Reynold Humphries. The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931-1941: Madness in the Social Landscape. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Joseph McBride. What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2006.
During this present era of conservative global commodification, it is often difficult to find progressive works that take issue with accepted opinions in either academic or mainstream publishers. Both are affected by the same type of market conditions responsible for homogenous products available in supermarkets and the current Hollywood film industry. Ironically, the subject of the second book compared himself to "your friendly neighborhood grocery store" when he received a Life Achievement Award grudgingly granted to him by the American Film Institute in 1975. Should certain books appear that challenge conventional wisdom more often than not they either find themselves the victims of hysterical reviews by those with a vested interest in maintaining status quo interpretations or become ignored by self-styled "High Church" academic film journal editors or book reviewers. However, today we have the alternative realms of internet publications that represent those "stars" that Bette Davis suggested to Paul Henreid at the climax of Now Voyager (1942) that more than compensate for the absence of the moon.
Surely 1930 horror films are beneath contempt and little better than "camp" elements displayed by Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974)? Did not Orson Welles blow it after Citizen Kane by making a number of successively bad films that failed to live up to his early promise? These two diverse books take issue with such expressions of conventional wisdom. Despite dealing with different subjects, they employ a common pursuit of true judgment by critically taking issue with standard interpretations and extending the arguments of various predecessors in forming pioneering conclusions.
Of the two books, Reynold Humphries's The Hollywood Horror Film 1931-1941 is the most challenging due to its interrogative prose and employment of the ideas of Lacan and Zizek. In other words, it is not an "easy read." But "maverick" works can not be defined according to the demands of the supermarket as Orson Welles intimated in his 1975 acceptance speech. Although it would never be selected for a non-demanding sophomore -related "Scary Movies" course, The Hollywood Horror Film 1931-1941 is not obscurantist. But it would be regarded as a "scary text" by instructors and students wanting a "soft option," rather than examining the films in detail and understanding their relevance to today. The book is designed to uncover what has been repressed within these 1930s works, namely the role of history. It far exceeds the findings of earlier works by Harry Benshoff and Rhona Berenstein and employs those supposedly dated and unpopular discourses of Marxism and psychoanalysis that Robin Wood has suggested have been repressed today because of their still relevant challenge to the status quo1. The current era involving the victory of capitalism as "the end of history" and the ideological complicity of postmodernism have supposedly made redundant the radical role of psychoanalysis in unveiling the repressed aspect of a political unconscious in Frederic Jameson's use of the term. This is a discourse that Humphries's book takes issue with. In many ways, it represents a companion volume to The Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmares, edited by Steven Jay Schneider and published by Cambridge University Press in 2004, that discusses the relevance of Freud's ideas to the present. Were it not for the role of "market forces," it would have been published by that press but has now found a home with another company now dedicated to publishing challenging works that most academic and mainstream publishers fear to accept. The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931-1941 represents such a category in the historical, political, and psychoanalytic senses of the term.
Due to its complex prose this book represents a "return of the repressed" in its own right. It articulates a very interrogative and witty mode of critical argument absent from most contemporary publications. It is no disposable coffee table bookstore product familiar from the shelves of corporate booksellers such as Barnes and Noble and Waterstone's designed never to stimulate critical thinking. Instead it demands the same type of undivided attention and thought once necessary for reading those once prolific paperback editions of Marx's Capital and Grundrisse that have now disappeared from most mainstream bookstores. The thesis of the book involves the isolation of the mad scientist in films that represent "an unconscious representation of the idealist belief that classes function in physical separation from one another and the equally unconscious critique of this notion, couched in moral and individualistic terms that deny all question of class whatsoever. If the doctor/scientist is indeed mad, then this madness needs to be grasped in a precise social and historical sense that this study will define and that its subtitle, Madness in a Social Landscape , tries to circumscribe and describe." Humphries sees these various mad scientists as bearing a striking resemblance to the contemporary ideology of neo-liberalism determining global capitalism involving the control of others and economic exploitation which is concealed within the horror genre's techniques of disavowal. Despite their 1930's context, these films are also relevant today. Humphries's project involves unearthing the significance of the Real, both in a Lacanian and Marxist standpoint (the Real of history) by exploring the political unconscious of each text.
