Auteur Theory and Authorship


Apart from Griffith, US cinema certainly was looked at rather differently than European cinema—especially after the entrenchment of the studio system and the coming of sound. (Cinemas other than the US and European barely registered with US and European critics and audiences at this time.) Hollywood cinema came to be seen as more industrialized, more factorylike and commercial, than production in Europe, and therefore less likely—perhaps, unlikely—to produce more personal or individual films. Even so, in the 1920s some American filmmakers managed to establish authorial identity. In some cases, like that of Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957), this standing drew on a variety of elements, such as his foreign background and his status as a star actor as well as a director, but authorial recognition of Stroheim owed much to his clashes with the system and not being allowed to make and release films like Greed (1924) in the form that he wished. Stroheim projected the image of the artist struggling to make art and achieve his personal vision against the impersonality of the system. Some other, less controversial, directors, however, also managed to establish some kind of personal identity with industry peers, critics and, to some extent, audiences without too many obvious or outright clashes with the system—Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947), Frank Capra (1897–1991), Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969), John Ford (1894–1973) to a certain extent, and perhaps Preston Sturges (1898–1959). Some of these were special cases in other ways—Sternberg's long association with star Marlene Dietrich, for example—and some were their own producers as well, especially from the late 1930s onward.

At the time of Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles (1915–1985) represented a clear break with past practices in terms of the freedom and status he was accorded, though his later image and notoriety drew on some of the same sources as Stroheim's. Much more clearly, here was the director—though in this case also the performer—as artist. No one could seriously doubt—despite later attempts to prove otherwise—that Welles was the author of Citizen Kane . The soon rapidly changing landscape of Hollywood production after the Paramount decision of the US Supreme Court in 1948, and the divorcement decrees obliging the studios to divest themselves of their exhibition outlets that followed, also encouraged what Cahiers Jacques Rivette (b. 1928) would call the more "egocentric conception of the director" of the postwar era, initiated by Welles (Hillier, 1985, p. 95).

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