In early 1930, D. W. Griffith began filming a sound biography of Abraham Lincoln. Although he was arguably the father of American historical cinema, it was not certain whether Griffith could reclaim Hollywood's past artistic and economic feats. For the past few years, the director's boxoffice potential had slipped. Although his last American historical production, the romantic Revolutionary War narrative America (1924), had been popular, some critics found his film treatment as dated as the subject matter.4 In planning Abraham Lincoln, he still maintained his taste for period stories but wisely hired a professional "historical" screenwriter to sharpen his lengthy treatment.
Hiring Stephen Vincent Benet, author of John Brown's Body, was a public-relations coup for United Artists, but Benet was not all that different from a slew of other New York writers who came to Hollywood in the early sound era. He thirsted for Hollywood money but had an equal contempt for filmmaking and its artistic values. Also, as Benet freely admitted, he knew nothing about screenwriting and left Griffith and his secretary to handle the mechanics.5 Though he claimed that his script, an edited version of Griffith's original, was detailed, accurate, and "playable," executives, perhaps relishing the chance to chasten the uppity New Yorker, forced him to write five versions before agreeing on the final one, which was episodic, epigrammatic, and sentimental. Although Benet complained about the "sheer waste, stupidity, and conceit" of Joseph Schenck and the front office, Griffith allowed the producers to rework the script.6
Variety advertised the film in August as "Griffith's biggest contribution to the exhibitor" and a "masterpiece . . . [without] a line of dialog that would offend race, color, creed or belief," while Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune commended its "dignified" treatment of Lincoln's life.7 However, most critics were appalled by its sentimentality and old-fashioned, static treatment of history. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times preferred the livelier Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924) and wrote that the sound film failed "to give the details of the scenes that were so ably told in the mute work." Hall also complained that Griffith was guilty of "prognosticating too often in the course of scenes."8 Instead of portraying the events in Lincoln's life as part of a complex and evolving process, crucial events were given in their mythic totality in a series of tableaux: the young Lincoln was never an immature, uncertain youth but always the hero. Above all, Lincoln's heroic presence stabilized both personal and national conflicts in a monotonous, schoolbook narrative. The most famous, emblematic moments of Lincoln's life were strung together in a collection of static scenes and deliberately enunciated epigrams (Lincoln reading by firelight, the death of Ann Rutledge, the coming of the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the assassination). Harry Alan Potamkin of the New Masses was more direct in his criticism of the sentimentalized eulogy, which he dismissed as "a mooning idyll." According to Potamkin, Griffith's callow sense of American history portrayed "a Lincoln that any child beyond the fifth grade in school would disown."9 Curiously, Potamkin did not imply that the sound medium was at fault, but rather that the silent aesthetic standards Griffith had perfected years before were no longer any match for an innovative new art form. A film about Lincoln required an astute historical perspective conveyed through language and argument, not the folksy images and symbols of silent cinema, the mawkish scenes of rail-splitting and sickbed moments with Rut-ledge. Rather than reviving the American historical cycle he had helped create fifteen years before, Griffith's work on Abraham Lincoln proved that silent techniques lacked the historical complexities and sophistication demanded by sound-era critics. And yet, critics in Hollywood and New York justified the film's serious subject matter as a way of elevating the American cinema and its audiences.
That same year, other Hollywood filmmakers tried to revisit American history through another traditional route. The western had long been the American cinema's most consistent contribution to historical filmmaking and had been a mainstay of the industry long before Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913). In 1929 and 1930, both Paramount and MGM experimented with different varieties of sound westerns, but rather than commissioning screenwriters to construct new narratives, they relied heavily on remakes of silent classics. Owen Wister's novel The Virginian had been adapted for stage and screen shortly after its publication in 1902. The 1914 and 1923 film versions were still fresh in Hollywood's memory when Paramount decided to remake the story as a partial sound feature in 1929. Wister's tale, with its silent southern cowpoke, its vast landscapes, its romantic narrative unmarked by historical events, and its numerous remakes, epitomized the mythic West. Always popular with filmgoers, the story had comforting box-office potential in the unstable early sound era. Director Victor Fleming clung to more than the narrative conventions of silent cinema; although advertised as "all talkie," the film made little use of the medium beyond the sound of cattle and gunfire. After all, the mystique of the hero lay in his silence. Fledgling screenwriter Howard Estabrook kept to the western tradition. He did not insert any main text titles or introductory allusions to the time period or locale, and while the script synopsis stressed "epic atmosphere," the film possessed little of the epic historical pretension associated with a silent western such as John Ford's The Iron Horse (1924).10 Unlike Ford's early epic, The Virginian's landscape was unmarked by the historical consequences of the railroad; instead, the West was identified with the open range. As expected, The Virginian was a hit, in part because it clung to what Jerry Hoffman of the Los Angeles Examiner called "the good old days" of storytelling and filmmaking.11 But the panoramic silences and laconic hero were not things that the studios could duplicate indefinitely. Unfortunately, MGM took Hoffman's praise for the "resurrection of the much-mourned western" literally by resuscitating two other western narratives. Paramount and Warner Brothers followed suit with Rex Beach's The Spoilers (1930) and David Belasco's Girl of the Golden West (1930), which were equally old-fashioned westerns patterned after The Virginian's success. By 1930, however, critics were complaining, among other things, that the narratives "dawdled."12 Perhaps The Virginians partial silence was in its favor. In 1929, with the cacophony of talking drawing-room comedies, Gary Cooper's silence was a throwback to a more confident past. In 1930, however, critics were demanding something new.
