The Vogue of the Screen Biography
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 7, Number 3, September 1977
- pp. 32-39
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- Additional Information
THE VOGUE OF THE SCREEN BIOGRAPHY Bv Richard Gustafson Associate Professor offilm and modern literature at Iowa State University Richard Gustafson edited thejournal, Poet and Critic and authored articlesfor such publications as College English, Twentieth Century Literature, and The Midwest Quarterly. He died Match 5, 1977 at the age of43. Following a period of fanciful romances in the 1920's. the film industry seemed to want to sober up with material from the lives of illustrious people. It ransacked history for romance and produced a rash of films that became a type, the screen biography. A reappraisal of the genre can indicate for us today not only a historical knowledge of what a "great life" once meant in the movies but also how successful was the portrayal of such a life in a fictionalized form and in film. The form was distinguished by costumes, charisma, and "great" slices of life. But, as movies have done better than anything else, they gave to millions of viewers the presence and vividness of history far beyond the influence of Gibbon or Prescott. An indicative, but by no means exhaustive, list of these films includes predominantly political figures but also a couple of writers, a couple of scientists , a financier, a painter, and some theatrical personalities. 1929Disraeli 1 930Abraham Lincoln 1 933The Private Life of Henry VIII 1934The House of Rothschild Catherine the Great 1 936The Story of Louis Pasteur Rembrandt The Great Ziegfeld 1937The Life of Emile Zola 1939 Juarez 1941Sergeant York Lady Hamilton 1942Yankee Doodle Dandy (George M. Cohan) They Died With Their Boots On (George A. Custer) The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe 1943Madame Curie 1944Wilson The Adventures of Mark Twain 1946The Jolson Story 1949 Jolson Sings Again Perhaps the moviemakers felt the need for real-life models following the extravagances ofthe romantic types of the twenties: the sheiks, vamps, dragoons, musketeers, barnstormers, blonde bombshells. Along with the unrestrained fancy on the screen, the scandals in the careers of screen personalities in the '20's seemed an inevitable real-life correlative. The trials and publicity ofthe garish episodes of, for example, Wallace Reíd, Clara Bow, and Fatty Arbuckle, led to the self-corrective establishment of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, often known as the Hays Office, and the Motion Picture Code. Other forms of the sobering-up came with the Cecil B. DeMiIIe biblical sex epics (The Ten 32 Commandments. 1923). the flood of gangster and prison films with the proper suffering assigned, and the white hat western. The screen biography gave Hollywood another form in which to go straight, to animate history, to get into the schools, and still fill the screen with exotic enough grist for the eye. The link between the older romances and the screen biography was the costume. The biography was merely a new form of costume romance. This notion has been verified by Charles Laughton, the star of The Private Life of Henry VIII. who spoke of the genesis of the film in conjunction with its producer. Alexander Korda. The project was not a Hollywood creation, but of Korda's Anglophile company, London Films, in 1933. Laughton said in an interview in 1935: 1 met Korda in Paris one day and we dined and talked about the season at the Old Vic. From this dinner there emerged an audacious plan, that of producing a costume picture based on the life of Henry VIII. ( 1 ) The film was triumphant and Laughton created an indelible icon of a mythicaljowl-wiping and bone-tossing kind, but the film was definitely "a costume picture." Trying to snowball his success, Korda followed a year later with Catherine the Great with Elizabeth Bergner as Catherine and the unusual choice of dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the mad king Peter. This picture was not as successful as Henry but both were impressive enough to gain Korda's company the reputation of being high in "cultural" value. In 1936 Laughton again worked with the company, doing personal research in Holland on sixty-four self-portraits to create the chief character in Rembrandt, even to the point of making his right eye smaller than the left. (2) Thus, emerging from...