Just this past week someone posted a comment expressing a preference for not going too far back in time when it came to watching movies. That’s fine. It’s a personal choice—and one that most people make. What I’m curious about, though, is how people define the term “old movie.” I’ve asked around and received no clear-cut answer, nor can I come up with anything concrete when I think back on attitudes I’ve encountered over the years.
Co-critic Justin Souther doesn’t seem to have a current personal definition, but remembers that when he was a kid he assumed that if a movie he saw on TV was in black and white, it was old. That works for him, because he’s 26. Those of us who keep getting mailings that start with “Dear Senior Citizen” probably grew up where all movies on TV were black and white, because our TVs were black and white.
At the same time, I haven’t noticed that the age of a film seems to have much bearing on whether or not he likes a movie—and I know it plays no factor in whether or not he’ll watch something. That said, I sometimes get the feeling that he gleans some sort of insight into me or the way my mind works and tastes were developed when watching certain vintage films. (One day I’ll get up the nerve to ask him what he meant by a comment he made after watching F.W. Murnau’s 1927 film, Sunrise.)
On the other hand, I’ve known people with very definite cut-off points. One person I knew operated under the belief that cinema of any note started with Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. Anything earlier than that was out of bounds—the language and acting styles were off-putting to him. (How he squared that with liking certain films of Shakespeare’s plays—where the language and acting styles were hardly modern—I never knew.) Nothing I could say would persuade him to go further back. Well, that’s not quite true. I did get him to watch Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk (1951). If nothing else, I thought he’d appreciate the fact that the film was very daring since its story was a thinly-veiled attack on McCarthyism—at a time when an outspoken stance against the McCarthy witch-hunts was very dangerous, and could easily destroy a career. He immediately afterward went back to his post-1966 view. I presume he’s still there.
Then again, I have a friend who is very keen on movies from 1964 and forward, which ought to make him virtually interchangeable with the last person I referenced—except that he also loves silent movies. That’s a fairly significant difference. Apparently, the complete stylization—and possibly the very antiquity—of that era offers an appeal to him that pre-1964 talkies don’t generally have. I’ve noticed, however, that if he gets the chance to see an elderly talkie on the big screen, that changes things altogether. I well remember a phone call where he was raving about having seen Ernst Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo (1930) in a theater. There have been other similar instances.
A lot of this comes down to the idea that “old” is a dirty word, and I’m not sure why that is. Oh, I get it on some levels. I have trouble thinking that any movie I saw on its original release is old, but that’s pretty much just a desire to deny the obvious truth that if the movie’s old, I must be, too. In most ways I don’t get it. I’ve rarely heard anyone complain that a Shakespeare play was old or that a Mozart symphony was “so 18th century,” and those certainly predate even the most bewhiskered movie. My guess is that this probably has much to do with the perception of movies as an inferior art form because of its popular entertainment nature—despite the fact that so too was Shakespeare at one time.
Being from that specific part of the Baby Boomer generation that got caught up in the nostalgia wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea that a movie was old was not only unthreatening to me for as long as I can remember, but was actually a plus. This, however, is clearly a socialization thing—though that may be the overall explanation for why some folks are hesitant to watch old movies at all. It simply wasn’t part of their formative socialization—that is it was never considered cool to watch the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West or Busby Berkeley, to name the most obvious of the nostalgia wave icons.
Personally, I like to view any movie I haven’t seen as new—in the sense that it’s new to me. I was just as excited to see 7th Heaven (1927) and Liliom (1930) last year as I was to see any new release, because I’d never seen them before. But that’s deceptive in itself, because like anyone else I am more likely to respond to certain periods in filmmaking than others and the 1927 to 1935 era is one of those. Would I have been so anxious to see them had they come from the 1950s? Almost certainly not, but I would have tried to keep an open mind in the matter. As a rule, I don’t care much for 1950s movies, but I know there are exceptions to that. Similarly, I know there are some perfectly dreadful movies from the 1927-1935 period. Try sitting through almost any Greta Garbo talkie prior to Grand Hotel in 1932 and you’ll know what I mean.
The problem with breaking down movie preferences based strictly on when the movies were made is that no era is without its highs and its lows. A bad experience with a movie or two from 1931 can give you a false impression. However, if your experience from that same year amounted to seeing Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored, Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Chaplin’s City Lights and the Four Marx Brothers in Monkey Business, your feelings are apt to be different. Or maybe not, because so much is simply a matter of personal taste. These films may just not resonate with you.
I could make a case for why these movies are good or important or both. That’s fairly easy to do. I can point out that the coming of sound represented an exciting time in terms of what was being done if for no other reason than the fact that the studios were in a state of turmoil. That’s something that almost always benefits art when art is in the hands of corporations, because people get hired and things get made that would have never been the case if the status quo hadn’t been shaken up. (You can see the same thing happen in the 1968 through 1975 era when the studio system collapsed and the ratings system came into being.) As studio head Herman Glogauer (Gregory Ratoff) complains in Once in a Lifetime (1932), “What did they have to go and make pictures talk for? Things were going along fine. You couldn’t stop making money. Even if you turned out a good picture, you made money.” That’s the corporate mindset in a nutshell.
What I cannot do—and wouldn’t attempt to do—is make someone like these movies, beyond expressing my own enthusiasm for them. That’s doomed to grotesque and horrible failure, because ultimately it’s just the viewer and the movie. It works for you or it doesn’t. That’s pretty much the bottom line, but what I hate to see is the casual dismissal of a movie out of hand for no reason other than the fact that it’s old, especially if that dismissal is grounded in an unfamiliarity with the era or a very narrow sampling of it.
I’ve seen older films dismissed because of their pacing—in other words because they’re slow. That kind of depends on what you’ve seen. Most of the Warner Bros. musicals from, say, 1933 through 1935 are anything but slow. Anyone who thinks all movies past a certain age are slow has never seen Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) or Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942). And anyone who thinks all modern movies (loosely defined) move at a lightning pace has never sat through Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) or Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). More often than not, pace is personal to a filmmaker or is inherent in the material and has very little to do with a copyright date.
From my perspective, anyone with a serious interest in movies ought to take the whole of cinema into account—to approach it as a voyage through the different periods. Anything else strikes me as deliberately limiting an experience that could and should be much richer. Cerrtainly film on the whole is too big and too rich to be confined to a single era. And, no, I’m not pointing a finger specifically at those who are resistant to movies from earlier periods when I say that. Far from it. I am equally vexed by nostalgists of the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” school—a notion that’s as constricting as any other, and possibly more so, since it denies the possibility of growth.
The question of what constitutes an old movie, I realize, remains unanswered. That’s probably because there is no such thing as an objective answer. Assigning a date is an arbitrary affair. I tend to think that “modern” film starts with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), which came as such a refreshing change from the overstuffed and stifling Hollywood product of the 1950s. But at the same time, it’s not as Lester’s film came from nothing.
A Hard Day’s Night—as does much that followed—owes much to the emergence of the French New Wave movies of the earlier 1960s and the realization that a love for movies wasn’t limited to big-budget “classy” movies. I might then be tempted to rework that idea and call Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) the birth of “modern” film. The problem with that—as with any such theorizing—is that it’s too simple. When I finally saw Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932) a couple years ago, I was struck by how very modern—even avant garde—the film still was in stylistic terms. So it’s both 77 years old and modern—if such a thing is possible. I think it is.
So let me throw the question out to the readers—when is a movie old?