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There’s Gold in Them Thar Hollywood Hills

Just let me see some of those old black-and-white movies…

By From the July/August 2011 issue

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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.

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. 

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.