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Moving Hollywood: A Conversation with Daniel Steinhart on Runaway Hollywood: Internationalizing Postwar Production and Location Shooting

Kartik Nair

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2019, Volume 72, Number 4

Paramount was so nervous about the on-location production of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1956) that dailies filmed in the South of France were flown first to London for processing at the Technicolor lab and then to Los Angeles. After executives had reviewed the footage, a cable was dispatched back to France: Hitchcock’s shallow-focus closeups were playing to the weaknesses, rather than the strengths, of the studio’s new and expensive wide-screen format, VistaVision. It fell to the local production manager, C. O. “Doc” Erickson, to mediate the request for wider shots and sharper focus, which would also allow the camera to take in more of what they were all there for: the sunlit French Riviera.

Hollywood production is so efficiently internationalized today that it can be hard to think back to a time when shooting “off the lot” was a challenge for the major American studios. But in the postwar 1940s, as increasing numbers of filmmakers ventured beyond Los Angeles’s so-called thirty-mile zone in search of exotic backdrops and on-location authenticity (as well as cheap, pliant labor), they unsettled Hollywood’s housebound imagination and identity, forcing studios to reorganize the managerial, aesthetic, technological, and financial systems that had served them so well for decades. In his fascinating new book, Runaway Hollywood: Internationalizing Postwar Production and Location Shooting, Daniel Steinhart writes the history of this forgotten moment as one of creative crises, as with the “runaway production” of To Catch a Thief. Runaway productions are easily defined in industry terms, but after reading Steinhart’s exhaustively researched and complexly textured case studies, runaway productions begin to look more like emergent assemblages of people, discourses, and practices—multilingual film crews and ad hoc professional types, flying film prints and wired cables, union protests and tax havens, far-flung screening rooms and printing laboratories, unexpected breaks in filming for rain and tea—all coming together to power a spectacular new visual imagination in American cinema after World War II.

Runaway Hollywood opens with a question: Why did Hollywood feel the need to leave Southern California, where production designers had become adept at conjuring faraway places with set dressing and rear projection, for Europe? As Steinhart observes, the studios’ divestment from theatrical exhibition as a result of the 1948 Paramount antitrust decision reduced profits, forcing the studios to liquidate valuable assets, including their back lots. Newsreel footage of the war had also shifted the tastes of American audiences, many of them returning GIs, toward a more realist aesthetic. Enabled by the development of faster film stock and portable sound-recording equipment, as well as new color systems and wide-screen formats, this emphasis on authentic and often exotic locales bolstered studio efforts to compete aesthetically with the new medium of television. Finally, postwar currency restrictions designed to shore up Europe’s war-ravaged economies meant that the studios were unable to repatriate their profits from European distribution. These frozen assets, along with local subsidies and lower labor costs, would spur the explosion of runaway production.

Runaway productions, which began as one-off experiments in the mid- to late 1940s and reached their heyday in the 1950s, had entered their decline by the 1960s. In addition to long-standing opposition from Hollywood labor unions, the ultimate runaway production—Fox’s Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)—ran so far over its budget and schedule that the glamorous allure of shooting abroad wore thin for Hollywood studios. Before it dissipated, though, this was a significant “transcultural” mode of production (15) arising out of unique historic, institutional, and material arrangements. Drawing on studio correspondence, State Department archives, trade reports, and interviews with key personnel attached to postwar American productions in London, Paris, and Rome, Steinhart’s book brings into view the excited, anxious, and internationally dispersed network behind the practice of “runaway production.”

Steinhart’s first section, “Foundations,” explores the political economy and discursive claims surrounding runaway productions. Hollywood calculated how to reinvest its frozen funds in the purchase and improvement of studios and filmmaking infrastructure in Italy, as American producers took advantage of French subsidies for local production and studios set up subsidiaries in Britain to meet quota requirements with cheaply produced “quickies.” MGM used its frozen lire to renovate Rome’s famed Cinecittà studios, badly damaged during the war. Despite its space limitations (which sparked competition between Hollywood studios) and technical capabilities (its soundstages were poorly soundproofed, and power shortages were chronic), Cinecittà was where many major Hollywood films of the 1950s were filmed, including Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) and Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959). Hollywood labor groups, though, complained about the loss of employment and wages to overseas production. At the height of the Red Scare, labor unions infamously attacked Hollywood studios for hiring both blacklisted Americans and foreigners who were known Communists.

