Last week the Asheville Film Society ran Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977), and not too long ago I bumped into Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980) on TCM, both of which deal—to some degree—with making movies. And both put me in mind of the somewhat curious—and often downright weird—manner in which the movies deal with the making of movies. Has any movie ever gotten close to depicting how movies are made? Has any movie even managed to show a movie being made that you can possibly imagine anyone going to see?
Of the two mentioned, Valentino comes closer to having something to do with how movies are made and since it deals with movies that actually were made the second question doesn’t really apply. (It helps that it doesn’t concentrate on the making of any one film.) Even at that, it deliberately holds onto maintaining—sometimes humorously—something of the magic of the process. The scene involving the shooting The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) presents something of the organized chaos of production inherent in a large film, but it doesn’t attempt to unjumble that chaos. (In a sense, it accidentally reflects some of that chaos in that Russell plays Rex Ingram in the scenes—an unplanned move that resulted from the actor who was supposed to play Ingram showing up drunk and in the wrong costume.)
The scene where Natasha Rambova (Michelle Phillips) and Sidney Olcott (John Justin) direct a love scene for Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) is played for comedy, but it’s probably not far from reality, except that it only involves a master shot with no set-ups for anything else after the fact. (Being that Beaucaire was an American silent before the influx of German filmmakers, that’s actually not impossible.) Another scene where Rambova and Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) fight with Paramount boss Jesse Lasky (Huntz Hall) manages to stage what could well be the shooting of an entire western two-reeler in the background of the shots. At the same time it ironically calls to mind Erich von Stroheim’s obsession with background action that could scarcely be seen and certainly wasn’t what the audience was focusing on. (Well, there’s more Stroheim to Russell than there is an assembly line cowboy picture specialist.)
If there’s at least a touch of authenticity to Valentino, there’s scarcely a hint of it in The Stunt Man, a film that preposterously has huge and hugely complicated action scenes being done in impossibly long takes that would require about 20 cameras and a degree of precision timing that would flummox the June Taylor Dancers. When it isn’t doing that, it stages scenes where the actors are constantly doing things on a personal level that would render the footage unusable (there’s some of that in the big action pieces, too). And it’s all in the service of making what looks like it has a chance of being the worst WWI movie ever made. But in the end, it doesn’t matter in the least.
The ridiculous depictions of filmmaking don’t hurt The Stunt Man much—certainly they’re less damaging than the often overbearing Dominic Frontiere musical score—and, in fact, they’re essential to creating the psychodrama within the film. The line between reality and fantasy has to be blurred in order for the experience as it’s perceived by convict-in-hiding Cameron (Steve Railsback) to work. Otherwise, the conflicting emotions he has about over-the-top filmmaker Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole in the second greatest performance of his career) wouldn’t work. Is Cross—who has thrust him into the position of stunt man—his saviour or the instrument of his destruction? That’s what the movie is after—not whether or not it has anything to do with how movies are made.
Interestingly, however, The Stunt Man is also about the magic of movies, but not the real magic of how a movie is made and put together. In fact, when it purports to reveal what goes into making movies, it’s at its most duplicitous—offering a lot of smoke and mirrors to support Cross’s assertion, “If God could do the tricks we can, he’d be a happy man.” No, the film wants another kind of magic—the power of the created illusion and it has no intention of blunting that power. It’s rather like the magician who pretends to show you the reality of what you’re looking at, but isn’t.
Of course, this is only a couple movies—hardly a persuasive case. But it neither begins, nor ends here. The movies have long had the tendency to turn the cameras on themselves. There are many reasons—ranging from the simple fact that the public has always been fascinated by how the movies are made to the more mundane fact that it’s really pretty economical to set a movie at a movie studio if you are a movie studio. The latter was almost certainly the impetus behind setting Chaplin’s first Essanay film His New Job (1915) at a movie studio and again in the more sophisticated Behind the Screen (1916). Similar motivation is behind such Hollywood mysteries as The Studio Murder Mystery (1929) and The Death Kiss (1933). That they gave the viewer a glimpse—or a supposed glimpse—behind the scenes also interested audiences.
