Picture by Lillian Ross

Lillian Ross was a writer for the New Yorker magazine for many years. In 1950, John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, invited her to come to California and see how a movie was made. The movie in question was The Red Badge of Courage, based onΒ Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel of the same name. It’s the story of a young soldier who runs away from a battle but overcomes his fear.

When Ross arrived in California, Huston and the movie’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, were still working on the script. Ross closely observed the whole movie-making process, up until the film’s release in late 1951, spending hours with everyone invovled. She even lived in Huston’s guest house. The process may have changed since then, but I have a feeling the personalities and the power plays haven’t.

On one side, there was John Huston, the acclaimed director with a big personality, and the less flamboyant Reinhardt, an Austrian Γ©migrΓ© from a theatrical family. They wanted to make an excellent movie that would also make money. On the other side were Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the management of Loew’s Theaters, the New York corporation that owned MGM. Mayer thought it was a mistake to make the movie, arguing that it had no stars and no story and wouldn’t sell tickets. Loew’s management was even less interested in the movie’s quality. They saw it as a pure business proposition.

The only reason MGM agreed to make the movie was the man in the middle, Dore Schary. He was Head of Production at MGM. He was enthusiastic about the project and convinced Mayer and Loew’s to fund it for $1.5 million, a substantial sum in 1950. Mayer probably agreed to make it so he could tell Schary “I told you so”. The head of Loew’s, who everyone called Mr. Schenk, probably allowed it so Dore Schary would learn a valuable lesson about art vs. commerce.

Ross describes how closely Huston and Reinhardt worked together, trying to keep the budget under control but still making something they’d be proud of. The suspense builds as the film is shot, mostly on location; as batches of film are reviewed at the studio; as the final product is scored and edited, with changes being made all along for both financial and artistic reasons. We see Huston, Reinhardt and Schary constantly reassuring each other that it would be a great picture and also sell tickets.

Finally, The Red Badge of Courage is presented to a “sneak preview” audience. The preview doesn’t go well. That leads to even more changes and more previews. Dore Schary eventually takes control and institutes bigger changes over Reinhardt’s objections, while John Huston sails away to make The African Queen.

The main things I took away from Picture are that a movie’s producer probably has a much bigger role than I realized; that most directors aren’t in total control of their movies, unlike what’s sometimes suggested; that people in Hollywood circa 1950 talked a lot, but rarely listened to anyone they didn’t think was important; and that nobody called it a “movie”, a “film” or a “motion picture” — it was always simply a “picture”, as in “It’s going to be a great picture, isn’t it, sweetie? It sure is, kid!”

Having spent so much time with The Red Badge of Courage, and having closely followed the addition of this scene and the elimination of that one, I want to read the novel again (it didn’t impress me in high school) and then see the picture again (I think I saw it once and it didn’t impress me either). As they say, that’s Hollywood!