:
[Fred] Astaire is the nearest approach we are ever likely to have to a human Mickey Mouse; he might have been drawn by Mr. Walt Disney, with his quick physical wit, his incredible agility. . . . Only the cinema is able in its most fantastic moments to give a sense of absurd unreasoning happiness, a kind of poignant release: you can’t catch it in prose: it belongs to Walt Disney.
No biographer who fails to respond to this aspect of Disney’s work can possibly hope to “explain” him.
But Gabler does succeed in explaining how Disney’s vaulting creative ambitions brought him into conflict with the unyielding financial realities of the industry—and how his later career was shaped by that experience. This is a sad tale of frustration and disillusion, one made all the sadder for being juxtaposed with the charming, beautifully crafted cartoons turned out in abundance by the Disney studio between 1928 and 1938.
In these cartoons, Disney and his collaborators perfected the complex process now known as “character animation,” in which hand-drawn figures are set in illusory motion so convincingly and imaginatively that they give the impression of having lifelike personalities. Within a few years of Mickey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie (1928), the first sound cartoon, Disney’s artists were so accomplished at creating what they called “the illusion of life” that Mickey and Donald Duck, the studio’s other principal character, became as popular with the general public as any real-life star of the 30’s.4
Though Disney himself was a cultural innocent who knew little of high art, his artistic instincts were powerful, and it became his goal to imbue his cartoons with realistic emotion. While he neither drew nor wrote them, he closely supervised every aspect of their production and was by all accounts the prime mover in making them emotionally believable. “How would a piano feel if Mickey bangs on it too hard?” he famously asked at a story conference. One of his animators later put it less vividly but more intelligibly:
[Emotion] was the uppermost thing, and it all came about because Walt wanted to make the cartoon characters believable to the audience. Right from the start he didn’t want them to be just something moving around on the screen and doing funny things.
Given Disney’s avowed purpose of making his cartoons more realistic, it was a logical step for him to start making full-length features. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in addition to being commercially successful, was universally praised by critics. But Disney-style character animation was a hugely expensive undertaking, and in order to make Snow White he was forced (as he put it) “to mortgage everything I owned, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and everybody else.” Thereafter, between his creative aspirations and his indebtedness to the Bank of America, he had no choice but to commit himself to the making of still more full-length animated films, since they were potentially more profitable than the short subjects on which his reputation had hitherto been based.
The result was that while the Disney studio continued to produce shorts, their quality fell off sharply. As for the feature films that followed Snow White—Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942)—all performed significantly less well at the box office. Disney also collaborated with Leopold Stokowski on Fantasia (1940), a full-length feature in which the music of Bach, Beethoven, Dukas, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky accompanied a series of short animated segments. Despite (or because of) its ambitiousness, Fantasia failed at the box office, leaving the studio in dire straits.
During World War II, Disney stayed afloat by making dozens of educational and propaganda films for the U.S. government, but by then he had succumbed to despair. “We’re through with caviar,” he said. “From now on it’s mashed potatoes and gravy.”
Unlike Disney, Orson Welles had a creative life before coming to Hollywood. The Road to Xanadu (1995), the first volume of Simon Callow’s biography, was thus mostly given over to a detailed account of his work in the theater and on radio prior to Citizen Kane. It is a story that at times seems scarcely believable, though the bare outline of Welles’s stage career is astonishing enough without embellishment.
Born in Wisconsin in 1915, Welles made his professional stage debut in Dublin in 1931 and his Broadway debut three years later, playing opposite Katharine Cornell, the best-known American stage actress of her generation. By 1936 he was directing, and in 1937 he launched his own classical-repertory company, the Mercury Theatre. The following year he became the host of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a radio series devoted to dramatized versions of the classics. In one of them, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds was turned into a simulated newscast so realistic-sounding that thousands of listeners briefly believed that Martians had landed in New Jersey. It made Welles a celebrity (though by then he had already appeared on the cover of Time). A year later RKO hired him to write, direct, and star in films over which he would have complete creative control. In 1941, at the age of twenty-five, he made Citizen Kane.
Not surprisingly, much has been written about Welles, most of it by enthusiastic amateurs who see him as a supremely great artist brought low by the forces of philistinism. Callow, by contrast, is a well-known British character actor—the first theatrical professional, so far as I know, to write at length about Welles—with a profound understanding of his craft, and he has given us a hard-headed but sympathetic account of Welles’s life and work in which truth is scrupulously disentangled from legend. Notwithstanding an excessive number of small but irritating factual errors,5 The Road to Xanadu and now Hello Americans are among the most penetrating theatrical biographies ever written, and they do Welles full justice.
What becomes dismayingly clear in reading these two volumes is that Welles was a man of extraordinary but nonetheless finite talents who brought most of his failures upon himself. A stage director of near-genius, he made the mistake of presenting himself to the public in the triple role of actor, director, and writer even though his grasp of acting technique was superficial and his literary abilities limited (his real gift, like Walt Disney’s, was as an editor, not a writer). Having been treated as a prodigy from childhood onward, he took for granted his ability to persuade other people to do his bidding, however outrageous it might be, just as he assumed that he would always be able to pull his shows together at the last minute, no matter how chaotic the rehearsals had been.
