Posts Tagged ‘War of the Worlds’

“Film makers can’t get enough of Adolf Hitler. I think it’s because he’s the perfect villain.” Arnold Pistorius

Once upon a time in Hollywood…1941-1976

So in a sweeping look at American film history today we’re going to clip off 35 years.  Again one of the reasons for this brief look back at film history is to see how change has been a constant throughout the business and to see how we are in another major shift.

Hollywood had enjoyed its greatest decade through the 1930s in the short history of the film industry. (Some still believe that era was the greatest movie decade of all-time.)

1940 & 1941 continued the Golden Era of cinema. But then on December 7, 1941 the world changed for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States was coming off The Great Depression which started with the crash of Wall Street in 1929.

Hollywood actors and directors lended a hand in making training and propaganda films . And then there were movies about the war and its lingering effects back in the states.

So Proudly We Hail, 1943
Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

But I think the biggest lingering effect of Hitler and the Nazi’s is it created a world of fear. I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from the idea that one man could cause so much pain and destruction in the modern world.

“The motion pictures made during World War II deeply affected Steven Spielberg, and movies about the war remain fertile ground for numerous filmmakers during subsequent decades. One reason for the continued popularity of these sages, and for movies about different wars as well, is the panoply of visual pleasures such conflicts offer.” “Citizen Spielberg”: by Lester D. Friedman

Europe exported existential thought and a new wave of movies that we free morality standards in the American film industry.

Much has been written about the prosperity that followed World War II, but many films reflected a period of questioning human existence and sometimes landing on nihilism or some for of despair. And themes that followed from World War II were prevalent for at least the next 30 years—and maybe until the present day. (The names and fears have just changed over the years)

Look at some of the top films of the 50s:

Rebel Without a Cause
On the Waterfront
Sunset Boulevard
Rear Window
War of the Worlds
Death of a Salesman

Sci-Fi films with end of the world themes were popular:
It Came From Outer Space
The Thing
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Day the Earth Stood Still

Hitler may have been gone but there were plenty of worries beyond wondering how Jerry Mathers was going to break in his baseball glove on Leave it to Beaver. (The Korean War, Soviets, the Bomb, communists, etc.)

And then into the 60s President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were shot and killed, there were riots in Chicago,  L.A. and other cities. Viet Nam War.  And if things weren’t bad enough TIME Magazine’s cover on April 8, 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?”

Some of the more well known movies of the 60s were:

Dr, Strangelove; or how I stopped learning to Love the Bomb
They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?
Easy Rider
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie & Clyde
Cool-Hand Luke
Midnight Cowboy
2001 A Space Odyssey
The Wild Bunch
The Manchurian Candidate

The pessimistic trend  continued into the early 1970s in politics with Viet Nam & Watergate as well as at the movies:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Picture Show
The Godfather


Sure you had Disney movies and light musicals during all these years but these films represent much of the best films of the era.

Bruce became the catalyst for change. Bruce was a mechanical shark on the set of the 1975 film JAWS who didn’t work as well as desired.  But he worked well in the edit bay and the $7 million film went on to make over $400 million worldwide. Sure there was blood and guts, but it had a happy ending.

The tent pole movie was born (or maybe just perfected). And once that genie was out of the bottle everybody in Hollywood was shooting for the  $100 million box office goal.  By this time Viet Nam was over and Americans were ready to get on with life and the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976.

And Rocky was there toward the end of the year to give audiences something to cheer about. I do believe the one-two punch of JAWS & Rocky had a huge impact on the future of the film business. More thrills per minute and a somewhat happy ending that would make a lot of money.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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Orson Wells was born May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His mother died when he was nine and his father when he was 15 and I’ve always wondered if there was a part of Welles that resonated with the young boy in Citizen Kane who is separated from his parents. Shortly after his mother died Welles began attending the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock Illinois. 

When he graduated in 1931 the school was called Todd School for Boys. According to Wikipedia the school was founded by Reverend R.K. Todd with the philosophy of “plain living and high thinking, and in harmony with Puritan traditions.” It was a boarding school. (In Citizen Kane you may recall, the parents own a boarding house.)

Keep in mind that Wells was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane, so not that removed from school. At the Todd school Welles’ talent was allowed to flourish under the influence of Roger Hill, his teacher, headmaster and father figure. It was where Welles began his theater performances that would include Shakespeare and other classics.

Barbara Learning writes in her book Orson Welles, a Biography that after Welles arrived at the Todd School,“There followed a starling succession of plays—variously adapted, designed, directed, and acted by Welles. There was Orson as Cassius; Orson as Marc Anthony; Orson as Richard III, Orson as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Orson as both Androcles and the Lion; even as Jesus Chrsit, for which he posed for photographs looking strangely ethereal.” 

Keep in mind that he did all that between the ages of 11 and 15. Welles did not attend college, but traveled Europe and North Africa acting here and there so the Todd School really was his only formal education.

An association with playwright Thornton Wilder (who was born in Madison, Wisconsin) led Welles to New York just a few years after graduating from the Todd School. In 1935 he was 20 years old and considered a prodigy. In 1937 he found international fame with the radio performance of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Three  years later he would write and direct Citizen Kane which many critics consider the greatest film ever made.

Director Peter Bogdanovich on a Citizen Kane DVD commentary wondered how Welles played Kane as an old man when he was only in his mid 20s. I think the answer is that by that time he had been playing older men for almost 15 years. An actor once told me the key to being a good actor is stage time. And Welles got a lot of stage time at the Todd School.

So it’s no wonder then when Welles was 45 and asked in a TV interview “where home was” he tried to dodge the question before saying, “I suppose it’s Woodstock, Illinois if it’s anywhere. Went to school there for four years. And if I try to think of home it’s that.” 

(I had never heard of Woodstock, Illinois until my father-in-law died there this past summer. While there I learned that the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day was filmed there. It’s located about 45 minutes outside Chicago.)

Welles was a magician and an enigma. Many books have been written about him as they try to figure him out just like the reporters tried to figure out who Charlie Kane really was. But if there is one thing we know about Welles from just War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane it is that he knew how to hold an audience.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.” 
                                                                                                   Orson Welles 

P.S. Orson Welles’ education is why I think the next great writer/director will not come from USC film school, but from a kid who is homeschooled by a mother who loves Shakespeare. (Probably in a small town in Iowa…and who reads this blog, of course.) And he or she will do it with a film using actors who have never been in a film before as Welles did in Citizen Kane.

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Scott W. Smith

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