The Problem of Better Films As I See It (1938)

The Problem of Better Films As I See It

by Leslie Howard, in an interview with J. Danver Williams

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard has always been rather a thorn in Hollywood’s flesh. An actor with an immense following both here and in America, he is the sort of person whom big producers tumble over themselves to get into a picture–but he has never seen eye to eye with these gentlemen.
Even while appearing in Hollywood pictures he has taken every opportunity, in articles and interviews, of exposing the follies of the film capital.
He does this, he says, because he is genuinely interested in the rational development of the cinema, and because he feels that the best way to promote this is to hold up to ridicule the evils and inconsistencies of the commercial film world.
Recently Howard abandoned his long-term contract with Warner Brothers, and he is going to make a series of independent pictures in this country.
It seemed to me that it would be interesting, now that Howard has his head, to discover how exactly he is going to tackle the prodigious task of developing films along rational lines (for that is his avowed aim).
“Let’s start right from the beginning,” said Howard when I interviewed him at his Dorking house. “Why is it, do you think, that so many old pictures have been showing in London during the past few months? The reason is that Hollywood is short, both of ideas and money.”

The Hollywood Method

” Many things are contributory to this state of affairs, but I think that the fundamental reason for Hollywood’s present sterility is its method of mass-producing pictures.
” A big producer has charge of more films per year than he can possibly deal with in a constructive manner. He reads hundreds of stories a month, selecting one here and there for production.
” Then he calls in a scenarist, gives him the story to read, tells him roughly what is required (he has no time to do more) and sends him away to make a ‘treatment.’
” The scenarist works out a film treatment, certain points of which will be sure to meet with the director’s disapproval. The thing is then taken out of his hands and passed over to a second scenarist for alteration.
” He adds more pathos, more humour or more something else, irrespective of whether the new situations merge convincingly with the original treatment.
” When the scenario has thus been prepared, a director is approached to make the picture. In all probability he will be completely out of sympathy with many of the situations, but he has his living to earn so he settles down to the task, determined to make the best possible job of it.
” By this time, however, nobody has a really clear-cut idea of what is wanted. The picture is scheduled to start, we will say, in a few days’ time–and it must go into production when space is available.
” There ensue hurried conferences, in which the main issues are invariably forgotten and everyone comes to blows over some completely unimportant line of dialogue.
” A couple of days before the picture is due to start, the scenario is more or less prepared and copies of it are sent out to the chief stars hired for the picture.
” They arrive at the studio with only the haziest idea of the psychology of the characters they are playing, and to complicate matters even further the film is shot ‘out of sequence,’ the end being photographed before the beginning.
” The picture is three-parts finished when the producer suddenly decides that the ending is not box-office and must be scrapped.
” There may be no other logical conclusion to the film but that doesn’t matter; some sort of new ending is worked out and photographed.
“The director’s job is now finished. The tens of thousands of feet of celluloid which he has taken are passed over to an editor, who, with consummate skill, licks it into shape, taking care to smudge over any deficiencies of story or characterisation. ”

Subtle Camouflage

” The film emerges slick and beautifully mounted but it will not bear analysis. Take the average Hollywood picture to pieces and it will be found to contain all sorts of inconsistent situations and behaviour.
” Now this method of picture-making is really nothing more or less than mass-production. Hollywood has come to rely entirely upon the great production machine which it has created.
” In some respects this machine is a very efficient instrument, for although the average picture will not bear genuine analysis, the majority of them are slickly put together and have their inconsistencies subtly camouflaged.
“Although, commercially speaking, mass-production is convenient, its disadvantages, from the artistic point of view, are numerous.”

Stifled Individuality

” Fifteen or twenty people work separately on a picture–producer, scenarists, director, actors, cameraman, art directors, photographer–and the right hand of the unit, so to speak, does not know what the left hand is doing.
” He who edits the final picture has entirely lost sight of the motives which dominated the person who wrote the original treatment.
“This sort of thing leads to a general tendency all round of leaving any really important decision to the next man. Mass-production also leaves no room for artistry.
” Individuality is stifled, with the result that films have grown more and more conventionalised. Now members of the public are beginning to perceive a certain monotony about the entertainment offered them–hence the p resent lack, not only of ideas, but of money.
” I have no doubt that, in time, the big producers will grow wise to the limitations of their system. They will have to do something about the rapidly declining box-office receipts.
” In the near future it is conceivable that individuals will be given much more responsibility for the films they are making, and that the film-industry as a whole will operate more on the lines employed by United Artists–a policy which has produced such people as D. W. Griffith, Chaplin and Walt Disney.”


