Friday, February 02, 2007

The Strange Love of Hal B. Wallis

After World War II, when the Hollywood studio system first showed signs of crumbling, there was a lot of shuffling of behind-the-scenes talent. For the first time in years, directors or producers associated with one studio were routinely moving to other studios, or setting up quasi-independent operations. One high-profile example was the producer Hal B. Wallis. He'd spent years as Warner Brothers' executive in charge of production, doing for WB's "A" pictures what Darryl Zanuck did at Fox, namely supervising every aspect of the picture and firing off memos about what to fix and how to fix it. In the early '40s, he cut back on his administrative duties and concentrated on producing; in this period his projects included Casablanca, which won Best Picture. There was some talk that one of the reasons behind his decision to leave WB was his resentment over the fact that Jack Warner went up to accept the award, even though it was Wallis's award.

Anyway, in 1945, Wallis departed Warner Brothers and set up shop at Paramount, where he would remain for over 20 years. His arrangement with Paramount allowed him a fair amount of autonomy: he owned a share of the pictures he made, and could put stars under contract to appear in his films and his alone. Martin and Lewis appeared in only four pictures that weren't produced by Wallis. As at WB, he was good at attracting and nurturing talent; he signed Martin and Lewis and brought them along intelligently, starting them in supporting roles (My Friend Irma) graduating them to movie-star status. He was also good at figuring out what a star could do and then finding ways for him to do it over again. Elvis Presley had made several movies before he signed with Wallis, but -- for better or for worse -- it was Wallis, in Blue Hawaii, who came up with the Elvis Formula that would turn him into a dependable moneymaker.

But the surprising thing about Wallis's post-WB career is how few good movies there are in there. It used to be said, reasonably enough, that the money Paramount made on series movies -- first with Martin & Lewis, then with Elvis -- allowed him to produce more serious pictures. But the non-Elvis, non-M&L movies are in many ways much less entertaining and even less interesting (given that some of the Martin & Lewis movies hold up quite well). And nearly all of them fall into the same category: static, stagey adaptations of stage plays. You've got Come Back, Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, and the super-worthy movie Wallis apparently considered his biggest Oscar contender, Becket. Apart from those, you have some very stagey-looking Westerns like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which was dull enough that the director, John Sturges, wound up returning to the Wyatt Earp story ten years later to make a better movie, Hour of the Gun).

Paramount movies of the '50s were very drab-looking -- the studio reacted to budget cuts by using cheap sets, avoiding location shooting, and generally making it look like everything was shot in a warehouse, which it probably was. But even by this standard, most of Wallis's movies of this period are without any visual interest at all: they're slow, talky, with static camerawork and with a depressing tendency to use boring directors like Daniel Mann (or directors imported from the stage without much notion of how to shoot a movie, like Peter Glenville).

There are a few good serious movies from Wallis's Paramount period, mostly from the late '40s after he'd just joined the studio. Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and some noir-ish movies with Barbara Stanwyck (especially The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) still work. He also got a bit of a second wind in the late '60s when he started working with the veterans John Wayne and (director) Henry Hathaway, leading to some entertaining pictures like True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder. But apart from that, what we see in Wallis's Paramount career is a guy who used to make Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, now making A Girl Named Tamiko and Boeing Boeing.

In part this may be a case of Independence Syndrome, the tendency of some directors and producers to get more cautious once they have more of a financial stake in the success of their movies (not that I'm arguing against that). With a certain degree of independence, Wallis didn't like to take chances on casting or subject matter, so he would cast the same people over and over and rely on Broadway successes for his source material (instead of doing something nutty like adapting an unproduced play, which is what he did with Casablanca). But there's another factor here that I don't quite get. Wallis's WB memos, which are frequently read out on DVD commentaries, show someone who's very aware of the necessity to keep a scene moving, to keep it visually interesting, to keep it from getting static. He warned the crew of The Maltese Falcon that the long climactic scene in Sam Spade's apartment couldn't lapse into staginess. Did he just forget all this when he went to Paramount, and started making movies where the camera was in lockdown and the whole thing felt like a filmed stage play (and not a good one either)? Or was it just that he was better able to give advice on a production when it was less completely his own?

