S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 January 20, 1934: 38-43

The satirizing of Hollywood is now firmly entrenched as one of the most thriving branches of the national literary industry. The genesis of this staple is easy to trace. To make fun of Hollywood is, in the first place, extremely simple. Its vulnerabilities are manifold; almost without aiming, you may fire and scarcely miss. An industry which is forced by the exigencies of its demands to turn out five hundred or more productions a year in a medium that twenty years ago hardly existed is bound to commit gaucheries, and these so glaring, often, that to lampoon them you do not precisely have to be a wit. Secondly, the popular interest in pictures is so enormous that discussion of them and their protagonists, no matter what the plane, will attract readers. The incredible effusions of the film magazines, which exceed in banality the most bathetic of the product they eulogize, are an indication of what the more literate sections of the film public will stand; behind this stratum, of course, is a vast hinterland of fans, for whom even an idle hour with a film magazine must be a strenuous intellectual exercise, like an excursion into Spengler or Marcel Proust. These presumably, as they do in the picture theatres, merely scan the photographs.

The great mass, therefore, of Hollywood criticism, whether adulatory or vituperative, does not in itself merit appraisal. But rising to the surface of this flotsam there does occasionally emerge a rebuke that, owing to the sincerity and eminence of the author, challenges a reply from the dissident. Of such, in the last several years, there have been four: from I. A. R. Wylie in Harper's, Edmund Wilson in "The American Jitters," Sidney Howard (most virulent of all) in the New Republic, and Bernard Shaw in the Metropolitan Opera House. Mr. Shaw denounced the immorality of Hollywood, rightly enough, not on the score of sexual extravagance but because it exalts the "sock in the jaw" as a means of settling differences of opinion among individuals. (One Hollywood executive told me that he was stung by this criticism into ordering a sketch, for a revue he was planning, in which the hero, while his sweetheart is being pummeled by the villain, sits frantically jiggling the receiver to get the police station on the telephone!) For Mr. Shaw to expect Hollywood to eliminate entirely the "sock in the jaw" as a popular human expression, when the wisest and most altruistic spirits have made little progress in abolishing it from international relations, is somewhat quixotic. Lord Irwin, retiring as Viceroy to India, in a London speech attributed the decline of white prestige in the East to four causes: the defeat of Russia by Japan, the employment of colored men by white in the Great War to fight their battles for them, the unresolved irritations in India, and the picture of Occidental civilization as reflected in the films from Hollywood! Not all its honeyed sentimentalities can conceal from the observant Oriental that life here in America is something less than civilized, but to blame Hollywood for this failure in concealment is to be as unreasonable as Mr. Shaw. If anything, the Hollywood magnates are creatures of this time, and it is unfair to expect them to raise, single-handed, the ethical level around them. Before the films themselves become more edifying, the moeurs they reflect will have to be improved, and after all these men are not, and do not pretend to be, either educators or uplifters but businessmen.

Mr. Howard, for example, puts a good deal of the blame for the meretriciousness of the films on the fact that they are made in Los Angeles. Granted that Los Angeles, as H. G. Wells once said of Chicago, is the "abeyance of civilization," does Mr. Howard really believe that the disparity in civilization is so great between Los Angeles, Decatur, Atlanta, Boston, and Princess Anne that you would get a different product if the film capital were transferred to any of these Athenian resorts? To have the pictures made in New York would really be unfair, because there is a great deal to be said for the charge that in its tolerance, in its intellectual ferment, and in its social promiscuity, New York is un-American. The truth is that even the sincerest and most enlightened of these criticisms are academic, in that they are based on a misconception of the basic fact that pictures are a mob art and that the sentimentalities and the banalities inherent in them are reflections of identical volition in the public they serve. I can understand Mr. Wilson and Miss Wylie because neither of them, I imagine, has had any practical contact with picture-making, but I can't understand Mr. Howard. Surely he has read the cards at previews which reflect the taste of the fans. My first revelation of the mental common denominator of the film public came at my first film preview in San Jose, California. At the picture previews—which correspond to out-of-town tryouts of plays the sponsors distribute cards so that the audience may register its opinion of the film. The occasion of my initiation was the advance showing of Molnár's "Liliom." Except for a negligible minority—contemptuously dismissed by the producer as highbrow—the opinions were in a realm which Münsterberg used to describe as the "intellectual underworld." Many of the cards sent in by the sensitive citizenry denounced the Fox Film Company for allowing a nice American boy like Charles Farrell to play a part in which he strikes a woman! The amazing thing is that any executive should have had the foolhardiness to antagonize the tide of sentimentality, predictable enough, by producing Molnár's "Liliom" at all!

