As a sometime collector of vintage Hollywood fan magazines, I was instantly drawn to the January 1932 cover of The New Movie Magazine with its attractive portrait of Barbara Stanwyck and the somewhat alarming sideline “Theodore Dreiser Picks the Six Worst Pictures of the Year”. What caught my eye (apart from Miss Stanwyck), was the fact that the story actually sounded like it might be somewhat critical of the very movies the magazine was set up to blindly publicize. Surely not?. Though largely set up to provide fluffy stories about the decadent lives of the stars and their (mostly imaginary) dramas outside the screen, depicting the reality of life in Hollywood was rarely their purpose. They sold a dream and a lifestyle to the (predominantly female) reading audience and until the public thirsted for some real gossip and scandal and the magazines took a distinctly tabloid approach in the 60s, they did as much as the studios themselves to perpetuate the Hollywood myth. What’s interesting in the magazines is often reading between the lines of the stories and snatches of gossip. Though rarely mean spirited, the magazines often hint at issues going on behind the scenes that in retrospect can only now be understood. Even without this subtext, they can be enjoyed today as a wonderfully glamorous dip into the past.
Movie reviews were a staple of the magazines and frustratingly every film manages to come out shining in some way. The idea of giving a one star review and saying that a movie wasn’t worth seeing was strictly a no-no. Instead, the great films are lavishly praised, and the not so great ones are dismissed as average or fair, and any criticisms are presented in a neutral manner guaranteed not to offend. No one is hurt and the magazines got to continue their relationship with the studios. What made the afore mentioned headline so intriguing was that I couldn’t believe in 1931 that any magazine would actually come out and say what they thought the worst films of the year were, even if they managed to get a noted writer like Theodore Dreiser to say it for them. As we shall see, the headline was slightly misleading, but nonetheless rather interesting.
Theodore Dreiser (1879 -1945) was a hugely respected and influential novelist, largely known these days for his classic 'An American Tragedy' (made into a film in 1931 and again in 1951 under the title A Place in the Sun), written in 1925. He was renowned for his intense dedication to social realism in his work and his profound understanding of the desires and struggles of the everyday working men and women. These days his often verbose, plodding style is somewhat out of fashion and in comparison to contemporaries like Fitzgerald he is largely overlooked. However, he was a giant of his day and quite how he came to write an article for a movie magazine in late 1931 is anyone’s guess. Most likely it was his way of venting over what Hollywood had recently done to his novel in Josef von Sternberg’s version of An American Tragedy, which he hated. Dreiser sued Paramount for misrepresentation and lost the case so perhaps the article was a way to let his anger out against the film industry.
Dreiser pulls no punches in his opening salvo, declaring: “Hollywood’s industry represents millions upon millions of hard earned money, pays salaries far more fabulous than those of general, king, scientist or artist, buys rights to literary masterpieces at figures in the hundred thousands, and what does it all come to? Merely the cheap sex story!”
He continues: “Hollywood has one Almighty it swears by. This is luxury, against which background sex flourishes…as for anything else – be it economics, science, politics, medical discoveries, the ordinary and yet so human and intense wear and tear of life…it has no eye nor ear – the disdain, really of a drunken reveler…After all, most of our lives are fought out without millions. And many of them are colorful and strange and even beautiful. But does Hollywood know that? Can it be made to see? No, it cannot. For its head is as empty as its purse is full”
Dreiser elaborates his point by mentioning six movies from 1931 that show the moral emptiness of Hollywood and it’s obsession with glamour and luxury at the expense of realism and beauty. And so he names his ‘worst’ films of the year, ranting at their deficiencies and lack of character. One would imagine that for legal reasons, An American Tragedy was left off the list. They are, in no particular order (with some choice quotes included that show his disdain)…
Bought! (starring Constance Bennett and Ben Lyon, directed by Archie Mayo): “How did Constance Bennett’s character…inspire her boyfriend writer? No hint of that in the picture, except by close-ups of a pretty face.
A Free Soul (starring Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore, directed by Clarence Brown): Miss Shearer didn’t care two cents about her polo-player sweetheart, but he made a convenient thing to go to in the end, so, presto, marriage. It has to be! In the movies. And quick too!”
