Picture by Lillian Ross

Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies

Picture is Lillian Ross’s 1951 account of the making and unmaking of a John Huston project, The Red Badge of Courage, a film adaption of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel. It was originally serialised in the New Yorker. Among Ross’s numerous antipathies, according to a piece by Andrew O’Hagan (LRB 41, 13), ‘she hated the New York Review of Books with a vengeance’ (she was a New Yorker staffer). Yet here is her best known piece of reporting magnanimously – though perhaps with a wry smile – reissued by the NYRB press as a ‘classic’. It’s an overused accolade in the back-scratching world of letters; but make no mistake, Picture fully deserves it. It has not simply stood the test of time; it has fostered a cultural legacy in the non-fiction novel and the New Journalism. It also constitutes a uniquely intimate, eloquent and shrewd observation of the old Hollywood production system, and of its most glamorous studio MGM in particular, as it waned.

There is a familiar narrative about Hollywood that places the ‘producer control’ management of movie-making in opposition to the ‘creative’ role of the director – the profit-oriented corporate overseer versus the expressive artist. There is certainly tension here, usually reinforced by egomania on both sides, and it bubbles along in Picture till it overflows in post-production and the studio panics. Inevitably, Ross is closest to John Huston, a director to whom filming The Red Badge of Courage was a driving ambition and who invited her presence. But the author is not overawed by him, and too astute to settle for crude stereotypes or special pleading. It’s true that Louis B. Mayer, who ruled the production end of MGM in Culver City, California, was a sentimental primitive, believing in ‘decent, wholesome American movies’, but in New York Ross found the finance people were sophisticates who explained the realities of their work and argued their case with clarity and insight.

Part of that case is their duty to the shareholders. MGM is a business. But entwined with that is a sense of responsibility to the audience, of offering a quality product. They don’t share Mayer’s mindless adoration of moneymaking Andy Hardy pictures or his philistine repugnance at Huston’s ‘vision’. They even recognise that a ‘prestige’ picture which doesn’t reap income can enhance a corporation’s public image and so help trade. But that concern for the paying customers had become double-edged thanks to the selective previewing of movies to test their appeal, a kind of cultural populism. And that is where the subsurface fault lines which Ross has been tracing finally emerge as serious rifts.

Though the cards filled in at the first preview screening signal divided opinions, not enough people like it and many distinctly don’t.  It’s offbeat for a commercial feature film. The Civil War is ancient history, there is no star – Audie Murphy playing the lead role is better known as a war hero than an actor – and no female characters or love interest. A muddled plot-line or ‘story’ is a common complaint. MGM seem to have commissioned a 1.5 million-dollar lemon. Meanwhile John Huston has zipped off to Africa once shooting is over to begin a picture for his own production company, Horizon. This will become The African Queen, earning Huston a fortune and Bogart an Oscar.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20357639

So what does the studio do? More previews, with feverish re-editing to articulate the ‘story’ that was felt to be missing. The footage is cut and recut. It still amounts to unsuccessful tinkering, so it’s decided by the MGM honchos to highlight the source, Crane’s classic rite-of-passage tale concerning youthful cowardice and manly courage. A voice-over commentary drawing on quotations from the book is added, but you can’t easily transfuse a classic book into a classic movie. Nobody is happy. Eventually what now appears as a foregone conclusion comes to pass: MGM writes it off. The Red Badge of Courage gets poor promotion and very limited distribution in a truncated release print. It is sent out to local cinemas as the lower half of a double bill with a cheery musical comedy, Texas Carnival, featuring the ever-smiling, ever-decent star swimmer Esther Williams. A B-picture. So much for Huston’s vision.

Well, worse things happen at sea. Mayer was eased out of the brand he had helped build; the infighting of studio politics caused some reassignations but left little blood on the boardroom floor. There were more serious pressures on Hollywood than the failure of a single arty film: the potential menace of television as a rival entertainment medium; the changing post-war leisure tastes and opportunities; the 1948 anti-trust decrees that split the studios’ production and distribution arms. More stars were setting up their own production companies. Hollywood staggered on, as bravely as a wounded soldier. It would take some years yet before America’s narrative dynamism and a stylish, European New Wave creatively converged in the New American Cinema.

Picture is a genuine and vital work – more than a single snapshot or exemplum – of cultural history, creative in the sense of illuminating, not only telling, the facts. The facts are there, of course. You can read in Picture the bean-counters’ meticulous breakdown of the budget for the film (final cost was not wildly over). You can also read words and expressions in Huston’s script that were tabooed under the Motion Picture Production Code: they included ‘damn’, ‘Good Lord’ and ‘hell to pay’. In an all-male war movie already. The Code, an industry measure prompted by Hollywood scandals and religious pressure groups, worked against the growth of a mature movie culture. It was replaced by a ratings system in 1968, the year of Easy Rider.

But Ross’s writing, like film itself, functions as expressive form as well as recording medium. Like any documentary, it has its own style and point of view. The style itself is scenic and cinematic, moving between times, places, people and situations like the user-friendly ‘invisible editing’ of classic Hollywood. Characters are often introduced visually by a detailed description of what they are wearing. Voices – there’s plenty of dialogue – are individuated. It has dramatic rhythms akin to a fiction crowded with the varied and conflicting interests of its characters. The author herself is immersed in what she reports – not only on-site at every day of shooting but actively sharing the social lives of those involved in making the picture. As O’Hagan remarks, ‘she was, in truth, the stellar opposite of the unobtrusive, silent reporter who keeps her distance and haunts the blind spots.’ That’s a hallmark of the New Journalism, which jettisons the faux-objectivity of traditional reporting. Picture will reward anyone interested in the history of the US film industry or witty, well-crafted prose. So will her other, shorter studies in Americana, ranging from a Mardi Gras ball to the gay Jewish bullfighter from Brooklyn, Sidney Franklin.

I enjoyed this book decades ago and reading it again has left me with an even higher appreciation. There is, I suppose, one floating question about Ross’s method. O’Hagan suggests that she worked without taking notes or using a tape recorder. Could she have precisely remembered, stored, verbatim all those conversations? Whatever, her work stands.   

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Lillian Ross, Picture, (New York Review of Books: New York, 2019). 978-1-6 8137-315-7, 219 pp., paperback.

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