Posted by Susan Doll on January 19, 2015
So 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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