An A-Z of Film Themes

Archive for the tag “Hollywood”

L Is for Lost Weekend

As far as these rambling blogs have gone, I’ve tried up until now to avoid focusing all energies on a single movie. But for the letter L there was only one subject that sprang to mind. The Lost Weekend (1945) is, in my view, the best-made film ever, which is different from saying it’s the best film ever made. I don’t think it’s my favourite film (this changes so often it might well have been at some point), and though it seems to be pretty well represented in discussions of Hollywood ‘classics’ – as a film noir, as a social problem film, as a film about alcohol (see blog ‘A’) – there is no attempt here at gilding its memory with a coat of ‘all time greatest.’ There are plenty of Sight and Sound lists for that kind of thing.

The Lost Weekend deserves the title of best-made film, I think, because it is a damn tight package. Its themes, its form and its style are so seamlessly interwoven that removing just one frame, cutting one line of dialogue, turning the lights a little bit up or a little bit down, having the actors move slightly slower off-screen or faster on-screen, would topple its dramatic unity like a house of cards.

It’s difficult to explain quite how compact, but at the same time, precariously balanced, The Lost Weekend feels to me. Trying to break it down has been a bit like buying one of those Argos do-it-yourself wardrobes – once you’ve spent hours removing all that infuriatingly close-fitting plastic comes the real question. Can something useful be made of all these bits and pieces?

Anyway, that convoluted Argos simile was the sum total of my sitting around today trying to devise a witty opening paragraph to introduce a film about a writer who turns to alcohol because the muse has failed him. I give up. Let rhetorical constipation beget rhetorical constipation; let The Lost Weekend speak for itself. And if this sober analysis is no match for enjoying the movie in all its boozy brilliance, let it at least be read responsibly.

The fourth film Billy Wilder directed in America, The Lost Weekend is in many ways a perfect companion piece to Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity (1944), offering a similar tale of unchecked desires, crime, moral turpitude and a general descent into physical and spiritual turmoil. ‘The moment they met it was murder’ went the promotional tagline to Double Indemnity. The same sentiments might just as easily have been applied to The Lost Weekend. Here is a film that deals with a relationship of sorts, a relationship that leads central protagonist Don Birnam (Ray Milland) to the brink. Only this time our hapless protagonist does not have Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson to contend with; Birnam’s scourge is something else –  just as overpowering, something probably more intoxicating than mere feminine charm. Birnam is married to the bottle.

At the time of The Lost Weekend’s release, Wilder offered a characteristically bad-taste parallel between this lust for booze and lust for women. Noting that, on the back of hit production To Have and to Have Not (1944), the actress Lauren Bacall had gained the title ‘The Look’, Wilder quipped that, after The Lost Weekend’s critical and commercial success, surely Milland would become known as ‘The Kidney.’ And while such glibness does not do justice to The Lost Weekend’s serious subject matter, it does offer an apt allusion to the ways in which it recognises the comedy of drunkenness, the glamour of metropolitan high-life, but at the same time reveals the consequences that having one too many can bring.

The Lost Weekend drags us into the addled mind of a dipsomaniac as he careens from disaster to disaster on a crash-course of drunkenness and despair. In a striking echo of Barton Keyes’ ‘trolley car’ speech in Double Indemnity, Birnam describes his addiction thus: ‘when you get on that merry-go-round, you gotta ride it all the way. Round and round till the music dies down and that blasted thing comes to a stop.’ Like murder, alcoholism in The Lost Weekend is conceived as an incessant journey with only one outcome. Indeed, merry-go-rounds and ‘vicious circles’ become prominent aural and visual metaphors in the film, all signifying Birnam’s fate.

Figure 1: Don Birnham on a hunt for alcohol

From the towering heights of the Empire State to the more humble and anonymous façade of an apartment block, the opening shot presents an array of New York City iconography in one uninterrupted pan (for an excellent scene by scene breakdown see Tim Dirks’s analysis at filmsite.org). Tracking in, the camera reveals that, hanging on a piece of rope from out the apartment window is a bottle. As we shall shortly discover, the bottle contains whisky. The connection between big city life and personal vice is seamlessly conveyed through this shot. If Double Indemnity suggested that Los Angeles glitz and glamour was but a cover for a seedy and corrupt underbelly, The Lost Weekend suggests a similar den of iniquity nestling beneath New York’s impressive exterior.

Birnam is a writer; in his teenage years he seemed to be on the way to glory. He was published in The Reader’s Digest. He was going to be the new Hemingway. But something happened; he dried up, unable to produce decent writing anymore. The camera tracks in the open apartment window and reveals Birnam packing a suitcase. This shot is accompanied by a particularly eerie musical score.  According to Dirks’ filmsite article, The Lost Weekend made use of an instrument called a theremin in order to create the sounds meant to act as accompaniment to Birnam’s state of mind. They certainly emphasise an almost science-fiction-like quality, as if Birnam is not really on this planet. His mind is certainly not on the job at hand. He is supposed to be going on a long weekend in the country with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry), but, as he informs us later, his mind was elsewhere, ‘eighteen inches below’ the window frame to be exact. That’s where his bottle of whisky hangs.

Wick waxes lyrical about the benefits of a weekend in the country: ‘It’ll be good for you Don, after what you’ve been through. Trees and grass and sweet cider and buttermilk and water from that well that’s colder than any other w…’ An irritated Don interjects: ‘Wick, please, why this emphasis on liquids – very dull liquids.’ There’s something more to Don Birnam’s comment than mere riposte. It actually speaks to the way in which language is used throughout the film to explore the duelling states of drunkenness and sobriety. Different rhythms, registers and speech styles heighten the contrasts between characters. Wick’s speeches are stern and platitude-riddled, if often sympathetic. Don on the other hand, and especially when drunk, veers off into sweeping, colourful, statements and pontifications. Indeed, while Weekend offers a chilling portrait of the dangers of alcoholism, it does at times seem to enjoy the fantastical monologues that emanate from lubricated lips.

