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Andy Hardy Goes to Prison

MGM most likely began its long running series of shorts, “Crime Does Not Pay,” in response to civic group criticism that the gangster films of the early 30s (of which MGM’s “Beast of the City,” directed by Charles Brabin, remains a favorite in these parts) were corrupting the morals of Depression-era youth by glorifying gangsters. But many if not most of the 50-odd shorts in the series, now gathered into a fascinating six-disc set from the Warner Archive Collection, are concerned with middle-class crimes of opportunity, like joy rides, embezzlement and insurance fraud, suggesting that MGM was chiefly interested in policing its own public. The series was initiated by George B. Seitz, who would soon go on to MGM’s prescriptive “Hardy Family” films.

The films remain compelling as social history, as the crimes depicted gradually shift from the domestic front into anti-Nazi propaganda, and conclude with some postwar intimations of film noir (including Joseph Losey’s first Hollywood effort, “They Gave Him a Gun”). These terse, two-reel dramas also offered a training ground to filmmakers like Fred Zinnemann (whose early features, such as “Act of Violence,” owe much to the CDNP style), Joseph M. Newman and Felix Feist, while offering occasional harbor to established auteurs like Jacques Tourneur (“Think It Over,” with Dwight Frye and Red Barry as arsonists), Gustav Machaty (whose 1938 “The Wrong Way Out” is the best of the handful of Hollywood films by the director of “Ecstasy”), and Edward L. Cahn (whose series of CDNP shorts anticipates the crushing pessimism and bizarre stylistic choices of his ultra low-budget 1950s work). I’m sure there’s much to uncover in this collection, and I make a first pass here, in my New York Times column for this week.

66 comments to Andy Hardy Goes to Prison

  • Johan Andreasson

    Nicolas, that’s very true. In his excellent book “When movies mattered” our host says that the simplest, most empirically satisfying way of connecting an audience to a work of art is through a human figure, the author. If that author is a director, writer, producer or all of the above makes little difference to me, just as long as that individual voice is there.

  • Well, Johan, that’s true: it’s the voice of Vince Gilligan I hear on BREAKING BAD, the voice of Howard Hawks in THE THING, and the voice of Leo McCarey in A PAIR OF TIGHTS. (No jokes please about REALLY hearing the voice of Hawks in MONKEY BUSINESS, or A PAIR OF TIGHTS being a silent movie!)

    But wouldn’t A PAIR OF TIGHTS be a good name for a superhero movie? How about for a BATMAN VERSUS SPIDERMAN movie?

  • Johan Andreasson

    I was going to add that we can all agree it’s the voice of Walt Disney we’re hearing in Mickey Mouse, but looking it up it turns out that three or four other people did it as well. This IS a slippery subject.

  • Robert Garrick

    The narrator of “Bob le Flambeur” (1955) (which I just screened for a local French group on Bastille Day) is Jean-Pierre Melville. And let’s not forget Cecil B. DeMille on “The Ten Commandments.”

    In other news, Tony Martin is gone. But Herb Jeffries lives . . .

  • Robert Garrick

    Orson Welles narrated “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

  • Brad Stevens

    “tv is the writer’s medium, definitely. But writing at this stage of control, is similar to directing: it sets everything, from dialogue to mood.”

    Except that the individual writers credited on most of the episodic shows I’m familiar with seem to have as little individual identity as the directors. THE SOPRANOS has a coherent visual aesthetic which has little to do with the writing (these teleplays could be shot any number of ways), but doesn’t seem to reflect the personality of any single director.

  • Traditional production chains of command may vary, in general terms, from the cinema to television, but I would suggest two things:

    1) If auteurism is merely identifying who exerts the most potent creative control over a piece, the “showrunner” is the clear favorite. And, indeed, in the realm of TV blogs, there’s a tacit agreement that the showrunner is both the Arthur and the Lancelot of the medium, and is usually spoken of in correspondingly awed tones.

    Not to begrudge those among us who’ve engineered the ascendance of THE WIRE, MAD MEN, or BREAKING BAD, etc., and it’s hard to avoid sounding uncivil when I say what I’m about to say, but this is the Wal-Mart version of auteurism. It doesn’t go beyond “the same fellow made all these things.” It’s strictly going by what’s in the storefront window. Yes, of course, all episodes of NYPD BLUE should share a visual schema. Rarely are the same bloggers and critics terribly interested in what one showrunner’s creation has in common with what he/she did before, or after.

    2) If, however, the auteur is the creative force that “corrects” or “filters” the concept he or she is given into something that is subtly or blatantly *something else*, then we’re talking about a set of creative conditions that aren’t always clear without further investigation and testing.

    Auteur power based on a single episode? The strongest example I can think of is John Ford’s episode of WAGON TRAIN.

