Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Why did Golden Age Hollywood audiences turn out in droves to watch worthy biographical films?

I’m currently enjoying The Genius of the System: Hollywood Film-making in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz, first published in 1989. One of the many remarkable aspects of Hollywood’s Golden Age is how many serious pictures - in particular, biographical movies - were produced by what was, for much of the '30s and '40s, essentially a cartel of eight major studios run, in the main, by profit-obsessed low-to-middlebrow businessmen pandering to the tastes of the mass market. Here, in chronological order, is a list of Hollywood films - and the actors playing the lead roles - whose subjects (or their updated equivalents) would make most modern movie executives burst into hopeless sobs:

Disraeli (1929) - George Arliss
Abraham Lincoln (1930) - Walter Huston
Alexander Hamilton (1931) - George Arliss
Voltaire (1933) - George Arliss
The House of Rothschild (1934) - George Arliss
Clive of India (1935) - Ronald Colman
The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) - Paul Muni
Cardinal Richlieu (1935) - George Arliss
Rhodes of Africa (1936) - Walter Huston
The White Angel (1936) - Kay Francis as Florence Nightingale
The Life of Emile Zola (1937) - Paul Muni
Parnell (1937) - Clark Gable as Charles Stewart Parnell
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) - Edward G. Robinson as the German doctor who invented an effective treatment for syphilis
Madame Curie (1943) - Greer Garson
The Great Moment (1944) - Joel McCrea as the Boston dentist who pioneered the use of ether as an anaesthetic
Wilson (1944) - Alexander Knox as US President Woodrow Wilson

I'm not saying that many of these subjects didn't possess great dramatic potential (for instance, Emile Zola was at the centre of the Dreyfus affair), and some will have had particular resonance with American audiences (Lincoln and Hamilton, for instance) - but few of them are obvious box-office smasheroos. Yet these films must have made money, or studio chiefs wouldn’t have green-lighted them, especially in the early ‘30s when pretty much every studio apart from MGM suffered losses as a result of the Great Depression.

So why did movie-goers lap up such worthy fare when there were so many new, ostensibly sexier releases to choose from? I don’t really know, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that there was no television, and therefore no history or science documentaries; that talkies were still in their infancy and people were still finding out what they were for; that talkies were very, very talky in the early days, and therefore subjects requiring long, expository speeches wouldn’t have been quite so unpalatable to the general audience; and maybe - just maybe - the public had a greater taste for learning stuff than they do now (Britain, France and Germany were churning out biographical pictures at an equally impressive rate).

Perhaps significantly, the last two political films on the list were flops - Parnell was one of Clark Gable's few disasters, while Wilson was panned by the critics (“The effect of the movie is similar to the one produced by the sterile post-card albums you buy in railroad stations, which unfold like accordions and show you the points of interest in the city…”) and a box office dud. 20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck was so upset by Wilson's failure that he forbade his employees from ever mentioning it in his presence. When Winston Church walked out of a White House screening of the film to go to bed, it seemed to signal the end of “worthy” biographical movies - from then on, it would mostly be showbiz stars, composers and war heroes.


  1. Driving back from Sainsbury's on Monday evening I had Front Row on the radio which was telling me that it's only when the senior management of the broadcasters are themselves black, lesbian, disabled, foreign, etc ... that we can expect genuine diversity – it starts at the top.

    And there, I think, is the answer to your question. These biographies were shot because ... the studios were largely staffed by medical chemists, hospital architects, former US presidents, British imperialists and Christian prelates.

    Next question, please

    1. Feminist dreams came true in 1979 when Britain elected its first female prime minister. But the very people who complain about under-representation and diversity and glass ceilings have spent the last 37 years foaming at the mouth whenever her name is mentioned - presumably because her election had nothing to do with her gender. She turned out to be one of the greatest leaders Britain has ever had. In 2008, America elected a black president solely - as far as one can tell - because he was black. He has turned out to be a disaster for his country and - in terms of global security - for the rest of us; and race relations in America have deteriorated. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.

      Personally, I'm very upset that schoolchildren are invariably taught by adults. How much better for their self-esteem and sense of belonging if they were taught by someone who looked and sounded just like them. (Actually, forget I said that - Corbyn is probably planning to announce children teachers as official Labour policy any day now.)

  2. Great post. I had a look at lists of biographical films that came out of Hollywood 1930-40 and was amazed. George Arliss seems to have portrayed every historical figure in memory except for Brigham Young [1940, Dean Jagger] and Robert Burns [Andrew Cruikshank,1937]. Also, at the risk of being mocked, Errol Flynn gave a fine performance as General George Custer in "They Died wit their Boots On" [1941].
    These last two films had the working titles " Young Poet with a Horn" and "Custer and the Big Horn", but this was eventually used for the biopic of Bix Beiderbecke [1950, "Young Man with a Horn" with Kirk Douglas]. Did you not once consider this as the title for Vol 1 of your memoirs? I could be wrong.

    1. The Senior Tutor at the college I attended once told me that he had always had a hankering to write a pornographic novel, and that if he ever got round to it, it's title would be "A Long Felt Want". I always thought that would make a great title for some louche figure's autobiography.