The Movies: Not Better than Ever (II)

This updates a post from June 2007 at Liberty Corner and a post from November 2010 at Americana, Etc. If you wonder why I’m writing about movies, wonder not. The subtext is the erosion of standards in the age of burgeoning government, shrinking attention spans, and declining critical faculties.

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According to the lists of movies that I keep at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), I have thus far seen 2,306 theatrically released feature films in my lifetime. That number does not include such forgettable fare as the grade-B westerns, war movies, and Bowery Boys comedies that I saw on Saturdays, at two-for-a-nickel, during my pre-teen years.

I have given 676 (29 percent) of those 2,306 films a rating of 8, 9, or 10 (out of 10). The proportion of high ratings does not indicate low standards on my part; rather, it indicates the care with which I have tried to choosse films for viewing.

I call the 676 highly rated films my favorites. I won’t list all them here, but I will mention some of them — and their stars — as I assess the ups-and-downs (mostly downs) of the art of film-making.

I must, at the outset, admit two biases that have shaped my selection of favorite movies. First, because I’m a more or less typical American movie-goer (or movie-viewer, since the advent of cable, VCR, and DVD), my list of films and favorites is dominated by American films starring American actors. But that dominance is merely numerical. For artistic merit and great acting, I turn to foreign films as often as possible.

A second bias is my general aversion to silent features and early talkies. Most of the directors and actors of the silent era relied on “stagy” acting to compensate for the lack of sound — a style that persisted into the early 1930s. There are exceptions, of course. Consider Charlie Chaplin, whose genius as a director and comic actor made a virtue of silence; my list of favorites from the 1920s and early 1930s includes three of Chaplin’s silent features (The Gold Rush, 1925), The Circus (1928, and (City Lights, 1931). Perhaps a greater comic actor (and certainly a more physical one) than Chaplin was Buster Keaton, with six films on my list of favorites of the same era: Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1926), The Cameraman (1928), and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Harold Lloyd, in my view, ranks with Keaton for sheer laugh-out-loud physical humor. My seven Lloyd favorites from his pre-talkie oeuvre are Grandma’s Boy (1922), Dr. Jack (1922), Safety Last! (1923), Girl Shy (1923), Hot Water (1924), For Heaven’s Sake (1926), and Speedy (1928). My list of favorites includes only nine other films from the years 1920-1931, among them F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu the Vampire (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) — the themes of which (supernatural and futuristic, respectively) enabled them to transcend the limitations of silence — and such early talkies as Whoopee! (1930), and Dracula (1931).

On the whole, I can recall having seen only 49 feature films that were released in 1920-1931. Of the 49, I have rated 48, and 25 of them (52 percent) rank among my favorites. But given the relatively small number of films from 1920-1931 in my personal catalog, I will say no more here about that era. I will focus, instead, on movies released from 1932 to the present — which I consider the “modern” era of film-making.

My inventory of modern films comprises 2,257 titles, 1,953 of which I have rated, and 651 of those (33 percent) at 8, 9, or 10 on the IMDb scale. But those numbers mask vast differences in the quality of modern films, which were produced in three markedly different eras:

  • Golden Age (1932-1942) — 227 films seen, 197 rated, 113 favorites (57 percent)
  • Abysmal Years (1943-1965) — 354 films seen, 272 rated, 110 favorites (40 percent)
  • Vile Epoch (1966-present) — 1,676 films seen, 1,484 rated, 428 favorites (29 percent)

What made the Golden Age golden, and why did films go from golden to abysmal to vile? Read on.

To understand what made the Golden Age golden, let’s consider what makes a great movie: a novel or engaging plot, dialogue that is fresh (and witty, if the film calls for it), and strong performances (acting, singing, and/or dancing), a “mood” that draw the viewer in, excellent production values (locations, cinematography, sets, costumes, etc.), and historical or topical interest. (A great animated feature may be somewhat weaker on plot and dialogue if the animations and sound track are first rate.) The Golden Age was golden largely because the advent of sound fostered creativity — plots could be advanced through dialogue, actors could deliver real dialogue, and singers and orchestras could deliver the real thing. It took a few years to fully realize the potential of sound, but movies hit their stride just as the country was seeking respite from the cares of a lingering and deepening Depression.

Studios vied with each other to entice movie-goers with new plots (or plots that seemed new when embellished with sound), fresh and often wickedly witty dialogue, and — perhaps most important of all — captivating performers. The generation of super-stars that came of age in the 1930s consisted mainly of handsome men and beautiful women, blessed with distinctive personalities, and equipped by their experience on the stage to deliver their lines vibrantly and with impeccable diction.