And this to me is the true news story of the film capital: the courage and often foolhardy recklessness of experiment, the long chances the executives take. Imagine, for example, producing Sierra's "The Cradle Song," of which Richard Watts said the other day that it has "a gentle, fragile tenderness which makes even 'Little Women' seem a rowdy adventure in typical melodrama." The desire of the average executive in Hollywood to do something good is really pathetic. The overpaid hacks who sit around in the Brown Derby lamenting the masterpieces they would be writing if their souls were not being scarified in Hollywood are less sincere than the frankly commercial executive with his eye—often enough myopic—on the box office, and often their aims are less lofty. Incidentally, the extent to which the executives in Hollywood have been bullied and exploited by "artists," literary and other in varying degrees, passes belief. Many of the executives, survivors from the silent era, have a phobia of the written word; "talk," "dialogue" confound them, and this ignorance and this fear have cost them plenty. The racketeering of the executives at their worst has nothing on the racketeering of the writers and artists at their worst; if Voltaire were in Hollywood, I have a strong notion that it is the artists he would decimate and not the executives. Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Moss Hart chose the executives in "Once in a Lifetime" because neither of them had ever been there. Mr. Moss Hart's second lampoon, the Fairbanks-Crawford divorce sketch in the current "As Thousands Cheer," which is at once subtler and truer, concerns the artists. After he wrote "Once in a Lifetime," Mr. Hart went to Hollywood!

In none of these strictures on Hollywood, neither in Miss Wylie's, nor in Mr. Wilson's, nor in Mr. Howard's, do you get any faint inkling that Charlie Chaplin was brought to world fame by Hollywood and that he has done all his work there. You get no inkling that anything good has come out of Hollywood at all—that it has produced and sustained, for example, some of the finest directors in any theatre. They never mention that Mr. Lewis Milestone did "All Quiet on the Western Front" there, a magnificent anti-war document which has stirred the whole world, except in those places where the militaristic authorities have been afraid to let it appear; that Mr. Ernst Lubitsch, one of the wittiest and most resourceful of living directors, functions agreeably in this Eldorado (Mr. Lubitsch's pictures, incidentally, are not supposed to pay; the companies keep supporting him and he is given carte blanche, year after year, on the score of prestige); or that Miss Greta Garbo, in whom many discerning people see a spark of divinity, came to world fame there. The instances could he multiplied. The majority of theatrical productions and the mass of the fictional output in this country would stand up no better under this kind of searching appraisal than Hollywood does. Mr. Wilson makes a great point of Hollywood's suppression of Mr. Eisenstein. It would have taken an appropriation from the Rockefeller Foundation properly to distribute Mr. Eisenstein's film: in its original length, it ran several hundred thousand feet; the cut version Mr. Upton Sinclair finally managed to carve out of it, with an idyllic finish tacked on to satisfy the Mexican jingoes, has hardly been able to sustain itself. The original, I am told, is longer than "Mourning Becomes Electra."

Without exception, the Hollywood satirists—except when they are, as they reproach the producers for being, frankly commercial—are either academic or unfair. I imagine that the producing group in Hollywood have done as well as any group could have done in the face of the unprecedented impact of the demand for pictures by a public circling the globe. (Certainly a brief period, during the last few years, when the bankers were reading and passing on scripts produced some humorous contingencies; in one instance, a distinguished financial gentleman unused to the custom of sending half-finished scripts to the executive offices mistook a fragment for the whole, okayed it, and later protested against a "sequel" which was merely the last half of the story!) On the whole, I am inclined to agree with Mr. Arthur Richman, who says that in the majority of the issues between executives and artists the executives are right.

The simple truth is that the difficulties of transferring vehicles from other media to the screen are immense. A virtuoso of this subtle alchemy, Miss Sonya Levien—whom Guy Bolton describes as "chief liaison officer between good taste and the movies" and who has to her credit such films as "Cavalcade," "State Fair," and "Berkeley Square"—manages to transmute the works assigned to her so sensitively that, in most cases, the authors of the originals shower her with blessings, but the labor is heroic and beset with pitfalls. Most of the difficulties of transposition come from the fact that the original vehicles are written for publics infinitely smaller and more special than the movie one, and since ideas are actually less elastic than more mechanical structures, they refuse stubbornly to yield to isolated modification. In practice, one modification leads to another, and finally the entire contour of the original work has to be altered. This is why so many people are startled by the remoteness of a picture from the original on which it is based. The question arises: Why do the companies buy these things? And the answer is that they must produce something; that they are not fed, as the theatres and the magazines and the publishers are, with original work. They have to beg, borrow, buy, or steal material.

And it is this condition, I respectfully submit to Miss Wylie, to Mr. Wilson, to Mr. Howard, and even to Mr. Shaw, that is, from their point of view, the real trouble with the Hollywood product. It is that Mr. Howard, when he gets an idea (and very properly!), puts it into a play or a book. Nobody wants to give an idea which may serve for anything else to pictures. The films have inspired no one to write for them except on salary. When Mr. Howard writes a play, or when I write a play, we are willing to trust to the vitality we have put into it to sustain it before the public. We are not willing to do that with pictures. This dilemma of the picture business is to my mind—I hope I may prove to be mistaken—insoluble. Writing for pictures, as a matter of fact, isn't, as compared to other forms of writing, very much fun. It is bits-and-pieces writing. The individual scenes are small. You can't get a run on them. You are constantly cutting away to some other place. The physical limitations of playwriting, the agonizing technical difficulties imposed by the very compactness of the medium, the impossibility of leaving a room, force you to a disciplinary freedom, to concentration and fluency. The great freedom of pictures, the fact that you can go anywhere, is boring and harassing, like a perpetual picnic. There is no reason someone shouldn't come along who might use this extraordinary medium with a Shakespearean fullness. He might inspire a group who will write for pictures because they prefer it, and not because they can't write anything else. Pending that millennium, the producers will be forced to use the hacks and those established writers who contemptuously accept the enormous fees paid them for the leavings of their creative talents.

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