The contradictions inherent in runaway productions—financial lures for Hollywood filmmakers and executives, but at a cost to Hollywood labor—are dramatized in a case study of Moby Dick (1956), John Huston’s adaptation of the quintessentially American novel. Claims that foreign locations were necessary to achieve authenticity were severely tested by Huston’s decision to film in Britain and Ireland. In reality, Steinhart shows, Huston’s proclaimed love of travel and adventure thinly veiled the fact of his precarious finances, which drove him to live and work abroad in order to exploit a loophole in American tax law. Ironically, Moby Dick premiered in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the story is set but not where it was filmed.

In his second section, “Production,” Steinhart focuses on the infrastructures built to support these international productions. The foreign offices of Hollywood studios, established in the mid-1910s to grow the studios’ distribution networks, now took on an added production role. These offices would “scout locations, contract foreign labor and negotiate with local unions” and “secure import and export licenses for equipment as well as entry permits for the crew coming from Hollywood” (74). The unit production manager became a central figure, supervising communication for multilingual crews of freelancers who came to the production from different filmmaking cultures and backgrounds. Interpreters and mistranslations abounded.

Steinhart found a trove of communiqués from crews working on different films for different studios in the same location, sharing tips with one another. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of this mode of production was how local expertise was developed, saved, and passed down. Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953) is the book’s second case study. In preproduction for shooting in Rome, Wyler turned to Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini for advice on early drafts of the script (spoiler: Zavattini found them embarrassing), and Henry Henigson, the film’s budget administrator, remembering his experience on Quo Vadis a few years earlier, advised his crew to “brace for any contingencies” (132).

In his third and final section, “Style,” Steinhart examines the impact of foreign productions on the aesthetic and narrative patterns of postwar American cinema. While certain genres (historical epics, semidocumentary war pictures, and expatriate romances) predictably “became more pronounced” (147), the intriguing emphasis of Steinhart’s discussion of style is location. Even as decisions about how locations were dressed and filmed were guided by classical principles of depth and the supposed invisibility of background space, a new workflow was developed to cultivate the location as a distinctive element of production and visual design. Once scouts had secured a location, a closer survey was conducted to explore its compositional possibilities and pitfalls, as well as to study how to blend location shooting with soundstage footage. The “more expansive frame” of Technicolor cameras and Cinerama screens “intensified spectacle and realism in location shooting” (169).

In his final case study, Steinhart tracks how the authenticity-hungry production of Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) roved across the landscapes that van Gogh once inhabited, generating a cinematic analogue for the painter’s own journey through space that was both psychic and physical. Deepening the analogy is Steinhart himself, who traveled to Rome, Paris, and London to write this book as a “runaway scholar.” In the following conversation, Steinhart expounds on the book’s conceptual, historiographic, and methodological underpinnings.

Kartik Nair: In the acknowledgments, you mention your parents, who met in Colombia in the 1960s and instilled in you a “curiosity about the world” [xii]. I want to begin by asking: How did your curiosity lead you to this project?

Daniel Steinhart: As a Colombian-American with dual citizenship, I’m interested in thinking about U.S. culture from an international perspective. Even though I grew up in the United States, I always felt like I was a bit on the outside looking in. When I traveled to Colombia, I was fascinated by watching Hollywood films in a viewing context that made this cinema both familiar and estranging. Once I went to graduate school at UCLA, this orientation drew me to film histories that looked at the global dimensions of Hollywood.