The first chapter, "Curse of the Superstitious Script" involves a judicious in-depth exploration of cinematic texts and archives to reveal how censorship codes and contemporary reviews attempted to disavow dark aspects of familial and social discourses buried within each film. By examining familiar films such as Browning's Dracula (1931), Brabin's The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), and unfamiliar ones such as Heisler's The Monster and the Girl (1941), Humphries unveils the historical and political aspects of each text's "return of the repressed" especially concerning the last film which involves "a radical imbalance between men and women, the stigmatizing of any woman challenging the social order and, crucially, of any man refusing to take his 'natural' gendered place within that order." (49).
Humphries's wittingly titled second chapter "Mad Doctors in Love" (which plays upon 1950's British cinema's demure "Simon Sparrow" series) explores the dark aspects of cinematic sexuality that the Breen Office attempted to suppress. Although Dracula's Daughter (1936) appears to emphasize lesbian desire, Humphries notes that "class, politics, and history are far more massively repressed within horror and critical discourse thereon than sexuality of whatever persuasion" (63). He supports this premise by a more interrogative reading of the text far exceeding those of gay critics such as Benshoff and Berenstein. In his examination of James Whale's The Old Dark House , Humphries suggests that the director's horror films need to be seen in other contexts than "militant gay tracts." (71) Rebecca's character here appears "as the repressive superego of a conservative and right-thinking social order, and the persistent representation of sexual ambiguity needs to be interpreted as an unconscious representation of that order by the filmic discourse." (72) The hidden economic issues in the film actually result in role-playing becoming the only form of defense in a repressive world which has made all other values inauthentic. Such arguments unveil key hidden historical aspects existing within this and other texts. They make Humphries' book of inestimable in taking these films seriously and exploring their internal textual dynamics. He sees that aspects of the "bizarre", which attract certain types of critics, involve other factors than mere sexuality. If Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) attempts to displace the threatening aspects of Paul's sexual and scientific pursuits by coding one character effeminate, Browning's celebrated Freaks (1932) show "how economic exploitation is an unconscious social manifestation of the desire to eliminate the other to settle, on the imaginary mode, all questions concerning one's own identity." (76) Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein in Whale's films is less a closet queer but more a character protesting against society's tendencies to regard intellectual activities as nonvirile and feminine unless, of course, such activities make money or contribute to a national supply of weapons of mass destruction. The oppositional "Other" can take forms other than the sexual, most notably particular historical and political subject positions that may blur more boundaries than the sexual if the full ramifications of a contemporary historical political unconscious are recognized in films such as King Kong (1933), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and Son of Kong (1933).
The third chapter, "The Road to (Dis)enchantment" involves a detailed interrogation of Freud's arguments in relation to mad doctor films to reveal underlying social and political elements. Humphries expertly applies the arguments contained in texts such as "Civilization and its Discontents" to each individual Doctor's Dilemma within these films. Humphries also relates Freud's ideas to Hebert Marcuse's illuminating distinction between alienated and non-alienated labor defined in Eros and Civilization and succinctly uncovers the political unconscious determining each film. Mad doctors foreground the lack of collective satisfaction found in sublimation. Their perpetual striving for fulfillment triggers anxiety and horror. Should each film not end with their deaths, society would collapse in more ways than one. These tragic figures refuse social alienation in order to assert their identities. As Humphries' examinations of the 1931 and 1941 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reveal, mad doctors often refuse social restraint and are driven mad in the process, especially if dehumanizing economic factors are the real causes that make monsters of creators and the created. The mad scientists' colonial counterparts appear in figures such as Bela Lugosi's Legendre in White Zombie (1932) and Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932) who dominate their various subjects according to contemporary colonial practices. Legendre uses zombies to run his mill on Haiti and Moreau creates human laborers from animals. These mad scientists thus embody represent factors of class exploitation that the films often conveniently project on to the realm of the supernatural. Employing conclusions associated with Marcuse and quoting works such as Jacques Derrida's Spectres of Marx , Humphries defines these various mad doctors as representing reverse images of capitalist processes that are both destructive and life-denying no matter how much studio imposed "happy endings" attempt to deny this. He aptly cites Frederic Jameson's concerns about the absence of issues concerning history and materialism in current Leftist discourse as being responsible for a lack of recognition of the real issues facing society both in the past and present that also appear in these neglected horror films. Supernatural discourses are not always escapist but offer key insights into economic and psychic realms of social entrapment.
