Out of the past

It's easy to laugh at classic Hollywood movies. It's harder to grasp that they're America's truest and most necessary cultural heritage -- and wicked, brazen, unsentimental fun besides.

Published March 25, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

When I was in college in the early '80s, a film professor showed the durable '40s soaper "Stella Dallas" to a class I was in. The picture, which features a great performance by Barbara Stanwyck, elicited barely controlled hilarity. The students were laughing at the soapiness of the movie, and implicitly at the stupidity of an audience that could swallow something like this tale of an ambitious, vulgar woman's struggle to rise in the world. Taking the lectern after the movie, the professor, an elegant, erudite man who looked like the dashing offspring of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lord Buckley and who'd seen generations of young smartasses come and go, fixed the class with a wry stare and said, "Wait till you see how 'Kramer vs. Kramer' looks in 20 years."

Right now, we're at a stage in our cultural history that makes it crucial we address the question of how we view movie history and the movie past. We've gotten so used to the availability of movies on video and DVD that we can forget we are still at the beginning of a new era comparable to the introduction of public libraries. More movies are now available to more people than ever before.

Look at any of the Web sites or magazines that list DVD releases week by week and you see Hollywood classics, foreign films that haven't been available for years, barely known films by famous directors (the Criterion DVD of Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" also contains a 1917 Lubitsch silent), all manner of exploitation and cult movies. I recently called the home video division of a major studio to inquire whether it planned to release a certain title from their back catalog and was told that the studio plans to eventually release its entire catalog. We no longer have to read about certain movies and wait for them to show up on TV or at a repertory house; in most cases we can just buy them or rent them. This would have been unimaginable 25 years ago, and implausible five years ago.

But at the same time as all these movies are available, we need to ask who is seeing them and how they are being seen. When I was in college, my fellow students groaned when they had to watch a silent movie. Today, I'm told, some students groan when they have to watch a film in black-and-white. Talking to several friends who teach film in colleges and universities, I've encountered mixed responses. One has been lucky enough to consistently attract students who are ready to learn about these movies and to watch them as something other than curios. Another describes the task of trying to get her students interested in older movies in Sisyphean terms. My own experience with younger people interested in movies has involved some of both -- their interest in older movies ranges from passionate curiosity to guilt over what they haven't seen (but which doesn't motivate them to see those films), to a total and unapologetic lack of interest. I have to say the latter two responses are the ones I most frequently encounter.

So the question remains -- how do you interest people whose idea of a classic old movie is "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in "Stagecoach," "From Here to Eternity," "Imitation of Life," "The Lady Eve," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" "Destry Rides Again," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Swing Time," "Double Indemnity," "Rio Bravo" and hundreds of others, let alone "The Birth of a Nation" (without which, all of us making or writing about movies would be doing something else) or "Sunrise"?

Since almost all of us grew up watching movies, we never feel that we have to learn how to watch them, in the same way that we have to learn how to read novels, listen to opera, watch dance or look at paintings. Part of the pleasure of movies is the energy that can seem so much more exciting and immediate than all that approved high culture. Too often, the people who have set out to teach us how to watch movies are so deadly serious they wind up killing the fun of movies. I grieve for students being told that virtuous, socially conscious warhorses like "The Grapes of Wrath" or "High Noon" are examples of the height of American movies. Or they embrace big spectacle so uncritically that it negates any distinction or discrimination.

Criticism of old movies has for too long been divided between the academic and the fanatical. When you read the excesses that the French and American auteurists gave in to -- refusing to separate a director's good work from his bad work, elevating the shabbiest little B movie to a monumental work of art -- you may learn to mistrust all critics who make big claims for Hollywood films.

But the excesses of the auteurists were not without their benefits. Americans have always been distrustful of our own culture, echoing the line Paul Reiser speaks in "Diner": "People come from Europe." There is something antithetical to the American character in believing that movies that are familiar and pleasurable to us are also works of substance. The British critic Robin Wood once wrote of Howard Hawks' movies that we have to be careful of underrating Hawks because we enjoy him. And the same is true for the best of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Preston Sturges, Lubitsch, and others. Finding the art in those movies shouldn't have to mean negating our pleasure or turning them into something they aren't.

If learning to see movies for what they were was necessary for a generation that grew up with those movies (whether on their first run in theaters or later on television), it seems to me even more necessary for the young audiences who don't show much interest in old movies, who regard them as curiosities at best.