The film’s second sequence is revealing on this count. After convincing his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to take Wick to a classical music concert, Birnam is left to his own devices. Ten dollars that were supposed to go to his brother’s housekeeper end up becoming Birnam’s beer tokens as he begins an afternoon’s imbibing. As Birnam enters the off license, the camera lingers behind the whiskey shelf, a secret voyeur into the world of the alcoholic (Figure 1). We never see the proprietor in full profile. He could be anyone; he is but one of many people throughout the film who, while seemingly scornful of Birnam’s alcoholism, are nevertheless happy to fuel this addiction so long as he has money. ‘I can’t stop anyone, can I’, the proprietor says, knowing he’d been asked not to serve Birham, ‘not unless you’re a minor.’ From a less-than-reluctant shopkeeper to a similarly flexible barman, Birnam now moves on to his old haunt, Nats Bar. On the way he greets a well-to-do lady who replies warmly, then whispers to her friend ‘that’s the nice young man who drinks.’ She is one of the hypocritical chattering classes that plague Birnam throughout his drunken escapades.

Entering the bar, Birnam asks the bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva) for his ‘hand in marriage.’ It’s the first  reference to the immense hold that the bar has upon him. ‘Ah Mr. Birnam, why don’t you lay off the stuff for a while’ says Nat, simultaneously sloshing out another jigger of rye. It’s not surprising really: Nat’s Bar is hardly thriving. The only regulars seem to be Nat himself, Birnam and Gloria (Doris Dowling), a wonderful part-comic-part-tragic creation, who’s penchant for abbreviating phrases – ‘why natch’; ‘don’t be ridic’ – serves as a long-running joke, but also as quite a tragic portrayal of a woman desperate to be en vogue and ‘with it’. Her life revolves around the few bucks thrown at her by lonely old men in need of some company. It is through bit players such as Nat and Gloria that a broader slice of city life is carved: like the characters in Double Indemnity, these are men and women not without their scruples and human decency, but who are forced into ‘immoral’ activities for a few much-needed dollars.

Continuing with this scene: once Birnam’s had a few drinks he transforms from an agitated bag of nerves into a relaxed, eloquent and, truth be told, thoroughly entertaining bon vivre. ‘It shrinks my liver doesn’t it; it pickles my kidney’s, yes – but what does it do to my mind?’ Birnam explains: ‘It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m    competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over the Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones.’ The supreme confidence with which Birnam extols the glories of booze is but one instance where alcohol is to some degree romanticised, at least to begin with, as a means of escape from the hum-drum.

Figure 2: The Vicious Circle

Undercutting Birnam’s merriment at this point, however, is the introduction of the ‘vicious circle’ motif, which crops up in visuals and dialogue throughout the film. After knocking back his first whiskey, he asks Nat to leave the circular stains left by the glass untouched. ‘Don’t wipe it way, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle’, he says. ‘You know the circle is the perfect geometric figure: no end, no beginning.’ This is how Birnam conceives his addiction. As discussed below, one could also apply this circle metaphor to the structure of the film itself. Later on Birnam will refer to being stuck on a ‘merry-go-round’ (noted above), another telling metaphor for his personal struggles. The film’s narrative may be linear, but there is the constant assertion that the hero’s journey is circular.

The film’s first twenty minutes introduce a series of parallels and juxtapositions: drunken looseness vs. stolid sobriety; middle-class morality vs. the capitalist system. The jumping backward and forward between the apartment and the bar emphasises the repetitiveness and circularity of Birnam’s life. The next scene sees him back at Nat’s Bar. He speaks of how he sometimes ‘doesn’t know if it’s day or night’ and how he lives according to what time the bar or liquor stores open. A strange line is spoken here, as if Birnam was comparing his existence to that of a businessman or banker. Nat reminds him of a second bottle of whiskey he’d purchased the day before. Birnam replies: ‘That’s right, I did have two bottles didn’t I. I hid one of them. I’m a capitalist, Nat. I’ve got untapped reserves – I’m rich!’ In a society where assets are everything, Birnam sees himself as, I suppose, a wheeler and dealer – a boozy entrepreneur. Here it would seem that drinking, like The Asphalt Jungle would say of crime, is a ‘left-handed form of human endeavour.’ Society requires one to buy and consume en mass.

A brief argument between Nat and Birnam leads into a substantial flashback. It is Birnam recounting his romance with Helen.

In a vague echo of a scenario Wilder apparently concocted early in his American career for the Ernst Lubitsch directed Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), confusion over clothing leads to Birnam meeting his future girlfriend. In Bluebeard’s the main couple meet in a department store. The man (Gary Cooper) wants to buy a pair of pyjama trousers – he only wears the trousers – but is told that he must but the whole suit. Enter the woman (Claudette Colbert), who offers to go halves and buy the top for her father, who only wears pyjama tops. In a similar vein Birnam has to wait for Helen to exit the theatre to exchange coats. From here a romance begins to blossom. It seems significant that Bluebeard’s, a film about a woman attempting to ‘tame’ her man, is alluded to, for there are parallels between the two films’plots. It is another example of Wilderian self-referentiality/playing with conventions. Double Indemnity had seen Barbara Stanwyck redo her previously comedic role of intelligent beguiler of men (films like The Lady Eve) as evil, murderous manipulator. In The Lost Weekend this allusion works as an ironic commentary on the task ahead for the blissfully ignorant Helen. She, like Colbert, has some taming to do. Only, this time it’s not a millionaire playboy who needs controlling, but a raging alcoholic.

