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Celebrating the films of the First World War

By Sarah Strohl

The Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 marks the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. “The war to end all wars,” as it was optimistically dubbed, was one of the deadliest conflicts in history and paved the way for cultural and political change worldwide. This war, entrenched with heartbreak, heroes, villains, and camaraderie, inspired many stories both historical and fictional—some of which were captured for the silver screen.

 

Some of these films, including Wings (1927), The Big Parade (1925), and Sergeant York (1941), are highlighted in the current exhibition and the ongoing World War I Film Series, co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society and the Paramount Theatre.

 

Wings, released by Paramount Pictures in 1927, was filmed on location in San Antonio and was an homage to pilots of the First World War. The film tells the tale of two young fighter pilots who fall in love with the same woman. Hundreds of extras and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming, including pilots and planes of the United States Air Corps. It was directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, who had been both an ambulance driver and pilot during the war.

 

Starlet Clara Bow played Mary Preston, an irresistible Red Cross ambulance driver. Though Bow, known largely for her flapper dresses and pearls, despised the army uniforms required for her role, the film was one of her most successful. Wings costume designer Edith Head commented: “It’s pretty hard to look sexy in a U.S. Army uniform, but Clara managed.”

 

Wings went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. A film still from Wings is on view in the galleries.

 

King Vidor’s poignant and humanizing silent film The Big Parade follows the spoiled, lazy son of a wealthy family as he joins the army and proceeds to make a few friends and fall in love amid the hardships of war.

 

The Big Parade portrayed the human costs of war and was influential in the creation of later war movies. Widely popular, the film earned MGM studios an almost instant profit of $3.4 million upon reception. Watch a screening of The Big Parade at the Paramount Theatre tomorrow at 7 p.m. as part of the World War I Film Series.

 

Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper, Sergeant York is the true story of one of World War I’s most decorated soldiers, Alvin York. York was a hillbilly sharpshooter who, despite his misgivings and claims of being a pacifist, was drafted into the war and became a hero. Sergeant York was the top grossing film in 1941, and Cooper won the Academy Award for best actor.

 

Warner Brothers is releasing these three films, along with Dawn Patrol, in the WWI Centennial Commemoration DVD set on July 22.

 

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Tomorrow in the theater: “All Quiet on the Western Front”

By Jean Cannon

Tomorrow, May 15, the Ransom Center will screen All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the second film of the World War I Film Series, held in conjunction with the current exhibition, The World at War, 1914–1918. The film will be shown in the Ransom Center’s theater at 7 p.m.

 

All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 bestselling novel, tells the story of Paul Baümer, a young German soldier who—under tremendous pressure from his war-enthused village—enlists in the German Army and serves on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he suffers the demoralizing conditions of trench warfare and is wounded in battle. Remarque’s novel is often cited as a landmark in the history of post-WWI disillusionment; its success caused the book market to be flooded with war memoirs and novels written by veterans, many of whom expressed anger and resentment toward former military leaders and insensitive civilians. The 1930 film adaptation of the story was every bit as controversial as the book—which was censored and banned both for its “filth” and its anti-war sentiment. The production and reception history of the film quickly established it as one of the most far-reaching and provocative movies ever made about the experiences of men in battle.

 

Though the public controversy surrounding Remarque’s book certainly made for a precarious film adaptation project, the international success of the novel prompted Universal Pictures to buy the production rights on Armistice Day in 1929. Though many at Universal feared that Remarque’s bleak story of war and its horrors would not appeal to audiences a decade after the war’s end, Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle, himself a committed pacifist, insisted on the creation of the film. After much in-house dithering, Universal selected Lewis Milestone, a Russian-born immigrant who had become a naturalized American citizen in 1919, to direct the film. Milestone had served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the First World War, where he had produced army film footage. The original screenplay was edited by a team that included Maxwell Anderson, the author of the WWI stage play What Price Glory?, which had been released as a silent film in 1924 and would later be remade under the direction of John Huston in 1952. Future famed director George Cukor, in his first Hollywood job, was the uncredited dialog director of All Quiet on the Western Front.

 

Milestone and his team had grave difficulty deciding on the cast; more than 200 screen tests were given to a wide variety of actors and actresses. Milestone had the most trouble choosing an actor to play Paul Baümer: should the lead be a known star or an unknown talent, presenting the “everyman” aspect of an infantry soldier? Milestone considered Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Johnny Harron, and even Erich Maria Remarque himself before settling on the virtually unknown Lew Ayres, whom he came across while looking at screen tests Cukor had discarded.

 

The role of Paul Baümer would become definitive in Ayres’s life and career. While working on the film, Ayres became a dedicated pacifist; years later, when the draft was introduced for World War II, Ayres announced himself a conscientious objector.  His decision provoked the ire of Hollywood, and Ayres was blacklisted by many Hollywood producers during wartime.

 

Milestone was dedicated to creating realistic battle scenes for the film: Universal dramatically exceeded its budget on the movie—in all spending nearly $1.5 million on the film, four times more than its initial projection. Milestone created a large-scale reconstruction of a First World War battlefield in Balboa, California, complete with trenches, barbed wire, and a No Man’s Land. A special crane was imported for the camera, and authentic uniforms were imported from France and Germany. Ex-German Army officers were hired to drill the actors.