Perhaps it's inevitable that movie audiences will always treat the conventions of another time as fodder for a show of their own superiority. You can't blame people for finding earlier styles of dress or speech funny in some way. The sight of antiquated technology is always good for a laugh. I first became aware of that during a college showing of Raoul Walsh's great gangster film "White Heat." With the cops in pursuit of James Cagney's Cody Jarrett, we see banks of enormous radio transmitters used to pinpoint his whereabouts. What the laughter failed to take into account is why Walsh focused on those machines. The shots serve a narrative purpose but they also point out their insufficiency to explain the sociopath Cody or to mitigate the damage he causes. Walsh's point was lost in the laughter.

That derisive hilarity almost always occurs on college campuses or at repertory houses -- in other words, where it's presumed the audience has at least the appearance of education and discrimination. "College-town movie houses," James Harvey writes in his recent book "Movie Love in the Fifties," "may still have pandemoniums ... but I doubt it, now that the movies themselves (now made by wise-asses) make jokes about their own emptiness and make more noise themselves than any live audience could (quelling the rabble by leading it)." But in some ways, the pandemoniums are worse than ever.

The critic Howard Hampton points out that, with the exception of those who pay attention to Turner Classic Movies, today's movie audiences grow up without the constant experience of seeing old movies on TV. The result, Hampton concludes, is that young American moviegoers now have no sense of the past as a real place, no sense of the people on the screen in old movies (or the people behind the camera) as having actually lived, no sense that those people tried, within the strictures of the Hollywood system, to address their times and convey something approximating real emotion.

If the reaction I encountered a few months back in New York City at a showing of the 1940 William Wyler film "The Letter" is typical, contemporary movie audiences now have no sense of past Hollywood films as anything but a collection of antiquated conventions, attitudes and styles. "The Letter," based on a Somerset Maugham short story and starring Bette Davis in one of her greatest performances, is one of the most sophisticated movies ever made in this country. It's a hard examination of the place where colonialism and race and sex intersect. Set on a British rubber plantation in Singapore, the movie opens with Davis shooting her lover to death in front of a group of witnesses. But since the witnesses are all natives, there is never any question that she, a white woman, will get away with it.

A few scenes after the opening, her husband (the marvelous, underrated actor Herbert Marshall) turns up with their lawyer. Davis, who has changed into another outfit, emerges from the bedroom, hand extended in greeting, and welcomes the lawyer with "How good of you to come." The audience I saw the movie with exploded in laughter. And it is funny -- but not in the way it was laughed at. Wyler is showing us the grotesquerie of Davis' manner, the decorum that is paramount whether you're mixing a cocktail or you've just murdered a man. The audience had no inkling that Wyler was aware of the grotesquerie of that moment. Nobody really acts like this, they seemed to think, so the whole film, especially Davis' performance, became cause for derision. If "realism" is your standard, then Bette Davis is doomed.

There is nothing natural about the way Bette Davis looks or acts. Her face, marked by those big eyes, looking like a doe caught in the headlights and already plotting her revenge; the way she carries her body in the film, each movement tightly controlled; the odd husky lilt of her voice -- everything in the performance is stylized. And since it was the style of another age, it seemed automatically ridiculous to the audience, in a way that the conventions they accept in contemporary movies wouldn't.

The swooniest, silliest moment I've seen in movies in the past few years, equal to any of the melodramatic ludicrousness Hollywood ever produced, is the moment in "The English Patient" where Ralph Fiennes carries Kristin Scott-Thomas' corpse from that cave, the music swelling while her scarf billows in the wind. Were a similar moment, shot in black-and-white, to be shown to a contemporary audience, it's likely the theater would break out into hooting. And while the suffering of a drama queen like Joan Crawford is a guaranteed pants-wetter today (and in many of her films, it should be), nobody dares to connect Crawford's brand of showy masochism to Isabelle Huppert in "The Piano Teacher," a performance where the masochism of a Crawford movie is made literal, and all the juice that might make it enjoyable is drained away. (It's the only performance I've ever seen that might be described as drab flamboyance.) And nobody talks about Meryl Streep, who I think gave the worst performance of her career in "The Hours," in the same terms. A Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation that showed a middle-aged white man tearing up over a drawing from a poor African child would be immediately (and rightly) treated as sap. But nobody gags at the same thing in "About Schmidt."

The derisive laughter that sometimes greets old movies represents a way for the audience to demonstrate their own hip superiority. But usually all viewers are displaying is their own inability to see beyond the conventions of classic Hollywood style. There's no reason to think that laughter is any deeper or more comprehending a response than that of the people who claimed that Joyce wrote gibberish, Stravinsky composed noise and their 5-year-old could do as well as Jackson Pollock.

