Four Directors Tell What’s Wrong with the Movies (1933) 🇺🇸

Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Borzage, Cecil B. DeMille, Mervyn Le Roy |

December 20, 2021

Why aren’t there more movie hits? That’s what Hollywood is asking. And Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Borzage, Cecil B. DeMille and Mervyn Le Roy — all makers of hits — are here to tell why. Listen in and hear some frank talk!

by Sonia Lee

Do you go to the movies just to kill time — or do you “shop around” for pictures that will mean something to you afterward? If you are just a time-killer, don’t bother to read this article. This is for people who think about their movies, who want to understand the problems that Hollywood faces in making great pictures, and who want to help, if they can. — Editor.

More frequently, more sincerely, more searchingly than ever before, the thinking minds of Hollywood are asking: “What’s wrong with the movies?” Better acting cannot be found anywhere, and pictures, themselves, have reached a high artistic level — and yet people stay away from the movies. What are the screen’s weaknesses? Four of the outstanding directors — Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Borzage, Cecil B. De Mille and Mervyn Le Roy — put their fingers on ills from which Hollywood is suffering. Moreover, they prescribe remedies.

Overwhelming problems have not suddenly assailed the screen, nor have self-appointed critics in superabundant numbers suddenly fallen upon it. Rather, the present business standstill has aggravated and disclosed certain definite weaknesses in the industry that were ignored in the prosperous days. These weaknesses have become glaringly evident and have contributed in no small measure to the acute difficulties in which studios find themselves to-day — difficulties that threaten their very existence.

What the Movies Need

These four directors, who know their movies, recommend: The ending of the present czaristic producer system, which delegates to five men the power to determine what one hundred and twenty million people are to see in motion picture theatres.

  • Undivided responsibility during the making of a picture — with definite control vested in the director. This would mark the end of the present iniquitous supervisor system.
  • The unit system of production — with individual producers making pictures for release through the parent studio. The reduction of huge salaries, with a sane decrease in production costs.
  • A new method of selecting screen material — with producers and directors of proven ability given the privilege of making any story that appeals to them.
  • Improvement of the casting system — with more attention given to the filling of small roles.
  • The suppression of the present practice of assigning several writers to the preparation of one story.
  • Closer cooperation between the distribution department, which sells the pictures, and the production department, which makes them.
  • A decrease in the number of routine and meaningless pictures.
  • Presentation of pictures on a legitimate theatre time schedule, with intermissions between each showing — and no admissions during the screening.
  • Classification of city theatres — cataloguing them according to the type of picture shown. Certain ones would then screen comedy exclusively, others intimate drama, and still others spectacular productions.

Picture Dictators Must Go

Many of the faults of pictures may be traced directly to the czaristic dictatorship, which gave into the hands of five men the power to determine what one hundred and twenty million people shall see on the screen,” declares Ernst Lubitsch, whose brilliant subtleties have created a new standard for direction.

“Each one of these men supervised fifty pictures, and couldn’t do one properly. Now we’re breaking up that dictatorship, and evolving the unit system of production. It means that individual producers will have the entire responsibility of making a picture from the moment it goes into production until it is ready for release. This will foster the spirit of competition, which is necessary to fine creative effort.

“That doesn’t mean that every picture can be great. There always have been, and always will be, just a few outstanding pictures, as there are only a few superior books or plays each year.

“But to increase the chances of success, we must definitely correct two evils practised to-day. One is the custom of studios to assign as many as ten writers to one story. There is, therefore, no concentration of thought, no definite evolution of situation, no logical development of character. The story becomes a hodge-podge.

“The supervisory system is also wrong. A director who has proved himself should have no supervision. Only the man who is a beginner, or incapable of meeting every directorial problem, should have the help of a supervisor or an ‘associate producer. ‘

“Artistically, we have adjusted ourselves fairly well to this tremendous invention — the talkies. Our stars are far superior. Our artistic level is higher.

Not Enough Ideas to Go Around

Cycles have been condemned. But  in every profession, in every business, there are originators and imitators. There are not enough original ideas, or a sufficient number of leaders, to avoid a string of duplicated productions. That is a fault which cannot be corrected. Pictures are definitely an artistic endeavor, perfection is elusive and unattainable. We can only adjust some of the situations and conditions, which lend themselves to correction.

“We now have a condition where business men are empowered to discuss dramatic situations, set an arbitrary time-schedule for production, and dogmatically decide on important features of a picture. That phase will pass.

“What the motion picture industry needs right now is a genius to reorganize the theatre situation. We have over-seated houses and too many of them. The so-called prologue should be scrapped. City theatres should be classified according to the type of pictures they show. Audiences should never be fooled on the type of picture they may well expect to see in a particular theatre.

“Our present chief trouble is that artistic pictures have no chance at the box-office. It takes courage to produce a ‘Cavalcade,’ or a ‘Man I Killed.’ The masses prefer hokum to art. I hope that the rising generation will appreciate art and make it pay. “In justice to the motion picture industry, we must admit that it has a pioneering spirit. It experiments constantly. Every step forward is made by those within it. And unlike the kindred arts of music and painting and literature, it is not subsidized by wealthy patrons. It pays for its own mistakes, and struggles for advancement unaided.”