Appropriately, the couple’s relationship takes off thanks to Birnam accidentally dropping his bottle of whiskey. Instead of a night’s drunkenness, he accompanies Helen to a cocktail party where he, in his words, drank ‘only tomato juice.’ Then, after getting cold feet over meeting Helen’s parents, Don gets drunk again. It is clear to see where James Dean took inspiration for his drunken performance at the beginning of Rebel without a Cause. Birnam’s stooping gait, dragged feet, slurred but cutting remarks – all seem prototypes for Dean’s insouciant rebel. Helen appears at the apartment asking for him. Initially, Wick tells her that he’s not there and pretends that the empty whisky bottles are his own. Just as Helen is about to leave, however, Birnam emerges from the backroom and begins explaining himself. ‘What I’m trying to say is that I’m not a drinker, I’m a drunk.’ Birnam proceeds to explain his psychology. There are, apparently, two Don Birnam’s: Don the writer and Don the drunk…

Humour, pathos, rhythm, verbal gymnastics: the speech in the above clip could be something from a Tennessee Williams play. The repetition of certain words, ‘to counterbalance the counterbalance’, ‘the flop suicide of a flop writer’, hammers home the repetitive, incessantly circular existence in which Birnam finds himself. He is talking through and teasing out his own emotional traumas. This speech is the verbal equivalent of the whiskey stains on the bar, or the dissolves used to transition from reality to dream to nightmare.‘I’ve never done anything, I’m not doing anything, I never will do anything. Zero, Zero, Zero.’ So concludes Birnam’s rant. And after this, Birnam and the film itself descend into a dark, shadowy, noirish place, a place difficult to locate. A scene in which Birnham is disgraced at an upmarket bar (he attempts to steal money for his fancy vermouth drinks) concludes the second section. Jeered out of the bar by irate customers he stumbles home once more. Maybe it’s the lonely streets and boarded up buildings of an unforgiving New York City, or perhaps it’s because we’re now entering the black core of Birnam’s withered soul. Either way, things are about to go from bad to worse.

Part Three: the hangover to end all hangovers. Perhaps it’s the recent mega-success of the Hangover films, but it feels to me as if there have been quite a few shit portrayals of boozing lately. Whether we’re watching the Hangover and Hangover II’s overgrown babies wondering where their mate left his willy last night, or enduring another two hours of Johnny Depp’s theatrical mincing in Pirates of the Caribbean, hitting the ale has become a bit of an easy option for comedy filmmakers.  Fair enough, there can definitely be some humour in the un-complis mentus. But too often it is used to cover up a bad script. Not so in The Lost Weekend. Here we see the twisted nausea of a man suffering the hangover of the century. Bedraggled, penniless and in no mood for conversation, Birnam ignores the ringing telephone and heads out to pawn his typewriter. He staggers along the street in search of a shop. The first one he comes to is closed. And the second. Something is not right. Viewed through the shop’s iron shutters Birnam is revealed for the prisoner he is (Figure 3). A prisoner to fate on this occasion, for it happens to be Yom Kippur and therefore none of the Jewish pawn shops are open. Nor are the Irish ones – they have a deal. ‘They keep closed on Yom Kippur and we don’t open on St. Patrick’s.’ The music builds to a crescendo as Birnam staggers through the New York City streets. A series of dissolves reveal scorched, intimidating streets and boarded up buildings – not a place to go in search of charity.

Figure 3: Birnam as a prisoner of his own addiction

Eventually Birnam returns to the one place where he know’s he can find help:

Nat’s Bar. ‘One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough’ says Nat as he pours Birnam one free drink, then unceremoniously kicks him out. Next stop is Gloria’s place. Gloria’s anger at him standing her up for a date the night before leads her to initially snub his requests for money. When he kisses her, though, she melts and produces a five dollar bill. But it’s too little too late for Birnam, who is about to take a trip to the hospital. Bumping into a child, he crashes down the stairs and passes out at the bottom. Fade to a close up on Birnam’s face. More iron meshes signify that he is in another prison, a ward for alcoholics. The last refuge of the bar-fiend, it is a miserable place, inhabited by men who drool and grizzle. A nurse, Bim (Frank Faylen), enters. Bim is exactly the kind of character you’d expect to find, were The Lost Weekend a gothic horror and Birnam had just stumbled on isolated castle in the middle of some European mountain range. But appearing as he does in 1940s New York City, his languid yet chilling diction feels more like the product of Birnam’s twisted imagination than a ‘real’ character. A small smile creeps across Bim’s face as he speaks of the dreaded DT hallucinations. ‘You know that stuff about pink elephants’ he informs Birnam, ‘that’s the bunk. ‘It’s little animals: little tiny turkeys with straw hats, midget monkeys coming through the keyholes … like the doctor was just telling me, delirium is a disease of the night.’ And, of course, he concludes in the most camped-up drawl possible: ‘good night.’

Figure 4: In the Hospital

The dark room, punctured by occasional light slats beaming through the window; a close up on a particularly grotesque-looking Birnam as, off-screen, someone hacks up his lungs. A scream! One of the alkies has started seeing beetles on his pjamas. Nurses and orderlies rush to his assistance and, as they do so, Birnam slips out into the night. By the early hours he’s pacing around, waiting for the off license to open.

The days are passing so quickly now they are virtually non-existant. Birnam starts experiencing his first DTs. A mouse being brutally devoured by a bat on his living room wall pushes him to paroxysm. He screams and screams again. The apartment landlady hears him and phones Helen. Don’s face is true expressionist dynamite – sweating, shaking, eyes bulging – it’s like the film has suddenly gone ten years back in time and we’re in M or something similarly melodramatic and German.

Helen manages to bust in and calm him down. They both go to sleep. Don’s up again a few hours later. It’s proper morning now and he steals Helen’s jacket, bound for the pawn shop. Helen chases him, but by the time she catches up he’s hocked it. She assumes it’s for a drink, but then discovers it was for a gun. Birnam exchanges the very coat that brought them together in the first place, for an instrument of his own execution. As in Double Indemnity love becomes death, romance is translated into destruction. Helen is, however, intent on stopping this tragedy.

After chasing Don back to the apartment, there ensues a final scene that some argue negates the film’s attempts at social commentary. David Thomson, for instance, calls The Lost Weekend’s conclusion ‘a dispiriting compromise’ that ‘could not avoid Hollywood’s sense of a “happy ending.”’ On the surface it would seem that the film attempts to sugar coat all that has come before with a rather superficial reconciliation. Aware that Birnam has hidden the gun in his bathroom sink, Helen attempts to stall him. She asks for a coat, then a scarf, then even offers a glass of whiskey. Once it becomes clear that she knows of his intentions, Birnam attempts to justify the suicide: ‘this is just a formality; Don Birnam died this weekend.’ After a short argument Helen is, of course, eventually able to stop him. Nat the barman makes an appearance carrying Don’s typewriter: ‘I’ve oiled it up nice.’ Everything ends happily ever after: Don announces his plans to write the novel and as a symbolic gesture spoils the last remaining splash of whiskey with a dropped cigarette stub. His dangerous addiction beaten, perhaps.

