Lillian Ross’s Picture: A Chronicle of MGM’s Mutilation of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (Preview)
by Tyler Malone
“Production Number 1512” is what they were originally called—both John Huston’s 1951 film adaptation of Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage and the five-part story journalist Lillian Ross filed for The New Yorker the following year on the ins and outs of the production of Huston’s motion picture. Published under the title Picture, Ross’s five pieces form a “novel-like book” that is often described as the first in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the making of a movie.
The author of Picture was born on June 8th, 1918, in Syracuse, NY. She joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1945 during World War II (and continued to write there for seven decades). In 1950, early on in her tenure at the magazine, director John Huston invited her to tail him in the making of his next picture, an adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Besides the lure of a raffish artist at the height of his powers (Huston was often seen as the Hemingway of the cinema), there was another, more personal reason why Ross said yes to the invitation. “In 1950, when I decided to take Huston up on his offer to come watch him make The Red Badge of Courage, I actually was taking that opportunity to try to escape from my personal entanglement with my editor, William Shawn,” she later explained. Shawn was married with children but had professed his love for Ross.
Whatever the medley of reasons pulling her out West, Ross decided to, in her own words, “follow the history of that particular movie from beginning to end, in order to learn whatever I might learn about the American motion-picture industry.” What would she make of such learning? She’d navigate a new literary frontier, which no doubt added another level of appeal to the project for her. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form,” she wrote to Shawn at the time.
Certainly, Picture had no clear antecedents. The “nonfiction novel” had yet to be “invented” by Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood, the supposed founding document of the genre, wouldn’t be published for more than a decade. There’s a line of thinking that imagines Ross got the idea from Ernest Hemingway, whom she profiled for The New Yorker earlier that year and whose Green Hills of Africa was a forerunner of the genre. But Green Hills of Africa is focused on Hemingway, using extensively the first person pronoun—and is, thus, a memoir. Though the “I” pronoun shows up intermittently throughout Picture, Ross’s book is decidedly not a memoir. She is there only in the way the camera is in a movie; we see the world through her lens, her point of view, but otherwise she’s almost absent, a ghost haunting her own narrative. No, Picture was something new, something to take notice of.
Not only was the format novel (in both definitions of the word), but the subject was also surprising. Real journalists were supposed to stay away from the Tinseltown babble, not get mired in the muck that was the beat of the celebrity tabloids, trade papers, and gossip columns. Reporting on the inner workings of a business churning out “entertainments” was, for the most part, seen as beneath the dignity of the fourth estate. Yet Ross knew there was a story to be found in following around Huston and the cast of intriguing, offbeat, and unsavory characters involved in the production of The Red Badge of Courage. She couldn’t have known from the start the full arc of the story she would tell—the tragic tale of one of Hollywood’s most infamous “mutilated masterpieces”—but she sensed something special in these real-life “characters.”
The story’s potential dramatis personae included John Huston, the charming, rip-roaring, self-important director of films such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Key Largo, who determined early on that he was going to direct The Red Badge of Courage on horseback; producer Gottfried Reinhardt, the lovable, if somewhat bipolar, tragic hero who fought harder than anyone to make a picture that could be both artistically bold and commercially successful; Dore Schary, newly in charge of production at MGM, who also believed in the artistic and commercial viability of The Red Badge of Courage and pushed for the film’s production amidst major pushback from his higher-ups, but inevitably became the main architect of its mutilation; the head honcho at MGM, Louis B. Mayer, a sentimental, tyrannical philistine and the closest we get to a traditional villain in Picture; Albert Band, assistant to Huston, then Reinhardt, whom Reinhardt called “the most insensitive sensitive man” because of his biting humor; the wistful Audie Murphy, a real war hero, not yet a major star, who at one point, while looking vacantly out a window, declared “seems as though nothing can get me excited any more”; Reinhardt’s wife, Silvia, who spoke in strange non sequiturs and off-kilter haikus, often about her French poodle Mocha; Bronislau Kaper, the composer, armed always with a wisecrack, who believed that “every picture is sick” and that his job was to “find out what it needs to make it well and healthy”; and Nicholas M. Schenck, head of MGM’s parent company and the puppetmaster connected to all the goings-on through near-invisible threads.
“You see, if the story turns out to be what I think it is, it’s really almost a book, a kind of novel-like book because of the way the characters may develop and the variety of relationships that exist among them,” she explained to Shawn.
“It’s much better than most novels,” Hemingway said of Picture. “Brilliant and sagacious” were the adjectives Charlie Chaplin used to describe it. Graham Greene’s blurb captured the book perfectly: “A terrifying picture of how a great film, directed by one of the best living directors, based on an American classic, can be slashed into incoherence through the timidities and the illiteracy of studio heads.”
Though Ross’s writing—novelistic in detail, but always shrewdly journalistic in its restraint—is both measured and nuanced, it’s not hard to see where her sympathies lie. One of the heroes of Picture is Huston, the author, or what soon came to be known in critical circles as the “auteur,” of the film.
In 1951, the same year that Huston directed The Red Badge of Courage, the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma was founded. It was in the pages of this magazine that la politique des auteurs—later to be popularized in America as the “auteur theory” by film critic Andrew Sarris—was given its most eloquent expression: the concept that ideally the film belongs to its director, not the studio, not the producer(s), not the screenwriter(s), not the actors. Ross claims that Huston “was simply the raw material of his own art; that is, the man whose personality left its imprint, unmistakably, on what had come to be known as a Huston picture.”
The other hero of Picture is Reinhardt, no doubt a tragic figure, who always saw the film as more Huston’s than his own, and fought for it on the auteur’s behalf, even after Huston had given up and gone to Africa. “Maybe I have a special idea of a John Huston picture,” he wrote to Huston. “Maybe even more special than John Huston has.”
Ross was the author of her book, and it seems she thought Huston likewise should be considered the rightful author of his films—“the style of the Huston pictures, Huston being one of the few Hollywood directors who manage to leave their personal mark on the films they make, was the style of the man.”
Call The Red Badge of Courage a “Huston picture” all you like, but the story that plays out in the pages of Ross’s book shows that, at least in the Hollywood of the early 1950s, the struggle for authorial control of a film was anything but settled…
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4