Just let me see some of those old black-and-white movies…
Old films are America’s home movies. Nothing is more richly compelling than the cultural ore found in films from the past, and it isn’t just because I now qualify as a relic myself; they’ve always grabbed me. Many a mediocre old movie is more captivating than a highly touted new film (unless, of course, it’s set in the ’20s, ’30s, or ’40s, like a little 2009 gem, Me and Orson Welles, rich in theatrical lore and ’30s period detail).
Somehow I trust vintage movies more than new releases that haven’t stood the test of time before earning their way into my picky, wary heart (let’s take a look at today’s hot films again in 2070). Partly it’s because old movies are usually in black and white, which makes them look grainy, more honest, like documentaries. Contemporary movies are too close to get a historical handle on, to really judge with any perspective; I need to wait for the dust to settle, when the bloom is off the rosy hype.
As William Faulkner famously put it, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” The past beguiles and haunts us, especially the past that was here before we arrived and now can be experienced so vividly in old films. We romanticize the past; it’s the way we wish it were, even if it wasn’t. I once asked my mother what it was like to grow up during the Roaring ’20s, and she said it wasn’t all that exciting. It’s those who come along later that create, and mythologize, the past. My mother, a non-flapper, was too busy living her life to notice history happening, to hear the decade’s roar. To quote the big band era singer Helen O’Connell, “If I’d known it was going to be an ‘era,’ I would have paid closer attention.”
Now that thousands of old movies are available on cable, especially on Turner Classic Movies, and from Netflix, we can all pay much closer attention, wallowing in oldies. I rent new movies but rarely get as jazzed when, say, The Social Network arrives in the red envelope as I do when something like Morning Glory (a 1933 Katharine Hepburn film) lands in my mailbox. Not surprisingly, the overrated Social Network turned out to be a lackluster second to the nearly forgotten Morning Glory, a sparkling rediscovery with Hepburn as a struggling, starry-eyed actress in New York, wangling her way onto Broadway.
Part of my innate affection for classic, little-known, or underrated old films is a reaction to the noise surrounding every week’s allegedly big new movie, usually forgotten in six months. Does anyone in the room recall the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2009? I thought not. It’s already the stuff of Hollywood trivia (The Hurt Locker).
ONE REALITY OF famous old movies is that often they don’t live up to their reputations either. Many are melodramatic, sugary, inane, or cute, with unconvincing plot twists, hyperbolic acting, and obvious endings—like most films today. But even if a highly touted “classic” from 1946, like Gilda, turns out to be semi-lousy, it still has plenty of intriguing elements that have nothing to do with the lame story or characters that make the film historically and culturally worth watching, chock full of artifacts we took for granted, like cigarette lighter-wielding gents and fur-draped ladies, now wicked un-PC victims.
Despite a nutty plot and two songs shoehorned into the film for Rita to sing, Gilda has a lot of stuff going on around the edges—the costumes (Hayworth’s flashy parade of outfits, calculated to display her as a hot number, turns every scene into a fashion show), the swanky Art Deco furnishings, and the social manners, like the matter-of-fact way actors puff cigarettes and down drinks, which tells a lot about the time. Half the scenes in movies of that era open with someone offering somebody a drink—never wine, always whiskey, straight up. It all seems pretty glamorous now. In 2075, when people look at today’s films, I doubt if it will seem quite so glamorous watching characters puffing away on treadmills and swigging soy milk.
Old movies are much more than just movies; they’re lessons in pop culture, glimpses into what people drank, how they talked, what they wore (yes, in racetrack and baseball crowd scenes, all the men are in coats, ties, and hats), where they vacationed, whom they admired, what shocked them and what made them laugh, even just how they moved—all keyholes to cultural history. In Leo McCarey’s little-known 1936 jewel Make Way for Tomorrow, Fay Bainter gives bridge lessons in her living room to earn extra money during the Depression; all the men are in tuxes, the women in evening gowns. These unwitting celluloid artifacts are fictional newsreels, almost impossible to recreate now.
The recent five-part HBO remake of Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet in for Joan Crawford as Mildred, was a decent effort but it never felt quite right, true to its time or place (1931 Los Angeles). Winslet has a 2011 voice, and her daughter sounded more Valley Girl whiny than vapid but venal, like Ann Blyth in the original. Maybe if it had been shot in black and white I’d have warmed to it more easily.
LAST MARCH, Turner Classic Movies programmed a week of films about secretaries (the very word itself sounds quaint, promoted now to “executive assistant”). None of them were arty but they were highly watchable: More Than a Secretary, a 1936 romantic comedy with Jean Arthur playing a recognizable woman rather than her standard airy-fairy blonde; This Could Be the Night, a 1957 movie with Jean Simmons and the ever-reliable Paul Douglas as a lovable tough guy club owner; She’s Got Everything, a 1938 movie with Ann Sothern. In all three films you see the seeds of the women’s movement being planted—secretaries on the rise, secretaries asserting themselves, secretaries making their way in a hard-boiled male world.
Old movies are crawling with cultural marginalia—the snazzy old cars, all the men in hats, cravats, and cufflinks (why do guys like Dana Andrews and Richard Widmark look twice as mature as actors their age in today’s movies?), and the braless women slinking about in diaphanous dresses that look more like nightgowns. Those tissue paper blouses revealed enough to give the boys in the old Hays office plenty of reason to gawk and fret; many scenes in pre-Code films are a bedroom door away from soft-core porn. The women in pre-Code films were often the sexual predators and the guys the innocents, like Jean Harlow pawing a virtuous Chester Morris in 1932’s Red-Headed Woman.
Actresses in their 20s appear much more womanly on screen than today’s versions, and many were breathtaking goddesses: Gene Tierney, Hedy Lamarr, Mary Astor, Jeanne Crain. It’s hard to think of a film actress today in quite that rarefied league. (Yes, Miss Desmond, they did have faces then, but also charm and elegance.)
Then there are all the quirky character actors. Even the silliest or most mechanical old movies come alive with character turns by bit players who made a living revisiting the same role in film after film, as maids, bankers, waiters, nurses, valets, cab drivers—people like Billy Gilbert, Hugh Herbert, Mary Wickes, Billy De Wolfe, Guy Kibbee, Franklin Pangborn, Victor Moore, Willie Best, Sterling Holloway, Richard Haydn, Charles Butterworth, Frank Jenks, John Fiedler, Leon Errol, Donald Meek, and Louise Beavers, a vast gallery of character types (and, to be sure, racial, gay, and female stereotypes).
A character actor with maybe three lines made the most of every syllable and gesture. They popped up in 20 movies a year, always amusing or memorable, saving otherwise banal scenes. Even third-rate musicals reward you with unexpected moments—great tap numbers by hoofers like Buddy Ebsen, Ray Bolger, and the Nicholas Brothers; a tacked-on comedy interlude with the Ritz Brothers; a great throwaway song by Johnny Mercer or Hoagy Carmichael sung in a nightclub scene by some near-forgotten chanteuse like Teddi King or Lee Wiley.
Old movies also let you discover icons-to-be in their first films, when they were not yet who they became—Gary Cooper as a thug, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart crooning, Randolph Scott as a rich playboy—portraying characters unlike those they got locked into once they got famous. It’s also fun to find young not-yet stars playing against type. Suddenly you sit up and think, “Wait—that kid sister looks a little like Bette Davis”—and, sure enough, it is Bette in a forgotten early ’30s flick, making do with two lines. In a soapy 1951 movie, Night into Morning, a woman who befriends Ray Milland after his wife and son are killed in a fire seemed faintly familiar—her voice. Finally I thought I nailed it—and as the end credits rolled, it was, as suspected, a pre-Reagan Nancy Davis.
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