I was inspired by Ruth Vasey’s The World According to Hollywood, which examines how the Production Code Administration’s knowledge of foreign markets shaped the regulation of screen content in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. I was also lucky to study with people such as Janet Bergstrom and Jan-Christopher Horak, who have produced significant scholarship on European émigrés and exiles in Hollywood, and with John Caldwell, whose research on production cultures gave me a framework to think about production work as a cultural activity and international productions as a transcultural activity. When I looked into Hollywood’s overseas productions from the post–World War II era, there were a lot of basic, unanswered questions. How were these productions organized far away from Hollywood studios? Who actually worked on these films? How did crews from different countries communicate on set? Did shooting in foreign countries affect the style of Hollywood movies? These questions were really the genesis of this book.

A more fundamental motivation for this project is that I’m fascinated by production work from personal experience. In college, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I shot a 16mm short for my thesis project and faced a filmmaker’s nightmare. When the dailies and the negative were sent back to me from a lab in New York City, the delivery truck that was carrying them was carjacked and set on fire. … Luckily, I managed to reshoot what was destroyed. While I made an OK film, its production history was far more intriguing. I think this experience drew me to the human drama that goes into making movies.

Nair: The term “runaway production” is tainted by organized labor’s discourse of the period, as you note. They sought to frame Hollywood’s international productions as financially and morally irresponsible. Yet you also tell a story of labor activism in all its collectivizing glory and red-baiting shame. Why did you choose to adopt this term for the title, Runaway Hollywood?

Steinhart: It was important to foreground the term because this book aims to explain not only the reasons why Hollywood companies were shooting their films abroad but also the debates surrounding the outsourcing of production work and what that meant for Hollywood labor groups. I discovered that there was little agreement within the industry on what exactly runaway production meant. What was apparent was that unions needed a term to anchor their campaigns against the loss of employment. Some previous scholars have stopped at the economic ramifications … but I was curious about what actually happened on these runaway productions. I will say that it’s easy for me to chase the swashbuckling stories about these movie shoots because they’re compelling, so highlighting the human toll of production outsourcing by bringing the term “runaway production” to the fore was paramount to keep in mind.

The term itself was significant, too. I was interested in unpacking the financial and geographic connotations as well as its origins and how it was discussed in the trade press. To do this, I went through every print issue of Daily Variety from 1948 to 1962, which took many months. I finished this research only a few months before Variety‘s digitized archives were made available to the public! But it was worth it. Going through Daily Variety gave me a good sense of the day-by-day development of how different groups used the “runaway” label.

Nair: Film history is always shaped by what film historians can access in the archives at any given point in time. You mention being lucky enough to view the production files of Twentieth Century-Fox at UCLA before the studio recalled its records, an act you call “an unfortunate outcome for film historians” [x]. Was there any discovery that brought into view the institutional and corporate structures and negotiations—sometimes imperceptible to the historian—that shape film history?

Steinhart: There’s no doubt that our understanding of Hollywood history is influenced by the decisions of studios to donate, make accessible, keep private, or destroy their records. Unfortunately, I don’t believe these decisions are always driven by legacy but by the bottom line. My history of Hollywood’s international productions privileges certain studios—Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., MGM British—because their records were available, which is a reality of this kind of industry study. I hope that studios and media companies will make their records accessible for the future of film and media history. Of course, legal and privacy issues become a deterrent. But some of the information gaps I encountered sent me to other fruitful sources like the National Archives’ State Department records, which revealed the government’s role in facilitating these studios’ financial and logistical position in foreign countries. So balancing studio papers with governmental records became a critical way to assemble an international production history.

My favorite part of working on this book was doing research at archives and special collections. And even reflecting on the archival material itself can shed light on the kinds of institutional matters that you’re asking about. One question that came up for me was why studios were filing correspondence and keeping these records after a film was released. Following the paper trail of various productions, it became clear that one reason was an attempt to collect production knowledge on paper that future production organizers could access. This motive was especially vital on overseas shoots, where filmmakers were encountering new working conditions. For example, Paramount production manager C. O. “Doc” Erickson studied the correspondence for the French location work of Little Boy Lost [George Seaton, 1953] in preparation for coordinating To Catch a Thief in France. This process of institutional record keeping became a way to archive production knowledge. For me, it was a small but consequential piece in unraveling how global production functioned as an industry strategy.

