Sunday, February 7, 2010

Five Reasons Why 1930s Cinema Rules

Many people my own age and younger have a prejudice against black-and-white films. Some of them simply will not watch such films, unless they're forced. When asked to explain their dislike, they tend to fall back on a stock answer: "They're old." And in the eyes of the young, nothing "old" (read: made or written a decade ago) can possibly be relevant to their own lives. I dislike this idea and do everything I can to persuade my students away from it, but that's another blog for another day; the issue today is classic black-and-white cinema.

It's easy for this classic film buff to sneer and smirk at these young people whose minds are closed fast against black-and-white films, but then I have to consider: how did I come to love these films? I have to credit my background. My parents were avid watchers of classic films, and as my sister and I were growing up, we saw a good many of them, good and bad. As we grew up, we never found anything wrong or unnatural in classic films, their black-and-white cinematography or their highly emotive stage style of acting. We were used to it. By the time we reached young adulthood, we could evaluate both classic and contemporary films on their own merits.

But when I consider how a brilliant black-and-white film like "A Tale of Two Cities" (1936) or "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1931) must look to a teenager or adult who has never seen a film from this era before, I realize how strange that film must seem to them, and how lucky I was to have grown up with classic-film-loving parents. Nowadays I have a simple recommendation for the uninitiated: Start with the 1960s and work your way back. Choose a few high points from each decade -- '60s, '50s, and '40s, and before you know it, you will have acclimatized yourself to those aspects of black-and-white film that once seemed so strange. You'll be ready to dip into my favorite film decade: the 1930s.

Five things I love about the films of the 1930s:
1. The best comedies earned their happy endings.
These days, it's fashionable for cinema's auteurs to tack tragic, or at least despairing, endings onto movies meant to make us laugh, as if somehow it's "smarter" (closer to what they perceive as the truth) to leave their characters in misery. Happy endings are so cliche, so yesterday, right? If that's the case, I'll gladly take a trip back to yesterday and enjoy a movie in which an upbeat ending could be fresh and funny: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert toppling the Walls of Jericho in "It Happened One Night" (1934); Carole Lombard assuring William Powell that "it" (their marriage ceremony) will all be over in a minute in "My Man Godfrey" (1937); and star-crossed American Melvyn Douglas and Soviet Greta Garbo meet in the middle, Constantinople, at the end of "Ninotchka."

2. Heroes knew how to buckle their swash.
Costume action pictures are not entirely a thing of the past, but these days the hero of such a film, unless he's played by Johnny Depp, is likely to be deadly dull; the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, for example, may have boasted Depp's delicious performance as the anti-hero Jack Sparrow, but we also had to put up with Orlando Bloom's beautiful-but-bland hero Will Turner, a type far more typical (see, or rather don't see, Kevin Costner in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" as another example). The balance of the personality, charisma, and wit in the films is channeled toward the Bad Guy. Well, when Errol Flynn was handling the sword, this was not the case. Costner's Robin Hood is so easily overshadowed by Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham that it's almost painful to watch. But Errol Flynn's Robin Hood (from one of 1938's best films) holds his own against baddie Basil Rathbone, matching him quip for quip and cutting a vital, charismatic figure. This is the kind of hero I want to root for.

3. "They had VOICES then."
For me, the most powerful and charismatic aspect of a good actor is his voice. If I don't like the voice, I don't like the actor (example: marble-mouthed Nicolas Cage). The trouble I find with contemporary cinema is that while character actors' voices might be immediately recognizable (e.g. Morgan Freeman, J.K. Simmons), leading actors' voices blend together, with little distinctive ring. If you watched their movies with your eyes closed, you wouldn't know whom was speaking. Yet 1930s cinema bursts with distinctive voices, actors who couldn't sound like anyone else if they tried: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Colman, James Stewart, William Powell, Gary Cooper, Ray Milland... just to name a few. Those are just the leading men. Bring in the character actors, and the list of distinctive voices gets much longer: Boris Karloff, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Donald Crisp, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, Raymond Massey, Edward Arnold, Edmund Gwenn, Lionel Barrymore... again, just to name a few.

4. Musical films starred musical stars.
Just as I grew up with black-and-white films, I grew up with Broadway and Hollywood musicals, and came to adore the genre. Recent attempts have been made to revive it, but their success has been spotty; we're still battling the problem that killed the genre in the first place: the casting of non-singing, non-dancing stars in musical roles. (In the painfully bad "Paint Your Wagon," for example, none of the leads could sing, and so some of the Broadway score's best songs had to be jettisoned.) Travel back to the 1930s, and you find the musical genre just getting started, and studios beginning to cultivate stars whose primary purpose was to star in musicals. Two stand out amongst the rest: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose films "Top Hat" and "Swing Time" manage to ring with class, style, and sheer joy despite their admittedly silly plots. Busby Berkeley, with his success "42nd Street," may have rescued the genre from the glut of bad films that nearly killed it, but Fred and Ginger set the bar high for musical stars, and the bar remained high through the next decade.

5. The year 1939.
Here's a list of movies released in 1939 nominated for Best Picture: "Dark Victory," "Gone With the Wind," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "Love Affair," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Ninotchka," "Of Mice and Men," "Stagecoach," "The Wizard of Oz," and "Wuthering Heights." That doesn't even include such stirring non-nominees as "The Lady Vanishes," "Only Angels Have Wings," "Young Mr. Lincoln," and "Gunga Din." Once you've worked your way back from the 1960s and accustomed yourself to the classic film style, I recommend you treat yourself to an All-1939 Film Festival. Start with these I've named, then spread out. With this sort of variety, you're bound to embrace more than one of them.

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