Several moves ago, I had a very small book of Leigh Hunt essays. I would love to know what became of it because it contained an essay that dealt with the idea of not comparing things to make a point. Hunt’s example was that he’d no desire to hear someone prove to him the relative lack of value of a kitten because it was inferior to a puppy. The idea was that we should continue to like that which is likable in anything without trying to render it unlikable by pointing out its inferiority to something else. I like that. I think it’s a swell idea. I also think—human nature being what it is—that it’s an unlikely idea to catch on. Nowhere does it seem less likely to me than with movie fans.
This is actually something related to a “Screening Room” that’s in the works on the topic of Chaplin vs. Keaton, but it was brought home by a link— http://chronicle.com/article/The-Death-of-Film-Criticism/64352/?sid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en —posted by one of our regular commenters that directed us to the article “TheDeath of Film Criticism.” Among other thngs brought up in this fascinating piece was the now legendary battle between film critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael—and the creation of champions for each camp (known as “Sarristes” and “Paulettes”).
Without getting too deeply involved in this aesthetic dust-up, it mostly comes down to a basic disagreement over Sarris’ promoting the “auteur theory,” which holds that the director is the real author of a film. Kael was so not 100 percent sold on this that she went so far as to assail the unassailable by attempting to wrest the credit for Citizen Kane (1941) away from Orson Welles and dole it out to his co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and cinematographer Gregg Toland. This was first an article called “Raising Kane” and later became The Citizen Kane Book. In that later incarnation, it became personally noteworthy as the first book I ever threw across the room. It also provoked angry print attacks on Kael from such diverse sources as Peter Bogdanovich and Ken Russell. (Kael is perhaps unique in having managed to piss off—for more reasons than this—Orson Welles, Bogdanovich, Russell, and George Cukor in one lifetime.)
Looked at today—assuming you can find a copy (I suspect mine is a landfill somewhere in Florida)—the book seems rather silly. But that’s hardly the point here. What is notable is the way in which Sarris and Kael raised the art of film criticism by being at loggerheads with each other. Films—or movies (Kael disliked the term “film” as being “elitist”)—were being discussed in broad terms as important in something other than obscure academic journals that almost no one read. That this dovetailed with the nostalgia boom of the second half of the 1960s through the mid-1970s and the age (covering roughly the same era) of the director as superstar made it all the more interesting and pertinent.
I was never really a Sarriste, though I’m much nearer that than a Paulette—probably because she simply hated too many films that I loved. That said, there are inherent flaws in the auteur theory, because it tends to get silly when applied too broadly. I like a surprising number of movies directed by William Beaudine—ranging from his 1934 W.C. Fields opus The Old-Fashioned Way to the loopy delights of his 1944 Bela Lugosi Monogrammer Voodoo Man—but, apart from basic competence, I see nothing that makes a case for a Beaudine style. I doubt he could be said to be the author of either movie. I doubt he would want to be thought of as the author of Voodoo Man. Indeed, I’ve always suspected that the only reason those Lugosi Monogrammers were made was that no one was paying any attention—and that one day someone in authority happened to stumble onto a soundstage, got an eyeful and said, “Stop this immediately.”
However, the whole Sarris/Kael dichotomy is, I think, symptomatic of the world of movies in a much broader sense. It seems to me that it’s pretty much a case that whenever two or more are gathered in the name of film, fights will break out and camps will be formed. The history of film history is riddled with this. You can start by looking at it in the broadest of all sweeping strokes—highbrow vs. lobrow. This goes way back to the 1920s with images of cineastes crowded into smoke-filled basements staring at dubiously acquired prints of Sergei Eisenstein movies in rapt attention verging on the worshipful, while decrying the baseness of popular film. Somewhere around this same time, the world of the art film fanciers broadedned to include German movies—so much, in fact, that it crossed over into popular film. There’s even a Will Rogers short film (I think it’s the 1924 two-reeler Big Moments from Little Pictures, but don’t hold me to that) where Will—via a title card—tells the audience, “If you don’t like this movie, I’ll put a beard on it and call it German and you’ll call it ‘art.’” (The quote is from memory.)
This divide basically exists today. I know a few critics who won’t go near movies they consider beneath them. The father of fellow movie reviewer Luke Y. Thompson once told me that I was a high-brow critic, while his son was more of middle-brow. I argued that I wasn’t sure that anyone who gave a good review to Eurotrip (2004) could be called “high-brow,” but he was unshaken in his assessment. (The fact that Luke later told me that he didn’t see the problem because Eurotrip was OK does nothing to settle this.) I don’t actually consider myself particularly high-brow—except to the degree that I consider the Wayans Brothers, Friedberg and Seltzer, Michael Bay, Zack Snyder and Roland Emmerich (to name a few) a blight on the cinematic landscape.
It goes deeper, however, depending on how far you want to take it in terms of specificity. That brings me back to the whole Chaplin vs. Keaton question. Theoretically, you have to choose a side here. I’m not sure why—except for the fact that it became fashionable at one point to use Keaton as a handy cudgel against the long-held belief that Chaplin was one of the true geniuses of film. Some of this stems from the hangover of Chaplin being branded a communist because he chose to sail back to England—where he’d gone to promote the opening of Limelight in 1952—rather than testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (This so dogged Chaplin that as recently as the late 1960s you can find refernces to his supposed Marxist leanings in ill-researched nostalgia books.) More of it, however, has to do with Chaplin’s sentimentality and tendency to veer toward—oh, here we go again—high-brow subject matter in his later films. Against this, we have the argument that Keaton seems more modern (lacking sentimentality) and less pretentious (not high-brow).
