Revisiting Halliwell's Film Guide
By Alex Paquin
Posted 07/11/11 00:01:57
A couple of years ago, the closest thing we had to a neighbourhood cinema closed. The local city councillor, eager, as politicians are wont to do, to demonstrate that this wasn't his fault, especially with an election scheduled before the end of that year, was all sober determinism as he presented the closure as a foregone conclusion. There was no future for cinemas with only one screen, he said to the local paper. That much, as far as I can tell, was true; but the theatre had three screens, not one, which should have been obvious to anyone just passing by.
Still, it remained an anomaly, belonged to an earlier age, stood in the way of the inexorable march of progress -- or so the councillor said; and the local paper, little more than a mouthpiece for the chamber of commerce, would agree. It had already been announced that it would be demolished, to be replaced with yet another office building for white-collared public-sector employees. 150 jobs, good news for commerce.
Two years later, the building is still there, quiet, a relic from the past; the councillor too.
It may seem as though I am still mourning its loss, but no: I had not seen a film there since the last century. For a decade, perhaps longer, it had specialized in bargain-price farewell tours for current movies that had already outstayed their welcome at better venues. The more successful titles never played there, nor did failed prestige pictures. Instead, the management seemed content to pluck its choices from run-of-the-mill comedies, teen movies, horror films -- commercially successful films, but never too successful; nothing, at any rate, that I was interested in seeing, regardless of the price of admission. At last, the owners came to realize that running bargain films in a cinema with a roof in need of maintenance was not really worth it. As for the architecture, the least said, the better; no marquee, just a green and magenta neon sign. It was not even venerable, having been constructed in the mid-seventies.
The owners, to their credit, were independents, and although the local cinema had been their first, they were still in business, managing larger theatres with all the amenities a twenty-first-century filmgoer required, and embracing the future of filmgoing in all its fake-buttery decadence. In an interview to the local newspaper, the vice-president of the chain was explaining that less mainstream titles, such as that year's Canadian submission for the Academy Awards -- a winner of three prizes at Cannes and a media sensation because of the young age of its director -- could not have played in a small theatre as opposed to a multiplex. He, or the newspaper, could not even get the title right.
In the late eighties, when I was nine or ten, I went to see a film at that cinema with a relative. It was an afternoon screening, and the room was nearly empty. After the film, the owner came to ask us what we thought of the film; when I said I found the ending confusing, he offered us to see the film again for free. This is my only clear memory of "going to the movies". From that time until a decade later, for various reasons, all the films I saw were broadcast on television, as even the one video store within walking distance offered a dismal selection that never extended past the five previous years. I usually shunned prime-time offerings and went for late-night and afternoon films, usually more obscure or older. Those ranged from Buster Keaton's classics to Abbott and Costello's Pardon my Sarong to The Adventures of Robin Hood to That's Entertainment to Broken Blossoms to seasonal classics like White Christmas (and its predecessor, Holiday Inn) and Miracle on 34th Street. A rare exception was Gone With the Wind, which I first saw in a theatre; on a small screen, let it be said, it's a bore. I now seem to bear the strange distinction of being more familiar with films made before my birth than those made in the last decade.
During that time period, I bought what remains my sole paper film guide, Halliwell's Film & Video Guide, 1998 edition. I had compared various guides, and it was the only guide that paid due attention to Hollywood classics. Unfortunately, Leslie Halliwell had died in 1989, with the result that his guide was then being "revised and updated" by editor John Walker. I would learn only years later the extent of those revisions and updates, which make Halliwell purists disregard any edition that followed the last in which he had any involvement, the seventh, published posthumously the year of his death. If subsequent editions had only added new films reviewed by Walker, I doubt that there would have been a controversy; but Walker also saw fit to substitute his own ratings to those by Halliwell and -- sacrilege -- even rewrite the comments.
To be fair to the later editors of his guide, calling Halliwell a traditionalist would be an understatement. His ratings ranged from zero to four stars, with the highest mark indicating "a film outstanding in many ways, a milestone in cinema history, remarkable for acting, direction, writing, photography or some other aspect of technique." The most recent film to which he gave four stars was Bonnie and Clyde (1967), one of just five films from the sixties to obtain this rating -- and those include Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy, which hardly counts.
