Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Eddie Fitzgerald recently asked "Why did '60s films look so bad?" This is a subject dear to my heart, since I've frequently stated that I think the '60s were the worst era for American studio films, at least from a technical standpoint.

As to why this was so, here are a few things I'll suggest as possibilities:

1) The collapse of the studio system, which started in the late '40s, finally became complete around this time. The days when every movie, even B-movies, could count on having great technicians in every department, were gone.

2) Studios became increasingly dependent on technical short cuts as they struggled to keep afloat. And these technical short cuts then became common practice even in big-budget movies. This isn't exactly related to the look of the film, but in the late '50s and early '60s many studios stopped recording dialogue on location: instead of sending out microphones and recording the lines as the actors spoke, they'd just dub in everything later. Robert Altman was appalled to find that at Universal in the '60s, the studio had a blanket policy of doing ADR dubbing on any scene that wasn't an interior. The studios were applying similar short cuts to lighting, camera setups, set design -- little things, but the essence of a great-looking movie is that it goes all out to get the best possible result even in the little things. This wasn't really happening any more.

3) And along with the short cuts, a new wastefulness in the sense that movies were free (and in the case of roadshow pictures, encouraged) to be longer and slower than ever before. In part there may have been an aesthetic decision that movies didn't need to be as tight and fast as they'd once been; Howard Hawks, whose movies slowed to a crawl around this time, said that he decided that in the age of television, audiences wanted to take their time and spend time with characters, rather than see a closely-argued story. The pace of movies, including movie comedies, became very slow and stodgy around this time.

4) The influx of live television people, many of whom were very good but most of whom didn't have the "painterly" conception of movies that the old guard had. Live television is a great training ground for working with actors and under pressure, not so much for lighting and composition. The end of the '60s and the early '70s saw a new influx of people who had been trained in movie-making -- either film school or, even better, working for low-budget guys like Roger Corman -- and that's one explanation of how '70s movies were a bit better-composed and more interestingly lit even though U.S. studio technical standards were still pretty low.

5) Increased consciousness of the fact that movies were going to be shown on television, which might have had something to do with some of the more drab choices of composition and lighting, especially for movies that weren't in widescreen.

In terms of color, lighting, composition and special effects, England and Italy were way ahead of America in the '60s, although they weren't fully able to turn this to the advantage of their own film industries. Instead English and Italian studios provided their technical expertise to American-made or American-financed movies; films like The Pink Panther -- shot in Rome -- or Dr. Strangelove -- shot in England -- looked much better than the stuff being turned out by U.S. production factories.


Anonymous said...

To me, Universal was clearly the greatest offender in this. The look and technical quality of most Universal theatrical pix slumped dramatically when MCA purchased the studio in the early '60s. MCA's great success with the near factory production techniques used by its Revue TV subsidiary (already based on the U lot) led the corporate parent to institute short cuts and cost-cutting measures almost across the board on its features. So the studio began to crank out pictures that looked like television shows. Even medium budget U films of the '50s uniformly look and sound better than almost any given U picture produced in the U.S. between 1962-1969. [There are exceptions, but not many.]

Such measures became popular around Hollywood, particularly at Warners and eventually at MGM and Fox. While big WB projects like THE MUSIC MAN and MY FAIR LADY were primarily unaffected, most of the Warner mainstream releases were disastrously impacted.

These short-cuts were particularly unfortunate on in-house productions. Over time, the studios and their craftspeople had learned how to best light, photograph and dress standing sets on the backlots and almost get away with shooting certain exterior scenes on soundstage interiors. While a well-shot location picture would naturally trump a studio-bound production every time, a carefully lensed and designed in-house movie would might have certain visual strengths. This attempt at integrity and verisimilitude vanished quickly in the '60s -- it seems as though no one was trying to hide any more that this was backlot and soundstage stuff. Such material passed for adequate on my black-&-white Magnavox at home, but these were features we were paying to see in theaters.