Economy and public curiosity were certainly behind F. Richard Jones’ The Extra Girl (1923), Alfred E. Green’s (1926) and King Vidor’s Show People (1928), all of which played on the idea of a young woman attempting to become a Hollywood star—in comedic terms, of course. The appeal was obvious—who didn’t want to be a movie star? Movies like this suggested that it was possible, but in a light-hearted manner that wasn’t meant to be taken very seriously. How seriously young woman might have taken it is another matter. There were occasional dramas, but comedy or melodrama was certainly more common. And none that I’m aware of offered any but the most passing look at how the movies were made.
Russell Mack’s Once in a Lifetime (1932)—the film adaptation of the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play about the coming of sound to the movies—was a little different. This was more a satire than a regular comedy, and the young woman who becomes a movie star (played by Sidney Fox) is barely in the positive numbers on the IQ scale. She only gets her chance because the almost equally dimwitted studio supervisor (Jack Oakie) is stuck on her—and he is only the supervisor because he criticized (more or less accidentally) the studio head (Gregory Ratoff) and was rewarded for his courage with the job. And all this only works out because the movie critics mistake all the gaffes—ranging from forgetting to light the scenes to extraneous noises to shooting the wrong movie altogether—for the visionary profundity of the supervisor. No one gets out unscathed.
Once in a Lifetime is more interested in the politics of the running of movie studios than in the making of the movies, but it does offer some fairly realistic views of life on a movie set—and many of its gags are predicated on the viewer having a surprisingly thorough knowledge of the movies and movie terminology. The same can be said of nearly all the movies about movies from that era—What Price Hollywood? (1932), Movie Crazy (1932), Make Me a Star (1932), Bombshell (1933), Stand-In (1937). They’re stories set in the movie world, but they’re not much about the actual process of making movies.
Even the most celebrated movie about movies of the 1930s, William A. Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), has very little to do with making movies, though it probably does boast the greatest level of authenticity with its opening and closing on a screenplay describing the action, the renaming of Esther Victoria Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), the transforming of Esther into what the public sees, etc. It’s also wholly serious and almost functions as a critique of the “you could be a star” movies that preceded it.
You might think that Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) about a director (Joel McCrea) of musicals and comedies wanting to make a meaningful picture that “holds a mirror up to life” would have something to do with filmmaking, but apart from one bit toward the end it never gets near a soundstage. The only movie we even see any of is the awful looking thing that’s put this particular notion in the director’s head where two men—representing capital and labor—grapple with each other on a train before both plunging to their deaths. It talks about movies. It name drops Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra (it’s probably a joke that our hero seems to think Capra is deep). But making movies isn’t on its agenda.
Things don’t really change over the decades. The movies might become more “adult” or think they do, but the basics don’t alter significantly. Sure, Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) shows us some tricks, but even it doesn’t show us the tricks behind the depiction of those tricks. Even a movie like Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976) that’s supposedly about the origins of making movies—and perhaps comes closer than most—cheats outrageously by presenting finished products that have little possible relation to what we see being shot. Is there a reason? Actually, I think there are two.
The simplest reason is that it’s really not all that exciting to watch a movie being made. It would mostly be about watching people stand around and wait a lot. As drama, that’s rather lacking. Probably the absolute closest anyone has ever gotten to putting this on film—and making it entertaining—is Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), an underseen indie film about making the indie film from hell. It is, however, kind of specific to indie production, but it still captures more of the experience than any other film I can name. And it still doesn’t produce a film within it that I can imagine watching.
There’s a bigger reason, though, I think. When all is said and done, I’m not so sure there’s a market for a movie that actually gets down to showing how movies are made. We might think we want to see how it’s done, that we want to get a good look at that man behind the curtain, but do we? Despite the proliferation of behind the scenes extras that regularly appear on DVD releases as extras, I’m not entirely convinced we do—at least not most of us. (Personally, I’m rarely capable of slogging through six hours of extras.) Always remember, when we actually do see behind that curtain in the world’s most famous example of it, we see that the Wizard is an illusionist, but we’re really not shown how he creates those illusions. Are you sure you want to?