From this, one might conclude that Halliwell, by the time of his death, was little more than a desiccated patriarch who clung to his hopelessly outmoded tastes out of nostalgia. The first problem with this view is that he was born too late to fit this mold. While nostalgia definitely played a part, he was born in 1929 (in Bolton, Lancashire), which makes him just 38 years old when Bonnie and Clyde was released, and 59 when he died; Pauline Kael, who did not seem to mind the sixties and seventies, was his senior by nearly a decade. Nevertheless, while he was decidedly conservative in tastes, he was open-minded enough to give four stars to the Beatles vehicle A Hard Day's Night, or, indeed, to Bonnie and Clyde, which heralded the violent style of the seventies he so despised.
The second problem with the pure nostalgia view is that he never hesitated to remove an earlier fourth star from films which no longer met his exacting criteria; while he promoted to four-star status only three films he had previously reviewed (Dumbo, The Band Wagon and Abel Gance's silent epic Napoleon), he demoted twenty-five, eleven of those between the sixth and seventh editions. His 1977 first edition, which only included feature-length talking pictures in English, contained 124 four-star films; the seventh edition included 130, after the addition of previously unreviewed silents, foreign films and short subjects, even propaganda work such as the nine-minute London Can Take It. One wonders whether Halliwell would have continued to expunge titles from this list had he lived to produce an eighth edition, but what seemed clear enough was that even though he already considered Bonnie and Clyde a classic before the first edition, no film produced in the last 22 years of his life, in Hollywood or abroad, was, according to him, worthy of that honour. Cinema, after 1967, might as well never have existed.
My concern is not so much that he refused to raise to four stars the films we now recognize as classics of the seventies and eighties, but that he refused to do so for any film, whether The Godfather or Sextette. If the passing of a decade (and perhaps less) was enough to cement the status of Bonnie and Clyde in the eyes of Halliwell -- even should he have downgraded it later -- it should have been enough for any film released prior to 1980. From this perspective, it is perhaps his untimely death which prevented his film guide from revealing how out of touch he had become.
The first seven editions included an essay to which he gave the title The Decline and Fall of the Movies. In it, one can find a smorgasbord of complaints levelled at everything and everyone connected with contemporary film, beginning with "arrogant" film-makers, who although "steeped in the history of Hollywood’s golden age... have no idea what made it work so well" and who "as soon as they become successful they begin to despise their audiences and are concerned only to over-spend enormous budgets while putting across some garbled self-satisfying message which is usually anti-establishment, anti-law-and-order and anti-entertainment"; in other words, "people with no sense of humour, people who do not realize that they must please the mass audience if the industry in which they work is to survive" but who would rather "spend large sums of other people’s money in flying their own flimsy kites".
Other targets included bean-counting executives, "verbose and pompous critics who were determined to turn [film] into serious art", actors who were "depressingly committed to their own self-expression and to the depiction of mankind with warts and all, not to pleasing, stimulating or improving the public", even the abandonment of the Academy ratio in favour of widescreen because of the butchering this led to for television broadcast. (Halliwell spent most of his career as a film rights buyer for British television, which might explain why he chose not to attack that medium; instead, he remarked that "television is infinitely cheaper and can be viewed in the comfort of one’s home: no wonder so many people prefer it", which echoes Samuel Goldwyn's probably apocryphal remark that people had no reason to spend money on bad movies when they could watch bad television for nothing. However, he was wary of home video.). Even colour sometimes came under attack, and one almost thinks that the only reason he did not object to sound was that, in this particular case, he was indeed too young to care.
From The Decline and Fall of the Movies, a picture gradually emerges of Halliwell's tastes: he viewed films mostly as entertainment and escapism, as craftsmanship rather than art (even though he respected the latter), despised auteurism for attributing creative control of a film to the director as opposed to the studio system itself, and preferred the confines of the backlot to shooting on location. Neither intellectual (he mentioned "long-haired publications" such as Sight and Sound as major offenders) nor visceral (pretty much why I cannot stand Kael), he did not necessarily want film as a place where sunshine reigned, but he wanted it as stylized and as removed from realism as possible. With the collapse of the studio system, he saw film as having embarked on a course of crudity from which it had yet to recover:
"By the early sixties Hollywood had decided on a new image, but it had lost its old loyalties – the golden age audiences as well as the talents were getting older – and had to appeal deliberately to the ‘emancipated’ young generation. This meant a virtual abolition of censorship, and from the release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966 to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Devil in Miss Jones ten years later is but a short step. The film is no longer an art, or even a craft: after a brief ‘swinging’ period it became an exploitation industry designed to take quick money from suckers, led by maverick Ken Russells rather than conscientious Irving Thalbergs, to plaudits from irresponsible critics whenever some totally untalented new director ‘does his thing’. There is no justification except box office for films like The Exorcist or Mandingo, none except self-indulgence for a $12 million coffee-table film like Barry Lyndon, while the popularity even in sophisticated circles of shoddy pornography like Deep Throat and Death Weekend should stand as an awful warning to the leasers of our society that a vivid young art form has overreached itself and is well and truly on the verge of disaster. It is all very well to say in defence of such films that large numbers of people flock to see them: so they did once bear-baiting and public executions and witch hunts, but the human race long ago prided itself on having passed that stage."