    I’m greatly saddened by the news that the likelihood of running across Chris Marker on a subway platform in some far-flung land is now greatly diminished. I’d like to think he’s somewhere with a friendly cat and unlimited access to TV and internet.

  • D. K. Holm

    Breaking Bad My “fantasy league” climax to the series is that Walt realizes that he can only save himself by turning to the DEA and going into the Witness Protection Program … and travels across town to be processed and become the bane of Mary Shannon of In Plain Sight (I know the show was cancelled).

  • Jaime writes “Auteur power based on a single episode? The strongest example I can think of is John Ford’s episode of WAGON TRAIN.” Anthology shows are much much easier for a director to make a mark on — witness the fandom Joseph M. Newman episodes of the Hitchcock hour has acquired. (That series’ “showrunners” weren’t called that then but included Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd, ashas been discussed here in an earlier thread.) I guess the extreme example back in the 50s would be SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE,with single episodes by Ford, McCarey, Borzage… and if I’m not mistaken George WaGGner….

    The BREAKING BAD episode “Fly” is relatively easy to serve as a directorial showcase, as it’s a highly unusual, two-character episode set in a single location. Most series tv, especially these days, tells one long story or linked series of stories, featuring a large cast which must be served with a plotline every week,
    which makes it harder for an individual episode (let alone director) to stand out. It’s the showrunner’s job to ensure a smooth continuity between all the episodes and avoid the clashing of styles you might have in an anthology series. When the showrunner is also a writer, or when he is (as happens occasionally) a name director, then a creative persona can be discerned. It helps of course when they direct all the episodes (eg Fassbinder’s
    miniseries — one of them, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, is rightly considered one of his best works). Interestingly,
    another distinctive director, David Lynch, directed the style-setting pilot and several episodes of his tv series, but as co-producer
    allowed the various
    celebrity guest directors a very free hand, so that the episodes of TWIN PEAKS directed by Tim Hunter, Diane Keaton and others feel
    very different from one another… something a showrunner works to prevent these days.

    Nonetheless (and I’m sure we all have our own private list) there are certain episodes of series with continuing stories that are at once outstanding, and attributable in their virtues to a strong directorial guiding hand. At least two of Agnieszka Holland’s episodesfor David Simon (fourth season THE WIRE and first season TREME) come to mind as does Hunter’s first season CARNIVALE episode “Babylon.” But Matt Weiner runs such a tight ship over at MAD MEN that Hunter’s episodes there aren’t really distinctive, which may be why he’s moved on. This takes us straight to Jaime’s second point: “the auteur is the creative force that ‘corrects’ or ‘filters’ the concept he or she is given into something that is subtly or blatantly *something else.*” Which is a roundabout way for me to say directorial authorship, as we understand it from looking at the films made by directors within the agenda-setting studio system, IS possible within the restrictions of a showrunner-driven, continuing narrative, program.

    And now for a marathon of Ida Lupino’s episodes of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.

  • Common subjects in George Waggner:

    Political films (Red Nightmare, Gold, Glory and Custer, Home Is the Brave)
    Legal decisions (military tribunal trial scenes: Red Nightmare, buffoonish show trials by rebels: The Rebellion, military tribunal trial scenes, Native American council: Gold, Glory and Custer, Town Council, townspeople petitions: Home Is the Brave, gunslinger sentenced for killing innocent bystander: The Idol)

    Suppression of means of communication by dictators (permit needed for phone calls: Red Nightmare, printing presses suppressed, smuggled: The Rebellion)

    City with a non-standard kind of governance (Communists take over: Red Nightmare, comic look at unusual sheriff: The Sheriff of Duck ‘n’ Shoot, Mexico run by tyrannical French, rebels: The Rebellion, oppressive town government: Home Is the Brave, town controlled by outlaws: Day’s Pay, town controlled by outlaws: The Idol)

    Women who support evil social systems to gain prestige (Julie Adams: Gold, Glory and Custer, doctor’s wife: Home Is the Brave) related (wife supports Communism in nightmare: Red Nightmare)

    Religious settings, sometimes under siege (church closed by Communists: Red Nightmare, Native American burial grounds: Gold, Glory and Custer)

    Burial (Native American burial grounds: Gold, Glory and Custer, burial of war hero: Home Is the Brave, Native American burial grounds: Johnny Brassbuttons, grave marker carver: You Can’t Beat the Percentage)

    Heroes with nightmares (hero dreams of Communism: Red Nightmare, gunslinger dreams of killing innocent bystander: The Idol)

    Men kind to boys (hero’s father-son banquet: Red Nightmare, gunslinger and teacher’s son: The Idol)

    Boys and their fantasy life (Westerns, spacemen: Red Nightmare, kid idolizes gunslinger: The Idol)

