You should watch some old movies.
You should. We tend to stereotype the old black and whites as being too old-fashioned to relate to, with overdramatic acting, cheesy effects, melodramatic stories, and just boring and inferior to modern day cinema. Sometimes, that stereotype seems true.
But Hollywood was then just as it is now–capable of churning out loads of failures, utter garbage, at the same time as making films that can be watched over and over again, and stick with you.
Ah, but you say, I’ve tried old movies, and didn’t like them. Well, maybe you didn’t see the right ones. So here’s a list of old films I think just about anyone can enjoy or appreciate. You should go track them down. Now.
The General (1927)–The General is a silent classic by Buster Keaton, one of the three greatest and most famous of the comedians of that era, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin may be the more famous, but most critics now consider Keaton to be superior, and I agree.
Chaplin’s films are often filmed with a stationary camera, with Chaplin doing his routines, playing out his story, in front of it, as if we are just watching a recorded version of a stage show. But Keaton tapped into all the tricks of the new film technologies, and his camera moves. Chaplin is often overly sentimental; Keaton tends to avoid that, and the result is that some things are just funnier–witness the treatment of his dream girl in the second half of The General, as she is thrown around, squashed under piles of barrels, sat upon, etc.
Keaton was also more acrobatic, and there are several moments in The General that make me genuinely laugh. But if you don’t believe me yet, consider this: I showed this film to a group of American teenagers who didn’t want to watch a silent film at all, and they laughed. That’s saying something. (Not sure what…but something.)
The General is based on a real incident from the Civil War, in which some Union troops went undercover to steal a Confederate train engine (The General). In the film, Keaton is the train’s engineer, and when his train is stolen with his dream girl inside, he gives chase to rescue his train and his woman. Eventually the chase heads the other direction, as he steals the engine back and the Union soldiers chase him. Their adventures on the tracks lead to numerous sight gags and stunts, with much of the humour built around the accidental ways in which Keaton manages to get himself out of being killed.
Duck Soup (1933)–Just six years later we’re in full talking-film mode, and this is probably the Marx Brothers masterpiece. It is lean and quick, unlike some of their other classics that feel overly bloated by songs and musical performances. All four brothers are here–Groucho, as the President of the land of Freedonia, Harpo and Chico as spies, and Zeppo…doing whatever it is Zeppo did.
The main three brothers play to their strengths, with Groucho firing off one-liners left and right, Harpo playing the silent trickster to the fullness, and Chico ever the snide one with the Italian accent. There are classic moments all over the place, the highlights including the lemonade stand sequence and the Harpo/Groucho mirror standoff, a bit that would be imitated and recreated for years to come, but not likely done better than here, where Groucho’s residence has been invaded by spies Chico and Harpo, both dressed like him in an effort to throw others off of what’s happening. A mirror smashes, and the result is this:
To Be Or Not To Be (1942): Now this is a gutsy movie. A satire, a screwball comedy against Nazism made in part by Jewish actors, including star Jack Benny, right in the middle of World War II. The plot concerns a group of actors in Poland who end up using their skills to help track a Germany spy, but what transpires is a sort of madcap, comical, 40s Mission Impossible, with characters going undercover, mistaken identities, and so on. Mel Brooks later remade it, but it didn’t need it (and the remake adds nothing.)
This film is really different from the previous two on the list. Whereas The General uses the plot to set up clever sight gags and dead-panning from Keaton, and Duck Soup uses a loose plot the just set the Marx Brothers loose in chaos, the humour in this film is entirely situational. The laughs come from the tensions of the situation, and are plot driven, which was not how many of the earlier comedies worked. This is screen comedy separating a bit from its vaudeville roots and instead embracing what the Broadway stage plays did well.
A really clever film, including one moment on an airplane right at the end that caused both me and Ira to lose it completely. And remember, when you have nothing to say in an awkward moment: So, they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt?
Citizen Kane (1941) Okay, so I’m not going to win any points for originality here, but there is a reason that this is largely considered the greatest American film ever made. The film tells the story of a reporter interviewing people who crossed paths with recently deceased newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (a very thinly disguised version of real newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) in an attempt to discover what Kane meant by his last word: “Rosebud.” But the film becomes even more fascinating when one learns the story of the two men most concerned with its making–the young genius Orson Welles, who would himself later go on a Kane-like path of self-destruction, and Hearst, who opposed the film strongly enough that he attempted to buy and destroy every copy. Many editions of the DVD come with a really good documentary about these two men, and it is worth watching before viewing the film, in order to understand how scathing, how brazen Welles was being.
Thank God he didn’t.
Not only is it helpful to understand that, but you also have to understand that many of the cinematic tricks Kane pulls in this film–the angles, the transitions (like the one going in from the rain through the roof of the club into the interview with Kane’s ex), the mirror shots, etc–are tricks he and his crew came up with. They weren’t done in cinema before that, not to that degree. And in that sense, Kane is groundbreaking.
It is also extraordinarily acted, not least by Welles himself in the titular role, a role requiring the then-24 year old to play a 19 year old Kane and a 60-something year old Kane. Biting, emotional, clever, innovative, and insightful, Kane is a masterpiece, one to be studied over and over again.
(One extra note I like: I really appreciate the story structure. You basically see the entire story in the first 10 minutes through the newsreel. And the same time, you learn very little. The rest of the movie, interview by interview, flashback by flashback, reveals that same story from different angles.)