While I accept Thomson’s point that The Lost Weekend provides a more positive conclusion than that offered in the novel on which the film is based, I’m not convinced that it is an entirely unproblematic ‘Hollywood happy ending.’ In some ways style undercuts content and provides something a little more complex and contradictory. In order to explore this possibility, we need to return to the above noted ‘vicious circle’ motif that crops up in dialogue and visuals throughout The Lost Weekend. We have Don Birnam once again ranting, as he had done with Nat, about his intentions to write a novel (that fact that Nat is the one who returns his typewriter is vaguely sinister in itself – as if his writing career is still under the control of a barman). We then have Birnam’s concluding comments, which are essentially a hark back to the film’s beginning: ‘I’m gonna put this whole weekend down, minute by minute. The way I stood in there packing my suitcase. Only my mind wasn’t on the suitcase; it wasn’t on the weekend … my mind was hanging outside the window, suspended, just about eighteen inches below.’ This speech facilitates a dissolve back to that opening scene. We see Don packing his suitcase once again. Then, in a mirror image of the shots that began the film the camera tracks backward to reveal the whiskey hanging from the window frame. Finally, it pans across to the New York City skyline. The film has come full circle. Surely, given the film’s themes and structure thus far, one could argue that the whole damn process is about to begin again. Birnam may have stopped drinking at present, but the scene implies that another cycle is on the cards. For all the optimistic patter emanating from the mouths of the two lovers, there remains a sneaking suspicion that it will not be long before Don Birnam jumps back on the merry-go-round for one last sup at the jigger of dreams. Just the one.


A Random A-Z of Film Themes: E Is for Economics

E Is for Economics

With events in Libya currently dominating news reports, the entertainment press has been reminding us of its own Gaddafi-related scoops. Pop artists, movie stars, minor royals – many, it seems, consorted at one time or another with the Colonel and his family. One of the most widely-reported stories focuses on Gaddafi’s third son, Saadi, and the substantial amount of money – $100 million by several accounts – he provided the Los Angeles film production company Natural Selection. Producer Matt Beckerman convinced him to invest in the company during a meeting in 2008. ‘As an avid film fan, I’m extremely excited about this venture,’ said Gaddafi Jr. ‘Working with Matty, and with an industry that I hold close to my heart.’ Rousing words indeed, from a man whose CV reads like something out of The Royal Tenenbaums: professional footballer, captain of the Libyan national team, sometime member of three Italian Serie-A clubs, patron of the arts. Sadly, his Hollywood adventure proved to be a blemish on an otherwise glittering career.

Only two Natural Selection films were actually completed. The Experiment (2010), a remake of the German film Das Experiment (2001), sounded promising: it featured A-list stars Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker and was inspired by the so-called Stanford prison experiment of 1971, a scientific attempt to test human endurance and morality by throwing participants into a simulated prison environment as either guards or inmates (do the guards become unthinking brutes? Do the prisoners rebel or crumble? Was Saadi tempting fate a bit by financing a film dealing with such themes?). But all this talent had little impact. The Experiment ended up going straight to DVD. On the set of Isolation, the other film produced by Natural Selection, a director’s chair marked Kadafi apparently sat – alas, unoccupied – throughout the production phase. Isolation has its world premiere at Los Angeles’ Screamfest next month. So if you’re a fan of low-budget horror, and aren’t on Interpol’s wanted list, then get yourself down there to cheer it on.

The Hollywood–Gaddafi connection is but one of many distasteful anecdotes regarding the film industry’s business practices and economic conduct. While on-screen, films rage against oppressive dictatorships, governmental corruption and financial jiggery-pokery – think The Great Dictator, All the King’s Men, The Godfather, Wall Street, Syriana and The Last King of Scotland, to name but a few – off-screen the industry does not always practice what it preaches. Money soothes the conscience even as it poisons the soul. Once we heed the advice of All the President’s Men’s (1976) legendary informer, Deep Throat, and ‘follow the money’, we are confronted with a treasure chest of Hollywood’s financial indiscretions, underhand activities, and cheeky accountancy. The following post casts an eye over some of these dodgy dealings. Courting dictators, ripping off foreign tax shelters, confusing profit margins, complex costings, fake movie stock markets: Hollywood’s accounts can at times read like a paranoid political thriller, at others like a comedy. They certainly bust a few tired shibboleths. Chuck Norris is not the toughest man in movies; David Lynch is not the most confusing. Both of these accolades must go to those who have time and again engineered some of the most coldly calculating and downright mind-boggling stunts never seen on the silver screen – the money men, the accountants.


Business Is Business

We deal with all kinds of political ideologies – democracies, dictatorships, despots, monarchies, left wing, right wing. We do business with everybody. (Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Producers Association of America, 1977)

That Jack Valenti, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood at the time, would feel comfortable, let alone justified, in publicly making the above comment, says quite a lot about Hollywood’s business ethos. His words came after some 45 years of deals with the twentieth century’s most infamous monsters. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco might have been railed against in political rhetoric and propaganda campaigns, but, when it came to making a few movie-bucks, there were some willing to go that extra mile in the name of ‘diplomacy’.

Saadi Gaddafi was not the first son of a despot to be schmoozed by Hollywood. In 1937 the American film producer Hal Roach set up a production company with Vittorio Mussolini, son of the Italian dictator Benito. The company, named RAM (Roach and Mussolini), was formed with a view toward cornering the European market. David Welky’s fascinating and very readable account of the American film industry’s dealings with dictatorships in the 1930s, The Moguls and the Dictators, gives an idea of the close relationship that some people in Hollywood were willing to foster with fascist-run countries in order to avoid financial losses. For most of the 1930s, Hollywood endeavoured to stay on good terms with Mussolini (as it did with Hitler and Hirohito). Studio representatives visited Italy on several occasions and hammered out various deals with Il Duce that ensured the continuing profitability of American pictures in Italy. Then, toward the end of the decade, Mussolini Jr. visited the United States in the hope of developing even closer relations between the Italian and American film industries and encouraging film technicians to come and work at Italy’s Cinecitta studios. Things did not, however, go to plan.