It helps that Keaton looks like a victim. He’s the perfect picture of a once powerful force in film, who got chewed up and spit out by MGM, who took over the control of his movies at the dawn of sound and ruined him. That’s not wrong—though personal problems and alcohol played a part in this. In any case, this was hardly Chaplin’s fault. Chaplin invested wisely, kept control of everything he made from 1918 on and had his own studio—and he doled out his later work very sparingly, making only five movies from 1931 through 1952. None of this makes Keaton better than Chaplin. Personally, this is no contest thing for me. When I watch Keaton I’m impressed by how clever he is, but I rarely laugh (actually, I find Harold Lloyd just as clever and funnier). When I watch Chaplin, I’m completely immersed in the world of his films. Put me down as a Chaplinist and not a Keatonian.
In a not dissimilar vein, there’s the age old Boris Karloff vs. Bela Lugosi grudge match. These are trickier waters, because Karloff is the survivor in career terms and Lugosi is the victim. Again, Lugosi—like Keaton—is partly responsible for his own predicament. He sold himself short on Dracula (1931), being so desperate to repeat his Broadway success that he worked for less money than the romantic leads! Universal would remember this and take advantage of it for the next seventeen years with “special” contracts (no prizes for guessing from whom they were special). He then compounded this by not digging his heels in and insisting on playing the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Instead, he was relieved when the role went to Karloff, helping to create his own monster in the bargain. Similar career choices—he seems to have never turned down a contract—and alcohol and drugs did the rest.
In the realm of classic horror fandom—which is all too often distinct from film in general with many of its adherents having no familiarity with anything outside the genre—it’s virtually impossible not to take sides. For a lot of reasons—some which probably don’t make sense—I’m a pure Lugosiphile and not a Karloffian (or should that be Karlovian?). I recognize Karloff’s greatness and admire many of his performances—none perhaps more than his silky villainy opposite the sympathetic Lugosi in The Black Cat (1934)—but he doesn’t emerge the favorite for me at any point.
I’ll leave my rationale at its simplest level. When Karloff was in a stinker (and he made his share), he contemptuously walked through the performance, giving the filmmakers what they perhaps deserved, but cheating his fans in the bargain. When Lugosi was in the same—very frequent—position, he still gave the role everything he had. Whether this was for the fans or simply the result of an ego that felt he could breathe life into anything by the sheer force of his will, I have no idea. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is on the screen—and a bad Lugosi picture is still fascinating to sit through, while a bad Karloff one is just a chore. Think not? Try sitting through Karloff in The Climax (1944). Then try Lugosi in the same year’s Voodoo Man.
You can play the same game with the question of Universal Pictures vs. Hammer Films. I’ll certainly concede that Hammer never made anything quite as bad as Jungle Woman (1944) or The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), though The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) probably comes close. At the same time, they never scaled the heights of The Black Cat (1934) or Bride of Frankenstein (1935). (Actually, I wouldn’t trade any of the original 12 Universal horrors for the best Hammer ever made.)
For me, the most difficult dichotomy of all is also the most rarefied split. You have to be pretty firmly entrenched in cinematic history to even have an opinion on whether you prefer Rouben Mamoulian or Ernst Lubitsch. Even then, it’s one of the sillier splits. Even though Mamoulian might get some grief for having directed Silk Stockings (1957) and thereby daring to remake the acknowledged Lubitsch classic Ninothcka (1939), this really comes down to one movie—Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932). And the problem? Well, that’s easy. Lubitsch had already made two musicals starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald—The Love Parade (1929) and One Hour with You (1932)—and would make one more—The Merry Widow (1934)—when Mamoulian agreed to take on this project. As a result, he feels like an interloper.
The only thing is Love Me Tonight just happens to be better than the Lubitsch musicals surrounding it. To compound matters, Chevalier himself was delighted with it (and he didn’t even much like making movies) and more than a few critics have gone on record as this being the musical Lubitsch always seemed to be wanting to make, yet never did. Well, the Lubitsch camp is having none of this, and so Love Me Tonight becomes a punching bag for their ire—with Mamoulian coming into it in general by extension. (Peter Bogdanovich once got so worked up in praising Lubitsch that he felt compelled to drag the 1936 George Stevens Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time into the fray, noting that both it and Love Me Tonight, while highly prized in “some quarters,” seem “tawdry” up against the real McLubitsch. I don’t even know what Swing Time has to do with this!)
My problem is that I agree that Love Me Tonight is better than Lubitsch’s musicals. I’d go so far as to say that the most musical film Lubitsch ever made was Trouble in Paradise (1932), which isn’t a musical, but feels like one with its heavily interpolated musical score, and it has the musical sensibility that his actual musicals lack. However, I love Lubitsch’s musicals, too. (Well, maybe not The Merry Widow.) As a result, I’m in neither camp on this one. Or maybe I’m in both—a Lubitschite and a Mamoulianist. I don’t think this is a punishable offense, though there’s always the chance that Bogdanovich might pop me in the eye with his ascot over it if the opportunity arose.
So here I am a sort of Sarriste maybe high-brow Chaplinist Lugosiphile Lubitschite Mamoulianist. If that confuses you, just think how I feel. Maybe I’ll just go watch Eurotrip and forget about the whole thing.