The Chiseler Interviews Jonathan Rosenbaum

Posted May 18, 2020. — J.R.

The Chiseler Interviews Jonathan Rosenbaum



The Chiseler’s Daniel Riccuito discusses pre-Code talkies, noir and leftist politics with one of America’s leading film critics.

DR: We share a common enthusiasm for early talkies. Do you have any favorite actors, writers or storylines relating to the period’s ethnic, often radically left-wing, politics? I’m thinking of the way that, say, The Mayor of Hell suddenly busts into a long Yiddish monologue. Or movies like Counsellor at Law and Street Scene present hard Left ideas through characters with Jewish, Eastern European backgrounds.

JR: Both Counsellor at Law and Street Scene are plays by Elmer Rice (1892-1967) that Rice himself adapted, and both are terrific films with very good directors (William Wyler and King Vidor, respectively). It’s too bad that Rice’s plays aren’t revived more often today, although a few years ago, the TimeLine theater company in Chicago put on a fantastic, neo-Wellesian production of The Adding Machine. I also had the privilege of knowing Rice’s two children with actress Betty Field, John and Judy, who attended the same boarding school in Vermont, both of whom I remember quite fondly.


Although it isn’t as politically subversive as the Rice plays, the delightful Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle, 1932) is still a more radical comedy in its treatment of class and sex — specifically, the sexual lure of being robbed as another way of being sexually possessed and enjoyed — than Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, released a little later the same year. There’s also something prophetic about the use of charm, good manners, and marihuana joints to lure the cops away from crime and criminals — another form of sensual appeal, in contrast to the more ethereal romanticism preached by the Lubitsch film, which might be said to value style over content and suggestion over spelling things out. For that matter, even a conservative director like Cecil B. De Mille does amazing things with class and sexual tensions in his melodrama Dynamite (1929) — which deserves to be cherished today at least as much as his subsequent Madame Satan — undoubtedly assisted by at least one Communist (John Howard Lawson) among his screenwriters. Especially in Dynamite, proletarian interests and biases are honored and rewarded at least as much as luxuries and privileges. The convoluted plot may be absurdly contrived, but by getting an heiress (Kay Johnson) married to a coal miner (Charles Bickford) awaiting execution for a crime he didn’t commit, the movie gives us archetypes so dialectically opposed that any sexual congress between them virtually guarantees an explosive climax as promised by the title, and De Mille in fact delivers several.

DR: I once compared Elmer Rice’s words in the play Counsellor at Law to the final screenplay. There were very definite cuts to his radical (colloquial) language. Bebe Daniels’ character would have put her heart into a (sadly) excised line about police brutality. Rice demonstrated enormous sensitivity to the way everyday people felt and spoke. Do you have a favorite writer — especially where sassy dialogue is concerned?

JR: I wish I did, but that’s beyond my range of expertise. However, one name that sparkles for me is Donald Ogden Stewart. He’s only one of the four credited screenwriters on Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast’s exquisite Laughter (1930) — for me the only early talkie that measures up to F. Scott Fitzgerald in sophistication — along with Herman Mankiewicz and d’Arrast himself, but I like to think that he’s the crucial figure.


Donald Ogden Stewart

DR: Oh, I love Laughter! You’re making me want to see everything Donald Ogden Stewart ever wrote. You mentioned Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast and Herman Mankiewicz. Could you expand on your interest in either or both of them? Your answer needn’t focus on any particular period.

JR: I’ve been trying for some time to investigate d’Arrast’s work, but it’s been almost impossible because of all the lost films (apparently Service for LadiesSerenadeThe Magnificent Flirt, and Dry Martini) and/or unavailable films (It Happened in Spain and The Three Cornered Hat). Pierre Rissient, who knew him, denied the rumors about him being antisemitic and argued that he had a lot to do with Hallelujah, I’m a Bum because of all the work he did on preproduction. The other films that he worked on which I’ve seen —WingsA Gentleman of ParisRaffles, and Topaz–all testify to his special qualities.