From the moment he stepped off the boat at New York Harbour, Vittorio was chased from town to town by anti-fascist campaigners. In Los Angeles, he faced the wrath of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an organisation formed in 1936 and made up of left-wing industry professionals, Charlie Chaplin being one of the most notable. Declared the ‘fascist princeling’ in the League’s press releases, the young Vittorio was snubbed by many Hollywood figures afraid of being tarred by association. (Interestingly, I don’t recall much of an outcry over Beckerman’s deal with Gaddafi back in 2009. It’s only been in recent months that the industry has distanced itself from this ‘rogue’ trader.) Mussolini’s cause was not helped by the banks, who did not consider Italy a provident investment at this point in time. Fears over currency restrictions and worries that Vittorio’s dad would interfere in the company’s affairs meant RAM was unable to find enough backers. ‘It became obvious that there would be no money in making pictures in Rome for anyone in Hollywood’, lamented Variety magazine shortly after the company’s implosion. In the end it was as much economic as ideological considerations that killed off RAM. Even poor Vittorio’s birthday celebrations – he turned 21 while still in Los Angeles – were scuppered, as most of Hollywood’s great and good failed to attend. As Welky wryly notes, ‘Not even the gaily decorated cake, topped with a fascist soldier … could save it.’

When it came to 1930s fascist dictatorships, Mussolini was always clinging onto the bootstraps of his Nazi counterpart, Adolph Hitler. Throughout the 1930s, Hitler and Germany were on the march. Naturally, Hollywood saw an opportunity to cash in. It is an oft-observed fact that Hollywood made little attempt at producing anti-Nazi films until the very end of the 1930s/early 1940s. While Hitler’s political power was on the ascendant, the film industry’s watchword was appeasement. It is a bitter irony that the majority of the film industry’s executives were Jewish, and yet their commitment to providing ‘harmless entertainment’ for a predominantly Protestant public led them to believe that any anti-Nazi (and, by implication, ‘pro-Jewish’) filmmaking would be economic suicide, and, what is more, would increase anti-Semitic tensions in the United States. Of the major studios, only Warner Brothers attempted to speak out against Hitler in the early 1930s. In 1932, Harry Warner cancelled his company’s purchase of the German film studio UFA after visiting Berlin. Witnessing the anti-Semitism already present in political campaigning and sloganeering caused Warner to rethink his business decisions. Warners also produced some of the first anti-Nazi films: a film that Welky calls an ‘oblique anti-Nazi parable’, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), and, then, the more explicit Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939).

As Welky demonstrates, a combination of executive timidity and pressure from heads of the Production Code – the body charged with ensuring Hollywood films abided by certain ‘moral’ standards – ensured that Hollywood would not do much to broach the Nazi issue until the late 1930s. And a major cause of the film industry’s change of heart later in the decade was that fascist countries had become impossible to do business with. They limited the number of American films allowed into their dominions, placed high taxes on imports, insisted that they be dubbed and slapped a ‘dubbing tax’ on all films (as in Italy), subjected them to rigorous if not ridiculous censorship so as to ensure few films ever made it to cinemas (many in Hollywood believed that German censors deliberately passed only second-rate American movies in order to put the public off American product) and, finally, placed embargos on American film imports. When in 1937 Universal boss J. Cheever Cowdin visited Germany to ask that the censors go a little easier on his pictures, the writing was already on the wall. Cowdin’s bargaining chip was the fact that Jewish executive Carl Laemmle had been ousted and thus ‘Jews no longer ran Universal’. The Nazis rejected his appeals.

In the end, doing business with the fascists became more trouble than it was worth. And this, along with America’s entry into WWII, led to an about turn in industry policy. And, what is more, the production of numerous anti-Nazi/anti-fascist propaganda films. That is not to say, however, that Hollywood had entirely given up on the tyrant dollar.

The Soviet Union might seem a surprising target for Hollywood in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Yet, as Jindriska Blahova has demonstrated, Hollywood put a great deal of time and effort into selling its films to Eastern European countries, countries at this point in time under the control of Joseph Stalin. Blahova’s work is eye opening for the simple reason that little has been said about Hollywood’s attempts to do business with the communists. We read history after history of a post-WWII climate where anti-communist sentiment reigned supreme, industry figures with even the most tenuous link to left-wing organisations were blacklisted or, in the case of Charlie Chaplin, banished from America altogether, and the films themselves promulgated subtle and not-so-subtle anti-communist messages. But, once again, behind the scenes money was doing the talking.

Partly out of a desire to sell their product to every available market, and partly because they feared that the Soviet industry might become a challenger to Hollywood, industry figureheads were keen to get their product into Eastern European cinemas. Doing this required cosying up to the most powerful man in this part of the world, Stalin. According to Blahova, Hollywood representatives did meet with Stalin and reported negotiations with the Soviet dictator to have been a success. In fact, according to one of these representatives, Stalin was so excited about doing business with Hollywood he had a ‘merry twinkle in [his] eye’. Hollywood’s success behind the Iron Curtain would be impeded somewhat by rapidly cooling relations between the two world superpowers, but, nevertheless, throughout the 1940s and 1950s attempts were made to sell movies to this market, with some – albeit limited – success.

Blahova concludes her article by calling for more research to be done into Hollywood’s relationship with other ‘enemies of the United States’: Cuba, Iran, Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq. Certainly, it would be interesting to see what kinds of documents could be found in state and film archives pertaining to such dealings. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, for instance, Hollywood films were one of the few products not included by the US government in its embargo. While Castro certainly condemned American films, and froze Hollywood-held assets in Cuba, films were apparently still getting in at least until 1961. What kinds of films made it in? Who did the deals? What other unfriendly regimes have been courted by the film industry? North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il is known to be a massive film buff. The possibilities.

