Recovered Memories

His Girl FridayI have always been intrigued by what may be called the prehistory of cinema and animation studies. It is not uncommon to look back on the history of film criticism and history to look mainly at books and magazines, of which there were precious few dealing with film in the US through the 1950s. However, an active, if rather fugitive film culture did exist around the film society movement and, in animation, around festivals, as well as at archival/museum screenings. It is a culture which helped laid the groundwork for the establishment of cinema studies in the United States, heralded by the founding of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies in 1959.

I thought of this when I saw David Bordwell’s posting last month on Howard Hawks’  His Girl Friday (1940) (see above), which he considers a classic piece of filmmaking; while I’m not as enamored of this version of  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play, The Front Page, but his description of how the film and Hawks’ reputation was snatched from obscurity did catch my attention. In it, he makes some rather reasonable claims, which I think need to be qualified.

For instance, Bordwell claims that,

Hawks the Artist is a creation of the 1960s. Before that, American film historians almost completely ignored him. Andrew Sarris often reminds us that he’s absent from Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film (1939), but he’s also missing from Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art (1957), the most popular survey history of its day. Apart from press releases and reviews of individual films, there were few discussions of Hawks in American newspapers and magazines. The most famous piece is probably Manny Farber’s “Underground Movies” of 1957, which treats Hawks along with other hard-boiled directors like Wellman and Mann.

From the start, Hawks was more appreciated in France. There film historians acknowledged A Girl in Every Port (1928), in part because of the presence of Louise Brooks, and they usually flagged Scarface (1932) as well, which they could see and Americans couldn’t.

He feels that Hawks’ modern reputation started with “Jacques Rivette’s ‘The Genius of Howard Hawks’ in Cahiers du cinéma in 1953.” That may very well be the case, but to say that Hawks was ignored by American film historians is only partly true. I say this not to contradict Bordwell’s review of Hawks literature in the United States, but to point out that he ignores the very real reputation Hawks had among the cadre of historians and film fans that centered around the all-important Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society in New York.

The Huff Society, where I started going to when I was in high school around 1956, was run by William K. (“Bill”) Everson, a British high school dropout who was already on his way to becoming one of America’s most important film collectors; he ended up a professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, wrote several popular books on film history, and was involved with preparing a number of silent films for TV broadcast.

The type of people who attended the Huff Society’s screenings was a mixed bag, ranging from the teenaged Leonard Maltin to intellectual-in-waiting Susan Sontag (often accompanied by film critic and historian Carlos Clarens), and sometimes even Andrew Sarris. The Society was part of small but active film society scene in New York that also included  Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, Gideon Bachmann’s Group for Film Study (which published the pioneering Cinemages journal), and campus groups, such as one at Fordham University,  in addition to screenings at the Museum of Modern Art.

Though my collection of Huff Society program notes, which included occasional critical filmographies of directors such as Lewis Milestone (who made the first screen version of The Front Page), was lost some time ago, I am certain they included more than a few Hawks films. No, Everson did not screen Scarface, but the film was certainly admired by many in attendance, along with films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Crowd Roars (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) , some of which were occasionally screened. (Remember, the early 50s saw the wholesale release of Hollywood’s pre-1948 backlog to TV, which allowed Everson to program many of these films.)

It is understandable that Bordwell would overlook what might seem like fugitive contributions to film scholarship, but they were an important part of my cinematic education. And I think there are perhaps a few others who might also agree.

Malvin Wald

Slavko Vorkapitch and Malvin Wald at the University of Southern California, 1950Screenwriter Malvin Wald died last Thursday, March 6, in Sherman Oaks, California, at age 90. I first got to know him casually when I was a student at the University of Southern California’s Cinema Department, where he taught part time. (He is pictured at left in 1950 while visiting USC with the legendary Slavko Vorkapitch, who is seated.) I got to know him better when, in 1981, I did research for his screenplay for Hollywood Local, a documentary on the history of Hollywood trade unions, which unfortunately never got produced. (It did however form the basis of a traveling photo exhibit.)

He had gained fame for co-writing Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1949). which gained him an Oscar nomination, which spawned the whole genre of police procedurals, though most of his subsequent credits were for TV dramas; by the time I got to know him, he was heavily involved in documentaries, whose credits seem to be absent from his obituaries. As an active member of the Writers Guild of America, West, on whose board he served, Hollywood Local was right up his alley. As I was then getting involved in writing my history of early animation unions, I felt I had found a kindred spirit.

I later asked him to serve on my dissertation committee and he eagerly agreed. After I gave him a draft, he called to say that he had just finished reading the section on Dan Glass, an animation artist whose death from TB was a crucial event in leading up to the 1937 Fleischer strike. He was so taken with it that he wanted to work with me on a screenplay based on Glass’ story. I was flattered and protested that I wasn’t a scriptwriter; but after he pooh-poohed my claim, saying I was obviously a good writer and could easily write a script, I said yes.

Unfortunately, the project never went anywhere, and it turned out he was ineligible to serve on my dissertation committee, but we continued to keep in touch. Thus, when I was offered an option on a novel, I turned to him for advice; then, when script work started to dry up, he called me when he started writing magazine articles about film.

What I most remember about Malvin Wald was that he was a real mensch, whose passion for workers’ rights and whose commitment to help students like me was the real thing. I also fondly recall his good humor and lack of pretension. (An early memory was seeing him a USC banquet wearing a tux and his ubiquitous running shoes.) I’m sorry I lost touch with him later on, but his friendship is something I will always value.