Later that year, MGM experimented with a new sound western — a screen story of Billy the Kid, loosely based on Chicago reporter and popular historian Walter Noble Burns's The Saga of Billy the Kid.13 Burns's biography had the requisite dates, the details of cattle baron feuds, and the stories of William Bonney's fame, but his biography had an entertaining immediacy; it used present-tense dialogue and historical scenes that were immensely popular with the public and familiar to filmmakers who wrote and read scripts in the present tense. Burns's re-creations of historical moments matched the cinema's own capacity to make the past present, and he viewed Billy's life and western history as a dramatic pageant akin to the cinema.14 Burns also recognized that the myth of Billy the Kid was inseparable from his place in history. "Less than fifty years after his death, it is not always easy to differentiate fact from myth," he wrote. "Historians have been afraid of him, as if this boy of six-shooter deadliness might fatally injure their reputations if they set themselves seriously to write of a career of such dime-novel luridness."15 Burns feared neither Billy's status as a popular icon nor his dramatic, cinematic life and legacy.
Burns developed a democratized view of American history, and it appealed to MGM's story department. Although the studio kept Billy's name in the title, the screenwriters altered everything else, taking Burns's inclusive attitude toward western history and myth over the brink. Tunstall became Tunstan, and a romantic interest in Tunstan's fiancée complicated Billy's killings. Historical detail simply did not seem to matter. Like The Virginian, the film faded in on an expository shot of a wagon train amidst a herd of cattle.16 While critics had appreciated The Virginians unpretentious, archetypal gunfights, they reacted with condescension or hostility to MGM's irresponsible treatment of history, its distortions and fabrications, and its idea of a western as "a composite of gunshots and gooey romance."17 In fact, the Hollywood Reporter condemned the film for betraying not only the historical challenge of Burns's biography but also the expectations of American audiences who wanted better films: "It seems as though the title had been bought to attract the customers and instead of making a really great epic picture of one of the best loved and most dashing characters that ever roamed the West of pioneer times, the producers have succeeded in making just another western."18
A few months later, Fox Studios tried a different approach to filming western history, hiring screenwriter Hal G. Evarts to construct an original story, a talking equivalent of the expansionist epic The Covered Wagon. The Big Trail was planned meticulously as a chronicle of westward expansion along the Oregon Trail in the mid-nineteenth century. Evarts and director Raoul Walsh proclaimed in the opening title that the film honored "the men and women who planted civilization and courage in the blood of their children." Although it too failed at the box office, critics took its historical content more seriously. Although Variety's Sime Silverman called it "a noisy Covered Wagon," a poor relation of the silent western epics, he did praise The Big Trail's historical aspects as the "single interesting part."19 But it was precisely the heavy history that some felt overwhelmed the flimsy romance and fictional film narrative.20 There was a subtle awareness on the part of some contemporary film critics that history's multiple associations and complex narratives competed with and even counteracted the power of a traditional, clearly defined, and uncomplicated cinematic narrative.
While ticket sales for Abraham Lincoln and The Big Trail floundered and Hollywood recoiled from the economic shock and criticism, RKO executives held their breath. For the past few months, their small studio had shouldered the mounting costs of their own American historical epic, a film that fit into no recognizable historical category or film genre. It was neither exclusively a western nor a biopic. Founded only in 1928, after the financial instability of its parent companies necessitated its consolidation by the Radio Corporation of America, Radio-Keith-Orpheum was the youngest of the major American studios.21 It emerged with the technological revolution of sound and grew slowly in the midst of the Depression. The studio had the least capital resources of all the major studios and the most invested in the as yet unperfected new film form.22 It was symbolically fitting and even more financially imperative that the young sound studio produce the definitive sound feature. Now, as the end of 1930 approached and postproduction and retakes wrapped, the studio's publicity department prepared the way for its new prestige film and studio image. The studio's annual advertisement in Film Daily heralded "Mightier shows . . . Mightier plans . . . Mightier progress. The radio titan opens the curtains of the clouds and a new and greater year dawns for the most spectacular show machine of all time! A new and mightier pageant of the titans is forming . . . and marching irresistibly to leadership of the modern show world!"23 RKO was staking its future economic and artistic credibility on a new type of American historical film: the production of Edna Ferber's Cimarron.
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