You do have to make allowances for people to get over the reinforced notion that classic Hollywood stuck rigidly to safe, proper notions that never challenged the audience. A friend of mine, a college professor who teaches film and theater, had that experience a few years ago when he taught a class on "The Best Years of Our Lives." The 1947 drama about three World War II veterans trying to readjust to civilian life, directed by William Wyler, was a big commercial and critical success. It won the Oscar that year and pretty much came to define serious prestige Hollywood moviemaking.

Today it tends to be underrated, though it's a much more searching movie, much more uncertain about the fates of the characters, than it's generally given credit for. One of the returning soldiers is played by Frederic March. His daughter, played by Teresa Wright, has fallen for another returning veteran played by Dana Andrews, a man trapped in a loveless marriage. In an amazing moment, after Wright and her boyfriend go on a double date with Andrews and his wife (Virginia Mayo), the young woman returns home from her evening out and goes into the parents' bedroom (Myrna Loy plays her mother) to announce, "I'm gonna break that marriage up."

The movie has taken pains to establish that Mayo is a gold-digging floozy, and Wright (a good actress) is the embodiment of the typical nice American girl. But Wright's likability makes her declaration all the more startling. Her combination of love (discreet but still present), sexual hunger and willingness to play dirty to get what she wants is exactly the sort of thing nice girls didn't express in Hollywood movies. The scene shocked the students in my friend's class, who were not only surprised to see it in a 1947 film but on another level must have been aware that they wouldn't see it in a contemporary Hollywood movie. At least not without the character being portrayed as a scheming threat to traditional values. Look at "Unfaithful," where Diane Lane's entirely sympathetic portrait of a woman who gives in to her sexual desire to cheat on her husband has to be portrayed, in the film's second half, as the worm in the apple that destroys the safe haven of home and family. (It was unthinkable to director Adrian Lyne that some marriages survive sexual infidelity.)

We still tend to confuse permissiveness with inventiveness. Sure there are things in today's movies that wouldn't have been possible in the '40s or '50s. But ever since the demise of the audience that made the renaissance of American movies in the early '70s possible -- that is to say, roughly from the time of Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 -- we have been in one of the most aesthetically and thematically conservative eras in the history of American film. Daring today is probably defined by something like "American Beauty," which can't hide its contempt for either the characters or the suburban setting.

All that movie does, I think, is reinforce the audience's self-congratulation for looking down on the affluent middle class. Whereas a movie like Nicholas Ray's 1956 "Bigger Than Life," for all its confusion and Ray's ambitions to say more than the story can support, is still lacerating about the stultifying aspect of suburban life without hating the characters on-screen or inviting the audience to feel above them. Can anyone imagine a contemporary mainstream Hollywood drama (not a horror film or a thriller) whose hero (James Mason) becomes psychotic because of his addiction to cortisone and uses the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to justify his decision to kill his young son?

Can anyone imagine a big action star today allowing himself to play the obsessive madness that John Wayne does in "Red River"? Can anyone imagine the depths of sexual obsession and madness being made as seductive as it is in "Vertigo"? And hell, can anyone imagine romance being sold as a proposition that offers lovers no guarantees but instead the pleasures and work of the journey ahead, as it is in "The Lady Eve," "Holiday" or any of the great romantic comedies that today's pictures try wanly to emulate?

The values that American movies espoused in the 1930s (before and after the introduction of the Hays code) were anti-authoritarian, anti-elitist, casual, wisecracking, full of the self-deprecating confidence and energy and beauty of American life. It became harder for movies to reflect those values once America had entered World War II (in his "Wartime," Paul Fussell writes that the function of Hollywood during war is propaganda), and then during the conformity of the Eisenhower era.

There were plenty of Hollywood movies, maybe most of them, selling that conformity. Still, some of the most genuinely surprising and shocking movie moments I've had in recent years have been at older movies like Max Ophuls' "The Reckless Moment" (remade as "The Deep End," a perfect example of how a contemporary film waffles on the daring of its predecessor), Nicholas Ray's "Bitter Victory," Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve," Mitchell Leisen's uneven "Remember the Night," Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" and Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life."