Welles’s penchant for costly improvisation initially served him well on Broadway and in the radio studio. But in Hollywood, where the financial stakes were higher, it led to disaster. As Callow explains, he “made his films, as he had made his theater, on the floor, in the heat of the moment. . . . Nothing could be more inimical to an industry operating within the confines of the studio system.” Moreover, since American moviegoers were uninterested in watching a chronologically oblique narrative about a newspaper baron whose lack of self-knowledge leads to his downfall, Kane did poorly at the box office.
Welles’s next picture, an overlong, darkly pessimistic screen version of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons, led to his own downfall when he left the country during the film’s post-production phase to shoot an ill-conceived documentary about South America on which he squandered vast amounts of studio money. RKO executives promptly took The Magnificent Ambersons out of his hands, cut it drastically and unintelligently, and released it without fanfare. It sank without trace, and Welles was never again given control over the creation of a major Hollywood film.
From Callow’s account of the filming of The Magnificent Ambersons it is plain that Welles’s biggest mistake was to go to Hollywood in the first place. For one thing, he was far too independent-minded to thrive in an industry not primarily interested in the making of art. As Callow writes, “Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive.”
For another thing, Welles was too careless with other men’s money. Charlton Heston, who watched him commit professional suicide by walking out on Touch of Evil (1958) without seeing it through post-production, later wrote of the contemptuous insouciance with which Welles treated the businessmen on whom his creative life depended:
Orson had an odd blind spot. He was infinitely charming with his crew and actors, but I’ve seen him deliberately insult studio heads. Very dumb. Those are the guys with the money. If they won’t give you any, you don’t get to make many movies.
They wouldn’t, and he didn’t. In the end, it was as simple as that.
For the rest of Welles’s life, he would devote himself to a series of obsessively personal, increasingly eccentric films, most of them produced independently of the Hollywood moguls who had turned their backs on him. “Henceforward,” Callow writes, “every film that Welles made was a massive struggle against the odds. Even when he worked for a studio, he was employed from the outside and had to fight for what he needed.”
Walt Disney responded to the frustration of his artistic ambitions in a different way. After the failure of Fantasia, he increasingly left the making of his feature films to his employees. (An exception was Mary Poppins, the 1965 live-action musical film that was the last of his major projects.) Instead, he concentrated on the building of Disneyland and Disney World, the amusement parks in California and Florida with which he was mainly preoccupied until his death in 1966. His willingness to abdicate the pivotal role he had played in the creation of animated films between 1928 and 1942 suggests that he lacked that unshakable commitment to an interior vision which is the mark of the true artist—a commitment that Orson Welles, for all his myriad flaws, had in abundance.
Of course, even if he had been driven by a creative daemon similar to the one that forced Welles out of commercial film-making, Disney would likely have found it impossible to pursue his vision, for his chosen medium was one that could not be practiced individually—or inexpensively. The production of hand-drawn animated cartoons is labor-intensive under the best of circumstances, and Disney’s corporate approach to the process of film-making meant that he could not function without the aid of a sizable staff of collaborators.
On the other hand, neither could Welles—or any other director, for that matter, not even the most doggedly independent. Even more than theater, film is by definition a collaborative art. The essence of a play, after all, is to be found in its script, whereas a screenplay, however well-written it may be, is nothing more than the starting point for the making of a film. To read the text of Hamlet or The Glass Menagerie is an aesthetic experience complete in itself (though seeing it performed on stage is an infinitely richer and more rewarding one). To read the screenplay of Citizen Kane without having seen the film is like reading a recipe without bothering to cook it—and in Hollywood, there are usually too many cooks.
Does this mean that the conditions under which films have historically been made are by definition incompatible with the creation of high art? Not exactly. Many 20th-century movies deserve to be called great by any standard, and some of them, including Citizen Kane, were shot in Hollywood. But as the scale of a work of art increases and more people become involved in its creation and execution, it grows progressively more difficult to exert the single-minded control that turns chaos into beauty. Large-scale masterpieces can be created only by iron-willed geniuses who unlike Walt Disney are incapable of compromise, and who are shrewd enough to shun the self-ravaging impulses that put an end to Orson Welles’s Hollywood career.
1 Knopf, 816 pp., $35.00.
2 Viking, 506 pp., $32.95.
3 Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999), by far the most thorough and insightful study of American animation, has written his own biography of Disney, The Animated Man, that will be published in April by the University of California Press. Unlike Gabler’s book, it will deal extensively with the aesthetic aspect of Disney’s work.
4 Virtually all of Disney’s pre-1945 cartoon have been released on DVD, though most of the early collections, including Mickey Mouse in Black and White and Mickey Mouse in Living Color, came out in limited editions and are no longer readily available.
5 Among other things, Callow commits the double-barreled error in Hello Americans of referring to Clare Boothe Luce as “Clare Luce Booth.”