What were the great movies of the Golden Age, and who starred in them? Here’s a sample of the titles: 1932 — Grand Hotel; 1933 — Dinner at Eight, Flying Down to Rio, Morning Glory; 1934 — It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, Twentieth Century; 1935 — Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, David Copperfield; 1936 — Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Show Boat; 1937 — The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Lost Horizon; 1938 — The Adventures of Robin Hood, Bringing up Baby, Pygmalion; 1939 — Destry Rides Again, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Wizard of Oz, The Women; 1940 — The Grapes of Wrath, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story; 1941 — Ball of Fire, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion; 1942 — Casablanca, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Woman of the Year.

And who starred in the greatest movies of the Golden Age? Here’s a goodly sample of the era’s superstars, a few of whom came on the scene toward the end: Jean Arthur, Fred Astaire, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert, Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Nelson Eddy, Errol Flynn, Joan Fontaine, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, William Holden, Leslie Howard, Allan Jones, Charles Laughton, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald, Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy. There were other major stars, and many popular supporting players, but it seems that a rather small constellation of superstars commanded a disproportionate share of the leading roles in the best movies of the Golden Age.

Why did movies go into decline after 1942’s releases? World War II certainly provided an impetus for the end of the Golden Age. The war diverted resources from the production of major theatrical films; grade-A features gave way to low-budget fare. And some of the superstars of the Golden Age went off to war. (Two who remained civilians — Leslie Howard and Carole Lombard — were killed during the war.) With the resumption of full production in 1946, the surviving superstars who hadn’t retired were fading fast, though their presence still propelled many films of the Abysmal Years.

Stars come and go, however, as they have done since Shakespeare’s day. The decline into the Abysmal Years and Vile Epoch have deeper causes than the dimming of old stars:

  • The Golden Age had deployed all of the themes that could be used without explicit sex, graphic violence, and crude profanity — none of which become an option for American movie-makers until the mid-1960s.
  • Prejudice got significantly more play after World War II, but it’s a theme that can’t be used very often without becoming trite.
  • Other attempts at realism (including film noir) resulted mainly in a lot of turgid trash laden with unrealistic dialogue and shrill emoting — keynotes of the Abysmal Years.
  • Hollywood productions often sank to the level of TV, apparently in a misguided effort to compete with that medium. The use of garish technicolor — a hallmark of the 1950s — highlighted the unnatural neatness and cleanliness of settings that should have been rustic if not squalid.
  • The transition from abysmal to vile coincided with the cultural “liberation” of the mid-1960s, which saw the advent of the “f” word in mainstream films. Yes, the Vile Epoch brought more more realistic plots and better acting (thanks mainly to the Brits). But none of that compensates for the anti-social rot that set in around 1966: drug-taking, drinking and smoking are glamorous; profanity proliferates to the point of annoyance; sex is all about lust and little about love; violence is gratuitous and beyond the point of nausea; corporations and white, male Americans with money are evil; the U.S. government (when Republican-controlled) is in thrall to that evil; etc., etc. etc.

To be sure, there have been outbreaks of greatness since the Golden Age. During the Abysmal Years, for example, aging superstars appeared in such greats as Life With Father (Dunne and Powell, 1947), Key Largo (Bogart and Lionel Barrymore, 1948), Edward, My Son (Tracy, 1949), The African Queen (Bogart and Hepburn, 1951), High Noon (Cooper, 1952), Mr. Roberts (Cagney, Fonda, Powell, 1955), The Old Man and the Sea (Tracy, 1958), Anatomy of a Murder (Stewart, 1959), North by Northwest (Grant, 1959), Inherit the Wind (Tracy, 1960), Long Day’s Journey into Night (Hepburn, 1962), Advise and Consent (Fonda and Laughton, 1962), The Best Man (Fonda, 1964), and Othello (Olivier, 1965). A new generation of stars appeared in such greats as The Lavender Hill Mob (Alec Guinness, 1951), Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly, 1952), The Bridge on the River Kwai (Guiness, 1957), The Hustler (Paul Newman, 1961), Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O’Toole, 1962), and Dr. Zhivago (Julie Christie, 1965).