These movies don't do what later filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola did with gangster movies and westerns and crime melodramas, injecting contemporary realism into familiar genres for audiences who were tired of Hollywood's tendency to soften and reassure us. The directors in the "golden age" of Hollywood were working in an industry where ambiguity was frowned on, where narrative clarity was paramount, and where movies were supposed to leave us in no doubt as to how to regard each character.

Those dictates weren't always a bad thing. At the very least they provided for a level of craft and coherence largely absent from today's mainstream movies. The amazing thing is how many directors, working within the strictures and conventions of Hollywood, managed to work against that conformity without either giving into self-hatred or wrecking an audience's pleasure.

The person who has done more than anyone else in recent years to help audiences see classic American movies is James Harvey. In two passionate, invaluable and readable works of intuitive scholarship, "Romantic Comedy: In Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges" and "Movie Love in the Fifties," Harvey has shown himself to be extraordinarily responsive to what's on the screen. In a review of a 1966 Lana Turner vehicle called "Madame X," a durable weeper that had been made several times before, Pauline Kael wrote, "We would be in the midst of some gigantic confusions if the themes and story lines of all those movies with pouting marshmallows like Lana Turner or iron maidens like Joan Crawford were to be interpreted at the level of what we actually see."

Kael knew, and Harvey knows, that Hollywood trash can be reduced to rubble by doing just that. But Harvey also knows that the daring of some Hollywood movies can be confirmed by acknowledging "what we actually see." Without extrapolating or making outsize claims that would render his opinions suspicious (here is Jean-Luc Godard on Nicholas Ray's "Hot Blood": "If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it and, what is more, of wanting to"), Harvey simply writes about what's on the screen. Paying attention to the composition of shots, the rhythm of editing, the looks on the actors' faces and their line readings, the nagging feelings that cannot be resolved by genre conventions and the apparently happy endings that are much more conditional and uncertain than they appear, Harvey makes case after case for the daring of movies that were either overlooked or regarded as slick Hollywood product.

Toughness is taken for granted in the considerations of the "uncouth" directors who worked in B movies, directors like Phil Karlson or Samuel Fuller. It's much harder to get people to see daring and tough-mindedness in the A-movies that didn't resort to B-movie grunge. Audiences still accept the stylization of screwball comedies and musicals. But the same stylization and heightened emotional pitch in melodramas and even film noir, which would seem perfectly at home in opera, often strike contemporary audiences as overwrought. But I think the best way to evaluate American movies from the '30s through the '50s is to decide how well they live up to Jean Renoir's famous remark: "There is no realism in American films. No realism, but something much better, great truth."

Harvey suggests that all we need do to respond to these movies is watch them. But the question remains how moviegoers watch them when the conventions and style they trade in are regarded as nothing more than a novelty of a dishonest, naive past (as if we, like some descendants of Holden Caulfield, have cornered the market on being wise to phoniness).

Critics and teachers can play only a modest part in helping audiences actually see classic Hollywood films. It's an enormous undertaking in an era largely defined by parody and ironic appropriation of the past. My gut tells me that the key lies, as Howard Hampton says, in trying to make people conscious of the past as a real place, and one where the limitations of "polite" society, on what could or couldn't be discussed in movies or magazines or novels, doesn't mean that people didn't confront the same questions about sex or love or work or violence that we do. If it's possible to do that with 19th century novels, it should be possible to do that with 20th century movies.

None of this is meant to be one of those old-fogey arguments to bring back the wonderful pictures they made in the good old days. We can't forget that Hollywood then, as now, produced more than its share of crap. And we have to remember that some of the best filmmakers working today could simply not work in those old styles (which doesn't mean that Hollywood in general couldn't learn from its past standards of narrative coherence and craft).

Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" would seem to be an exception to that, a re-creation of a past style of filmmaking without a trace of camp or superiority. But it's worth noting that Haynes' film implicitly kisses that style of filmmaking goodbye. Just as the three main characters (a suburban housewife, a black man and a gay man) are left separate at the end of the movie, leaving behind ways of life and an era (the movie is set in 1959) that will not allow them their identities, so too Haynes seems to acknowledge that American film had to go to a new place to be worthy of the stories those people will live out in the next few years.

What I'm arguing here is that a certain segment of American moviegoers, especially the younger ones encountering classic Hollywood style for the first time, must show some care for our shared movie heritage. One of the staples of every Academy Awards show is that when it comes time to present best foreign film, someone will make a speech about how film transcends language and gives us a glimpse into other cultures. Despite the hokiness of those speeches, that's something that art-house audiences and world cinema mavens wouldn't disagree with. Doesn't our own past deserve at least that much respect?

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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