This leads to his concluding chapter, "History is Made at Night", which deals with historical issues not as mere representations of linear cause and effect but as "structuring absences" governing the actual role of History at any particular time. It is his most relevant chapter which begins by interrogating the role of King Kong's Carl Denham as representing a historically governed role of entrepreneurial initiative " whatever the cost ". (196) Those familiar with King Kong, Son of Kong , and Scorsese's recent The Aviator (2005) will know that such cost is deadly, both materially and psychologically. Lionel Barrymore's Lafond in Browning's The Devil-Doll (1936), Claude Rain's Griffith of James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) and Leslie Bank's Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) are other deadly capitalists who exploit others in their different forms of individual power bearing significant parallels to a Real of History that the films attempt to disavow. But these forces return in the hallucinatory forms of the supernatural whose supposed fantasy associations are designed to define disturbing material features as merely bad dreams. This chapter also contains incisive readings of films such as The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) which Humphries reads as an anti-colonial tract "remarkable for the ways in which it narrates history as a series of reversals and paranoid projections destined to bolster the Western subject's delusions and illusions..." (228) Despite their current marginalization in academic discourse, Humphries believes that 1930s horror films more closely echoed historical reality than most contemporary studio productions, especially in such as "dreamlike" film as Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) that "foregrounds history and politics in terms of class and economic survival" (249) against the disastrous aftermath of World War I.
The Hollywood Horror Film 1931-1941 is a very challenging work in more senses than one. Although historical and psychoanalytical investigations have explored this area in the past, Humphries avoids the reductive pitfalls of previous approaches. He engages instead in a sophisticated mode of interpretation that not only applies key insights of Freud, Jameson, Zizek, and others in illuminating ways but also takes seriously the role of aesthetics and issues of textual autonomy by interpreting these films as examples of the operation of a political unconscious relevant to both past and present. This work also demands the same type of intellectual interrogation also required for the type alternative cinema represented by the work of Orson Welles and others. Its arguments and conclusions necessitate further discussion and, perhaps, refinement for others who may follow in the author's pioneering footsteps. The Hollywood Horror Film 1931-1941 is indebted to the work of key thinkers within the areas of history, psychoanalysis, and politics making it one of the most outstanding critical works in this area to have appeared in the first years of the twenty-first century.
Joseph McBride's What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career is exactly what its subtitle describes. It develops the arguments of Jonathan Rosenbaum who has argued that Welles is often misunderstood as a Hollywood director rather than the independent film talent he actually was. Rosenbaum's arguments have appeared in Chicago Reader articles and anthologized collections of his essays that have had the same type of circulation that Robert Carringer's 1978 Critical Inquiry article once did.2 Although it totally demolished the misleading thesis of Pauline Kael concerning Citizen Kane 's authorship, the article had limited circulation. However, Mc Bride had the additional benefit of sporadically working with Orson Welles during the last fifteen years of his life as well as appearing in the yet-to-be completed The Other Side of the Wind whose manner of production succinctly reflects those techniques of "guerrilla filmmaking" usually associated with low-budget, avant garde films. This is an aspect of Welles' career not generally known to the wider public and McBride supplies a missing piece of the jigsaw. As Michael Caine's famous line goes, "Not many people know about this."3 But, unlike Citizen Kane , this missing piece supplies a key item of essential information for those who still believe the misleading ideas of Charles Higham, Pauline Kael, and David Thomson that Welles declined after Citizen Kane . In fact, the issue is much more complex as Simon Callow has recently found in the second volume of his biographical trilogy dedicated to the director, one which takes a more balanced perspective than the vicious character assassination marring The Road to Xanadu .4
Despite McBride's fortune in having a closer involvement with Welles than most critics, this book is never reverential. Instead, it presents a balanced and complex picture of an extremely talented, but difficult, personality whose personal flaws are less important than what he attempted to achieve. Although known in the last years of his life as a promoter of Paul Masson wine (a performance which may have elements of a tongue-in-cheek magic act designed to trap the unwary into believing a fake to be the real thing as in F for Fake ), talk-show guest, and trailer narrator for Revenge of the Nerds , Welles was actually attempting to direct his own type of independent cinema which he often had to fund by himself when the new Hollywood generation of directors often contradicted their lavish praise of his work by not supplying the necessary money allowing this creative giant to complete his projects. On certain occasions, the director could be his own worse enemy. But he was also a victim of historical and political circumstances that eventually exiled him from his own country for several years and later isolated him from the American cultural