DR: Hallelujah, I’m a Bum makes me think of Ben Hecht, naturally, but also of Hecht’s friend and sometimes co-writer Maxwell Bodenheim who wrote Naked on Roller Skates, one of my favorite books, loaded with 1930s slang.  A weird mix of pulp fiction and experimentalism. We touched on radical leftism and ethnicity earlier… How do you account for full-on communist films like Our Daily Bread getting made in Hollywood? Or what about the social justice films out of Warner Bros., like Wild Boys of the Road, which features little Sidney Miller hurling “Chazzer!” at a cop. I’m sometimes astounded by the open radicalism one finds in early Sound-era films. I even went digging through the Warner archives hoping to find evidence that senior execs might have harbored radical left dreams and discovered an early script of Heroes for Sale, which compared Richard Barthelmess’ character to Jesus Christ — after making him a brick-throwing, cop-fighting member of the I.W.W.!


JR: We have to remember that Communist values were very close to being a mainstream position during much of the 30s. I’ve long maintained, for instance, that Faulkner’s Light in August is a Communist novel, simply because Faulkner, for all his eccentricity and conservatism, was part of the mainstream during the Depression. Our national amnesia tends to factor this out of our history, just as (to cite a more trivial but more recent example) America’s love for Jerry Lewis throughout most of the 50s, which enabled him to make two or three pictures a year, is not only forgotten but illogically replaced by the so-called (and mostly imaginary) love of the French, as if this were the reason why Lewis could make so many movies in the U.S. and why Sailor Beware made a lot more money than either Singin’ in the Rain or On the Waterfront.

I’m a novice when it comes to Ben Hecht — apart from having read Adina Hoffman’s excellent recent critical biography of him — because both his cynicism and his contempt for Hollywood are automatic turn-offs for me. But Bodenheim is clearly, at least for me, a Topic For Further Research.

DR: Speaking of leftism in 1930s Hollywood, what connections do you draw between that period and the emergence of noir, in which the old ebullience of the radical left seems to have soured into (a more realistic?) nihilism and anger. Maybe I’m projecting there. In any event, do you find it useful, or perhaps even inevitable, to make connections between pre-Code and noir? I can’t help noticing how many forties and fifties films wind up in sewers, industrial parks and abandoned factories, which all feel like inhuman representations of capitalism. Try and Get Me AKA The Sound of Fury is famously based on Jo Pagano’s The Condemned, a book coming out of a hard-left perspective. Or do you find other, less political connections between these periods interesting?

JR: I don’t find noir more “realistic” than 30s leftism. Au contraire, I find its defeatism and expressionism far more comforting. Closure, no matter how grim or grimy, is always more comforting than ellipsis and suspension —trajectories into possible futures. I think the popularity of noir today has a lot to do with a doom-laden death wish, a desire to escape any sense of responsibility for a future that seems helpfully hopeless — an attitude that “blossoms,” decadently, into the Godfather trilogy, where corruption is seen as “tragically” (that is to say, satisfyingly) inevitable. Once the future becomes foreclosed, we’re all left off the hook, n’est pas?

DR: Well said, Jonathan. I hereby spare you my own personal dialectic, which ricochets between radical left politics (love, solidarity, hope) and totalizing disgust with human kind. In fact, I only mention that particular tension as a way of pointing out that my last question spoke to broad tendencies. Ever seeChicago Calling? One of Dan Duryea’s finest moments! It seems to me that the film, along with the best “dark” post-WWII cinema, not all of it “noir” per se, manages to ricochet that way. Do you have any favorites from the period? If so, what draws you there?

JR: I haven’t yet seen either Chicago Calling or Guilty Bystander (another early and obscure noir I just heard about), both of which I’m currently downloading. (Stay tuned…)

Otherwise, noir is too vast a subject for me to comment on at any length just now, except to recommend James Naremore’s (for me) definitive book on the subject, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.

DR: What do you think of Felix Feist’s work?

JR: Based on what I’ve seen, I’m not a fan.

