Thinking about Movies

I skipped the Academy Awards show, as I always do. This year’s show was especially skip-worthy, inasmuch as it featured self-flagellation by Hollywood types because of the lack of “diversity” (i.e., not enough blacks) among Oscar nominees. The self-flagellators dare not speak the truth which is that (1) Hollywood makes movies for profit, (2) movies must therefore appeal to a wide audience, (3) the average black has less money to spend than the average white, and (4) blacks remain in the vast minority of the populace.

Anyway, movies aren’t what they used to be, and never will be. Thus the following diatribe, which I have borrowed from my book, Americana, Etc.

My inventory of modern films — those released in 1932 and later — comprises 2,369 titles, 2,067 of which I have rated, and 660 of those (32 percent) at 8, 9, or 10 on the Internet Movie Database (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) — 237 films seen, 207 rated, 117 favorites (57 percent)

• Dreary Years (1943-1965) — 368 films seen, 287 rated, 110 favorites (38 percent)

• Abysmal Epoch (1966-present) — 1,764 films seen, 1,573 rated, 433 favorites (28 percent)

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

To understand what made the Golden Age golden, let’s consider what makes a great movie: a novel or engaging plot, characters who entice or excite, dialogue that is fresh (and witty or funny, if the film calls for it), and strong performances (acting, singing, and/or dancing), and excellent production values (locations, cinematography, sets, costumes, etc.). 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 Americans were 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 stage experience 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 (the last survivor among pre-World War II stars), 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. 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 Dreary Years.

Stars come and go, however, as they have done since Shakespeare’s day. The decline into the Dreary Years and Abysmal Epoch has 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 tiresome.

• 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 Dreary 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 dreary to abysmal coincided with the cultural “liberation” of the mid-1960s, which saw the advent of the “f” word in mainstream films. Yes, the Abysmal Epoch brought 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. But every excellent film produced during the Dreary Years and Abysmal Epoch has been surrounded by outpourings of dreck, schlock, and bile. The generally tepid effusions of the Dreary Years were succeeded by the excesses of the Abysmal 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. Here’s a case in point: Last year I tried to watch Birdman, which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2014. It failed to rise above trendy quirkiness, foul language, and stilted (though improvised) dialogue. I turned it off. It’s the only Best Picture winner, of those that I’ve watched, that I couldn’t sit through.

There have now been 89 Best Picture winners, and I’ve seen 69 of them. (I include Birdman because the several minutes of it that I watched seemed like two hours.) Of the 89 winners, only 14 are the highest-rated of the feature films released in the same year: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), It Happened One Night (1934), Casablanca (1942), Patton (1970), The Godfather (1972), The Sting (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Schindler’s List (1993), Gladiator (2000), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and The Departed (2006).

A movie-watcher in search of good entertainment will often find it in a film other than one from the Best Picture list. But don’t put too much stock in the relative ratings of films across the years. If you’re in search of a great comedy, for example, go with one of the top-rated choices from the 1930s — It Happened One Night, A Night at the Opera, or Bringing Up Baby, for example — as opposed to more recent fare, such as Toy Story, The Big Lebowski, or The Grand Budapest Hotel. And if you want sustained laughter without the bother of dialogue, look no further than the silent films of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

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