How to Appreciate Classic Films; Even When They Don’t Have James Bond in Them
So your girlfriend is into classic films.
Or maybe you don’t have a girlfriend but there’s a girl you like, she’s kind of sophisticated, and you’re looking for something in common.
Or maybe you just want something in your life more sophisticated than your dollar store martini shaker or that half-read volume of Sherlock Holmes stories buried somewhere beneath your comic book collection.
Most girls I’ve dated hate old movies, but they love that I love them.
I didn’t always love classic films. When I was a kid I used to hate them just as much as any red blooded American boy. They’re boring, the acting sucks, and you can hardly understand anything anyone says.
So why would anyone even want to like old films? There are more reasons than just snagging sophisticated women. Some of them are truly awesome.
Even when I was a kid there were a couple of exceptions to my utter disdain of the black and white. Miracle on 34th Street I always loved. Mainly I loved this film because Maureen O’Hara is my ideal girl, but also because of the whole heartwarming Santa thing and because the little girl is charming and the guy is pretty cool. One of my favourite dating related scenes in the whole of cinema is from Miracle on 34th Street.
In the film the male lead, Mr. Gailey, meets a little girl on Thanksgiving and takes her to his apartment until her mother comes home from work (suspicious today, but in the 40s it was noble and kind).
When the mother finds them at his place she thanks him and starts to leave, then the child starts shouting to her mom.
Mother, I was thinking, we’ve got such a big turkey for dinner, and there are
only two of us, couldn’t we invite Mr. Gailey?
Oh, don’t even think about it.
I’ll have a sandwich or something.
It’s an awful big turkey.
That’s not it, dear. I’m sure Mr. Gailey has other plans.
No, he hasn’t. Have you?
To be quite honest and truthful with the child, I must admit
I haven’t any other plans.
Did I ask all right?
Didn’t I ask all right, Mr. Gailey?
Mr. Gailey and Doris look at each other. Gailey is caught.
That all depends.
Dinner’s at three.
Mom walks away leaving Suzie and Gailey to say good-bye.
Suzie, honey, you asked just right.
Watch the scene here:
Gailey gets a A+ for awesomeness. He inevitably gets Doris, of course.
Another exception was It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve come to love all Capra films, but this was my first (as it is with most people today). I had a film history professor once tell me that he cried every time he watched the film. He played a clip of in a lecture once and… yep, he cried.
This brings me to an important point. Classic films have a lot of good in them. What does that mean? Well, it’s the reason that my annoyingly liberal, NYU educated, college professor was crying at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the reason Capra is beloved the world over.
From the 30s through the 50s, most of society believed in intrinsic goodness. Most people were religious, believed themselves to be mostly good, and believed that most other Americans were mostly good too (can you imagine people thinking that today?)
Society had this idea that they could be better than they were (especially after WWII). They wanted to be happy and safe and ethical and attractive. Most importantly, they cared about stuff. This is all reflected in the films of the era.
This is what makes people cry when they watch these films. The idea that people are mostly good and actually care about stuff is alien to us today. We are all so convinced that everyone but ourselves is evil and stupid that when we watch people with hope and optimism it kind of gets us a little… right here (I’m not actually pointing at anything, but you get the idea).
People today are pessimistic and self-centered and point the finger at everyone else, much like I am doing right now. Wait… what?
My point is that we all need to be reminded that most people are basically good inside, and these films can put that childlike optimism back in our minds.
“But I don’t want to get all sentimental,” you might say. “And I don’t want no sophisticated girl. I like guns and blood and Bruce Willis.”
I like guns and blood and Bruce Willis as much as the next guy, but we’re trying to broaden our experience here. Wait, wait, wait! Don’t stop reading. I know that sounds really weak and effeminate, but broadening one’s experience is a really good thing. It is. Whether you’re a Manhattan food critic or a farmer in Montana it’s a freaking awesome thing, and a freaking important one too. Why? Because life gets really boring otherwise. You know how you used to have a phone that was hardwired to the wall, and then you got a cordless phone, and then a cell phone, and then a flip-phone, and then a camera phone, and then an iPhone? Every time you got a new phone it was a cool, fun experience. Was it better? No, not really… okay, maybe going from the wall phone to the cell phone was, and the iPhone is pretty dang cool, but the point is that most of the changes were just from one model to another and the phone didn’t do anything significantly different. But new is cool. Different is cool. You want variety in your life.
“But,” you say, “these are new things. Old is boring and… old.”
Not so! Is Pac-Man boring? Is Coca-Cola Boring? There are so many cool old films I cannot even tell you.
The problem with classic film today is that classic techniques are now clichés.
Hitchcock once said that “The audience is saying ‘I know what’s coming next’… They’re expecting the cliché, and I have to say, um… we cannot have a cliché here.”
In Hitchcock’s day there were a number of cinematic clichés embedded in the minds of viewers from the 30s and 40s. These films are mostly forgotten today, but they were familiar to most people in the 50s and 60s and great filmmakers like Hitchcock could take advantage of these clichés and use them to create expectations in an audience only to turn the action suddenly in an unexpected direction, the twist.
Watching a classic film today, we don’t get many of the jokes and twists because the mid-century clichés (from the 30s and 40s) no longer exist in cinema.
