MOVIEGOERS of all kinds, from casual fans to sophisticated scholars, tend to take film performances for granted.
Everyday audiences give most of their attention to the on-screen images and behind-the-scenes lives of Hollywood stars, giving less thought to the hands-on work that goes into creating fully rounded characterizations. Film experts in universities, meanwhile, are often too wrapped up in textual analyses and theoretical debates to bother much about mere acting.
Robert Sklar, himself a cinema-studies professor at New York University, notes this problem at the beginning of "City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield" (Princeton University Press, 311 pp., $27.50), his excellent new book on Hollywood stars. It's clear from the first page that Dr. Sklar is that rarity, a cinema scholar who's also a movie fan - and who's fascinated with the challenging, often slippery task of pinning down why a strong performance has such impact, and how that performance was shaped, moment by moment, during the production process.
Equally important, Sklar recognizes that nuances of acting can serve as indicators - often highly revealing - of social, cultural, and political realities.
Hollywood's vastly popular and influential products don't spring full-blown from the American imagination, he points out. They are carefully made artifacts, and the process of manufacturing them involves a continual "struggle over interpretation" involving not just movie-mogul power but innumerable spur-of-the-moment decisions about the speaking of a line, the wearing of a hat, the broadness of a smile. Creativity, commercialism, and ideology crash against one another in many of these choices, and in the
way audiences react to them once they reach neighborhood theaters around the world.
Sklar centers his examination of these issues on the "city boy," a character type that reached its stride around 1930 when cowboys gave way to gangsters as a favored subject of the Hollywood studios. This reflected the eagerness of audiences for screen figures who embodied "their volatile present and their unknown future," and who suggested truths about "the fate of rebels in American culture and society, the value of individual moral codes within larger social constraints, about adaptability and social usefulness, and about survival."
Such issues affected not only individual roles taken by James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield, but also the directions taken by their overall careers. All were associated with left-wing political activities of their day - in keeping with their own conceptions of morality, social usefulness, and so on - and all found these associations to have a strong effect on their professional lives.
The 1942 musical hit "Yankee Doodle Dandy," for instance, was produced partly because a Los Angeles district attorney called Cagney a communist during an election campaign - prompting William Cagney, who managed his brother's affairs, to tell Warner Bros. it should "make a movie with him playing the [most] patriotic man in the country," namely George M. Cohan, the apparent holder of this title. Thus did one of Hollywood's most relentlessly flag-waving pictures come into being as a result of political dog fighting, professional image-mongering, and a star's hope of immunizing himself from a political past that had become a box-office liability.
Cagney's ploy apparently worked, since he was later spared a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee and other ordeals connected with Hollywood's midcentury bout of left-baiting, witch-hunting, and blacklisting. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" also proved triumphant for Cagney as a performer, allowing him to portray what Sklar calls "an ordinary guy, but one capable of sudden dynamism" when the occasion arose - a type of "double" character that provided a self-portrait of Cagney himself while givi ng the war-mobilizing US a new model for the traditional hero, "benign in peacetime, ferocious when attacked."
Sklar traces similar patterns in the careers of Bogart and Garfield, often tying their professional vicissitudes to the times in which they lived. Both had to use more conspicuous tactics than Cagney employed to purge themselves of radical reputations, for instance. Bogart published an article called "I'm No Communist" in Photoplay, while Garfield purportedly wrote a confession titled "I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook" that would have appeared in Look if not for the actor's untimely death.
As for their actual screen work, Sklar notes that Bogart's combination of hardness and humor in "The Maltese Falcon" was "appropriate to representing a world of betrayal and transformation" in the Pearl Harbor period; while two decades later, his work in the 1943 drama "Casablanca" came to be equated with 1960s myths of inner growth and "commitment to a social goal greater than the self." Garfield, meanwhile, often played hopeful characters who "yearned for a society commensurate with...their own aspirat ions." Yet he ran up against limitations in both his screen persona and his political identity when he refused to abide by familiar formulas.
If one could ask more of Sklar's meticulously researched and marvelously readable book, the request might be for more detailed analysis of the relationship between star performances and the contributions of Hollywood directors - particularly the "auteurs" with whom the "city boys" often worked - in shaping and filming performances on a day-to-day basis. One also wonders how Sklar would assess today's crop of male stars, and how he would connect them with the influential actors who proceeded them.
The wish for such additions only points out how insightful and informative "City Boys" is, however. Its living subjects are no longer with us, but the need to explore and understand their legacy - in its particularities, and its implications for our culture as a whole - is as strong as ever. Sklar is ideally suited to the task.