Before Denby, Ebert, Sarris, and Kael, There Was James Agee

ageeopenerSo many faceless movie reviewers with forgettable names and interchangeable writing “styles” populate the Internet that it is hard to imagine a time when reviews were penned by established authors, historians, or intellectuals with distinctive voices. Writers and thinkers such as John Grierson, Carl Sandburg, Alistair Cooke, Vachel Lindsay, Grahame Green, and James Agee all reviewed Hollywood movies in their time. A few months ago, a colleague lent me a copy of Agee on Film published in 1958. The book consists of a collection of Agee’s reviews from The Nation and Time, plus two essays on film originally published in Life.

I became an Agee admirer after reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a chronicle of the struggles of three Southern sharecropping families. At once brutal and poetic, the book includes photos by Walker Evans. The pair was originally assigned by Fortune magazine to produce an article about the conditions of sharecroppers in the Deep South during the Depression. Agee rejected a traditional reporting style and authored an impressionistic portrait of three rural Southern families living in extreme poverty—a class of people usually ignored and generally scorned by society. Needless to say, Fortune was not thrilled with the artistic approach when they issued the articles in 1939. In 1941, Agee and Evans published their work in book form. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men flopped at the time, but it is now considered an important social document as well as a milestone in modern journalism. Though often described as a journalist, he was no mere reporter. Agee’s style was literary, evocative, and expressive but also accessible.

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AGEE ON ‘CURSE’: “TARDILY, I ARCH MY BACK AND PURR DEEP-THROATED APPROVAL OF ‘THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE.’

 

In 1941, Agee agreed to cover Hollywood films for Time magazine and the following year he signed on to review for Nation. Agee considered film to be an art form, and his writings on the movies of the 1940s elevated reviewing to a serious enterprise. Prior to Agee, many reviews were actually “previews,” often written by gossip columnists, feature reporters, and other newspapermen who tended to shill for the studios by effusing over the movies. I have more than a healthy skepticism for film reviewing because most of it is shallow—even today. Reviewing is little more than opinion and personal taste masquerading as expertise. Reviewers—even the most famous ones—rarely evaluate using a set of criteria or a perspective. As W.H. Auden wrote in the foreward to Agee on Film: “. . . I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love.” However, Auden readily admitted that he read Agee’s reviews because of the “wit and felicity.”

"'MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS' IS A MUSICAL EVEN THE DEAF CAN ENJOY."

AGEE NOTED, “‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS’ IS A MUSICAL EVEN THE DEAF CAN ENJOY.”

Agee revealed his criteria for what constituted a good film when talking about the work of John Huston: Movies “must open your eye and require it to work hard . . . through the eye, they awaken curiosity and intelligence.” This reminds me of my own efforts to encourage students to be active viewers so they are prepared to interpret, rather than passive viewers who merely wait to be entertained. A decade before French critics originated the auteur theory, Agee not only regularly acknowledged directors by mentioning their names in his reviews, but sometimes he talked about consistencies of style. He criticized director William Dieterle’s work in a review of Tennessee Johnson, noting that in general his style was too “high polished” and prone to “heavy touches” with too-obvious performances.

"'BATHING BEAUTY' SWARMS WITH BATHING SUITS AND THEIR CONTENTS; MOST OFTEN AND MOST CARNALLY IN FOCUS IS ESTHER WILLIAMS, LOLLOPING IN A FRIENDLY WAY BEFORE UNDERWATER CAMERAS.'

“‘BATHING BEAUTY’ SWARMS WITH BATHING SUITS AND THEIR CONTENTS; MOST OFTEN AND MOST CARNALLY IN FOCUS IS ESTHER WILLIAMS, LOLLOPING IN A FRIENDLY WAY BEFORE UNDERWATER CAMERAS.”

