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“Mank,” 1934, and Now

A while ago, Riverdaughter asked what people’s favorite movies of 2020 were. Obviously, there weren’t nearly as many movies as usual. And I admit that I do not see many movies, as I actually think that the quality has declined, though of course I always hope to find a few I like.

And I will admit further that the only movies of 2020 I have seen are “Greyhound,” “Tenet,” and “Mank,” which I saw last night. I thought that “Greyhound” was very well done, and very tense. I admire Christopher Nolan; I thought that “Interstellar ” was a great picture, but I was not engrossed by “Tenet,” which had its moments, but was rather cold, and the apparent science was not so easy to understand. But I think that “Mank,” is an excellent movie, in some sense a throwback to films of a different era, and most particularly of course, “Citizen Kane,” the writing of which is the subject of the movie.

It was directed by David Fincher, from a script written by his late father Jack Fincher, in 1993. I have not seen many of David Fincher’s films, which seem to often be filled with rather gratuitous violence. But I did like “The Social Network,” and now “Mank.” In brief, it follows the screenwriter Herman L. Mankiewicz, as he works on a script for a film which Orson Welles wanted to make, and who chose him to write at least a first draft. That became “Citizen Kane,” which many consider the greatest film of all time.

Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz shared an Oscar for best screenplay, for “Citizen Kane.” It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but only won one, not even Best Picture. That has been attributed by many to the fact that the ultra-powerful William Randolph Hearst waged an unceasing campaign against Welles and the film, because Charles Foster Kane was pretty obviously a devastating, though not completely unsympathetic, portrait of Hearst.

I had thought that “Mank” was about the controversy as to whether Mankiewicz or Welles deserved credit for the screenplay. The influential film critic Pauline Kael had written a piece in which she strongly believed that Mankiewicz deserved the credit, and that Welles had essentially poached it from him. Other film historians are not so sure. They both contributed a great deal to the film. Welles of course directed and starred in it.

But “Mank” was about much more than that. It was a fascinating portrait of Hollywood in the 1930’s. The movie was shot all in black and white. It showed the power of the big studios; and all the writers, many from the former Algonquin Round Table, who were brought out here and paid very well to write scripts, subject of course to the liking of the moguls who ran the studios.

There is glamour and charm in the Hollywood world,, but also cold financial calculation and power by the studio heads. In the midst of the Depression. Louis B. Mayer tells his writers and actors that he is going to have to cut their salaries in half for eight weeks, but then give it back to them. Apparently he did put their salaries back to where they were, but never made up the lost pay. And in fascinating irony, most of the studio heads, who likely started out poor or at best middle class, became Republicans, supporting all of the Republican candidates, and almost forcing their employees to donate to them.

The election of 1934 for governor of California was a momentous race. Upton Sinclair, the famous author, an avowed Socialist, then registered as a Democrat, and ran for governor. His politics were not wildly radical, but they did involve some control of farms and businesses which were being wrecked by the Depression and not helped by corporations. His platform was named EPIC, (End Poverty in California). Sinclair was very popular, almost legendary, for his muckraking novels such as “The Jungle,” and “Oil,” exposing the corruption and soullessness of big business. He had a real chance to be elected.

But the corporations which ran California, notably including the Hearst media empire, and the movie industry, were determined to defeat him. Hearst’s papers wrote article after article mocking Sinclair. It was estimated that about ten million dollars were spent against him. Greg Mitchell wrote a well reviewed book about all of it in 1992, “The Campaign of the Century.” The book won a Goldsmith Book Prize. I actually skimmed a good deal of it in a bookstore once, and just found it too depressing to buy and read.

In the movie something is depicted which Mitchell indicates in a recent New York Times piece that the rumors of these had “existed only as memories or press reports until I discovered them in an off-site MGM archive in Los Angeles in 1990, while researching ‘The Campaign of the Century.'” MGM made phony “newsreels”pretending to show the average Calfornian’s feelings about the campaign.

They would have people, many of whom were bit actors, stand up before the camera, pretending to be regular folks, and say that they were supporting Republican candidate Frank Merriam, because they felt comfortable with him, and that they were afraid that Sinclair would destroy their way of life. They had a few people who would say that they were for Sinclair. There was a Black person, I could not hear what he was saying in the film, but he was obviously not put there to help Sinclair’s cause. There was a man with a thick Russian accent who said that Sinclair’s policies were working very well in Russia, so they could be good here. They were all plants, and this was the progenitor of Trumpian fake news. These were made into phony newsreels purporting to be news, not propaganda.

They worked, of course. The bookies had Sinclair as the favorite, but after this onslaught, he became the underdog, and lost by over 200,000 votes. In the movie, Mayer referred to him as “a Bolshevik.” Hearst and his business cronies were thrilled to keep California in Republican control, where it had been for almost all of its statehood, and continued to be, until finally Edmund G. Brown was elected as a Democratic governor in 1958.

To me, this was the most memorable part of the film, though certainly it was all engrossing. The methods by which big corporations wield power, and the way in which their control of the media plays a major part in that, is chilling. And now they just have more modernized equipment: there are not just newspapers (some of which were independently owned and rather liberal), there are media conglomerates. There is 24-hour cable news. Doctored videos. Lies and made up news stories incessantly running all over the social media.

There were people back in 1934 who started saying that after reading and hearing all of this, they did not know what to believe. That is familiar. Now it has almost gotten to where many people are fixed in their beliefs fed to them by the radical right sites, the conspiracy mongers full of vitriol and hate. This aspect was certainly not the whole of the movie “Mank,” but it had to be a part of why David Fincher made it now, though I am not sure if this part was in the script written by his father. It does add a resonance to the movie. It takes place long ago in modern years, but not so very much so, after all. It is well worth seeing, in my opinion, even if it does not win any major Academy Award, though it did get ten nominations

“Citizen Kane” got nine Oscar nominations, and only won one, for Best Screenplay. Hearst had his mouthpieces such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons attack it, and the Hearst papers relentlessly attacked Welles. It is considered that this movie not winning the Best Picture Award was one of the biggest surprises in Oscar history, the award went to “How Green Was My Valley.” Hearst did such a job in essentially blacklisting the movie, that it almost faded into obscurity, until various French critics revived it; and since then, it has been listed by many sources as the greatest picture of all time, though supplanted for at least the ten-year period of the current AFI rankings, by one of my all-time favorites, “Vertigo.”

“Mank” has been nominated for ten Academy Awards, though it likely will not win any of the major ones. “Nomadland” will win Best Picture, Chloe Zhao, the director of “Nomadland,” will win Best Director, over Fincher. “Mank” was somehow not nominated either for Best Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay. History repeats, though this is likely not due to political bias, but the fact that old-fashioned films with almost all dialogue, no action sequences, and no cultural diversity in either the acting or directing, almost never win now. I am glad that the movie was made, as we may not see many more like it, in theme or aspect. It is a story that deserved to be told.

2 Responses

  1. My favorite movie this year is The Trial if the Chicago 7. I just enjoyed everything about it. I haven’t seen that many but of the several I have seen, this movie just ticked all my boxes.

    • I am going to see that this week, and I look forward to it. I remember seeing a version of the story on TV years ago, but I want to hear Sorkin’s dialogue in this movie.

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