Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Those Weren't The Good Old Days

One of the things about being an old-movie buff is that you can fall into the trap of talking as though all movie genres were done better in the Good Old Days. (Abbreviation: the "GOD". Well, it makes more sense than that awful "MSM" abbreviation.) I definitely don't think that, but I do think that there were some genres that were, on the whole, better served in the early days of movies than they have been in the modern era. I date the "modern era" rather arbitrarily from the collapse of the studio system in the mid-'50s; some would put it later.

So I thought I would take a minute to ask myself, what kinds of movies do I think have been better off in the post-GOD (unlike the genres the GOD dominates, such as comedies and musicals)? I would answer as follows:

Gangster movies. By saying that I prefer more recent gangster movies, I'm by no means putting down the gangster films of the GOD; the definitive gangster movie star of that era, James Cagney, is somewhere near my favorite movie actor of the GOD. But I think that even the best gangster movies of the '30s and '40s were somewhat hobbled by the limitations on what could be done or said. Even in the "Pre-Code" era, a movie couldn't come close to portraying the full measure of real-life brutality or profanity. And that matters because a gangster movie is, by its nature, a realistic movie; it gets its special kick from the fact that it portrays a very real part of society that both repels and fascinates us. Something like a film noir, which is a crime movie but a stylized, almost dreamlike kind of crime movie, doesn't need realism to be effective; but something like The Roaring Twenties, which presents itself as a semi-documentary portrayal of a historical phenomenon, would be more effective if it could come closer to portraying the reality it purports to bring us.

Westerns. - The collapse of the studio system arguably began with a Western -- Jimmy Stewart's profit-sharing deal for Winchester '73, which signalled that stars and their agents would have much more deal-making power from now on -- so it's fitting that Westerns improved a great deal after that collapse. Among the very greatest Westerns, I can think of hardly any that were old-school studio-system contract-player products; My Darling Clementine, a Fox production, is just about the only one that comes to mind. In the late '40s and early '50s, when the studio system was crumbling, most of the best "A" Westerns were made by independent companies like John Ford and Merian C. Cooper's Argosy Productions. And the more the studio system crumbled away, the more interesting big-budget Westerns became.

Biopics. - I'm not saying the biopic has ever been a fertile source of great movie material, but to the extent that there is such a thing as a good biopic, there were fewer of them in the studio-system era. Censorship restrictions and studio timidity meant that every biopic had to drain all the "dark" stuff out of a historical or entertainment-industry figure and leave out anything even vaguely controversial, as for example the way The Life of Emile Zola had to leave out the issue of anti-Semitism. I can think of at least one great studio-system biopic -- John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln -- but in general I think today's biopics, like Walk the Line, do a better job than those of the studio-system era.


Tosca57 said...

The draconian censorship hurt not only gangster pictures, but a lot of the serious drama from that era. (Comedies and musicals fared much better and had a true golden age, in part because they could evade the rules more easily.)

Jenny said...

Among the very greatest Westerns, I can think of hardly any that were old-school studio-system contract-player products

How about these titles--
--All these are Warner Bros, Fox and Republic(if any are independents, forgive me)--
Dodge City
Red River
Rio Grande
Fort Apache
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
They Died With Their Boots On
Shane(1950 but still a studio product I think)
Three Godfathers(both the silent and especially the later sound version with Wayne and Armendariz)
All I can think of at the moment, but funny you mention Winchester 73--I just lent it to someone today--all the Anthony Mann/Stewarts are terrific; I agree that with the rise of the independent star/producer teams that some killer westerns were made....but I hope you post specifically on the subject of what you feel are the best post-1950 westerns. Good stuff.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Some of those movies actually were independent productions -- Stagecoach, Wagonmaster, Red River and Ford's Cavalry trilogy were all made outside the studio system. (Ford and Merian Cooper set up their own production company specifically so they could make movies that wouldn't have been made through the studio system, like the Cavalry movies.)

Jenny said...

Thanks--I have holes in my knowledge--even if I have read the books, lol! ; )