Selling History at Paramount

By 1935, Howard Estabrook's policy of consulting multiple historical sources in constructing a historical screenplay was an established practice, and by the end of the decade, a small group of screenwriters headed by Lamar Trotti and Nunnally Johnson were known almost exclusively for their historical work. Like the novelists whose writings served as the basis for so many historical films in the early sound era, these screenwriters often rebelled against the traditional views of historical...

Imitating Historiography

Lincoln proved that a biographical film did not need to be a success story or a deification of a national hero. Ramsaye in particular clearly hoped that the film's visual and historical discourse would generate a new development in American historical filmmaking. Yet Young Mr. Lincoln lasted only two shaky weeks at New York City's Roxy Theatre, in spite of being highly regarded by critics and exhibitors. Competition with the World's Fair that month may have killed its New York...

Toward a Filmic Writing of History in Classical Hollywood

We believe that we have as much right to present the facts of history as we see them . . . as a Guizot, a Bancroft, a Ferrari, or a Woodrow Wilson has to write these facts in his history. D. W. Griffith, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, 1916 When D. W. Griffith published his defense of historical filmmaking in 1916, there was little doubt why he believed that filmmaker-historians needed a spokesman. Public controversy had yet to subside over his Civil War and Reconstruction epic The...

Who Was Andy Oakley

Despite the failure of The Conquerors in 1932, RKO continued to adapt and produce films set in the national past. But the period melodramas Little Women (1933) and The Age of Innocence (1934) were relatively low-maintenance narratives, requiring no grandiose on-location shots or epic battle scenes or the lengthy preliminary research needed for an original historical screenplay. Although lacking forewords and superimposed dates, the narratives relied on a period setting and the passage of years,...

Foundations of Film Historiography

Although this study revises traditional approaches to the discourse of classical Hollywood cinema and films about American history, its methodology and conception of film historiography owe debts to the work of Warren Susman, Robert A. Rosenstone, Philip Rosen, Donald Crafton, and Pamela Falkenberg. Susman was perhaps the first historian to acknowledge cinema's complex relationship with history. Cinema, he wrote, not only was capable of reflecting and documenting historical eras but also was...

The Burden of Historical and Film Scholarship

Professional historians have rarely admitted the possibility that Hollywood films could serve as a new and comparable form of historiography. When historian Michael Isenberg read Griffith's defense of filmmaker-historians, he ignored both Griffith's call for equality among traditional historians and filmmaker-historians and his underlying challenge of historical ob jectivity, instead dismissing Griffith as merely feeling the burden of the truths of history. For Isenberg and countless other...

RKO and the Perils of Critical Success

RKO's gamble with a sophisticated historical film paid off. Estabrook and Ruggles produced an American historical film that dominated every major poll of the year's best films.63 Cimarron would even win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. If the Academy's recognition could be considered a marker for a film's seriousness as art, then surely Cimarron succeeded. For the next sixty years, it would be the only western to garner such accolades, despite the genre's accelerating...

The New American Film Historiography

In the following pages, I argue that a filmic writing of American history flourished in Hollywood from 1931 to 1942.76 Rather than force-fitting classical Hollywood films into an industrial-artistic formula or deconstructing their mythic discourses, this book aims to reconstruct a critical understanding of classical Hollywood's American historical cycle and its engagement with professional and popular history, traditional and revisionist historical discourse, and modern history. Although my...

The Black Irish of Gone with the Wind

Like Julie, Scarlett O'Hara was closer to her black servants than to her white family. Although Scarlett's mother never perceived her rebellious character, Mammy saw and understood it. During the impoverished, agonizing months after her return to Tara, Mitchell has Scarlett doing tasks that slaves consider beneath house niggers. She captures and ties up a cow to provide milk for Melanie's baby, she goes to Twelve Oaks to gather food, she hunts for the animals in the swamp, she hoes and plows...

Southern Women in Hollywood

Mitchell's detailed confrontation of the darker history of the Civil War was something that few professional historians wished to address, but in the early stages of film production, Selznick glossed over any impending controversy and stated that he wanted changes to the novel kept to a minimum I find myself a producer charged with recreating the best loved book of our time and I don't think any of us have ever tackled anything that is even comparable to the love that people have for it.41...