 

The elaborate sets and nuanced acting of the film brought wide acclaim in America and Britain when it was released in 1930: Variety called it a “harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness. . . .Nothing passed up for the niceties; nothing glossed over for the women.” The film won the year’s Academy Awards both for best film and best direction.

 

Such accolades did not extend across Europe, however, where many countries objected to the film for its blatant anti-militarist stance, its graphic nature, and its depiction of the former Central Powers. The film was banned in Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. It incited angry demonstrations in Austria. France did not ban the film but censored a scene in which German soldiers spend the night with French women of questionable morals.

 

As may be expected, the film received the most incendiary reactions in Germany. Though Universal prepared a specially dubbed version of the film, edited by Remarque himself (who cut many of the more overt depictions of German militarism), it caused riots in German theaters.  Joseph Goebbels publicly denounced the film, and the leading Nazi newspaper called it “a Jewish lie.” Five days after premiering in Berlin, All Quiet on the Western Front was suppressed by Germany’s Supreme Film Censorship Board. Reels of the film, as well as copies of the book, were publicly burned.

 

Only after several decades would All Quiet appear in full in Germany. In 1984, a dubbed reconstruction of the original cut of the film was broadcast on television in West Germany for the first time and to great success. Nearly 11 million viewers watched the film. The restoration of the film for public view embraced an irony appropriate for a story that criticizes bureaucracy and high command: one of the prints used for the restoration had come from the private collection of noted cinephile and censor Joseph Goebbels, who in the 1930s had burned as many reels of the film as he could, save for his own.

 

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Stanley et Anthony: A correspondence between Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Burgess

By Michael Gilmore

On the surface, it is a correspondence between friends:  Did you read the book I sent? Did you like it?

 

Generic questions for most, perhaps, but the inquiry was from Stanley Kubrick, and the questions concerning Arthur Schnitzler’s book Traumnovelle were addressed to Anthony Burgess. A series of letters in 1976 between Kubrick and Burgess in the Ransom Center’s Anthony Burgess collection shed light on the early stages of the work that would later be translated into Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

 

In 1976, Kubrick, sensing his research for his planned biographical film about Napoleon Bonaparte would not pan out due to financing problems, was looking for a post-2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) project. He first read Schnitzler’s dream story in 1968 and was so enamored of it, he sought the film rights, but, fearing his involvement would inflate the price, he convinced Jay Cocks, a journalist at the time, to acquire the rights by proxy.

 

Kubrick even had in mind an actor for the role of Fridolin: Woody Allen.

 

During this time, screenwriter Terry Southern, who helped Kubrick turn the script for Dr. Strangelove (1964) into a hip satire, gave Kubrick a copy of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick put the Schnitzler project on a back burner, which placed Southern in a bit of a bind with Mick Jagger and The Beatles.

 

It was understood that once the rights for A Clockwork Orange had been optioned by producer Si Litvinoff, Southern would write the screenplay, Jagger was to play the part of Alex and the rest of the Rolling Stones would play Alex’s droogs. The Beatles were to compose and record the music. Litvinoff had shopped the idea around to a dozen different directors without success. As the original plan was coming apart at the seams, it was reported that actor David Hemming, star of Blowup (1969), was under consideration for the lead. A petition signed by Marianne Faithful, each of The Beatles, and a few hangers-on in the London Bohemian underground of the time—including The Flasher and Strawberry Bob—was sent to Southern denouncing his perceived treachery.

 

The rights for A Clockwork Orange sold for $500, $2,000, or $5,000, depending which account you read. Burgess was unimpressed with his financial gain on the deal and dismayed that he had suddenly, in the eyes of the press and public alike, become an “expert” on juvenile violence. He was thankful though, that in conversation with Kubrick, he did get the idea for his next novel, Napoleon Symphony.

 

After the release of the film A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick used his Napoleon research in the making of Barry Lyndon (1975). It would be another 20 years before the Schnitzler project would culminate in the film Eyes Wide Shut, which is listed in Guinness World Records as the film with the longest continual shoot: 400 days. In retrospect, 400 days isn’t long at all, considering the making of the film took 30 years from gestation to final cut.

 

But in 1976, Burgess still felt undercompensated after the film version of A Clockwork Orange had become a critical and commercial success, and it must have rankled him that a few critics pointed to satirized authority figures in the film as resembling rumpled versions of Burgess himself. As for the exchange of letters between Kubrick and Burgess, you can sense a certain edginess in Burgess’s response to Kubrick’s complaints that in Traumnovelle “[t]here is, I fear, a narrative anti-climax which I have not been able to improve without doing violence to what I believe were Schnitzler’s ideas …”

 

“The question is,” Burgess writes, “do you want me to do anything about it? If so, how and when and for how much?” 

 

Fellows Find: Gloria Swanson biographer discovers rich material in Ransom Center’s archive

By Gabrielle Inhofe

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard.  Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well.  Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up.  Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.

 

When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff.  The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism.  She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris.  She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.

Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life.  I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs.  Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today.  Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall.  There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.

Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format.  Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem!  Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there.  She’s taking care of them.’”  The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.

I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s.  These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns.  In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco.  Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did.  They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.

Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that.  It is the ideal archive.

The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 fellowship program.

 

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