Sunday, December 28, 2008

The "Auteur Theory" as applied to soaps

I hope those who are celebrating holidays right now are having enjoyable, peaceful days. To break up the break, this is the second historical entry I want to share (the first one is here; there will be one more)...and then I'll get back to commenting. Each of these pieces serves as some building blocks for some ideas ratting around in my head.

This excerpt, from the same out of print source as my last entry, was written by Robert J. Thompson, and is called "Architects of the Afternoon". The emphasis in red notes is from me, and represents particular points I want to consider in a future posting. The rest of this post is all quotation from that chapter.


For all its 100 million-plus viewers worldwide, the American soap opera remains shrouded in anonymity. Production credits do not even appear on most daily installments, and, unlike episodes in prime-time series, even the names of the stars of the soaps are not identified in the opening sequences. Although many devotees of daytime serials follow the creative processes as they are reported in fan magazines and Web sites, many others have little idea who created their favorite stories, much less who writes, produces, and directs them. Strangely enough, the only truly famous soap personage, Susan Lucci, made her way into the American consciousness through the phenomenal string of Emmy awards she didn't win.

None of this, of course, should come as any surprise. With some notable exceptions, the people who make mass media entertainment do so, as far as most consumers are concerned, incognito. The widespread recognition of the behind-the-scenes people who make movies did not really begin in any significant way until a group of French critics developed the auteur (authorship) theory in the fifties. This theory advances the idea that the director of a film could be seen as the author, that is, the driving creative force, even in the seemingly anonymous workings of the Hollywood studio system. Over time this critical perspective has become a useful way to look at the primary creative force behind other forms of popular entertainment, including television. As for radio, although profiles of and interviews with prolific artists such as Orson Welles and Norman Corwin appeared in the popular press during the years they were active in the medium, a systematic study of radio authorship never developed.

The Secret Life of Soap Operas: James Thurber as Broadcasting Auteur

Which brings us to James Thurber, a writer ahead of his time in both the harm and the good that he did in helping Americans to understand the soap opera. On the one hand, as a major author writing in a major national magazine, Thurber consolidated and perpetuated the glib generalizations that were already circulating about the daytime serial. Thurber set the tone for the shallow treatments of the soap opera that are very much in evidence to this day by taking the soap as an easy target for facile humor based on its complicated plot descriptions and affinity for narrative contrivances such as amnesia.

He also did something in his five-part 1948 New Yorker series that has some real historic significance: he launched the series with "0 Pioneers!," a piece that identifies the real people who were churning out thousands of words per week in the very popular but already intellectually disdained form of the daytime radio serial. By refraining from treating these programs, as most others did, and still do, as something that materialized out of thin air, Thurber himself was a pioneer of sorts.

The elevation of popular culture creators to the status of subjects for serious studies is not a particularly fashionable strategy among many intellectuals. Many believe that attention and legitimacy given to individual artists distracts us from the social and economic factors that are so crucial to the production of mass-media entertainment. In the case of the soap opera, programs were developed by station and network executives, advertising agencies, writers, and producers to serve the commercial needs of big businesses which, many argue, ultimately determined the form the soap would take. Robert C. Allen wrote in Speaking of Soap Operas that "the force exercised by individual genius in the origins of the soap opera was slight, despite the roles played in its early development by such figures as Irna Phillips and the Hummerts."

Although the early radio soaps were indeed very much in the service of their sponsors' marketing needs—characters would hawk products within the narrative of the show and story lines were developed around the sponsors' goods—we still must remember that individuals, not industries, ultimately create programming. Thurber seemed to recognize the need to identify both the people and the context in which they worked. After introducing the major creative players in his first essay, he goes on to discuss the roles ot sponsors, actors, and audiences in subsequent essays. Thurber doesn't reduce the study of soaps merely to the study of single individuals; rather, he identifies individuals who work within a swirl of competing commercial and creative forces.

As we might expect in essays written so long ago, Thurber's prescient auteurist leanings had their limits. Though he does supply brief career profiles of several radio artists, he never really gets around to identifying individual creative styles. We learn, for example, that the prolific soap creator Elaine Carrington dictated her scripts into a tape recorder while standing up (although later accounts say she dictated them while smoking in bed). Thurber, however, tells us little about her style. His comments that her dialogue was "frequent and facile" and that she liked to deal with "the frustrations, heartbreaks, kindliness, nastiness, cruelties and tragedies of the middle class" appear in a description of the short stories she wrote for women's magazines, not of her subsequent work in radio soaps. Thurber says nothing about the gushing romance and unpretentious, prosaic narratives that distinguished Carrington's programs such as Red Adams, which evolved into the immensely popular Pepper Young's Family, from the work of other suppliers. All he gives us on Paul Rhymer, the creator of the hit serial Vie and Sade, was that his material was funny, and, for all of Thurber's fascination with itinerant writer Robert H. Andrews, we are left knowing little more than the fact that he wrote really fast.