mainstream on his return. McBride quotes Hollywood critic and screenwriter F.X. Feeney to good effect who mentions that Welles suffered through an "ironically Soviet-style `internal' exile - harsher, subtler, meaner and longer than what even Abraham Polonsky suffered, because it could be disguised under the `Crazy Welles' rubric. Look how fat he is now, ha, ha." (xvii) Instead, McBride documents "a period of great artistic fecundity and daring even if it was hidden from public view." (xviii) Welles left behind him a complex legacy of unfinished and unreleased work contained in film, videotape, and audiotape that the Munich Museum is currently preserving, restoring, and attempting to distribute as the recent 2006 Criterion DVD restoration of Mr. Arkadin shows. In his later years Welles rejected the studio system of making films and became instead an unrecognized father of "guerilla cinema" by directing "with small nonunion crews on erratic schedules whenever he could get the money for more shooting or simply whenever he felt like it." (23)
McBride astutely documents the fact that Welles was often more sinned against than anything else. The campaign of character assassination began after his firing from the RK0 lot by a studio establishment who realized that he would not play the Hollywood game of commercial prostitution. Citizen Kane was nearly burnt by those wishing to appease the Hearst Empire, The Magnificent Ambersons was drastically re-edited and its cut footage destroyed, while Welles was fired from his Brazilian documentary It's All True. "Such a nightmarish denouement could stand as an allegory for the shameful way artists too often are treated in America." (29) McBride documents the facts that Welles suffered from his "bold attack on entrenched economic and cultural power with Citizen Kane" (37), was under FBI surveillance for a considerable period of time due to his radical associations with Popular Front movements during the 1940s, and could have been interned in any national emergency which the government could have declared between 1945 to 1949. Known for his outspoken hostility to racism and home-grown American Fascism, Welles's decision to relocate to Europe had much to do with the changing political climate in America following the death of Roosevelt. The Dies Committee had already investigated him in the early 1940s and he probably felt he would face another interrogation by its post-war successor HUAC.
McBride poignantly documents the mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons while Welles was in Brazil making a good will documentary on behalf of the American government. But he also emphasizes the fact that he soon envisaged this project as being much more than a travelogue as the forthcoming study by Catherine Benamou will show. Furthermore, despite allegations promoted by R.K.O., Charles Higham, David Thomson and others, McBride documents the fact that It's All True was actually under budget when RK0 pulled the plug on the project.5 The real reason had nothing to do with Welles's supposed financial extravagance and bad behavior in Rio. "It's no accident that the stories spread by RKO to demonstrate Welles's extravagance and irresponsibility contained elements of racism. The racist arguments made against the film in both Brazil and the United States, in 1942 and beyond, are a symptom of a deeper underlying discomfort with Welles's conception of It's All True as a radical critique of Brazilian socioeconomic injustice, contrasted with a celebration of the democratic vitality of that country's black culture." (70)
By now, the die was cast. Rejected by Hollywood, Welles moved to Europe in 1947 and began a career as an independent director financing films from various acting jobs, both good and bad. His career was certainly affected by a blacklist that also involved many of the colleagues who had worked on and in Citizen Kane . As well as experimental ventures in fiction and documentary, which differed radically from mainstream Hollywood conceptions of technical perfection and homogenous narratives, Welles returned to Hollywood one last time to direct Touch of Evil, a film misunderstood at the time of its release and altered by the studio. He then directed several films in Europe, the most notable being his other masterpiece Chimes at Midnight (1965) that still awaits wider release in America. Welles then returned home for the last fifteen years of his life hoping that the New Hollywood era of Easy Rider would prove more sympathetic to his talents. However, it proved more hostile than its classical predecessor by refusing to finance the projects of a director that many of the younger generation claimed as their inspiration. Welles continued to work in his own maverick fashion by beginning his collaboration with cinematographer Gary Graver, developing his creative partnership with Oja Kodar, and starting a new film The Other Side of the Wind that sadly remains as unfinished as the Don Quixote project that he began in 1957.
McBride sympathetically describes the nature of Don Quixote , as well as other European ventures such as Around the World with Orson Welles , as revealing the director's enjoyment of "the newfound freedom of European independent filmmaking, approaching it in a quixotic spirit of picaresque adventure." He also made one remarkable independent short film for American television, the 1956 Desilu The Fountain of Youth adapted from a short story by John Collier. It represents one of the most innovative explorations of the television medium both in terms of its creative structure and imaginative devices. Sadly, this pilot never led to a continuing series. His other television pilot Portrait of Gina (1958) also represents another lost opportunity for a planned ABC series both in its anticipation of many formal features that would later characterize F for Fake as well as its dark asides concerning the phenomenon of twentieth century celebrity status.
