Hollywood Smugglers: How Did They Ever Make a Movie Of...?

Hollywood producers like money, so they court mass audiences. Mass audiences are prude and stupid, so we get shit movies. Such is life.

American film artists have responded to this situation in a number of ways, most notoriously opting out of the Hollywood system all together to produce "independent" films that address specific niche audiences. There is, however, another path: that of the "termite" artists who have worked within Hollywood to subtly subvert conventions with oppositional content and aesthetics.

This series celebrates the oppositional movies that are produced by Hollywood for mass audiences. And when they are released, we wonder... "How Did They Ever Make a Movie Of _______?"

"[Capitalism] can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it, seriously into question."
--Walter Benjamin


1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - dir. James Whale

1935 is sort of a late beginning, and even though there had always been cultural restrictions on filmmaking, there were none so omniscient and limiting as those imposed by William Hays and Joseph Breen with the Production Code in the years between 1934 and the late 1950s.

Bride of Frankenstein is James Whales’ masterpiece of dual address – part horror, part parody, part “coming out” party. Monika Morgan has called the film "a homosexual joke on the heterosexual communities Whale - a gay man - served: his 'masters' at Universal and the mass audience to whom he could present unconventional images and ideas and see them unknowingly endorsed and approved in the most direct way possible - by ticket sales." In other words, the monster movie got off on the right foot: as the gayest of all Hollywood genres.

2. Sylvia Scarlett (1935) – dir. George Cukor

As dramatized by Gods & Monsters, Cukor was less flamboyant than Whale in both personality and filmmaking aesthetic. And yet, in this early gem, double entendres and playful gender inversions reign supreme.

3. Racket Busters (1938) – dir. Lloyd Bacon

1930s Hollywood had lots of two things: queers and Leftists. Thank God. This is an example of one of many truly radical Leftist films of the era. Scripted by a young Robert Rossen.

4. Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) – dir. Dorothy Arzner

That’s right, a woman. And a woman with no need for men.

5. Citizen Kane (1941) – dir. Orson Welles

Though some of you may have heard of this picture, it was initially known only for its brazenness in attacking one of the most powerful men alive. Canonized as it now is, the film remains one of the most astonishing critiques of Capitalism within a Capitalist form, and it was achieved by a twenty-six year old from Kenosha, Wisconsin.

6. Cat People (1942) – dir. Jacques Tourneur

Because less money was needed for B-pictures, it was with the B-pictures that filmmakers could get away with more. This horror classic (later remade into another masterpiece by Paul Schrader) continues in James Whales’ tradition by asking its audience to sympathize with a queered monster.

7. They Live By Night (1949) – dir. Nicholas Ray

Like You Only Live Once before it, like Gun Crazy of the same year, and like so many Couples-on-the-Run flicks since, this early Ray film celebrates the outlaw couple who need nothing from nobody but one another.

8. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) – dir. Otto Preminger

In 1953, Preminger released The Moon is Blue to great success without a Production Code seal. Hays and Breen had refused the film a seal because of its casual usage of words like “seduce” and “virgin.” The Man with the Golden Arm is even more daring, explicitly dealing with the emerging drug subculture in New York City. Sinatra on the Horse? Check.

9. Vertigo (1958) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock

No sex, no nudity, no language. And yet, Vertigo remains as cinema's most deeply penetrating examination of heterosexuality in all its solipsistic glory.

10. Lolita (1962) – dir. Stanley Kubrick

The marketing campaign asked, “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Lolita?” Americans had no idea. The notorious sex novel (that also, you know, had some smart stuff in it too) had been adapted into a film by the newly reclusive Kubrick. Though not as explicit as Adrian Lyne’s remake, all this 1962 film had to do was exist to raise eyebrows. Pedophilia in a Hollywood movie? Sit down, Kevin Bacon.

11. The Naked Kiss (1964) – dir. Samuel Fuller

Arguably the Great American Cinema Smuggler, Fuller made the ultimate B-pictures, filled with “stoolies, bootleggers, prostitutes, and petty mobsters, the full gamut of characters from society’s underbelly.” Deeply politically ambivalent, Fuller movies packed a heavy punch. This is my favorite.

12. The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter

Notice the leap: 1964 to 1982. In the 1970s, making subversive movies wasn’t really subversive. 70’s cinema has been amply celebrated for its bleak and anti-authoritarian themes. The problem with films like Seven Days in May, The Graduate, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Parallax View – from the perspective of this series – is that there was no mystery as to how they were made. How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Network? The answer is obvious: these films consistently made money.

The Thing is subversive because it was in the vanguard of movies that began to challenge the kneejerk liberalism of ‘70s cinema. Kurt Russell is no Hoffman, Beatty or Redford; he’s not a journalist, a politician, or a college grad. Rather, he’s a blue-collar engineer in Antarctica where there just happens to be a life-threatening, shape-shifting alien on the loose. The Thing is not so much a reactionary film as it is a frank (and casually nihilistic) depiction of blue-collar life: you do what needs to get done until you die.

13. Heathers (1989) – dir. Michael Lehmann

A Columbine prophecy that fucks not so gently with a chainsaw.

14. Twin Peaks (1989-1990) – dir. David Lynch

Without giving away too much, this show injected some profoundly disturbing themes about family and sexuality onto prime-time television!

15. JFK (1991) – dir. Oliver Stone

One of the only truly progressive filmmakers working today, and not just for his eerily plausible conspiracy theories that attempt to hold the American government responsible for its semi-fascistic world policy. JFK is also one of the most aesthetically adventurous movies made in Hollywood, providing the missing link between Eisenstein and MTV.

16. Starship Troopers (1997) – dir. Paul Verhoeven

Verhoeven’s strategy is pretty eccentric: keep your audience guessing as to whether your movies are sincere or ironic, all the while seamlessly blending the two in order to make modernist camp propaganda blockbusters!

17. Bulworth (1998) – dir. Warren Beatty


18. Fight Club (1999) – dir. David Fincher

As misogynistic as the film is, you have to give it props for being the most anti-Capitalist product of Capitalism since The Godfather and Citizen Kane. The DVD-cover design says it all.

19. The Quiet American (2002) – dir. Phillip Noyce

Coming three years before the onslaught of political films, this movie was anti-war when it mattered, not when it was fashionable.

20. Syriana (2005) – dir. Stephen Gaghan

Unlike the rest of political films released in 2005, this was the only one set in present-day, confronting contemporary issues head on. Using movie stars as bate for audiences, Syriana gets butts in seats and then challenges those butts by being both hard to follow and hard to accept. Remarkably, Gaghan sacrifices neither his message nor his medium (both are needed for the film to be good: a complex narrative illustrates the message that there are no easy solutions), and the movie has still been able to find a mass audience. ($50 million gross and counting.) I’m in awe.