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Cinema Essays With Gordon Inman: Hollywood Eras And Otto Preminger

Film critic and historian Gordon Inman shares his views on the history of Hollywood and Director Otto Preminger

For the purpose of my own organization, I like to divide the history of Hollywood prior to the collapse of United Artists into three distinct eras. I’ve changed two elements of this categorization recently; first, I used to refer to them as “waves,” (e.g. first wave, second wave) as something of a shorthand based on the Nouvelle Vague followed by many incessant attempts to classify other countries’ most creative film periods as “new waves.” Out of respect for the sensitivity regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I’ve used alternative terms to “wave.”

Secondly, and more dramatically, I’ve improved the defining line between the first and second era: originally my idea was that if a filmmaker experienced a career-altering failure, or if he or she “fell,” before the second world war, then he or she belonged in the first category. Those in the second category likely “fell” due to HUAC persecution or a financial failure in the late 1950s to 1960s. I felt the need to amend this distinction because it feeds into the defeatist, flaw-fishing approach to entertainment that defines the IMDb boards from the 2000s (which is truly one of the most toxic internet communities I’ve seen) and the notorious latter-day YouTube channel CinemaSins, which I mercifully avoided until under a year ago. For those unaware of these two entities, here is the basic attitude connecting both: that a film, upon first viewing, begins with some kind of quantified perfect score and must then be scrutinized by the viewer for every conceivable flaw.

This often leads to the fabrication of dummy screenwriting rules, often infused with arbitrary codes held by a quorum of the subgenre and fanboy cultures, which lead to the dismissal of entire films based on the banalest aesthetic crimes (e.g. M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs is a colossal screenwriting failure because its aliens are as reckless as human astronauts in other stories; The Last Jedi fails as a feature film because a decades-old, hyper-canonized character could not conceivably be placed in an ethical conundrum which may involve killing a child).

My solution to this ended up improving the overall system: I defined the first era as ‘pioneers,’ those who got their start during Hollywood’s infancy and who began directing either in the silent era or shortly after the advent of sound, and the second era as filmmakers who began their careers shortly before, during, or up to a few years after the U.S. involvement in World War 2. This only changes the categorization of two directors, to my knowledge: Orson Welles and Preston Sturges, who now both fall into the category of Era 2.

The transition from Era/Phase/Umbrella 2 to 3 is a little more challenging to define, partially because what I’m calling #3 is already established in many people’s minds. Most young people who are in an early stage of their cinephilia development come to the realization that a new generation of young, hungry, and movie-crazy directors often started off with a Corman-sized budget, turned it into a hit, and was rewarded with a bigger budget for the next outing (leading to Oscars for Coppola, Cimino, Nichols, and Schrader; Palmes d’Or for Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, and Schatzberg; and robust, decades-late retrospectives for women and black directors like Elaine May, Bill Gunn, Barbara Loden, Shirley Clarke, and Bill Greaves). This padded decade and its creators have been referred to colloquially as New Hollywood, Hollywood Brats, and various examples of superlative bullshit like “The Greatest Decade in the History of Film of All Time.” The end of this period is clearly defined by the release and failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, the first in a handful of big-budget victims of fiscal assassination (by which entertainment journalists covered ballooned budgets and hectic shoots, their readers felt discouraged from seeing the films, and its subsequent box office failure led the public to circular-reason that they’d dodged a bullet by not buying a ticket to a bad picture), but the date of its inception is debatable.

The beginning could not conceivably be any later than the 1969 release of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, of course, but Roger Ebert would later place Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde as the beginning, less for the violence than the “‘70s look” of the cinematography. It would frankly be difficult to label the photography of Bonnie and Clyde as a prophetic look without doing the same for Haskell Wexler’s work in Mike Nichols 1966 debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, although I’d imagine Ebert was hesitant to do so based on use of former contract players in the lead roles. I’d even go one year further, and place the starting point at the 1965 release Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing.

A word about Otto Preminger: the Austro-Hungarian émigré began his credited directorial career in Hollywood in the late 1930s, placing him among the Era 2 directors based on my categorization. He had great success making films noir and melodramas in the 1940s and early 1950s: his most celebrated picture from this time is 1944’s Laura, although I would submit 1950’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and 1953’s Angel Face as equally consummate works. By the end of the 1950s, Preminger’s films looked, sounded, and felt quite a bit different than those of his peers (especially Bonjour Tristesse). Since Laura he had served as his own producer for nearly everything he’d directed, and due to his name recognition, he could tell stories that few other directors could. While I would never seek to diminish the directorial legacy of John Cassavetes, I believe that his posthumous title of the Father of Independent Film may better fit the latter career of Preminger, especially based on our modern definition of independent film (beginning with the so-called ‘Hollywood Brats’ and perhaps ending with the likes of A24).

Those who love classic Hollywood movies but don’t know directors’ names may recognize Preminger’s most respected acting role, as Oberst von Scherbach in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. For those who don’t really follow the classics and haven’t recognized a single name so far, Preminger also voiced the Elven King in the animated version of The Hobbit and was the second of three actors to play Mr. Freeze in the Batman TV series.