Bad Girl (starring Sally Eilers and James Dunn, directed by Frank Borzage) “And what accomplishment if any is required in the sex story to bring about emotion? The only accomplishment of ‘Bad Girl’ was having a child, and that was an accident. (The film) introduces a philanthropic doctor who…not only brings the baby to moneyless and reckless parents, but contributes a good sum of money to help the pair along! Miraculous, but as life socially worthless”
The Front Page (starring Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien and Mary Brian, directed by Lewis Milestone) “...it is not even melodrama; it’s just tomfoolery. Chasing men around the table and in and out doors and windows to get a newspaper story”
Alexander Hamilton (starring George Arliss and Doris Kenyon, directed by John G. Adolfi): “Even a picture which might have some social value because it is supposed to be based on history is often weakened by Hollywood boomers who dabble in it. The movie…does not give the impression that Hamilton was an aristocrat; in fact, it tries subtly to dispel that idea. Yet, in fact, Hamilton…considered that monarchy was best…that the opinions of the property-holding class were always better for the poor people. But is that in the movie? Tush! Be still! In reality, Hamilton was fifty times as strong a figure in real life as he was in the movies. Yet, Hollywood had to make him sweet”
The Road to Singapore (starring William Powell and Doris Kenyon, directed by Alfred E. Green): “Miss Kenyon reclined and posed sensually several times, Mr. Powell lit several cigarettes masterfully, a dozen or so South Sea natives beat tom-toms. And there you are”
So there you have it, the great man speaks. Good thing he decided to hold back a bit. Oh wait, there’s more…
On relationships in such movies: “…Hollywood offers only a meaningless sensuality that is faithless the moment the other’s eyes are turned. Every man is the sweetest man in the world to the girl. Every girl is a night out, even to the sweetest man. Such is their fickledom…no intelligence, no sense even, is needed for the girls. The less the more human, thinks Hollywood”
On intelligence in movies: “But Hollywood has no interest in encouraging the people to think or to know. Of course not. The useless psychology of the carefree. The medicine man of the Aborigines. That’s what Hollywood is to the whole world. And yet Hollywood sends this primitive stuff to civilized countries all over the earth with the idea that it has something to give them. So many movies are not just plain hokum, but they are socially meaningless and, worse, debasing.”
On social issues in the movies: “For almost always they concern the lives of wasters who apparently do nothing, contribute nothing and, worse, do not care to, and even think it is smart not to. Any comprehension of the social scheme of things as it is today is out, particularly if it approaches the need of doing something, beneficial or useful to others. You would never believe, from a Hollywood movie, that any one really had to work on order to eat. No Hollywood film knows the meaning of it. Sorrow (real sorrow) – it, too, is gruesome, and hence out.”
Just in case the reader was left in any doubt as to his real feelings on the matter, he sums up in a typically devastating way: “As it is now…the crook, the fool and the waster have dominated all. Sex has been marketed until all sense of its real value or force has gone. Not only that, but it is consistently used to bolster up and put over wholly mistaken conceptions of life which can only to harm to all…in so many other respects, I find these motion pictures encourage false ideals and ideals about life.”
Reading that last quote, I was struck how, for all the sophistication of our film making today, the exact same words could be used to describe our current mainstream movie output and our reality show obsessed youth with their unrealistic views of life and sense on entitlement. Except that Dreiser was talking about a bunch of movies now mostly rendered old fashioned and tame by progress. I’ve read many editorials in fan magazines of the 20s and 30s about the threat of violence or sex on the screen but Dreiser’s article strikes me as something different from the usual magazine editor trying to keep on good terms with the censors and religious groups.
Of course, he is being slightly reactionary in his views about film, not realizing that it is largely a mass form of entertainment rather than a vehicle for high art. Ridiculous plot contrivances and unrealistic relationships have always been a staple of the movies, and it some ways the whole point of them as entertainment. What we see on the screen isn’t real life, and never has been, but perhaps his opinions come from disappointment rather than ignorance. He makes no mention of his view of silent films but his opinions seem to echo those of many in the industry at the time of transition between sound and silence. As Kevin Brownlow says in The Parade’s Gone By “Had the talkies been delayed just a few years, to give the onrush of silent-film technique time to reach its limits and settle down…we might today be seeing commercial films of a far higher artistic and technical level”. This echoes the ideals of pioneers like D. W. Griffith and similar film makers for whom the achievements of film could have and should have matched those of the great works of literature and theater. This generation, of which Theodore Dreiser was a member, must have considered so much of the early promise of the artistic and social value of film wasted by the Hollywood producers with money in their eyes to the point that art meant virtually nothing. They saw a new art form that started in the hands of individuals for art and progress and ended up run by the machine for money.
Dreiser’s article is interesting in that it appeared in a fan magazine at all and perhaps shows what a big name he was in his day that he was allowed to say what he did (and get top billing on the cover over the shocking story ‘The Frankest Revelation of Garbo Ever Published!’). It goes to show that the magazine editors did have an editorial voice when needed and didn’t always publish the stories that the studios wanted them to. However, some of the article’s credibility is strained as it’s clear that Dreiser has an axe to grind over his failed lawsuit and disastrous dealings with Paramount (his line complaining about studios paying big money for ‘literary masterpieces’ at the beginning is telling). Nonetheless the points he makes are valid then as now. Obviously not all films are as stupid, vacuous and facile as he makes them out to be and if they were, then sadly that’s probably the reason why people flocked to the theaters to see them in the first place. This irony is something he himself realizes, as he spits out his last barbed comment on the whole affair, no doubt with the failed adaptation of his own work foremost on his mind:
“It is hokum that the public wants and hokum it shall have as long as the “long green” can thereby be inveigled into the Hollywood cash-box. Yet I do not charge them with no honor, no decency, no aesthetic taste or pride. They would not know what I was talking about”