Update: Commenter Griff makes the good point that the above post suffers from "the essayist's curse of trying to make a rigid conclusion from random circumstances." He continues:


Wallis made oodles of bad and cheap movies at Warners in his first decade there, and even in the period when he was more carefully claiming a producer credit at the studio he was making less than masterful works like Passage to Marseilles and The Affairs of Susie.

I might agree with you that those Broadway adaptations now seem pompous and drab, but Wallis here was following the enthusiasms of the time and these plays were considered high marks of adult entertainment, strong and artful drama, and he produced them with a degree of seriousness and integrity.

You reference Blue Hawaii in regards to Wallis's Elvis series, but in fact Wallis was responsible for the early and highly credible Elvis vehicles King Creole and the "autobiographical" Loving You. Wallis had good and bad pictures in all his periods of producing. If you cherry pick his post Warner period it includes a mixed bag, including popcorn hits, carriage trade successes, and Oscar winners, and a best of list in that 25 years could include--Martha Ivers, Dark City, Sorry Wrong Number, The Furies, the two Tashlin Martin and Lewis' Artists and MOdels and Hollywood or Bust, Creole, Last Train from Gun Hill, Katie Elder, True Grit, Anne of the Thousand Days, Becket.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a perceptive commentary on Wallis. Whenever I see Wallis's name on a Warners film, I get excited as it's a sign of entertainment and quality. I get less excited when it's on one of his Paramount films. I never saw that articulated as perfectly until now.

John said...

Paramount was a very compartmentalized and cautious studio from the early 50s on into the 60s. They had certain franchises that would turn out a film every year or so, like the Martin & Lewis and Bob Hope films of the early and mid-50s, the Hitchcock films of the same time, and later the Jerry Lewis and Elvis movies in the late 50s and early 60s. Any high-profile "spectacular" stuff seemed to be left to Cecil B. DeMille. At the same time, the studio was the first to actually get into Television, starting up Los Angeles' KTLA, and then was the last to do anything about producing shows for TV, being content to simply rent out their facilities for shows like "Bonanza" or "Get Smart".

By the mid-60s, with all their past theatrical franchises either played out or gone elsewhere, Paramount looked as though it was headed in the same direction as MGM, bought and gutted by Kirk Kikiorian in the late 60s. It was iroincally the purchase of the studio by Gulf + Western (Mel Brooks' Engulf & Devour), and its purchase/merging with Desilu in 1967 that seemed to give Paramount a second wind, both creatively and financially (though the purchase was the final nail in the coffin for Paramount's cartoon studio).

Anonymous said...

You say a lot of smart and correct things here but you confuse it with many errors or half truths and you suffer the essayists curse of trying to make a rigid conclusion from random circumstances. Wallis made oodles of bad and cheap movies at Warners in his first decade there, and even in the period when he was more carefully claiming a producer credit at the studio he was making less than masterful works like Passage to Marseilles and The Affairs of Susie. I might agree with you that those Broadway adaptations now seem pompous and drab, but Wallis here was following the enthusiasms of the time and these plays were considered high marks of adult entertainment, strong and artful drama, and he produced them with a degree of seriousness and integrity. You reference Blue Hawaii in regards to Wallis's Elvis series, but in fact Wallis was responsible for the early and highly credible Elvis vehicles King Creole and the "autobiographical" Loving You. Wallis had good and bad pictures in all his periods of producing. If you cherry pick his post Warner period it includes a mixed bag, including popcorn hits, carriage trade successes, and Oscar winners, and a best of list in that 25 years could include--Martha Ivers, Dark City, Sorry Wrong Number, The Furies, the two Tashlin Martin and Lewis' Artists and MOdels and Hollywood or Bust, Creole, Last Train from Gun Hill, Katie Elder, True Grit, Anne of the Thousand Days, Becket. As to your and the commenter John's remarks about Paramounts lack of quality or large budgets in the '50s '60s (and to mention a Hitchcock franchise, as if his remarkable stay at the studio was comparable with Elvis and Jerry, is arbitrary) I would quickly list--Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Place in the Sun, Roman Holiday, Stalag 17, Shane, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, The TenCommandments, Vertigo, again Artists and Models, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffanys, and One Eyed Jacks, a list any studio could be quite proud of or envy in the same period.
Griff

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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