Early Hollywood Histories

Selznick had worked at the two biggest and most lavish studios, MGM and Paramount, before accepting RKO's offer to head production. RKO was certainly smaller scale, but its compact operations suited Selznick and his growing obsession with complete production control at both the studio and the individual unit level. There were no rivals such as B. P. Schulberg or Irving Thalberg to take precedence at RKO, Selznick could oversee every element of studio production choose, develop, criticize, and...

Contemporary History in the Age of Scarface

Sounds like a typewriter, eh I'm goin' to write my name all over Chicago with this, in capital letters. Tony Camonte Al Capone in Scarface, 1932 Darryl F. Zanuck began working for Warner Brothers in 1924, and by 1929 he had moved from writing Rin Tin Tin scripts to overseeing George Arl-iss reprise his stage success as Benjamin Disraeli. According to Arliss and Warner Brothers' publicity department, Disraeli's historical content was intended to increase the prestige of talking pictures.1...

Territories Becoming Rich States

IN 1889, PRESIDENT HARRISON OPENED THE VAST INDIAN OKLAHOMA LANDS FOR WHITE SETTLEMENT . . . 2,000,000 ACRES FREE FOR THE TAKING, POOR AND RICH POURING IN, SWARMING THE BORDER, WAITING FOR THE STARTING GUN, AT NOON, APRIL 22ND . . . This text prologue expresses the dominant academic and popular view of western expansion derived from Theodore Roosevelt's Winning of the West 1885-1894 and particularly Turner's The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Cimarron's given history stresses...

Info

This one is vivisection. Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, 1926 In 1931 Clara Bow, arguably Paramount Studios' most famous and exploited actress, was ravaged in the rag press during a prolonged and vicious slander suit.1 Although she returned briefly to the screen to make the successful Call Her Savage 1932 and Hoopla 1933 for Fox, Bow had lost her joy of filmmaking. And in spite of her considerable powers as an actress, her multiple public and personal battles...

Coming to Terms with Hollywoods History

In early 1933 Selznick briefly pursued his fascination with star biographies, planning to adapt Zoe Akins's play Morning Glory in order to reteam Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman. Bennett would reprise her role as a determined rising star, but Sherman would no longer play a cynical director he would direct Morning Glory. However compelling it may have seemed to Selznick to continue the cycle of Hollywood entertainment histories with Bennett, he eventually assigned Katharine Hepburn to star...

The Life of Al Capone

While Zanuck was in the process of organizing The Public Enemy, Howard Hughes was developing his own idea for a modern biopic. A multimillionaire and son of a Texas industrialist, Hughes began investing in motion pictures in the mid-1920s. In 1928 he produced his first gangster picture. The Racket began in 1927 as a Broadway hit by former Chicago crime reporter Bartlett Cormack and featured Edward G. Robinson in his only stage gangster role.62 The character of Nick Scarsi was loosely based on...

Ignoring Reconstruction

Hollywood's previous attempt to film American history in the antebellum South through Reconstruction had resulted in one of the most controversial box-office attractions. D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation could still give Selznick heartburn in 1937. Howard immediately sensed the peril of re-creating the historical period synonymous in Hollywood with that 1915 film. In his preliminary notes on a screen treatment, dated 14 December 1936, he began, Our chief difficulty will come from the lack...

The Myth of Classical Cinema

Although the films discussed here all fall within the critical boundaries of the period known to academe as classical Hollywood roughly 1920 to 1960 , the term classical Hollywood cinema and its critical heritage have seriously constricted previous historical scholarship on pre-World War II Hollywood filmmaking. The term originally signified French film critic Andr Bazin's praise for a beautifully balanced stage of American film narratives, a moment in the late 1930s when the visual structures...

Rebels against the Railroad

One of the most prominent writers in Hollywood, and one directly connected to the rise of the American historical film, was former Georgia and New York reporter Nunnally Johnson. When Johnson moved from Paramount to Fox, he and Darryl Zanuck embarked on a massive American historical cycle. In fact, Johnson was so closely associated with Zanuck's vision that in their first major American historical film, the Reconstruction-era account of Dr. Samuel Mudd's trial and imprisonment, The Prisoner of...