It is there that Halliwell's nostalgia got the better of him. He placed himself with those who "sigh frequently for the halcyon days when Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer sat in their front offices" without acknowledging that they ruled their studios in the manner of feudal barons, breaking careers on a whim; he praised the studio system, but failed to take into account its excesses, from block-booking to suspending actors when they refused to appear in inferior material, then extending their contract to make up for the suspension period; he nominally objected to the "absurdly tight" censorship of the Production Code Administration, but seemed to conveniently overlook the symbiosis between it and the studio system at the heart of the Golden Age of Hollywood. On this last point, for example, one can hardly imagine Halliwell's views on "anti-establishment, anti-law-and-order" cinema being anathema to the Production Code; quite the opposite, since the Code, for example, stipulated that crimes against the law "shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation".
Still, there is something about Halliwell that I like, especially his attention to classic films from an angle that is not primarily academic. He might have put entertainment first, but he nonetheless placed Citizen Kane at the peak of his top 10 films, presumably because it was captivating in addition to any artistic significance it might have possessed. And he saw the beginning of the rift between filmgoers and the critics. (Halliwell himself was considered on the lowly reviewer/provider of consumer reports side.) While he rightly remembered that most of the studios' output was unworthy of a screening, he understood that Hollywood at its best produced films such as Stagecoach which could attract both categories.
This being said, one aspect of the guide which I do find questionable: to be as thorough as possible, Halliwell researched older films, especially from the 1930's and 1940's, and included them in new editions of his guide. Many of those were not then available on home video, and were unlikely to show up on television, but one can hardly blame him for including them when the home video market was rapidly expanding. Halliwell, however, went beyond this and included lost films, perhaps unwittingly. This concern goes beyond utilitarian grounds (i.e. whether readers need to be offered a listing for a lost film they will seek in vain) to a point of ethics: did Halliwell actually see these lost films he was rating, and, if so, when?
Consider, for example, these three entries from Halliwell's guide:
London after Midnight (1927): "A creepy house murder is solved by hypnotism, and a grinning monster proves to be a red herring. Famous star thriller of which lamentably no prints survive; remade as Mark of the Vampire." One star.
Mamba (1930): "Germans in East Africa go to the bad during World War I. Absurd melodrama climaxing with a Zulu uprising." No star.
Convention City (1933): "Extra-marital fun and games at a Chicago convention. Amusing and rather risqué comedy which helped to bring down on Hollywood the wrath of the Legion of Decency." One star.
The three films are to some extent important to the history of motion pictures. London after Midnight starred the legendary Lon Chaney; Mamba was billed as the first talking drama filmed entirely in colour, quite a feat for Tiffany, a Poverty Row studio that would close its doors in 1932; and Convention City was among the films cited for justifying the introduction of the Production Code the following year, which prevented its re-release. The first and third of these films are still considered lost; as for the second, a full print (in colour, no less) was only discovered in 2009. How could Halliwell have seen them?
The entry for London after Midnight is unequivocal: no prints survive, despite persistent rumours, as with all lost films of importance, of a copy being held by a reclusive collector. The last known print was destroyed in a fire in an MGM vault circa 1967, which makes it possible that Halliwell had the opportunity to attend a screening, since at least one was reportedly held sometime in the 1950's; in this case, one has to question the merit of listing a picture he knew was lost. The same could be asked of Halliwell's one-star entry for The Divine Woman, starring Greta Garbo, as the last known complete print was destroyed in the same vault fire; only one reel survives.