But back to the fascists for now. Francisco Franco’s Spain became a prime destination for numerous film producers in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the famous historical, or sword-and-sandal, epics of this period were shot in Spain. At a time when Hollywood’s profits were under threat thanks to a combination of anti-trust legislation intended to weaken the major studios’ monopoly on the film trade and television’s ascendancy as a dominant entertainment medium, the studios put much faith in big-budget, lavishly produced pictures like Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra to ‘save’ them from economic collapse. It was hoped that such pictures would become massive ‘events’ for all sections of the American public and thus make mega profits.

Such films were, however, extremely expensive to make. One way in which Hollywood could get the same glossy production values while saving a few dollars in expenses was to shoot abroad. The so-called ‘runaway’ production became a staple of the industry. And a favourite destination for many producers was Spain. It was a mutually beneficial relationship: Hollywood enjoyed low location expenses, technical teams, and a Franco administration willing to provide help and assistance. Spain benefited from investment in the local economy, employment and training for native film crews, and the opportunity to promote itself in pictures that would reach a worldwide audience. As Neal Moses Rosendorf has noted, movies served as an ideal channel through which the Franco government could rebuild Spain’s reputation in the wake of WWII. Attempting to move the country away from associations with fascism, oppression and poverty and promote it as a respectable ally against the communist threat, not to mention a pretty saucy tourist destination, the Franco regime turned, in Rosendorf’s words, ‘The US film industry into an arm of its Ministry of Information and Tourism’. It was hoped that films like El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire would thrill global audiences while subtly emphasising Spain as a sun-drenched, exotic paradise, perfect for a week or two’s vacation. For over twenty years Franco and Hollywood enjoyed this amiable relationship. El Caudillo opened his arms to Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren and their sword-and-sandal chums; western tourists and British criminals opened their arms to the sun, sea, sand and secrecy available in Spain.

As more research is completed, and new documents emerge, other producer–dictator trysts will likely come to light. No doubt I’ve missed a few, and I’d be much obliged to anyone with further tales of such industrial conduct (please comment below, or drop us an email). Nevertheless, it is time to move on from dictators and to examine other economic shenanigans undertaken by the film industry. From immoral relationships to crafty book-balancing tricks, film accountancy is the next topic on the agenda.

Dodgy Deals

If some of the film industry’s business practices have been morally dubious, others are defined by their mind-blowingly confusing legal work and accountancy. Here are a few economic tricks that have financed movies in the past couple of decades.

1. The German Tax Shelter. The legendary, and highly perplexing, German tax shelter provided Hollywood with hassle-free wonga for many decades. Up until 2005, Hollywood could make several million dollars by transferring token ownership of a movie to German investors. As far as I can fathom – and see Edward J. Epstein here for a far more lucid explanation – if it could be proven that a German media fund owned the rights to a Hollywood film then the German investors were eligible for substantial tax breaks. US studios could make a profit simply by doing the following: sell a film’s rights to a German media fund, but draw up the contract so that you have the option to buy back the rights in the very near future. Now the film is nominally ‘German owned’, and investors in the German company can reap the benefits of the tax breaks. For German investors this basically meant that they could write off 100% of the tax on their investment. They could even borrow some money to invest, yet still write off the full tax amount, which meant their write-off was actually more than 100%. After the investors had taken advantage of the tax shelter, the film’s rights could then be sold back to the US studio at a lower price. Apparently, a studio could expect to make back 8–10% of a film’s budget simply by going through this process. Paramount studios, for example, earned $10 million back on the $100 million budgeted Tomb Raider (2003) and, all told, skimmed $70–90 million from German tax shelters that year.

What is more, proving your film to be ‘German’ did not have to mean proving it was German alone. Since none of the film had to be shot in Germany to be classified as German, you could also take advantage of other countries’ film production subsidies. Thus The Lord of the Rings trilogy took advantage of German tax shelters as well as New Zealand state subsidies that required they shoot the film locally. This combination, along with the selling of LoTR’s international distribution rights, meant that New Line had made back most of its production budget before the films had even reached cinemas. Similarly, in the production of Tomb Raider, Paramount combined German benefits with British tax breaks. The studio shot a few scenes in Britain, hired some British cast and crew and did some more selling and buying back, this time with a British bank. The result was a cool extra $12 million for the Paramount coffers. According to one estimate, such dealings meant that Germany lost $750 million in tax revenues in 2004 alone. It must be nice for German citizens to think that, instead of building hospitals, schools, new roads and social programmes, they ensured Angelina Jolie got her multi-million dollar salary and Gollum’s facial expressions looked human. Providing instant dough for many a blockbuster (smaller productions did not tend to have the international clout or legal resources to take similar liberties), Hollywood’s German tax-break gravy train came to an end in 2005. New tricks were required.

2. Hedge Funds. What with the world’s markets suffering virtual meltdown at the moment, it would be in bad taste to offer any sympathy to the progenitors of out collective overdraft, Wall Street. But all the same, there have been some pretty pathetic tales of hedge funds being out-foxed by crafty Hollywood accountants. Since 2004, Wall Street has made enormous efforts to get a slice of the Hollywood pie. Rather than investing in individual films, hedge funds have tended to finance ‘film slates’, groups of 15–20 movies, and to take a cut of a studio’s internal rate of return. This meant that rather than pinning all their hope to the success of one film’s cinema release, they could expect a slice of a studio’s yearly profits: film, DVD, computer games, selling of international rights, tax breaks, etc. It sounded like a win-win situation for the flushed bankers (this was the glory days of 2004), and they jumped into the movie business with gusto. It is yet another example of Wall Street bullheadedness, for the bankers either didn’t read the small print or did not sufficiently weigh up the consequences of their decision. While the studios were given huge amounts of capital – and at the same time did not have their shares diluted or lose control – hedge funds had to wait for a profitability that, at least as far as the studios’ bookkeepers were concerned, did not come. Various factors ensured that the studios benefited from this arrangement, and that the hedge funds did not.

