Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: Picture, by Lillian Ross (1952)

Lillian Ross, on the cover of her book Picture, 1952, which details the making of John Huston's film of The Red Badge of Courage.

John Huston, legendary director, who wrote the screenplay and directed The Red Badge of Courage.

Audie Murphy, the most decorated solider of World War II, starring as Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, 1951.

Original poster for The Red Badge of Courage, 1951. There's no scene in the movie where that girl stares longingly into Audie Murphy's eyes. All her character does is yell at a soldier who is trying to steal a pig from her family's farm.
Lillian Ross’ 1952 book Picture is widely considered to be one of the best books written about Hollywood filmmaking. Ross followed the production of John Huston’s 1951 film The Red Badge of Courage from beginning to end, and gained access to everyone involved in the film. Ross even met with Louis B. Mayer, the vice-president of MGM. 

Huston was a good friend of Ross, and he encouraged her to observe the production of his latest movie. Ross was, and still is, a contributor to The New Yorker, and she’s the only writer to contribute to the magazine under all of five of its editors. Ross has a new anthology of her writing coming out this week, Reporting Always: Writings from the New Yorker. Ross was one of the first writers to write long-form non-fiction using some of the same techniques that fiction writers used, and her influence can be felt on writers like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and other practitioners of New Journalism. Ross wrote a famous profile of Ernest Hemingway for The New Yorker in 1950, and Huston is certainly a man cut from the same cloth as Hemingway.

Although The Red Badge of Courage was Huston’s movie, as he both adapted Stephen Crane’s classic novel and directed it, the main character that we follow in Picture is producer Gottfried Reinhardt. Reinhardt is smart, honest, and quite funny. The book needs a character like him to be the person that we follow all the way through production and post-production. As the film is being made, Reinhardt is always saying, “This must be a great picture.” (p.41) My favorite quote from Reinhardt in the book is his tart assessment of Hollywood: “Everybody in Hollywood wants to be something he is not. Albert is not satisfied to be your assistant. He wants to be an actor. The writers want to be directors. The producers want to be writers. The actors want to be producers. The wives want to be painters. Nobody is satisfied. Everybody is frustrated. Nobody is happy.” (p.30)

Filming of The Red Badge of Courage went fairly smoothly, although the picture did go four days over schedule, but it was in post-production that everything seemed to go wrong. Louis B. Mayer had always been against making the movie, and it was only because of the support of Dore Schary, vice-president in charge of production at MGM, that the movie was greenlit. Mayer expressed his frustration about the movie to Ross, saying, “A million and a half. Maybe more. What for? There’s no story.” (p.20) After a preview screening goes poorly, Reinhardt and Huston start having serious second thoughts, and the movie starts changing drastically. Huston left for Africa just after the preview screening to start filming The African Queen, a movie that would be much better received than The Red Badge of Courage. Eventually Dore Schary ended up making the final edits to the movie, and although it garnered some good reviews from critics, the movie flopped at the box office, and lost MGM more than a million dollars. 

One of the most astute comments on The Red Badge of Courage was from the film critic for The New York Post, who wrote, “The picture does not become a fully realized experience, nor is it deeply moving. It is as if, somewhere between shooting and final version, the light of inspiration had died, Huston got tired of it, or became discouraged, or decided that it wasn’t going to come off.” (p.197) I think that criticism was correct, I think Huston did essentially give up on the movie. Once he left for Africa, he was focused on The African Queen, and didn’t participate in the post-production battles over the film. Who knows if the film would have turned out differently if Huston had been more involved, but it’s certainly possible his vision would have been preserved on the screen. But I would also argue that Huston didn’t have a clear vision of the movie. I don’t know if Huston stopped trusting his own judgment, but I thought a key moment was when, after the first preview, Reinhardt convinced Huston to add voiceover narration from Crane’s novel, and a prologue that explained to the audience what a classic novel The Red Badge of Courage is. If you’re adding a voiceover and narration to your movie at the 11th hour, you don’t have a clear vision for your movie. 

Picture is a great book that illustrates the ongoing battle between art and commerce. Unfortunately, in Huston’s version of The Red Badge of Courage, neither art nor commerce won. Watching The Red Badge of Courage, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a perfect example of a great book that simply doesn’t translate to the screen very well. I would agree with Mayer, there isn’t any story, which is fine for a novel, but doesn’t always work well in a movie. The narration that was added is super cheesy, and totally unnecessary. Huston took a gamble by casting many actors who were not professional actors, like the World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who created the famous World War II soldiers Willie and Joe, and won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning at the age of 23. Huston cast another World War II vet, Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, in the lead role of Henry Fleming. I thought Murphy did a good job, and he reminded me a little of Henry Fonda. But I think Mauldin and some of the other amateur actors just weren’t that good. Everyone’s accents seemed very fake to me. Movie buffs should look for Andy Devine in a small cameo as “the cheery soldier.” Andy Devine will always hold a fond spot in my heart because he’s the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s classic 1973 animated Robin Hood, which was one of my favorite movies as a child. (And as an adult.)

Picture shows us Hollywood in transition, as television is starting to become more of a threat, and the big studios are being forced to divest themselves of their theater chains. During the writing of Picture, Louis B. Mayer resigned from MGM, a moment that marked the end of an era. 

Ross’ writing is sharp, and her ear for dialogue is superb. (I wonder if she had “98% total recall” of conversations, a talent that Truman Capote claimed to have.) Ross never inserts herself into the action gratuitously, and by simply observing all the action around her, she came up with a masterpiece about Hollywood.

No comments: