By Ed Garea
Being film fans, we are well steeped in the legends of directors such as John Ford, William Wyler, and Alfred Hitchcock. Also, being film fans, we are also steeped in the legends that surround them. The most prevalent is what is the auteur theory, the brainchild of Francois Truffaut when he was a film critic writing for Cahiers du Cinema. It holds that a director’s film reflects his or her creative vision, as if the director were the primary auteur (French for author). We’ll cover this theory in detail in a future article, but the gist of our argument is that the theory (like most things French) is half-baked and, according to Truffaut himself, it was forgotten by the French, but still mentioned in American periodicals. The term “auteur theory” itself was coined by Andrew Sarris, film critic of The Village Voice and the theory’s greatest champion in America.
If films were art, then this theory might hold a little water. But they are not; rather, films are commercial ventures, made to make money. If they achieve the level of art, it is only accidental, and the director or producer that aims for art will soon find him or herself out of work. In the studio system it was not the director who pulled the strings, it was the producer, the moneyman. The director in most cases was just the employee chosen to bring the words the screenwriters committed to paper onto film and make sure the actors involved did their jobs. If a director proved to be one with a string of box office hits, then, in order to keep him around, he would be elevated to the rank of producer. This is easily noticeable when watching the start of a film. If it begins with the title “A John Ford Film” (or William Wyler, or James Whale, etc.), then the audience knows that John Ford is also the producer and has control of the film.
This is not to say that the role of the director was insignificant. In the studio system, everyone had a role to play in getting a picture made. Think of it as an assembly line, with each worker performing his or her assigned task. Each studio had a bevy of producers, all of who answered to a central voice. Irving Thalberg was that voice at MGM. At Warners, it was Darryl Zanuck, and later Hal Wallis. RKO had Pandro Berman. At Columbia, it was owner Harry Cohn who supervised production, and at Universal, the head of production was Carl Laemmle, Jr., son of the owner.
The assembly line approach was the most cost effective way not only to make movies but also to assure a steady supply of new films for the theaters. Many of the directors that toiled under this system are forgotten today in favor of those that had the weight to co-produce their product. One of the best, and most prolific, at this craft was Lloyd Bacon. He directed all genres from Westerns to musicals to gangster stories at a time when Warner Brothers films were seemingly released at the speed of light. In this article we will examine his life and two of his most representative films.
Bacon was born in San Jose, California on December 4, 1889. His father, Frank, was a playwright and actor and young Lloyd was enlisted into the family stock company. (In 1918 Frank co-wrote and starred in the Broadway hit “Lightnin’.”) Lloyd attended Santa Clara University, with the goal of a degree in law, but after appearing in a campus production of “The Passion Play,” he found he couldn’t get the acting bug out of his system. In 1911 he joined David Belasco’s stock company in Los Angeles, where he toured the country alongside Lewis Stone. The high point for Lloyd was a Broadway run with the hit “Cinderella Man,” for which he earned good notices. After a season in vaudeville, Lloyd ventured to Hollywood, finding work as an actor and stunt man in Gilbert M. Anderson’s “Broncho Billy” shorts. But the war called and Bacon interrupted his budding Hollywood career in 1917 to enlist in the Navy.
After the war, Bacon returned to Hollywood and eventually joined Mack Sennett’s studio as a gag writer. When he told Sennett of his desire to direct, the tightfisted producer gladly took him on, provided he still functioned as a gag writer. The experience he gained stood him well when he learned that Warner Brothers was looking for directors and he joined the studio in 1925, beginning what would become an 18-year association. At Warners his ability to bring in a film on time and within budget (the most important thing to a studio), earned him a staff position. His first big hit was 1928’s The Singing Fool, a follow-up to Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. He followed that in 1930 with a big budget adaptation of Moby Dick, a hit when released, but sadly forgotten today.
During the Thirties Bacon helmed several of the studio’s biggest hits, such as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. He directed the story while Busby Berkeley handed the musical numbers, with the irony being that Berkeley is given the credit as auteur while Bacon has been relegated to the trash bin of film history. But the reason Bacon was assigned to direct the story was in order to bring the film in one time and budget, as Berkeley’s excesses were well known even back then. Lloyd also helmed a few of Jimmy Cagney hits like Picture Snatcher and He Was Her Man in addition to directing the controversial for its time Pre-Code Kay Francis drama, Mary Stevens, M.D.(1933). However, Bacon became a victim of his own success, being consigned to the assembly line, where he churned out film after film, usually for the bottom portion of the bill, all on time and within budget. From time to time he was given a programmer (a film that played the “B” side of the marquee in big cities and the “A” side in small towns) to helm, such as Invisible Stripes and Knute Rockne, All American. His last film for Warners was the 1943 morale piece Action in the North Atlantic, with Humphrey Bogart.
Bacon moved to 20th Century Fox in 1944, where he was reunited with studio head Darryl Zanuck. His first feature for Fox was The Fighting Sullivans (1944), a morale film about five brothers who enlisted and were killed in the Pacific. His most important contribution while at Fox, however, may have been his unaccredited role in re-editing the Western classic My Darling Clementine; this in response to comment cards from preview audiences. He remained at Fox until 1949, and his remaining years were spent working for Columbia, Universal, Fox, and finally RKO. His last film was She Couldn’t Say No for RKO, a comedy-drama starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons, released in 1954. Bacon was preparing another film for RKO when he died at age 65 from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1955.
