Directors of 1915
Before I get started talking about my subject directly, I need to say a bit about Auteur Theory. I have pretty mixed feelings about it, and I’ve tried to represent that in this blog by giving equal space to cinematographers and directors (although you’ll notice I put directors at the top). In the period I’ve been discussing, the division was beginning to be formalized, with the “director” being, first, the one who told the actors what to do while the camera operator figured out the visuals, and, later, the one with the ultimate authority on the set. Part of the problem is that the concept of “director” vs “producer” was unclear in the really early years, although as cinema moved towards narrative fictional representations, it followed the division of labor that had been established in the theater. In that context, a director was seen as a “creative artist,” while the producer was in charge of practical issues like financing and advertising (the director did answer to the producer for his job, though, more on that in a bit).
So, what’s my problem with Auteur Theory? Two things: first, I think it misrepresents the reality of working on film, especially after the division of labor caused it to become a large-scale, collaborative, industrial process, and, second, it’s promotes laziness among critics and fans.
Let me unpack that a bit for you. Auteur Theory states that a movie director is the “author” of the film, the person with ultimate responsibility for what appears on the screen. The equivalency is problematic. “Authors,” taken to mean the writers of modern novels, represent a new way of thinking about the artist as an individual in Western European society that emerged as Europe moved out of the Middle Ages. Authors are imagined as working in isolation, creating something wholly new and original from their own minds. However well this does or does not work for literature of different times and cultures, it doesn’t translate well to working on a movie. Anyone who’s been on a movie set knows that literally hundreds of decisions are made every day by people other than the director. The director may have “ultimate” authority on the set, and certainly has the right to suggest things he or she thinks are “important,” and will be the final arbiter of many of these decisions, but I’ve never seen a director who was enough of a micro-manager as to directly decide the placement of every light, or the exact shade that each wall is painted, or the detailed placement of every prop, or the precise body language the actors use. Directors do hire the people they think will do the best jobs for each of these things (often in collaboration with their boss, the producer), but that’s not the same as “authoring” them. That’s “management.” In terms of management, though, the producer really has the final say, even to the point of being able to fire directors in the middle of making a movie. And some producers seem to have as much right to be seen as “auteurs” as directors: noted examples would be Darryl F. Zanuck and “The Longest Day” and the collected works of Val Lewton. I think I’d suggest Spielberg’s influence on the original “Poltergeist” and George Lucas in terms of everything he’s produced as well.
Where I see the laziness creeping in is the language of criticism. I have seen classic movie bloggers write that a movie was “shot by” or even “lensed by” the director. No, that would be the cinematographer (or even the camera operator, to be really precise). I have a certain affection for cinematographers, partly because the movie “Visions of Light” was a turning point in my life and thinking about movies, and partly because of working for a cinematographer-turned-producer/director in my main real world movie job. But, I’m not going to propose a “Fotografia Theory” that places them as more important than directors, the way some writer did in proposing “Schreiber Theory.” Possibly, sometimes, especially in the very early years at Edison or Lumière, they might have been. But, my point is that there is no real “author” of a movie. It is a collaborative effort, and everyone’s job is worth noticing and recognizing. A serious critic needs to make themselves familiar with each of these jobs and, where possible, give credit where it is due. If you don’t have the time or ability to do that, at least try not to say Orson Welles did what Gregg Toland is actually responsible for, OK?
OK, back to 1915. I don’t mean all of the above to be taken to say that “directors are unimportant.” They have a lot of responsibility, and they do have an impact on the creative aspects of the movies they direct. So, let’s talk for a bit about some of the leaders, as well as the up-and-comers of 100 years ago.
I think I have to start with D.W. Griffith, who in 1915 was riding a wave of popularity and controversy to be possibly the most known director of his time. After years of making shorts for Biograph, he left over the issue of wanting to make feature-length films when the studio refused to release “Judith off Bethulia.” He is often credited in (lazy) film histories with having invented everything from the close-up to sliced bread. Actually, during the years he made shorts, he really was quite an innovator, and I think deserves special credit in terms of developing the editing techniques that allow audiences to understand simultaneous action taking place across distances, which is vital to establishing suspense in the movies. It’s fair to ask, however, whether there was a particular editor at Biograph he worked with in developing this technique.
I’ve already waxed poetic about Evgeni Bauer, who I think may be one of those few directors that might be able to claim something like “auteur” status, not least because of his training in set design and the obvious care he gave to camera placement. In 1915 his movies included “The 1002nd Ruse” and “After Death,” my personal favorite of his.
Not often spoken about in terms of directing is Charlie Chaplin, who directed most of the movies he appeared in, starting about mid-way through his year at Keystone Studios. By this point in 1915, he’s at Essanay, and is directing some of the classic shorts that made him an immortal. It’s hard to extract Chaplin’s directing from the rest of his mythos, but I would say that he had a talent for fast-moving action that slapstick work, and that it took him a while to start thinking seriously about character development or even sympathetic characters. His later work proves that he did get it, eventually. This year, his work includes “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen.”
One of the new faces on the scene is Cecil B. DeMille, who started out late in 1914 working for producer Jesse Lasky. DeMille is remembered today mostly for making sprawling epic films, but he actually did quite diverse work in the first few years. After two solid Westerns, he turned to character-driven melodramas, like “Carmen” and “The Cheat.” These are both very sophisticated movies for their day, both in terms of the mature subject-matter, and the complex story-telling structure and camerawork. DeMille was doubtless assisted by a crew of excellent quality, but he showed considerable promise right out of the gate.
We’ve also got Maurice Tourneur, whose son Jacques would also go on to be a director of stylistic films. Tournuer had started in France and wisely got out before World War One to work at the World Film Company. He gave us “The Wishing Ring” in 1914, an “Alias Jimmy Valentine” in 1915. These are both very good character dramas, with the former a pleasant fairy tale fantasy and the second an early installment in the gangster genre. The other night I was watching an old Abbott and Costello movie in which a safe was cracked and a joke came up about “making like Jimmy Valentine,” suggesting that the movie still had some resonance a generation later.
Finally, I want to mention Louis Feuillade, who kind of “started it all” for this blog with “Fantômas” and its sequels. I took time to look at some of his shorts earlier this year, and I found his work amazingly diverse. He probably would have agreed with Auteur Theory, being French and given to writing manifestos about filmmaking. Maybe in his case it applies. The thing that stands out to me about his productions is how visually rich they can be, especially when he goes outside and shoots on location, instead on the cramped indoor sets at Gaumont Studios. I anticipate returning to his crime series “Les Vampires” in time for Halloween this year.
[…] Film I can point to and say with certainty, “this is a Mabel Normand movie.” As a critic of the Auteur Theory, I suppose that shouldn’t bother me, but in this case I’d like to be able to find an example. […]
Nice essay, Pope! I’ve always found auteur theory insufficient in recognizing the collaborative creative process of filmmaking. Directors certainly have distinctive styles and creative visions, but that’s not the whole story by any means. (That said, I probably over-rely on the director-as-central-figure in my blog writing). I do agree with you that Bauer is the figure from the mid-teens who most approaches auteur status. He was lucky to have such a camera-operator as Zavelev, though! (Who later shot Zvenigora, by the way). CbdM’s 1915 output is impressive, too. Nice food for thought, thanks for writing. 🙂
Thanks for your comment! I think we all fall into the trap of over-crediting directors from time to time, but at least we should try to be aware of it. As the project continues, I hope I’ll get to see some of Zavelev’s non-Bauer output, and that may help me to distinguish their styles. I suspect they influenced one another quite a bit!