Like his 2001 biography, Searching for John Ford , the author has had the benefit of some thirty plus years of involvement with his subject. The chapter on the making of The Other Side of the Wind documents McBride's personal involvement in a project that reveals both the dark side of the New Hollywood film industry as well as the dangers of compromise for any veteran director who attempts to prostitute his talent in a different, but still dangerous, way, from that of the past. Footage from the film was screened at the American Film Institute Award ceremony in 1976. It revealed a deliberate clash between two diverse shooting styles, one shot in cinema verite and the other a satire on contemporary surrealistic countercultural art cinema. Should the film ever be completed, it may not only reveal Welles's anticipation of the collage type of filming now familiar to us from MTV but also that brief era of promise in the now defunct "New Hollywood" when experimental works such as Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971) became possible for a brief period. Mc Bride not only records his own personal frustrations working on the film but his later efforts to interest others in completing it after Welles's death.
McBride shows that Welles was working constantly up to the moment of his death and that he tried to do his best even in commercials. This also applies to his television guest appearances. During my first visit to America in 1979, I saw Welles as a guest on The Dinah Shore Show where he appeared genial and at ease with the other guests. He did not exhibit any of the disdain that contemporary stars such as Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan have revealed on the BBC's Michael Parkinson Show. McBride not only provides fascinating glimpses of other unfinished film projects such as The Deep, Orson's Bag, The Merchant of Venice , and Moby Dick but also those fascinating documentary essays such as F for Fake, Filming Othello (1978) , and the unedited Filming the Trial (1981) in which Welles combines the various strands of form, meaning, entertainment and education that fascinated him throughout his life. The poignant footage from the never completed The Dreamers , based on a story by Isaak Dinesen (whose Immortal Story Welles had shot for French television in 1968) reveals poetically tantalizing glimpses of a talent still at the peak of its creativity. McBride also critically examines other projects such as The Cradle Will Rock and The Big Brass Ring screenplays. The latter was filmed by George Hickenlooper in 1997 in an altered version failing to do justice to the intriguing aspects of the original screenplay, while Tim Robbins's 1999 film version of the former concentrated more on the boorish side of Welles rather than emphasizing his more creative youthful dimensions. Despite McBride's reservations concerning the nature of the original Welles screenplays, they both contain elements of imagination that could easily be adapted to the screen by other more faithful versions in the future.
Although Welles could have safely left the movie business long before he died, McBride sees him as a heroic figure who decided to remain working up till the very end, and who became a success in his terms and not the industry which had abandoned him. "A man who created so many enduring and influential works of art in a commercial medium and kept working right up to the end was no failure but a roaring success." (304-305). But directors need good audiences who support major talents. The current situation is disappointing but should the majority of audiences reject the demeaning fodder constantly served to them by monopolistic theater chains resembling those dehumanizing aspects of the machine age documented in The Magnificent Ambersons then they will find a vast inheritance for them to enjoy. Welles's cinema still awaits better understanding and dissemination. This book is one of the many that will tell the real story for those who want to move beyond the official versions disseminated by those adhering to the same type of lies that exiled Welles from Hollywood during the 1940s.
1. Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film . Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997; Rhona J. Berenstein, Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender, Sexuality, and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema . New York: Columbia University Press, 1996; Robin Wood, "Introduction," Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmare . Ed. Steven Jay Schneider. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, xiv-xv. (return)
2. See Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Othello Goes Hollywood,"" "Orson Welles's Essay Films and Documentary Fictions," Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, Berkeley: California: University of California Press, 1995, 124-132; 171-183; Jonathan Rosenbaum and Bill Krohn, "Orson Welles in the U.S.: An Exchange ," Persistence of Vision 11 (1995): 86-109; Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge," Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See . Chicago: Capella, 2000, 175-195. (return)
3. Like Johnny Weismuller's "Me Tarzan, You Jane" and James Cagney's "You Dirty Rat", Caine never uttered those words on screen until the ignominious remake of Get Carter where finally decided to lay the ghost to rest! (return)
4. See Simon Callow, Orson Welles: Hello Americans . New York: Viking, 2006. Despite the improvement over the first volume, the work does contain several factual errors and typos. (return)
5. This is currently the subject of a lively debate on the "Octopus" section of Wellesnet.com , a very valuable internet resource for Welles scholars. (return)