Similarly, the Vile Epoch — in spite of its seaminess — has yielded many excellent films and new stars. Some of the best films (and their stars) are A Man for All Seasons (Paul Scofield, 1966), Midnight Cowboy (Dustin Hoffman, 1969), MASH (Alan Alda, 1970), The Godfather (Robert DeNiro, 1972), Papillon (Hoffman, Steve McQueen, 1973), One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Jack Nicholson, 1975), Star Wars and its sequels (Harrison Ford, 1977, 1980, 1983), The Great Santini (Robert Duvall, 1979), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Nicholson, Jessica Lange, 1981), The Year of Living Dangerously (Sigourney Weaver, Mel Gibson, 1982), Tender Mercies (Duvall, 1983), A Room with a View (Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day Lewis 1985), Mona Lisa (Bob Hoskins, 1986), Fatal Attraction (Glenn Close, 1987), 84 Charing Cross Road (Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, 1987), Dangerous Liaisons (John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, 1988), Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, 1989), Reversal of Fortune (Close and Jeremy Irons, 1990), Dead Again (Branagh, Emma Thompson, 1991), The Crying Game (1992), Much Ado about Nothing (Branagh, Thompson, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, 1993), Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Juliette Binoche, 1993), Richard III (Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, 1995), Beautiful Girls (Natalie Portman, 1996), Comedian Harmonists (1997), Tango (1998), Girl Interrupted (Winona Ryder, 1999), Iris (Dench, 2000), High Fidelity (John Cusack, 2000), Chicago (Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, 2002), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Russell Crowe, 2003), Finding Neverland (Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, 2004), Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2005), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), The Painted Veil (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, 2006), Breach (Chris Cooper, 2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, 2008), and The King’s Speech (Colin Firth, 2010).

But every excellent film produced during the Abysmal Years and Vile Epoch has been surrounded by outpourings of dreck, schlock, and bile. The generally tepid effusions of the Abysmal Years were succeeded by the excesses of the Vile Epoch: films that feature noise, violence, sex, and drugs for the sake of noise, violence, sex, and drugs; movies whose only “virtue” is their appeal to such undiscerning groups as teeny-boppers, wannabe hoodlums, resentful minorities, and reflexive leftists; movies filled with “bathroom” and other varieties of “humor” so low as to make the Keystone Cops seem paragons of sophisticated wit.

In sum, movies have become progressively worse since the end of the Golden Age — and I have the numbers to prove it.

First, I should establish the point that I am “pickier” than the average person who rates films at IMDb. The following graph makes that point, because the films that I have chosen to watch are given higher ratings than all films:

Note: These averages are for films designated by IMDb as “English-language”: about 51,500 in all, of which I have seen almost 2,100.

Here’s another way to look at it. IMDb users have given an average rating of 6.9 (standard deviation = 0.9) to films that I have rated 1 through 5; IMDB users have given an average rating of 7.2 (standard deviation = 0.7) to films that I have rated 6 through 10. Despite differences that are quite noticeable to me, there is no statistical difference between IMDb users’ ratings of terrible-to-bad films (rated 1-5) and good-to-superior films (rated 6-10).*

The next graph illustrates two points:

  • IMDb users, on the whole, have overrated the films of the early 1940s to mid-1980s and mid-1990s to the present. (The ratings for films released since the mid-1990s — when IMDb came on the scene — undoubtedly reflect the dominance of younger viewers who “grew up” with IMDb, who prefer novelty to quality, and who have little familiarity with earlier films. I have seen more than 800 films that were released in 1996-2011, but almost 1,500 films from 1920-1995.)
  • My ratings, based on long experience and exacting standards, indicate that movies not only are not better than ever, they are generally getting worse as the years roll on.


* This is my interpretation of IMDb’s 10-point scale:

1 = So bad that I quit watching after a few minutes.

2 = I watched the whole thing, but wish that I hadn’t.

3 = Barely bearable; perhaps one small, redeeming feature (e.g., a cast member).

4 = Just a  shade better than a 3 — a “gut feel” grade.

5 = A so-so effort; on a par with typical made-for-TV fare.

6 = Good, but not worth recommending to anyone else; perhaps because of a weak cast, too-predictable plot, cop-out ending, etc.

7 = Enjoyable and without serious flaws, but once was enough.

8 = Superior on at least three of the following dimensions: mood, plot, dialogue, music (if applicable), dancing (if applicable), quality of performances, production values, and historical or topical interest; worth seeing twice but not a slam-dunk great film.

9 = Superior on several of the above dimensions and close to perfection; worth seeing at least twice.

10 = An exemplar of its type; can be enjoyed many times.