From Lillian Ross’ book PICTURE, about the making of The Red Badge of Courage

–     Producer Gottfried Reinhardt:  “And I thought that John would be able to show what goes on inside the boy.  If we had narration for the picture  —  maybe with that we could show what goes on inside.  But John kept saying, ‘No narration.’  Billy Wilder in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ had the nerve; after the man is dead he has him do the narration.  Joe Mankiewicz uses narration.  Narration is good enough for them but not for John.”

–     “Reinhardt said, ‘John, you have to tell people what the picture is.  We should start the narration at the beginning, before the scene at the river.  That scene is puzzling.  You pay for clever openings.  We must tell them, “Here is a masterpiece.”  You’ve got to tell it to them.'”

–     “Suddenly, late in the spring of 1951, the big word around the studio was ‘narration.’  ‘We are using the words of Stephen Crane himself to tell the audience what is happening,’ Reinhardt said to his wife one night, ‘and the picture will start with an introduction that tells the audience that they are going to see a great classic.’  Only Mayer didn’t think that narration (‘Jabber, jabber, jabber.  Who wants to listen?’) or anything else would help.”

–     The review of The Red Badge of Courage in the New York Herald Tribune mentioned “a redundant narration that clutters up the sound track from time to time explaining facts already clear in the images…”

I could not be more tired of the American documentary.  I have been watching The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of the American Cinema, and I am tired of what passes for film while being in fact an illustrated lecture; the persistent, droning voice-over accompanied by often meaningless pictures.  Here the narrator tells us that Thanhouser was born in Baltimore, then shows us an old map of Baltimore.  Who the hell cares about an old map of Baltimore?  Who can see anything on it unless you’re mightily familiar with the city and know just where to look for what.  This is padding.  This is illustration supposedly enlivening text.  This is the American documentary style and, increasingly, international style as well.  There is so much talk; there is such overload of information or the tautology of telling you what you are already seeing  —  or making up for the fact that there’s nothing to see.  One longs for a moment’s silence; time to see; time to reflect.

Ned Thanhouser, who narrates his own film, has a good voice.  He is enthusiastic and is justifiably proud of his grandparents’ contribution to early film; but…It never stops.  The voice never stops, even during film clips.

The Thanhouser documentary offers a good introduction to the young star Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid, and to the early career of James Cruze.  There are fine stills of Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, also Alice Guy and Herbert Blaché.

Now Val Lewton, the Man in the Shadows, also has lots of narration.  But the effect is different.   Presented by Martin Scorseseand and a product of TCM, it is finely paced and subtly, expressively edited  —  including the narration.  In fact, occasionally when offering a fact or observation, the narration approaches the laughably corny as the voice tries too hard to match a dark mood or suspenseful moment.  But that’s quibbling.  This is a good job.

The Man in the Shadows is comprised of not just stills and posters and voice-overs.  There are film clips  —  not Academy style or Golden Globes style but real clips, allowing you time to look and grasp and appreciate.  In its determination to be complete, it gets a bit long; but this is an excellent piece of work and sends you back to the films.  Look for it on TCM,

Val Lewton, the Man in the Shadows     Kent Jones (writer & director)     2007

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of the Cinema     Ned Thanhouser     2014

I recently viewed Harlan County U.S.A. on Turner Classic Movies.  It is still as gripping as any fictional film imaginable.  There are occasional titles  —  to identify an individual, to give a date.  But the filmmaker lets us learn for ourselves through gut-wrenching images and moving, pertinent music and the brave, candid testimony of participants.  Harlan County U.S.A. is an hour and forty-five minutes long, and THERE  IS  NO  NARRATION.

Harlan County U.S.A.     Barbara Kopple     1977

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I have just been watching Woody Allen’s Zelig.  The sound track so perfectly reincarnates, mocks and satirizes the American documentary voice-over, especially the newsreel voices of the 40s (marvelously performed here by Patrick Horgan), that I am amazed  the form is still afloat.  Zelig should have sunk it.  But it spreads, and foreign films are catching it.  Flaherty and Lorenz and Grierson and Franju spin in their graves.

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Lillian Ross’ Picture was originally published in The New Yorker.  It is currently published by Da Capo Press.


Until then,
See you at the movies,

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