Monday, April 18, 2005

Take It Curtiz-y

Dave Kehr has an intereesting article on the new Errol Flynn DVD set, which is mostly about the two directors with whom he usually worked: Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz. Like many people who have dealt with Curtiz's work, Kehr wonders "How can the man who made some of the best-loved American films... continue to be considered an anonymous studio technician?" He makes a good case for Curtiz as a director with an individual visual style, albeit not a filmmaker of the first rank.

But what I find odd about Curtiz is that the things that make his Warner Brothers work so enjoyable -- the pacing, the brilliant use of camera movement and lighting -- almost completely disappeared after he left Warners; most of his post-WB films, like White Christmas and We're No Angels are anonymous-looking, visually bland pieces of work. The obvious conclusion is that it wasn't just Curtiz creating his visual style at WB, it was also the particular team of technicians who helped him create that style. After the collapse of the studio system, many filmmakers were a bit lost without a consistent, understanding team of technicians to carry out their wishes. And it didn't just happen to directors, but producers too: look at the huge drop in the quality of the films of Curtiz's most frequent producer (and the true auteur of movies like Robin Hood and Casablanca), Hal Wallis. At WB, consistently excellent work; after WB, clunky stage adaptations and Elvis Presley vehicles.

The point is not that men like Curtiz and Wallis weren't very talented but that their talents worked best within a studio system where congenial talents were easily available to them in every department. And the point is that the style of a movie in the studio-system era was often defined to a great extent by the little-known studio technicians. This isn't often understood, or when it's understood it's not very well understood.

For instance, there's a recent book about Orson Welles, Despite the System, that makes the argument (frequently advanced by Jonathan Rosenbaum and others) that Welles was really an independent filmmaker who would have made masterpiece after masterpiece if the studio system hadn't gotten in its way. The book makes some good points here and there but it doesn't really seem to grapple with the question of how much Welles' films owe to the individual studios and producers for which they were made. There's hardly a mention of RKO's studio style or studio technicians, yet you simply can't discuss Citizen Kane's style independently of, say, the unique style of RKO's special effects man, Vernon Walker, or the downbeat, questioning tone RKO's movies were adopting around that time (the same tone that would give us The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Val Lewton films, and a ton of film noir). You can't, or shouldn't, discuss how a movie bucks the system unless you first recognize what it owes to that system.

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