Nair: The period of Hollywood’s internationalized productions was of course the period of the early Cold War. You extensively document the “specter” of communism hanging over these productions, but the word “capitalism” never appears in the book. Yet, one of the striking insights of Runaway Hollywood is its processual view of capitalism, on the ground. You track international Hollywood’s flexible accommodation of ad hoc professional types, budget overruns, fickle weather patterns, and small but disastrous mistranslations in polyglot film crews. Were these as surprising to you as they were to me?

Steinhart: In explaining the development of runaway production, besides tracking the tangible effects of capitalism on film workers, I also wanted to demonstrate that capital-intensive productions were messy and risky overseas. Productions like Mutiny on the Bounty [Lewis Milestone, Carol Reed, 1962] revealed that a big-budget operation could be overwhelmed by weather problems, scheduling mistakes, and labor issues. I wanted to make sense of how this messiness interacted with Hollywood’s commitment to standardization.

I found that the filmmakers who went abroad did encounter a whole new set of logistical challenges they had to overcome. Sometimes they applied Hollywood methods; sometimes they revised these methods. But over time, the experience of working abroad coalesced into production knowledge that was shared … [in] a form of standardization … [and] a pattern of stability and change [that] … reflected the way that revisionist histories of the studio system had characterized the production process. I tried to figure out how multinational crews communicated and collaborated with each other, or how Hollywood filmmakers dealt with new on-set protocols, like the British tea break.

Nair: What are the ethical commitments that undergird your interest in recuperating “below the line” personnel? What do their voices reveal about the political economy of filmmaking and contribute to media industry and production studies, as well as to film studies in general?

Steinhart: To build a portrait of transcultural production, I had to account for foreign personnel, who both adapted to Hollywood’s methods and reshaped them. I found that someone like French script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot was essential to Hollywood films shooting in Europe. She spoke multiple languages, and she could integrate Hollywood and foreign practices.

Ultimately, I wanted to demonstrate what the runaway production phenomenon could tell us about postwar Hollywood. By tracking workers, I could show that Hollywood companies asserted their global power by functioning in an adaptable manner through the specific practices of Hollywood personnel who fulfilled the needs of overseas film industries, such as hiring foreign crews. At the same time, this strategy fulfilled the studios’ own financial goals of making profits and navigating the uncertainties of the postwar era.

This was my attempt to deepen previous political economy accounts of Hollywood’s runaway productions, such as Global Hollywood 2, whose top-down view of corporate and governmental agencies doesn’t really consider the lived experiences of production workers. This probably stems from a concern with policy rather than human agency, but even this study’s mention of film workers, especially “docile” foreign labor, seemed either too general or uncharitable. By studying below-the-line workers, it becomes evident that the relationship between Hollywood and foreign industries was more nuanced since foreign labor could sometimes reshape Hollywood studio practices. Shining a light on the contributions and agency of below-the-line crew members therefore felt crucial.

Nair: I badly wanted to rewatch Quo Vadis after reading your account of its somewhat troubled production at Cinecittà. You write, for example, that it was an unfinished roof at the studio that led MGM to light a banquet scene with the sunlight that was streaming in [85]. How can the close analysis of a film on-screen—its images, sounds, stories—fruitfully engage with the documentary traces you uncovered of profilmic space, its histories, accidents, and contingencies?

Steinhart: I pursued this question when I started the project. … In analyzing how locations were used, I similarly wanted to foreground what had always remained in the background. At first, I assumed that Hollywood filmmakers’ approach to location shooting in Europe would have been greatly affected by realist cinematic trends, like Neorealism, which would have captured the kinds of traces you’re talking about. But through much of the postwar period, Hollywood filmmakers really attempted to control locations, as if they were applying a studio-based approach to real spaces, even as they were trying to highlight the authenticity of place.

