Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017) David Bordwell
University of Chicago Press
Hardcover, 592 pages
(includes movie screenshots, notes, index)
When you pick up David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood, prepare yourself for a deep, deep dive overflowing with movie references both familiar and possibly unfamiliar, but rest assured: Bordwell is more than able to navigate you through the various depths you’ll encounter along the way. The book’s subtitle implies that we’re going to touch on cinematic storytelling before and after the 1940s, and we do, but the bulk of the work centers on films from 1939 to 1952. Whether you’ve seen most of the films mentioned or just a handful, you’re going to be bombarded with titles from Bordwell’s encyclopedic knowledge, so keep a list (or your Letterboxd app) handy.
Bordwell presents his central idea early on: that in movies from the 1940s, the “turbulent process of repetition and variation worked to the benefit of cinematic art.” (p. 2) Those narrative and structural variations that resulted from this decade continue to influence modern filmmakers such as David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Joel and Ethan Coen, Quentin Tarantino, and others. What was it about these variations that worked and why? And why the 1940s and not the ‘30s or ‘50s? The key is not the stories themselves, but the way the stories were told.
Improvements in technology and the addition of sound clearly expanded how cinematic narratives could be presented. Most (but not all) stories from the silent era through the 1930s were delivered to audiences in chronological order and objectively, and mostly with reliable narrators. This is not to suggest that early cinema was always operating under a crude delivery system (at times it was), but that a large portion of those stories were easily understood and digested by the majority of audiences. The 1940s opened up cinematic storytelling by offering different modes of narration including voiceovers, more subjective viewpoints, dreams and hallucinations, the influence of psychoanalysis, and more.
Changes in novels, theatre, art, music, and radio brought about inevitable changes in cinema, including how stories were told. One of the many fascinating subjects Bordwell touches on is how filmmakers adapted storytelling methods from other media, thereby taking risks in the cinematic medium. Would techniques that were acceptable in print, on stage, or in radio productions translate well to cinema?
One of the most important techniques used in 1940s cinema is the flashback. Although flashbacks had certainly been around since the silent era, studios in the 1940s practically suffered from an epidemic of flashbacks. Although many have come to recognize film noir as their home, flashbacks (or “retrospective viewpoints” as they were sometimes called) transcended genre, appearing in a variety of films such as Citizen Kane (1941), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Casablanca (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), Spellbound (1945), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Snake Pit (1948), and a multitude of others.
Flashbacks became so prevalent, you had to categorize them: multiple characters recounting the same event (often in courtroom dramas), a character remembering past events (Hangover Square, 1945), revelation flashbacks (Black Angel, 1946), replay flashbacks (Mildred Pierce, 1945), recounting/recalling flashbacks (The Glass Menagerie, 1950), the isolation flashback (Stranger on the Third Floor, 1940), and several others. Yet within each of these, filmmakers had to make decisions on how and when these flashbacks were conveyed to the audience.
Flashbacks presented other problems. Moviegoers who entered a screening several minutes into a film like Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) or The Killers (1946) might become totally confused. And we haven’t even talked about movies containing flashbacks within flashbacks (The Locket, 1947 and Passage to Marseille, 1944).
Were flashbacks problematic and overused? Probably. Were they (and are they still) an interesting and exciting component of cinematic storytelling? In many cases, the answer is yes. Bordwell’s examination of the device early in the book points to an overarching theme: the 1940s was a decade that explored, absorbed, and adapted various trends that came to be accepted, embraced, and expanded upon even to the present day.
Yet for all the space I’ve just devoted to them, flashbacks constitute just one of the components examined in the book. Bordwell also delves into the cinematic evolution of plot devices, story construction, point of view, narrative flow, voiceover narration, characterization, explorations of realism vs. fantasy, semi-documentary techniques, psychology, and more. Again, this is a deep, deep dive.
Understanding this, Bordwell often pulls back with “Interlude” chapters, which isolate one or two films to examine the nuts and bolts of the chapter he’s just concluded. For instance, after the opening chapter on the development of cinematic form and style, Bordwell examines the structure and storytelling techniques of Our Town (1940), based on the Thornton Wilder play from 1938. Although the play won the Pulitzer Prize and has become a cornerstone of American theatre, director Sam Wood and producer Sol Lesser made some important changes for the film version (including flashbacks, voiceover narration, and more) that were innovative as well as risky.
Perhaps the most fascinating of these interlude chapters is Bordwell’s “compare and contrast” look at the works of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Such examinations in the interlude sections provide an even deeper dive than the regular chapters, but they bring together Bordwell’s ideas and concepts nicely.
So why would a fan of primarily modern movies care anything about this book? Because, as Bordwell tells us, “We meet the forties Hollywood aesthetic nearly every time we visit the multiplex or click through our Netflix queue.” (p. 471) In his concluding chapter, Bordwell connects the dots throughout the decades, giving amble evidence that the structural and narrative techniques that took off in the ‘40s are still being used successfully today.
If this sounds like either a daunting venture into a cinematic whirlpool or a never-ending lecture, let me assure you that Reinventing Hollywood is neither of those things. This is a book not only for dedicated cinephiles (although they will certainly enjoy it), but also for anyone seeking to understand American arts and entertainment in the 1940s and how it has evolved, influencing what we see not only in movies, but also on television and beyond.