Casablanca (1942): Another stereotype. Whereas Citizen Kane is in some ways an art film, not one you pop in for entertainment but one you soak in and chew over, Casablanca is the ultimate Hollywood movie. In my opinion, the film’s greatest strength is its script–tight plotting, extremely witty, and full of classic lines (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” “Round up the usual suspects!” “This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” What’s ironic is that the script was thrown together, pages being constantly re-written during filming, plot turns and character arcs added and modified and taken away left and right. That usually doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work. But with Casablanca it works brilliantly.
The star of the show, of course, is Humphrey Bogart as bar owner Rick, playing his emotions close to the vest for most of the film, as cool as a cucumber. (When a Nazi commander is trying to intimidate Rick by showing him the complete dossier the Nazis have on Rick’s life, Rick glances at it, unimpressed, and says, “Are my eyes really brown?”) But the vast cast of supporting characters is also excellent, from the great Peter Lorre playing that creepy Peter Lorre stereotype, Claude Rains as charmingly corrupt Inspector Renault, down to subsidiary characters like Karl the barkeep.
Its story is pure melodrama–a love triangle set in Casablanca, Morocco during a time in the war when people went there to escape to America and often got stuck. And at times the melodrama plays a little cheesy to modern eyes. But there is intricacy here–part of the fun is watching the side characters and what happens with them. There is thriller-like tension, wartime dramatics, a spy story in the first 20 minutes, lots of jokes (if you pay attention) and a somewhat surprising ending. My favourite scene is probably the battle of National Anthems that takes place in Rick’s bar between some German soldiers singing a Third Reich hymn and political leader Victor Laszlo leading the orchestra in French anthem Le Marseille. A cracking good piece of old-time Hollywood at its best.
HOW ABOUT A MUSICAL?
Singing in the Rain (1952)–Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds star in this musical comedy. Everyone knows the title song and can probably even picture Gene in his raincoat and galoshes strolling down the street singing that melody. But if that’s as much as you know, you’re missing out.
The film is actually a comedic look at the awkward transition Hollywood went through in going from silent films to “talkies.” Gene Kelly plays a silent film hero who hates the (admittedly obnoxious and villainous) woman who he is always in love with on the silver screen, Lina Lomont. When talking pictures become popular (the film they watch at the party in which a professor demonstrates talking pictures is an exaggerated parody of a real film), the studio decides to make their most popular screen duo film a talking picture. The only problem: Lina’s voice is awful.
Much of the detail in plot about that transition from silent to talking is quite close to how it really went for some studios, but the film knows how to draw comedy out of that. There are also some brilliant musical numbers–“Make ‘Em Laugh” is a highlight alongside the title song–and as usual for Hollywood and Broadway musicals, most of the good numbers are stacked in the first half, while the second veers into some weird places, not quite plot-related, to pad the film out a bit. But all in all, definitely worth a viewing.
AND MAYBE SOMETHING NOT IN ENGLISH?
Le Grande Illusion (1937) — Le Grande Illusion is one of two main masterpieces by French director Jean Renoir, son of the famous painter. It tells the story of a group of French soldiers taken as prisoners of war during the WWI, their friendships, escape attempts, and coping mechanisms for surviving a bleak situation. Though it comes from the 30s, it feels much more modern to me, both in performance and cinematography. I wouldn’t be surprised if Spielberg had studied the movie, for some of the shots and close-ups on faces remind of me of Spielberg’s style.
It’s a film that mixes humour and tension in surprising ways, with a stronger sense of characterisation than most films of that era. Some of the characters may be broad archetypes, but the performances make them real (including one from the great and tragic Erich von Stroheim)–from the stodgy but honourable commander to the comic relief soldier, the good-looking hero, and so on. And one can’t talk about the film without questioning what the title refers to. What is the big illusion? Is it the line between borders, as the last shot suggests? Is it the class lines humanity draws between itself, a theme that runs through the film? There are many options.
All in all, Le Grande Illusion is not only one of my favourite films of the 30s and 40s, but is also one of my top foreign language pictures of all time.
HONOURABLE MENTION FOR AN AUTEUR
Billy Wilder: That almost wraps up this entry on old movies, begun a year and a half ago, but before I wrap I want to suggest a director to check out, and that is Billy Wilder. (If you want to go foreign, try some Kurosawa.) Billy Wilder had a long career in Hollywood, and though his films, even the comedies, tend to be a bit acerbic, he is definitely worth a try. One of my favourite things about the films I’ve seen by him is that every one of them tend to build to a very simple climax and end with a killer closing line. (“Well, nobody’s perfect.” “Shut up and deal.” “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”)
I’ve seen five Wilders (off the top of my head), and I can say this: skip Witness for the Prosecution, which left a bad taste in my mouth. Head straight for the American Film Institute’s number one comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon must dress as women in an all-girl traveling jazz band in order to hide from the mafia, who want to kill them for witnessing a crime, only to be distracted by the presence of Marilyn Monroe as the band’s singer.
If you like that, and are also interested in Hollywood history, check out Sunset Boulevard, a dark tragi-comedy about a washed-up silent film star trying to keep her fame to the point of murder. Look for a cameo by Buster Keaton and a supporting role by von Stroheim. The Apartment is also pretty good, despite its dark subject matter. One of the more influential directors of the last 75 years, you should definitely know some Billy Wilder.
Pick something on the list that sounds interesting! Watch an old movie! And comment below on anything I missed–what’s your favourite old film?