Below are two representative films from the Bacon oeuvre, made fast, tidy, and cheap. Each returned at least twice its budget.
DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR (WB, 1935): This has all the ingredients for a great film: story, stars, and director. Too bad it had such a lousy script. Pat O’Brien is Lt. William “Bill” Brannigan a Naval Marine lieutenant in San Diego. His good buddy Tommy O’Toole (James Cagney) is flying in to join. O’Toole is a freelance stunt pilot whose entrance to the airbase is full of tricks and takes us nearly four minutes to watch, warning us that there’s not much of a story here. O’Toole’s still the cocksure, arrogant guy Brannigan knew back in Brooklyn and he proceeds to upset the apple cart and also move in on Brannigan’s squeeze, Betty Roberts (Margaret Lindsay).
The film is predictable and O’Toole eventually learns Marine discipline while Brannigan discovers that Mary is really in love with O’Toole, and so he applies for transfer to Virginia, leaving the door open for O’Toole to romance Ms. Roberts. The problem lies with the script. Cagney’s character seemingly has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, making his turnaround at the end totally unconvincing. Margaret Lindsay was an actress whose progression suddenly hit the ceiling and, looking at her acting, especially in this film, we can well understand why. She’s stiff and lifeless, raising the question of why Cagney and O’Brien would fight over her to start. Even Frank McHugh, cast as ambulance driver “Crash” Kelly (Funny, huh?) can’t give us any relief, as his character is novocained by the writers.
I’m also wondering why Lindsay’s character, a civilian, is allowed to roam at will on a military base. Also, the scene where O’Brien proposes to her is so wooden as to make us laugh unintentionally as it takes her a while to figure out where his conversation is going. Obie: “I have something important to ask you . . . “I’ve been talking to several real-estate agents, and we could rent an apartment really cheaply . . . furnished, even.” AND she still has to wait before he says the magical words to figure out his meaning. (!) The big finale, a simulated attack, is meant to draw us in to find out if Cagney will rise to the occasion, but it falls completely flat. I found my enjoyment in a spotting the various supporting actors in the Warner’s stock company: names such as Russell Hicks, William B. Davidson, Ward Bond, Robert Barratt, and Helen Lowell. Well, I had to do something . . .
Trivia: The plot about the wild stunt pilot having to reform in order to fit within the military is repeated in Universal’s 1941 Abbott and Costello comedy, Keep ‘em Flying. In that movie the pilot is played by Warner’s alum Dick Foran.
INVISIBLE STRIPES (WB, 1939): Even though George Raft is the star, this is still a good actioner, with a supporting cast boasting Humphrey Bogart, Jane Bryan, Flora Robson, Paul Kelly, Marc Lawrence, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen, and the young William Holden – in his first film and third-billed!
Raft is a parolee from Sing Sing who is having trouble finding a job because of his time in stir (hence the title). Holden is Raft’s young brother. He just got fired, he’s been engaged to Jane Bryan for over as year, needs money, and is tempted to down the same road as his brother. To stop him, Raft teams up with old prison buddy Bogart, who enlists him in Paul Kelly’s bank robbery gang. Raft goes along on a few jobs and uses the money to finance younger brother’s new garage, telling him the money was earned from commissions selling tractors. Right after Raft quits the gang, an armored-car robbery goes wrong, and Bogie is wounded. He hides out at Holden’s garage, unbeknownst to Raft, and has Holden drive the getaway car to his girlfriend’s place.
Kelly and the boys think Raft has snitched and the cops track down Holden and figure he’s part of the gang. To set things right, Raft tracks down Bogie and learns that Kelly’s after the both of them. They shoot it out with Kelly and henchman Lawrence, both Raft and Bogie die, Holden is cleared and everybody lives happily ever after. Not a bad film. Raft, the star, basically plays the same character as in Each Dawn I Die, the crook bound by fate. I always got the impression watching him that acting was merely something he did because he couldn’t think of anything else. And Raft was no actor, but rather a movie star. Had he worked harder and took more chances on scripts and directors, he would have gone down in Gable’s league.
Bogart, for his part, snarls well throughout and nobody dies like Bogie did in those 30s potboilers. Jane Bryan has little to do but stand around looking cute, which she does quite admirably. Flora Robson, the great English actress (Remember her as Queen Elizabeth in Fire Over England?) plays the mother of Raft and Holden; even more amazing is at the time she was a year younger than Raft (!). And as for Holden, if I didn’t see him in the opening credits, I’d have had a hard time recognizing him. He didn’t look like the hard-bitten Holden I remember so well from the ‘50s. If you’re looking for a good action film that doesn’t drag, this is the one to watch. And it’s always fun watching Bogart before he hit it big in High Sierra.
Trivia: At one point in the film, down-on-his-luck Raft meets Bogart and Lee Patrick leaving a movie theater. The film playing, and conspicuously advertised in front, is You Can’t Get Away With Murder, which starred Humphrey Bogart.