Firstly, it’s all well and good if Hollywood bundles together a group of ‘safe bets’ (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and ‘based on the bestselling novel’ being a few tags that can hardly help but make money). But this was not always the case. Usually included on the same slate as a ‘sure fire win’ were more risky projects. For example, a Sony slate from a few years ago included films like Stranger than Fiction and All the King’s Men, which were not considered likely blockbuster material – and didn’t make much money. What the studios had discovered was a variation on the much-hated old practice of block booking. Up until the 1950s, films were frequently sold as part of a ‘block’ – thus if an exhibitor wanted to buy Casablanca they would also have to buy a load of other (often crappy) films. It was an easy way for the industry to guarantee it’d make an income, even if the film was bad. Something similar, it would seem, can be said of these recent ‘film slates’. The film studios now had their ‘risky’ or, let’s be honest, ‘crap’ pictures guaranteed before release. If major losses were incurred most of these would fall to the hedge funds. Film critic Mark Kermode recently inveighed against the blockbuster culture that sees bad movie after bad movie produced. I can’t help wondering if this deal with the hedge funds, whereby a film is not treated as an individual asset so much as part of a slate, has contributed toward this spate of cookie-cut garbage. One might even wonder if it was actually in the studios’ interests to release duds in order to artificially push down their earnings and avoid paying out on large dividends. One of the nice pieces of small print in these deals was that the studio could take a 10% distribution fee, which did not have to be shared with the hedge funds. This meant that releasing a crappy, underdeveloped picture might well make sense: the studios could take their fee, and most of the risk of failure at the box office was underwritten by the hedge funds.

This is not the only reason why hedge funds did so badly out of the Hollywood deals. When many of the film slates were set up, there was a general feeling that ancillary markets, and especially the booming DVD market, would ensure a studio’s profitability (and thus ensure Wall Street a cut). But after 2005, the DVD market started to contract significantly. Similarly, as noted above, many of the tax-shelter benefits were cut by national governments in the mid-2000s. Such factors led to the hedge funds getting, to put it mildly, royally screwed over. In the last couple of years they’ve been pulling money out again, and trying to blame each other for things going so terribly wrong. Reading some of the interviews with those involved, one can’t help think that part of the reason for the hedge funds’ downfall was the film industry’s ability to seduce even the most hardened of bankers. Star-struck! That is how some of the bankers come across, desperate to put their money in this industry not because it’ll make big profits but because it means prestige. Perhaps the desire on the part of investors to be seen at the In Places and to hobnob with the stars was as much to blame for their losses as were naughty Hollywood accountants.

3. Profit, what profit? Perhaps the most infamous of Hollywood’s accountancy methods is the ability to hide profits. In order that writers, producers, novelists, etc., did not get their hands on a cut, such mega hits as Forrest Gump, Rain Man, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Coming to America never officially turned a profit. The story of the latter was given novel-length treatment. Pierce O’ Donnell’s Fatal Subtraction: How Hollywood Really Does Business, recounts the court battle between the comedian Art Buchwald and Paramount Studios. After Buchwald demanded a cut of profits for his part in developing Coming to America’s story, Paramount endeavoured to claim that this $350-million-grossing picture did not make a profit. Through what is known as ‘creative accountancy’ the studio was able to fabricate this blockbuster into a loss-maker. While Buchwald eventually won his case, others have not been quite so lucky. Author of the novel Forrest Gump, Winston Groom, was refused a share in profits because the studio once again claimed that the film did not make any. Bear in mind that Gump collected over $300 million in the US alone, and you can’t help but wonder where the hell the losses were made. For some years Groom refused to sell the rights to his second novel Gump and Co, contending that he could not ‘in good conscience allow money to be wasted on a failure’. However, word is that a script has been in development for several years now; hopefully Groom will have arranged a better deal for himself this time around.

Much more could be said about Hollywood accountancy, and I might eventually throw up another few thousand words up on the subject, if only to try to clarify things in my own head. For the time being, however, I’d like to conclude with a brief reference to a phenomenon that has been gripping marketers and economists for several years now. When investors want to know what films are expected to succeed, what films are likely to fail, they might turn to marketing research departments, they might scan Facebook and Twitter. But one of the most reliable predictors of a film’s financial success has been, ever since it started trading in 1996, the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

Stocks and Shares

First things first, the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) as it currently stands does not deal in real money. It is an online game, which allows anyone to purchase fake stock in movies, television programmes, stars and a host of other derivatives. You are provided with $2 million in start-up funds when you register. The idea is to bet on winners and see your investment portfolio explode. An individual’s profit margin may not be of any great consequence, but the uses to which HSX – in its entirety as a massive body of speculation – has been put suggest an interesting new direction with regard to Hollywood financing, marketing and exhibition. HSX has been used by marketing research companies and university-based economists as the most accurate way of predicting box-office revenue prior to a film’s release. The company that owns the HSX, Cantor Fitzgerald, sells market research culled from the website to studios and investors alike. If a movie’s shares are selling well on HSX then this creates a buzz on a par to an award nomination or the hiring of a top star. Harvesting its information from numerous different sources, HSX is argued to be the most sophisticated predictor of a film’s success. In short, what happens on this website is affecting how a film, or director, or star, is perceived by the industry and by related organisations.

On the HSX, a movie will receive its IPO (initial public offering) months, sometimes years, before it has even begun shooting. The volume of shares bought at this crucial pre-production stage is already acting as a barometer of what millions of entertainment-savvy customers believe that movie to be worth. By implication, such info could actually influence a studio’s decision as to whether to green light a film sooner or later, how much to spend on its advertising, how wide a release to give it, etc. Of course, how much faith a studio invests in the HSX cannot be empirically proven. But when economists at Harvard Business School and numerous other universities are using it for their own papers on box-office potential, one might at least speculate that this fake stock market has not been taken lightly.

