Bosley Crowther (July 13, 1905 – March 7, 1981) was an American journalist and author who was film critic for The New York Times for 27 years. His work helped shape the careers of many actors, directors and screenwriters, though his reviews, at times, were perceived as unnecessarily mean. Crowther was an advocate of foreign-language films in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly those of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini.
Life and career
Crowther was born Francis Bosley Crowther, Jr. in Lutherville, Maryland, the son of Eliza (Leisenring) and Francis Bosley Crowther. As a child, Crowther moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he published a neighborhood newspaper, The Evening Star. His family moved to Washington, D.C., and Crowther graduated from Western High School in 1922. After two years of prep school in Orange, Virginia at Woodberry Forest School, he entered Princeton University, where he majored in history. For his writing performance, Crowther was offered a job as a cub reporter for The New York Times at a salary of $30 a week. He declined the offer, made to him by the publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, hoping to find employment on a small Southern newspaper. When the salary offered by those papers wasn't half of the Times offer, he went to New York and took the job. He was the first night cub reporter for the Times, and in 1933 was asked by Brooks Atkinson to join the drama department. He spent five years covering the theater scene in New York, and even dabbled in writing for it.
While at the Times in those early years, Crowther met Florence Marks, a fellow employee; the couple wed on January 20, 1933. They had three sons, Bosley Crowther III, a retired attorney, John Crowther, a writer and artist, and Jefferson, a banker and the father of Welles Remy Crowther.
Crowther was a prolific writer of film essays as a critic for The New York Times from 1940 to 1967. Perhaps conscious of the power of his reviews, his style was considered by many to be scholarly rather than breezy. Frank Beaver wrote in Bosley Crowther: Social Critic of the Film, 1940–1967 that Crowther opposed displays of patriotism in films and believed that a movie producer "should balance his political attitudes even in the uncertain times of the 1940s and 1950s, during the House Un-American Activities Committee." Crowther's review of the wartime drama Mission to Moscow, made when the Soviet Union was almost single-handedly holding the Nazis at bay, chided the film by saying it should show "less ecstasy", and said "It is just as ridiculous to pretend that Russia has been a paradise of purity as it is to say the same thing about ourselves."
In the 1950s, Crowther was an opponent of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, whose anti-Communist crusade targeted Hollywood and blacklisted alleged Hollywood Communists. He opposed censorship of movies, and advocated greater social responsibility in the making of movies. He was critical of movies that sensationalized violence, criticizing Bonnie and Clyde as "a blending of farce with brutal killings," "as pointless as it is lacking in taste." Crowther approved of movies with social content, such as Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind, The Lost Weekend, All the King's Men and High Noon. Crowther also had a barely concealed disdain for Joan Crawford when reviewing her films, referring to her acting style as "artificiality" and "pretentiousness," and would also chide Crawford for her physical bearing. In his review of the cult classic Johnny Guitar, Crowther complained that, "...no more femininity comes from (Crawford) than from the rugged Mr. Heflin in Shane. For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades."
His preferences in popular movies were not always predictable. He defended epics such as Ben-Hur and Cleopatra, but gave the World War II film The Great Escape a highly unfavorable review, and panned all of David Lean's later works. He called Lawrence of Arabia a "thundering camel-opera that tends to run down rather badly as it rolls on into its third hour and gets involved with sullen disillusion and political deceit."
Crowther had a reputation for admiring foreign-language films including many of the Italian neorealist films such as Open City, The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine. However he was critical of some iconic releases as well. He found Kurosawa's classic Throne of Blood (derived from Macbeth) ludicrous, particularly its ending; and called Gojira (Godzilla) "an incredibly awful film". When Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho in 1960, Crowther dismissed the film as "a blot on an otherwise honorable career," but later reassessed the film considering it one of the top ten films of the year, writing that Psycho was a "bold psychological mystery picture.... [I]t represented expert and sophisticated command of emotional development with cinematic techniques." He commented that while Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali took on "a slim poetic form" the structure and tempo of it "would barely pass as a 'rough cut' with editors in Hollywood." Writing about L'Avventura in 1960, Crowther said that watching the film was "like trying to follow a showing of a picture at which several reels have got lost."
The career of Bosley Crowther is discussed at length in For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, including his support for foreign-language cinema and his public repudiation of McCarthyism and the Blacklist. In this 2009 documentary film contemporary critics who appreciate his work, such as A. O. Scott, appear, but also those who found his work to be too moralistic, such as Richard Schickel, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris.
Bonnie and Clyde criticism
The end of Crowther's career was marked by his disdain for the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. His review was negative:
It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie... [S]uch ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperadoes were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years might be passed off as candidly commercial movie comedy, nothing more, if the film weren't reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort... This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap.
Other critics besides Crowther panned the movie; for example, New York magazine's critic, John Simon, while praising its technical execution, declared "Slop is slop, even served with a silver ladle." Its distributor pulled the film from circulation. However, the critical consensus on Bonnie and Clyde reversed, notably with two high-profile reassessments by Time and Newsweek. The latter's Joe Morgenstern wrote two reviews in consecutive issues, the second retracting and apologizing for the first. Time hired Stefan Kanfer as its new film critic in late 1967; his first assignment was an ostentatious rebuttal of his magazine's original negative review. A rave in The New Yorker by Pauline Kael was also influential.
In the wake of this critical reversal, one of the most dogged critics of the film was Bosley Crowther, who wrote three negative reviews, as well as periodically blasting the movie in reviews of other films, and also in a letters column response to unhappy Times readers. The New York Times replaced Crowther as its primary film critic in early 1968, and it was speculated that his persistent attacks on Bonnie and Clyde had shown him to be out of touch with current cinema, and weighed heavily in his removal. Crowther worked as an executive consultant at Columbia Pictures after leaving the Times.
Crowther wrote The Lion's Share: The Story of an Entertainment Empire (1957), the first book documenting the history of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as well as Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer (1960), a biography of MGM's studio's head.
Crowther died of heart failure on March 7, 1981 in Mount Kisco, New York. He was survived by his wife Florence; a sister, Nancy Crowther Kappes; three sons, F. Bosley, John, and Jefferson; and four grandchildren.