Introduction: Again With Those Pesky Values
In choosing between Charlie Chaplin, René Clair and Fritz Lang for best director of 1930-31, I take comfort in the fact that I can't get the answer wrong. These are three of the greatest directors of all time, each at the top of his game, each producing a commercially- and critically-acclaimed masterpiece regarded by many, including me, to be the best work of each man's career.
But then as I've implied before, possibly without stating it explicitly, the actual winner of any given alternate Oscar I call the Katie Awards is irrelevant—the whole exercise is simply a narrative hook to keep this otherwise meandering blog pointed in one direction, the future, while taking an inordinate amount of time to talk about the past. If by handing out an award named for the undeniably great and award-worthy Katie-Bar-The-Door, I can get you to read about the likes of Clara Bow and Buster Keaton—or better yet, get you to watch the likes of Clara Bow and Buster Keaton—then I will have accomplished my mission.
Not to mention, I get to watch the likes of Clara Bow and Buster Keaton and that's even better.
Here's another unstated truth about the Katie Awards: beyond a simple recitation of the facts, talking about movies, like talking about the Beatles or baseball, is really a way for two people to talk about their values without the emotionally-charged and potentially-divisive need to ratchet up the stakes to the breaking point. You like Paul better than John? Well, who am I to argue with a matter of taste? (Although I've been tempted to do violence to those who suggest Ringo was just along for the ride. But then every man has his line in the sand.) A person who tells you Casablanca is his favorite movie is revealing something very different from a person who says Fight Club is his favorite movie (a person who tells you the latest Transformers sequel is his favorite movie needs to see more movies).
Thus, wittingly or not, when I've written about The General and Sunrise, the Marx Brothers, Marie Dressler and the aforementioned Clara Bow, I've really been writing about myself, my values, my experiences. I've just sweetened my narcissism with a tasty coating of film analysis and movie trivia—not to mention a sackful of photos of Louise Brooks.
So given that the contest between Chaplin, Clair and Lang is essentially a three-way tie, what do I reveal about myself in choosing Lang over the others?
Auteur Theory: Flogging A Dead Horse
Well, for one thing, even though I think Robert Osborne, film historian and classy host of Turner Classic Movies, is a national treasure and second only to Katie-Bar-The-Door on the list of America's greatest living citizens (I'd rather have his job than play centerfield for the New York Yankees), I don't agree with his stated belief (which I read once upon a time in Now Playing) that the best director of the year is per se whoever directed the best movie of year. I mean, I see his point, particularly if he buys into the auteur theory of film criticism, that the director is the principal author of a movie, and if you subscribe to the theory, you no doubt agree with him.
The problem with this particular line of thinking, though, at least to my mind, is that it doesn't actually describe the reality of filmmaking, especially not in Hollywood, certainly not during the studio era when movies were made on an assembly line model, and certainly not these days during the era of bean counters and $20 million movie stars.
Not that there's much question about who authored the films in question here—Clair wrote and directed Le Million, Lang co-wrote M with his wife, Thea von Harbou, and Chaplin, well, he was a one-man studio, writing, directing, producing, editing, scoring and starring in City Lights. All three of these directors are the epitome of the auteur theory.
It's all the other directors of great movies who don't fit the theory that concern me. Consider, for example, Top Hat, the best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Mark Sandrich directed the movie, but Hermes Pan choreographed the dances, Fred Astaire determined how to photograph them, Ginger Rogers insisted on the dresses she wore, Irving Berlin wrote the songs, Van Nest Polglase designed the sets, Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott wrote the jokes, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore performed those jokes with their usual impeccable timing, and producer Pandro Berman signed off on the whole thing. It was even Astaire and Rogers who decided when the dancing was done.
So Sandrich was the director of Top Hat, but in what sense was he the author of Top Hat? Yet Top Hat is one of the greatest movies ever made.
The auteur theory also undervalues studio directors—directors under contract who received their assignments from the studio on a seemingly random basis—men such as Michael Curtiz, a studio director with no discernible style or theme who nevertheless managed to give us Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mildred Pierce, among others. He ran the set of Casablanca with an iron hand and was indispensable to the movie's final pace, look and feel. And yet no one called Curtiz an auteur, not even Curtiz himself. Should we pretend he didn't exist or that his contribution shouldn't be recognized?
Admittedly, criticizing the auteur theory at this late date is like Glenn Beck ranting about socialism on Fox News—the boat sailed on both these movements decades ago. But even though it was long ago discredited, auteur theory continues to influence how we talk about directors and I'm just saying I will make a conscience effort to keep it in the corner where it belongs, trotting it out when it applies but otherwise discourage it from barking at the neighbors and scaring away visitors.