Agee greatly admired writer-director John Huston. He heralded Huston’s WWII documentaries, The Battle of San Pietro and Let There Be Light, throughout 1946–1948. He blasted the War Department for withdrawing the latter film from circulation and then hiding behind flimsy excuses for their actions. He noted that the glaring, obvious reason for pulling the documentary is “that any sane human being who saw the film would join the armed services, if at all, with a straight face and a painfully maturing mind.” Agee later lauded Huston’s narrative features. While reviewing Key Largo, he declared, “. . . Huston seems to me the most vigorous and germinal talent working in movies today.” In 1950, after coscripting The African Queen, Agee penned an article for Life titled “Undirectable Director” in which he summarized Huston’s work and offered biographical details that seemed to explain his themes and style. Agee’s descriptions of Huston’s style and work may be generalized and personal compared to those of today’s film scholars, but if this is not an authorship study, it is perilously close.

AGEE FOUND 'OPEN CITY' "SO MUCH WORTH TALKING ABOUT THAT I AM STILL UNABLE TO  REVIEW IT." AGEE REVIEWED MANY FOREIGN FILMS.

AGEE FOUND ‘OPEN CITY’ “SO MUCH WORTH TALKING ABOUT THAT I AM STILL UNABLE TO REVIEW IT.” HE REVIEWED MANY FOREIGN FILMS.

Sometimes, Agee’s column included only brief comments on films that he felt did not rate a full review. These reviews tend to be the most fun to read because they reveal the writer’s talent for wit and sarcasm. His entire review of the 1948 drama Tycoon consisted of one line: “Several tons of dynamite are set off in this movie, none of it under the right people.” About Give My Regards to Broadway, he quipped, “Vaudeville is dead; I wish to God someone would bury it.”

Another review in its entirety: “The Egg and I asks you to believe in, and laugh at, Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert as nauseatingly clownish city people who try their hands at poultry farming. Marjorie Main, in an occasional fit of fine, wild comedy, picks the show up and brandishes it as if she were wringing its neck. I wish to God she had.” And, probably the briefest review of a film on record was for You Were Meant for Me: “That’s what you think.”

AGEE DIED IN 1955 AT AGE 45. TWO YEARS LATER HIS NOVEL "A DEATH IN THE FAMILY" WAS PUBLISHED, FOLLOWED BY "AGEE ON FILM" IN 1958.

AGEE DIED IN 1955 AT AGE 45. TWO YEARS LATER HIS NOVEL “A DEATH IN THE FAMILY” WAS PUBLISHED, FOLLOWED BY “AGEE ON FILM” IN 1958.

Agee was not always on the right side of film history in his essays and reviews. Six weeks after the death of D.W. Griffith, he tried to put the legendary filmmaker into perspective by writing about the artistic impact of The Birth of a Nation. In doing so, he mentions the accusations against Griffith for making “an anti-Negro movie,” which he declares to be unjust. Agee seems to wrestle with his conscience and his admiration for Griffith when he tried to explain the depiction of African Americans in the film: “Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him . . . .” However, the extremely racist representations cannot be explained away or excused, not even in 1948.

AGEE WROTE THE SCREENPLAY FOR 'NIGHT OF THE HUNTER' STARRING ROBERT MITCHUM, WHOM HE HAD FOUND "   " IN 'OUT OF THE PAST.'

AGEE WROTE THE SCREENPLAY FOR ‘NIGHT OF THE HUNTER’ STARRING ROBERT MITCHUM, WHOM HE HAD FOUND “SEXUALLY COMPLACENT” IN ‘OUT OF THE PAST.’

Agee adopted a negative opinion of Orson Welles that was similar to that of the Hollywood industry in the 1940s. In praising Journey into Fear in 1943, he damns Welles’s previous films: “It is good to see so likable an entertainer as Welles making an unpretentious pleasure-picture; but to make a good one you need to be something of an artist, and Welles has little if any artistry.” And, I definitely disagree with him about Robert Mitchum’s performance in Out of the Past. Agee criticized it in a review for Time magazine on December 15, 1947, and a mini-review in Nation on April 24, 1948. I don’t think he consulted any female viewers when he declared in the latter, “Bob Mitchum is so very sleepily self-confident with the women that when he slopes into clinches you expect him to snore in their faces.” After praising the photography of Nicholas Musuraca and the screen presence of Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer, he complained about Mitchum: “When he performs with other men (most memorably in The Story of G.I. Joe), Robert Mitchum is a believable actor. But it seems to be a mistake to let him tangle—as a hero, anyhow—with the ladies. In love scenes his curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency that is not endearing.”