Mamba, despite its box-office success, did not outlast the bankruptcy of its studio, and was, according to one source, among the Tiffany prints burned during the filming of Gone With the Wind's Atlanta depot fire (I find this story dubious, but I'm mentioning it nonetheless). It survived incomplete until the 2009 discovery.
The case of Convention City is even more detailed, thanks to the efforts of the Vitaphone Project. Nothing survives of the film itself, except for some background location footage. The Vitaphone Project first set about dispelling the myth that the prints were destroyed on the orders of Jack Warner in 1936. According to that theory, the film was still being requested for screenings, but the lack of a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration persuaded Warner to destroy the film so he could claim his studio no longer had it. However, evidence turned up proving that the film was being advertised in the United States in 1937 and had been distributed abroad, as evidenced by the French and Spanish alternate titles; the last notice of a screening was printed in a Madrid newspaper as late as August 1942. After this date, nothing, except a notice in the Warner Bros. records that the negative was junked in 1948, and a claim by star Joan Blondell that she used to hold private screenings of her copy of the film.
Let us give Halliwell the benefit of the doubt, and say that he could have attended a screening of London after Midnight or The Divine Woman in the fifties, and that he might have based his review of Mamba on whatever incomplete material was available at the time. Unfortunately, it all falls apart with Convention City: even though Halliwell held a precocious interest in film (he started writing reviews in 1945), it is extremely unlikely that a British screening of the film would have gone unnoticed. It is not impossible that this hypothetical screening could have taken place after the war, as a 1947 British tax on American films pushed Hollywood into implementing an eight-month embargo on exports to the UK, forcing cinemas to fall back on pre-war titles, but if Convention City was screened on one such occasion, this would make it its last sighting. Above all, one key detail strongly suggests that Halliwell never saw it, or at least that his memory failed him: Convention City was set in Atlantic City, not Chicago; the screenplay even includes a scene in which the city to host the convention is debated.
How many more reviews of lost films have there been in Halliwell's guide? At random, I decided to look at every 1928 Warner Brothers title on Arne Andersen's list of lost films at the Silents are Golden website. Out of 19 films, four are in my Halliwell's: The Home Towners ("fairly fluent early talkie which pleased at the time"), My Man ("lachrymose and technically primitive début for the ebullient Fanny Brice"), Tenderloin, directed by Michael Curtiz ("primitive part-talkie (15 minutes of dialogue), unspeakably hammy to listen to though visually it had some inventiveness"), and The Terror, for which only the Vitaphone disks survive ("primitive talkie which attempted a few new styles but showed that more were needed, also that some silent actors could not make the transfer"). Again, did Halliwell see those films, or did he cull his impressions from contemporary reviews? At this point, it hardly matters.
After Halliwell's death, John Walker took over his guide and his other reference volume, the older Filmgoer's Companion, and started sprinkling stars over films the original reviewer had dismissed, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which found itself promoted to four stars. Michael Binder's invaluable site on Leslie Halliwell, which has been the main source consulted in the writing of this article, mentions a few of the worst revisions made under Walker's tenure, but I will mention just one: Halliwell had given no stars to Blue Velvet; in my 1998 guide, the film had already progressed to two stars. According to Binder, the film has now reached four stars.
In 2007, David Gritten replaced Walker as editor of Halliwell's guide, and produced the 2008 edition, the last to come out under its original name. Later that year, Gritten edited "Halliwell's The Movies that Matter", a volume that cut out nearly nine-tenths of all entries -- including three films in Halliwell's top 10 -- to retain, according to an Amazon.com reviewer, "about 350 from 2007 and early 2008, 2,000 from 1988-2006, and some 500 prior to 1988". Odds are that Halliwell would have objected to both the title and the contents, and especially with the new replacing the old. Since then, nothing; one hopes it will not be the last of his film guides, but pessimism is de rigueur with the advent of the Internet.
In 1984, Halliwell mourned the closing of the Odeon, by some accounts the finest cinema in his native Bolton, which had been replaced by a bingo hall. The 1937 building was finally razed in 2007; in its stead, an 11-storey building was planned, with luxury apartments, offices, basement parking space, a hotel, and ground-floor shops. A local councillor told the press: "This scheme is part of the wider cultural and innovation quarter for the town centre. Hopefully, it would fit in quite nicely with the concept of a culture and leisure area."
You don't say.