Saturday, 19 November 2011

Whatever Became of the All-Star Cast?

Whatever became  of the ‘all-star cast’? This is the question I ask myself in moments of unease when I look my DVD collection up and down, wondering if I will ever decide what movie it is I want to watch next. Should it be ‘The Towering Inferno’ or ‘The Poseidon Adventure’? ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ or ‘Mulholland Drive’?  And why is it with me that escapism usually wins out over art? I guess I was programmed that way, and I’m old enough now  not to complain and just enjoy it. 

Lewis who?
Once upon a time, movies were one of the  few sources of popular  entertainment available for the mass public. Television reached its zenith of popularity in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and it was  popular to the extent of eating into the movie industry’s profits in the fifties and sixties.  What about when going to the movies, (apart from following your favourite sporting team) was the chosen pastime for the majority of people, not only in America, but for people in virtually every corner of the globe who could afford to while away a couple of hours at their local flicks when they had the time or inclination? 

I recall a story my mother once told me, about maybe the first  bizarre case of mass audience stalking. Gary Cooper, who was a big star during the Depression was in a film called ‘The Plainsman”, and at the end he gets shot in the back by the baddie. Gary Cooper always played the hero and his fans loved him.  Gary’s fans found out where the actor who played the part of the baddie lived, and harassed him constantly day and night because he was the one who had killed ‘their Gary’. Apparently they were very upset.  Such was the power of movies to sway audiences who, because of economic circumstances, were in thrall of their heroes on the big screen to a degree that seems naïve to us today. Also, it goes to show how performers have always been treated as commodities by the Hollywood studio system, and also by the public.
Great silent screen star Mabel Normand
The movie industry is extremely  profitable, especially  in periods of the greatest economic hardship. I don’t have the box office receipts at my fingertips, but  it seems to be a provable fact  that any leisure activity that can take people’s minds off their problems is  bound to make its investors better off. This sounds like profiteering in the harsh economic climate of today, but a buck was a buck in those days, and there were no politically correct liberals running around telling people that it was a sin to make money off people when they could ill-afford it.  

In the days of silents it was discovered that audiences attended movies to see people that they like to watch on-screen. They wanted to know their names and they wanted to see them in as many movies as possible. Consequently the world was introduced to  such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Lon Chaney and lesser lights   known  by only the most ardent specialists in the genre of silents in the present-day.  To collect all of them all together on the one project must have seemed a difficult task, and the idea of assembling an all-star cast began proper with the advent of sound movies.
Silent movies aside, (the films of D.W. Griffith immediately spring to mind, but since I haven’t seen them I cannot include them in this discussion), I would say that the first  attempts to produce movies with all-star casts occurred as America was struggling with the economic disaster of the Great Depression. 

The book-ended films ‘Dinner at Eight’ and ‘Grand Hotel’ were  both produced by the MGM studio in the 1930’s. Both these  are what you would call comedy-dramas. The plots concern the private lives of rich socialites, down-at-heel actors and  elderly matriarchs, ‘disparate’ characters brought together for a dinner, or conversely, reservations at an exclusive hotel. The majority of Americans were poor and out-of-work at the time, and they fell for these films hard,  presumably for the escapism they offered in a time of economic despair and uncertainty. 

Irving Thalberg is credited with creating the concept of the ‘all-star’ cast since he was MGM’s most important producer, but he never formally asked for a credit on any film he worked on.  MGM was the studio in the ‘30s with the majority of the prestige. It had many stars signed to long-term contracts, and it must have seemed like a good idea to get them to work together.  Both movies were a big success with the public and the ‘all-star cast’ was launched onto an unassuming public. ‘Grand hotel’ and “Dinner at Eight’   were cast with  major names  such as Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore, a young Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler. This forms an important leitmotif of the all-star cast: few of the performers just mentioned are remembered in the popular imagination today, but  as interesting relics of a by-gone era, no matter how popular they may have been in their own lifetimes. 