During his years as a film reviewer, Agee looked at film with more depth and from more perspectives than the majority of those writing about the movies. He assumed the director to be the creative center of the film long before it was a standard approach, he provided biographical information on directors in his reviews, he referred to the history of film as context for understanding directors and movies, and he even noted the contributions of cinematographers, referring to them by name. While not as visually sophisticated as contemporary film scholars, Agee treated film as art form in his literate writing, even when cracking wise at Robert Mitchum’s expense.

 

 

 

15 Responses Before Denby, Ebert, Sarris, and Kael, There Was James Agee
Posted By Donald : January 19, 2015 6:29 pm

I still haven’t forgiven Agee for his potshots at Bob Hope in his tribute to the silent clowns, “Comedy’s Greatest Era.”

Posted By swac44 : January 19, 2015 6:35 pm

I was thinking the shortest review was the one for Christopher Isherwood’s I Am a Camera: “Me no Leica.” But perhaps that was for a play version and not the film.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 19, 2015 7:16 pm

Donald: I was not happy about his opinion of Bob Hope either but his comments about Mitchum’s “sexual complacency” really flipped me out.

Posted By Emgee : January 19, 2015 8:27 pm

His comments about Mitchum ( who i like immensely) made me laugh.
Sometimes he acted so laidback it seemed to border on indifference. Now we call that cool, but at the time he was frequently criticized for his acting style, not just by Agee.

“I don’t think he consulted any female viewers”
I don’t think a good reviewer should consult anyone but him/herself.

Posted By LD : January 19, 2015 11:34 pm

With regards to Mitchum and his sexual complacency, in OUT OF THE PAST when he says “Baby, I don’t care” it must sound totally different to the feminine ear and therefore have a different meaning. Those four words and the way Mitchum says them tells everything about that character at that point in the movie. Perhaps we also think it says a lot about Mitchum.

Posted By Donald : January 20, 2015 12:16 am

I much prefer the way he says, “Just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.”

Posted By Maryann : January 20, 2015 1:03 am

He also did a wonderful review of Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Posted By george : January 20, 2015 1:28 am

“Agee on Film” was the first book of film criticism I read (it was the only one my public library had in the ’70s).

It still holds up well, although you have to plow through reviews of long-forgotten Russian movies (must viewing among intellectuals in those days) and WWII documentaries. And Agee’s obit for D.W. Griffith includes an unfortunate attempt to defend BIRTH OF A NATION from charges of racism. Agee denies it’s an “anti-Negro movie,” when it clearly is.

“Comedy’s Greatest Era” is one of the best pieces of film writing I’ve encountered. Yes, it unfairly trashed Bob Hope, but it restored the reputation of Harry Langdon, whose silents were virtually forgotten at the time.

Posted By george : January 20, 2015 11:12 pm

A Robert Mitchum rarity from 1947, on the “Suspense” radio show:

Click on number 36, “Death at Live Oak” (May 15, 1947).

https://archive.org/details/SUSPENSE3

Posted By Susan Doll : January 21, 2015 1:04 am

Thanks George. I will check this out.

Posted By george : January 21, 2015 3:14 am

I think you’ll like it, Susan, if you liked OUT OF THE PAST. “Suspense” was “audio noir” in the late ’40s and early ’50s. In 1948 it presented a 60-minute adaptation of “In a Lonely Place,” two years before the Bogart movie was made. Robert Montgomery starred in the radio version.

Maryann said: “(Agee) also did a wonderful review of Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

Yes, Agee recognized the talents of Sturges, John Huston and Val Lewton early on.

Posted By swac44 : January 21, 2015 12:35 pm
Posted By Tommy : January 27, 2015 3:57 pm

As a Knoxvillian (Agee’s hometown), old filmmaker, movie lover, and now teacher, the shadow of James Agee has never left our community. Critics who don’t speak as freely as he did could learn a few lessons about boundaries and how to splinter them from Agee. The rugged backstories many Tennesseans share won’t allow us to walk softly into the good night. He, of course, left us too soon.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 27, 2015 4:29 pm

Tommy: Very eloquently stated.

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2015 4:49 pm

I wonder what Agee might write about Hollywood’s current kowtowing to China in all of its big budget movies.

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