Thurber, like most people who write and think about soaps, identified Frank and Anne Hummert and Irna Phillips as the two founding forces of the broadcast soap opera. Phillips usually gets credit for creating the first local radio soap, Painted Dreams, which began airing on WGN in Chicago in 1930, while the first national soap opera is usually attributed to the Hummerts' Betty and Boh, which debuted on NBC's Blue network in 1932. Phillips would create a legacy that is still active today; the Hummerts would disappear with the coming of television.

We Remember Irna

Of all the soap artists Thurber mentions, only Irna Phillips still remains much on the American mind. A prime-time celebration of the genre on CBS in 1994, for example, included a loving, eight-minute panegyric to the "queen of the soaps" and two of her proteges. In the entire two-hour program, the Hummerts, Robert Andrews, and Elaine Carrington get not a single mention. While unknown by most Americans, Phillips's name continues to come up with some frequency in everything from Ph.D. dissertations to soap digests.

The principal reason for this is that Irna Phillips's radio serials had a distinct and unique style that was adaptable to the new medium of television, while none of the other radio soap creators were able to make this transition. Unfortunately, Thurber's essays are not much help in determining what this style was. In his second installment, "Ivorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg, and Crisco Corners," Thurber defines the genre by lumping all the soaps together and coming up with a list of conventions and characteristics common to the form. Overall, it's a pretty good survey of the art in 1948, but it doesn't recognize how different producers and writers used these conventions in unique and individual ways. Thurber identifies the soaps' predilection for small town settings, for example, hut he then fails to distinguish the difference between a Hummert small town and a Phillips small town.

He does, however, give us a place from which to start. Many of the stylistic differences between the leading soap suppliers were the result of differences in production philosophies. The Hummerts were, primarily, manufacturers. Starting out as employees of an ad agency, they produced not only serials, but mysteries and dramas as well, selling them to sponsors and taking the finished product to the networks, from whom they needed nothing but airtime. According to radio historian John Dunning, the Hummerts were buying as much as 8 percent of available network time slots at the peak of their assembly-line production. While Anne Hummert did some other own writing and apparently dictated plotlines the Hummerts were known for employing a stable of dialoguers, who wrote most of the actual scripts. Robert Andrews was one of their most productive employees, a "hack" on a colossal scale.

Serial historian Raymond W. Stedman suggests that the Hummerts nudged out the possibility of a higher aesthetic standard in daytime drama. "If one serial factory had not been in such a dominant position [in the second half of the 1930s]," he argues, "a few more Carringtons, or [Gertrude] Bergs, might have begun writing daytime serials. As it happened, the genre had little attraction for good writers because of the relatively narrow opportunity to place worthwhile dramas on the air."

If the Hummerts were producers and Robert Andrews was a hired gun writing for someone else's creations, Irna Phillips was a true candidate for the status of broadcast auteur. Like Carrington, she created worlds, then produced and wrote about them herself. The Hummerts created the production style of the soaps, explain sociologists Muriel Cantor and Suzanne Pingree in their book The Soap Opera, but Phillips developed modern soap opera content.

Phillips was first and foremost a writer, and she remained intimately involved in the stories she created. She not only wrote 520 scripts for her first creation, Painted Dreams, she also acted in the program. Once her product was in high demand, she used a system similar to the one developed by the Hummerts: plotting shows and approving scripts but employing others to write some of the dialogue. She continued to do much other own writing, however, some two to three million broadcast words per year during her prime.

Radio historian J. Fred MacDonald wrote in 1979 that "unlike the massive operation of the Hummerts, which could have as many as a dozen different series broadcast weekly, Phillips confined her efforts to four or five quality serials per season. She also avoided the fantasy that sometimes entered the Hummert product, and preferred dramas about people caught up in more realistic predicaments." Stedman agrees, arguing that Phillips was a principal creator of a style of soap opera that "displayed literary quality beyond that turned out by the 'dialoguers.'' Phillips sought to present what she saw as the ultimate goal of American women: a safe and secure family. "The foundations of all dreams of all the men and women in the world," declared the matriarch of Today’s Children, Phillips's second soap, are "love, family, home."

Phillips knew, of course, that all drama needed conflict, but in a 1972 interview in the trade magazine Broadcasting, she pointed out that conflict between characters didn't need to be sordid to be interesting. Dramatic tension could be achieved by introducing realistic threats to the ideal family situation. "I'm trying to get back to the fundamentals," she explained. "For example, the way in which a death in the family or serious illness brings members of the family closer together, gives them a real sense of how much they're dependent on each other."'

The Hummerts also claimed that they "painted against the canvas of everyday American life" and we see plenty of homespun material in Thurber's descriptions of many of the soaps from the forties. But the degrees of realism in the homey settings of the soaps could vary dramatically. Stedman points out that "the canvas of American life was not filled with so many crimes, trials, strange diseases, lost mates, and causes for extended suffering as was the canvas of the daytime serial, especially as painted by Frank and Anne Hummert." The Cinderella story, for example, was one of the Hummerts' favorite fairy-tale inspirations. Our Gal Sunday concerned an orphan girl from a depression-era mining camp in Silver Creek, Colorado, who goes on to marry England's richest, most handsome lord. In Backstage Wife, a stenographer from rural Iowa marries a matinee idol beloved by a million other women.