Because although I'm going to try to separate the flour from the cake and evaluate each contri- bution to the finished product on its own merits, judging directors just as I do writers, actors, editors and cinematographers, as one of the ingredients of a larger whole, I believe there's no more collaborative art form than motion pictures, and to contend that you need only decide what the best picture of a given year was to know who the best director was is to ignore a hundred-plus years of movie history to the contrary—and the one thing we never ignore here at the Monkey is history.
History and Katie-Bar-The-Door, that is.
Which is my way of saying that I haven't made up my mind which of M and City Lights was the best picture of 1930-31 and if in the end my choice for the top prize is inconsistent with my choice for best director, well, so be it.
Chaplin's City Lights: A Lyrical Silence
What else? Well, first, let's dispense (reluctantly) with René Clair. As George Orwell pointed out (either in Animal Farm or on ESPN's Sportscenter), in a contest between equals, some are more equal than others; and while Clair's direction was innovative and influential, and while Le Million was well-nigh perfect—warm, witty, lyrical—I wouldn't necessarily nominate it as the prime example of its particular genre, the musical comedy. There are just too many other titles that come to mind—Singin' in the Rain, A Night at the Opera, the movies of Astaire and Rogers, or even, arguably, Clair's own À Nous La Liberté—before most people think of Le Million. Maybe an oversight Katie and I can correct, but a fact nevertheless.
On the other hand, if City Lights and M are not the best examples of their genres (silent/Chaplin/rom-com and serial killer/police procedural/suspense thriller, respectively), then they're close, and I wouldn't mind spending an evening watching the fifteen rounders between City Lights and The General, and M, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. René Clair would win the prize in nearly any other year, but in 1930-31's three-way battle of movie titans, the tiniest of margins is enough to put Clair on the mat.
Well, then, why not Chaplin? After all, City Lights is one of the movies—along with The Kid, The Gold Rush and Modern Times—I'd hang my hat on if you've never seen Chaplin, and if you're only going to see one, see this one. To me, its only real competition for the designation of Best Silent Movie Ever is The General, and I'd hate to live on the difference. In terms of the finished product, Chaplin was never more sure-footed than he was here and City Lights represents a kind of perfect summing-up of everything he was trying to accomplish in his career.
But ironically, it's this act of summing up that puts Chaplin behind Lang in the best director sweepstakes, at least for me. All things being equal (the operative word here being equal), I give extra credit to the director who breaks new ground, provides an early clue to the new direction and influences everything that comes after.
Once he saw that talkies were not just a passing fad but were instead the future, Chaplin reacted not as Lang and Clair did, by making artistic use of the new technology despite initial misgivings, but by thumbing his nose at it (in the first scene of City Lights, literally). Chaplin believed talkies would rob the Tramp of his universal appeal, and he was probably right: a silent Tramp is an everyman, Eastern European, American, Italian—whoever is sitting in the audience—but a speaking Tramp turned out to be a wealthy, educated filmmaker from London and while he was still funny and sympathetic, he wasn't us. Caught between the rapidly receding past and the unforgiving future, Chaplin opted for the past.
The result was a magnificent movie and a ballsy gesture—rage, rage against the dying of the light!—that only the enormous box office power of his name would allow Chaplin to get away with. But it's not the sort of thing anyone else could emulate or build upon. The silence of City Lights is the sound of a door closing, end of an era, exclamation point. Nowhere to go from there but home.
M, on the other hand, looks like it could have been made yesterday—and in terms of its subject matter, probably was made yesterday, at least a pale imitation of it anyway. Lang not only made the definitive example of the serial killer movie, he simultaneously invented it. In doing so, he turned his gaze unflinchingly toward the future, not just of film but of the bloodiest century in human history.
Before I leave the subject of Chaplin, would it be churlish of me to point out that if he hadn't owned his own studio, he would almost certainly have been fired as director of City Lights? He took three years to craft his movie, famously filming nearly four hundred takes of the pivotal scene where the blind flowergirl, Virginia Cherrill, mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire—indeed, Chaplin eventually shut down production for six months while he puzzled over the question (the slamming of a car door did the trick).
And while the economics of filmmaking were very different then—Buster Keaton once explained that an independent director, such as himself or Chaplin, owned rather than rented his cameras, and the crew and actors were on straight salary whether they worked or not, so essentially he was only paying for film and sets—working for three years on a silent movie as the sound era unfolded was an enormous financial and artistic gamble and only Chaplin the producer would have allowed Chaplin the director to get away with it.
All of which sounds like a knock on Chaplin; it isn't. It's just that it's enough to separate him from Lang. As with Clair, in any other year I would hand Chaplin the award for best director. Just not this year.
[To read Part Two, click here.]