I would presume that the reference to "live television people" isn't necessarily directed at Frankenheimer and Penn, who consistently made interesting looking pictures during the period. [Though Penn's THE CHASE, made for Columbia and Sam Spiegel, is remarkably unattractive.] I would also point out that many Paramount pix of the period (though not the A.C. Lyles westerns) somehow retained a certain technical gloss, though most of the studio's films of the era aren't very good.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I would presume that the reference to "live television people" isn't necessarily directed at Frankenheimer and Penn...

Right. I was thinking more along the lines of Jack Smight or a Ron Winston (a TV guy who turned the funny script and great cast of Don't Just Stand There! into a lame movie).

The problem wasn't at the level of the good or great directors, but the hacks: the old-school hacks at least knew how to compose and light a scene, and could therefore make a good movie if they had a good script/cast. The '60s hacks couldn't even make a good movie with good material, because their movies looked terrible.

Anonymous said...

The other blog article was not worthy of linking, very uninformed. Your take is better but much too sweeping. What you're mostly referencing affected a Portion of a certain kind of studio-based lower budgeted filmmaking in the '60s that used bland and overlit tv technique with antiquated looking backlot and soundstage sets. Universal was the worst offender (even defeating Hitchcock) altho MGM's backlot product looked just as bad....BUT...most quality productions of the early 60s did not look like that...and in fact looked pretty great....Breakfast at Tiffany's, One Eyed Jacks, The Unforgiven, The Sundowners, Donovan's Reef, Viva Las Vegas, Wild River, Comanche Station, West Side Story, The Ladies Man, etc.

J Lee said...

In the 60s there were movie "events", and then there was everything else. There was just a whole lot of "everything else" especially by the end of the decade, when even the blockbusters were failing to draw crowds anymore.

The spectaculars -- films made with and receiving the promotion of films of the past, still maintained the lavish production values and offered the experience of movie going that you just couldn't get even on the best 27-inch color set of the time, at least until 1967 or so (which is just about the time the studios finally killed off the old production code in favor of the G-M-R-X ratings system).

The other films in the 60s were basically the equivalent of the old 'B' pictures, except that the influence of the faster production methods learned though a decade of film television production were brought to play (and of course with Universal, they even made 'B' movies from two of their TV shows like "McHale's Navy" and "The Munsters", for the summer seasons of 1965 and 66, while luring Don Knotts away from TV to star in a series of movies that felt like extended TV sitcom plots).

VP81955 said...

Another thing to keep in mind is that by the '60s, postwar suburbanization was more or less complete. By now, moviegoing was more of a young people's experience, as the many "teen" films of the sixties made evident. With a young, relatively unsophisticated audience, production companies often gave into the temptation of cutting corners.

Anonymous said...

The collapse of the Production Code and the genuine threat of competition from abroad left Hollywood without an aesthetic. They knew these foreigners were making money with serious films like L'AVVENTURA and LA STRADA, and deep in their hearts, they had no idea how to confront these issues earnestly, as they'd been in the gloss business for decades, and were baffled by the prospect of making movies for grown-ups. The genre left truly decimated here was the comedy; while the Italians made witty comedies like DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE, Americans made ghastly, leering monstrosities like A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN and HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE and SUNDAY IN NEW YORK, movies that exposed the creators as drooling pervs with no more Lubitsch Touch than I have in my thumb. Since the prevailing theory was that comedy requires bright Frank Tashlin light, they poured light on their turds -- and 40 years later, we're complaining about what they look like.

I'll second the remarks about the rear screen projection; the same guy who made FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT made TORN CURTAIN?

Anonymous said...

Verisimilitude as 'griff' said was what was missing most. I am thinking of films like Don Siegel's "Madigan" and his remake of "The Killers" as well as the Hitchcock Universal films where it looked like every interior scene was shot in a hotel room with no sense of the interiors having been occupied by anyone for more than 5 minutes before the scene was shot.