(Here, we break so that Jonathan Rosenbaum can watch Chicago Calling)


JR: Now that I’ve watched Chicago Calling, I can’t help but reflect that noir and neorealism, contemporary film movements, may actually be opposite sides of the same coin. (Isn’t Open City a noir, and The Sound of Fury an alternate version of The Bicycle Thief?) The key traits that they have in common are “postwar” and “originating in Europe,” but the key difference that should be acknowledged at the outset is that “noir” in this country wasn’t perceived as such when the films that we now identify as “noir” first appeared. Even in France it had a literary connotation because it was a name derived from a book publisher. So it’s a way of reinventing and reinterpreting the past, whereas Italian neorealism was perceived as such from the get-go. It also was fundamentally humanist whereas noir was closer to nihilism and cynicism, and its tendency towards political defeatism obviously has a lot to do with its contemporary appeal — absolving us of any responsibility for the messes we live in.

Chicago Calling is closer to neorealism than it is to noir because of its exciting use of natural locations and its focus on working-class characters.Yet as a hard luck story it seems so overdetermined that at times it becomes metaphysical, which places it closer to noir. Dan Duryea is an actor that we mostly associate with noir and metaphysics, so it’s refreshing to find him for once in a neorealistic and physical landscape.

DR: I’m interested in your idea that noir veers into the metaphysical realm. Since we started our conversation in the 1930s, which seem grounded in physical reality, I wonder if you have any thoughts on the evolution of noir, its underlying and perhaps unconscious motives. I vaguely recall a film critic whose name escapes me saying “After the war we needed shadows to hide in.”

JR: I’d like to ask that film critic why we need to hide. In my experience, some of the same people who love noir also supported and even celebrated both of the Gulf wars and didn’t mind at all if the U.S. was torturing a lot of innocent people as long as the innocent people wasn’t them — all of which suggests to me a pretty good reason for wanting to hide. But surely defeating the Nazis — unlike some of the brutalities that arise from capitalism– isn’t a very plausible reason for hiding.

DR: I think it was a Hiroshima reference, not sure.

JR: That makes sense. Even though Truman gave no indication of wanting to hide.

DR: Has the Chicago film scene had any influence on you?

JR: For starters, I perceive New York as a separate country — Manhattan as an island–and Chicago as part of the U.S. I also consider New York and Los Angeles (a company town) as provincial in much the same way that my home town in Alabama is provincial: i.e., if something hasn’t happened there, it hasn’t happened. Whereas Chicago knows that it isn’t the center of the universe. And its film scene is decidedly less competitive and turf-conscious, which I find refreshing. There isn’t the same cut-throat atmosphere here nor any of the New York or Hollywood arrogance and rudeness.

DR: I’ve asked you questions that assume connections between aesthetics and politics. I get the sense that you lean “left”. But given that political shorthand can be confusing, I’ll try being as concrete as possible: your analysis of fascist aesthetics in Star Wars moved me as a critique cutting across the grain of America’s image of itself as a liberating force in the world. What are your politics?

JR: Star Wars fosters the idea of a bloodless genocidal massacre, which is part of what made both Gulf wars so popular in this country — seeing war as a video game.

I’m basically a Bernie Sanders socialist who would be happy with an Elizabeth Warren presidency, and I’m also a pacifist. 

DR: Do your politics relate in substantive ways to your early movie-going experiences? I heard that your father owned a movie theater. I’m also thinking of the distinctions you draw among the various American movie scenes. Was the physical landscape you grew up in an influence on your aesthetic and political values?

JR: My politics were probably affected more by my almost eight years of living in Europe (Paris and London) than by my first sixteen years of living in Alabama. My paternal grandfather owned a small chain of movie theaters, and my father worked for him until the chain was sold in 1960, at which point he became an English professor. He was never a cinephile, but the fact that he’d wanted to be a writer clearly influenced my becoming one.

Growing up in a house designed for my parents by Frank Lloyd Wright also undoubtedly affected my aesthetics, but not my politics, which were formed in part by my 60s involvements in the civil rights and antiwar movements.

As for my view of America’s role in the world, I think we tend to be handicapped in our good intentions by the delusion that only three kinds of people exist —Americans, anti-Americans, and prospective Americans — which means that we tend to exclude most of humanity from the playing field.

This interview was conducted via email.

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