Howard Hawks, Road to Glory (1926): The great filmmakers of early, Golden Age Hollywood tended not to be artists. They were professionals. Directing was a job, and they went where the work was. Frank Capra and George Stevens labored for Hal Roach, and even gruff John Ford helmed comedies and Shirley Temple vehicles. Hawks’ debut, sadly lost, is a melodrama about a woman going blind, buttressed by reams of religious imagery. “It didn’t have any fun in it,” he later confessed, which is indeed un-Hawksian.
Mikio Naruse, Flunky, Hard Work (1931): Akira Kurosawa described the melodramas of this Japanese great, many of them, “women’s pictures,” as “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.” But like Yasujiro Ozu—whose debut, Blade of Penitance, concerned a thief trying to go straight—Naruse’s style didn’t appear fully formed. Indeed, his first extant work is part-slapstick, which is even funnier if you’ve seen serene masterworks like Repast or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.
Robert Altman, The Delinquents (1957): Altman said his biggest influences weren’t great filmmakers but bad filmmakers, who helped him conceive his unique approach by teaching him what not to do. He also learned this the hard way, spending two decades pre-breakthrough on industrial films, TV and this low-budget juvie effort, which, beyond being decidedly un-Altmanesque, also featured Billy Jack himself, Tom Laughlin.
Marcel Ophüls, Banana Peel (1963): The son of Max, Ophüls followed in his father’s footsteps, debuting with this fizzily forgettable Jean-Paul Belmondo/Jeanne Moreau detective yarn. When he found it difficult launching projects, he whimsically got into documentary filmmaking and never looked back. Surely Banana Peel’s opposite is The Sorrow and the Pity, the younger Ophüls’ epic look at Nazi-occupied France.
Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 (1963): Like many of his generation—among them Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme—Coppola got his start at the Roger Corman Film School. So the man behind The Godfather saga began with a grimy, cheap Psycho ripoff.
William Friedkin, Good Times (1967): The man who gave you The French Connection, head-spinning, vomiting, cussing little girls (The Exorcist) and, with the new Killer Joe, a sexual act performed on a KFC drumstick, cut his teeth on Sonny and Cher. Seriously. ■
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