There’s something touching about a classic film, something magical about a B&W movie, about a film shot between the wars in that period of recovery and optimism; a film that was new when my parents were young, full of life and hope. A movie from the days before CGI, before green screens and 3D. Before slasher films, before graphic sex and graphic violence.
It’s a combination of art and innocence, of technology just starting to blossom, of storytelling finding new avenues for expression and sometimes not quite sure about it. Others are bold statements about style and expression; avant-garde art.*
There were, of course, B films and bad movies then: not every film was a work of art;nor a masterpiece of acting and direction. Yet I find I can sit through a 1930s’ B-flick, even a bad one, and still enjoy it, when I can barely keep still for today’s B-roll (movies like Transformers are like dentistry without anesthetic…).
Even a lot of the A list today has me fidgeting and looking at my iPhone (of course, we watch them at home, on DVD… that way I can get up and get a glass of wine to numb my aesthetic senses…).
I could watch some classic films endlessly – Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (almost anything with Charles Laughton is repeatable for me), King Kong, most of the early monster movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, the Invisible Man and the Mummy, although the sequels generally pale in comparison to the originals); the Thin Man films, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, Singing in the Rain, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” series, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields…
Acting is sometimes histrionic, especially in the earlier films, as if the actors are not quite sure they’re in a talkie and have to overact rather than just speak their lines.
Gunfights without blood, car crashes without fiery explosions… without the sound and special effects we’re so used to today, actors had to get your attention by themselves, not depend on external effects. Directors had to use light and shadow in different ways, and some – like Alfred Hitchcock and Frtiz Lang – exploited the chiaroscuro very effectively.
Last weekend I found a $10 collection of 15 films in the big-box-store bargain bin. Two DVDs with The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938), The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, 1935, and still a gripping tale – named the Greatest British Film of All Time in 2004), I Cover the Waterfront (1933), They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Algiers (1938), The Red House (1947), The Scarlet letter (1934), Lady of Burlesque (1943), Missouri Traveler (1958), Adventure Island (1947), Becky Sharp (1935), Oliver Twist (1933), The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957), Vanity Fair (1932 – a bit redundant, since Becky Sharp is based on Vanity Fair…) and Nicholas Nickelby (1947).
A decent collection, although I suspect the reproduction will be mediocre. No digital restoration here (and five films on each DVD… ). Had I been selecting the list, I would have eschewed the 1958 Missouri Traveller in favour of an older film (and B&W) film.
Colour film technology has been around since WWI, but was complicated and expensive. It wasn’t in widespread use until the mid-1930s (Becky Sharp, one of the films in the collection, was the first feature film shot entirely in colour, in 1935). Wikipedia tells us,
The real push for color films and the nearly immediate changeover from black-and-white production to nearly all color film were pushed forward by the prevalence of television in the early 1950s. In 1947, only 12 percent of American films were made in color. By 1954, that number rose to over 50 percent. The rise in color films was also aided by the breakup of Technicolor’s near monopoly on the medium.
I am intrigued by the technology that allows old B&W films to be colourized, but in general try to avoid them except as curiosities. Some films were shot in B&W simply because early colour technology was hugely more expensive, difficult, and would have been shot in colour had the producers agreed to the cost. The directors had to use the B&W technology to their best ability, but colouring it after the fact is artificial; a mere affectation.
B&W is a powerful medium still, although generally overlooked by the big filmmakers today. Between 1940 and 1966, there was a separate Academy Award for Best Art Direction for black-and-white movies, as well as another one for colour. Perhaps if that was to return, it would spark more interest in B&W.
The Coen Brothers 2001 film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, was released in B&W, but was actually shot in colour, then de-saturated.
It’s a good film, by the way, but the process of de-saturating the colour doesn’t give it the grainy, gritty, high-contrast effect that some of the early films had (especially the film noir which often very visually dark, not just aesthetically).
Sometimes the B&W original film is actually better than the colour remake, even when the latter is made with all the best modern technology the producers can bring to bear. Such is the case with the original King Kong (1933) and Peter Jackson’s bloated and mis-cast remake (a film with one of the shortest journeys between big screen and $5 bin in movie history).
The films in the collection above star actors like Charles Boyer, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Cedric Hardwicke, Claudette Colbert, Edward G. Robinson, Michael Redgrave, Hedy Lamarr, Lee Marvin – all greats. (The box cover, above, shows what seems to be Vivian Leigh, who apparently isn’t in the set. Odd.) Many of the collections of B films star actors who are seldom remembered or recognized outside the cult circuit.
I have many collections like this, including some of the “50 Films” series that come with a dozen or more DVDs and jumble together a treasure trove of often forgotten and long-ignored films, mostly for good reason. Others are just multi-film sets, with film noir, horror, suspense, sci-fi, romances and thrillers (M, starring Peter Lorre is one of those worth multiple views).
Although my preference in thrillers and dramas is the 1930s-early 40s period, I have to admit a weakness for 1950s’ and early 60s’ sci fi B-films. Ever since I watched Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters at the drive-in theatre, in the 1950s, I’ve loved this genre (and I have the DVD…). I spent a good part of my high school days muttering “Klaatu barada nictu” to passersby. It went hand in hand with reading reprints of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other sci-fi novels. Some 50s’ sci-fi is remarkably cheesy, which adds to the appeal, I suppose, by making it somewhat comical today.
There are some good, early horror-monster films, too, mostly in the 30s and 40s, but by the early 60s, many were moving into the pre-slasher genre that I found (and still find) distasteful (although Vincent Price tended to make less violent and more watchable films than his counterpart, Christopher Lee despite the similarity in themes).
One of the rare good scare-genre films of that period is The Haunting, easily the best ghost story every filmed, done entirely in B&W, without a single gory scene or CGI effect.
I also have a weakness for the kitschy Japanese monster films of the 60s, although most are abysmal productions and corny as all get-out. But I never seem to tire of watching a guy in an outrageous rubber monster suit wade through a meticulously built miniature model of Tokyo, knocking buildings over and swatting toy airplanes from the sky. (I picked up a set of Ultraman episodes; a Japanese TV show of that era. It has all the same effects, sets, costumes and props of the monster movies but is perhaps even more kitschy because of the shortness of each episode).
Sci fi, monster and 1930s’ horror flicks, and film noir are not among Susan’s favourites, even those that have become risible over the years, so I watch them late at night, after she’s gone to bed, or when she’s out with her friends.** She will watch the dramas, comedies and romances, albeit in small doses, so we can enjoy them together.
* Not everyone agrees about whether some of the great classic films really are great, by the way, as this Guardian writer makes clear… but I think he’s wrong about The Maltese Falcon, aside from his snide remark about Mary Astor… the role really called for someone more like Veronica Lake.
** Actually she will watch Young Frankenstein now and then; that delightful Mel Brooks’ movie spoof, but not as frequently as I will. I think I know the entire script by heart… Werewolf? No, there wolf… Put. The. Candle. Back…… but it’s from from 1974. It’s not a classic film, despite being shot in B&W. One of the few channels we miss now we don’t have cable TV, was TCM – Turner Classic Movies – where so many of the old films were shown.