    Men working on machinery (hero on assembly line, repairs machine, kids working on car: Red Nightmare, Cheyenne working on fixing his wagon: The Idol)

    Story construction:

    Episodic construction (Red Nightmare, Gold, Glory and Custer)

    Mix of non-fiction and fictional scenes (Red Nightmare, Gold, Glory and Custer)

    Narrator who is aggressively political in his commentary (Red Nightmare, Gold, Glory and Custer)

    Moral offered by hero at end (Jack Webb speech: Red Nightmare, anti-war mongering: Gold, Glory and Custer, Civil Rights: Home Is the Brave)

    Characters who take on the roles and costumes of political enemies (Russians have fake American town: Red Nightmare, hero disguised in dress uniform of French officer: The Secret of the Cliff, Cheyenne in disguise: Gold, Glory and Custer) related (Cheyenne pretends to be friend of bad guy in saloon: The Idol)

    Short films:
    Red Nightmare ***

    The Rebellion *1/2
    Gold, Glory and Custer ***1/2
    Home Is the Brave ***1/2
    Day’s Pay **
    The Idol **1/2

    Northwest Passage:
    The Red Coat *1/2
    The Secret of the Cliff **1/2

    The Sheriff of Duck ‘n’ Shoot **1/2
    You Can’t Beat the Percentage **

  • Even a few hours study of writers and directors will often turn up systematic patterns.
    It is amazing what one can learn.
    IMHO, it is important that discussion of film and television history proceeds using real data. Like the above for george WaGGner.

    And as Kristin Thompson likes to point out: “You can learn a lot about films by looking at them.”

    PS I would be much more impressed with claims for Fred Zinnemann, if a good checklist were available documenting his themes and techniques.
    Just a hint for Future Research.

  • Noel Vera

    “everyone is so mesmerized by Cagney in WHITE HEAT that they overlook the proto-GPS system that brings him down”

    That system being one reason I suspect Ian Fleming lifted the plot of the film for his novel Goldfinger. The the scene that explains triangulation (Walsh is wonderful at explaining little technical details like this) is a lot clearer than you’d find in many a film, where it’s assumed that a homing device can just be followed, never mind the direction the signal is coming from.

    Mike if you haven’t seen Sherlock, please do. And while you’re at it, check out his Jekyll, yet another reinterpretation of a classic English pop figure.

    Not a fan of McGuigan (his Wicker Man was atrocious). Best I can say about him is that his directing in Sherlock doesn’t get in the way of the writing and acting, which are superb. Moffat’s someone to watch out for, whoever is directing.

    And as for an auteur on TV, Joss Whedon doesn’t do too bad. His episodes of Buffy (Once More with Feeling), Firefly (Objects in Space, Serenity) and Angel (A Hole in the World, Shells) show a unity of word and image that’s distinct, unlike any other.

    Yes he’s directed a blockbuster, and it’s not his best work (I prefer his Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog) but he’s an auteur in my book, most of all on the small screen.

  • patrick henry

    A few months ago TCM showed a Tay Garnett episode of SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE called “Hot Cargo” (with Yvonne de Carlo, Rory Calhoun, Alan Reed), with Garnett taking story credit, that was a blatant ripoff of Dashiell Hammett’s short story “Ruffian’s Wife.” Hammett was then an un-person as far as Hollywood was concerned (the late 50s THIN MAN series didn’t mention him in the credits) so there must’ve been little chance he’d sue.

  • Yann Heckmann

    I don’t see the problem really, there are plenty of auteurs working in TV (David Milch, David E. Kelley, David Simon, Alan Ball etc) – they just happen to be writers/producers rather than directors. If one can get over the “who did what?” then there is actually no better example for a singular creative vision executed through the collaboration of many.

  • Brad Stevens

    Mike – These lists are interesting, but some of the categories are so general that I suspect you might find a great many of them represented in any number of films or TV episodes selected at random. Perhaps you might think about setting up a test group in which you can observe how many of these themes are present in, for example, 3 or 4 randomly chosen episodes of CHEYENNE not directed by George WaGGner.

  • Stephen Bowie

    But if we concede that the showrunner is the default auteur on most modern television series of quality, it then becomes an interesting exercise to try to spot places in the tapestry where individual writers or directors assert themselves.

    There are the obvious outsiders — Tarantino on ER and CSI, Jon Robin Baitz on THE WEST WING — but the real hardcore drinking game, which I almost always lose, is trying to put a finger on the individual contributions of rank-and-file staff writers and freelance directors.

    I think a lot of us make casual and erroneous assumptions in this regard. Occasionally this will come up in interviews (recently David Chase and Matt Weiner were going back and forth over the latter’s specific writing chores on THE SOPRANOS), but in the end it’ll be a project for archival research — poring over successive script drafts of MAD MEN and (ugh) BREAKING BAD episodes.