So how do we appreciate old films again? Fortunately, the techniques used by Hitchcock and other 50s and 60s filmmakers have now become clichés themselves, the clichés they were trying to subvert are no longer remembered, and so films of the 30s and 40s seem really new and fresh.
Another reason that classic cinema is difficult to appreciate is the sound quality. The sound was terrible in many of these old films and the quality has often degraded over the decades.
Watching an old film is a lot like reading an old book (I know, I know. This is no way to sell you, but bear with me). Old books are a bit wordy and sentence structure is typically unfamiliar and so they’re difficult to read, but once you get going the reading flows just as smoothly as contemporary books. In the same way the difficulty in watching an old film fades within the first ten minutes and you’re good to go. If you watch enough of these things you’ll really start to love them and that’s a great thing. You’ll never again be restricted to the new releases on Netflix or Pay-Per-View or those vending machines at McDonald’s. You’ll finally have access to a vast library of black and whites. The prospect of perusing these pieces of genius will actually get you kind of excited. I know you don’t think so, but I can promise most of you, it will.
Now there are bad films in any era and, to be frank, many of the classic films on the AFI top 100 are extremely lame. Film critics and historians often get “important films and “great” films confused. Citizen Kane is a good example. What a piece of crap. Okay, the ending is good, but it’s not worth two hours of miserable setup just to figure out what rosebud is. You’ll finish that film feeling depressed and never wanting to see anything pre-Technicolor ever again.
Skip AFI and all the other lists. Here is a list of all the films that are just as cool as current ones, and most of them are better. These films will make you say “Why don’t they make something like that today?!”
The Thin Man (1934 – 1947) – There are six of these. Watch them all. They are some of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. I’d never seen a “cool married couple” pulled off on film until I watched these films. William Powell may have been the coolest man in history. I watched him paired up against Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama (John Dillinger’s last moments spent were watching this film – also worth a look) and it was clear that these two were perfectly matched in the charisma department, but because Gable relies a little on looks, Powell came out the winner in terms of pure charm. The Thin Man movies are some of my favourite of all time.
The Lady Vanishes – If not for the kickass story, then watch it for Margaret Lockwood, a total fox.
The 39 Steps – One of the first great thrillers in Cinema, and still one of the best. The ending is fantastic.
It Happened One Night (1934) – You might not think this a good recommendation on face value as it’s a proper chick flick. But this, my friend, was the 1st ever chick flick. Almost every chick flick cliché originated with this masterpiece. You may think that would make it a bad choice for the list but it is done so well that you can’t help but love it. And it’s got enough cocky male awesomeness with Clark Gable that men will probably like it better than any chick flick they’ve ever seen. The scene where Gable is eating carrots inspired the character of Bugs Bunny. If that’s not awesome I don’t know what is.
The Guns of Navarone (1961) – If you want a classic action pic that stacks up against anything today, watch this one. It’s got rock climbing and gunfights and scenes of bad-assishness the likes of which you have never dreamed. It’s like The Dirty Dozen but better and its TRUE! No kidding. Why this isn’t a more popular classic I cannot guess.
Cape Fear (1962 version) – This is scarier than any thriller today. You will wet yourself.
Casablanca (1942)– This is widely regarded as a chick flick. It isn’t. Don’t be fooled by girls who love this film. It’s awesome. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” I can’t tell you why this is an awesome line. Just watch the film. It’s great.
Roman Holiday (1953)– This is a full on Chick Flick, but guys will love it too… well, I did. Many people think Gregory Peck is dry, but I like dry.
Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) – Before Pollyanna came around in 1960 you were “A Little Lord Fauntleroy” if you were curiously optimistic. If you’re in a depressed state, and need to get snapped back into shape, watch this movie. It’s unapologetically sentimental. One of my favourite films of all time.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)– If you haven’t seen this, slap yourself and then go rent it.
It’s a Wonderful Life (and anything else Frank Capra ever made) – These films are the best of the best. You’ll never be disappointed with Capra.
Now, you still might be hesitant to watch an entire film. If so, I suggest starting off with classic television. It can be more palatable and it’s shorter. I suggest, in particular, a show from the 1950s called “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” is one of the greatest television shows in history. They even brought it back in the 80s because it was so good, and it was again a hit! How great is a show that, 30 years after it’s long forgotten it becomes a hit once again?
Today, the show doesn’t enjoy the same marketing that it did in the 80s, but it is once more being distributed for your pleasure. It’s on Hulu, free. Watch it. You’ll love me for it.
I suggest you start with one of my personal favourites. He’s a list:
For a heartwarming tearjerker, watch this one:
Santa Claus and the 10th Avenue Kid
Part of the charm of this show was Alfred Hitchcock himself, who hosted every episode. He was hilarious. I’ll link you to a short clip of him to whet the appetite. This is of Hitch on a game show.
If you enjoy the television show episodes, watch The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, both on Hulu. The Lady Vanishes is easier to watch, and maybe just a dash better, but The 39 Steps has more action.
You can then move on to other directors.
Capra has the best body of work, but The Thin Man films are my all time favourite. Then continue on through my list and you’ll find yourself well excited about the prospect of watching your next black and white film.
Watching classic cinema is a lot like jumping into a cool swimming pool. You might hesitate at first, but once you jump in and move around a little, it feels great.
And now for your Daily Dose of Awesome: