Just let me see some of those old black-and-white movies…
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Old films on TV are full of such nice little “aha!” moments, like catching Oliver Hardy on a day off from Stan Laurel in a dramatic role as a loving father; or discovering a witty Jeanette MacDonald in an old Ernst Lubitsch film with Maurice Chevalier before she turned into Nelson Eddy’s flowery, starchy co-star; or coming upon Fred Astaire’s tentative screen debut in Dancing Lady, giving a perky Joan Crawford dance lessons. Joan Crawford perky? Yep, once upon a time.
When I first encountered Crawford in the ’50s, she was in her hard-edged, scowling, heavily painted middle-aged phase, with those scary caterpillar eyebrows and waxy red lips, but if you see her in a ’30s film you realize she was once soft, appealing, even girlish. The young Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, likewise, were once willowy. Dick Powell negotiated the most unlikely male star turnabout, from prissy male ingénue in ’30s Busby Berkeley musicals to wise guy ’40s private eye Philip Marlowe.
In one peculiar 1942 oldie, The Big Street, Lucille Ball plays a mean, spoiled rich girl who orders around a simpering fan who becomes her sycophantic assistant, played by (huh?) Henry Fonda. In that same odd film, Agnes Moorehead, always a meanie in movies we know her best from, is a winsome young flirt.
EVEN CREAKY OLD comedies (which creak more than most genres) reveal what people considered funny in 1932 or 1947, and sometimes how the language has changed. Characters in old romantic comedies are always talking about “making love,” by which they mean wooing, which gradually became “making time,” and then “making out.” In 1936, “making love” in movies had nothing to do with a roll in the hay. Maybe best of all, old movies are totally devoid of gratuitous sex, not to mention random violence and casual gross-out scenes (urinal conversations, obligatory vomit shots, wall-to-wall “f-bombs”), desperate efforts now to seem with-it.
Almost any old movie is a virtual thesaurus of colorful slang, especially gangster films like A Slight Case of Murder with Edward G. Robinson, rife with pungent lingo of the era we ought to revive: “Keep yer nose clean,” “When do we put on the feed bag?,” “In a pig’s eye,” “Ya got a bug in yer nut?” “He took a powder,” “Not on yer tintype,” “Hiya, toots!” “Hey, ya big lug!” “He’s crackers!” “It’s a swell burg.” (“Swell” gets a real workout in old movies; it’s the ’30s “cool.”). The ancient language in old movies is part of a recaptured lost world, just a computer click away.
Old flicks give you a chance to catch up on actors you knew nothing about except their names, so be prepared for major surprises. In a TCM week of her films, I finally realized what a clever comedian Marion Davies was—as funny as anybody then, or today, not just the spoiled mistress of William Randolph Hearst. I was amazed how good she was, how inventive, witty, and adorable. No wonder Hearst was smitten; me, too.
I finally saw a movie with Fay Wray that did not involve a giant ape and was surprised at her sophistication. One famous movie role can mark an actor unfairly for life, burying an entire career leading up to it. Frances Faye, Miriam Hopkins, and Mae Busch (who once only existed for me as a Jackie Gleason punch line—“…and the ever-popular Mae Busch!”)—all were actresses I’d never noticed. They weren’t household names for nothing. I now appreciate Carole Lombard, whom I hadn’t seen much of until a recent comedy on Turner Classics displayed her subtle humor and smart self-effacing charm. Others, caricatures like Mae West and Betty Hutton, don’t hold up so well.
If you watch enough old movies, you’ll be impressed by the versatility of supposedly one-trick stars like Edward G. Robinson, who embodied the definitive screen mobster so often that most people only recall his growl, when, in fact, he turns up in all sorts of films that stretched his endlessly elastic talent. In Double Indemnity, as a wily insurance investigator, Robinson brings a comic touch to the role, indeed to the rest of the otherwise dark movie. Despite his much-mimicked style, squat shape, and squashed-in mug, Robinson could play almost anything, from a kindly Norwegian father (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) to a timid henpecked husband (Scarlet Street).
Famous old films I thought I’d seen I find I never actually watched all the way through, like The Bad and the Beautiful. What I’d seen over the years were clips but never the entire movie. Or I’ll watch an old movie and, halfway through, realize I’ve seen it—or have I? (old moviegoer’s Alzheimer’s). I’ve stopped worrying about it and just let myself enjoy the film again, if it is indeed again (Memento or Inception, anyone?).
Maybe the best thing about old movies is how efficient and compact they are—many run 90 minutes and some clock in at 80 minutes. Few two-and-a-half hour slogs. They were plot driven, like the best low-budget noir films, which didn’t need to be arty to be great. No flashy directorial shenanigans, no digitalized special effects, no needless sub-sub-sub-plots, no extraneous characters, meandering themes, rambling dialogue, or intrusive musical scores.
Everything carries the story forward. In even ordinary old films, every scene, every line, counts. They were tightly crafted stories—succinct, efficient, well-constructed tales, with no tricky tropes (is this thing a fantasy? A flashback? A dream?). One great time-saving device is old movie credits, which take a minute, not 10 minutes, like today’s interminable crawls, where everybody on the payroll gets mentioned, from the star’s driver to the location caterer.
THERE IS, however, a frequent drawback to shorter films. Plots tend to be simplistic and melodramatic, studded with clichés and easy stereotypes to make a point quickly, with few nuanced characters. Very often you can guess the outcome early—even if the movie was original in its day, because so many films since have similar plots, themes, or characters. A kid coughs and you know he’s a goner. A woman faints and you know she’s pregnant. A sweet young boy goes off to war and you know he won’t be back. A neighbor is so nice that you know he’s a scoundrel—or as Edward G. Robinson snarls in A Slight Case of Murder, a real crumb-bum.
The kick in old movies starts with the opening logos, many long gone, like RKO’s jagged radio signals flashing from a transmitter accompanied by staccato beeps; Republic Pictures’ eagle perched on a mountain peak; Columbia’s lady in a toga holding a torch aloft with an American flag draped about her; MGM’s reassuring lion’s roar, less regal and shaggy now, framed with its proud art for art’s sake motto, “Ars Gratia Artis.”
As the “players’” names appear, suddenly you’re no longer in your living room watching an old film on an HD wall screen. You’re 15 again, sitting in a busted lopsided seat in your old neighborhood movie house, Jujubes in hand, waiting to be transported back to a lush world where Lana Turner, John Garfield, and Ann Sheridan reside in a gilded black-and-white past.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?