All this is, however, but the tip of the iceberg. Last year there was a move to make HSX a reality. That is, a proposal was made to the US Senate which called for the establishment of a Hollywood futures market. People would be able to buy shares in films, in television programmes, in stars, in directors for real. At present various government bills have ensured that the HSX remains virtual, but the past year and a half has seen much toing and froing on the part of regulatory bodies and government organisations. A move to real money may, in the not-too-distant future, still materialise. This raises the question of whether floating individual films on the stock market would be a good or a bad thing. HSX supporters contend that this new system would provide more support for the industry. Producers would not be forced to shoulder all the risk if a film flopped. Fans of a particular novel or comic book may be willing to shell out a few dollars in order to see a movie adaptation realised. A producer could throw an experimental idea out onto the market and see if the public embraced it. This might even lead to more risky projects being given the go-ahead. In a sense it would be a case of demand leading supply. At a time when various commentators have claimed that Hollywood is pumping out the same old rubbish regardless of whether the public likes it or not, a real HSX might force the industry to follow public opinion a little more closely. It’s even been suggested that more arty or independent films might benefit from this opening of the market. An independent producer could float an idea or a script and encourage investors in that way. Again, certain risky projects might find it easier to obtain financing.

The opposite argument, however, suggests that gambling with Hollywood properties on the stock market would actually cause many projects to flounder and industry professionals to lose their jobs. Far from encouraging the cultivation of more film ideas the industry would be even more confined in the kinds of films it could obtain financing for. Only the safest projects would be okayed, thanks to thousands of angry stockholders demanding a dividend on their investment. Furthermore, what happens if confidence is lost in a particular film and everyone starts selling shares? Would this mean a studio would be forced to swallow a pre-release debt? Would they bother to promote it? Would the film even be completed or would it just be left languishing in pre-release purgatory? These kinds of questions have been asked, though no one has really come up with definitive answers.

So, for what it’s worth, in order to explore a few of these questions, I thought I’d monitor my own behaviour on the HSX for a couple of weeks. I’m no super accountant, and the fact that I’m dealing with pretend money does mean that I have nothing to lose. But, nevertheless, I thought monitoring my own actions on the stock market might serve as a starting point from which to examine the relative pros and cons of trading movie stocks and shares. A rough journal from the past two weeks is published below.

'Greed clarifies.'

Betting on the Market

Sept 1: With $2 million in my pocket, I got started. No friend to the mindless, the vacuous, the childish, no Transformers nonsense for me. Small arty films are the order of the day; I’ll be benefactor to the needy. Ten thousand shares purchased for A Woman of No Importance, a planned adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play, starring Annette Benning and Sean Bean. Another 10K splashed out on stock in indie director Todd Solondz (when he gets back in business the controversy alone will send the shares through the roof). The Mill and the Cross (art and Rutger Hauer – 10 grand); Shame, 15 grand. Top this off with a substantial interest in the high-profile, but widely acclaimed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and we have a recipe for success. Buy low, sell high, look clever.

Sept 4: Shares purchased in My Afternoons with Margueritte (10,000 at $0.10 each). A sudden burst of patriotism sees me invest in a couple of Simon Pegg films, Burke and Hare and the in-development A Fantastic Fear of Almost Everything. I’m being called for dinner now. Had better log out. Fingers crossed.

Sept 6: Shares not doing particularly well at the moment. Pegg is finished. Will not be spending many more afternoons with Margueritte, down to $0.07. Have bought some stock in Christopher Nolan. Expensive, but at least he makes intelligent blockbusters. Also got myself involved in some US Prime Suspect stock. Should be a sure-fire profit.

Missed dinner thanks to Burke and Hare almost bankrupting me. Pegg – go back to Spaced. Hungry, but quietly confident that tomorrow will see some profits.

Sept 8: Solondz down. Dumped him. Sold all shares in Shame and Mill and bought shares in Gwyneth Paltrow. Maybe all the glamorous dresses she’s been wearing this week will raise her stock price before Contagion opens tomorrow. Woman of No Importance became of no importance to me. I ditched it and bought a few thousand in Straw Dogs. Telling my dad about this purchase over dinner, he looked at me and wanted to know why I’m wasting money on a rubbish remake. ‘Why not invest in indie films, son? I thought you were going to back the underdog.’ Goddamit Dad, why do you have to be so moral all the time? Know he’s right though.

Sept 10: Wasted most of the day on the stock exchange. Things were looking bad all day. Contagion was slipping; Paltrow shite; Straw Dogs dropped a little. Tried to stem the haemorrhage a little with some shares in The Playboy Club, a new US TV programme set in the early 1960s. Will hopefully milk the Mad Men fad. All in all, though, all is not well in my portfolio. Had another argument at dinner. Dad said I’d changed. Asked my younger sister if I could borrow some money for a new suit.

Thank God things got better this evening. At 9am Pacific time, The Amazing Spiderman 2 was IPO’d. I sold everything I owned except the Playboy stock and bought 10,000 shares in the film. Two hours later I’d already made a $50,000 profit.

Sept 12: Hooray for Spiderman. Projections are looking peachy. I’ve made $400,000 profit, and it keeps rising. Am eating a sandwich at my desk now. No longer welcome at the dinner table. It’s probably for the best. I need to keep an eye on market activities. An ‘Untitled Pixar Film with dinosaurs’ goes on the market Saturday. Shares are starting at $80. I’ll use all my profits from Spiderman to invest in this.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my arty films, low budget indies, challenging subject matter and all that. But I’ll leave their financing to others; people with more money than sense, people like Saadi Gaddafi. I’ll take my little Marvel and run thank you very much …

Discontinued due to work commitments and atrocious grammar …

The End.

Next up: F is for Flying Saucers

Works Cited

Blahova, J. ‘A Merry Twinkle in Stalin’s Eye: Eric Johnston, Hollywood and Eastern Europe’. Film History, 22 (2010), pp. 347–359.

Rosendorf, N.M. ‘Hollywood in Madrid: American Film Producers and the Franco Regime’. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 27:1 (2007), pp. 77–109.

Segrave, Kerry. American Films Abroad: Hollywood’s Domination of all the world’s Movie Screens from the 1890s to the Present (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997).

Welky, D. The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008).

All other sources are electronically cited in text.

My thanks as ever go out to Seb Manley for proofreading, checking, correcting and generally sorting this ramble out. If Seb was an accountancy trick, he would be a top-end blockbuster storming the international box-office, garnering millions from deals on distribution, television and ancillary rights, making everyone at the studio very very very very rich and yet still somehow in the red. Seb proofreads all forms of non-fiction writing. His website can be found here: www.manley-editorial.com.

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