Phillips's serials, on the other hand, were less exaggerated, less melodramatic, and less fantastic than those of the Hummerts. Her characters and their problems were more like those that listeners might actually encounter, both personally and professionally. Thurber lamented that "Many a soap town appears to have no policemen, mailmen, milkmen, storekeepers, lawyers, ministers, or even neighbors" and that while we might hear about a hospital or a courtroom, we seldom saw one. This wasn't, in fact, true of many contemporary soaps, and it certainly wasn't true of those made by Phillips. Both Guiding Light and The Brighter Day were centered around a clergyman, and professional settings like hospitals and courtrooms would become a Phillips trademark, especially in her later television work.

Screen Test

Irna Phillips thrived during the soap opera's move from radio to television. The worlds that she brought to television on Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Another World, and Days of Our Lives, are still on the air today. Guiding Light, which effortlessly went to television after fifteen years on the radio and four years simulcast on both radio and television, has been running for sixty years, the longest continuous story ever told. Of the ten soaps currently on the air, nine were created by Phillips or people who started out working on Phillips's soaps. The work of the Hummerts, on the other hand, never made it out of radio.

Only two radio soaps, in fact, met with any long-term success when they were moved to television. Both Guiding Light and The Brighter Day were concocted by Phillips, who has been identified by popular culture expert Carol Traynor Williams as "one of the few (and best) radio writers to be energized by television." Phillips's television work continued to emphasize realistic presentations of family life, professional settings, and rich characterizations that drove the narrative. Her homey realism was consistent with the small screens and claustrophobic settings of fifties television. Her characters' bent toward amateur philosophy and psychotherapy provided a perfect opportunity for the use of long, lingering close-ups that television was so good at providing. Some of the less realistic creations of the Hummerts, though, could never have worked on television. In The Romance of Helen Trent, for example, Helen remains somewhere on the far side of thirty five for more than twenty-seven years. Even with modern makeup, this could never have been pulled off on television.

Furthermore, Irna Phillips trained a new generation of soap creators that would move the genre to places Thurber could never have imagined. Agnes Nixon was a Phillips protege and employee who would bring the television soap into the relevance era of the sixties, seventies, and beyond, with creations that include All My Children, One Life to Live, and Loving. Nixon took the basic formula that she had learned from Phillips and added contemporary social issues. Announcing that she wanted her soaps to educate and inform as well as to entertain, she introduced topical stories concerning race, abortion, infertility, depression, child abuse, AIDS, and a host of other subjects that would have turned crimson the cheek of her Victorian mentor (who had once quit her job as a consultant on Peyton Place because the subject matter was too risque). An extended story line on Loving in 1984 explored the plight of Vietnam veterans three years before prime-rime television would introduce its first dramatic series about the war.

William J. Bell, another former employee of Irna Phillips, and his wife, Lee Phillip Bell, followed a path similar to Nixon's. The Young and the Restless, like the Nixon soaps, injected topical issues (its 1975 story about breast cancer was especially notorious) and, in so doing, brought an increasingly younger audience to the soap opera. As Nixon had introduced a new visual style to the soap by occasionally taking her shows on location (St. Croix, the streets of New York), the Bells offered an element of glamour with the glitzy costuming on The Bold and the Beautiful, which was set in the fashion industry of Los Angeles. For all their updated subject matter, however, neither Agnes Nixon nor the Bells ever saw the need to stray far from the Irna Phillips formula. In most cases, their soaps continued to center around two families in small cities, and the basic narrative structure that Phillips had developed hack in the radio days remained intact.

Insight, Foresight, Hindsight

Although James Thurber had the insight to recognize the soaps' creators and introduce them to the wide readership of the New Yorker, his decision not to flesh out the unique ways in which each of those creators used a set of formulaic dramatic ingredients in the end left his readers without much of an idea that individual style matters, even in a commercially driven, factory-produced art form like the soap opera. Unfortunately, the most-often quoted bit from the five essays reveals their greatest weakness: a tendency to define all soap opera with generalizations. "A soap opera is a kind of sandwich," Thurber writes in the first essay, "whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week."

Comments like this perpetuate our inability to make distinctions of quality between the products in our most popular media. John Ford's Westerns, of course, had horses and cacti and marshals and outlaws just like hundreds of B Westerns, but how he used all those ingredients makes Stagecoach a better and more important film than Six Shootin Sheriff. The auteur theorists showed us one way to make these distinctions with regard to movies.

They didn't do this, however, until movies had been around for over half a century. Thurber, on the other hand, was writing about the soap opera less than twenty years after its invention. That his essays did not lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the daytime serial is probably more the fault of his readers than of Thurber himself. Had they chosen to concentrate on Thurber's innovative invitations to focus on the people who made the soaps rather than on his characteristic humorous broadsides, the genre may have received—nearly fifty years ago—the attention it is finally getting today.

No comments: