Written by Joe Carducci
You can’t watch everything. Back when everyone was talking about all the great cable television shows they loved, I was finishing up research for my book on stuntmen and acting, and watching nothing but silent films, Soviet cinema and half-hour tv westerns from the 1950s. I found you can’t even watch all pre-1920 American cinema, even when so little survives and running times are so short. Still, I watched what I could, from the 1890s Edison productions through the one and two-reelers (one reel = 14 minutes). that were produced in New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Golden, San Antonio, San Diego, Niles, Santa Barbara, and finally Hollywood.
The earliest films, one- or two-shot travelogue-like “actualities,” gave way to story-films after the turn of that century. American film genres high and low were formed quickly during the nickelodeon boom which began in 1905 — nickelodeons allowed the motion picture to escape game rooms and vaudeville houses for pride of place in its own venue. Francis Ford was a pioneer of the action film as early as 1908 with the first independent producer, Centaur Film Co. of Bayonne, New Jersey. In his unpublished memoir he described what he called a “chase picture” of the one-reel era, “The reason for the chase amounting to about one quarter of the reel and the chase took up the remainder.” (Up and Down the Ladder.)Centaur productions stressed “action, action, action” as one trade magazine put it, and the company developed the western out of the more sentimental and pastoral “Indian subject” of the day. A full production slate for any studio by 1910 delivered a minimum of one drama, one western, and one comedy each week. This first production boom allowed nickelodeons to change programs daily. The movies had no start-times or credits and there were no movie reviews, people simply came in and watched the program until it came back ’round to the point at which they’d entered which generally took just over an hour. The twenty thousand or more shorts of that era laid the foundations for film language, film genres and the movie industry we know.
The Edison, Biograph and Vitagraph companies in New York were part of the Edison Trust establishment and they produced largely “uplift” fare: sentimental melodramas and short adaptations of famous novels and plays. The Trust hoped to attract the middle class to what was initially an entertainment for the urban immigrant working class. No English was needed to understand chase pictures or slapstick comedies. D.W. Griffith at Biograph improved film grammar with his one- and then two-reeler women’s pictures, melodramas, and occasional forays into the action genre. Before Griffith demonstrated what a film director was, pictures were made by technicians such as cameramen or lighting engineers. Also at Biograph Mack Sennett pioneered silent comedy which he perfected in Hollywood at Keystone, one of the New York Motion Picture Co.’s brands alongside “101”-Bison and Kay-Bee where Ford made his greatest films. (NYMPCo. was another independent producer.) In Chicago Essanay Film produced comedies and westerns, Selig Polyscope Co. made westerns and comedies and the American/Flying “A” Film Co. made westerns and melodramas. Lubin Manufacturing in Philadelphia was another early producer of westerns and melodramas.
The rise of the western genre soon made the ability to produce realistic westerns an existential concern and this drove producers westward. Francis Ford wrote that the western quickly evolved beyond the “Jersey westerns” with their “bob-tailed horses with English saddles.” And when the Chicago companies began sending crews out to Colorado and the west Ford joined Melies-Star Films in New York which moved to San Antonio and then to Santa Paula, Calif. If you couldn’t make westerns in New Jersey any longer then you couldn’t make them in the French countryside either and French producers like Pathe and Eclair also sent their western units to Oklahoma and points west.
By 1912 Francis Ford was directing and starring in occasional three-reel “specials” such as The Invaders which survives and at three-reels (40+ minutes) he was knocking on the door to the feature film. The weekly serial was another half-step toward feature-length productions and by 1913 Ford was producing and starring in adventure serials; film scholar Robert Birchard credits him with inventing the cliffhanger ending. It is believed that John Ford joined his older brother in Hollywood in 1914 so its likely John’s first work in Hollywood was on Francis’ serial, Lucille Love – Girl of Mystery (1914). The breakthrough years-long success of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) set the feature film as the new standard (John Ford claimed he was an extra in it). John was famously prickly when interviewed but he was unusually effusive about his older brother’s talents and influence on his own filmmaking when talking to Peter Bogdanovich in 1966. Jack credited Frank with coming up with most of the tricks considered novel in 60s films but explained: “[H]e just couldn’t concentrate on one thing too long.” This was Jack’s explanation for how Frank could be such a powerhouse actor-director-writer-producer of the early period and then be lost in the feature era, forgotten and busted to bit parts until his death in 1953.
Feature-length film production after 1915 winnowed the many movie producers to just the sturdiest of studios. The scale necessary to absorb the vaulting costs and logistics of feature film production was daunting and soon the additional burden of sound recording for talkies reduced the number of major studios to just MGM, Warner Bros., RKO, Fox, Paramount, Universal, and Columbia. Each produced many kinds of shorts and features but primarily they produced slates of low-budget or B-films within defined genres for the routine profit such films could earn. These were often filmed on sets built for the rare large-budget pictures studios felt called upon to make. Those A-films and epics gambled with talent, quality, weather, health emergencies, etc., any of which might easily cause the throwing of good money after bad on a runaway production. For an A-film to be profitable it had to last months in first-run theaters and then run another year or two in neighborhood theaters. So at MGM, Wallace Beery Bs and Laurel & Hardy shorts plus Andy Hardy or Maisie B-series built up profits that the studio gambled on Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) or Marie Antoinette (1938).
After WWII the aesthetic polarity of Hollywood began to reverse. Working women and men back from the war put a premium on realism and new independent producers fed this appetite better than the studios. That new realism is today usually termed noir. David Selznick in 1953 reportedly worried MGM was making films “for which there was ‘no longer a market.'” (The Genius of the System) It was a rare movie reviewer in the 1930s and ’40s who displayed positive interest in the action genres – Harry Potamkin and Manny Farber come to mind. But their advanced taste was reinforced by postwar critics’ interest in European art-film imports such as the neo-realist films from Italy and French 1950s film noir and 1960s New Wave cinema, as well as films by auteurs such as Luis Bunuel and Ingmar Bergman. These European films had tighter budgets and simpler logistical visual and sound designs and so their realism helped recast the value of “lesser” American productions and turned Hollywood’s aesthetic hierarchy upside-down. MGM’s family-friendly musicals, costume dramas, and adult melodramas lost standing to RKO’s crime dramas and independent producers’ westerns.
We have since seen highbrow neo-genre filmmaking in the 1970s (films like The Godfather, The Hired Hand, The Long Goodbye, The Last American Hero, Chinatown, The Exorcist, Hard Times, Jaws…) blend into the action genre continnum best illustrated by Clint Eastwood’s filmography. But now contemporary iterations of the action genre are threatened by the rise of the cheapest, lowest-brow generic film. These grew from the weekly serials of the 1930s (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Secret Agent X-9…) though now they play more like series B-films but with top-heavy MGMish production values. Superheroes, robots, dinosaurs… the junk movies of 1930s and ’40s childhoods now rule a Hollywood focused on a global audience that is less sophisticated than the American audience.
The modest generic action film at its best displays a low-key knowing realism about American life and in Greek terms is descended from comedy as well as tragedy. It does not pretend to all-importance as do the comics- or toy-derived A-film and so travels less well overseas. Action films now at least look a budget-step up from the past international co-production style of B-films by a Golden Harvest or Golan-Globus even as few new Bs approach their high/low peaks: Death Hunt (1981) and Runaway Train (1985). Recent generic contenders are Drive (2011), The Grey (2011), A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), Bone Tomahawk (2015), Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016), Blood Father (2016), Wind River (2017), Hostiles (2017), Dragged Across Concrete (2018), The Mule (2018)…
The serial format of the comic book A-film enjoys aesthetic validation from that boom in highbrow television. TV critics have been lording it over film critics who find they must write seriously and often about men in tights. But the sequeling model for these no-longer-just-summer movies was built from the films Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), First Blood (1982), and The Terminator (1984) even though these original “episodes” were relatively spare B productions. Budgets for their sequels were tripled or more and those opened much bigger to greater anticipation. Now the budgets for series films start high; they are based on comic book properties instead of novels or plays or built out from existing hit series. The old idea was that the sequels would in turn yield diminishing returns and so by numbers 3 or 4 the budgets would shrink to take its profit on the opening weekend for a now hollowed out franchise. The new idea seeks to maintain the value of the underlying intellectual property by continuing to spend the time and money necessary to deliver A-film series excitement. Rooting through the studio IP vaults and rebooting worn-out franchises is now a corporate mandate. And its potentially too expensive to kill off any character whether superhero or archvillain. This is a problem imported to cinema from episodic television — once established, no member of the regular cast can die or leave without the corporation foregoing possible revenue from some spin-off. On Mannix at least the fate of the guest star was at stake.
Early streaming options began at Netflix with a few recent features and many old B-westerns and crime dramas which had also provided initial low-cost programming for early broadcast tv seventy years ago. The streaming juggernaut is now reconstituting the in-house distribution of the major studios’ theater chains or block-booking arrangements. The Paramount decision of 1948 forced studios to sell their theaters and outlawed such deals just as television was arriving to challenge the monopoly that had concerned the Supreme Court. Late last year the Justice Department rescinded the Paramount decision as an ironic rimshot to recent developments. Of the remaining studios only Disney might want to own theaters since their Disney, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel productions have been most efficient at drawing large theatrical box-office returns. The other studios A-films are riskier for their lack of dependable B-film revenue.
But streaming is distribution now and its audience of millions in their homes or on-the-go will dwarf the thousands who go to theaters to watch a movie. When Netflix, and now Apple, Amazon, AT&T-Warner, NBCUniversal-Comcast and the rest become producing studios in order to fill their streaming distribution pipes we begin to see the real world extinguishing of the Paramount decision whether Disney buys a theater chain or not. Significantly Netflix, though tempted, finally passed on wide national theatrical distribution for its prestige A-production of the auteurist formerly B-styled gangster film, The Irishman. The large theater chains offered to shrink their standard theatrical window from 90 days to 60 days but Netflix balked and released the film to a small number of independent theaters with just a 26-day window before making the film available to its streaming subscribers. That was a close call for generic cinema! It is an unalloyed good for action cinema, high and low, to be thrown directly into streaming pipelines, at least for now.
Some day it may not cost $30 million to market a small budget picture to movie theaters but it does now and those costs were already derailing the last coherent version of the old A-film/B-film relationship when the wheels fell off at Miramax. Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films’ action and horror Bs long paid for Harvey’s prestige Miramax A-films. Quentin Tarantino might have made more and cheaper films for Bob; instead he warped his genre interests into expensive, overlong “specials” that he only infrequently could deliver to Harvey.
Perhaps it will be dumb luck if not all production for the streamers is episodic television or serial cinema. The streamer Quibi is even relaunching short material in a format equivalent to the one-reeler! But as long as genre features can get made cheaply and are allowed a chance to pay for the A-budget features, high and low, the market for the great American genre film can grow despite current global market conditions. And in the long term, such films might actually have a shot at once again remaking that global market for the better as Jack Ford’s older brother Frank’s “chase pictures” once did.