Hollywood filmmakers did record locations in a way that can serve as a kind of document of mid-twentieth-century landscapes. When I traveled to Europe to do research, I spent a lot of time tracking down [locations] where some of these Hollywood productions were filmed. I tried to replicate shots from these movies with my still camera, using frame grabs I had stored on my mobile phone as a reference. In Rome, I figured out where many shots for William Wyler’s Roman Holiday and Jean Negulesco’s Three Coins in the Fountain [1954] were done. I spent a good part of a night in the Termini train station trying to reproduce shots from the Vittorio De Sica–David O. Selznick production of Indiscretion of an American Wife [Stazione Termini, 1954]. I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the directors and cinematographers to determine why they placed the camera in a certain spot or how they staged a scene in these locations. In the end, that research wasn’t too relevant, but it did show me how architecture had [been] transformed through modernization and redevelopment. And maybe when I retire, I’ll give movie-location tours.

Nair: The book makes a forceful argument for paying attention to real locations used in film as meaningful elements in the film’s visual and narrative design. For example, you suggest that a bombed-out building in postwar Berlin in The Big Lift [George Seaton, 1950] serves to frame and mirror the emotional collapse of a character in the foreground. Given the vagaries and stratagems of location shooting chronicled in the book, I wonder if you can reflect on what meaning or feeling a location may emit outside of its intended use? What were some moments of dissonance for you between the story a Hollywood film was telling and the story its location was telling?

Steinhart: There is a key difference between runaway productions from past and present. As Thom Andersen observed in the case of Los Angeles, locations tended to play themselves. Today, locations tend to be stand-ins. Film offices and commissions around the world lure Hollywood productions not only with tax incentives but also [with] locations that can replicate any kind of setting, whether real or make-believe. Vancouver can stand in for San Francisco, or New Zealand can stand in for Middle-earth.

Nair: Hollywood’s internationalization in the late 1940s to 1960s occurred during a period of intense decolonization movements. Was Hollywood profiting from and participating in the imaginations, networks, and practices of empire rule? You focus on Hollywood productions in continental Europe, but “runaway productions” also seemed to have easy access to the European colonies in the Global South, as in John Ford’s Mogambo [1953; 146]. The genre favored stories of globetrotting adventures, sea voyages, treasure hunts, and military missions [182], while cutting-edge technologies of wide-screen and color filmmaking recirculated colonial subjects as “arresting visuals” [178]. Did you find any materials related to filming in the colonies? If so, what kind of sovereignty was accorded the colonial subject being filmed?

Steinhart: Hollywood’s exploitation of colonial rule came up in a few different ways. Correspondence revealed that Hollywood studios used their European offices to organize location filming in European colonies in Africa. These offices had staff who could answer logistical questions and assist with organizing crews and permits in the colonies and protectorates. I examine how Alfred Hitchcock and Paramount looked to the studio’s Paris office to organize the location work of The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956] in Morocco. I also call attention to the troubling rhetoric that appears in publications such as American Cinematographer, in which filmmakers’ descriptions of foreign labor and locations smacked of a colonialist mentality.

As you mention, though, this book’s focus on production is mostly limited to a European context. Elsewhere, in a contribution to Hollywood on Location: An Industry History [ed. Joshua Gleich and Lawrence Webb], I present a case study of The Nun’s Story [Fred Zinnemann, 1959], which was shot in the Belgian Congo, Belgium, and Cinecittà studios in Rome. By relying on European studios and colonial agencies and using only African locations and peoples, Hollywood companies did not invest in long-term production infrastructure in those countries.

In the end, my book takes the perspective of Hollywood crews who went abroad to make movies, with some attention to the experience of European crews who worked on these shoots. So, I can’t fully characterize the experience of colonial subjects. With the help of some research assistants, I spent a lot of time going through the American Film Institute Catalog to create a list of Hollywood films that were shot abroad from 1948 to 1962, along with the countries that these pictures were shot in. I hope that this appendix will serve as a useful resource for other historians who want to look further into the effects of Hollywood’s international productions on specific countries and peoples.

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Daniel Steinhart, Runaway Hollywood: Internationalizing Postwar Production and Location Shooting. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2019. $85.00 hardback; $29.95 paper; $29.95 eBook. 304 pages.

Chapter Three of Runaway Hollywood is available here.

© 2019 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.