How refreshing. None of the 16 directors featured in Peter Bogdanovich’s greatly absorbing Who the Devil Made It, a series of interviews with everyone from silent-film pioneer Allan Dwan to Sidney Lumet, ever say that what they always really wanted to do was direct.
Most of them, in fact, started out wanting something else. Alfred Hitchcock was a mechanical engineer, Howard Hawks built racing cars and airplanes, Fritz Lang hoped to be an architect. ”It was a sheer accident,” says the irreverent Dwan (Sands of Iwo Jima, Brewster’s Millions) of his entry into directing. A college football star-turned-electrical engineer, Dwan stumbled onto a movie set after a light he helped invent, the mercury-vapor arc, was co-opted by the early silent filmmakers, and ended up taking a job as ”scenario editor” because it paid more than his engineering gig. One day in 1909, he was sent to check on an isolated movie set and found production at a standstill because the director was off on a bender. Dwan wired his bosses, who told him he should take over. ”So I got the actors together and said, ‘Now, either I’m a director or you’re out of work.’ And they said, ‘You’re the best damn director we ever saw, you’re great!”’
Of course, the danger of such delightful anecdotes, which Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) deftly extracts from his subjects (the others are Robert Aldrich, George Cukor, Chuck Jones, Joseph H. Lewis, Leo McCarey, Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Josef von Sternberg, Frank Tashlin, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Raoul Walsh), is that they might lead you to believe that the old Hollywood directors were vastly jollier and more democratic than today’s crop of hypercompetitive Sundance grads.
But Who the Devil Made It succeeds in illuminating Hollywood’s more carefree past without sentimentalizing its subjects. (Bogdanovich conducted the interviews between 1960 and 1974 because he wanted to learn more about directing. He recently updated his interviews with the three directors who are still alive: Lewis, Jones, and Lumet.) The book demonstrates that the politics and the personalities of the pre-M.B.A.-run Hollywood could be just as ruthless as today’s. Bogdanovich gets Hawks to explain how he kept an insouciant Katharine Hepburn in line by threatening to ”kick [her] behind” in Bringing Up Baby. Leo McCarey tells him how ”impossible” Cary Grant could be during the four films they made. Dwan, who directed films for 50 years, gives a succinct primer on longevity in Hollywood. ”The average producer is so jealous of his star or his top director that as soon as he can, he’ll chop him down,” says Dwan. ”They want to be big….That’s why I say, don’t get too big.”
Both Hitchcock and B-movie king Don Siegel complain about studio interference. Hitchcock derides the ”front office” that can’t understand why Janet Leigh would be killed off so early in Psycho. ”The whole point is to kill off the star — that is what makes it so unexpected.” Siegel is furious about execs who insisted on grafting their own opening and ending onto 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. ”The studio felt, as pods will feel, I suppose,” gripes Siegel, ”that you can’t have comedy in a horror film.”
Who the Devil Made It has its film-geek moments. (”Why did you choose to show [Henry] Fonda through the telescopic sight at the end?” Bogdanovich asks Lang about 1937’s You Only Live Once.) But his insistence on sticking with questions about the craft of directing — and avoiding the personality journalism we’ve come to expect from books like this — is what makes his subjects reveal themselves in a way that will appeal to both movie buffs and average readers.
And in the end, some of these eloquent directors will make you feel as though they came from a golden era. Says Dwan wistfully of his retirement: ”Every book I read, I see a picture in my imagination.” A