The modern motion-picture director is the person most responsible for the ultimate style, structure, and quality of a film. Cinema is an art of collaboration, and in some instances someone other than the director may come to dominate (for example, a producer with authority over the final cut or an actor whose box-office popularity gives him the power to direct the director), but in general it is assumed that the person assigned to direct the picture must take the credit or blame for its form and content.
While the function the director serves has always been filled by someone, the priority of that function has not always been recognized. Georges Méliès, for example, thought of himself as a “producer” of films, and indeed from 1896 to 1912 he took care of all aspects of the making of the films bearing his name, including set design, acting, and camera work. Charles Pathé, in turn-of-the-century France, was one of the first producers to assign an assistant (Ferdinand Zecca) specifically to direct the pictures of his rapidly expanding film empire. At France’s Gaumont Pictures, Louis Feuillade and Alice Guy, the first woman to take on a key position in cinema, shared the task of directing, each specializing in separate genres.
In the United States as in Europe, many of the first film directors were cameramen (Edwin S. Porter) or actors (D.W. Griffith) until circumstance compelled them to take on various directorial duties. The movie industry was growing rapidly, however, and by 1910 the number of films required to fill the many newly constructed movie theatres was such that production had to be delegated. The director’s role was to work with the actors, designers, technicians, and others involved in the moviemaking process, coordinating and overseeing their efforts in order to rapidly turn out interesting and comprehensible movies within given financial and material strictures.
As early as the 1920s those who wrote seriously about motion pictures had no qualms about attributing successes and failures to the director. Some directors, notably F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang in Germany and Victor Sjöström in Sweden, were virtually as famous as the stars who acted in their films. In 1926 William Fox paid Murnau $1 million to relocate in Hollywood in the hopes that he would make the greatest movies the world had yet seen. The primary issue of this marriage of art and money, Sunrise (1927), remains an anomaly in the history of the film industry, for Murnau was given unusual control and virtually unlimited resources. The film still astounds critics, but it was not a commercial success, and it stunted for a time the growing stature of the director. Erich von Stroheim’s more dramatic encounters with producers such as Irving Thalberg further encouraged this businesslike attitude, which led to the practice of quickly typing directors as either workmanlike or difficult.
In the great age of the studio system (1927–48), strong directors vied with the factory conditions in which films were made. Those directors with powerful personalities (such as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Ernst Lubitsch) were given great freedom, but they still had to work with actors and actresses contracted to the studio, with union personnel following time-honoured routines, with scripts and scriptwriters selected by the studio, and with deadlines that discouraged experimentation.
The “auteur theory,” which was propagated by French film theorists in the 1950s, offered a powerful method for studying and evaluating the films of the studio era. The word auteur (literally “author” in French) had been employed in France in the 1930s in legal battles over the rights to artistic property. This legal struggle to determine whether a film “belonged” to its scriptwriter, director, or producer strengthened the belief held by many critics and theorists that it was the director alone who deserved credit for a film, just as an architect could be credited for a building even though it was built and used by other people. While this view made eminent sense when strong directors were concerned, it tended to ignore average filmmakers.
Auteurs are defined as directors with solid technique, a well-defined vision of the world, and a degree of control over their productions. Some directorial situations are easy to evaluate. Griffith and Chaplin had complete financial control over their major efforts. European art directors, such as Ingmar Bergman, enjoyed similar freedom. Indeed, their films were often marketed as the expressions of important artistic personalities. However, the auteur theory was developed to encourage the reevaluation of countless films by directors operating in the middle of suffocating studio situations. Directors such as Leo McCarey, Gregory La Cava, and Anthony Mann stylistically and thematically imbued their films, whatever the genre, with a consistent, personal aesthetic. Their output, even when unsuccessful, is deemed immeasurably more valuable than the undistinguished films of weaker directors who merely translated the words and actions indicated in a script into routine screen images. Scriptwriters in the studio years worked mainly in teams; a single script often passed through the hands of several different writers, so most films are more recognizable as the product of a particular studio than of an individual writer. The tension between director and genre or studio is thought to produce films that appeal to the public while expressing the vision of an individual. Thus, through the auteur, the popular art of cinema is able to achieve the traditional goals of poetry and the fine arts, goals of authentic expression and of genius.
The auteur theory was especially influential in the 1960s and arguably was instrumental in creating not only the French New Wave but also similar movements in Britain and the United States. Directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Joseph Losey, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, and Arthur Penn thought of themselves as budding auteurs and earned critical and popular acclaim for their distinctive styles and themes. With the fall of the studio system in the 1950s, there was indeed room for a single personality to take control of a film and to market it on the basis of personal vision.