In his introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, Phillip Lopate praises film criticism as an art and states that he included writers who wrote “elegant, eloquent” prose. With the exception of Hugo Münsterberg’s oft-anthologized but turgid social science prose and Bell Hooks’s “cool” poststructuralist essay on Pulp Fiction (1994), he has succeeded. Lopate has not included essays containing the kind of jargon usually found in film schools and “academic” journals written by the few for the few either. It is an eminently readable collection of reviews and essays.
Lopate attempts “to uncover the narrative trajectory by which the field [film criticism] groped its way from the province of hobbyists and amateurs to become a legitimate profession.” The book, which is divided chronologically into four parts, begins with the silent era and the transition to sound, and the reviewers are, for the most part, amateurs whose expertise is in other fields. Poet Carl Sandburg reviewed movies for the Chicago Daily News in addition to his other work for the newspaper, and his reviews are little more than plot summaries and gushings about film stars. Vachel Lindsay, also an outstanding poet, offers more content and insight, particularly in his analysis of Douglas Fairbanks. H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), the third poet included, was a regular film reviewer, and her response to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a well-written, sensitive, and subjective account of her experience as she watched the film. Edmund Wilson and H. L. Mencken, famed for their literary and social criticism, are also includedbut probably because Lopate is determined to demonstrate just how widespread the interest in film was at this time. William Troy and, particularly, Cecilia Ager, who were primarily film reviewers, are the pleasant surprises in the first section of the book. Ager’s reviews, ironic and scathingly mocking, focus on clothes and actresses and address questions about women’s roles in films. In a comment that could have been made by Dorothy Parker, she writes, “Oftentimes nice girls are that way because their figures don’t give them any choice.”
“Masters and Moonlighters,” the second part, covers the late 1930’s and the 1940’s and includes two of the five film critics Lopate considers the best in their field, Otis Ferguson and James Agee, both of whom died relatively early in their careers. Lopate gives Ferguson, whom he describes as “the first working film critic who put everything together,” thirty of the seventy pages devoted to this period. Ferguson praises Mae West’s films and declares that she presents “the most honest and outrageous and lovable vulgarity that ever was seen on the screen” and writes that attempts to censor her are futile unless the censors “lock her in a plaster cast.” He also praises Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, but he is less enthusiastic about Katharine Hepburn, whom he describes as having never been “more than a couple of mannerisms and a hank of hair to start with.” He is equally hard on Orson Welles and his widely acclaimed Citizen Kane (1941), often described as one of the best films ever made, in part because of its technical innovations. According to Ferguson, Citizen Kane represents “no advance in screen technique at all,” and he goes on to state that the film “makes me doubt that Orson Welles really wants to make pictures.” (Incidentally, one of the strengths of Lopate’s book is the inclusion of negative contemporary responses to films that have since become “classics.”)
Unfortunately, James Agee, perhaps the best writer among the film critics, receives only half the space accorded to Ferguson. Himself a novelist (A Death in the Family, 1957) and a screenwriter (The Night of the Hunter, 1955, and The African Queen, 1951), Agee is particularly adept at discussing novel-to-film adaptations and the scripts of films. His reviews of The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Story of G. I. Joe (1945) are models of insight and clarity. The remainder of part 2 consists of Siegfried Kracauer’s remarks on the German psyche and the German film industry, Robert Warshow’s seminal work “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” one of the best essays on genre films, and Melvin B. Tolson’s remarkable essay on the racism implicit and explicit in Gone...
(The entire section is 1829 words.)