Says Moods Are Stifled Now

Motion pictures need a damn’ good housecleaning!” says Frank Borzage, who won last season’s Academy award with his ‘ Bad Girl ‘ and is given to no compromises in his statements.

“There can never be a standardized method of production,” he declares. “The present effort to draft a program of price and schedule for a certain picture is far from right. Cost is not a determining factor, whether a picture is magnificent, a smash hit or a complete flop. ‘Bad Girl’ was made for a twenty-five-cent piece, relatively speaking, and yet it was a success.

“Motion pictures are a product of mood. You can’t produce them in cut-and-dried business fashion. Mass production is basically and structurally wrong.

“I grant that the head of a studio should be a business man. But he should vest authority in a new type of supervisors — with definite power to accept or reject.

“Our present supervisory system is an indefinite control, in which glorified assistants, at exorbitant salaries, work under the mental hazard of their producer’s displeasure. They veto telling scenes because they remember that six months ago the boss didn’t take to that particular angle in a story. Immediately they begin bastardizing a potent situation, which might make the difference between a so-so picture and a brilliant one.

“There is only one man who should be in control from the moment the type of picture to be made is determined and various details about it settled — and that is the director. The present supervisory system induces a chaos comparable to that within an army without a commander.

“We’ve developed great artists in this business, great writers, great directors, but no producers who are big enough to be unafraid of developing other men to take their places. Sheer stupidity is stifling potential ability.

“We are spending approximately one hundred million dollars a year in making pictures. Because of the narrow viewpoint of a handful of producers, the business has become so unwieldy that it is toppling.

“I respect the business and am happy in it. But I want to see it healthier, more vital. I am selfishly interested in seeing it adjust its difficulties!”

Bosses Don’t Know the Business

Cecil B. DeMille, whose name is synonymous with spectacular productions, declares that the very life of the motion picture is threatened by parasitic growths.

“Picture policies have been taken out of the hands of tried picture-makers,” he points out, “and entrusted to strangers, business men from the East, who neither know the public mind nor comprehend studio problems. Stories are arbitrarily selected for producers and directors, instead of permitting them to make what appeals to them. Reverse that procedure and you will have different minds rooting in different fields for good material, with fine pictures as a result.

“Stars and executives receive exorbitant salaries, and so for every two dollars spent on a production, only one dollar comes back to the box-office. For thirteen years I have never received a salary from a studio.

My earnings were all on a percentage basis. Stars should be paid in proportion to their drawing power at the box-office, which is an exact measure of their worth. It is manifestly unfair for a studio to stand the loss of a bad product. It is equally unfair to deny to a rising star the profit of meteoric popularity.

“Unnecessary costs must be reduced. But there is danger that the mad endeavor to save money will extend to cutting time on production schedules, to the detriment of the pictures made.

“Casting offices can all be improved. New talent doesn’t get the proper opportunity, and old talent doesn’t get the proper care. Casting offices are to blame.

“It is customary to put the burden of every wrong on the studios. That is, the production end. But the distribution department— the selling end — must assume some responsibility for maladjustments existing in the industry. The two departments of the business would profit by working in closer cooperation. A picture makes a hit — and the selling division yells for more pictures like it. It doesn’t take into consideration the fact that by the time its order is filled, the public fancy might change. Instead of visualizing future trends, it seeks to capitalize on present ones.”

Le Roy Wants More Feeling

Too many canned pictures, too many mechanical writers, directors and actors.” Thus Mervyn Le Roy, the young director who awakened a nation’s social consciousness with “I Am a Fugitive,” tersely summarized his answer to “What’s Wrong with the Movies?”

“Footage means nothing — feeling everything,” he points out. “A story must be human, actors and director must believe it — so that they can transpose their own emotion, their own conviction, their own sympathies to an audience. Tell a story from the heart, and your success percentage promptly increases. Reflect life in every picture you make, and you will have a healthy industry.

“Pictures would improve if we could give more time to a preparation of the script, to rehearsal of scenes, and to the final editing of the film. Make fewer pictures, but better ones!

“An intense sincerity must characterize every step of picture-making. Casting of star roles is no more important than to give reality to the closing of a door by a ‘bit’ player.

“Not enough importance is given to dialogue. If I were a producer, I wouldn’t hire a director who didn’t know the value of speech. It’s the basic feature of a great picture. One line can ruin a production. In ‘I Am a Fugitive’ one scene, in which seven words were spoken, was rehearsed fifty-four times, and shot another twenty-four. The intonation, the phrasing, the depth of feeling in those few syllables meant either a terrific climax, or a complete let-down for the entire picture.

“Camera angles, enormous sets mean nothing. The play is the thing on the screen, as truly as it is on the stage. As a corollary to that, it would be well if we were to borrow from the stage and inaugurate a policy of definite time-schedules in picture theatres, with intermissions between screenings, and no admissions while the feature is being shown. Pictures should be seen from the start. As it is, those who come in the middle, or in time to see the climax, lose a substantial amount of enjoyment value. This, of course, will take a campaign of education. But, eventually, theatres will come to this practice.”

Four leading directors have given significant answers to the momentous question — “What is Wrong With the Movies?” They have suggested remedies. What is your opinion of them?

Source: Motion Picture, September 1933