Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: ‘The Godfather,’ Volume II

The GodfatherLast week we started to look at The Godfather. This week, we continue..

Nowadays when a movie comes out it’s distributed everywhere all at once. There are some limitations, but it’s nothing like it was in 1972. In 1972, a movie would be released to a single theater on a single screen. No other movie house within 50 miles could screen the film for the first run, which could last a year.

As you might imagine, this worked out really well for filmmakers; their movie had time to find its audience, develop some buzz and a following. The studios … not so much. A studio would have to go through two, maybe three rounds of advertising in order to find those new audiences and retain mindshare for the film.

Just prior to the release of The Godfather, the movie had huge buzz. Not because anyone thought it was any good, but because of the popularity of the book and the curiosity of what this young Italian kid was going to do with a gangster movie, not to mention the return of Marlon Brando. Paramount had no intention of blowing all that buzz on one screen per city. On opening night, The Godfather played on more screens than any other film in history. If the movie flopped, Paramount figured the buzz and the advertising push might pay off in a big weekend. Basically, they created the modern-studio release strategy. Think Jaws was the first blockbuster of New Hollywood? Nope — it was The Godfather.

As it turns out, it wasn’t the crazy hippie stuff that the old studios thought new America wanted; it was a new definition of family. Coppola is Michael Corleone. Just keep that in your head. Initially, Coppola wanted to rebel from studio filmmaking. His early attempts were filled with crazy jump cuts, interpolated found footage, hot ’60s broads, and soundtracks by the Lovin’ Spoonful. But he didn’t find the full power of his voice until he worked his way through the story of Michael Corleone. Michael also wanted to rebel from his family, also wanted to turn away from the evil monolith that was his family business. When push came to shove, however, neither Coppola nor Michael could turn away from family.

After the cultural fractures of the ’60s, we needed a new vision of America, one that could somehow meld the revolutionary spirit with the established order. Neither was going away. Both are endemic to American progress. Like Michael Corleone, Francis Ford Coppola re-figured the family business.

The GodfatherYou can hear it in the first line: “I believe in America,” delivered by a face in silhouette. It’s drenched in irony and pain, a preamble to a businessman’s request for revenge from a man far more powerful than he will ever be. And then the Godfather himself, simultaneously benevolent and malevolent, bringing judgment and support to the plebe before him. That balance between the vengeful and the loving father is the heart of Brando’s perfect depiction of Vito Corleone. Neither Coppola nor Brando ever indicts Vito. Like Michael, they love him. They believe in him even as he dwells in darkness. Like America.

Like Coppola, Michael has a belief that he can turn the family business into something legitimate, even if a few bodies need to be swept under the rug. Perhaps if The Godfather can be a success, a new era will reign in Hollywood. Perhaps the family business can change.

With The Godfather, Coppola found his mature voice, a style that carried him through the middle part of his career, when he made four masterpieces in a row.

But before we get to those masterpieces we’re going to take a brief interlude with another of the secrets to Coppola’s success: the brilliant editor, Walter Murch.