The next film of any note   with an all-star cast was  ‘Gone With the Wind’, produced by David O Selznick as an independent producer.  Granted, Vivien Leigh was a new discovery after a much-publicised search for the ideal actress to play Scarlett O’Hara, so she was hardly a major star when she was picked for the part.  Many  better  known actresses were screen tested but were turned down for various and probably, long-forgotten reasons.  But there are a number of others in the cast who were well known to the public including Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel and Thomas Mitchell

The first movie I ever got taken to see
To flash forward twenty or so years on, Roadshow movies often used to have all-star casts and  depended heavily upon  casting  a number of well-known performers in the roles which would attract an audience. Film in America  had passed its pioneering period. Movies were coming to be regarded as a serious medium. To get audiences interested in  more serious subject matter, (adaptations of Broadway plays and books for example),  big casts of famous actors were assembled to ensure the studios managed to recoup their losses.  Roadshow movies were  initially conceived by an individual producer or Hollywood studio to have a big cast and a big budget. They were especially  made to a certain time-frame designated in pre-production,  in order that exhibitors, (ie the people who owned the cinemas),  could fit in a certain amount of showings per day that would make them a profit.
Forty, fifty years ago, people had stricter hours of work and could only go to the movies either at night or on the weekend. The busiest nights and the weekends  were called ‘no free list’ periods where booking was essential, and you just couldn’t show up to buy a ticket.  These were the days, when, after a movie was withdrawn from exhibition it would take years for it show up on live-to-air television (at least where I come from). Video tape was not made for domestic consumption, cable TV was merely an interesting idea, and digital entertainment was non-existent. There was also a certain snobbery involved that appealed to the upwardly mobile, in that you could boast to your neighbours about getting in to see ‘Spartacus’ on a Saturday night with the kids, when maybe the neighbours had tried but been unable to.

 Talented directors, most notably David Lean, were attracted to this more showier and commercial style of filmmaking than they had previously been used to. ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ were phenomenally successful  with audiences and critics and they boasted big casts of well-known actors, such as William Holden, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, and  Alec Guiness,  Also, the stories and themes were grandiose. They were ideal  middle-brow entertainment for undiscerning audiences, or audiences that were thirsty for more substance to their entertainment. 

Stop him! He's got a bomb!
Roadshow movies  gave the medium a certain reputation for prestige that it may not have known previously, and the ‘epic’ became Hollywood’s ideal export to the rest of the world. ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’; ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’; ‘The Ten Commandments’; ‘Ben-Hur’; ‘King of Kings’; ‘Doctor Zhivago’. These are just a handful of the roadshow films that dragged audiences back into the movie theatres and away from their television sets and with their all-star casts made money (hopefully but not always!)  for the Hollywood studios (and overseas investors) who funded them.  The roadshow film was also an effective method of displaying Hollywood’s superiority to television, with its normally 70mm ratio, stereo sound, big casts and grandiose and important historical, biblical or political stories.

Steve McQueen: 'when will you architects ever learn?'
As the seventies dawned, Hollywood seemed less interested in making roadshow films. For one thing, they were expensive, and sometimes took years to make. They involved extensive pre-production and filming away from the studio at remote locations around the world, in difficult conditions for the cast and crew. No matter how much mystique surrounded these epic movies, if they didn’t turn a profit, well, then, what was was the point of making them? Audience expectations also changed to include films that were ‘smaller’, and less influenced by the financial aspirations of the Hollywood studios.

We didn't know a swarm of bees could be so scary. And they weren't.
But all-star casts never really went out of fashion, and when the disaster movie was born, there seemed to plenty of takers for roles in films such as ‘Airport’ and its sequels, ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ ‘Earthquake’ 'The Swarm'  and a number of others. ‘Airport’, arguably one of the worst films to gain a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, kicked off this cycle of disaster films, with a cast heavily publicised as stupendous. But sadly, many of the players are less well known today. The cast includes Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Helen Hayes, Jean Seberg and Jacqueline Bisset. ‘The Poseidon Adventure’, which I happen to think is a very good film, has a excellent cast including Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Stella Stevens and others less well known today. ‘The Towering Inferno’ may be the best known of this cycle simply because of its cast including Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden and others. Sadly this cycle of disaster films reminds us of the ready-made redundancy of popular culture, when performers can be relegated to supporting parts or even to the scrap-heap as they become older, do not win any awards, or are less interested in making themselves better known to the public.

Iconic Poseidon Adventure poster
I for one, am nostalgic for movies with all-star casts. They are usually entertaining, fun to watch and offer the best that Hollywood, at least in the past, had to offer. Dare I wonder who would be cast in one of them these days? It’s a well-known fact that movie budgets are excessive, and people (including me) rail against films costing the gross national product of a small third world country that  flop with the audience, because they happen to be lousy. Maybe what Hollywood needs is more panache, and less political correctness. As a place as well as a state of mind, it would be far more fun, and entertaining for the rest of us. 

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