Howard’s Next Film

” In the meantime, what are those of us interested in the rational development of the film industry in general, and British films in particular, going to do? The policy of the group of people with whom I am working is ‘individuality at all costs.’
” In England, at any rate, there are no facilities for mass-producing pictures. The apparent inefficiency of our studios is, in many respects, a good thing–for it permits much more individual craftsmanship.
” In my own future productions I am going to have all the main people concerned with the picture working on the subject right from the beginning. In this way each person involved will have an opportunity of putting forward his own individual notions.
” We are going to make a point of trying out all ideas of a new or experimental nature–even if some of them have to be cut from the finished picture.
” My next film, the scenario for which is being prepared by Anthony Asquith from an original story by myself, will be the psychological study of a newspaper-baron–a man with a chain of papers whose power is sufficiently great to change the policy of the Government and to alter the shape of Europe. And he is a man who uses his influence, like Puck, to gratify a passing whim.
” The film will be handled as a comedy-drama –but it will also contain a serious sociological message, showing the folly of allowing power to accumulate in the hands of one person.
” Anthony Asquith will direct the film. He is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting directors yet thrown up by the British film industry.
” Sometimes, like Fritz Lang, his work is a trifle self-conscious, but on other occasions, as in the war scenes in his famous film, Tell England! he achieves remarkable cinematic effects.
” The cutter on this picture will be David Lean, a young man of considerable intelligence who has lots of ingenious ideas on film-editing.”

Rooted in Reality

” We three will be entirely responsible for the picture. We shall thrash out the story together, making sure before we start production there are no inconsistencies of story and characterisation.
” The film will emerge from a very definite desire to say something which we all feel, to present in a celluloid form our own individual observations of life.
” All my future pictures will have their roots in reality. They will attempt to deal constructively with ideas in which my colleagues and myself are interested.
” I feel that it is only when a motion-picture (or a play or a book, for that matter) emerges from some real impulse that it contains the seeds of artistic progress.
” In Pygmalion we have already started our campaign for more rational methods of production. We shot this picture in sequence, which means to say that we photographed each incident in the exact order of showing.
” This gave Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson and the rest of us a chance to develop our characterisations as we went along, building up gradually to a climax.
” The result is that the characters in this film never look vacant-eyed as I have so often seen them in American pictures.
” Also in the earlier sequences of Pygmalion, Asquith was really given his head to work out many experimental ideas which he had on imbuing a Shavian play with action. When you see the picture I think you will agree that his camera work is very effective without ever being obtrusive.
” I am hoping that by working in this way we shall be able to produce films of some value–and so lead the way to a proper understanding and development of the cinema.
” I do not think that, by turning out half a dozen films in this fashion, I and my colleagues will revolutionise the industry–but the company for which I am working, Allied Artists, is eager to finance other independent groups.
” And there are still other units like Laughton and Pommer; and the Michael Balcon, Robert Stevenson, Walter Forde outfit, who are making good pictures independently.
” If this method spreads throughout British studios it may ultimately lead to the whole industry being run on similar lines.
” When this new method o{ picture-making has become established (if, indeed, we are able to establish it) then it is to be hoped that from this rational approach to films works of value will appear more or less consistently, and that we shall ultimately be able to weld the cinema into something more nearly approaching an art form. ”

Charles Laughton, Clemence Dane and Erich Pommer

Screen Tragedy

” For a long time I have had in mind the idea of attempting one day to make a screen-tragedy. My feeling is that, as yet, the world of films is incapable of producing anything truly great–nor, for that matter, is the public ready to receive it.
” One has to go slowly, doing the best one can under existing circumstances, perhaps leaving the consummate development of the cinema to a future generation of film-makers. But I think that such development should be the ultimate aim of all serious students of the screen.
” My intention with the Lawrence picture was to try and develop this subject on the lines of a screen tragedy, using such cinematic tricks as thought soliloquy, to put over Lawrence’s psychology and to show the inevitability of his spiritual defeat.
” A year ago I thought I should have made this film long before now. Lawrence was a perfect subject for the many theories that wanted to work out, but complications, political and otherwise, have prevented the film from being made so far.
” I still hope to do the picture–but if it does not materialise I fully intend to work out my theories on some other suitable subject within the next two or three years.”

(Film Weekly, September 17, 1938)